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November 22 sees the fiftieth anniversary of the first release of The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, my third favourite Kinks album, though the critical consensus these days seems to be that this is Ray Davies‘s masterpiece.  (Muswell hillbillies and Arthur, if you’re asking.)  It was released in the same fortnight in 1968 as the Beatles’ White Album and the Rolling Stones’ Beggar’s banquet, so it never really stood much chance of getting onto people’s turntables back then; I myself didn’t discover it until the early ’70s.  It has aged well and I still love it.  Naturally, this year, as is the custom these days, it is celebrated by the release of a £100+ box set with vinyl etc, remastered again (was that Special Deluxe Edition really issued fourteen years ago? OK … ) and with a new song, Time, from a couple of years later, released meaninglessly as a trailer ‘single’ a few weeks earlier.  Truth be told, Time makes me cringe in its tweeness and passivity; it should have stayed on the cutting room floor.  Nevertheless, as a tribute to this fine album, I am now going to try and clear the backlog of five books here at Lillabullero with reference to it, or at least as close as I can get.

The age of innocence

Edith Wharton‘s The age of innocence (1920) was September’s Reading Group book and it was only to keep faith with the Group that I persisted.  But once I got that it was actually a historical novel, and a narrative emerged, I rather warmed to it.

The age of innocence is a novel that documents a crucial period of social change in America.  It shares, I’d say – in its own way – the philosophy of The Village Green Preservation Society‘s “Preserving the old ways from being abused / Protecting the new ways for me and for you” – no simple exercise in nostalgia – even if the balance here is a bit skewed.  Because, bloody hell, the exponents of those old ways – early 1870s ‘Old New York’ aristocracy – sure are tedious and stiflingly convention-bound.  Edith Wharton skillfully fleshes out an anthropological analysis of the tribes, with an eye to tracing, as one of the characters does, “each new crack in the surface, and all the strange weeds pushing up between the ordered rows of social vegetables“.

The man in the middle is Newland Archer, who conventionally marries but is in love with another.  Head or heart, duty or desire?  ‘Society’ wins (a narratively strategic pregnancy helps the decision).  Interestingly the overwhelmingly female Reading Group saw a strength and guile in wife Mary that I’d skipped over.  I found it odd that it’s a woman writer who gives it to Newland, who she has put at the heart of the book, to say (wild oats had been sown), “ ‘Women ought to be free – as free as we are’ “; though in the saying of which, she slyly adds, he’s “making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences.”

The final passages of the novel have Newland looking back over his marriage after his wife’s death – three children, all grown, making their own way – and thinking on balance it had been worth it, sticking with what was respectably expected of him (despite “the taste of the usual” being “like cinders in his mouth“), but acknowledging some aspects of change.  Given the chance of meeting up again with his heart’s desire in Paris, he chickens out at the last minute, preferring the keep the memory shiningly alive.  Given that only moments previously he had been sitting the Louvre, and “Suddenly, before an effulgent Titian, he found himself saying: ‘But I’m only fifty-seven …’ ” this refusal at the last hurdle came as both a huge disappointment to the romantic in me … and, I guess, a recognition that physically, age 57, a century ago, was so much older then.

Edith Wharton has a delicious way with nuance; much pleasure is to be had from it.  Bohemia is acknowledged: “Beyond the small and slippery pyramid which composed Mrs. Archer’s world lay the almost unmapped quarter inhabited by artists, musicians and “people who wrote’ ” – not the only appearance of that ‘people who wrote’ – never mind Old New York’s incomprehension of the “eccentricities of a husband of a husband who filled the house with long-haired men and short-haired women” (plus ca change?).  The prospect of a genuine American culture (opera was big in Old New York society) is celebrated with:

“It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country.” She smiled across the table. “Do you suppose Christopher Columbus should have taken all that trouble just to go to the Opera with the Selfridge Merrys?”

Then there are the people.  Here’s Newland: “If he had probed the bottom of his vanity (as he sometimes nearly did)…”; one of the women in social action: “Symptoms of a lumbering coquetry became visible in her …“; and Newland’s poor unmarried sister, “who still looked so exactly as she used to in her elderly youth …“.  Could Dickens have bettered the matriarch?:

The immense accretion of flesh that had descended upon her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon.

Why Dylan matters

You could say John F. Harvey‘s Why Dylan matters (William Collins, 2017) is here under false pretences as far as making dubious connections with the Village Green Preservation Society go.  Bob Dylan is obviously a contemporary of Ray Davies, though 1968 was the only year in the decade since he set out in 1962 that he didn’t release a record, but he did use the Kinks’ Party line and Sunny afternoon on his celebrated Theme Time Radio Hour programmes.  Davies himself has said (in his X-Ray: the unauthorised autobiography), “I had always distrusted Bob Dylan as a songwriter, in the same way at college I had distrusted Pablo Picasso as a painter.”  Callow youth mellowed though, and “The only thing I had against him was that he had changed his name – but then I guess that was his privilege“.  However, Lillabullero has a backlog to clear and it’s staying in here.  They both admire Hank Williams.

Why Dylan matters is the most original Dylan book I have read in a long time, and I have read a few, and then some.  Richard F.Thomas moved to the US from New Zealand in 1974 to pursue an academic career:

For the past 40 years, as a classics professor, I have been living in the worlds of the Greek and Roman poets, reading them, writing about them, and teaching them to students in their original languages and in English translation. I have for even longer been living in the world of Bob Dylan songs, and in my mind Dylan long ago joined the company of those ancient poets.

He had a Eureka! moment when he was listening to Lonesome day blues on the Love and theft album of 2001 and, “I heard Virgil, loud and clear in the tenth verse“.

Dylan’s songs have been part of my song memory since my mid-teens, but it would be decades before they became more fully aligned in my mind with the Greek and Roman poets I was beginning to read back then. And it was chiefly in the twenty-first century that Dylan started to reference, borrow from, and “creatively reuse” their work in his own songs.

Since 2004 Thomas has been running a seminar programme for freshmen at Harvard.  This book is a distillation of that course, looking at Bob Dylan’s songwriting and recordings from the folk period through to the Sinatra covers phase.  It’s a revelation.  He goes back afresh to the Hibbing High School Yearbook of 1959.  Where most haven’t looked further than the prophetic ‘Little Richard’ aspiration, he finds Dylan was an active member of Latin Club, which he joined in 1956, and takes it from there, putting a unique spin on proceedings.

Fully aware of the irony of the Desolation Row citation, he riffs to great effect on T.S.Eliot – “fighting in the captain’s tower” – and his take on plagiarism from an essay in his The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism of 1920: “Immature poets borrow; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”  And, among other things touched on in Why Dylan matters, his Nobel Prize ‘speech’ makes a whole lot more sense now.

This is … a book about how Dylan’s genius has long been informed by the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome, and why the classics of those days matter to him and should matter to all of us interested in the humanities.

It is also a book which made me succumb and buy Triplicate, the 3 CD addition to the previous two albums of Frank Sinatra ‘covers’, which Thomas contextualises.  I swore I would never buy Triplicate after the first two, but it proves to be a plaintive and genuine collection, relaxed, regretful, and restful.

Normal people

I liked Sally Rooney‘s Normal people (Faber, 2018) so much I read it again.  I’ve seen it described as a Romeo and Juliet type romance, but there aren’t any clans as such.

Kinks connection: Connell Waldron is David Watts personified: “Lead the school team to victory / And take my exams and pass the lot.”  It’s a song from Something else by The Kinks, the album that preceded Village Green Preservation Society.  “And all the girls in the neighbourhood / Try to go out with David Watts“.  The neighbourhood is a small town in the west of Ireland.  Whereas Marianne Sheldon “exercises an open contempt for people in school. She has no friends and spends her lunchtimes alone reading novels. A lot of people really hate her.”

Both are from one-parent households, but Connell’s mum cleans for Marianne’s soul-less bitch of a mother in the big house, where she lives with an arsehole of an elder brother; Marianne is known to have had mental problems.  They’re compatico intellectually, the sharpest of their year, and they start sleeping together, but it’s a secret (he doesn’t want his mates to know).  They are not ‘a couple’, and continue to not be one for a lot of Normal lives, which follows their relationships, separations and personal crises through university – Trinity College, Dublin, where she‘s in her element socially and he isn’t – and post-grad.  Other parallel reversals in their fortunes follow as things progress.

