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Don’t step on the cracks

Laura Barnett - Greatest hits‘Don’t step on the cracks’ – the title of track 7 on the fictional Cass Wheeler’s soon to be released album, and a suitable warning for this reviewer.  I was on my guard from the first epigraph, a quote from Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks to the effect that “Each song is a lifetime.”  What does that meanThe Green Manalishi maybe, but that was before her time.  So I was looking for cracks from the off.

And nearly stepped right on one.  Opening page functioning as slow and less than riveting camera pan: “In Cass Wheeler’s garden, partitioned from the Tunbridge Road by a series of high dry-stone walls …”  What? I thought. High dry-stone walls?  And in Kent?  A cautionary Google affirms it is so, though, but most of those pictured would appear to be soft-southern dry stone walls, constructed from pre-shaped ‘stones’.  Glad I checked.

Given that Laura Barnett was born in 1982, much of her Greatest hits (W&N, 2017) – cover sub-title The soundtrack of a lifetime – is practically a historical novel; her heroine, the musician, singer and songwriter Cass Wheeler, was born 1950.  You have to take it for granted that no fictional tale of artistic success, no matter in what medium, stands a chance in competing with the twists and absurdities of the ‘real’ life, but on the whole, as far as verisimilitude goes, Greatest Hits makes a decent stab at it, particularly in regard to Cass’s inspirations, first steps in performing, her rise to stardom its maintenance.

At least a couple of factual niggles.  Cass aged 10, in 1960, in her interesting bohemian aunt’s car: “On the drive home, she left the radio on, and they sang along to Lonnie Donegan and Elvis Presley and Ricky Valance as the hedgerows and the fields turned back into the high walls and dusty pavements of the city.”  Radio Luxemburg was hard enough to get a decent signal from under the bedclothes in those well-before BBC Radio 1 days, let alone in a moving car, and in the daytime.  And twice there is specific mention of Milton Keynes when all that existed of our fair city was plans on maps and in architects’ offices : Cass’s partner going off to “a gig the following night in Milton Keynes” (p97); and in their first proper stint in a recording studio, in 1970, they share the green room with: ” … three long-haired guys from Milton Keynes who had yet to settle on a name for their group but were unfailingly generous with their drugs.”  Just saying, like.

The guitar players, by Lairie Lee. A pic to break up the text.

This is the set-up.  Damaged successful singer and writer Cass Wheeler, age 65, hasn’t had anything to do with music for 10 years (“Ten years in which … no music has thrummed from the living room stereo“) after the trauma of her daughter Anna’s death: “Ten long, silent, empty years, of which, after her two internments in the hospital, she had made what she could. Her books, her painting. Black-and-white films in the afternoon, soothing voices on the radio, and long drives with no set destination …”

A friendship with 70-year old Larry, an American sculptor (only Tate Modern, MoMA and Yorkshire Sculpture Park successful), has got her going again.  The plan is to release an album of the songs from her back catalogue that tell her story – not a greatest hits compilation, there have been plenty of them already apparently – along with the new stuff: “… a very particular kind of retrospective. Her life, reflected in the songs that only she, and only she, could choose.”  She’s to spend the day alone in her studio reacquainting herself with these old songs dating back to 1970 onwards, before a party to celebrate her return and air the new songs.  She remembers the events that were behind the songs; oh, of course! – greatest hits at least in part, though only one is not metaphorical.  There is tension in i). whether she’ll be able to cope, and ii). whether Larry will turn up.

For still, Cass asked herself what sort of mother she had been, what sort of wife, what sort of woman. Selfish, troubled, angry, flawed. A woman unworthy of love. A woman who was surely better off alone. A woman who should not allow this man – this good man, this man who was so generous, so honest, so incapable of dissembling – to make the mistake of offering her his heart, and his future.

If he turns up.  I’m not giving it away.  And yes, she is a bit of a drama queen.

Shorn of its musical setting, what we have here is an enactment of Philip Larkin’s This be the verse: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do.”  Cass and Ivor, her original musical partner and subsequently husband, both have troubled backgrounds, though at least it means in Cass’s case that she ends up age 10 with a Bohemian aunt and her jazz-loving husband who are players in the burgeoning ’60s scene.  Cass and Ivor also become splendid examples of why having a child is not necessarily the best way to save a marriage.  Not that there wasn’t a whole lotta love there to begin with, as evinced in this quote, to which I add no comment:

It occurred to her that this – their love-making, the easy quiet proximity of their bodies – was also, in its essence , musical. It was as if they were running through a song they already knew: a tune both familiar and strange, in which their voices melded and soared.

Another one to break up the text – Maria Assumpcio Raventos’ The music of the sea.

Cass’s schooldays, early boyfriends and musical development are skillfully handled, though I’m not entirely convinced by her 15-year old’s instant conversion to folk music after Aunt Lily plays her Joan Baez, Shirley Collins, Ewan McColl, and Peggy Seeger records:

And so they listened, sitting before the brick fireplace with a pot of mint tea. The women’s voices were high and breathy and unpolished [Baez?], and sang of maidens and shipwrecks and cruel lords. Cass closed her eyes and experienced the curious sensation that she was drifting back through time, watching lives as they once had been lived.

Though populated with characters from central casting – like all the industry types, really – the North London squat she moves into with Ivor at 17 rings true, and their rise through cellar folk clubs to the heights of American rock stadiums is reasonably done (though the ‘rock journalist’ – just the one – Don Collins is not exactly out of the golden age of the NME).  Then come the conflicts and jealousies, Ivor turning into a rock monster, the disillusionment.  After going to the funeral in New Orleans of a drifter with a guitar on his back who was her first big inspiration, she’s in a bar:

Was there something truer, Cass asked herself as they sat in that tiny, tumbledown room with its bare wooden floors and roughly plastered walls, in the efforts of these men – and the occasional woman – playing for little more than tips and beer, than in the cavalcade her own career was becoming.
         The pomp and pageantry, the peacock strutting and the preening. The driving force of her ambition, her desire to be … what? Listened to? Recognised. Acclaimed. Cass Wheeler – a name to be shouted, whispered, caught in newsprint, each new utterance erasing the last traces of the girl she had once been. The girl lifting a hand to her cheek, still feeling the sharp sting of her mother’s blow. The girl lying awake in the dark, wondering where her mother had gone …

Fair enough.  One would hope there are stellar successful musicians out there who have these moments, though not necessarily the self-hate.

