Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

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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Or… I probably shouldn’t do this in omnibus mode.  Anyway, this blog post is dedicated to Oliver Cromwell, though probably not entirely as you’d expect (except for Pete N. maybe).  But for now, later for Ollie.

Martin Edwards - Dungeon houseFirst, some crime fiction …

The dungeon house (Allison & Busby, 2015) is the seventh of Martin Edwards‘s never less than interesting Lake District Mysteries.  As well as the action moving west to Ravenglass and the coast, it breaks fresh ground in that retired telly and academic historian Daniel Kind, who kicked off the Mysteries sequence, stays pretty much in the background. His now temporary live-in girlfriend (that happened in the sixth book), maverickish DCI Hannah Scarlett, head of Cumbria’s cold case team, is very much to the fore, investigating the possibility of links between the disappearance – one 3 years ago, the other very recently – of two young women, and what appeared to be an open and shut multiple murder and suicide case twenty years back.  A case, indeed, in which Daniel’s late detective father, Ben Kind – Hannah had been his protegé – had been involved, and had his doubts.  So the soap opera aspects of the Mysteries – one of the real strengths of the series – take on a retrospective tinge too.

The dungeon house is populated with a rich and varied cast of characters, variously damaged by, or related to people involved in, the events of 20 years ago.  Naturally as events unfold there are plenty of twists and one major red herring, all climaxed with an unsettling and nicely executed suspenseful denouement.  Police budget cuts and administration-by-spreadsheet hover in the background – a standard feature of most British crime fiction these days – while Les Bryant, wily old detective brought back into the cold case team as a consultant, plays the part well.  There’s a swipe at the Police Federation, from the long serving local rep: “The stable needs a bloody good cleansing. You could say I’m Fed up.”

Is it just me or is a bit more humour creeping into The Lake district Mysteries?  Not laugh out loud, but with interviews conducted in “yet another Lakeland tearoom”, for instance.  This may have something to do with Hannah being more prominent in the action, more comfortable with her place in things, and re-finding her mojo:

Les Bryant poked his head around her door. ‘Going to this meeting about the new Communications Strategy?’
‘Nobody told me about it.’
He sniggered. ‘Nothing would surprise me in this place.’
‘I’m scheduled for a briefing on the Transparency Agenda, plus catch-ups with Finance and HR either side of lunch. Not to mention ten minutes ruled out for that photo shoot for the new identity cards to get us in and out of the building, and an hour’s online course about …’

So … what to do next?:

Good Hannah was duty bound to attend the various activities scheduled for her, even if the online course was one more wearisome example of ‘sheep-dip training’. Bad Hannah would suffer a severe memory lapse – why not blame deficiencies in the IT system? They were a reliable scapegoat. She could race off to Ravenglass before anyone trapped her in a corner, and started blathering away about key performance indicators.
Good Hannah never stood a chance. Her evil twin opened the door, and chased after Les.

She’s an interesting lass, capable of hyphenating ‘dream-come-true‘, developing nicely:

Hannah found herself itching to give him the benefit of the doubt. She couldn’t help feeling sorry for the man. This was a weakness in a detective, she knew …

I look forward to more opportunities for her to show her strengths and weaknesses, and hope poor old Daniel Kind can stay very much in the picture when Hannah moves into her bachelor pad in Kendal; he’s feeling a bit insecure.

BR StandardNow for Oliver Cromwell …

That’s him on the cover (of a recent charity shop purchase), that’s him in the sunlight, clean.  As a republican I love it that the last express Pacific steam locomotive retained in service by British Railways was Britannia class 70013, Oliver Cromwell.  Shame he ultimately made such a mess of the English Revolution and bequeathed us the problem of Ulster, but hey, even though he eventually neutered them, the Putney Debates of 1647 could be said to be the start of modern democratic politics in action, and for twenty years the English were citizens, not subjects.  I’d like to favour the idea of some kind of conspiracy theory among subversive railway workers that made sure it was Oliver who lasted longest …

The naming of express steam locomotives in the middle of the first half of the twentieth century was a very establishment affair, ideological in its celebration of traditional hierarchies.  Worst offenders were the Great Western (GWR) and the London Midland & Scottish (LMS) Railways.  The GWR’s crack express locomotives, the Kings, celebrated the monarchy, and stuck to its semantic guns by – although steam locos are still often referred to as ‘she’ – ignoring (because unladylike?) any Queens that happened to get in the way.  Working back from George V, the sequence went from the teenage Edward VII to William IV, missing Vicky, and further down the line from Edward VI to James I, missing Liz I.  They even subbed poor old King Stephen (who was as far back as it went), bringing on Edward VIII to keep up with the times, and didn’t reverse it even though he was never crowned.  Other classes on God’s Wonderful Railway celebrated the homes of the aristocracy with the Castle and Hall classes, and lesser country houses down to the Manors.