The book has eighteen sections, or episodes, covering four years: the first is entitled January 2011, and is followed by Three weeks later (February 2011) and so on to February 2015.  The largest gap is seven months, the smallest 5 minutes.  It’s brilliantly handled, the personal focus being swapped between them.  Immediacy is achieved by the stark use of the present tense, whereby the smallest detail reverberates, while within that the narrative falls back into an explanatory but still right there past tense making sense of their misunderstandings, absences, difficulties and misdeeds.  There’s a lot of dialogue which, as in her previous novel, is executed without the help of speech marks; it works.  The prose delivers clarity, crystal moments; manages to be forensic and it sings:

  • Early in their relationship: “Connell, as usual, did not speak or even look at her. She watched him across classrooms as he conjugated verbs, chewing on the end of his pen.”
  • After another quarrel she gets out the car on a garage forecourt: “A crow on the forecourt picks at a discarded crisp packet.” [talk about seeing through his eyes!]
  • Marianne is taking a sip of coffee when he says this, and she seems to pause for a moment with the cup at her lips. He can’t tell how he identifies this pause as distinct from the natural motion of her drinking, but he sees it.”
  • Her boyfriend at in Dublin: “Jamie’s dad was one of the people who had caused the financial crisis – not figuratively, one of the actual people involved.” [!!]
  • ” … her breath rises in a fine mist and the snow keeps falling, like a ceaseless repetition of the same infinitely small mistake.”
  • Connell, depressed, goes to see a student counsellor: “Now he looks up at Yvonne, the person assigned by the university to listen to his problems for money.” [But she helps]

Sally Rooney is only 27 and has already published two astonishingly accomplished novels.  There’s a passage two fifths of the way in which captures the young person’s absolute fantasy of the marriage of intellect and sex hoped for at university happening (“he has the sensation that he and Marianne are like figure-skaters“) and, futile though it is, one cannot help but speculate how much of herself is in which characters.  There is also a discussion of the futility of author readings, questioning the literary industry function, of books being merely “status symbols“, which nevertheless is the occasion that lifts Connell out of his doldrums.

I have seldom cared so much about two people in a novel, nor wanted so much for them not to be unhappy.  It’s left hanging, of course, but there are grounds for hope.

Body & Soul

It was a nice surprise to see a new John Harvey novel sitting on the shelves in the local library – I’d thought he’d given up –  and Body & soul (Heinemann, 2018) has not been a disappointment.

Kinks connections are minimal: the murdered man is an artist who has a studio in the Old Piano Factory in Kentish Town, just down the road from the Boston pub in Tufnell Park, where the Official Kinks Fan Club has its annual Konvention; John Harvey has an entry in the Kinks in literature page here at Lillabullero for a brief allusion to Waterloo Sunset in In a true light, the first of his post-Resnick novels.

I was fond of Charlie Resnick, who lasted for ten finely crafted novels, but his successors never quite hit the spot for me.  Body & soul is the fourth and last in the series featuring ex-Detective Frank Elder, and it again calls into play his daughter, Katherine, who had such an awful time of it in the first, Flesh and blood.  (There was a time when it was highly dangerous to be a fictional detective’s daughter – as both Banks and Rebus can concur).  Here’s Elder’s back story; Harvey, who also publishes poetry, is good on character:

Faced with probable disciplinary action and his wife’s flaunting infidelity, a teenage daughter he no longer seemed to recognise, never mind understand, Elder had done the sensible adult thing. Thrown his toys out the pram. Handed in his resignation and … hastened himself as far away as he could without leaving the country entirely.

Body & soul is a police procedural that roams the land: Kentish Town, trendy Hackney, Cornwell, Nottingham, somewhere on the north-east coast; the trains run smoothly.  There are two narratives at play with Katherine as the link.  The art milieu of the murdered man is nicely done (“Art, Elder said as if it were an infection, it gets bloody everywhere.”), and the solution to his murder comes late in the investigation after a few red herrings and the dead man’s first wife has returned from holiday.  The detective leading the case is an interesting woman, a lesbian, with a wry unconventional partner for a copper, who suffers the usual slings of the copper’s wife:

When she had first been stationed at Holmes Road as a young detective constable, about the best you could have hoped for would have been instant coffee from a greasy spoon. Now there were three chain outlets and four independent coffee shops within easy walking distance. The high street was otherwise dominated by charity shops and estate agents. Maybe that was how the world was now divided: those who’d happily fork out close to three pounds for a flat white and those who could not. The yin and yang of capitalism, as Rachel liked to put it.

At the climax of the second narrative strand, we are in deep police procedural territory, an area most don’t reach:

Bastard,’ the lead officer said quietly and shook his head. Already he was thinking about the debrief with the Chief Superintendent, the written reports his team would have to make, the photographs, the video, the inevitable investigation by the IPCC. And for what?

Transcription

More than once in Kate Atkinson‘s Transcription someone says, or mutters, “This England“.  And despite the fact that ” Countryside’ was more of a concept for Juliet than a reality“, one of those Englands is that addressed in The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society.  The lyric of the title song has the line “God save little shops, china cups and virginity“, and a purloined Sèvres porcelain cup plays a minor part in showing us that our heroine is not without taint.  But by 1950, Juliet Armstrong is working in BBC Schools, where they are recording a programme called Singing Together:

Singing Together, Juliet thought. Schools seemed to be fixated on an Old England of sea shanties and ballads and folk songs. And maidens, lots of maidens. […] They were reinventing England, or perhaps inventing it. […]

      ‘This England – is it worth fighting for?’ [a.n.other asking] It depended on whose side you were on, she supposed.

And so, my love affair with Kate Atkinson continues.  Things were getting a bit shaky early on – the bastard child of Victoria Wood and Graham Greene? – but for me it all suddenly kicked into gear when we return to 1950 – page 177 in the hardback, to be exact.  And near the end (p315 of 327) I’m metaphorically punching the air in jubilation, when at the bottom of the page, in the course of an interrogation, Juliet is warned: “Come now, quite enough of exposition and explanation. We’re not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong“.  I love the games she plays.

Transcription is a spy novel with bells on, deadly serious, but also a lot of fun, with the usual entertaining collection of characters as supporting cast.  We start briefly with a (what proves to be fatal) road accident in London, in 1981; Juliet back in England for the first time in thirty years.  1950 and she’s not having much fun at the BBC, but suddenly reminded, haunted by what she did in the war.  1940 and she’s a spy, part of an MI5 sting operation scuppering a potential enemy Fifth Column; something bad had happened too.  Back in 1950 we find she still provides the odd overnight safe house venue for the security service.  We see what had been on her conscience back in 1940 again, and then, back in 1950 and … HUGE TWIST (for me, anyway).

Well I certainly didn’t see it coming.  Though, looking back, there’s a whacking great clue right there on the opening page.  Never mind the flamingo on the cover.  I shall read Transcription again some time soon – I always do with Kate – and doubtless I shall discover a couple more.  There are some useful pages at the back of the book where she talks about her research and sources.

Along the way, the Atkinson signature quirks and tangents.  Juliet will often momentarily drift off in a conversation with a “Rhymes with …”  to herself.  “Reader, I didn’t marry him,” she reports; not the first time that one’s been used, I’m sure, but it still gets me every time.  She struggles with the men in the ‘office’: “A girl could die of old age, following a metaphor like this, Juliet thought. ‘Very nicely put, sir,’ she said.”  Being briefed for an undercover appearance at a posh pro-Nazi soirée, “Juliet felt rather ashamed, as her mind had been on what dress to wear this evening rather than bottomless pits of evil.”

Juliet has an eye for a simile, too: “She had fierce eyebrows and seemed mournfully Russian, sighing in the tragic way of a woman whose cherry orchard had been chopped down …“, while in describing a struggle, “She was made of steel. It was like dealing with Rasputin, not a middle-aged woman from Wolverhampton“; called Dolly.

