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Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Well, that was fun.  I enjoyed Andrew Cartmel‘s The Vinyl Detective: written in dead wax (Titan Books, 2016) a lot.  This rollercoaster romp manages to meld the humdrum existence of a laid back London-based vinyl record dealer onto a James Bond adventure fantasy occasioned by an international music industry conspiracy involving the original output of an obscure US West Coast jazz label back in the 1950s (though don’t let the jazz put you off).  We get a classic Bond villain in his lair (in the side of a mountain in Japan), a pair of highly stylised mercenary fixers, a couple of Bond (though more interesting) girls, and a two-pronged technology hit of retro valve-driven amps and accompaniments and high-end modern surveillance equipment.  Among other things.

The narrator of The Vinyl Detective is a man-with-no-name of charm, wit, and a neat combination of innocence and cynicism.  He buys and sells vinyl records for a living, had some business cards printed wittily touting his trade as ‘The Vinyl Detective’ a while back; it comes back to haunt him.  But before all this (I’m cheating a bit with the quote, but no harm is being done):

I put on my crate-diving shoes – I mean, my crate-digging shoes … hitting every charity shop, junk shop or antique shop that might be harbouring a box of records record fares, jumble sales … [record fairs and jumble sales also feature] …
in Chiswick I found it.
It was a copy of Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, on the Capitol rainbow-rimmed label – an original mono pressing instead of the fake stereo. A British copy, but immaculate. That night I flipped it on the Internet and made enough money to buy food for me and the cats for the next two weeks.

Oh yes, our man also has two cats, Fanny and Turk; they play their part well.

It’s all so nicely done.  The pursuit – the fictional rarest record in the world, emanating from a suitably obscure corner of jazz history, with a story all of its own, is well-chosen – takes him to Japan, there’s an interesting and dramatic interlude in rural Wales, while there are some vivid escapades, landscapes and meetings in the inevitable trip to America; not to mention a recognisable London as backdrop.  The world of vinyl record collecting is both gloried in and lampooned, and little cultural references add sparkle (for me at least) throughout:

I sped through immigration and customs and found myself outside a few minutes later, blinking in the warm exhaust fumes. Ree was at my side. We collected her car from the long-term parking.
It’s a 1968 Plymouth Barracuda. Arguably the fastest production car ever made in America.”
I won’t argue with you.”
[…] The muscular lines of the dark grey car made it look like a dark crouching beast. “Is it the car from
Bullitt?”
She snorted with amusement. “That was a Mustang.”
Just trying to take an interest,” I said.

That’s one girlfriend, a singer, who wonders why it’s always the electric bass players always hit on her, while “ acoustic bass players are pretty much always perfect gentlemen”.  Here’s the other, Nevada, who I imagine as looking like Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, our man giving her a disquisition on how it’s only cooked chicken bones that are a problem for cats, so:

… I’m always left with a freezer full of drumsticks. So I casserole them with olive oil and lemon and garlic.”
Oh, okay, I see,” said Nevada, getting up. “I thought it was your signature dish. Lovingly prepared especially for me. And now it turns out it’s the cats’ leftovers.”
That’s right.”

The Vinyl Detective is full of stuff like that, as well as all the action and twists.  I look forward to the two sequels already announced.

 

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patti-smith-m-train

Patti Smith’s M Train

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

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

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

strange-library-01The strange library

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

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

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

i-capture-the-castleI conquer the castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roaming around locally

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

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

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

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

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

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

mitchell-taylor-at-bardic-launch

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

bardic-council-of-ss-photo-liam-farmer-malone

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

vaultage-early-dec-2016


 

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ian-rankin-rather-be-the-devil

But it’s only the new one until the next one (why not a sticker if you must?); and thankfully it’s the same old Rebus – no remake or remodel – doing his stuff anyway.

Siobhan Clarke was in a corridor of the Royal Infirmary, phone held up to her face, when she recognised Rebus making his way towards her.
­‘You’re limping,’ she said.
‘Just to correct you, I’m actually walking like John Wayne.’
‘John Wayne had a limp?’
‘Technically it’s called “moseying”.’
‘So you didn’t hurt yourself kicking in a door?’

There is a lot of sharp dialogue in Rather be the devil, the latest installment in Ian Rankin‘s Rebus saga, and highly enjoyable it all is too.  The retired Rebus is picking over a society murder case that had frustrated him earlier in his career, while his old mate and protegé DI Siobhan Clarke is involved in a case involving an Edinburgh criminal gang boss.  An ex-cop that Rebus goes to see is murdered not long after their meeting, and to Siobhan’s chagrin that case is taken up by Police Scotland’s elite squad, where another Rebus regular Malcolm Fox is now working.