With the Kings taken, for their express Coronation Class locos the LMS had to resort to Princesses and Duchesses and a couple of Queens (but only the wives of kings), though to be fair the rest of the class was named after cities.  Their Jubilee class saluted among other things, the far-flung reaches of the British Empire (eg Bechuanaland).  Somehow, with the odd exception, Dukes seem to have missed out.  The LMS were also big on the military.  The Southern Railway’s Schools Class was limited to – naturally – what we in the UK euphemistically call Public Schools (ie. fee-paying and private).  Interstingly, the less patrician LNER mainly used birds of a certain stature (like Mallard, the world speed steam loco speed record holder), successful racehorses and football teams.

So it was left to the post-war British Railways Standard Classes, specifically the Britannia express locos, to fly the flag for a wider cultural heritage (writers like Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Chaucer, Dickens & Co) and, as we have seen, ‘God’s Englishman’, Oliver Cromwell.  Was it a coincidence that this principle was established under the same socialist Attlee government that set up the National Health Service?  The Standard Classes, intended by the newly nationalised British Railways to fill the motive power gap left over from the Second World War, were probably a mistake – they should have gone straight for diesel or electrics, like the rest of the developed world – but at least many of the Britannias reflected a pride more fitting to a democratic nation than kowtowing to the aristocracy.  Rant over.

Midford - Derek Cross

With the high-sided tender – Derek Cross at Midford.

BR Standard Steam Locomotives (Ian Allen, 1983), Brian Stephenson‘s anthology selected from the annals of Locomotives Illustrated magazine, is a decent enough collection of photos of all said classes of locomotives in a wide variety of working situations.  Over the years I have come to appreciate this group of locos – that as a trainspotter I always saw as a clumsy appendage to the individualities of the glory days of the old regional companies – as a worthy practical and handsome summation of British locomotive design and manufacture.  The book kept me (to quote myself: “I’ll admit I trainspotted / In the boys time allotted” though I’ve never owned an anorak) interested enough on that level – it never leaves you – and it was thankfully devoid of the more arcane grin or cringe inducing notes that can often accompany the photos in such publications.  Indeed, I am thankful for its demonstrating to me the aesthetic advantages of the larger capacity, higher-sided BR1D tenders, as opposed to the angular cut away BR1As.  You can see the difference in the two photos I have filched (scanned, treated a bit in PSP) and included here.

Nr Penmaemawr - Kenneth Field

Near Penmaenmawr – Kenneth Field

No, my problem with British railway photography in general is that it’s big on railways but not great at Photography with a capital P – the American O.Winston Link (just put him into Google images) is the benchmark here.  Some of this is down to the equipment that was available to enthusiasts in the most atmospheric of railway eras – colour only readily available only right at the end of steam – and some down to vision.  Not fair to bring this up, really, in this instance, because the standard 45° shots of engines – albeit taken from a variety of heights – that constitute the majority of photos here are what this volume is all about.  But the inclusion of Kenneth Field’s lovely composition (only a half plate in the book unfortunately, because its sharpness doesn’t bear enlarging) gives us a bigger picture of the railway in a social as well the conventional landscape, life’s rich tapestry.

John Hegley - Family packJohn Hegley had a platform ticket

Poet and comedian John Hegley was a trainspotter too:

is the happy shunter hunter
any more insane
than the lot who’ve not got jotters
who spot the spotty spotters
with disdain?
we’re looking forward to our crusty rolls
we’ve got platform tickets
and platform souls

Another charity bookshop purchase, His combined volume of early work, The family pack (Methuen, 1996), has been my bath-time reading of late.  [Bath-time reading rules: has to be an old desiccated paperback (new books steam makes the pages swell); never a library book].  Of course I’d been aware of him – tv and radio spots, the odd poem in the press and anthologies – and always thought I’d check him out further one of these days.  And he’s not the only person I’m aware of with a passion for Luton and its football team.  Reading him in bulk, on the page, imagining the distinctive voice, the quality is more variable than I expected, but when he’s good he’s great.  Have to say I liked The brother-in-law and other animals, his first, originally self-published collection of 1986, best – just the titles, never mind the actual poems: His heart’s in the wrong place, it should be in the glove department just defeating ditto in the dustbin; a different kind of muse.  Can I come down now Dad? (1991) wrings humour from an unhappy childhood among many other things, but I was flagging by These were your father’s (1994).  Never mind second album syndrome, the third book includes a plodding and inconsequential 32 page playlet called A tale of two tenting that for me makes Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May (you remember – folk singer Candice-Marie) sound like Shakespeare.  It won’t stop me picking up and opening any of John’s later books if they happen to fall into my path, though.

Has anyone ever encapsulated upward social mobility better in two lines than Hegley in his Luton?:

I remember Luton
as I’m swallowing my crout’n

Of dulcimers, the Italian campaign and other musical adventures

Roddy at the Crown Stony Stratford’s magical musical square mile.