She gets to discussing existentialism at work one day:

‘We have all walked in the valley of the shadow of death. Do you despair, Miss Armstrong?’
Hardly ever. Occasionally. Quite often. ‘Not at all,’ she said. ‘And anyway, if everything is pointless, then so is despair, isn’t it?’

Meanwhile (sorry about the ad) …

 

 

 

 

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The Spy Game

Some books take you by surprise.  Georgina Harding‘s The spy game (Bloomsbury, 2009) was the Book Group’s August selection and I probably wouldn’t have considered reading it otherwise.  It got to me; I read it twice, and not just to catch any nuances I might have missed.  There’s a piano teacher struggling to engage her young pupil – Anna Wyatt, the narrator of The spy game – by introducing her to Erik Satie’s piano music.  Didn’t work for her, but it gave me an urgent need to fill that gap in my collection: no Gnossiennes or Gymnopédies? How did that happen?  The spy game is not a genre novel.

The tragic piano teacher is one to weep for.  Here she is playing some Bach, at what would prove to be Anna’s last lesson:

The music was like fountains, crystalline, rising, falling, controlled. If only it was all like that, no words to anything. If you listened, closed your eyes, then opened them again and looked about, you saw the room more richly than before, the polish of the furniture, the glow of the lamps, of the glass on the shelves, the vividness of its lit colour. The woman at the piano was suddenly vivid again too, as if some veil, some dull greyness which had seemed only an extension of the greyness of the day, of the protracted late winter, had dropped away.

Saturday, January 7, 1961, news breaks of the unmasking of a Soviet spy ring – a seemingly ordinary well-liked suburban couple, the Krogers, at the heart of it.  Two days later, 8-year old Anna’s mother dies in a car accident.  Her elder brother, Peter, just old enough to be aware of current affairs, becomes obsessed with the idea that their mother was a sleeper agent who had been recalled to Moscow to preserve the spy network.  After all, their English father had first met her in the Russian section of post-war Berlin, and they were kept away from the funeral.  Peter’s obsession – he involves her in what she sees as a game, becomes a bit of a spy himself – leads to a series of incidents, and for him, a breakdown, all of which is related by Anna, as she remembers what she saw and thought as a young girl.

Life moves on for her.  We are told nothing of what has happened in between – a narrative gap that works well, I think – save that her daughter has gone off to university and her husband is saying, Go on – why not go for it!  The experiences of her childhood have never quite left Anna, and she’s still intrigued by how little she ever knew about her mother’s life before she met her father.

Anna has researched the Portland Spy Ring (a fascination in itself), and moves on from the British Library’s newspaper out-station in North London to archives in Berlin and the remote Baltic outpost of what is now Kaliningrad (in what is now Russia), all small adventures in themselves, briefly meeting new people, helping or helped by, on the way.  What she discovers about her mother’s, and the piano teacher’s uneasy pre-war and war-time lives is extraordinary, humbling; her re-imaging of her parents’ courtship glorious.  The even tone that Georgina Harding maintains as one’s emotions soar and plunge is remarkable.  One is in Stephen Poliakoff and Andreii Makine territory – great company, I’d say.  A lovely uncomfortable book, one that sings.

A couple of other things before we leave Georgina Harding.  She doesn’t overdo the period touches, but when she does … well, I’m showing my age here: Dixon of Dock Green on the telly, the National Anthem when the days’ programming was over; pink candlewick bedspreads; “The telephone was for information still in those days … and was kept in the hall without even a chair beside it“; the crunch night of 1962’s Cuban missile crisis, the Big Freeze of 1963; sweet cigarettes!  I guess boys still labour over plastic construction kits to this day, but brother Peter’s aircraft models were like a Proustian madeleine for me:

His eyes were shiny so that I did not look into them. He was almost crying. I looked at his fingers instead, how they were white with the pressure. They held the wing of the plane so tight that I was afraid he might break it and then he would cry for sure. […]
Peter was collected now, more his usual self. He put the wing down. He began to peel the dried glue off his fingertips, stripping it off like skin and laying it on the spread newspaper on the table.

That at a moment of high drama.  I’d say that was a fine piece of writing.  She’s great on small details.  Finally, here’s Anna has just emptied her father’s kitchen, clearing the house for sale after his death.  There’s one special find:

I drove back home and did not have the strength to get the box out of the car. I would get it in the morning and sort everything then, tins of tomatoes, stale coffee, outdated herbs, half-used bags of sugar and flour that would hang about and sadden the larder for months. I took only the diary in.

The punishment she deserves

The punishment she deserves is the 20th of Elizabeth George‘s Inspector Lynley novels, but the first I’ve read.  I’m familiar with the television series and quite liked it once his awful wife became an ex-wife (don’t know if she was so toe-curdling in the books); star of the show is always Sharon Small, cheeky smile and all, as his DS Barbara Havers.  I had friends who read the series as they came out, but it was the length that put me off, that and not being able to get my head fully around an American writing about a quintessential Englishman (he’s a real Lord, don’t you know?).

Anyway, I get the nod that The punishment she deserves deserves a place in the Kinks in Literature pages here at Lillabullero, so there was no escape, the time had come.  At just over 600 pages it’s too long, way too long.

Because I was only familiar with the TV shows, I had to catch up on the soap opera aspects of the book series.  So it was a shock to discover Lynley with a boss who has a chronic alcohol problem and is going through a bad divorce and is involved in a fierce custody battle for the children.  This sub-plot added greatly to the page count, slowed the actual investigation down, and did nothing much for me; aficionados of the series may demur, of course.

Once Lynley and Havers get going The punishment she deserved has its moments – they’re a class double act – but as a police procedural it has a major flaw right from the start.  The Met officers are in Ludlow to look into the initial handling of a suspicious death in custody and the subsequent IPCC investigation which cleared the local police force: it was a suicide, they agreed.  No way, says the dead man’s rich dad, who can pull strings and is threatening the Home Office with legal action.  No mention whatever of a Coroner’s inquest – mandatory in the circumstances – which could well have, indeed should have, brought some pertinent facts out into the open much earlier. And killed the book, which does eventually have some interesting twists and turns fuelled by misunderstandings, maladjustment, and malevolence. 

There is a theme behind the whole shenanigans, involving parents and the contrasting nature of the aspirations, support, protection and freedom they give their teenage children.  How that all works out for the four students at the local college (probably a sixth form college) who share a house in which there seems to be an inordinate amount of casual sex going on, is fertile ground for red herrings and ethical questioning as things unfold.  Can’t say I found the local cast and a lot else that convincing.

But first the music.  The Kinks reference turns out to be a sticker in the back window of an old car (which by the sound of it would never have passed its MOT).  Soundtrack for the big end of term bash at the dodgy pub favoured by Ludlow’s young – is it really going to be the BeeGees and Abba?  I doubt it.  And while we’re in the pub, how about this revelation:

Music was shaking the floor-boards. This was meant to promote thirst which was meant to promote the purchase of lager, ale, cider, cocktails, and the like. [my italics] Deng had to struggle to get through the great glomerations of kids who were gyrating to the music, texting, or taking selfies …

And while we’re still here, the annoying things start to mount up.  ‘Ale’ is consistently through the book, never ‘beer’ or ‘bitter’.  And that word ‘conglomeration’; other bon mots heard at the pub are “Fabbo-licious” and “Gorgeosity in the extreme“.  One of the participants seated at that table is one Finnegan Freeman:

He wore his hair in a style that featured dreadlocks on the right and a shaved skull on the left. The latter allowed the display of a disturbing tattoo showing a wild-looking woman screaming, complete with uvula displayed as well as overlong canines, one of which dripped blood.

Yeah, right.  And he’s just the teenage son of the Assistant Chief Constable of the West Mercia Police Service, who, incidentally, uses sex games to keep her ex-addict husband in the dark about stuff and is probably the least convincing ACC to be found anywhere near a police procedural crime novel.

Annoyances abound.  PCSO Gaz’s hair “was cut short, but not in the fashion of a football hooligan” (which is, these days?); one evening we have “pub goers looking in on their nightly establishments“; a front garden on a new estate “grew lawns“.  Then there are speech abbreviations, the likes of which I’ve not encountered before; are ‘F you say so / c’n / cops’re / ‘nspector / sh’ll et al genuine local colour?  And Gaz is obviously conflicted:

Gaz set his coffee on the table and dumped milk into it. He stirred it carefully, as if with concern that he might slosh the brew out of the cup should he apply the spoon too energetically.