Inevitably – this is crime fiction, after all – the cases are intriguingly discovered to be tangentially linked, not to forget an East-European connection, and the plotting provides ample room for Rebus putting his oar in and generally getting in the way, and for inter-police re-organisation rivalries to be played out on various levels, down to an entertaining sub-plot as to who gets the milk and provides the biscuits.  Old rival old school gang boss Big Gerry Cafferty – still a player – ends up figuring significantly and the tantalising prospect is held out at the close of proceedings that the next book will indeed be, in current tv terms, a spectacular series finale involving a final conflict between our man and Big Ger.

I get the impression Rankin really enjoyed doing this one.  Don’t get me wrong, Rather be the devil rattles along as effectively as ever, Rankin the plot-juggler still more than adept at keeping the balls in the air and the tension up, but the writing seems at times to take on a more relaxed feel.  Rebus has health worries – a “Hank Marvin”, a shadow on his lung – and is drinking low alcohol beers, chewing nicotine gum; he is also (hurray!) in a stable relationship with a woman.  Even though Rebus’s cold case involves a rock musician, the explicit musical references – becoming something of a genre cliché in certain circles – are thankfully more restrained.  The book’s title is still taken from a track on John Martyn’s Solid air album, though …

john-martin-solid-airstaring out at the night. Then he had walked to the record deck. Solid air was still there from the evening Deborah Quant had stayed over. It was an album that had always been there for him, no matter the troubles in his life. And Hadn’t John Martyn been troubled too? Johnny Too Bad – hitting the booze, falling out and brawling with friends and lovers. One leg hacked off in the operating theatre. But barreling on through life, singing and playing until the end.

… and without giving anything away there’s Over the hill, another Solid air track playing in the background in the restaurant in the final pages.  Rory Gallagher is really the only other featured artist.  Rebus is on a long drive with Malcolm Fox:

… I need to do a bit of thinking, which necessitates muting you – sorry about that.’
‘Muting me?’
Rebus reached for the stereo, pushing a button. Music burst from the speakers, filling the car as Rebus pressed his foot against the accelerator. Had Fox been any kind of music buff, he might have recognised the guitar sound, Rory Gallagher, ‘Kickback City’.

Ah, Malcolm Fox.  I salute you, Ian Rankin, for keeping faith with the man you created in your writer’s holiday from Rebus, and I realise you’re trying here, with Rebus off-handedly tutoring him in the ways of becoming a ‘real’ detective, in his heroism, but he’s condemned in his own words: “nobody paid him any heed.  He remembered that he was good at this – blending in, becoming invisible. He’d always enjoyed stakeouts and tailing suspects“; I’m afraid he remains anonymous, I can’t visualise him.  Siobhan deserves better as a beau (which seems to be the way the wind’s blowing).

Ah, Siobhan.  Calls for a bit of a diversion beyond teh printed page.  The original Rebus TV series, with John Hannah in the lead part, didn’t really work; Hannah was too young, too handsome.  I seem to recall that Rankin – apart from a Hitchcockian appearance as an extra – said he wasn’t getting involved in the production or script side of things at all.  Not even wanting to watch the finished product.  Something about Colin Dexter’s Morse, how in Dexter’s later books Morse morphed into the character actor John Thaw was playing, that the author allowed himself to lose control of his creation.

rebus_7078788Subsequent series of Rebus, with Ken Stott’s Rebus the living breathing character straight off the page, have fared much better in reflecting the books.  I’ve been watching them again recently and they strike me as being one of the best cop shows out there.  What I do wonder is whether Ian Rankin has been watching; although the character in the book has not changed, the dialogue here is sharper and wittier and I can’t help but, when reading, see it coming out of Ken Stott’s mouth.

But Siobhan … how great is Claire Price’s portrayal of Siobhan?  Impossible, I’d say, to replicate her reactions in prose: the half-smile, her muted grimaces, the odd gentle smirk – sometimes all at the same time –  her whole facial repertoire of affection, amusement, appalled admiration and suppressed surprise; but they all had to be hinted there in the text for her to pick so fully up on.  Worth a mention too is Jennifer Black’s performances as DCI Gill Templar, Rebus’s boss and former lover; the scene where Siobhan Clarke discovers that past liaison is a joy to behold.  Tremendous performances that I don’t think get the credit they deserve, and fully born of the books.

Before we leave Edinburgh here’s a snippet, a taste and feel of the lightness among the mayhem in Rather be the devil:

The solitary barman was entertaining the only two drinkers in the place to a sullen silence, the new arrivals doing nothing except darken his mood.
‘Help ye?’ he snapped.
‘Bottle of your best champagne, please,’ Rebus said.
‘If ye want fizz, we’ve got cider and lager.’
‘Both of them fine substitutes.’ Rebus held out the two photos. ‘Care to take a look?’