I can’t say I enjoyed reading Greatest Hits, but I did see it through to the end.  As I said earlier, there are few good novels with creative artists at their centre – only Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street, Jennifer Egan’s A visit from the goon squad and Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments immediately spring to mind as far as rock music goes.  Greatest Hits format, not so much a slow reveal as a series of hints before the detailed delivery inevitably becomes somewhat repetitive given where the story starts from.  Each episode is punctuated with a page or two of lyrics (pretty good, actually) along with the song’s fictional recording details and credits, down to the engineers involved.  Anna’s story – it was no big spoiler to say earlier that she died – is a harrowing one.  Cass’s return to music after hearing a choir in Canterbury Cathedral – dragged in by her new beau – is both corny and quite moving, and, of course, a scene crying out to be filmed.    Laura Barnett‘s prose can run from the pedestrian, with added superfluous detail (“She replaced the teapot on the tray, afraid that it might fall, scattering its hot contents across the carpet in a wide, seeping stain.”), to the purple.  It’s a brave attempt to tackle a subject that is important to her.  To nod to an early TV music show Cass would have watched as a young teenager: I’ll give it a three.

Cambridge University Botanical Gardens (c) DRQ. Of no relevance, but there is there is an appendix of nitpicking that follows.

While I’m still here, a few indulgent quibbles.  How many books have I published? – none.  And I really should get out more.  Nevertheless.  I know it’s hard to write about music, but I am still baffled by this about being sharp: “She had always instinctively recognised the power of a misplaced sound: flattened or sharpened, anti-chromatic, an interloper in the smooth, sequential pattern of the scale. She was, after all, famous for her idiosyncratic tunings” – not that her tunings had been mentioned up til then.

Then there are some strange uses of language.  It’s hard sometimes to tell whether they are creative writing or crying out for an editor [my italics]: the headmistress’s “warm elocuted voice“; in a café “They refused the buffet“; nipping outside for a fag “she’d been standing in the lee of the studio“; seeing “the Rolling Stones live in Hyde Park” in 1969 (as opposed to miming?); Aunt Lily’s demise through “A stroke sustained quite suddenly in her bedroom” (in a medical textbook maybe); a cathedral’s “buttressed stone” when it seems we are inside the building, with the choir singing in the ‘quire’ (a usage I’ve never encountered before); driving down an “unspooling road“;  and I’m just confused by flowers forming “an Impressionist painting of hazy whites, blues and greens, glossily vivid against the white marble countertop.”

On the other hand I did like: “the flowers that are not from Larry “; and “Deep inside the belly of Heathrow’s terminal three, Larry Alderson stands beside a baggage carousel, watching a string of cases inch by like booby prizes in a game show“.  

But I am very sure – and I speak with recent grandfather experience – that there is no way a one-year old Anna was stacking bricks, rather than gleefully knocking them over; stacking comes much later.

 

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… to breathe the cultural air around Stony Stratford.  Actually a few evenings, with one delightful Sunday afternoon thrown in too.  Chronologically, going back in time:

John Howarth. ©Pat Nicholson

A Blues theme was declared for late September Vaultage, and main man John Howarth delivered a varied and nicely judged set drawn from the subtler territories of the genre, playing exquisitely, singing sweetly.  An immaculately dressed gentleman sporting the Robert-Johnson-in-that-suit look (sorry, didn’t catch the name)then roughed things up a bit starting with a Howlin’ Wolf number.  Aforesaid well dressed man was wielding one of the two Resonator guitars in evidence – surely a record for at least Vaultage if not the Vaults Bar- but to tell the truth there wasn’t much blueswailing going down.  Indeed, the only harmonica seen was hanging un-played round the neck of another open-micer with one of those harness things.

Was a good evening, but I wish that when estimable MC Pat Nicholson advertises a themed night well in advance, all the participants would at least make a nod to said theme rather than doing their same old stuff; the Goodfellows at least had the grace to add the word ‘blues’ to the titles of a couple of their closely related Americana tunes, so excused.

Your humble scribe made a brief contribution. I kicked off with, “Woke up this morning / Someone told me it was National Poetry Day,” and proceeded to recite W.H.Auden‘s Roman Wall Blues.  The Sensational Alex Harvey does/did it better than me – and to music too:

Viva Vivant

Last Sunday afternoon, two hours of musical delight in York House’s intimate Beechey Room.  Vivant are a violin and melodeon duo.  Together violinist Mark Prescott and melodeon maestro Clive Williams entranced with a repertoire including some of their own compositions,  drawing on the French and English folk and early music traditions.

It was enervating yet relaxing – almost guided meditations – you could close your eyes and drift away; by which I mean bathe your mind with the beautiful patterns so woven.  Not forgetting the brief outbreak of French dancing (well, one couple, but still …) and a couple of weird waltz time signatures that I would never have realised were strange if they hadn’t explained (but then I’ve never managed to consistently count to 5 to Dave Brubeck’s Take Five).  A joy to be in the same room as two superb musicians who were so simpatico.  No higher praise: we bought a CD.

A pints-worth of the Bullfrogs in the Old George on a Friday night deserves a mention too.  All good, but the fiddler adds another dimension to their American southern border states musical mix.

What more can I say about the those Bards of Bugger All, those “paupers of the art world hegemony“, the Antipoet?  Always a joy and never a dull moment giving their all every and anywhere they go.  Invention and irreverence.  Can I remember much about this particular performance?  Apart from ex-Bard Vanessa reprising her contribution to the adaptable epic that is I like girls and the latest barnstormer that is Pointy dancing – No, not really.  Ace, though.  Of course.  Criminal that the lads never get any significant reviews working the festival circuit hard.  Not sure this one adds much either.  Extraordinary what can come out of two men, a full-size double bass and an occasional rusty triangle.  (I may have lied about the rust, but I think you’ll agree it scans better).  For the uninitiated, just stick their name into YouTube and pick at random; you might be there a long time.

