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The strings are falseOne …

This one‘s a cracker, a gem of a book before we’ve even opened it.  Not only does poet Louis MacNeice look like he’s on his way to a local jump-up folk gig, but that cool photo was taken by his mate, W.H.Auden.  The strings are false: an unfinished autobiography (1965) was written in the ’40s but not published until 1965, two years after his death.  It’s a mash-up of three documents, with an appendix featuring extracts from the letters home of a friend of his at school and uni giving a fuller picture of aspects of the man not so evident in his own engrossing text.

It’s fascinating.  Born in Belfast in 1907, the son of a Protestant vicar with Irish nationalist sympathies (not necessarily a contradiction in those days), he’s sent to Sherborne, an English prep school, and then Marlborough, a public school in Wiltshire, where he’s big mates with then modernist champion (and now Fifth Man) Anthony Blunt, joining his vaguely subversive Anonymous Society.  Appendix A – Landscapes of childhood and youth – is a lovely piece of writing giving us the flavour of the natural setting of those places.

At Oxford in the late ’20s – “the only serious activity was poetry” – he’s mates with the left-wing poets of the time, and while a fellow traveller, his scepticism about middle class Communist perceptions of the working classes and the struggle makes for an amusing read.  There are spells as an academic in Birmingham, where he sees respectable working class aspiration first-hand, and in the US.  We also get the story of a tangled courtship and failed marriage, and a distressingly morally muddy propaganda visit to Spain during the Civil War.

What particularly struck me was both how dated it feels – those letters of friend John Hilton’s in Appendix B are to Hilton’s father – and yet how in many ways how the characteristics and feel of cultural change (‘the Art School Dance’) and radical politics transcend time.  I didn’t, as is my usual wont, take notes as I was reading  (this was my bath-time book) but for what it’s worth, this quote stuck in the craw:

From the British public schools come the British ruling classes.  Or came till very lately.  it is from the public schools that our Governments caught the trick of infallibility.  The public-school boy (sic), after a few years of discomfort, has all the answers at his fingertips; he does not have to bother with the questions.  It is only the odd public-school boy who thinks there are any questions left.  This is why the public schools will die like the dinosaurs – from overspecialisation and a mortal invulnerability.

Some hope.  I enjoyed The strings are false immensely.  It is beautifully written, variously funny, bracing, elegiac and thrilling.  I’m guessing the title is a refutation of the ideas of Freud and Marx – puppet strings – that energised the times, though I can’t also help thinking of ’80s bands and the ubiquitous synthesizer*.  Because it’s one of my favourite poems, here’s link to Louis MacNeice‘s cheery An eclogue for Christmas: http://poemplume.blogspot.co.uk/2010/12/eclogue-for-christmas.html.

*Sorry, but sometimes it is hard to resist saying something like this.  Especially when you then read William Empson‘s Preface to the 2nd edition of his Seven types of ambiguity (1947):

To be sure, the question how far unintended or even unwanted extra meanings do in fact impose themselves, and thereby drag our minds out of their path in spite of our efforts to prevent it, is obviously a legitimate one …

PapercutsMystery manTwo …

So … with Paper cuts (Head of Zeus, 2016) the author previously known as Bateman (himself the author previously known as Colin Bateman) is back being Colin Bateman again.  I’d say it’s a shame, really, but it’s his prerogative – he’s also got a play up and running, and an important film script in production – so the withdrawal from the manic Mystery Man series of novels is understandable; the author must have feared repetition, and I for one found it hard to distinguish them from those equally wonderful later books in the Dan Starkey sequence.  Lillabullero has already chronicled its love of both series’ boundless energy, sharpness and wit, the endlessly quotable smart-ass one liners, the slapstick and acute social observation, the stark, violent, pacey and painful thriller action driving them along; quite often all on the same page.

In as much as Paper cuts is a retreat into the more conventional comic novel genre those quotes on the cover are a bit of a cheat.  I was disappointed, and it would be interesting to know how someone coming fresh to Bateman appreciates the new book.  It’s a bit corny if the truth be known, the stuff of, in different locales, more than one old movie, and television series.