… dialogue  the likes of which you are unlikely to find many examples in the works of Alice Munro, where the odd wry smile is more the order of the day among much else of emotional import and the forensic examination is mostly taking place in the particular region of the heart.  Come to think of it, Siobhan might have escaped from one of her stories.

alice-munro-dear-lifeNobel Prize for Literature winner Alice Munro has been on my check-her-out list for at least a couple of decades, so thanks to the Book Group I can tick her off that list and transfer her onto the almost-certainly-read-some-more one.  (These are not real lists).  Shame of it is I left the reading of Dear Life (2012) late for the Book Group meeting and so had to zip through it when really I should have been savouring every word.

Hers is not a flashy prose, but it sings, takes you straight into how her people feel the changes in their lives; she documents social change in communities – post-war rural church-going, small town Canada through to the ’70s – through the events in women’s and men’s lives.  Intense, insightful, poignant, painful, melancholic, nuanced, rarely but oh so sweetly celebratory.  Loves lost, love foiled, found or never had.  Hopes extinguished, held on to, or newly discovered through the shifting sands of contingency, coincidence, happenstance.  And growing old.  That title – Dear Life – puts it so nicely.

Dear Life, published when she was 81, so probably her last collection, consists of 10 short stories and a Finale of 4 “not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life.”  These ‘not quite’ stories are fascinating, covering her childhood and early youth: the moment she failed to believe her socially aspiring mother; her father seeing her through a scary unhappiness, and various other events, described so vividly:

I think that if I was writing fiction instead of remembering something that happened, I would never have given her that dress. A kind of advertisement she didn’t need. [from Voices]

You would think that this was just too much. The business gone, my mother’s health going, it wouldn’t do in fiction. But the strange thing is that I don’t remember that time as unhappy. There wasn’t a particularly despairing mood around the house. [from Dear Life]

There’s enough in the ten stories for at least half of them to justify novels of their own.  Dolly, which starts with an old couple, the man a poet once celebrated for his first book of love poems, looking for the perfect place to end their lives together, before they become too decrepit (spoiler alert: they don’t) takes on some wondrous and distressing turns in the twenty or thirty odd pages as the story unfolds.  Haven, a multi-layered family tale of disastrous good intentions involving a cellist and sibling indifference, builds to a stunning climax at a big church funeral, and along the way contains a deliciously strident (what we could now call anti-metropolotitan elite) rant:

“Now tell me,” my uncle is saying, addressing me as if nobody else were there, “tell me, do your parents go in for this sort of thing? What I mean is, this kind of music? Concerts and the like? They ever pay money to sit down for a couple of hours and wear their bottoms out listening to something they wouldn’t recognize half a day later? Pay money simply to perpetrate a fraud? You ever know them to do that?”

Funnily enough, at Book Group, most of us loved Dear Life, save the youngest member and a Jungian therapist.  But I’ll be reading more.

 

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a strip of fly paper,” says the sage in the first book I mumble about here, “Every thought, however fleeting and inconsequential, sticks to it.”  But later for that.

Languor, laxity (spell-check suggests laxative), and a lack of discipline in the powerful face of television narratives – yea, even unto Lovejoy and Pie in the sky, the unique qualities of which were hidden from me first time around – those things and a tendency for procrastination, combined with the regular practice of grand-parentry, all these things cry out for a timely return to the brevity that once existed here on Lillabullero.  Well, that’s the intention anyway.

garden-of-evening-mistsThe Garden of Evening Mists

Tan Twang Eng‘s novel The garden of evening mists (2012) was last month’s Book Group book.  In as much as we probably talked more about this book – without going off at tangents – than any other, it certainly engaged most of us, but I wasn’t the only one who concluded after all the discussion that my mixed feelings and confusion about it remained un-un-mixed, albeit with amendments therein.  And life is too short for a clarifying re-read.

But I’m not sorry to have given the book its reading time, though.  Those critics’ words on the cover certainly apply some of the time (though Reading Group members didn’t necessarily agree to which parts).  Rich and indeed over-rich similes abound (you can judge for yourself later on here).  It’s set in Malaya, and one gets to feel and learn a lot about the place, its history, and the times.  Senses are mobilised: the garden, the tea plantation, the mountains, the rain forest.