The Roddy Clenaghan Band ended their immaculately chosen and beautifully performed and sung set of songs – from Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle among others – with a driving version of Things have changed, the song Bob Dylan has been opening with at the Albert Hall on the current installment of his never-ending tour.  Andy Knight gave the accordion his grandfather bought in Italy, coming back from the war, an outing on one number, while Andy Fenton’s pedal steel was a delight.

Vaultage late Oct 15

Yes, it’s the wrong poster but Jimtom Say – he in the poster – is who I’m talking about, and Pat posters retrospectively.

Scribal Oct 2015Don’t think anyone had tried the active loop tape technique there before that Jimtom Say put it to good use at mid-month Vaultage.  Guitar still in hand he recited poetry over the resulting backing, while his songs, robustly individual, were equally absorbing.  Something different.  Meanwhile, earlier in the week Scribal Gathering had seen a plethora of poets outnumbering the music either side of the as ever entertaining Rrants takeover.

Beechey Room Sessions 4

Archivist note: unfortunately Paul Bell was unable to attend.

BeecheyRS Pat

Photo (c) Pat Nicholson

End of a busy week and so to the relaxed delights of another fine Beechey Room Session at York House on a Saturday afternoon.  Not that energy was not embraced in the performance.  Paul Martin (that’s him with his mandocello in the photo) also brought along a dulcimer, the first, I suspect that I’ve ever heard in the flesh – a captivating sound, made me think I’ll dig out that Richard & Mimi Farina album again.  Original canal songs from Phil Underwood and I can’t for the life of me remember what Michelle did (but it was all very fine).

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Please mister postmanPlease, Mister Postman (Bantam, 2014) picks up where Alan Johnson‘s award winning childhood memoir, This boy, left off.  Aged 18, the bid for rock and roll stardom thwarted by the theft of his band’s uninsured equipment, he’s about to get married and become a step-father and father in rapid succession.  This volume of his memoirs covers the time he was employed by the Post Office, his life as a postman, his young family’s move out of London and his rise through the trade union hierarchy.  It leaves us with his election to an executive position in the Union of Communications Workers, who will henceforth pay his wages, and an unspectacular divorce as he heads off to pastures new.  It is a fascinating and moving portrayal of a life, and of a way of life, that feels a lot longer gone than it actually is.  Yes, there once were working men, autodidacts, who became active in politics and rose to the highest positions in the land.  And aren’t we suffering for the lack thereof now?  To place the period in another context, this was a time when it was felt that postmen’s livelihoods would be threatened by the fax machine.

There’s a bit of a campaign on the go right now (October 2014) for Johnson to make a return to front bench politics (he’s still a Hull MP), but other than as a very welcome charmer as poster boy and TV face in the forthcoming general election campaign I can’t see it happening, because, to all reports, he looks to be having too good a time, not least with the success of these memoirs.  Very early on in Please, Mister Postman he tells us, “There were, and remain, three great passions in my life – music, books and football“; in the case of the latter, as a lad from west London, it’s QPR.  There was “no defining moment when I became politically active”, and, “Engaging though I found union work, I would define it as an interest, something that added another dimension to my work, not as a passion“; as “a militant moderate” it’s likely an attitude he carried over to affairs of state when the time came – a useful job, not a calling, even if, back when he started speaking at his union’s annual conference: “I liked that buzz [.…] this was as close as I could get to recreating my rock-and-roll years.”  Still a teenager, he’d been writing detective stories and poetry, fruitlessly sending them off to addresses plucked from an out of date Writers & Artists Yearbook: “It seemed to me that every author I’d read about had been through the pain of rejection before achieving literary acclaim, so I saw it as a rung on the ladder to success.”  And here we are.  How long before a CD, even? (Please don’t).

It’s quite a story.  There’s his start in married life living with the in-laws, there’s what happens to sister Linda – young orphaned Alan’s saviour from This boy – and her ultimately tragic first marriage, and there’s the settling of his growing young family on a Slough LCC overspill council estate.  Then there’s his vivid memoir of the working life as a postman, leading to his South Bucks idyll on a rural ‘walk’ – working practises hard to imagine now, that he makes no attempt to excuse but has a lot of fun with – and what union and Labour Party life was like in the time of Thatcher and Militant (ie. not great – nor is the old mod who accessorised his uniform much impressed by scruffy middle class radicals).  All this in an easy conversational style most of the time, laced with a fair amount of self-deprecation:

In the British Legion with Mick and Idris on a Sunday lunchtime I’d drone on about ‘my people’ and declare that I wished to put whatever talents I possessed at the service of the working class. I blush now at this patronizing nonsense but I can’t deny that the idealistic little prick in the tank top and flares was me.