Rob, a biggish shot Guardian journalist on gardening leave (itself a bit of a mystery, ultimately a bit of a damp squib) and with marital difficulties, goes back to Northern Ireland for the funeral of his mentor from the start of his career in Belfast, who ended his career as editor of an ailing small town local paper.  Proprietor gets him drunk, persuades a reluctant Rob to give the local paper a shot before he probably closes it down.  Cue lots of office politics, some decent office banter, and a potential romance.  Various stories follow, he softens to the place, proprietor learns to love the buzz of local papers & so on.  There is an effective action climax, but, in the fashion of a big American tv series finale, another big plot line is left hanging; so I guess there’s a sequel in the pipeline.  (I had to take some stick on Colin Bateman’s FaceBook page – not from him, I hasten to add, he was suitably droll – for querying whether I’d been lumbered with a faulty copy of Paper Cuts because pre-publicity suggested it had 400 page whereas it only has 375).

There are saving graces.  Bateman‘s spirited prose is still in evidence:

Pete was comfortable and dependable, a worker, a toiler behind the scenes, he believed in family and the church and a quiet life, none of which prevented him from being a two-faced shit-stirrer with a bitter streak; but nobody’s perfect.

… though without the quick-fire rapidity.  Where many authors will give a wise quote before the action starts, in Paper cuts we get:

Johnny Cash shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.
Rob Cullen bought curly kale in Tesco’s just to watch it wither.

There’s a nice running joke of his new colleagues not getting Rob’s allusions from popular culture (“ ‘It’s not a conspiracy,’ said Rob, ‘it’s Chinatown.’  ” ‘It’s wah …?’ “), and there’s a useful and sobering reminder that, once upon a time, before the Troubles, there was a Civil Rights movement that pre-dated the IRA really taking off, and it wasn’t just Catholics.

Three O’clock …

Luckily for the hat-trick conceit, one of the standout performances for me at the Arts Gateway MK’s Spoken Word Extravaganza, held on the occasion of World Storytelling Day (March 20) and World Poetry day (March 21) was Liam Malone‘s cri de coeur about the plight of the middle-aged man trying to buy a pair of ‘ordinary’ jeans in Top Shop.  Not only was Liam born across the Irish Sea (and, I’m pretty sure, north of the border) but he also – back to where we started – sports a cap not dissimilar to that featured on the head of Louis MacNeice on the cover of The strings are false and, indeed, wears it in the same fashion.

Much to value from the mixed band of poets, storytellers and comedians who also performed, but it was a long time ago now …  Though I will mention Elsie Bryant‘s intense and thoughtful tour de force testament of social, political, emotional  and intellectual development, delivered kinda rap but with rhymes that actually made sense beyond the rhyming dictionary.  Bravo!

The Extravaganza was held at MK11, an excellent licensed small venue with a proper stage and an ambitious programme of all sorts of musics ongoing.  And an undistinguished entrance from the car park, a door that reeks (metaphorically) of speakeasies in prohibition days.

 

 

 

 

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Dead pass

Fire and brimstoneHey – the author previously known as Colin Bateman, who took the contemporary r and b one name route a few years back  and became Bateman, has now become the author previously known as Bateman, because he’s got the moniker his ma and da gave him back: so Colin once more.  Still good as ever though – the usual sharp characterful mix of low wit, ingenious plotting, acerbic social observation of contemporary Northern Ireland, pain, soap opera, occasional brutality, oh, and high humour.

The Dead Pass (Headline, 2014) picks up where the last Dan Starkey – Fire and Brimstone – left off.  It’s not crucial to have read the earlier novel first, though if you have you will get more out of the New Seekers sequences, and the soap opera aspects of Dan’s domestic set-up.  Dan used to be a crime reporter but is now a bespoke private investigator, albeit one who “still found it quite hard to tell anyone I was a private detective without grinning stupidly.”  He is, says Sara, “a perfect example of the punk rock generation gone to seed.”  (His punk credentials are tested by a priest at one stage: What’s the b-side of The Clash’s White riot single)*.  Sara Patterson, who has a very bad time of it in The Dead Pass, is a crime reporter who is, in finest Raymond Chandler homage,  “young enough to be my protégée, and old enough to not take me seriously. We had a flirtatious relationship. Mostly I flirted and she rolled her eyes. I couldn’t quite tell whether she enjoyed the mild suggestiveness of it or found it slightly creepy.”  The New Seekers (yes, indeed) are a fast growing Christian cult run by a strident Protestant demagogue who recognise a teenage messiah, Christine – “funny and charming and charismatic, all the things you’d generally expect of a clued-in, savvy teenage Messiah” – who is mates with grounded cool uncle-substitute Dan.  It’s a glorious set-up.