Oddness at Scribal Gathering‘s September outing – save for the featured musician it was all spoken word performers, poets even.  An unprecedented absence of musos at an open mic.  Liam ‘Farmer’ Malone delivered a beautifully varied set – both sensitive and scurrilous in turn – in that warm Irish brogue.  His The gun shop is a tour de force of wit and burgeoning disbelief at the escalating armoury available on sale therein.  Elsewhere Justin Thyme’s bravura extended piece attesting that ‘We are all abusers’ was a spellbinding experience (not something you can always say); I’ll admit I may have lost the logic holding it together in the intensity of the delivery, but there’s no doubting that he meant well.

Impressive skills from James Hollingsworth with his ‘looping’ pedalboard, a contemporary update on the concept of a one-man band, performing original material.  “No backing tapes!”  You could get lost in his  ‘Psychedelic Folk Blues’ – and there was excitement to be had when he started hitting things to add some percussion into the mix – though I’ll admit to hankering for a reprise of the old style r&b strut he did for a sound check.

A while ago now, and memory fades, but mention must be made of the Stony Stratford Theatre Society’s Shakespeare’s Greatest Bits upstairs in the local Masonic Lodge’s temple, a potentially inflexible venue used inventively as the players performed excerpts from the wide spectrum of the Bard’s full canon from Titus Andronicus all the way to The Tempest with some sonnets thrown in for good measure.  And a bonus of music from the aptly named Not Two Bees (there were three of them).  Invidious to pick out individual performances, but Bravo! to director Caz Tricks.  Highly enjoyable evening.

Aeons ago now too, the Summer of Love themed Vaultage was good fun.  I’ll have another moan about open-mic-ers ignoring a theme that had been advertised and signalled well in advance, but for now I’ll let it lie and crave another kind of indulgence of my own.  While other performers sticking to the plot did covers (though gord help us from If you’re going to San Francisco) I with no little trepidation recited something I’d written in 1967.  Well an edited version thereof, major embarrassments redacted.  The scene is a room in a tower block, a then state-of-the-art university hall of residence – Sorby Hall in Sheffield, since demolished – the soundtrack almost certainly the John Coltrane Quartet’s My favourite things.  We were expanding our consciousness, ok? I was young:

Outside wind is present around the building
a modern tower M flights high
though A is the basement.
On G a red light; it is night
and rain strikes the window panes.

Focus on the red light inside the building
and let the red light grow out of itself to take in a room.

Five guys sit
in fact one of them lies stretched out
and in the red light
a blue music swells
pure, clear.

And the music is found and the music is black
and the music is round;
flat notes maybe
but even, true.

A kind of ether rests on the five
sitting, lying,
shamelessly indulgent
in the light of that red light
in the night with the wind.

Two of these guys are talking
about technique
and ‘the Bach of our time’
and the ‘intelligence’ of a record.

Two more know
that some of this is what they like
and are discovering more.
And one of their number is asleep.

The ether of the red light
is all-embracing
within the confines of the room
precariously timeless.

 

 

 

 

 

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The problem with a book like Kent Haruf‘s Our souls at night (Picador, 2015) is that, once you’re familiar with Alice Munro‘s short stories, you can’t help wondering what she might have done with this material, and in considerably fewer pages.  Not that Our souls at night, August’s Book Group book, is that long (192 generously spaced pages) or without its merits.

You’re being too hard on yourself again, Addie said. Who does ever get what they want? It doesn’t seem to happen to many of us if any at all. It’s always two people bumping into each other blindly, acting out of old ideas and dreams and mistaken understandings. Except I still say that this isn’t true of you and me. Not right now. Not today.

A lot of Our souls at night is dialogue, and to its credit, it dispenses, as above, with speech marks.  The language is deadpan – Hemingwayesque without much physical happening – and, well, as some in the group said, flat, but with the dialogue contained, it does have a flow to it, and in the end that develops one’s passion – especially an intense dislike for one selfish young man in particular.  But I jump ahead.

One day in a small town in Colorado, Addie, a 69-year-old widower, turns up at the door of widower Louis, a contemporary and near neighbour she only vaguely knows, and invites him to sleep with her.  Just to share her bed and talk; she’s lonely and she guesses he is too.  He thinks about it and it comes to pass.  They tell one another of their lives, failings and disappointments.  Her son comes along and dumps Jamie, her traumatised grandson on her while he tries to sort out his marriage, and she and Louis slowly draw the child out of himself with the help of a dog.  Son returns and reacts far worse to their arrangement than the community at large (“We’re old news“), plus he’s scared he might lose his inheritance.  That’s not the end of the relationship but it has to change.  Bitter sweet indeed, and it lingers.

It’s all nicely done.  I wasn’t alone in thinking that they seemed older than their stated ages (my age, as it happens), something also I’ve found elsewhere in my reading.  The question of sex does arise, but Haruf doesn’t linger and his handling of it is defly anti-climactic: “After Jamie had left they tried to do what the town thought they’d been doing but hadn’t.” 

The more I think about it, the less I regret (a first impression) having spent the time – it’s an easy read and oh! how one can celebrate short Book Group books! – with Our souls at night. 

All change

It was over 4 weeks ago now, but All change … Stories & Songs of Milton Keynes, the MK50 (Milton Keynes’s 50th anniversary) concert collaboration of the Milton Keynes Community Choir with the Living Archive Band cannot go unmentioned as the stirring event it was.

Both halves of the evening – there was a multitude of cake provided by local Stroke Association volunteers in between, profits going to the charity – followed the same pattern:  The choir opened with three varied and rousing songs (my favourite being God only knows, even though I’m an atheist), then gave the stage to the Living Archive Band for four songs from their extensive repertoire. The choir then performed a couple of interesting excerpts from a new specially commissioned MK50 composition (music by Choir Musical Director Craig McLeish, words from Yaw Asiyama) which is sounding promising indeed.  The choir and band then joined forces for a couple more of the band’s songs – some amazing goose-pimpling moments ensuing.  The evening finished illogically – because they could, said Craig – with them all performing a moving arrangement of Phil Colclough’s beautiful Song for Ireland.  A special night.

The Living Archive is one of the really good things about Milton Keynes.  Easier to let them describe what they do (from the website at http://www.livingarchive.org.uk/):

Living Archive collects, preserves and shares the history and heritage of Milton Keynes. Conceived as an antidote to the assertion that ‘new towns have no history’, and nurtured by the belief that ‘everybody has a story to tell’, it has recorded, archived and celebrated the unique history of residents’ lives and sense of place.

