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Posts Tagged ‘Bob Dylan’

I

Towards the end of Wild Mercury – a tale of two Dylans, the late great Ian McDonald‘s brief but insightful survey of Bob Dylan‘s life and career, written for a glossy music mag on the occasion of his 60th birthday in 2001 and reprinted as the lead essay in his The people’s music (Pimlico, 2003), he suggests: “Bob Dylan’s career is one of the great spiritual journeys of our time. Check it out.”

II

Scott M. Marshall‘s Bob Dylan: a spiritual life (BP/WND Books, 2017) gives us such a narrow picture of that journey that it feels a lot of the time like it’s a discussion as to what the man is going to enter as his religion on the census form.  Dylan’s ’60s output is very briefly considered for its Biblical references and that’s it.  How did it feel?  But that’s not his concern:

Did Bob Dylan, by 1970, have a personal relationship with God? Whatever the case, there is precious little doubt that he possessed a strong monotheistic bent.

III

You see, Scott M. Marshall is a ‘God-botherer’.  What this means here is an unbelievable, undermining prissiness in his use of blush-sparing dashes.  He quotes Tim Drummond, bassist in Dylan’s fine Christian period band, reacting to the hostility some brought to the gospel concerts:

“Well they brutalised him; they were all pissed off because he wouldn’t sing the old songs […] I told him that I’d stay with him until the t—- fell off the Statue of Liberty, after seeing what he went through.”

Yup.  Her ‘t—‘.  That’s how it’s straightfacedly printed.  Why is Ned Flanders writing this book?  Even when he’s quoting the man himself –  from what Marshall calls a ‘matchless’ interview in Rolling Stone in 2012 with Mikhail Gilmour – we get “You can tell whether people have faith or no faith by the way they behave, by the s— that comes out of their mouths.”  (This is one of those Dylan interviews, by the way, which, if you have the taste, is worth a read; early on there is discussion about the Christian concept of ‘transfiguration’ as applied to himself – a passage that Marshall chooses not to mention.)  Reporting the same interview, he continues:

For the record, after calling his detractors from yesteryear a name that cannot be repeated here, Dylan let those “Judas!” folks know that he wished them eternal strife.

For the record he calls them ‘motherfuckers’.  To quote him quoting him again: “So f—-ing what?”   Well there is Bob’s response to the infamous 1966 Manchester “Judas!” heckle: “I don’t be-lieve you. You’re a liar”.  And to the band:Play fucking loud”.  Try meaningfully blanking that from the history.

IV

To be fair, Scott Marshall‘s main concerns are not with the actual music, nor most aspects of his subject’s life – booze, drugs etc. – outside of the narrow religious definition he’s working with.  Bob Dylan: a spiritual life is a mix of some productive original interviewing and a big cut-and-paste job of published interviews and other material.  It gets a bit repetitive as the years pass by.  But some of the interviews certainly told me something new.  In particular with:

  • Dave Kelly (Dylan’s PA at the time of the fortnight’s run of gospel shows at the Warfield Theatre in SF in November 1979, whose attempts – at Dylan’s prompting – to engage the wider Christian communities were met with indifference)
  • Regina McCrary (one of the experienced gospel singers who accompanied him on stage in the gospel years)
  • and T-Bone Burnett (pleading not guilty to the charge, as is often presumed, that he was responsible for Dylan’s ‘conversion’ to Christianity) –

V

The book would probably never have come to be written were it not for Dylan’s apparently sudden adoption of an evangelical brand of Christianity in 1979.  The tale is told; not quite so sudden, but he had a ‘knee-buckling’ personal encounter with Jesus Christ.  He followed it up with a three-month course of Bible study with the Vineyard School of Discipleship in San Francisco, and recorded Slow train coming, his first Christian album.  When he went back on the road it was basically with a gospel review, featuring none of the old songs, and interspersed with some hellfire preaching from the man himself.  This lasted, with two more albums, but some leavening on stage of some old songs towards the end, for nearly three years.