Having said that, the actual plot of The Dead Pass is concerned with a disappearance and murder (the body thrown off the Peace Bridge) set against the background of post-Peace Settlement IRA gangsterism and convoluted politics in Derry, or Londonderry as it is alternatively called throughout, and well out of Dan’s Belfast comfort zone.  It’s fascinating stuff, involving control of a lucrative interactive internet porn business, with a side order the teenage messiah going AWOL.  There’s drunkenness, hangovers, a punk musical called ‘It makes you want to spit’ and a whole lot more going on in passing.  But the crucial thing is, it could easily stand on its own perfectly well as a first-rate crime thriller.  There are plot twists and action in abundance, but what makes Bateman special – I’ve previously called him the British Carl Hiaasen – are all these savvy bonuses.  And, for all the darkness, the fun.  Like, in the past, the murderee “had been shot three times by a loyalist death squad that had not lived up to its name.

Then there’s the sardonic nuances of the Northern Ireland situation, so:

“Okay. Is he or has he ever been part of an illegal organisation?”
“Yes, the IRA, the original version, not those … boys who call themselves the Ra these days.”
“Okay,” I said. “And nowadays? Gangster, community worker or politician?”

And how about this for a bit of scene setting?:

A little to my right was the city’s orange-hued Guildhall, where Derry Council met. It had been the venue for the pre-Jimmy Savile Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday, two hundred million spent to discover the bleeding obvious. We were a crazy, mixed-up, contradictory province of a fading colonial power but still largely intent on resisting the lure of the leprechaun.

Or a lovely reworking of an old Belfast (atheist) chestnut, when Starkey, in a taxi, suggests to the driver

… that he get with the spirit of Christmas and he said it was more than a month away yet, and besides, he was a Muslim. I asked if he was a Protestant Muslim or a Catholic Muslim and he said he didn’t understand what I meant, that such a thing was impossible, and I said, there in a nutshell, was the problem with the Middle East and he said What? And I said ‘No sense of humour.’

I could go on with the pop culture references, the one-liners sprayed liberally about, but I think I’ll leave you with the teenage messiah:

They wanted her to preach in their church, which was her church, and bless them and lead them in the Promised Land.  But she wanted a Pot Noodle and to hit the road.

Oh yes, and the hardback has wonderfully big print.

*1977.  He got it right.

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Mystery manSunday_Philosophy_Club

The opening titles of two eccentric crime fiction series that I’d started reading in mid-series; not that they need to be read in sequence, but it can be satisfying if you do.

Apart from being more or less contemporary, inhabiting territory on the fringes of the mainstream genre, being set in the UK but not in England and the fact that I’ve just read them one after the other, there’s not a lot they have in common.  The humour of Alexander McCall Smith‘s The Sunday Philosophy Club (2004) is whimsical – there are no actual meetings of the Sunday Philosophical Club in the book, for example – while the author previously known as Colin Bateman‘s Mystery Man (2009) trades in sharp wit and deadpan belly laughs.  One has the greatest respect for a poet – Auden, or WHA as he’s affectionately referred to  – while the other doesn’t have much time any of ’em: “… they’re supposed to be a randy bunch, aren’t they? And they’ve so much time on their hands. Poems, I mean, you can knock them out in an hour.”  These are traits that carry through both series.  Here’s probably the one passage you might have trouble placing, concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary (thought I’d better spell that out):

She was intrigued to see devout Catholics cross themselves at the mention of the BVM – and she liked the acronym BVM itself, which made Mary sound so reassuringly modern and competent, like a CEO or an ICBM, or even a BMW.

