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Taut as a man

Sebastian Barry‘s Days without end (Faber, 2016) is one powerful piece of writing, the best book I’ve read in ages.  And in a while to come too, I’ll wager.  The sustained rhythm of the prose – the language of the first person narrative lyrical, vivid, visceral, engrossing – is an accomplishment of wonder.  There aren’t many long words, but paragraphs cover pages because they have to, to do justice to the vision, to all of what our man saw and felt.  It just flows, carries you along.  He’s telling us his story a long time after the events, but it’s like we are there.

The paperback blurb gives a reasonable brief outline of the action:

After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. Having both fled terrible hardships, their days are now vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in. Then, when a young Indian girl crosses their path, the possibility of lasting happiness seems within reach, if only they can survive.

But there is so much more going on.  Narrator McNulty and Cole are more than brothers-in-arms but the achievement of Days without end is that no big deal is made of this and what follows; there are no physical details, you just feel the love.  They met and teamed up as 13 year olds, when things are not going well for either of them.  They join the army because as they grow they can no longer pass as paid female dancing partners – in full garb, but no funny business – in a frontier dance hall.  Thomas doesn’t mind being in the dresses and this theme develops as the years and events pass.  Extraordinary to have just read this as Donald Trump tweets away about trans people having no place in the US armed forces.  In what follows, Winona is the young Indian girl of the blurb, who has witnessed terrible events herself, and Thomas is at this point disguised in women’s clothes:

Winona loosening too, and laughing now. She just a girl and should be laughing regular. She should be playing maybe if she ain’t too old. Certainly acts the lady and knows how. We like mother and child right enough and that’s how it plays.  I give thanks for that. Maybe in my deepest soul I believe my own fakery. I suppose I do. I feel a woman more than I ever felt a man, though I were a fighting man most of my days. Got to be thinking them Indians in dresses shown my path. […] I am easy as a woman, taut as a man. All my limbs is broke as a man, and fixed good as a woman. I lie down with the soul of a woman and wake up with the same. I don’t forsee no time where this ain’t true no more. Maybe I was born a man and growing into a woman. Maybe that boy that John Cole met was but a girl already. He weren’t no girl hisself for sure. This could be mountainous evil. I ain’t read the Book on that. Maybe no hand has ever wrote its truth.

And that’s as much of a questioning as occurs.  It’s beautifully done.  I hope you won’t see this as a spoiler; I’ll bet if you start reading Days without end you’ll have forgotten you read that earlier here pretty soon; until it hits again.

Meanwhile, there’s no shying away from the horrors of the soldiering.  There are brutal and savage passages relating his involvement.  And we get to experience the camaraderie, the hard drudge and boredom of military life.  The betrayal of the Indian Nations is laid bare in specific events, not evangelised.  But, you know, life can be beautiful.  The evocation of nature’s wonders and the passing of the seasons is never far away in the relation of events.  Normally in these reviews on Lillabullero I will pick out some quotes to give a flavour but with Days without end it’s so hard to know where to start from and where to end.  It is such an enervating – exciting, absorbing, relaxed in turn – total ride.  Here, from the final devastating confrontation with a proud Sioux chief:

Sometimes you know you ain’t a clever man. But likewise sometimes the fog of usual thoughts clears of in a sudden breeze of sense and you see things clear a moment like a clearing country. We blunder through and call it wisdom but it ain’t. They say we be Christians and suchlike but we ain’t. They say we are creatures raised by God above the animals but any man that has lived knows that’s damn lies. We are going forth that day to call Caught-His-Horse-First a murderer in silent judgement. But it was us killed his wife and his child.

This is a novel about the making of the USA, a literary spaghetti western – the later Sergio Leones – told in a vernacular by a Huck Finn who came over the Atlantic as a boy from Ireland.  And, though not obvious from what I’ve said here, there is, rest assured, a measure wit and humour in Thomas’s telling too.  I hear echoes of Mark Twain’s judgments on his land too.