There are three time-lines running for Yun Ling, a recently retired Cambridge educated judge suffering from the early stages of aphasia, who is the narrative centre of the book.  It has to be said for a long time I had to keep reminding myself she’s a woman; the author is a man.  It’s a curiously detached voice a lot of the time.  Anyway, (mid-1980s?) she returns to the place in the country where many years previously she had spent time with the remarkable Arimoto, a Japanese gardener who is introduced with the book’s humdinger opening line: “On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan.”  In order to counter her aphasia she chronicles her time spent as his apprentice during the anti-Communist emergency in the 1950s.  Both time streams hark back to her earlier traumatic experiences as a teenager in a Japanese slave camp in World War 2, with various characters, and/or their friends or relatives tangling relationships over all three.  I’m abdicating on the actual plot details.

Quite where Arimoto fits in with the grand historical narrative of Japan’s war effort – what one Book group member rather harshly described as “the descent into Dan Brown territory” – is ambiguous, but his is the remarkable presence that dominates the book.  He’s a master gardener in the classic Japanese tradition – loads of fascinating detail about shakkei, or “borrowed scenery” and the like –  who ritually starts the day with a bit of zen in the art of archery (but is also taking blood pressure tablets).  He and Yun Ling become lovers but of that side of their life nothing is revealed.  Having spoken of the philosophy of Lao Tzu he just one day – the garden is finished? – makes a Lao Tzu-like disappearance and Yun Ling returns to Kuala Lumpar until when the novel starts.  His sketches (oh yeah, he did that pretty well too) play a big part in the final action.

It’s a novel of increasing moral complexity, a bit of a thriller, a spiritual fable and a consideration of the notion of memory, detached and yet in its setting sumptuous, a haunting sequence of tableaux running back and forth.  Along the way you get a look at the small details of imperialism and colonialism, and racial and community tensions in Malaya: a ‘banana’? – a Chinese who was yellow on the outside, white inside.  The conduct of the British in the Boer War is thrown into the mix, and I was ignorant about the Malayan Emergency of the ’50s, when the Brits (yup, us again) reined in the (British trained) Communist brigades who had been, in Malaya, the ones who successfully fought against the Japanese on the ground.  There is an extraordinary tale within a tale of a Japanese flying instructor falling in love with the young man who was scheduled to fly the last kamikaze mission of the war; and of the proud aircraft designer angry about the sloppy production values that were allowed in the making of the planes that the kamikaze pilots flew.  All sorts of details like these make for a fascinating, if at times frustrating book.  And I haven’t even mentioned horimono, the Japanese art of whole body tattoos.

I mentioned the language, the similes, earlier.  Fine writing, sheer poetry, or, oh give it a rest, won’t you?  Just three of my responses to stuff like this:

In the shallows, a grey heron cocked its head at me, one leg poised in the air, like the hand of a pianist who had forgotten the notes to his music.

He skims a large magnifying glass over the first print, distorting the shapes and colours beneath like the lights of a city skyline seen through a rain-splattered window.

he pointed to the barbed wire strung around the fence. ‘A weed that is strangling the country. It seems to have sprouted everywhere.’

talking-to-the-deadTalking to the dead

So much for the brevity of which I spoke.  Which means the second book here gets short shrift where normally I might have given it more time and sprayed choice quotes all over the place.  But Harry Bingham‘s Talking to the dead (Orion, 2012) is the first of a sequence and there’s a fair chance I shall be returning to the young peppermint tea drinking Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths’ professional and social life soonish.

The locale is a recognisable Cardiff and surrounds (where my wife comes from).  Fiona – Fi – tells her tale in the present tense, and there’s a nice taste of the Philip Marlowe at the back of her.  If you like the sound of:

I got a note this evening. Through my letterbox. It said, WE KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE.’
That’s a bit of a cliché, isn’t it?’
I wasn’t asking for literary criticism.’

or this, arising from a text from a suspect on a phone she shouldn’t be using professionally:

I love everything about that message. I like the fact that it’s properly spelled and punctuated. I like the repetition of ‘fuck off’. Not elegant, but pithy, and you can give me pith over elegance every day of the week.

then I’m guessing you’re open to her crime fighting tales, stretching the bounds of credibility as the plot and action do at various points (like her escape of disciplinaries for starters – “I don’t think the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed DC Griffiths would thank me for fessing up to her evil twin, the house-breaking, phone-stealing, bad DC Griffiths“) as the story unfolds.

So yes, she’s – that inevitable word for a fictional female cop – feisty; and sassy with it too.  But also vulnerable, because her main ‘thing’ – fictional detectives have to have a ‘thing’ – is that for two of her teenage years she suffered from Cotard’s Syndrome, an extreme manifestation of depersonalisation, a feeling that you don’t exist, that you are dead.  In Talking to the dead she spends an extraordinary clandestine night in the room in the mortuary where two victims in the case’s bodies are being kept, but there is reassuringly no hint of the supernatural.  Fi’s struggles with the experience of living on what she calls ‘Planet Normal’ are nicely done.  Her other two ‘things’ are a secret buddy and guru – Lev, ex-Israeli secret service martial arts expert she met at Cambridge while getting her philosophy degree (not that you’d notice) – and her close family, including a dad, whose current success and local helpful influence was not exactly achieved by legitimate lawful means (but we don’t talk about that), and a cod Welsh mum.