He starts his Post Office career on the early shift at Barnes, following the advice and example of a fellow ex-band buddy:

Andrew cycled to work every day from his parents’ house near White City on an old sit-up-and-beg bike his dad had given him. More often than not, riding Judy’s cutting-edge Moulton, I’d meet him on Hammersmith Bridge in the insulated hush of the early morning. We’d pull our bikes off the road, light a cigarette and lean on the balustrade watching the Thames flow beneath us. It wasn’t exactly Wordsworth on Westminster Bridge, but for us it had its own profundity.

When he and Judy get the chance of a council house of their own in Slough they go on a recce.  At the station they ask two policemen if they know they way to the Britwell Estate: “ ‘Do we know how to get to the Britwell?’ one of them said. ‘We should do, we have to go there often enough.’   But compared with the poverty and violence of the West London he was brought up in, “The Britwell seemed to me to be more Arcadian than anarchic.”  He transfers to Slough Postal District, they settle in nicely with the neighbours, slowly acquire the white goods while enjoying a varied social life when he’s not racking up the overtime.

He speaks engagingly of the camaraderie of the workplace and of particular work colleagues: “My workmates in the sorting office included more lovers of literature than I’ve ever worked among since [my italics].”  He’s turned on to Auden, Yeats, Larkin and the novels and poetry of Thomas Hardy.  “In fact Slough sorting office was like a Royal Mail university, such was the erudition of the postmen alongside whom I worked.”

So, yes, it’s good read and a healthy bestseller.  But, briefly, I wish it didn’t make me wonder, yet again, what book editors actually do these days for their money and acknowledgments.  There’s clumsiness and/or factual slippage and/or superfluity in some of the scene setting that the book could well do without, like (my italics):

  • Sergeant Pepper was “the album that had astounded and delighted the world on its release in June.”  Tell me something new.
  • At home, the activist Tariq Ali was leading a student movement to abolish money and abandon capitalism.”  Really?

  • he has a colleague whose ”great hero was the singer Al Bowlly, who had been killed in action during the war.”  In enemy action,  in an air raid on London; if he hadn’t eschewed the offer of accommodation in High Wycombe after a gig he would have missed it.

  • Linda’s new man Chas had “once sung at the famous 2i’s coffee bar in Soho, where British institutions such as Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard had started out.”  Mention skiffle, please, and – if you must – those two, but institutions?  At least he didn’t say ‘national treasures.’

Pedant? – moi?  Anyway, absorbing book by a good man, who was responsible for one of the great Desert Islasnd Discs (though not necessarily for the choice of music).  And – respect – he didn’t have to say this, about the aftermath of a token strike, but he does:

I was at Barnes for only five more months, and in all that time nobody spoke to Ted Philpott. For all I know his isolation lasted until his retirement. I was as guilty as my workmates of inflicting this terrible punishment. I colluded in trying to break a man’s spirit and it’s something I’ve been ashamed of ever since.

Multiple universes: a personal digression

Reading Please, Mister Postman I got this strange feeling; something slightly out of kilter was going on.  It felt a bit spooked, like I was caught in a timeslip.  As if the Tardis needed recalibrating.   No other book has done this to me.  It started when Alan Johnson was explaining the working practicalities of the Xmas post in Slough, where he had moved the very day of the original Stones’ Hyde Park gig:

Entire battalions of casuals, mostly students, were recruited throughout the country. You could hardly cross a sorting-office floor anywhere in Britain without tripping over a sociology graduate from Sheffield University …

Now, that was my university, and my subject – what are the chances of those specifics? – and I did the Christmas post twice in Slough (well, some of the time in the Farnham Royal temporary Xmas sub-sorting station).  One magic night I got caught up in the romanticism of meeting the mail train at midnight … but I digress.  Couple of years adrift, then.  I even wrote a poem … another tangent, but wotthehell, archy, wotthehell?:

Incident in a Christmas sorting office,1967

Getting brought down
by a card post-marked
When you know
she lives in

Staying in Sheffield the while, I note Alan and Judy naming their third child Jamie, specifically J-a-m-i-e because it was “from some awful sixties comedy.”  Now Here we go round the mulberry bush (1968) is not a great film, but awful it was not and I can distinctly remember walking back with my mate Neil full of the joys after seeing said film, because somehow its final flourish, with said Jamie jumping with the help of the pole onto the platform of a green double-decker bus as it drove away, captured our momentary optimism, a feeling of liberation even.  (And it Judy Gysin had been in it).

My political consciousness,” says Johnson, “evolved from the books I borrowed from Slough library and … ” some other things which are neither here nor there, here.  My point is that the first library job I applied for was for a post at the old Slough Library, in 1970.  I didn’t get it (in retrospect they did me a great favour) but nevertheless, we’re getting a lot closer to the timelines crossing.

I lived just outside Slough from age 12 to 18, my school was on the edge of the Britwell Estate and one of my routes cycling home was along Long Furlong Drive, where the Johnsons moved to.  The Buddy Holly glasses wearing bass player and the resident musical genius (it’s all relative) in the group I played in – as the sort of Lennon figure, well rhythm guitarist – lived in Britwell and I’m pretty sure our first public performance out of school was tucked away in a corner in the Lynchpin pub – they may have let us have a brown ale – that Alan later regularly drank in.  Only about 5 years out there then.