Meanwhile, cigarettes are never smoked.  It’s usually Havers, seeking somewhere “she could suck down another fag“.

Then there’s the sex.  As I said before, there’s lot of it.  It’s not graphic but it’s constant.  There’s Deng, who has been shagging pretty much anybody since age 14 because, it is pointlessly revealed, she discovered her dad, dead from auto-eroticism, in the stately home her mum is still trying to make a go of.  Deng has cultivated a friendship with determined virgin Missa.  And there’s sexually active, Francie, also living in a stately home that her parents are letting crumble, due to their global “ethno-cultural-whatever” commitments.  A key plot event has been Missa being “sodomised” in a drunken slumber, that word’s repeated use invoking memories of old style Tory dinosaurs speaking in early parliamentary debates on gay rights (or that DUP Ulster brogue!).  You could say the students’ back stories deserved some space, but it’s all a bit hysterical.  And goes on too long.

There are saving graces, which have probably kept the series going.  The main one, of course being the double act that is post Thomas Lynley and working-class Barbara Havers, the source of a rich vein of humour (if you ignore the ‘sucking’ of cigarettes).  Here Lynley is introducing himself to West Mercia’s unenthused by the meeting Chief Constable:

Oooh, Barbara thought. He was using the Voice. He rarely did that because he knew that when it came to being a fish out of water, he was the fish, and it didn’t make any sense to emphasise that. But every so often, such emphasis was necessary and the Voice was required. Upon hearing it the other paused in surprise. It was the pause that Lynley sought. […] Barbara took careful note of the nature of this pissing contest.

Good old Barbara, who had “long ago set her mobile’s alarm to play the final moments of the 1812 Overture at a casual suggestion some time ago from DI Lynley.”  Whose musical knowledge runs to “If Buddy Holly didn’t sing it, I’m clueless”; who breakfasts on Pop-Tarts.  There’s a nice running joke about ‘Judi-with-an-I’ back at Scotland Yard, whose boss at one stage, “had gone to Marylebone, meeting a nameless political powerbroker for a discussion about broking political power.”  A bit more of that and a bit less of the likes of, in the midst of a dramatic blue-lights flashing car chase to stop a glider take-off, “It was clear why the Long Mynd was a desired site for launching gliders.  To the west Shropshire gave way to rolling hills, some comprising quartzite and some consisting of volcanic debris [my italics]”

Doubtful I’ll be reading another one.

PS.  Inevitably technological changes and economic shifts can compromise older books’ accuracy, but I’m not sure there’s any excuse for a book published this year to rhetorically proclaim:  “Since they were on the Bromfield Road, they drove from Flora Bevans’ house into Bromfield itself, where a secondary road near the post office took them to what one could reliably find in any village in the country: a pub.”  If you’re lucky.

Musical adventures

Things have got a bit out of control here at Lillabullero, and the chronicling of worthy local musical outing … all within walking distance here in Stony Stratford … has got chronically behind.  Indeed, we have to go back all the way to July 14 and the joyful early evening that was the full Innocent Hare at the sadly soon to be no more Beer Bear – from medieval to heavy metal (an unlikely working of Iron Maiden’s Fear of the dark).  The wooden floor perfect for a touch of clog, too.  An evening also memorable for my introduction to the delightful Mad Squirrel’s De La Nut hazelnut milk stout (thank you, Andrew).

Vaultage has been on a roll the past couple of months:
I’ve seen The Plucky Haggis almost from his first open mic performance at least half a decade ago (before he was hairy, even), and he’s developed into a colourful performer of some aplomb.  Then one of those magic moments that can suddenly happen at an open mic: Porcelain Hill, who normally boast a classic guitar/bass/drums trio line-up, with rock-soul-blues-funk-punk et al in the mix, they had a proper gig down the road the next day and gave us an

Porcelain Hill at Vaultage – Photo (c) Pat Nicholson

acoustic set of the same with two guitars and cajon, that blew everyone away with their tightness, togetherness and good vibes.  From California, he said: “Whereabouts?” someone shouted.  “Ontario”.  General disbelief.  “No, look it up.  It’s even got its own airport.”  Indeed it does – you learn something everyday.) Here’s a link to their website: http://porcelainhill.com/

The Hatstand Band (or the two of ’em on the left on the night) performed as if joined at the hip.  Lovely stuff, a wide range of Americana, sweet harmonies and swing.  Simon Loake, relaxed broad humour and anecdotage from a long musical career, accomplished folk guitar and such a deep voice, used on some interesting material.  Andy Powell played Streets of London, Stairway to heaven and Duelling Banjos.  And got away with it – an entertainer.  Stairway to heaven done with the help of two ESL signers from the Carabosse theatre team was an experience: the stairway!  After drifting a bit, the quality of the open mic-ers lately has been great too.  Chrissy and Mike’s Born under a bad sign – flute and folk guitar – remains an earworm since last Thursday.  Nice work, Pat Nicholson & Andy Bongos!

Couple of real goodies at York House too.  Don Adam Perera, a classical guitarist of distinction, talked about the versatility of the guitar and demonstrated it.  Spanish, romantic, tango, Spanish, Latin American, he can do ’em all.  Two sets, the first from nineteenth century composers, then more contemporary stuff.  Dazzling, emotional.  See: http://www.donadamperera.com/

Evie Laden & Keith Terry are no strangers to York House, and their skills and entertainment value does not pall.  Americana richly employing banjo (claw hammer style), double bass, guitar, fine voices, ‘body music’, clog, charm.  See: http://www.evieladin.com/bio/

Almost forgetting … an absorbing mix of storytellers, bards and two thirds of Innocent Hare in the Library, for the Magdalen Tower show.

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2018 programme cover designed by Mason Edwards

‘Covers’ being a pretty bad excuse for a pun, as may become evident from what follows later on.

New readers start here: StonyLive! is an annual Festival of Music, Dance and the Arts in Stony Stratford, a small town that used to be in North Buckinghamshire, but is these days, ahem, the proud “Jewel in the Crown” of Milton Keynes. Now in its 20th year, it runs for 9 days from the first Saturday in June to the next Sunday.  (You can see a bit more info and what you (and I) missed by clicking here.  It was a splendid year, so much to choose from)  I always resolve to go to something every day; here’s what I actually managed to take in.

Shall we contradict ourselves by starting with something I went to on the Thursday before.  Yes we shall, because the weekend performances of Carabosse Theatre Company’s Real Ale and Drama Shots 5 were there in the official programme.

Carabosse – “We like it dark” – who take their name from the wicked fairy godmother out of Sleeping Beauty and other folk and fairy tales put on a great show in Swinfen Harris Hall, an intimate venue, full of character.  You knew you were in for a treat when Billy Nomad, knowing smile in minimalist clown-face, stepped up to MC and punctuate playlets with his own ditties.

Immediate coup de théatre with the opener, Eamonn Dolan’s Finn and Tilly: a couple in the audience arguing as a production of Waiting for Godot comes to a close; she all WTF?, he quoting critics as to its profundity; they take it onto the stage and … Godot (a brilliant performance) turns up.  The programme was nicely varied and full of genuine theatrical moments, not least from a chilling theatre of cruelty piece.  Much laughter at Sophie Patterson’s Red Velvet, a Quentin Tarantino take on an Acorn Antiques set in a coffee and cake shop near the law courts.  Three other pieces were concerned with writing or theatre, one in which the playwright is seen as undesirable alien.  The last piece, 19 & 28, featured the whole cast and crew, the dead hanging about awaiting their next reincarnation assignment – a bureaucratic nightmare in a creepy heaven.  Shame about the punchline (methinks) but it all segued nicely into a choral Stairway to Heaven – two “words” in the lyrics of the first two verses?   And it makes you wonder.  Local, yes.  Am-dram? – never: this was the real deal.