The crimes are unpleasant – people smuggling, sex trade, high-level gangsterism – but related with candour and compassion.  As a police procedural it struck me as refreshing – “I have no musical taste at all” – effective and fun.

Musical adventures

scribal-oct-2016vaultage-mid-oct-2016Before the proceedings kicked off at the October Scribal I think I saw spoken word artist Rob Auton taking a close-up of the mic on his phone, begging the question, among many, of the existence of some sort of archive.  Wednesday’s Wolves – all two of them – scored with some great harmonies on original material and showed how a cajon can be a musical instrument, more than just percussion, in its own right.  Rob started with a more frenetic version of his delightfully exercise in logical absurdity Heaven food than the one on YouTube.  With Rob you’re never quite sure where (or if) the stage persona ends.  He wandered away from the mic at times.  He said about how his nephew had learnt the word ‘orange’ since he’d last seen him, and wondered to himself: What have you done in that time?  Which hit home vis-a-vis the grandparenting.  He finished with A letter from Father Christmas, a long piece from his Sleep show; after the entertainment a brave and vulnerable work-out way beyond self-help book territory: “As a gift to me I would like you to attempt to become as comfortable within yourself when you are awake as you are when you are asleep.”

At the mid-October Vaultage John Howarth managed to be both suitably raw and skillfully accomplished in a set taking in blues, township and more sophisticated African musics – nice one.  (Co-headliner on the poster was a no-show).  Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize announcement earlier that day was celebrated by the performance of his When the ship comes in at dirge-like speed; anonymity to protect the guilty, but it wasn’t Pat.

ss-shak-400willie-the-shakeSweeter than Roses one Saturday at York House saw the welcome return of Mr Simpson’s Little Consort to York House, featuring a programme of music and readings from Shakespeare and others.  This evening mostly as a consort of viols (small, medium and large; treble, tenor and a couple of bass viols, one with a pleasing figurehead of piratical appearance) and featuring soprano Cate McKee.  Entertainment, a touch of education, and much charm.  A couple of numbers – described as “mad music” – featured the bass viols up against one another.  A sort of Tudor Duelling banjos.

A week later, same venue, someone had to do the actual Duelling banjos in a very different musical landscape.  The fifth and broader flavoured Stony Breakdown featured five bands coming at Americana refreshingly from a variety directions of country and bluegrass.  Standouts for me were a couple of the guitarists – some classic country picking from he of the Jackson Creek Band (all the way from Cambridge) and stylings taking in Django Reinhart and country swing from John Lee (who I’d only known before leading a jazz group from the keyboards) with Oakland County.  It all blurs a bit in the memory, but hard to forget Stained Glass Blue Grass’s fine bluegrassification of Neil Sedaka’s Breaking up is hard to do; of course we joined in.  Take a bow, too, the Rocky Road Pilgrims and the Band of Brothers.  And that pint of Bucks Star’s Magnovinium 45, a dark ale, went down a treat.

Another brevity fail, then …

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could it have been any different?

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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david-gates-jerniganIf I only had one word to describe David Gates‘s novel Jernigan (1992), that word would be sour.  With the amount of alcohol consumed Peter Jernigan has to be that literary beast the unreliable narrator, but at the end we find there’s even more to it than that.  Still makes for a compulsive read though, and I might just read it again (it’s relatively short, 238 pages) some time.  Naturally he’s an anti-hero, albeit with a nicely sardonic sense of humour and self-knowledge – “I had my usual thoughts about everything being debased” – when he’s not being a complete arsehole; not so much a bad man as one circumstances and life choices have made less than good most of the time.  At least he isn’t physically violent.

Jernigan is a tale of the American suburbs.  It tells of a massive bender, its pre-history and its consequences.  After a family tragedy, and engineered by his somewhat problem teenage son and his even more damaged girlfriend, Peter Jernigan moves in with her mum, Martha.  Who has a secret that blows up in her – in all their – faces one nightmare Christmas Eve, which sends him off on a desperate lone drunken drive to a remote cabin in a snow storm, said adventure proving near fatal.  Before he sets out, Martha has offered:

‘You believed exactly what you wanted to believe, Peter,’ she said. ‘Did you actually think there were all these nice wholesome families just ready and waiting for you to come along?  You’re a drunk whose drunk wife killed herself.  And you want to know something really pathetic?  You looked good to me.’