One of Bob Dylan: a spiritual life‘s strengths is its logging of the variety of responses from Dylan fans, Jews and Christians to this episode; it was dismissed as a gimmick by some, treated with suspicion on all sides. The 1970s take up 50 pages of the 254 pages of actual text, the 1980s 43 pages.  There can be no doubt that he meant it, man.  And has not refuted it since, though his understanding of his ‘mission’ has altered a whole lot.  Never mind the labels, he was sold on the Testaments, Old and New; and Revelations.

But for all the Gotta serve somebody he never actually signed up with anybody, and his Jewish roots were still in the ground.  “There’s really no difference between any of it in my mind,” Marshall quotes him, from Neil Spencer’s 1981 interview in the NME.  And, in a section Marshall doesn’t quote in that interview, in response to the question, “You’ve always had a strong religious theme in your songs even before you became a Christian”, Spencer records Dylan angrily saying: I don’t really want to walk around with a sign on me saying ‘Christian’.”  Bit odd, considering the sermonising a couple of years previous, but Dylan has always been suspicious of labels.  At concerts in this period he would introduce the stirring In the garden (“When they came for Him in the garden, did they know? / Did they know He was the Son of God, did they know that He was Lord?“) as This is one of my anti-religion songs right here.”  A very personal Jesus, then.

VI

As an atheist and humanist I’ve never had much of a problem with the music religion inspires.  Hymns I sang with relish as a lad, Handel, gospel music, John Coltrane, ‘old time’ bluegrass.  How can I?  I may not feel I have been saved “by the blood of the lamb” but I can happily sing along to Dylan and Co powering along about it.  I may find it hard not to think occasionally of the character in Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus trilogy who heckles, “What blood group was he?”, but this is exciting, liberating, musicTrouble no more, the 13th volume of Bob Dylan’s Official Bootleg Series delivers live performances from 1979-1981 – the gospel years.  It is full of powerful vocals – Dylan aided and abetted by a four woman chorus steeped in the stuff – with some great ensemble playing from the band.  Intense, moving, at times solemn, accusatory, testifying, at others playful, or plaintive.  And, yes, the odd moment to these ears of languor – When he returns.  There are some gorgeous melodies to play with here too.  What has surprised me more than anything else is the warmth to be found amidst the uncompromising fundamentalism, not least, of course, in his interplay with the gospel chorus; when not straight preaching – actually oft when he is – he’s enjoying himself.

The 2-CD compilation finishes with one of Dylan’s finest songs, the awesome Every grain of sand, testament to the progression his writing underwent as the preaching nature of Slow train took more of a back seat.  Other highlights for me are the infectious singalong Ain’t gonna go to hell for nobody, The groom’s still waiting at the altar (which rocks as hard as anything he’s done), the passionate In the garden and the vocal dexterity of Dead man, dead man and Shot of love.  There was plenty of creativity going on in what some still insist as lost years; he would, of course, say that he was found.  Naturally I remain unconverted but I’ve had a hell of a good time.

VII

The booklet packaged with the 2-CD edition of Trouble no more (that’s its cover on the right) adds something too.  There are appreciations from a Christian and a non-believer (who’s like me’s singing along), and extensive notes on each track.   Here are a couple of things from it that would have added to A spiritual life:

  • For a bit of context: worryingly, at the time Dylan was reading a book called The late great planet Earth, by Hal Lindsey, first published in 1970 and taken up by no less than Bantam Books in 1973 – the first book of Christian prophecy put out by a mainstream secular press, part of the whole Reaganite rise of the Christian Right phenomenon in the US, seeing the Book of Revelations being played out in Russia and Iran.  “Lindsey turned out to be something of a nut … who, in 2008, suggested that Barack Obama was the AntiChrist,” the writer adds.  (In the Neil Spencer NME interview previously mentioned (reproduced here) Dylan peddles the old the Earth is 6,000 years old riff; I wonder if any subsequent interviewers have asked him if he still believes that.)
  • The late 1978 change of lyrics in performance to the great Tangled up in blue, so when she opens up “the book of poems written by an Italian poet from the thirteenth century” (a favourite passage of mine) becomes “The Gospel according to Matthew, Verse 3, Chapter 33” – fortuitously keeping the rhyme – only for the apparently incorrect citation to be revised again to ‘Jeremiah’ the next night.