Saturday

Yay!  TheHigh Street closed to traffic and there’s dancing in the street.  All sorts, but primarily, for me, Morris.  Nonesuch, an enthusiastic side from Bristol caught the eye, not so much for their garb as their steps – moves other sides hardly touch taken for granted, I was told.  And so to the Fox & Hounds for the traditional StonyLive! opener, a pint of bluegrass with the as ever enjoyable Hole in the head gang (Sorry. I know there are well-set precedents for surprisingly effective bluegrass treatments of Soul-Stax songs, but for me Mustang Sally is not one that wears it well).

And in the evening the magnificent Roadrunner at a sold-out York House.  Local legends from before my time in Stony, “Rutland’s finest R&B band” as it says in the programme – and you can see why on both counts.  From the opening full attack of Let’s work together they were outstanding.  Yes, you can call them a covers band, but it’s the spark of the choice of material that counts.  From way back to Minnie the Moocher and Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs Wooly bully all the way through to 1993 and George Thorogood and the Destroyers’ Get a job (did they do anything later?), they played with the intensity of classic Dr Feelgood supplemented by some well-oiled showmanship – singer and singer and guitarist delving into crowd with the aid of radio mic-ing.  A good time was had by all.

Sunday

And the sun shone bright on the Classic Car Show.  Lots of E-types this time (wife thinks they’re ugly).  My car of the show (not that I know anything) was the Bristol they used on the poster, though nothing stood out as of yore (or I’m getting jaded).  When a bunch on scooters unexpectedly arrived on the scene en masse, the musician on the bandstand broke into the Who’s Can’t explain; nifty, I thought, even though there wasn’t a parka in sight.  With camera to hand I like playing with reflections.

Sunday afternoon and it’s the Big Lunch, a family picnic in Rocket Park.  Lovely cod and chips from a van.  Was surprised how moved I was when a Lancaster bomber in World War 2 livery flew over to the strains (eventually) of the Dam Busters March.  Stirring enough to make one put the firebombing of Dresden to the back of one’s mind for a while, and wonder at what the sight and sound of a sky full of these magnificent machines must have been like.

The Youth and Junior Bardic Trials were a surprise too – strongly contested by 6 contestants, all of whom might have been well in the running another year, in front of a decent and appreciative audience.  So close the judges created a new post of Bard in waiting when it was scored a three-way tie.  The future’s bright.

Monday

Nice little interlude in the shade of the trees by the Magdalen Tower, all that remained of Stony’s other church after a devastating mid-18th century fire.  Masterminded by Derek Gibbons, 6 out of the 8 Stony Bards each recited a poem dedicated to the tower.  Impressively, without collaboration, each approached the subject of the tower in different ways, ranging from historical chronicle to contemporary trysting place.

Should have been Southern Blues Fiasco from Oxford at the Fox but circumstances meant it was but one of them – a medal winning guitar pedal designer, no less – and an accomplished pick-up band with an age span of 30 years or probably more.  A lively evening of powerful blues and blues-oriented music ensued.  A lovely People get ready with a lot of harmonica made you believe Dylan might have written it.  Was it this lot who did a storming Louie Louie?

Tuesday

… and it’s An evening with the Bard and Friends back at York House, and another fine evening of words and music, most of it original.  So much talent around, all in fine form.  Impossible for me not to resurrect the words ‘quiet power’ when poet Fay Roberts is performing, but she was spellbinding, switching from deadly serious to throwaway flippant and all stations in between within a couple of lines.  Important to mention what ‘Fred’ adds to accomplished singer-songwriter Sian Magill’s work.  Taylor Smith go from strength to strength, with writer Taylor dismissing the infectious rabble-rousing Leaders as ‘folk dirge’.   Shame this event always clashes with the a capella session in the Vaults.

Wednesday

Innocent Hare and a pint of Mad Squirrel in a crowded Beer Bear was fun.  Tunes, songs spanning a century or six, add a bit of clog – not to mention good company – are a lovely way to spend an hour.  Damned licensing laws.  (What a fine addition to Stony High street the Beer Bear is, by the way).

So it’s back up the High Street to the Vaults and ‘our’ Ian Anderson’s Blues from the Ouse.  For shame the audience outnumbered the band – coupla guitars, gob iron – by only one at the start but it soon picked up.  More generation spanning musicians, this time acoustic blues of high order.

Thursday

A Vaultage special for StonyLive!  Not the usual fortnightly open mic, but a one-off pre-scheduled closed mic for songwriters.  No covers allowed.  I say one-off, but apparently so many applied there’ll be another one later this year.  Proceedings were kicked off by Bard 007, Mr Stephen Hobbs, the bee in his bonnet about cover bands a-buzzing strong with this little ode:

A salute to Songwriters
[dedicated to Pat “Vaultage” Nicholson]

I salute you
for daring to be original
for taking a thought
maybe just a whisper –
and giving it life:
for showing us your heart.

Stony Live? Do me a favour!
Gimme a break!
L
eave it out!

Let The King, The Starman,
The Private Dancer,
The Gingerbread Man,
and the Joker
be themselves:
this imitation flatters no one.

Stony Live? Do me a favour!
Gimme a break!
Leave it out!

You are the freshness
that masks this slurry of covers
masquerading as a festival.
But you are not alone
look around….
I salute YOU!

© Stephen Hobbs

Archivists might like to note that not all listed turned up (H&S, at least one other) but that happily gave a bit more space for the driving reverie of David Cattermole’s songs.  So much talent and variety in one small bar.  Take a bow Pat ‘Mr Vaultage’ Nicholson (no mean writer and performer himself).

Friday

I have to admit to a stamina fail.  Guilty to an inability – a failing too sweet and rare many publicans who put on music will say – to spend time in a pub without a glass – or with an empty one – in hand, the week was taking its toll.  I am, however, assured that had I walked up and down the High Street on Friday a fruitful game of Cover Band Bingo was very much in prospect.

ers-stonylive/cover-band-bingo-2/” rel=”attachment wp-att-8865″> I’d give a source if only my source didn’t say they’d love to give a source.

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On Sunday Derek  G put up a provocative post on FaceBook saying “Cover bands aren’t local music” which was greeted with varying degrees of approval, moderation, and a fair amount of scorn.  I’m pretty sure I only witnessed one song on that graphic all week, but I wasn’t trying.  I think the point – in the context of StonyLive! – is that you can see cover bands in Stony most weeks, and that there’s a difference between doing a more or less straight cover as opposed to an interpretation.  I shall return to this theme on Sunday.

Saturday

So much to choose from.  I eschew the traditional outgoing lunchtime bluegrass session with those very fine Concrete Cowboys in the anticipation of a long day at the talent packed Fringe Festival, which I come and go from throughout the day, so I didn’t see everyone.  The Antipoet‘s Paul Eccentric got so worked up about the Americanisation of the English language via film & tv (“It’s not to go / it’s to take-a-fucking-way“) that he managed to draw blood with his signature mic forehead bounce finale of The wrong question.  This was a splendid event – well done JT & co, good to see that Scribal Gathering logo on the poster – but I have to submit to an attack of blogging fatigue here.  It was great to see (and hear, of course) Naomi Rose – one of the best songwriters around –  in good voice.  Headliners Forest of Fools did what they do – with folk-based accordion, congas, drums, bass, sousaphone and a touch of electronica – magnificently .

Mason Edwards design again

Sunday

A nice relaxed Folk on the Green in a cool breeze and gentle sun.  Climax of, and, of course, a totally separate entity from StonyLive!  First time we’ve settled down on a spot with only a mere soft drink (Schloer Red Grape found in the garage leftover unopened from New Year’s Eve).  A great early set from another prime local singer/songwriter Mark Owen, who has never sounded better (thumbs up to the PA crew) and went down well.  Izzie Walsh and her equally young band gave us a sweet set of Americana, mixing originals and covers.

Paul McClure, the Rutland Troubadour, appeared in what he described as the closing wind-the crowd down-down spot.  This is the refreshing FOTG rethink of the last couple of years, whereby things close not so much with a bang as a … whimper?  No.  When I say Paul did his job well is not to say he was not anything but a charming and engaging end to the day (with a little bit of rock and roll on the side, just for good measure).