This has meant collecting those stories – through oral history and documentation – of the people who were living in the area before the creation of Milton Keynes, including vivid memories from serving soldiers and those at home from both World Wars, and the development of Wolverton as a railway town.  From this work the shifting membership that is the Living Archive Band have crafted shows full of songs crafted from these memories.

One of these songs has been a not unwelcome ear-worm since the concert.  The night the Stones rolled into town, written by Kevin Adams and Neil Mercer, commemorates a legendary evening in March, 1964, at Wilton Hall in Bletchley (when there was talk of ‘a bigger, brighter Bletchley’ in the days before Milton Keynes).  Here’s the chorus:

And we were living for the future
Glad to be alive
Oh, then one day you wake and find
The future has arrived.

There’s a tinge of sadness in the delivery, with the sensible advantage of the musicians only making a very fleeting nod to the Stones.  You can hear this for yourself at http://livingarchiveband.bandcamp.com/track/the-night-the-stones-rolled-into-town or even buy it for a quid if it takes hold.

An English vineyard

A pleasantly relaxed early Saturday afternoon a couple of week ago with the MK Humanists.  A short entertaining intro, then wandering through some of the 1800 vines, a buffet meal … oh, and sampling the ‘Earls Baron’ produce.  Which was surprisingly good.  Majority favourite was Saxon, the blend (I bought some).

Earls Baron is also the name of the nearby Northamptonshire village where the vineyard is situated.  “Set on a picturesque, southwest facing gentle slope overlooking the Nene Valley”, it says here, “Its location is very near to one of the oldest recorded vineyards of Roman times.”  Which is quite a thought, is it not?

You can find more details, including grape varieties (I think the above is Pinot Noir) at http://www.newlodgevineyard.co.uk/New_Lodge_Vineyard/Home.html .  At the moment they’re updating the website and the history page is missing, so I’ll just quote from the handout.  The vineyard was first established in 2000 on horse paddocks, which apparently is very good for this sort of thing:

Octogenarian owner Joyce Boulos-Hanna and vineyard manager daughter Gabby tend each and every vine personally by hand, all year round, with love and passion.

They are easygoing evangelists for English wine, and great fun with it.  “We’re not going to try and sell you the wine, but if you want to buy some, we’re happy to help you do so.”

 

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Thirty years on since the first of Peter Robinson‘s Yorkshire Dales-based crime novels featuring detective Alan Banks first appeared in print, Sleeping in the ground (Hodder & S, 2017), is the 24th in the sequence.  I think it’s something of a return to form that also holds the promise of refreshing the slightly tired platform for what is to come next.

Sleeping in the ground opens strongly with a funeral and a mass shooting at a wedding happening 150 miles apart.  Banks is back in Peterborough, where he grew up, at the funeral – an event that affects him deeply – of his first love, Emily Hargreaves, who’d dumped him – something he still doesn’t understand – back in 1973.  He returns north to the Yorkshire Dales to be handed the investigation into the massacre of the bride and groom and 4 others at a locally high-profile wedding, which appears to be cleared up with the apparent suicide a retired dentist and  shooting enthusiast.  Except he doesn’t fit the profile and there’s no motive:

After the team meeting, he was more convinced than ever that there was something fishy about the whole St Mary’s business. […] True, profiles aren’t always accurate, and Jenny had quite reasonably complained that she didn’t have enough to go on, but the comparison between what they knew of spree killers or mass murderers and what they had been able to discover about Martin Edgeworth’s character, life and actions just didn’t match up. Then there were the forensic and pathology details. It might be a long haul ahead, but there had to be a way of getting to the bottom of it.

And that’s what the police procedural aspect of Sleeping in the ground then proceeds to do, with Banks and various members of his team relentlessly talking to people, interviewing others, following a hunch picked up from reading a survivor of the shooting’s body language, and then sitting at the computer, digging in the records and local newspapers, and involving, naturally, the full pathologist and forensics CSI armoury.  This all rolls along nicely – with the slight early hiatus of the discussion on psychological profiling descending into a bit of a textbook recitation – to a thrilling and nail-biting climax in the raging waters of a flood, the outcome of which is by no means narratively certain, because – there’s no guarantee the copper involved will reappear in the next book (and I really hoped so).  The details and mechanics of the full crime are ingenious – or you could say, incredibly convoluted – but entirely acceptable to this reader at least in the overall context of the story.

The solution, the motivation for the massacre, goes back to another painful sequence of events in 1964.  So both Banks’s ruminative and nostalgic state of mind, and the origins of the crime, revolve around ghosts of the past.  Banks also considers, in passing, old cases he was involved with, and his failed marriage, and he finally gets to learn what went wrong with Emily.  The soap opera aspects of the Banks saga carry this looking back theme further with the return of two attractive characters from past books.

The profiler involved is one Jenny Fuller, last seen at about book 12, the woman Banks came nearest to committing adultery with when he was married.  She’s moved back in the area, and there’s no rush, they’re leaving things open as a possibility.  The other old face – not as previously prominent – is Annie Cabbot’s dad.  (For those unfamiliar with the books, Annie is an interesting longstanding member of Banks’ team, briefly his lover, who, frankly, Peter Robinson has lately wasted, through lack of focus).  Annie’s dad, Ray, has left the artists’ commune in Cornwall where Annie was raised – still sprightly enough, he’s feeling a bit old for all this modern concept stuff – and is looking to buy somewhere in the Dales to be near Annie; he makes a wonderful foil for Banks in his dotage.  There’s a joke about Annie warning Banks that Ray was listening to Dylan when he, Banks, was still in short trousers; to which Banks protests he was too listening to Dylan in short trousers.

So I hope that those two reappear strongly in future books, and that Gerry (Geraldine) Masterson, fast-track graduate who was impressive in the previous book and is a star in Sleeping in the ground, continues to have a prominent role.  The sparring of Annie Cabbot with Gerry and Jenny is an entertaining sideshow that also shows promise.  We also get a rare glimpse of the man back when:

It was a photograph. Banks held it by the candlelight. He and Emily in the early seventies. He was wearing a denim jacket over a T-shirt, and bell bottoms, and his hair was much longer than it was now.