Cheerful, eh?  Somewhere in it all there had been some good intentions – and actions – on both sides, a dab of compassion here and there.  A previous argument, after he’s lost his job:

‘Peter, my only vision was that whatever you did you might get some enjoyment out of your life for a change.  I should’ve – I mean, everything I knew was literally screaming that you were incapable of any sort of joy whatever.’
Should I say figuratively?  Better not.  ‘A trenchant analysis,’ I said.
‘Fuck you too.’
‘Trenchanter and trenchanter,’ I said.  ‘Repartee City around here this morning.’

Ah, that job.  Taken as a short-term measure after graduation and an interesting student existence all those years ago, and challenged about it by his father, an artist, the last time he saw him before his death, to:

… tell me what the hell you’re doing as an assistant vice shoeshine boy at some outfit that’s doing its bit to help squeeze the working man out of New York City.  Not to mention the painting man.’
‘The money is fine … it beats junior professor money.’

OK, his father, who is interesting:

I mean, he was Francis Jernigan and everything, but the real money got made off of stuff he’d let go for a couple of thousand dollars in like 1952.  My mother split in 1956, he boozed from then until ’64 or ’65 … You know, what can I say?  By then it was all Andy Warhol or something …

Peter makes a sort of pilgrimage with his son to the deeply rural location where his father had lived (and died in a fire).  His alcoholic lack of self-worth is relentless:

It amounted to a moral failing not to have learned the names of trees.  It amounted to a moral failing, too, that this landscape looked dead and tattered to me, instead of sternly beautiful.

At a certain point he puts a bullet through the webbing between his own thumb and index finger.  He tells us:

That’s Jernigan all over: first you swallow a bunch of drugstore anodynes and then you want to feel something and then you bitch and moan because it hurts.

Jernigan is – for all its pain and misery – a sustained, unrelenting and compulsively readable literary tour de force.  I have barely scratched the surface of its characters or hinted at the intriguing cultural breadth of references.  It is only in the last couple of pages that the occasion of its composition – of how and why Jernigan is writing it – is revealed, involving a small act of rebellion that one cannot help but acknowledge and semi-reluctantly cheer; I’m not giving anything away.  But so absorbing was Jernigan to me that that ending was an inducement to start all over again.

Where Richard YatesRevolutionary Road documented the sterility of the ’50s American suburbs and signalled the necessity, the inevitability, of the social changes of the ’60s, David GatesJernigan inhabits the toxicity of the same locales in the decades following on after, as Neil Young so eloquently put it, the goldrush.

I may or may not thank David Gates for bringing Wallace Stevens’ long and at first glance difficult though intriguingly titled poem The comedian as the letter C to my attention, and I’ll willingly admit to never having heard of the country singer Webb Peirce, mention of whose music crops up every now and them.  Don’t let this put you off:

Words and music
closer to home

aortas-sept-2016scribal-sept-2016poetical-vaultage-sept-16Conjunctions of the planets in the night sky excite astronomers almost as much as astrologists (or vice versa), but the vagaries of the calendar meant the three premier Stony open mics all happened within the space of 5 days.  Warning: may contain in-jokes.

And now a diversionary dip into cultural archaeology.  I was going to say I was going to do a Friends on this one, you know, the way they gave each episode a title that started either ‘The one where …’ or ‘The one when …’ or ‘The one with …’ but I remembered that maybe that wasn’t necessarily the provenance.  It was a device that Bobbie Ann Mason had used in her memorable In country novel of 1985, about a Vietnam vet travelling across the US to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, when they were talking about episodes of (was it?) M.A.S.H.  (There are always some books you live to regret including in the charity shop cull, aren’t there?).  And it had occurred to me then, when I’d first noticed what they were doing with the Friends episode titles, whether someone involved in Friends had read In country and nearly a decade later thought Yea, let’s go with that.  (Did I mention it’s a powerful novel?)  I’d like to think so, rather than the more mundane explanation that that’s just the way people talk about show episodes anyway; though kudos for adopting it anyway.  It’s just that I like to see the connections.

So, AORTAS – collage ©Dan Plews – mostly the usual suspects (no bad thing), but distinguished by being (at greater length than the classic form): the one when the dog disgraced itself; the one when we had fun at the back injecting the word ‘chainsaw’ into song titles (“For the times, they are a chainsaw”); the one where Stephen Hobbs performed a story about a parsnip (and people listened).

Scribal Gathering: the one when Jonathan was stuck on the M25 and Mark had to kick things off totally acoustically; the one when both members of the Straw Horses managed to be in the house at the same time (exquisite and immaculate harmonies); the one when Ian Freemantle returned to fight the good fight of the working men of England, rhythmically and righteously in his own distinctive way; the one when Stephen Hobbs explained why for him August is the cruellest month and moaned about not getting a mention lately here on Lillabullero (but I’m not falling for that one, oh no) (though the temptation to spell his name wrong is great); the one that finished with the accomplished James Hollingsworth delivered a mesmerising and rousing paen to Thomas More’s Utopia (another 400th anniversary of 2016) aided by a tape delay (or was it just a big echo) on his guitar.  And that wasn’t all; yes, it was a good one.