Trigger warning: if you are a post-Syd Pink Floyd fan, better to pass over this paragraph of self-indulgence.  Truth to tell, Paul McClure didn’t have much to calm down after Little Pig‘s cover of an obscure (to me) mournful slow Pink Floyd song, the second in their set.  Nothing against the musicianship, and they opened with a welcome workout on Kirsty McColl’s There’s a guy works down the chip shop swears he’s Elvis.  For argument’s sake let’s just say it’s my problem.  It is said that in the golden age of glossy music mags, Pink Floyd on the front cover was a guaranteed circulation boost.  I’ve also heard it said, last week in fact, that every town of a certain size has a tattoo parlour and its own Pink Floyd tribute band (Mr Hobbs, I believe).  I just don’t get it.

Anyway, here’s to the StonyLive! and FOTG Committees and small army of volunteers.  Now, World Cup permitting, it’s back to the telly, and the gloriously bonkers Flowers, and catching up on The handmaid’s tale, The Bridge and that series on African music.  I’ll finish with a rather wonderful detail from a Pontiac in the car show:

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There’s a passage well into Rachel Simon‘s The story of Beautiful Girl (Preface, 2011), May’s Book Group book, that had me beaming:

“Beautiful” was once the biggest word Lynnie had ever said. Her speech therapist, Andrea, had told her,  ‘After you master that, the sky’s the limit.’  She wasn’t quite right – Lynnie did not cross a language threshold with “beautiful.” […] But Andrea was right that once Lynnie achieved “beautiful”, she’d develop a new confidence.

It got to me.  Others in the Book Group were – rather unfairly I thought – expecting cynical ol’ me to be dismissive of this well-crafted novel.  I’ll admit seeing that cover I feared an acute attack of the American sentimentals – and if there’s a film made, any sloppy string section in evidence in the soundtrack will sully its integrity – but while the others complained of an over-reliance on coincidence for its narrative development, I was quite happy to accept a not unreasonable logic to the deeply satisfying happenstances, based on the people involved in the story being on the same football pitch as Lynnie’s thoughts on hope:

And Lynnie understood. There were two kinds of hope: the kind you couldn’t do anything about and the kind you could.  And even if the kind you could do something about wasn’t what you’d originally wanted, it was still worth doing. A rainy day is better than no day. A small happiness can make a big sadness less sad.

Not to mention the hope of the reader for things to turn out some sort of right (or in the case of the viewer, as in Peter Kay’s Car Share on telly last night, but I digress).

The story of Beautiful Girl starts one stormy night in 1968.  Or at least the book does, with Lynnie (young, white, aka Beautiful Girl) and Homan (tall African-American, profoundly deaf, aka Number Forty-Two, aka Buddy to Lynnie) on the run from ‘the School’ – a punitive dumping ground of an institution – with a new-born babe in arms.  Knocking desperately on Martha’s front door (she’s a widow, a retired teacher with a story of her own), they secrete the baby just before the School hunting party arrives; they obviously adore one another.  Homan escapes, and after a brief meaningful exchange of a look and a couple of words with Lynnie Martha solemnly chooses to care for the baby, who she names Julia.  Helped by a network of devoted ex-pupils, she goes on the run.

The story of Beautiful Girl is not just the story of ‘Beautiful Girl’ (which is how Homan remembers his friend).  The narrative develops in a series of episodes over the years to 2011, as we see what happens to Lynnie, back in the School, where she is helped by Kate – another of the good gals – who works there, and takes on a mission of her own.  Meanwhile Homan partakes of a desperate American survival odyssey – riding the rails, road tripping in a stolen vehicle with a young white man in a wheelchair, rescued by a hippy commune, helping in a Buddhist retreat – while Martha (now aka Matilda) goes on a journey of her own with Julia.

As I say, it got to me.  As the disturbing story arc and the individual lives broaden out, the narrative takes us through the terrible circumstances of Julia’s conception, the unravelling and demise of such prehistoric institutional care, and the development of the Self Advocacy Movement for people with disabilities.  Here’s a significant step in Lynnie’s liberation:

Five year’s into Lynnie’s stay – five tear’s after Lynnie’s intake IQ test classified her as an upper division imbecile and they stuck her in a cottage with other low grades – Kate noticed that Lynnie wasn’t just pushing the mop around when she did the janitorial work that was part of her treatment. She was making designs on the tile with the mop, the suds sparkling like iridescent crescents in the light. Kate told a psychologist, who ordered a new IQ test, and then Lynnie was promoted to the moron cottage.

Kate encourages her drawing talent and there’s a moment when they celebrate a small victory over the administration with a high-five out of nowhere that had me clenched-fist saluting – Yes! – and so it goes on.  For the good guys.  It’s not in the same class, but I’ll venture that it’s not outrageous to consider The story of Beautiful Girl as a close relative to  Ken Kesey’s One flew over the cuckoo’s nest, if without the belly laughs.  Lovely book, though, with an unflashy element of private theological musings, and a couple of neat but telling visual motifs running through.

As for the bad guys, we get to see some karma.  There’s a nicely nuanced visit near the end to find one of them, looking, I guess, for closure:

Lynnie gazed out of the windshield. The sky was gray and the houses broken. There was so much that was ugly in this world. Yet look. A blue jay was flying toward the house. It dove under the porch roof and tucked itself into the nest.

Musical interlude

This got me humming something I’ve been listening to a lot lately.  Mary Chapin Carpenter‘s recent album reworkings songs from her back catalogue.  Sometimes just the sky, the title track, is the only new song.  the title is a quote from Patti Smith.  I think it deserves a listen:

One last thought about The story of Beautiful Girl.  Homan – Number Forty-Two, the number assigned to him at the School, who originally saw printed text as bird tracks: “… how easily the School had made him disappear.”  Yup, that number again.  Coincidence?  Nod and a wink?  You never know.

YorkieFest 2018

A new, evening only format for YorkieFest this year, and a splendid evening’s music is was too, with an absorbing (listened to!) spoken word set from the Bard as bonus.  Mike Betteridge is excused his square on Cover Band Bingo because his solo Come together is so good; he can play the blues too.  Lovely set from singer-songwriter Dawn Iverson, making good use of her romantic history.  A touch of Nick drake (who else?) from Hazeyjane, and an uplifting African guitar driven set from Safari Boots.

One of MK’s finest bands for a long time now, the Zeroes, in their slimmed down unplugged incarnation proved it’s not just two generational folk families can sweetly sing together, and provided my current earworm.  Forgotten its title, but with a refrain of “Oh no / not me / I’m not sophisticated / I’m just a boy from Milton Keynes” in response to a mini-world tour of verses detailing the origins of his dates (“She was a girl from Ipanema” et al), inexplicable how the MK50 team rejected it last year when submitted for formal recognition as part of the city’s half-century celebration. Surely, is this not a case of the phenomenon of, escaping from the realms of literature, the unreliable narrator strikes again.

Well done, again, Pat Nicholson and the ‘Fest team.

 

 

 

 

 

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Suspicious – as I think it is reasonable to be – about any odd-shaped novel, I approached Magnus MillsThe Forensic Records Society (Bloomsbury, 2017) with some trepidation.  It’s a neat piece of book design: square, referencing the 45 rpm vinyl singles of old, sporting printed boards and a dust jacket with a hole revealing the disc’s label, and  shaved at the top to show the edge of the disc printed on the cover; the hole in the middle has not been bored through the body of the book.  Pictured here too is the B-side of the boards, a white label demo that plays a part in the narrative.

It starts with a discussion between James and our unnamed narrator (neither of whom has any back story) about who is saying what in the run-off grooves of an unnamed single, though as ‘Keith’ and ‘Roger’ are named it’s a fair guess they are listening to something by The Who.  It is in fact Happy Jack, though I only know this because it was mentioned in one of the reviews I resorted to reading in an attempt to see if anyone else had had problems making any sense of the ending, but later for that.  So you can see from early on there might be a rather specific demographic being aimed at here.

Nobody listens. Not properly anyway. Not like we do’” says James, who shifts into activist mode: “‘We could form a society for the express purpose of listening to records closely and in detail. Forensically if you like, without any interruption or distraction.'”  And so The Forensic Record Society is born.  They put up a poster in their local, where they will meet in a backroom: “All welcome: bring three records of your choice” to be played in strict rotation; “Obviously there will be no comments or judgement of other people’s taste. We’ll be here simply to listen.”