For those who know the books, rest assured Peter Robinson continues to spray musical references and citations all over the place (I counted at least 35 – think it’s all getting a bit ridiculous and obscure, actually), along with a load of other cultural nods and winks.  As well as sharing musical tastes one playfully wonders sometimes just how much of Peter Robinson goes into his alter ego.  Like … here’s young Geraldine, unattached and not particularly looking, but:

When she let herself think about it, which wasn’t often, she realised that she wouldn’t mind at all going out with someone like Banks, if he wasn’t her boss, that is, that age wouldn’t really be an issue. He seemed healthy and young enough in body and spirit, was handsome in that lean and intense sort of way, and she certainly got the impression that he was interested in a wide range of subjects, so conversation wouldn’t be a problem. He also had a sense of humour, which she had been told by her mother was esential to a happy marriage. Not that she was having fantasies about marrying Banks, or even going out with him. Just that the whole idea didn’t seem so outrageous.

Anyway, the soundtrack for Sleeping in the ground (the title itself a song title, but later for that) touchingly starts and ends with David Bowie, with Starman from Ziggy Stardust played at the funeral, and Blackstar in the car near the end.  To which Geraldine says:

My dad likes David Bowie. I never really had much time for music.”
“You should make some,” Banks said. “It helps keep you sane and human in a crazy world, especially after a night like tonight.”

To which, Amen.  Banks is still reading poetry too, in particular, even before the funeral, Thomas Hardy‘s Poems 1912-1913, concerning the magic of first love; his novels get a couple of mentions too.  (Fuller details of the music and all this – not forgetting the alcohol modestly consumed – and more specific thoughts on the novel, can be found elsewhere here on Lillabullero at https://quavid.wordpress.com/about/peter-robinsons-inspector-banks-mysteries/, where it and others in the sequence are considered more systematically).

And so to the title.  It’s an obscure Blind Faith song, credited to Eric Clapton and Stevie Winwood, and performed at that Hyde Park concert, though the song was never released until it appeared on the Clapton Crossroads box set.  It’s a mean-spirited, unredemptive and highly derivative – I might go so far as to say ‘nasty little’ – blues, that doesn’t constitute, be assured, anything like a plot-spoiler.  The Hyde Park rendition is also available on Youtube, but here’s some better keyboards:

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I love the opening, and title story, of Penelope Lively‘s first collection of short stories in twenty years.  And I love the opening of the opening story:

I am the Purple Swamp Hen.  Porphyrio porphyria, if you are into taxonomy and Latin binomials.  And, let me get this clear, I am Porphyrio porphyrio porphyrio, the nominate sub-species, not to be confused with the Australian lot […] And others. No, indeed, we are talking species definition here, the enduring stuff, and thus I endure – founding father, the Mediterranean nominate.

Do eighty year-olds write like this?  Well this one does.

Wondering where all this is going? Have patience. You’ll get your story. You know me. You know me on the famous garden fresco from Pompeii – somewhat faded, a travesty of my remarkable plumage, but nevertheless a passable portrait. You all exclaim over those frescos: the blues and greens, the precise depiction of flora and fauna. Oh, look! You cry – there are roses and ferns, oleanders, poppies, violets. […] You eye me with vague interest, and pass on. It’s just like a garden today! you cry.

That’s right.  We are being addressed by a bird on a fresco painted before 79 AD.  And it is anxious to rob us of any illusions.  Much is made in the other stories in this collection of POV – ‘point of view’.  A timeless garden scene?

      No, it isn’t. Wasn’t. […] make no mistake, the garden of Quintus Pompeius, where I passed my time, was nothing like any garden you’ve ever known.
      It hosted fornication, incest, rape, child abuse, grievous bodily harm – and that’s just Quintus Pompeius, his household and associates. We simply got on with the business of copulation and reproduction; far more imaginative, Homo sapiens. […] Eat out, sleep out, wash the dishes, pluck a pigeon, gossip, quarrel, wallop an old slave, fuck that pretty new one, plot, scheme, bribe, threaten. Get drunk, utter obscenities, vomit in the acanthus.
I saw it all. I heard it all.
      Let me fill you in on the general situation that autumn …

Which is what happens over the next 6 pages.  Dispassionately, wryly – the specificity of the acanthus! – we get amorous intrigue, dark deeds and a slave’s escape as Vesuvius threatens, then does its worse.  A tour de force.  The swamp hens, in the garden for decoration, flee to an ecologically appropriate marshy place, a habitat somewhat but not catastrophically threatened these days, our frescoed narrator assures us.

The other fourteen stories in The purple swamp hen (2016) are set in a later age.  From 1947 (a mother doing a Mrs Bennet – the story’s title – for her three daughters, the social sands shifting as each ‘comes of age’) to pretty much now, a couple of them with a gothic tinge.  They may seem to concern mainly middle class problems, but there’s a universality to the causes and resolutions.

How changing social mores and times affect individuals, the simple random contingencies of how couples come together (and how they turn out), the aforementioned importance of recognising others’ points of view, the dilemmas and otherwise of getting old, all are exposed in neat, forensic, sometimes staccato prose, often the sweet being in the sour.

A young home-help discovering the woman she helps was a spy, the ‘truth’ of writing and publishing a biography of someone recently deceased, a scriptwriter finding her professional skills are failing her in her own life – these are just three of the stories.  Abroad – opening line “50 years ago there were peasants in Europe” – has ’50s artists living cheaply in Europe using peasants as subject matter … until they run out of money and have to pay their debts in kind.  Lorna and Tim , the history of a marriage, has rich-from-birth Lorna left still not understanding how it failed; last devastating line – “You were rich.”  I think I shall be reading more Penelope Lively.

On the right here is the bookmark I was using while reading The purple swamp hen.  Quite apt in itself in that the stories take place in the decades portrayed, and the revolutionary paperback imprint Penguin was launched just a couple of years after its author was born.  As it happens, there’s a character in the very next book I read who collects Penguins: “I got a couple of Graham Greenes,” said Clean Head with satisfaction. The three-and-six editions. With the full colour Paul Hogarth art.”” Clean Head is a shaven-headed African-caribbean taxi driver, whose name I suspect derives from the jazz and blues singer Eddie Cleanhead Vincent in whose band a young John Coltrane once played, but I digress.   Now while the specific editions mentioned are not actually represented on the bookmark – that would be too perfect – I have a weakness for these little synchronicities, and it’s close enough for me.  And it is precisely the charm of these specific details that has me hooked on The Vinyl Detective.