When that old ancient Cromwell come to Ireland he said he would leave nothing alive. Said the Irish were vermin and devils. Clean out the country for good people to step into. Make a paradise. Now we make this American paradise I guess. Guess it be strange so many Irish boys doing this work. Ain’t it the way of the world. No such item as a virtuous people. Winona the only soul not thrown on the bonfire.

Almost at random, if you want the experience:

Big train blowing steam and smoke at the depot. It’s like a creature. Something in perpetual explosion. Huge long muscle body on her and four big men punching coal into her boiler. It’s a sight. Going to be dragging four carriages east and they say they’ll go good. The light pall of snow hisses on the boiler sheets.

Days without end is a profound and consistently brilliant piece of writing.  I love this book.  It will stay with me for a long time; I feel a Sebastian Barry binge coming on.

**********************************************************************************

And now for something completely different …

July’s Book Group book was a Marmite book.  Some hated it, others thought it had its moments and weren’t sorry to have read it.  I liked it well enough.  Meg Wolitzer‘s The wife (2003) is narrated by the wife of one of the (fictional) big beasts of post-war American literature.  On the plane  on their way to the presentation ceremony for the fictional Helsinki (one down from the Nobel) Prize for Literature (“this award for a long hard labour on the fiction chain gang …”) she decides she is going to leave him.  What follows is a skillful telling of their marriage, family and careers going back and forth between the past and present, from their first meeting in 1956 – Joan a talented student, Joe the tutor on a creative writing course – to the acclamation his pretty much career full stop.  This is the beginning of a new phase, Joan,” he tells her.  Yes, the insufferable phase,” is her response.

 

Now, even the Book Group people who didn’t like The wife could see the big twist coming from a mile off, so it’s not really a spoiler to reveal about Joe that:

All he had was the look. The attitude, the reverence and the desire to be a great writer, but that was meaningless without what he called “the goods”

and that, presented with the proud draft of his first novel – effectively about his divorce and their coming together – Joan is dismayed to discover how lifeless it is and edits it so heavily as to effectively have written it herself.  Being the ’50s, and having been told that being a woman novelist was a loser’s game by a bitter woman novelist, she is happy for the illusion of his authorship to be maintained and continued.  This is not actually revealed till quite late on, which I suppose you could say is cheating.  Anyway, the story behind that first novel, The Walnut, or rather the story of the actual walnuts, is an amusing little diversion in itself, while what happens to their two daughters and the problem son – the children of a celebrated writer – give the tale more depth.

So The wife is an insightful, sour and witty look at the American literary life in the ’50s and early ’60s, the rivalries, infidelities and jealousies as the men joust and put themselves about. “Wives are the sad sacks of any writers’ conference,” she opines at one point.  Given she was born in 1959 one wonders how much of it Meg Wolitzer got from her novelist mother.  Joe and Joan’s early struggles in a New York garret, taking fun in late fifties Greenwich Village is nicely done too.  With the social changes of the late ’60s and the emergence of women writers as serious players you could say that The wife is the starting point for a literary equivalent of Mad Men.

How about this, one of the reasons he’s up for the Helsinki, for Joan’s disaffection?   And probably at least a sad half-truth:

In America it had been a year of literary deaths, one after the other, men whom Joe had known since the fifties, when they used to gather sometimes for socialist meetings. A decade later they gathered at marathon, all night readings whose purpose was to protest the war in Vietnam, and suck all the energy out of the audience.

For what it’s worth, the very first original hardback book I ever bought was Norman Mailer‘s groundbreaking account of the march on the Pentagon, Armies of the night (1968).  I’m long over him now, but still, Ouch!  He gets it in the neck again later too, the only one of those big beasts to actually get a real life namecheck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I won The grandparent (Michael Joseph, 2016) at our annual street barbecue raffle.  Chose it, even, from the prize table loaded with various smellies and assorted other passed on ex-presents.  I guess the first couple of these Ladybird Books for grown-ups were a good joke, had something about them – contemporary situations wed, or rather mis-matched, to that original period Ladybird art that it is hard not to fondly recall – but, hey.