That’s actually Isabel Dalhousie, Alexander McCall Smith‘s heroine, who is mostly full of propriety but laced with a redeeming quirkiness and a moral imagination that drives the inquisitiveness that makes her – she gets involved in things – an accidental amateur sleuth.  Bateman‘s anti-hero is the owner of the fictional No Alibis crime bookshop – a man with no name – who operates as a private investigator as a sideline, almost a hobby.  Mystery Man tells how this came about (the private investigator next door stopped answering his door and returning phone calls; why becomes part of the plot).

The Sunday Philosophy Club gives us Isabel’s back story – how she was drawn to philosophy and became the editor of the Review of applied ethics, and the nature of her single status – a significant but failed relationship with one of her lecturers that lasted a lot longer than uni.  What surprised me is that her niece, Cat, in this opening book in the series, has already dumped beau Jamie, who is to grow in significance as the novel sequence unfolds.  The tone is set from the start, whereas Mystery Man‘s main man in his opening episode is a bit of a scattergun – if still utterly Batemanesque – experiment.  All the later characteristics are there – the hypochondria, the Twix and diet coke diet, crime fiction bookshop survival, morbid fear of the countryside, und so weiter – but it’s more finely honed in the later books.  His liaison with girlfriend/reluctantly acknowledged partner-in-crimefighting is gleefully introduced here.

Isabel lives in an Edinburgh that is not Ian Rankin’s Rebus’s turf:

Edinburgh, it was said, was built on hypocrisy. It was the city of Hume, the home of the Scottish Enlightenment, but then what had happened? Petty Calvinism had flourished in the nineteenth century and the light had gone elsewhere … And Edinburgh had become synonymous with respectability, and with doing things in the way in which they had always been done. Respectability was such an effort, though, and there were bars and clubs where people might go …

not that she would go to them too often (if at all), while the bookseller-with-no name abides in what we can still just about call post-Troubles Belfast:

This city has changed so much. It used to be divided, now it’s divided into quarters. War zone to gentrification. T.B.Sheets to continental quilts.

And in that T.B.Sheets reference – it has to be a nod to Belfast Boy Van Morrison, even if his song of that title is set in Ladbroke Grove – we see another major difference between the two.  Isabel Dalhousie does not play no rock and roll; some of the serious composers she cites could be fictional for all I know.  Indeed she – and presumably McCall Smith – are a bit sniffy about moral decline and the ’60s and ’70s altogether.  Bateman, on the other hand, pulls off an Agatha Christie-style unmasking of the murderer, by way of a PowerPoint presentation to the assembled interested parties with a soundtrack that includes Talking Heads’ Psychokiller and Elvis Costello’s Watching the detectives.

I’m happy in both their companies, depending on mood.  Isabel’s exploits are entertainingly accompanied by a pretty much stream of consciousness (with no hint of the sub-conscious) of a cultured moral philosopher (and the ethics of pretty much everything) cut with the crossword she’s doing and concerned quality soap opera.  She’s as decent a human being and inventive a sleuth as McCall Smith‘s other great creation – Precious Ramotswe, owner of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – with an intellectual but broad cultural varnish.  Among some of the people who get a mention in The Sunday Philosophy Club are: the aforementioned Auden, Wilhelm Reich, Max and Morris (the very first comic book characters), philosophers Hume and Kant (she’s not a great fan), Jekyll & Hyde, Oor Wullie and his friends Soapy Soutar and Fat Boab (from a Scottish children’s comic), painters Hockney, Hopper and Jack Vettriano, Stanley Spencer, Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol (she’s not keen on those last two), and writers Graham Greene, Solzhenitsyn, Albert Camus and Hannah Arendt.   I had fun, but don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Bateman‘s proprietor of No Alibis is relentless in other ways, “… come hell or high water. And with my luck, it would be both.”  The publisher who sets the big case he’s working on in Mystery Man rolling is a publisher, “a producer of decaffeinated coffee table books masquerading as a beleaguered champion of culture.”  In due reverence to the crime genre that earns his keep, he assigns a title to each extra-curricular problem he works on.   The origins of ‘The case of the Dancing Jews’ are back in The Holocaust and it’s quite a story, but really, with both authors, the crime plotting is almost incidental to the fun, the joy in reading, to be had.