The invention of a ’60s rock group for novelistic purposes is quite a hard act for a writer to pull off, and Andrew Cartmel doesn’t do badly at all in the The Vinyl Detective: The run out groove (Titan, 2017), the second in a series featuring said VD, a man with no name, whose business is finding rare vinyl but whose innocent jokey business card usage of the word ‘detective’ gets taken literally by others and hence into various scrapes.  Unlike the globetrotting first book in the series, this one stays in the UK.

Valerian is both the band’s name – out of the ’60s Canterbury scene – and the name its charismatic vocalist (“an English Janis Joplin“) went by.  The band broke up with her unexplained suicide, and mystery has always surrounded what happened to her young child.  It has been surmised (myths ahoy!) that the run-off groove – you know, like on Sergeant Pepper – that the run-off groove of the band’s last single – only briefly released and quickly withdrawn after her death and hence extremely rare – might offer solutions to what happened.  A relative from the US and a journalist are looking for a copy of that single … and we’re off on a plot taking all sorts of twists and turns involving a variety of ’60s survivors, and including, not least, an acid trip in a burning house and some gravedigging.  Entertainingly absurd, of course, but all done racingly well, and coming to a satisfactory and heart-warming conclusion.   The writing is smart, the series characters – a good quirky team, including the two cats – full of charm.  It would make a great tv series, properly casted, à la Beiderbecke Tapes.

I’m a sucker for the incidentals, the details – a sort of obnoxious knowingness – which may be lost on many potential readers but ring bells for me.  Like: “They might have a copy of the Artwoods’ first album, the original Decca issue, with the Mod cover.” Tinkler’s voice had softened rhapsodically.”  Or: “It’s a Garrard 301,” said Tinkler. “It’s built like a Russian T-34 tank”” – vinyl rules, obviously.  There’s even a Clean Head disquisition on the re-badging of DAF cars with variomatic transmissions as Volvos – the factuality of which I do not doubt – which while to me gibberish, still entertains in context.  I just about remember Lita Roza, or at least That doggie in the window:

I went to put some music on, to lighten the mood. I chose a Decca ten inch of Lita Roza. It was one of her true jazz recordings. She was singing here with the Tony Kinsey Quartet, including the mighty Joe Harriott on sax. The Colonel turned and listened for a minute and said, “Didn’t this girl sing ‘(How much is that) Doggie in the window’?” “She did indeed,” I said, “but not on this record, thank god.”

Guitarist Eric Make Loud – Eric McCloud to his mum – is a great creation:

Erik Make Loud strode towards us, his voice heavy with sarcasm. “My involvement with her was that I had to use the toilet on the band bus after she did and breathe the stink of her shit. I breathed the stink of her shit for four years in that band. Four years in a career that has spanned fifty years.” he actually said ‘spanned’. “I’ve played with dozens of bands and hundreds of musicians. But all anybody wants to talk about is Valerian.  It was all over a lifetime ago, but all anyone wants to talk about is Valerian.”  We’d hit a sore spot all right.

They get around him by zooming in on his playing with Frank Zappa.  But it’s that “he actually said ‘spanned'” is the kitemark of quality.  I look forward to the next volume, which apparently moves into the world of classical music.

Last month‘s Book Group book was Patrick Ness‘s A monster calls, which for me was a re-read.  The Book Group copy was the plain text edition of 2012, as opposed to the stunning prize-winning 2011 illustrated one shown here, and for me it had lost none of its power, nevertheless.  Others in the group were less willing to overlook its origin as ‘teenage fiction’ and were less spellbound by its spellbinding blend of horror, fantasy, Jungian symbolism, compassion and a young teenager’s off-handedness.

Conor’s mum is dying, his dad elsewhere, his grandma is a nightmare ( “… the way she talked to him, like he was an employee under evaluation“) and he has withdrawn into himself at school when his situation became known.  A tree, a Green Man’s representative of a tree, walks up and starts telling him stories (You think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness?“) and leaving berries on his bedroom floor.  The resolution of all this, his pain at home, at school, the moral of the tale – I’m not saying – is beautifully done; it had me lachrymose and beaming. 

What I picked up on this time was the tone of the prose, Conor’s surface refusal to descend into melodramatics:

      The monster looked at him quizzically. How strange, it said. The words you say tell me you are scared of the berries, but your actions seem to suggest otherwise.
“You’re as old as the land and you’ve never heard of sarcasm?” Conor asked.
Oh, I have heard of it, the monster said, putting its huge branch hands on its hips. But people usually know better than to speak it to me.

How effective the italicisation of the yew tree’s voice is!  As is the defense of story: Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might awake?”  And, finally, how about this as a summation of young boy’s misery?:

Some bread in the toaster, some cereal in a bowl, some juice in a glass, and he was ready to go, sitting down at the little table in the kitchen to eat. His mum had her own bread and cereal which she bought at a health food shop in town and which Conor thankfully didn’t have to share. It tasted as unhappy as it looked.


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Augustus

How do you oppose a foe who is wholly irrational and unpredictable – and yet who, out of animal energy and accident of circumstance, has attained a most frightening power?”

It’s a problem, right?  In  this instance – John Williams‘ brilliant historical novel Augustus (1973) – they’re talking about Mark Anthony.  I am so in awe of this novel that I feel the need to escape from hyperbole by slipping into anecdotage.

One of those significant moments of advance in one’s intellectual life: an A-level essay on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, which I kick off with a quote from Dylan’s recently released Maggie’s Farm – “Well I’ve tried my best / to be just like I am / But every body wants me / to be just like them.”  Turns out in the end he was a bit of a tosser “who did not even perform his own suicide well …

It is often suggested that life in Ancient Greece and Rome – events, ideas, dilemmas that I have skipped over – have in essence anticipated pretty much everything that has gone down since.  It seems a reasonable notion, and one I’m a lot more likely to explore after reading Augustus.