EgyptFor a few years Johnson was one of Slough’s relief postmen, covering holidays and absences on the regulars’ ‘walks’, as their routes were called, which meant he almost certainly delivered letters at one time or another to all my old school mates’ parents.  Six degrees of separation and all that, eh?  He broke his ankle playing kickabout with his son’s friends on Burnham Beeches, not far no doubt from the accompanying photo (coat from C&A, by the way), taken maybe early ’70s, by which time, I think, he must have been delivering in the area.  Early on in his political awakening he admired Jimmy Reid, specifically the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in – me too, later  – and it was the Stones’ Brown sugar got him out of the kitchen and onto the dance floor at parties.  I feel a connection, and – pathetically or not – feel the better for it.  Cheers, Alan.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch

Palmerston gigAnother wonderful gig at York House.  Was good to see an extended set from The mighty Antipoet away from a pub setting and hear some obscurities alongside old favourites.  They were new to some of the crowd and the usual combination of dextrous double bass, generous wit, wisdom, scorn and triangle scored mightily again. They give, and they give, and they give.  And then an extended in concert set from the mighty Palmerston, who performed to great acclaim.  Five strong voices, fine musicianship, varied instrumentalism and top rate original material.  Writing about them previously, I said they reminded me of Brinsley Schwartz, not least for the fun they were having themselves.  This time around they had me thinking The Band in places – all those voices – I kid you not.  And the swingingest Mavericks with Angelina.  Not often I buy a CD.  Now I’ve got Sun on a rainy day as an earworm I’m perfectly happy with.


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Karl Marx by Mayall c1870 mucked about by Quayle 2013In his snappily titled Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon of 1852 Karl Marx wrote that “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Or to paraphrase, as we do, “History repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”  It’s an attractive idea, but what happens when – as can be seen from the history of, say, rock music – it happens again and again.  Better, perhaps then, to turn to pioneer performance poet and musician Pete Brown and the title of his song (and the album that it saw the light of day on): Things may come and things may go,
but the Art School Dance goes on forever

Young RomanticsI’ve been reading about the second wave of English Romantic poets in Daisy Hay‘s Young Romantics: the Shelleys, Byron and other tangled lives (Bloomsbury, 2010).  It’s an absorbing tale and while she doesn’t seek to unduly disguise its academic genesis Ms Hay’s never dry telling rolls along nicely, it’s a fine read.  It has struck me before that there is potential just waiting to be exploited (in the best possible sense of the word) in TV soaps of quality following the unfolding sagas of intellectual coteries such as this dashing bunch, or Samuel Johnson’s mates and hangers-on.  After all, it was all happening.  For my sins I hardly knew the bare bones of the lives described here.  Whether fuller knowledge of what they tried for and the consequences of what went down in their lives would have made a blind bit of difference to – if you’ll excuse the phrase, which rather gives it away – my generation‘s aspirations and actions (or those of some of us) is a moot point, but there would certainly have been forewarning of what was likely to crop up along the way.  More Marx, from the same entertaining magazine article quoted at the start of this piece: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”  Yes, but.

Shelley bookWe start with Leigh Hunt’s support group in gaol in London in 1810.  The early optimism of the French Revolution has long run it’s course and the first generation of Romantic poets are off being lonely as a cloud on the road to respectability.  The publisher of an influential radical magazine and a poet, Hunt is in gaol for ‘libel’; it’s basically government repression, but his brother keeps the mag going and even though in prison Leigh effectively becomes the centre of a focussed radical literary salon, a social movement in microcosm, that continues outside when he’s served his term, theorising and living ideas of free love, atheism, republicanism.  With the Napoleonic war’s end the scene moves, for various reasons – ignominy, scandal, economics, health – to Europe: Switzerland, then Italy.  Masterpieces are written, stuff happens.  Then Keats, Shelley and Byron die and we’re back in London and the aftermath.

Hay successfully blows the Romantic myth that has grown up around the members of the group.   “great literature did not have to be the work of isolated genius […] it could be inspired by conversation and friendship” and she also gives the contributions, concerns and travails of the women of the group due space and credit in the enterprise:

Creativity for the first generation of Romantic poets was inherently solitary, since it stemmed from, and idolised, the genius of the individual spirit. Hunt’s poetry subverted this model of Romantic individualism, and suggested that inspiration was located in communality and in collaborative creative practice. He located inspiration in tangible everyday things: firesides, tea parties and the Hampstead fields. Foliage [a collection of Hunt’s poetry written about his friends] thus presented an avowedly democratic project, since it suggested that anyone could be a poet, as long as he or she understood that poetic inspiration was present in the sights and relationships of ordinary life, and not just in the vistas of the Lake District …