[I’m finding it impossible not to quote a piece of graffiti from Mystery Man, one of series of potentially slanderous slogans dotted around Belfast, a minor case that is solved early on in the book but which somehow weaves its way back into the whole shebang.  Well it made me laugh: “Rev. Derek Coates does not believe in transubstantiation.”]

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StonerHere’s Bill Stoner, in 1956, a teacher, nearing the end of an adult life spent teaching at the University of Missouri:

            Mercilessly he saw his life as it must appear to another.
Dispassionately, reasonably, he contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be.  […]  He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance.

Fire and brimstoneAnd here’s Dan Starkey, in the – if his luck holds – middle of his life in “the new savage Belfast” of 2012 or thereabouts.  Dan would appear to have led a more eventful life, but he too once dreamed of a kind of integrity (if you put a different spin on that ‘kind of’):

          ‘Dan. I know you’re not much to look at and, as a businessman, you’re a disaster, and your personal life appears to be all over the place – but think what you have achieved! You have bought down governments, Dan. You have exposed corruption, scandals and bad guys in powerful places. Your life has been a wondrous adventure, which has shaped this country we live in as much as anyone’s has. […]

I have often, usually under the influence of alcohol, reviewed the sordid facts of my life. The picture Harry Frank painted of my achievements bore no resemblance to the one I have conjured on such occasions. My life is an unmitigated disaster, and anything I have achieved has come about accidentally. I have stumbled in and out of dire situations and survived only through blind luck, not skill or talent. Those who have chosen to become close to me have always lived to regret it, or, sometimes, haven’t lived at all.

When it comes to reading I like to mix it up.  I’d like to find a golden thread between these two splendid books but frankly, I’m struggling.  Both display their authors’

…  love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange and unexpected combinations of letters and words , in the blackest and coldest print …

though in wildly different ways.  Indeed, the word ‘wild’ in the context of Stoner, from which the above quote is taken, is a misnomer.  In this sombre, dignified and compelling novel you will find nothing to compare with Patricia, Dan’s ex-wife,  melting his mint condition EMI vinyl copy of the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK in a toaster, though the non-violent assaults of Edith, Stoner’s wife to the end, using their daughter as a weapon are far more brutal and crushing.

Stoner

Stoner is a recent novel-du-jour (maybe by now yester-jour) and something of a word-of-mouth phenomenon.  Written by American academic and novelist John Williams, it was published in the US in 1965 and finally crossed the Atlantic eight years later; published in paperback by Vintage in 2003 it has been something of a slow burner, until the award-winning breakout of last year.  On the face of it Stoner is an unlikely contender, but it really delivers.  In dispassionate prose it chronicles an insignificant,  mostly joyless, life, full of disappointment and despair.  Unfulfilled, put upon; and yet fulfilled in small victories and the dignity of seeing it through, of standing by his faith in literature’s worth.  You poor lonely sod, you think – and want to strangle his wife – and yet, without any grand denouement, there is affirmation.  Of a life and literature.

Early on, once graduated, he has to decide whether or not to join up and go to Europe when America enters the First World War, a conflict that saddens and eats away at his mentor, the man who changed Stoner’s life when, as an agricultural student, the first of his family ever to go to university, he brought about in Stoner, in a compulsory English class he was going through the motions in, “a kind of conversion, an epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words.”  His mentor’s advice:

You must remember what you are and what you have chosen to become, and the significance of what you are doing. There are wars and defeats and victories of the human race that are not military and that are not recorded in the annals of history.

And, that, put simply – one decent man’s struggle with “the density of accident and circumstance” – is what Stoner is all about.  It will stay with me a long time.

Fire and brimstone

As hinted earlier there’s a fair amount of accident and circumstance in ex-journalist Dan Starkey’s adventures as a self-proclaimed specialist private eye, of which Fire and brimstone (Headline, 2013) is the latest in the author previously known as Colin Bateman‘s Northern Ireland based comic crime sequence. “This would be a great wee country if we stopped shooting each other,” he says, not for the first time, as the paramilitaries morph more into criminal drug gangs warring over market share of a drug called crush.  The usual mayhem ensues when Starkey is engaged to find a kidnapped billionaire’s daughter:

I was self-aware enough to know that my interference in any given situation has never helped. Destruction and despair follow in my wake. Professionally it sometimes helps.