Now I’m a grandparent, and, yeah, some of it hits (the all-purpose child-minding), but there’s no consistency here as to the generations.  Sure, probably my parents had a kettle like that, that you heated on the stove I vaguely remember, but so what?  (And it was never that clean).  Not sure what “Janet is always popular with her rotarian [sic] friends because she has gin stashed all over town” – pictured at a naming ceremony for a boat – is doing here, especially when you turn the page and some old duffer in a sports jacket, apparently called Bill, “is telling his grandchildren about the time his band opened for The Sex Pistols.”

Glad it wasn’t a present, then.  Kids, do not let your parents persuade you to give this to a grandparent this Christmas.  It has a price tag of £6.99, which more than 10p a page, though Amazon are selling it at half-price.  I noted it was listed as being the No.1 bestseller in their ‘Grandparent’ book category.  That’s a link as a grandparent you have to follow, right?  No.2 is the Kindle edition of My grandpa is NOT grumpy; no comment.  No.3 is the Kindle edition of The incest diary (the physical book is there at No.7).  Don’t you just love unedited computer listings?

MK: a living landscape

Glad I managed to catch this beautifully presented exhibition at Central Library.  You wound your way round the organised space, high quality photos on boards – and on the floor (a grass snake!), on the ceiling – augmented with greenery.  Hardly a pioneer, but I’ve lived in Milton Keynes for 34 years now, and I’ve never understood the comic status, now thankfully receding, it was landed with for a long time (you know, like that British Rail sandwich joke).

MK was/is a more than decent bash at Ebenezer Howard’s idealistic garden city concept, delivered with style, ingenuity and wit.  Most of us love our concrete cows.  Shame the city centre resembles and out-of-town shopping mall and mammon threatens further, but all is not lost.  The struggle is to maintain the vision, which is where  the Fred Roche Foundation (http://fredroche.org/), the exhibition’s organisers, come in; Fred was a main man at the Development Corporation (the semi-legendary MKDC) that set the ball rolling.  The exhibition quotes John Ruskin, a man whose progressive thinking, I would say, while I’m here, is long overdue a major revival.  There’s a decent short summary of his thoughts here: http://www.ruskinmuseum.com/content/john-ruskin/who-was-john-ruskin.php.

Why you should trust Alison Graham …

… at least as far as tv crime thrillers and drama go.  From this week’s Radio Times:

The Loch; ITV 9 0’clock Sunday, July 9

It’s the penultimate episode and I’m still no wiser than I was at the start of this convoluted, baffling, messy thriller.  Just a tiny clue as to what might be going on in the little Scottish town would be most welcome.
Instead we get bluster, lumpen dialogue and a tone that veers alarmingly.  Is The Loch cosy crime, like Hamish Macbeth?  Or is it Reservoir Dogs in the Highlands?  Who knows.  The writing is all over the place and none of the characters convinces, notably that flipping maverick forensic psychologist.  “Go way, Blake,” a police chief yells at him.  Yes,  Blake.  GO AWAY.
It’s a great backdrop, but viewers cannot live by scenery alone.  Sometimes we need a plot.

Fearless: ITV 9 0’clock Monday, July 10

For some reason the Americans let campaigning human rights lawyer Emma into the US, though they wised up quickly and threw her into detention.  But not for long.  She’s back and she’s very annoyed.  Of course, she has uncovered a conspiracy at the highest levels of the British and US governments that reaches right back to the second Iraq War.  Blimey!
But Emma still wants a child and a stable boyfriend ….

I’m not immune to the pleasures of this kind of literature, though there are times when the tedium of the photo captions prove I’m only a fellow traveller in the land of the railway enthusiast.  There is only so much you can say about a railway photograph: time, place, train, loco details and history blah blah blah, while any semaphore signals in evidence might well get a mention.  I pity the poor caption writer if he has aspirations to rise above railway nerd status; most don’t.