It’s an incredible story.  When he was 19, Octavius Caesar, Julius Caesar’s nephew, JC’s recently adopted son and successor, was off on a Greek island doing student stuff with his mates (and being educated).  No long after, in 44 BC,  JC was famously assassinated, and Octavius – like Brazilian footballers he took to being known as Augustus a bit later, as Emperor and, um, god – hastened back to a Rome that was in chaos, with civil war in prospect.  No-one expected him to pick up the reins, but he did.  When he was 19.  Diversionary tactic 2: cue my mate Naomi Rose’s song Nineteen because now it’s there it won’t go away:

By the time Augustus died he had left an economically prosperous Roman Empire at peace within itself and secure within its extensive borders – the era that is known as the Pax Romana.  But not without huge personal cost.  The story is told in a patchwork of lletters, memos and memoirs, petitions and poems, senatorial proceedings, reports, military orders, and journal notes – chronologically, but with the dates of the sources jumping backwards and forwards, providing a commentary on events. 

As the book progresses more and more space is given to the journal of Augustus’s daughter, Julia, whom he loves, but who has been callously, strategically, used over the years, and is sentenced to a lonely exile by him, for treason.  She has been on a hell of a journey.  Ordered by her father, “I returned to Rome in the consulship of Tiberius Claudius Nero … Who had been a goddess returned to Rome a mere woman, and in bitterness.”  Furthermore “I was not to be free. One year and four months after the death of Marcus Agrippa [an old, gay, mate of his] my father betrothed me to Tiberius Claudius Nero. He was the only one of my husbands whom I ever hated.”  Her fate: “So I am once again to be the brood sow for the pleasure of Rome.”  Hers is a tale that could easily stand as an outstanding work of its own.  She achieves a certain liberation, experiences sensual pleasure and ultimately reaches a peace in her situation:

Father,” I asked, “has it been worth it? “Your authority, this Rome that you have saved, this Rome that you have built? Has it been worth all that you have had to do?”
My father looked at me for a long time, and then he looked away. “I must believe it has,” he said. “We both must believe it has.”

The books ends with an astonishing 36 pages, as a lonely dying Augustus, voyaging out at sea, looks back over his life in a sequence of letters to the only surviving friend of his youth, a scholar.  It is one of the most powerful sustained passages I have read in a long time.  It’s fiction, of course, so one doesn’t know, but … well, try this:

Thus I did not determine to change the world out of an easy idealism and selfish righteousness that are invariably the harbingers of failure, nor did I determine to change the world so that my wealth and power might be enhanced; wealth beyond one’s comfort has always seemed to me the most boring of possessions, and power beyond its usefulness has seemed the most contemptible. It was destiny that seized me that afternoon at Apollonia nearly 60 years ago, and I chose not to avoid its embrace.

Compared to Alexander the Great, he opines that Alexander had it lucky, dying so young, “else he would have come to know that if to conquer the world is a small thing, to rule it is even less.”
“… I have never wished to conquer the world, and I have been more nearly ruled than ruler.”

He puts in a good word for the poets, whose company was often held against him:

Of the many services that Maecenas performed for me, the most important seems to me now to be this: He allowed me to know the poets to whom he gave his friendship. They were among the most remarkable men I have ever known …

I could trust the poets because I was unable to give them what they wanted …

Horace once told me that laws were powerless against the private passions of the human heart, and only he who has no power over it, such as the poet or the philosopher, may persuade the human spirit to virtue.

Great book.  Capital G.

Razor Girl

And now for something completely different.  I love reading Carl Hiaasen, just gulp his books down.  What it says on the cover.  He specialises in outlandish, yet I thought the actions of the woman of the title of his latest book were too much, even for the Florida of his oeuvre.  And then I read the disclaimer to Razor Girl (Sphere, 2016):

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. However, true events in South Florida provided the lurid material for certain strands of this novel, beginning with the opening scene. The author also wishes he’d dreamed up the part about the giant Gambian pouched rats, but he didn’t. Those suckers are real.

There’s a lovely rhythm to his writing that just pulls you along.  Here’s the opening paragraph:

On the first day of February, sunny but cold as a frog’s balls, a man named Lane Coolman stepped off a flight at Miami International, rented a mainstream Buick and headed south to meet a man in Key West. He nearly made it.

That ‘He nearly made it’, if you’re familiar with Carl Hiaasen, is no harbinger of doom for Coolman, but rather an invitation to the reading treat in store.  He keeps a handful of narratives going and works seamlessly to intertwine them with calamitous and desperate irony.

There‘s the central character, Yancey, a disgraced detective who now, busted to public hygiene inspector, works the roach patrol in local restaurants, is anxious to get his old job back.  So he involves himself in what starts as a mistaken kidnapping which introduces into the plot a top-rated scripted fake reality TV show called Bayou Brethren about a hillbilly family business breeding speciality chickens for fly-fishing flies.  Enter a psychopathic fan of the show who has bought into its conceit – including unofficial dodgy right-wing rants on YouTube –  wholesale. Then there’s the out-of-his-depth guy running an eco-destructive con providing sand to hotel beaches who owes money to the mafia, who ends up mid-chase electrocuting himself trying to recharge a stolen Tesla.  Not to mention the tangled love lives and Yancey’s real estate problem of how to get rid of potential next-door neighbours threatening to build big and destroy his view. Among other things.

Hiaasen is basically a moralist, appalled at what big money has done and is doing to Florida.  Razor Girl displays less of the eco-warrior than usual – and it’s hard not to rue the non-appearance of Skink, the ragged one-eyed wild man ex-governor of Florida who’s gone native in the Keys, who features in some of his other books, but Hiaasen is still rooting – relatively speaking – for the good guys, albeit with many degrees of grey on the way.  The mafia guy is appalled to discover that the beach con man has been using a fake Helper Dog jacket on any old mutt to milk the privileges that one brings.

Carl Hiaasen is a master of dialogue and pushing the action along.  And he can be very very funny.

The reader on the 6.27

Weird, touching on desolation, yet charming, Jean-Paul Didierlaurent‘s The reader on the 6.27 (Mantle, 2015), translated by Ros Schwartz), is one of those shortish books that seem to only ever appear in translation.

Guylain Vignolles has not had it easy with a name that, subjected to spoonerist manipulation, gets him called ‘Ugly Puppet’.  He has a soul-crushing job in a factory pulping books.  He rescues random pages that escape the machine and recites them out loud next day to commuters on the train to work.  Some even look forward to it.  At work there’s a bossy boss and a jealous assistant.  There’s a sub-plot that takes in his reading for an hour, by invitation, at an old people’s home.