Various violent unpleasantnesses ensue (never vicarious save for when the bad guys get it, and then it’s played righteously for laughs).  Great dialogue, great action, great laugh-aloud comic writing and loads of invention.  Hard not to pepper this review with quotes.  A religious cult called the New Seekers?  (“Their relentless sunniness was really starting to get me down“).  A trip to their coastal retreat brings back memories of Dan’s early courting days when he’d shared “the odd romantic drive there with Trish and enjoyed a scenic fumble in its seafront car park.” The very same Trish still, ex-wife or no, trying to look out for him, explaining why something else he’s done has gone wrong: “Dan, love. One man’s banter is another man’s … not banter.”  It  looks and sounds too easy – “We were up shit creek with a paddle” – but Bateman is a master of his craft and art; up that creek we are in the throes of a crucial precarious stage in the action, in a canoe crossing a sewage contaminated river.  Hugely enjoyable.

I opened the Pringles. They looked like crisps. They tasted like crisps. They were crisps. But in a cardboard tube. It was just wrong.

Recent musical adventures

Dan plews framed

Dan Plews framed

Dan Plews‘ Sunday evening AORTAS open mics at the Old George have been a good place to be of late.  Nice variety of music with Dan himself leading from the front in good voice and fingers in fine guitar fettle.  Ian Guillermo Northcote-Rojas’s Brain in a jar developing nicely as a singalong classic.

And the first Scribal Gathering of 2014 the open mic drew more poets than you could shake a stick at.  Seems there is no agreed – or anywhere near agreed – collective noun for poets.  Plenty of suggestions on the interweb, of course (an obscurity, a rejection, a havoc, a revenge, a peril, a whole load more).  A plethora of poets, then, I’ll say, we had that night; and a singer songwriter surname of Lennon (no relation).  Scribal Jan 2014Phil Chippendale’s This fruit is your fruit, delivered to Woody Guthries’ tune, about his coming to knowledge about the concept of community orchards  – I’m not calling it singing – was received with acclamation.  Featured poet Richard Frost,  the outgoing Bard of Stony Stratford, gave us a greatest hits selection from his year of forced labour, while regulars Screaming House Madrigals delivered, with singer Jo in fine form, an accomplished set of (all but one) band originals – great songs they are too.  Fresh, heady and exciting as ever  … but even tighter; a subtle power indeed.

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Prisoner of BrendaIn some ways, Fat Sam was the Van Morrison of gangsters – a grumpy sod, but a genius in his own way.

It can only be the author previously know as Colin Bateman.  Elsewhere in the latest Mystery Man novel The prisoner of Brenda (Headline 2012) he gets away with, “He looked down, down, deeper than down but that wasn’t my problem.”  I may have said something like this before but – without gainsaying his sheer originality – the now mononymous Bateman reads like a P.G.Wodehouse/Raymond Chandler hybrid with a soundtrack.  It’s the natural voice – the prose flows like it’s being spoken, stand-up almost at times, and the spiky dialogue – not least with his girl friend – sparkles.  For good measure The prisoner of Brenda also boasts a classic Agatha Christie group denouement complete with Powerpoint presentation … at a funeral.  It’s worth saying that it’s a decent mystery as it stands anyway, involving a series of murders set against the background of property developers in Belfast – the O’Dromodery Brothers aka the Brothers Karamazov.  And we meet a great cast of characters, old and new, along the way.  I’m not even hinting at the half of it here.