Byron 2ShelleyShe quotes critic Jeffrey Cox to the effect that Hunt sought “to provoke the reader into new practice, to argue we should adopt what we might see as a counter-cultural lifestyle devoted to free nature, a liberated community and imaginative freedom.”  A bunch of hippies?  Byron, one of the crew, noted Foliage was in fact addressed to “men of the most opposite habits, tastes and opinions in life and poetry (I believe), that ever had their names in the same volume,” but for Hunt that wasn’t the point.  It was:

… a response to critical voices both from within and without his circle […] codifying its activities as philosophically significant for English poetry. Blackwoods had sought to destroy Hunt by imposing a pejorative collective identity on his friends and now Hunt proclaimed that identity in his own writing, wearing his leadership of the ‘Cockney School‘ as a badge of honour. […] in the public imagination figures such as Keats and Hazlitt now became indelibly associated with Hunt.  As a result, his circle gained in significance as they came to represent a distinct ‘counter-culture’.
Such cultural significance, however, came at a high cost for the various members of the group, and it did little to shore up some faltering personal relationships.

How strange that appellation of the Cockney School now sounds, but as tactic in the culture wars its appropriation is a nice stroke, one surely familiar to rock and poetry scholars.  But note the warning of problems to come in that last sentence.

Then there’s the problem of Don’t believe the hype.  In 1822 Edward Trelawny, a Premier League bullshitter with a completely fabricated back story, joins the gang Pisa in 1822 and they are taken in:

Trelawny was himself a Byronic creation. He modelled himself on the hero of The Corsair … which had taken London by storm in 1814. Trelawney was more Byronic than Byron himself, and it was flattering – if a little odd – for a poet to meet a man who had taken on the identity of one of his creations. For the others, the combination of Byron and the personification of his hero was irresistible.

Trelawny was to play up his role in the group for decades later, and help further the Romantic cliché of the poet as lonely individual genius, of which more later.

And then there are the After the Gold Rush moments.  A year later, after the death of Shelley and with Byron away liberating Greece, those remaining throw a birthday party for Hunt.

Despite the apparently familiar combination of music, puns, flowers and laughter, the Novello’s party was a fantasy, a bringing together of people who had little more than memories to unite them.

While Hunt was trying to keep the radical ball in the air:

The network which sustained his imagination during his absence turned out now to be a chimera. As far as Hunt’s friends were concerned this was a natural progression, in which the demands of work and family took precedence over youthful ideals of communal living. […] and their individual responsibilities towards parents, husbands, wives and children increased.

He was still banging the gong, though:

‘What is wanted,’ Hunt writes to [poet] John Clare, ‘is a regular supply of unchanging and straightforward spirits, inflexible alike either to misfortune or worldly interest […] We will love deeply; we will not refuse any lighter solace of sociality, that comes; we will have our sprightly songs, as well as our war songs & our marches …

Sound familiar?  And he’s right, of course.  With that big but …  The tragedy and farce and great times that is the Art School Dance that moves things along, of the movers and shakers who Move on up (and in other directions too).

One of the fringe players, Charles Brown, a close friend of Keats, knew only too well that, as Hays says, “posterity would view his relationship with Keats as his greatest achievement.” “His fame … is part of my life,” he readily admitted.

In the years following the deaths of Keats, Shelley and Byron, their old circle discovered the accuracy of this statement, as individual lives were shaped by other people’s fame. Some, such as Haydon and Hogg, found this difficult, while others – chiefly Mary and Hunt – came to realise that the stature of their friends offered them the chance to reshape their own lives according to a particular set of ideals, and that they could use the past to reinvent themselves. What they failed to realise was that, in the process, the memories of friends would be transformed from sources of consolation into sources of conflict, and that separate versions of a shared history would test the allegiances of the remaining members of Keats’s ‘web … of mingled yarn’ to the limit.

You can still see it happening with each artistic and political movement or generation’s shift into heritage, in the memoirs and autobiographies of the survivors and what Hay calls “the battle for ownership of the past.”

White roomsI was going to look at Pete Brown‘s autobiography in the light of the pattern of events that Daisy Hay so ably chronicles in Young Romantics, but this post is long enough already.  Regrettably Pete suffers like Keats’ mate mentioned above from – shall we call it? – Charles Brown Syndrome.  The book goes out, after all, under the title White rooms & Imaginary westerns, referencing songs other people made famous.  I’ll give it space another time.

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The fine specimen above – it’s effectively a kissing seat for the gymnastic because there’s bench space the other side of the fin too – is in Bedfordshire’s Harrold-Odell Country Park, close to the café where they do a splendid ginger cake.

a kingfisher to the rightAnd at the far end of the Grebe Lake – we saw a couple – there’s another enhanced example of the genre.