A while ago there had been an accident at work and a friend had lost a leg to the grinding machine; he, the friend, had traced how the pulp produced that day had been used, and was buying up copies of the cook book printed on that paper; he’s buying copies up.  Guylain helps him by pursuing second-hand copies at weekends, looking to help his friend get some sort of closure from a full set on his bookshelves.

One day on the train home Guylain finds a USB stick and discovers thereon a quirky document written by a woman working as a concierge in a public toilet in a shopping centre.  Enchanted, it is from this he now reads to his fellow commuters, and makes it his mission to find the writer.  And in the end, a drawn out love story.  Weird, charming, and highly recommended.

Scribal Gathering

You’d think the energy, industry and invention that went into The Antipoet would be enough for most mortals, but no, Paul Eccentric (“the mouthy half of … the beatrantin’ rhythm’n’views act” as estimable host Jonathan JT Taylor described him in the events page for the evening on FB) is an accomplished solo spoken word performer and, after a change of jacket, seated vocalist with the entertaining Polkabililly Circus,  who variously rocked, folked, emoted and mixed it up as you’d expect from their name. (Not to mention his other side projects:  http://pauleccentric.co.uk/ ).  Another fine way to spend an evening with Scribal: other poets and musicians were standing.

Archivists please note: JMD was unable to attend.

YorkieFest 2017

Best for me at YorkieFest this year, the fifth no less, were tucked away in the middle of the day.  Innocent Hare‘s repertoire draws masterfully from a number of folk traditions and the trio – a family affair – ebulliently led by Chloe Middleton-Metcalfe, went down a storm with the modest collection of souls in attendance at that time.  The ever immaculate harmonies and musicality of The Straw Horses followed, and in retrospect it was a mistake on my part to try to eat a vegetarian crepe (from La Crepe Franglais) – delicious though it was, it required concentration with that plastic fork – while they were on.  The continent-wide African guitar work from Safari Boots impressed. 

Special mention should also be made for my introduction to the sport and art of Tea Duelling from The Order of the Teapot, aka the local Steampunks.  It involves biscuit dunking, judgment skills and a lot of nerve.  Shame a few more didn’t come given all Pat Nicholson (one half of Growing Old Disgracefully, or GOD) and others’ hard work, but glad to say, money was made for the charities supported.

Chloe gave me a sticker to stick on an instrument to spread the word. I guess this my instrument. And I’ll stick it on the notebook I carry.

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Calling this piece A memorable Merchant I get to feel like an old sweat of a drama critic, as if I’d seen a few productions of Shakespeare‘s The Merchant of Venice, which is not the case.  But there are moments from the Stony Stratford Theatre Society’s production of the play that stick in my mind over a fortnight after the experience – I’m not the first to call it that – and my memory’s not what it used to be.

The venue – upstairs in the actual Temple of the local Masons’ Lodge (No 1639) (and the stairs were steep and not wide) – is about the size of a thin tennis court, with audience seating two rows either side.  It made for an intimate setting that demanded something special for the enterprise to succeed.  Which it certainly did; there were times when I forgot some of the actors were friends.  Invidious to single out individuals – this was a tremendous ensemble performance – but Bill Handley’s Shylock (bottom right, below) was an absolute stunner, scary in its intensity.

Official photographer Paul hands’ cast shots

As I said, this is a play I’d not seen before, probably down to my shying away from its character’s expressed anti-Semitism.  Which was certainly not shirked here (I was shocked), though precisely because of this Shylock’s ‘If you prick us’ plea was powerful indeed.  “For me,” writes director Caz Tricks in the programme notes, “Shylock is not a bad person but he makes a very bad decision which he then won’t back down from” – locked into his own logic and circumstance, very much a trait of our times too.

It was a modern dress production shaded by a few timeless-cum-period costume hints that pushed us back in time, aided and abetted by the venue’s dark wood fixtures and fittings, in particular the Lord High Poobah’s ornate throne at one end, and a long thin black and white chequered carpet down the centre – a rectangular chess game?  The court scene was electric.  The comedy coda – the Shakespearean unmaskings of disguised identities, the happy ending – brought much relief.

Stony Stratford Theatre Society is, again quoting Caz from the programme, “a mix of professional and amateur actors.  Amateur stems from Latin, amare ‘to love’ and this company loves what we do.”  You could feel they love.   A friend who goes to the Warwickshire Bard’s Stratford a bit said – honest! – it was much better than some she’d seen there.  A triumph.  Bravo Caz Tricks!  Bravo the lot of you!

MK Calling 2017

I don’t go ‘up city’ much anymore.  The usual trigger is the need to replenish the caddy with Whittard’s loose leaf English Breakfast Tea – the only way to start the day.  The absurdity of the idea of ordering such a traditional luxury online is too much to contemplate – it just would not taste the same.  I used to try and combine this essential purchase with a visit to Milton Keynes Gallery.  As explained in the gallery’s press release below, however, this has not been possible for some time now, but at present there is a temporary respite:
This spring, MK Gallery showcases new and exciting work by over 70 emerging and established artists in MK Calling 2017. This exhibition will celebrate and champion the breadth of creativity in and around Milton Keynes and includes a wide range of art forms …
Over the last few months, the Gallery has been examined by architects and builders through digging, drilling and other physical interventions to test the foundations, structure and services in anticipation of its major expansion. For this exhibition, the basic access and health and safety have been temporarily restored to enable the building to be opened up for one last time before construction begins. With the exhibition designed to make the most of the makeshift quality of the building, artists and visitors will have exclusive behind the scenes access to the entire ground floor, including the old workshop, loading bay, shop and other improvised areas.
It made for a fascinating stroll, with, as suggested, all sorts of decent pictures, thoughts and things on show.  I liked Marion Piper’s In Side – “chalk on existing painted wall” – in the loading bay, with the attribution and explication sellotaped to the floor:

 

Anna Berry‘s intriguing Atomize (more details can be found here on her website, from which the full installation photo is lifted: http://www.annaberry.co.uk/3-2/installation-pieces/atomize/) had a particular resonance for me (as well as Anna being a friend) – those MK postcards were on sale where I used to work, I’ve sold and sent a few in my time.  The more detailed photos below are mine (click to enlarge).  Which and/or what exactly are ‘the spaces in between’?

On the way out Clive Doherty’s Percy the hungover robot made me laugh, though coming full circle, the video loop of an overflowing cup of tea (sorry, I’ll give the attribution when I have it) made me shudder:

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