So I’m puzzled as to what is going on here, with this, the second most boring photo – the most boring is also an even less distinguished DMU (diesel multiple unit) – in David Cross‘s interesting enough compilation Diesels around London: a colour portfolio (Ian Allan, 2006), that I borrowed from the local library (use it or lose it!).  The photo credit goes to one Michael Mensing, but I’m not sure if the caption belongs to him or David Cross.  Anyway, you don’t need to click on the photo to read the caption, because:

Formed of a four-car Derby DMU, train 2C59, a semi-fast service from Bedford to St Pancras, is 8 miles into its journey as it emerges from Ampthill Tunnel in May, 1965.  these DMUs would provide the commuter service for many years until electrification of the line between Bedford and Moorgate in May 1982.  Since the photograph was taken the station at the small market town of Ampthill has closed, passengers now being directed to use the station at Flitwick, some two miles to the south.  Just out of sight on the right [my italics] is Houghton House.  Designed by Inigo Jones and built in 1615, this was reputedly the model for the ‘House Beautiful’ in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.  Empty since 1935, the pollution from several nearby brickworks having eroded much of the stonework, it is presently being restored by English Heritage.

To his credit, Cross does, in describing a photo of a ‘footex’ special – yes, they used to put on special trains for away football fans as late at least as 1984 – give the result: Spurs beat Luton 2-1.

As an occasional poet I remain intensely proud of the lines:

Yes I’ll admit I trainspotted
In the boy’s time allotted –
British Railways then,
What a crazy scene!

This usually gets a laugh.  Then was late 1950s and early ’60s, when the British Railways Modernisation Plan of 1955 was just taking hold.  The programme of  steam locomotive withdrawals hadn’t got up much steam yet (sorry) and an intriguing variety of new diesel locomotives were suddenly appearing all over the place.  Many of the tribe eschewed these modern interlopers but modern boy I was well up for it as well.  That diesel throb, and they looked so good in the traditional green livery.  Like that Warship on Diesels around London‘s cover, and the two-toned green with white outlined cab windows of the Deltic on its title page.  Then they moved into what is now known as a re-branding exercise – from British Railways to British Rail – and two dead artistic hands were brought into play:

  • i). Health & Safety painted an un-aesthetic yellow warning blob on the diesel locos’ noses, a blob that got bigger and bigger as time went on, and
  • ii). Modern design conceptualists (fine in their rightful place but …) painted everything apart from the yellow blob an un-vibrant blue, and the romance was gone.

With the proviso that this is not railway photography, rather photos of trains, Diesels around London carries plenty of photos of that era (and some up to the 1980s) that document in passing this uglification well enough.  Compare and contrast the early pre-yellow blob etc liveries below with the degraded aesthetics on those further down (click on the photos for a bigger picture):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OK.  It’s a shame that cheap decent colour photography wasn’t more widely available back then, but I still get great satisfaction from books like Diesels around London because they can remind me of a time … the decades fade away … when I could get excited, as I skipped between London termini, by a sight like the one below, at Euston in 1961:

This one IS railway photography, I’d say. Credit to John Edgington.

Stony Stratford – the self-proclaimed ‘Jewel in the Crown of Milton Keynes’ – is a music and poetry town.  All year round.  But one week each year, in early June, it overflows with the stuff.  This is one man’s StonyLive! 2017.  Intention: attend at least something each day.  But I have to pace myself these days.  Sorry if I didn’t make it to your gig. …

In and out of the Day of Dance on the High Street on Saturday, June 3 – many varieties of tripping the light fantastic and Morris sides aplenty, including Red Cuthbert Morris, youngsters out of Bedford – the gentle art of Morris as martial art; and the more local fledgling – pirates ahoy! – Rapskallion Morris.

Bread, eggs and veg purchased at the Saturday market, it was time for  Groundhog Day – or the traditional StonyLive! opener  – and the mass singing of The night they drove Old Dixie down with the good ol’ Hole in the Head Gang in the Fox & Hounds at lunchtime – as ever, accomplished bluegrass and Hank Williams country.