Despite misgivings mentioned in my last post, I did finish Marina Lewycka‘s Various pets alive & dead (Fig Tree, 2012).  It’s an entertaining, compassionate and committed read, if less than the sum of its parts –  never really settling down to be one thing or another – and while structurally seeming to build – actually ending a bit anti-climactically.  Set half in Doncaster, half in London, with brief sojourns in Cambridge, shifting backwards and forwards in time, the book relates episodes in the lives of the couple at the heart of an idealistic left-wing commune established in South Yorkshire the late 1960s, as they get older, the world changes, and their children try to make their own way in this current time of banking scandal and collapse (which is concisely explained and very much to the point) and public sector decline.

The basic thrust is that son Serge is earning shed-loads of money using his maths degrees in the City of London rather than finishing off his PhD as would-be horrified parents Marcus and Doro think (“Values and stuff. It all seems a bit retro“), while daughter Clara is an idealistic primary school teacher, working in Doncaster.  All of this – taking in many things like commune life, ‘free love’, the miners’ strike, primary schools, allotments, the City bankers, even a Downs Syndrome child – is played for laughs while never losing the moral dimension.  Indeed, the character of Oolie Anna, the youngest daughter, named originally after Lenin (Ulyanov), the Downs Syndrome child, now an adult, is important to big changes in the commune, but her story cuts across the central plot strand and muddies the book as a whole.

Some of it works nicely enough.  There are some fine comic sequences, some decent one liners.  It’s worth reading for those and its decency.  Not sure the children’s translations of adult speech work that well as a running device (“the sobbing nation of women” for the subordination of women, “librarian tendencies” etc) and some of the specifics are a bit arcane (like the arrival of a couple of Althuserians in the commune – I’d forgotten all about them).  Into the mix you get stuff like, in the City the barrow boys of the Big Bang have been overtaken by talented mathematicians of all nations working the probabilities and patterns, employing chaos theory, the beauties of which Serge (also named after a revolutionary, naturally) first learned as a boy from a comrade in the commune; another child of the commune’s response to hearing of the potentially chaotic results elsewhere of that “butterfly flapping its wings” in another part of the world was to tear the wings off any butterfly he caught.  And so on.  The Shakespeare quoting school caretaker has his moments (“There’s something rotten in the state of Donny“) and Serge’s rotten love poetry (“Hear the song of Serge” and his difficulties finding rhymes) is a bonus.

In the end you cannot but cheer for good old earth mother Doro:

You’d have thought someone who can manage the history of the Fifth International could master a potato peeler, but apparently not.  [but still, another time …]  Doro sighs.  It was an adventure and, given the chance, she’d probably do it all again.  But with fewer lentils.

And finally, at a complete tangent.  How good to see, live from some festival or other on the telly, what was once (may still be) one of my nephews’ favourite band, The Cure, with Robert Smith keeping faith – paunch and all –  with that stupid hair.  A powerful performance, made all the better for that ‘2012 CITIZENS NOT SUBJECTS’ in large white letters on his black guitar.

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Now here's a look into futures past. It's a car they might just have seen in the streets of Berlin in the second book discussed here. It's a 1938 Tatra, on display at the annual New Year's Day vintage and classic car event in Stony Stratford's Market Square.


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“You got a blog, right?”
Ann snapped her fingers. “That’s what’s been missing from my life.”
Carl Hiaasen: Star island

I’ve always been partial to a game of Scrabble, deeply frustrating though it can be when you’re stuck with a rack full of vowels or, indeed, consonants.  But never mind that.  It’s just that Scrabble has made an appearance in the last two books I’ve been reading.  Synchronicity or what?  What, probably.

A game of Scrabble is an illicit pleasure in the Republic of Gilead in Margaret Atwood‘s classic dystopian novel ‘The handmaid’s tale‘ (1985), while in the State of Florida it’s a sardonic throwaway line from kidnappee Ann DeLusia, pretty much the only decent, sane and grounded character in Carl Hiaasen‘s inspired tales another kind of American excess in  ‘Star Island‘ (2011).

It has always struck me there’s a problem with fiction set in the milieu of popular entertainment, the music industry in particular.  Apart from the art, something else is always missing.  The supper-realism.  The real thing just cannot be beat.  How to successfully invent someone like Mick Jagger, say, never mind Macca’s marriages, Madonna’s career, or that meat dress?   Hiaasen is up to it; that meat dress could have been one of his.  ‘Star Island‘ is a grotesquerie concerning itself with – or at least this narrative is hung on – celebrity culture, with a girl singer who can’t sing and her entourage; think Lindsay Lohan, Britney, Paris all rolled into one.  All in the context of Hiaasen’s regard for his native Florida and his ongoing environmental, social and political concerns.  It is so righteously funny I read it twice straight off and laughed louder the second time.

I’ll try and be brief.  There are basically two nicely interwoven narrative strands, united by the involvement of  one Skink.  Those familiar with Hiaasen’s work will be delighted to hear that Skink appears early in this book and that the remarkable aforementioned Annie – “She enriched my outlook on humanity” – even manages to get him into a designer suit and a night club called ‘Pubes’ at the climax.