The Antipoet at Vaultage was always going to be interesting.  Fully costumed bassman Ian striding down the High Street double bass in hand in his high-heeled platforms evoked a cheer from some builders on tour before he’d even reached the Vaults. “We’ve done these all better,” said a ‘slightly tipsy’ Paul Eccentric (I’m quoting the Antipoet management here) through the giggles at one stage.  Not exactly entirely their usual crowd  but they had a good time – “an audience you want to take home with you” (ibid) as did we.  Raucous, anarchic, with a skillful element of crowd control on display.  Ian in full gimp mask for the start of Sign of the times, which must have been hot.  Stony Bard Vanessa Horton stood in for the ailing Fay Roberts (archivists please note – get well soon, ma’am), with her own salty set, then adding a fresh contribution and slant to the annals of the Antipoet’s I like girls.  Hot and knackered I’m afraid I left early – apologies to those performing after the Lads.

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sunny-afternoon-programmeI’ll take it as read that Sunny Afternoon is this hugely enjoyable and successful award-winning musical, that it’s much more than just juke box theatre, and that it is performed  superbly by a multi-talented cast.  What we have here is ensemble playing at its best, full of energy, emotion and period feel.  (And of course there had to be dolly birds).  I’m taking the Kinks history for granted too.

So, I record just a few things here that occurred, after watching the touring cast at Milton Keynes Theatre, to one who has (for his sins) read all the Kinks biographies and was championing the songs long before the cliché of Ray Davies as ‘national institution’ was a given, before that soubriquet started being attributed liberally to any old Tom, Dick and Harriet.

Obviously much had to be telescoped into or left out of this telling of the story, but I thought the crucial dramatic band episodes were mostly nicely handled and worked well as theatrical moments too, in particular:

  • the ousting of co-manager Robert Wace as singer; ’50s crooner blown away mid-song by Dave’s blues guitar
  • the full enactment complete with legendary insults of the Cardiff incident where Mick Avory thought he’d killed Dave on stage in mid-show with a drum pedal
  • a collage of the all action run-ins with the unions and other awkward Americans leading to the band being banned from the States for 3 years.
  • (although I have to say, as a veteran reader and listener of the Kinks story, I thought the partial destruction of the Little Green Amp section a bit hammy, to tell the truth)

I particularly liked the way the songs were chosen and used, not necessarily chronologically, and not necessarily exclusively from the time frame of the show (1964-69), with some put into unexpected mouths as the story unfolded:

  • so Days is started by posh-boy managers Robert and Grenville when they’re given the boot; a lovely and powerful acapella spell cast over the audience as most of the gang join in
  • Pete Quaife’s exit to A rock’n’roll fantasy, the latest song in the canon featured, from 1978’s Misfits album; one of my least favourite Kinks songs, as it happens (but let’s just leave it as that being my problem for the time being).  (A friend with his own Kinks website describes “Dan is a fan” as the worst line Ray ever wrote; it has also led in fandom to disputes as to who Dan was, with pathetic claim and counter claims).
  • remind me, was Dead End Street, featured early in the show, sung initially by Ma and Pa Davies?
  • that passage in the play a lot of reviews mention, when Ray is calling wife Rasa on the phone from America, he singing Sitting in my hotel, and she the sublime I go to sleep as counterpoint; and yes, you really could have heard a pin drop.  Extraordinary moment.  I seem to recall she did a touching Tired of waiting directed at Ray as well.

A few other things less easy to categorise:

  • I was never a fan of the phenomenon, but that brilliant and witty drum solo at the start of the second half, after one had got over the initial shock of its unexpectedly being there at all, had me (and the audience) engrossed; I think it must have been a particularly good night because I thought I saw some congratulatory banter from the non-acting musician tucked away at the back of the stage.  Proof positive, I would say, that Ray does not share Dave’s famously derogatory opinion of Mick Avory’s skills.  Andrew Gallo take a bow.  (Have to report, too, a certain bewilderment for me that he was a spitting image of my niece’s husband; kept thinking, What’s James doing up there?)
  • the recreation of the genesis of Waterloo Sunset in the recording studio was beautifully done
  • Ryan O’Donnell has to get a name-check here as entering fully into the spirit of Ray; while Mark Newnham actually looked like Dave (but had a better voice).  The whole cast was tremendous (with the bonus of  Grenville and Robert being proficient on trombone) and their CVs refreshingly free of the usual Casualty, The Bill and Midsomer Murders credits.
  • a lot of football metaphors thrown in, but I thought they made a bit of a rush job with the collage of Sunny Afternoon, the show’s title song, and England winning the World Cup
  • Class: in the US Ray and Dave play up as working class socialists, and it is made quite clear that the touted classless society of the early ’60s was, if not an illusion, a very short-lived phenomena
  • a couple of neat ‘time traveller’ jokes
  • is Sunny Afternoon set to be the middle part of a very broadly defined trilogy?  I wonder this because of the way it ended, with Allen Klein reintroducing them to the American stage.  So we’ve had the Davies family background in more detail with the earlier rather fine but never made it to the West End Come Dancing musical, albeit with a fictional plot overlaid, and Ray is talking about “something epic” when the Americana – the what came next – CD is released?
  • so Allen Klein: I must admit I hadn’t realised that it was his team that cleared the legal or bureaucratic decks that allowed the Kinks to work in America again, and although there was the dramatic moment in the show when Ray made sure they didn’t sign another damaging management deal with him after he’d sorted a few things out (unlike the Beatles and the Stones), Klein’s voice announcing their return to a big New York venue seemed an odd way to end the narrative.  As if “the rest is history”, except for most people, it isn’t.  Apart from Lola.
  • indeed, I have to say I thought the admittedly joyous singalong clap-along audience on their feet finale of Lola was a bit of an artistic cop-out, a populist failure of nerve, seeing as the song Lola – the one, of course, the whole world knows – had no point of reference with the basic narrative in the show that had gone before.  Don’t worry, I was up on my feet with the rest of the audience, but I’d have preferred a reprise of Sunny Afternoon.
  • Great night, nevertheless!  I think I can see why a few of my Kinks fan community friends have seen the London cast show many, many times.  At certain times, excitement revived, when the lads picked up their instruments you could close your eyes and …  As well as all the fun.

shakespeare-circleMeanwhile, 400 years earlier …

Exactly 400 years had passed between his birth and the start of the action in Sunny Afternoon and You really got me being released, but there are still many things that are unclear about the life of William Shakespeare, born 1564.  Friday before last (Sept 2), in the local library in Stony we had a couple of world-class superstars of Shakespeare biography introducing their book The Shakespeare circle: an alternative biography (Cambridge UP, 2015).  The need for “Imaginative biography” is the phrase they used, if I remember correctly.  It was a fascinating evening, all done without the help of  a ss-shak-400PowerPoint presentation.  Paul Edmonson and Stanley Wells made for a fascinating double act, a splendid mix of wit, friendship and scholarship, their depth of knowledge staggering (but then this is what they’ve been doing for most of their adult lives).  Here’s the publisher’s puff, because I feel like being lazy:

This original and enlightening book casts fresh light on Shakespeare by examining the lives of his relatives, friends, fellow-actors, collaborators and patrons both in their own right and in relation to his life. Well-known figures such as Richard Burbage, Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton are freshly considered; little-known but relevant lives are brought to the fore, and revisionist views are expressed on such matters as Shakespeare’s wealth, his family and personal relationships, and his social status. Written by a distinguished team, including some of the foremost biographers, writers and Shakespeare scholars of today, this enthralling volume forms an original contribution to Shakespearian biography and Elizabethan and Jacobean social history.

All great fun, honest.  50 years ago, in year 2 of Sunny Afternoon, I did a sixth form project on the question of ‘Who Wrote Shakespeare?’ prompted by John Peirce, an inspirational English teacher who knew of my keenness for Mark Twain and guided me to a late work of his, published 1909, Is Shakespeare dead?  (Here’s a link to the Wikipedia entry).  There Twain details humourously and not unseriously the known facts of the actor William Shakespeare’s life and compares them with the width and breadth of knowledge displayed in the plays, and promotes a conspiracy theory that has been repeated over the decades, invoking various other writers for any number of reasons, as the true authors.  All nonsense, of course, and research has found a lot more about the Bard in the century hence.

No-one directly brought up the question of authorship, but one of the questions from the floor invoked the supposed “missing years” in the documented life of Shakespeare, which some have used to reconcile the mismatch Twain highlighted – did he go to Italy, for instance, and pick up all the knowledge thereof that’s there in the plays?  Apart from the fact that London was a major cosmopolitan trading port where all sorts of things could be picked up in bars etc., Wells and Edmondson said that many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries also have big gaps in their documented existence, indeed one would expect it, given the times.  Anyway, mention of ‘the missing years’ reminded me of John Prine‘s rather wonderful part-song part-recitation  Jesus the missing years, which I leave you with here, to enjoy:

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