The first record to be played is The Universal:

        While it was playing both James and Chris stared solemnly at the revolving disc. Neither showed any reaction to the barking dog which accompanied the opening bars, the sudden appearance of electric guitars in the middle section, nor the jokey trombone at the end. They just sat listening in reverential awe. […]         Finally Chris broke the silence.
‘That’s the sea in the trees in the morning.’ It was all he said, but we knew exactly what he meant.

Well, yes, as it happens I do too.  Point well made.  Pity the poor reader who is not aware this is one of the Small Faces’ small masterpieces, though.  Chris’s comment at the end becomes an issue as the Society grows, but the point I need to make here is that throughout the 182 entertaining pages of the book, and the playing of many records ranging from over at least four decades of music, not a single group or artist is named, which can be confusing when a song like Promised land is mentioned.  There were plenty that had me puzzled and keenly Googling.  (I fear I may be incriminating myself in some way here).  But thinking about that, I’d wager that – contradictorily – a certain something would go missing from the text if the attributions were there.  Even though most of the time the record choices are not significant to the narrative, younger readers might struggle, and those without much interest in popular music will probably just not bother.

Things progress: “We sat around the table in our various attitudes (serene, solemn, mesmerised and so forth) and listened … ” (which combination becomes rather a good standing joke).  A latecomer (Phillip, a man in the long, leather coat “with gigantic lapels“) is spurned and sets up a rival organisation – The Confessional Records Society.  James’s puritanical approach becomes problematic, and there is unrest.  There is a crisis when a new member brings along a prog-rock album to the club where it was assumed the single was king; like all good dictators, James gets his sidekick to deal with it.  “We’d started out with such high ideals” bemoans the faithful narrator, “yet within a few months we’d witnessed bickering, desertion, subterfuge and rivalry”. There are splinter groups and a coup – The Perceptive Records Society (comments allowed, though not many are actually made), then the New Forensic Records Society.  The Confessional Records Society moves out of the pub and balloons into an evangelical (as in money-making) charismatic movement, with t-shirts and mass confessions.

What we have here is a nicely worked, broader allegory, delivered with a touch of dry psychological insight:

Was it really beyond human capacity, I pondered, to create a society which didn’t ultimately disintegrate through internal strife? Or collapse under the weight of its own laws? Or suffer damaging rivalries with other societies? Because there was no question that all these fates awaited us if we carried on as we were.

I got hold of The Forensics Records Society because a mate had likened it to The Detectorists, Mackenzie Crook’s gentle and brilliantly unhurried look at English blokedom hobbyists.  It can’t quite manage the charm, but there is plenty of humour to be had from the situation; there are some delightful set pieces.

And then there are the women, principally barmaid Alice, a musician, singer-songwriter of talent, whose demo is featured on the back cover of the book, the listening to of which becomes something of a MacGuffin.  Our narrator feels that Alice, who has meanwhile paired up with James, has declared war on him: “‘I don’t know what you’re doing here,’ she said. ‘You don’t even like music.’”  Ouch. “Well the truth is she thinks we’re all emotionally retarded,” vouchsafes James.  She makes a dramatic exit when the disc is finally played.

The New Forensic Records Society, a looser set-up that the originators deign to visit, even has a couple of women members.  Someone has brought along Shipbuilding:

        ‘OK,’ he [Dave] said. ‘Are there any comments or judgements?’
‘Well it’s alright to listen to,’ remarked the woman sitting opposite me, ‘but you can’t really dance to it, can you?’

This is both funny in context (harking back to Janis or whatever her name was on that bloody ’60s TV programme – not Juke Box Jury, the other one) but also, after a brief moment’s thought, deeply condescending – a cheap laugh, which nevertheless soon has its narrative uses.  She it is, too, who gets our Guinness drinking narrator drunk, waking up in a strange bed to deliver the mystifying con(if you can call it one)clusion.  But later for that.

On the other hand, there are some delicious celebrations of blokedomisms of the musical kind.  Gals, don’t you just love us?:

  • From our narrator, the man with no name: “When I got home my first job was to put the evening’s choice of record back in its proper place (my record collection was filed in strict alphabetical order).”  For me, as a librarian, this is not enough.  It’s a complicated business – I need to know.  I presume he does it by artist but … does he use letter-by-letter or word-by-word?  Just for starters.
  • Then there are James’s side projects.  Like, “About a month ago I decided to play my entire collection in strict alphabetical order (but see above); and, later, “I’m playing all my records with bracketed titles”.  “Sounds like an absorbing pastime”,’ I remarked.
  • And his compadre’s:  “My plan was to play all my records that faded in and out. In the event it took me longer to find them than to play them.” 
  • And in said compadre’s Alice-induced moment of doubt: “I finally resorted to counting and playing all the records in my collection by women performers. The process took me most of the day, and the statistics were inconclusive.
  • Or Mike – “a man with spiky hair” – in search of his nirvana, announcing: ‘The perfect pop song is precisely three minutes in length.”  Spoiler alert: he finds it twice: Another girl, another planet by The Only Ones, plus one I’m not revealing.  He’s wrong, of course, about those 3 minutes, which is far too long.
  • Two men called Andrew achieve possibly the most obscure accolade: “‘Watch out,’ murmured Barry. ‘Here come Pressed Rat and Warthog.’”  I had to dredge the memory banks  hard, and then double-check.  Yes, it was a single: b-side of Anyone for tennis.

As you might have gleaned there’s a broad range of decent music cited – rock, ska, reggae, pop, folk, soul – and nothing that made me wince; MacArthur Park makes an appearance for laughs.  There’s no specific historical timeframe – emails exist, CDs, cassettes and digital downloads get no mention – though I doubted a couple of later songs ever made it to 45 rpm (The Killers?).  But hey, it’s an allegory.  My heart soared when one of my all-time favourite Atlantic soul obscurities got played.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Rex Garvin & the Mighty CraversSock it to ’em JB:

A double homage to James Bond and the hardest working man in show business, Mr. James Brown.  I had this once on single, and whoever’s got it, I’d like it back!

And for me, Looking for Lewis and Clark by The Long Ryders will never fail to excite:

Spoiler alert

Ah yes, and the small matter of how it ends.  Which has baffled all the reviewers I’ve reviewed.  If this is allegory, what on earth does that ending mean?  The triumph of dance music?  The end of civilisation in a wild splurge of hedonism?  The narrator sure as hell doesn’t know; he just keeps us hanging on.  Do these words, coming to him – waking confused in a strange bed – from the room next door, mean anything to anyone?  Are they a quote from some outro?  Zappa?:

Yeah, yeah … more, more … nice … play another song … yeah maybe … hey, what’s happening later on? … what’s happening? … yeah beautiful … yeah, come on baby … I got it … yeah, outasight, man …”  [there’s more like this]

I’d quite like to know.

Click here for a link to the Kinks in Literature page for The Forensic Records Society.

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The morning before The Antipoet‘s 10th anniversary video-shoot show, WiiFit told me I had the body of a 21 year-old.  The morning after said performance WiiFit told me I had the body of a 37 year-old (still only just over half of the reality, but, you know).  Nevertheless, as the I Ching invariably says: no blame, and there is a Latin tag for it (post hoc ergo propter hoc, for what it’s worth).   Though the sweets provided at each table  – pick-and-mix and mini-chocolate bars, a nice touch – may have contributed to the weight gain.

‘Come and be part of the fun as we film 10 years of The Antipoet,’ they said; ‘be an Antipoet extra for the evening’.  ‘Watch and enjoy as The Antipoet perform pieces from the last decade whilst filming a DVD to pop into their new book, Does my bass look big in this?’  So we did, and they did, and a grand time was had at The Cock Hotel in the town of Stony Stratford (“our spiritual home”), last Thursday.  The book is published later this year.

Philfy Phil lived up to his moniker (maybe too much at least for wife and her mate) and lamented that no-one onomatopoeic enough had died lately to refresh the pantheon of his take on Paul Simon’s The boxer (the one with that chorus).   Then it was time for those “masters of beatrantin’ rhythm and views’ (© www.theantipoet.co.uk/ ) to take the stage and give us two ‘best of’ sets – ‘greatest hits’ as far as I’m concerned – from the last decade’s prodigious output.  Filming necessitated a more disciplined approach than seen previously (though not a great deal so) (or should that be soberer … ).  Retakes and director Donna’s interventions only added to the fun.