Sunday morning‘s fine weather a welcome contrast to New Year’s Day’s very wet Classic Car show in the Market Square.  Shiny cars and a blue sky make for interesting photo opportunities:

Stony Stratford old Magistrate’s Court and Courthouse reflected on the bonnet of a … should have taken a bit more notice. Lambo?

I’m no car buff, so it’s aesthetics (ie. nice curves), romance and nostalgia that mostly whet my interest.  My best in show this year was an immaculate black Citroën Traction Avant, a car 20 or 30 years ahead of its time (it said in the window), produced pretty much unchanged from 1934 to 1957, front-wheel drive, low on the ground and various other things.  This one was apparently built in Slough for the South African market, and with only 16,000 miles on the clock:

With the added bonus of a sort of selfie of your host here at Lillabullero.

Monday night and a pint in the Vaults, that lasted me the stroll down the alley to their Stables bar too.  Crossroots a fair mix of genres with some decent vocals, and then a Traditional Tunes session hosted by Innocent Hare (previously mentioned in despatches).  Twenty folk musicians ranged around the tables and a feast for the ears; an Irish air had me weeping inside.  Felt a bit naked without an instrument in my hands (not their fault, I hasten to add, just me wishing I’d applied myself more over the past half century or so).  Then over the road to the back room in the Old George.  I’m no great fan of covers bands, but The Journeymen are a classy outfit with great taste – a stylish Make me smile (come up and see me) in particular.  It was here I got into the seeming habit of purchasing a pint just as the band were finishing their last number before taking a break.

Tuesday was An evening with The Bard and Friends, and an absorbing evening it proved to be.  Current Bard of Stony, Stephen Hobbs – of whom more later – had assembled a wonderfully varied line up, including two of the very best local original singer-songwriters.  MK Laureate Mark Niel’s northern alter ego Ezra Poundland kicked off proceedings with an innocent smirk, and finished with various singers’ takes  on the words of the hymn Amazing Grace.

I’m always amazed at what the trained voice can do – and without a mic – and countertenor Daniel Collins delivered Vaughan Williams’ House of life song sequence (settings of poems by Dante Gabriel Rosetti) beautifully.  My only problem is that such compositions, written for the classical voice, are not exactly the most memorably tuneful.  Unlike, say Mark Owen‘s and Naomi Rose‘s.  All on the bill excelled.  The always impressive Screaming House Madrigals brought the evening to a powerful end with more original songs of style and pizzazz.  To the poster’s description of them – “indie-folk blues” – you must add jazz and funk.  Jo Dervish is a stunning vocalist, a voice both expressive and full of rhythm.  As it happens, my favourite Naomi Rose song – the name of which escapes me – the “part of the wonderful” one – contains the line “That was good night.”  And it was.

Let it also be noted that Mahmut Dervish, the Madrigal’s guitarist and writer, this very evening, accurately predicted a hung parliament two days before the event.

Wednesday I opt for something new – that opportunity one of StonyLive!’s benefits, I’d say – a recital in York House’s Beechey Room by a musician and composer of some repute in the classical music fraternity.  Locally born keyboards player Geoffrey Allan Taylor had put together A sequence to summer: Byrd, Bach and Beyond, himself being the beyond – modern, the odd not so much dischord as, well, I’m sure you know what I mean – and an engrossing and relaxed gig it proved to be, enhanced by the varied instrument sounds available on his new Roland keyboard.  What struck me about the opening sequence of Medieval dance pieces was how similar the shimmering cascades of notes sounded to what I hear when entranced by Malian kora players; other parallels to be heard – in music I was not familiar with – ensued.

And so down to the Vaults in time to get a pint in midway through the closing number of the Bullfrogs‘ first set – a storming Copperhead Road.  Fine band in the southern rock/alt-country mode.