For those who’ve not had the pleasure of his acquaintance before, let me tell you about Skink.  Born Clinton Tyree, he was a college football star and authentic Vietnam war hero before briefly getting himself elected Governor of Florida, shortly after which political success, 30 years ago, he took refuge in the mangrove swamps:

Decades of hermitage had kept him barely on keel but his turbulent aversions never waned. He’d fled the governor’s mansion with his values intact but his idealism extinguished, his patience smashed to dust. Politics had scrambled his soul much worse than the war, and he left behind in Tallahassee not only his name but the discredited strategy of forbearance and compromise. The cherished wild places of his childhood had vanished under cinder blocks and asphalt, and so, too, had the rest of the state been transformed – hijacked by greedy suck-worms disguised as upright citizens. From swampy lairs Skink would strike back whenever an opportunity arose, and the message was never ambiguous.

One of the story lines concerns the fate of a crooked land developer – and it would have been bad enough if he’d been legit – who, for his sins, ends up tied to a poisonwood tree, naked bar a nappy securing to his person a source of further exquisite swollen torture.  I say ends up – that is actually just the beginning of his troubles.

Briefly [Skink] thought of Jackie Sebago, the turd merchant, and wondered if the doctors had kept count of all the sea urchin quills they’d pulled from his necrotic ball sack. The photos must have been glorious, Skink mused. Maybe they’ll show up in a surgical textbook.

This is top-notch writing, a righteous revenge fantasy for us to gloriously share.  I’ll not say anything else about the main story line (“This is the most ridiculous kidnapping in history”) and denouement – the sassy and suss Ann, the wretched ‘star’ Cherry Pie (a BLS brand: ‘Barely Legal Slut’), the poor old paparazzo Bang Abbott (gross indeed, but you feel for him in the end), Cherry’s management teams’ stratagems, and many other seriously funny characters and side stories (like a brief hilarious episode in rehab).

I’ll leave ‘Star Island‘ with Chemo, bodyguard – main task to stop her from partying – to the awful Cherry.  Chemo’s physical details are something else in themselves.  However:

“I’ve been making a list in my head,” Chemo said. […]
“Like, what kinda list?” Cherry asked, and he touched the end of the cattle prod to her bare thigh. She made a noise like a chicken going under the wheels of a truck, and pitched over sideways in the patio chair.
“Every time you say like, I prod your ass,” he explained. “Also on the list: awesome, sweet, sick, totally, and hot. Those are for starters.
She stopped writhing for a minute or so. Her first breathless words were: “What the fuck, dude?”
“That’s another one – dude. Consider yourself warned.”

Don’t you just wish? 

Margaret Atwood‘s ‘The handmaid’s tale‘ (1985)  is a fine, chilling and (maybe) heartening novel.  I read it for the Book Group; some of us liked to think the ending was optimistic.  Classic dystopian/totalitarian moments – I immediately recalled the smell of real coffee from Orwell’s ‘1984’ – handled beautifully, from significant eye contact, little human moments and things, through to the realisationof the existence of a resistance movement, joining and jeopardy.

The setting is one region in North America (Canada – Atwood is Canadian – has escaped the madness, as has the UK).  What has happened is the result of a strange mix of environmental disaster (and consequent falling birth rates), patriarchal Christian fundamentalism and the Andrea Dworkin strand of feminism (remember ‘All men are rapists’?).  It is the handmaids’ role to formally do their appointed duty and procreate with their allotted master, taking no pleasure from the act, in a set of  bizarre rituals coldly and brutally played out.  I was miserable and elated, up and down, gripped, as the tale progressed.

Atwood gives a wry take, too, on ’60s and ’70s excesses in describing how this state of things came to pass.  As well as the formal societal relations of men and women she does not fail to address the personal in recollections of the past.  In the Reading Group someone asked if I – the only male in the group – felt I was under attack in this book.  My response: no, her sympathies are there for us all.

As it happens, apart from Scrabble, the books share another tangential and obscurely personal link – two of my favourite recordings, no less.  ‘A handmaid’s tale‘ is set in the Republic of Gilead; I love Nina Simone singing ‘Balm in Gilead‘, real aural balm from the emotional ‘Baltimore‘ album, the production on which she reportedly denounced – don’t trust her, trust your ears.  Added poignancy to the reading, that beautiful rendering of the tune never far from my mind’s ear every time Gilead is mentioned.  And in ‘Star Island‘, the name Ann DeLusia, once seen: how to keep the beautiful melodic swell of John Cale‘s sublime  ‘Andalucia‘ from his exceptional (and he white-suited on the cover) ‘Paris 1919‘ album out of one’s head, especially as she grows (“scrappy and funny and proud“) and wins Skink’s and Chemo’s (and our) hearts.

Oh yes, and mention of a white suit reminds me.  Carl Hiaasen, a true campaigning heir to the spirit and vernacular genius of Mark Twain.

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