Our protagonist, never named – when forced he will use a pseudonym drawn from the annals of crime fiction – continues to run No Alibis, an up-against-it specialist crime bookshop with a ‘Buy one get one for exactly the same price‘ table and offering a Patricia Cornwell title “that comes with a free sick bag.”  At the start of The prisoner of Brenda he’s still the shambling allergic manically self-medicating hypochondriac paranoid sub-psychopathic wreck reluctant even to shake hands because of his brittle bone disease but still carrying in his pocket “a Nail for the Scratching of Cars with Personalised Number Plates” until, before managing (as the plot demands) to quite fake his way into a mental institution, he is sectioned.  The detox he undergoes turns him – much against his will and to his great surprise – into a fully functioning sentient human being again, which is itself a source of great humour.  But then there is a terrible twisted ‘Epilogue’.

In leaving Bateman (until the next book of his I read) I feel moved to mention he seems to have this thing about poets:

We sent Jeff, on the grounds that if DI Robinson spotted him he would dismiss him as being unimportant, irrelevant and an idiot, or for shorthand purposes, a poet.

Elsewhere they are “bloodsucking leeches.”  Whilst this is very funny in context, on the whole one has to say this has not been my  experience.

Bardic Trials 2013StonyWords

And so to Stony Stratford’s Bardic Trials last Tuesday.  Cracking night, with the election to the post of this year’s Bard of Richard Frost after three gruelling rounds of wordmongery.  A worthy winner.  As well as the absorbing contest we had the delights of short performances from Ian Freemantle, the very first bard, and Danni Antagonist, the retiring postholder.  Justin Thyme gave a rapid-fire account of the bard’s place and function throughout history and proceedings were closed by another bravura performance from the mighty Antipoet, who’ve been mentioned a few times in despatches before.

LadykillersOne of The Antipoet‘s numbers that night was the one – I think it’s called The critic – which boasts the tag line “Art not art wank.”  One of the best lines from Graham Linehan’s stage version of the classic Ealing film comedy The Ladykillers at the theatre the next night was, “Being fooled by art is one of the primary pleasures afforded to the middle classes,” delivered as the non-musicians in the heist mob played excruciatingly for the sake of the landlady’s friends and got away with it because of the way The Professor talked it – avant garde blah blah blah.  I’m presuming everyone reading this is familiar with the film; if not I’d say watch the film rather than this – for me – disappointing production, even if it has garnered more than decent reviews.  Michelle Dotrice (!) was fine as Mrs Wilberforce and there was some ok slapstick in the first half involving the pill-popping young man and a reversible blackboard but I can’t say I laughed as much or as loud throughout as I did the previous night at The Antipoet‘s half hour set, much of which was familiar to me.  The timing was not exactly snappy between the longeurs and the defenestrations in the second half were frankly clunky.  Couldn’t see the point of the enterprise, I’m afraid.

The Bard's first official performance, the poem's composition finished suitably enough in the bath apparently.

The Bard’s first official performance, the poem’s composition finished suitably enough in the bath apparently.

Next night, playing for an honourable second, we miscalculated and managed to win the StonyWords Literary Quiz, dubious prize for which is we now have to set next year’s.  Curses on my knowledge of chick-lit, picked up when I was a working man.  Then Saturday was the S.S.Shanty, a celebration of the sea shanty in York House, just round the corner from the once successful if unlikely – so far from any water – and long gone Hayes Boatyard.  An RNLI benefit, it was standing room only and the beer ran out early.  We had some fine lusty (no other word for it) singing from Five Men Not Called Matt and other motley crews, the Bard’s first official appearance and bespoke composition (basically a pub crawl hung on getting a boat from Hayes’ yard to the canal) and a very fine acapella Lord Franklyn – always one of the saddest of songs – from Michèle Welborn.

The RSPB Birdwatch

Come the day, the snow almost gone, of course nothing like the variety we’d had earlier in the week – fieldfares, corn and reed buntings – but still quite satisfactory compared to some years: 4 goldfinches (there had been many many more earlier in the week, a right charm); 4 wood pigeons; 2 blackbirds; 2 collared doves; 2 greenfinches; a chaffinch, a robin, a wren, a jackdaw and … (we’re pretty sure) … a blackcap.  Anyway, here’s one of the fieldfares and some goldfinches from when the snow was on the ground (you can click on the photos to get them a decent size):
Fieldfare 01Goldfinches 01Fieldfare 02

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      And of course, the day after the snow and ice went and it was safe to walk the streets and paths again …

Post-snow floods 2013

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