Worth mentioning that, as well as being in pursuit of the new, I opted not to go to Scribal Gatherings’ Billy Bragg Night fearing a certain worthiness in the face of the election.  Seems it was a blast though, and just the thought of those musicians all on stage at the same time (not that The Cock has a stage) is an entertaining one (messy as it could be, I gather).

Thursday night, all things being equal, was made for cruising the musical streets.  But all things were not equal, so I missed the positivity and good vibes of the Milton Keynes Women’s Choir, and buying a pint as sets were finishing at an attractive sounding Vaultage line-up, and the energetic jump jive of the legendary Hellzaboppin’.

Early evening Friday was the feelgood Stony Stratford Theatre Society‘s Promenade Shakespeare.  But it was such a lovely evening, in the enchanted dappled light under the trees on Horsefair Green, that promenading was abandoned, and no bad thing this day.  Shoulda been more there to see a rich accomplished mix of some of the Bard’s greatest hits (and a bit from Titus Andronicus).

Saturday lunchtime it’s back to the Fox & Hounds and Groundhog day again – ok, StonyLive! tradition – singing along to the Concrete Cowboys‘ theme tune, Bob Dylan’s You aint going nowhere.  Great playing – they been together for decades – bluegrass and beyond.  Walked back over the Millfield in the sun; heartening to see the Riverside Fair so well attended.

Saturday night to York House for Canals of Old England, and even those behind the bar in Victorian canal garb.  The evening started with similarly costumed folk duo Innocent Hare in the guise of music hall entertainers; it’s an interesting time line, from ballads to pop music.  The main event, I can do no better than what it says in the programme: “Songs and poetry weave together with real canal tales and history to tell the stories of the working people in the early canals and the incredible society they created.”  Indeed they did.  Outstanding.  Take a look – this was filmed at the event – for yourself:

 Sunday and it’s F*lk on the Green, which has nothing to do with StonyLive! and has, down to licensing and keeping very locals happy, become ‘the festival that dare not advertise its name or existence’.  This is all to the good, because this year, in splendid weather – blue skies and a breeze – it was pleasingly but not uncomfortably well attended in good spirits (and not much evidence of the hard stuff).  Decent programme, though these days we haven’t the stamina for a get-there-early-to- establish-your-spot and stay the distance.  Bullfrogs again, closing by testifying what they didn’t believe in; as an atheist the suspense was killing as to what was to be the positive … but it was OK: the answer was beer.  Went home for a cup of tea and managed to fall asleep, so missed more than planned, but got back in time for the ‘Latino punk’ of The Zeroes and their splendid globetrotting Milton Keynes song:  “She was a girl from Ipanema /  I was a boy from Milton Keynes …”

And so, to coin a phrase … that was the week that was (the week, as I type, as I type, before last).  Let us now salute the StonyLive! Committee (and FOG) for another auspicious year’s work.

And let us now finish with the current Bard of Stony Stratford’s traditional StonyLive! poem.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, for your explification, Mr Stephen ‘BoSS’ Hobbs:

A Poem for StonyLive! 2017

Let’s …

create encounters
of ambition – wide
vibrations to stir
everyone inside –
rejuvenators
stirring Stony’s pride.

Let’s …

challenge ourselves
on communal space –
valued festival –
escaping life’s race
revealing to all,
Stony’s friendly face.

Let’s …

cheer those who bring
our many joyful treats
values that truly sing
enabling the beats
reverberating
Stony Stratford’s streets.

Let’s …

extend a high five
to welcome another
celebrated StonyLive!

The BoSS has expressed disappointment that no-one picked up on the technical nature of his poem, which embodies a particular bee (which I tend to share) in his own – personal, steampunk – bonnet.  Still works fine, acrostics bedamned, nevertheless!

Three more books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Augustus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great book.  Capital G.

Razor Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reader on the 6.27

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

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

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

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

Scribal Gathering

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

Archivists please note: JMD was unable to attend.

YorkieFest 2017

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

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

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

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