For those (oh lucky people) yet to come across the Antipoet (oh, come on – I’m talkin’ ’bout the joy of discovery), in the past I’ve written about the lads extensively here on Lillabullero, so I’m not going to repeat myself.  Here links to two lengthy pieces on the occasion of their last two albums, We play for food and Bards without portfolio:

Thursday, they delivered all the faves: there’s plenty to sample on YouTube and their website.  I never tire of their take on painful poetry gigs, Random words in a random order, and indeed many more, but was particularly glad they chose to feature 1420 MHz (megahertz), one they don’t do that often, evoking as it does a sense of wonder amidst the worthy scorn, angst and social commentary.  Here it is from an earlier time:

As Phil says, they should be on telly – after all, what else is Channel4 for?  The name chosen for the FaceBook event for this show should serve well enough as a title for the show: Rant along an Antipoet!  And what a panoply of guests they could showcase, including those who closed the show – Fay Roberts, Richard Frost, Justin Thyme – with cleverly and joyously worked parodies and addendums to the basic opus.

Another Wow!

A kid’s show at the local library a couple of days earlier and a quieter enchantment from the Wriggle Dance Theatre‘s Into the Rainbow.  There in my capacity as grandparent, I had a pretty good idea we were in for something a bit special when  greeted in mime at the top of Stony Library’s stairs by a young woman with an umbrella, guiding us to our places on the floor.  I say us – it was one child, one responsible adult, so I just lingered close by, leaning on a pillar, witnessing the show and watching the watchers.  Both were great.

Why the umbrella?  Rain sound effects because … rainbows! I was slow to make the connection.  Amazing what you can do with a couple of boards, some long coloured ribbons and a big shiny blue sheet if you are a couple of trained dancers – women working through the medium of mime and, um, interpretive dance (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase) – and a relaxed troubadour leading or commentating in song.  I don’t think I’ve ever been that close to trained dancers before – graceful and gymnastic, in tune with each other – and was so impressed overall by an accomplished ensemble performance as, over 45 minutes, they introduced the colours of the rainbow one by one, each colour given its own min-show.  The big shiny sheet was the sea, under which they swam, heads popping in and out of strategic gaps in the cloth; grandson – live performance like this was a new thing for him – had to be discouraged from going under the waves himself.

 Brilliant show, expertly pitched and well appreciated by all.  A lovely interlude.

 

It’s The Antipoet’s tenth year and to mark this momentous event, we once again return to our spiritual home of Stoney Stratford for a one off best of show which will be recorded and released as a DVD for the summer 2018 season. So come along and be immortalised as part of this celebration and wonder at how we ever got this far and where the hell we’re gonna go next!!!

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The Bardic Trials

And it came to pass that Stony’s got a brand new Bard.  All hail poet Sam Upton!  Crowned (or rather, cloaked) after an absorbing contest with accomplished storyteller and laidback one-time Texan Lynette Hill at York House Centre.  Tellingly, Sam delivered his statement of Bardic Intent acknowledging the tradition and the work of previous holders of the post in verse form.  Shame there were only two up for it this year, but it was a good contest, and a fine evening’s entertainment was put together by the Bardic Council and outgoing Bard – Bard 007 Mr Stephen Hobbs – nevertheless.  Sam will have a hard job to match Steve’s work rate.

Fay Roberts held a buzzing audience still and entranced with a poem delivered entirely in Welsh – I add No, really! for those who’ve never seen her – while Northampton’s Bard Mitchell Taylor‘s was an energetic (with much poetic striding) and passionate set, by turns personal and political.  Original stuff from singer-songwriter from Dawn Ivieson, in fine voice.  Professional comedian James Sherwood finished the evening off in style.  He had me in stitches, not least when – sat at and playing keyboard – singing and raging against the mathematical inexactitude all too often found in popular songs.  Wish I could remember some culprits other than 50 ways to leave your lover (in which just 5 are listed); there was that Cher song …

The Pantomime

The Stony Stratford Theatre Society‘s 3rd annual panto,  Dick Whittington in Stonyland was a hoot, with all the traditional trimmings, complete with plenty of nods to the locality and no little originality from playwright (and Principal Boy) Danni Kushner (no surnames on the handout, no surnames here … except this one … for the writer).  Great ensemble performance (Oh, yes it was), invidious to single out etc etc (Oh, no it isn’t), because as Dame, troubadour Roddy’s Sally the Cook is already legend; not bad for a first acting role – “Oh, you won’t believe your eyes / at the size of Sally’s pies.”  Another first was Danni singing solo – who knew there’s a folk singer in there as well?  [Photos © Denise Dryburgh]

The Talk

Sarah Churchwell, prof of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the Uni of London, delivered a bit of an eye-opener at the Library for those who think of Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby as rooted in, and symbolic of, the Jazz Age.  No.  As she enthusiastically demonstrated, published in 1925, almost as a warning, it is pointedly and set in 1922,  highlighting with some telling slides what was in the news that year, and suggesting 1922 was to the celebrated Jazz Age what 1962 was to Swinging Sixties.

She expanded her subject to look at anti-immigrant origins in the 1920s of the first America First movement, and its links with the KKK.  I almost bought the book, though I have piles waiting to be read at home, she’s that charismatic a performer.  We didn’t have lecturers like her back in the day.

This talk, along with a handful of others, and various other events that I didn’t make it to – and those I did, above and below –  were all part of the programme of the splendid 14th Annual StonyWords literary festival.

Roger McGough. Photo © Andy Powell, who seemed to be everywhere, sound engineering and performing: so here’s a thumbs up.

That Roger McGough

Tickets for Roger McGough at York House were sold out even before the StonyWords programme was printed.  Resplendent in red sneakers he delighted a packed crowd with material that was new to the vast majority of the audience (and certainly to me).  Refreshingly none of the greatest hits were called upon; at the age of 80 he’s a sprightly and dapper performer, and still writing.  [One, um, golden oldie, Let me die a young man’s death cites the ages 73,91, and 104.  Not as much a hostage to fortune as Pete Townshend’s “Hope I die before I get old” in the Who’s (and their middle-aged tribute bands’) My generation, but then, they still do that. ]

Saying he was often accused of being ‘too sentimental’ he went out of his way to disabuse that with a neat reworking of one piece.  He was very funny, but at the same time, with a broad-ranging selection of an hour’s worth of material, not afraid to give us pause for thought.  I did succumb here, bought the autobiography.

This StonyMusicHall4

The Prince of Wales Rattlers. Photo © Andy Powell

Even without The Prince of Wales Rattlers, special guests from over the Northamptonshire border closing the show, StonyMusicHall4 would have been a grand affair.

What did we have?  With various multi-talented members of the Stony Steppers never far away we had: a sand dance, a recitation, a  clog dance (Daisy), singalong Vera Lynn, Whispering grass (from Two Men not called Matt, with accents slipping), a surreal chorus line dance routine involving half black/half white costumes, Mr Ferneyhough and concertina implanting an earworm (“With her ‘ead / tucked / underneath her arm“), some stunning slapstick choreography on If I was not a clog dancer, and … an act I’ve forgotten, I fear; sorry, please do tell.

The Rattlers started off with a couple of temperance hymns.  Too late, the barrels were empty.  Then continued with material more from the folk than music hall tradition but fully the latter in spirit, (and they elided somewhere in there historically anyway (didn’t they?)).  Great four-part harmonies, a moveable feast of musical accompaniment, a fine comedic turn, much jollity.
And so home with a big grin all over one’s face.

Them Theatre pop-ups

Caught one of these – the Light Programme, as opposed to the Dark Programme – in the Library.  A selection of rehearsed readings from a shifting cast of members of the Stony Stratford Theatre Society including a couple of Alan Bennett monologues, a bit of Bard and another old dude, excerpts from Alan Ayckbourn, the Stoppard Rosencrantz and Wossname, and a surprising piece (well, to me) from Chekhov that I wish I could remember*.  Good show, Caz & Co.

*The sneeze; the evils of tobacco – thanks Caz.

 

 

 

 

 

Pop-up theatre in the library

 

 

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