VIII

As suggested at the outset, I think that Scott Marshall‘s definition of a spiritual life is way too narrow to encompass Bob Dylan‘s art and life.  He rather begrudgingly hints at this in another quote from the 2012 Rolling Stone interview:

“Clearly the language of the Bible still provides imagery for your songs,” Gilmour added. “Of course, what else could there be.” The seventy-one year-old goes on to assert that it’s impossible to go through life without reading books and claims there’s some truth in all books while citing a laundry list of titles and authors: the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Buddhist sutras, the Koran, the Torah, the New Testament, Marcus Aurelius, Confucius and Sun Tzu.

There are steps on the way that don’t interest our monotheist author, from the time Dylan immersed himself in folk music and hit New York in 1961, telling Izzy Young he Never saw a God; can’t say till I see one” through to the immersion of us completists in the songs of Frank Sinatra (I’m afraid I had to pass on Triplicate).  There have been so many ideas in the air among his close compadres; though he can dismiss them with ease later, they were still stations on the way.  Marshall himself quotes Dylan twice saying, “But I always felt that if I’m going to do anything in life, I want to go as deep as I can.”  Or as his son Jakob puts it, “He’s never done anything half-assed. If he does anything he goes fully underwater.”  I’ll just leave the back cover of Desire, with Tarot card and Buddha (and Joseph Conrad) hanging there.

The crucial thing is that Bob Dylan seems not to have let his faith compromise friendships with non-believers like Alan Ginsberg or Jerry Wexler, producer of Slow train coming.  This quote about the latter, unfortunately without citation, is from the Official Bootleg booklet.  The “confirmed Jewish atheist”:

“… was never going to fall under the spell of true to life Christianity,” Dylan said.  “But that’s beside the point.  There are a lot people who live the life of a Christian in their behaviour and speech, but would never count themselves among the faithful.  However, there are just as many souls who profess to be Christians whose actions and speech prove that they wouldn’t know Christ from a hole in the wall.”

IX

A few more snippets from Scott M. Marshall‘s Bob Dylan: a spiritual life that I think bear repeating:

  • astutely he avers: “Terms like ‘religious,’ ‘Christianity,’ ‘conversion,’ and ‘fundamentalist’ were virtually absent from Dylan’s vocabulary, but his personal experience, as described by outsiders was – and is – constantly framed in those terms.”
  • contrary to those who ascribe cult status to the Vineyard Church: “What is interesting here is that, contrary to some speculation, Dylan’s decision to sing only his gospel material from November 1979 through My of 1980 was not the decision of the Vineyard Church. In fact, Larry Myers, the pastor who visited Dylan’s home in early 1979 (and who was invited on tour in 1979-1980) urged Dylan to sing his older material.”  [I looked up Vineyard on Wikipedia: they have spread internationally; there have been schisms] 
  • when he returned to featuring his ‘oldies’ live, Dylan changed the punchline of the coruscating Masters of war. “It’s original line, “Even Jesus would never forgive what you do” was dropped and – to this day – has never been uttered in performance of the song. “Dylan knows it is not biblically correct,” asserts author Ronnie Keohone …”  Frustratingly we are not told what it’s replaced by; this atheist fears a diminution of power.
  • a tribute to Ralph Stanley and the old guys, as told to John Pareles in 1979: Those old songs are my lexicon and my prayer book … All my beliefs come out of those old songs, literally, anything from Let me rest on a peaceful mountain to Keep on the sunny side. You can find all my philosophy in those old songs. I believe in a God of time and space, but if people ask me about that, my impulse is to point them back towards those old songs. I believe in Hank Williams singing I saw the light. I’ve seen the Light, too.

X

I’ll finish as I started with Ian MacDonald.  He offers three theories on the art and life of Bob Dylan.  First jokingly is that he’s “currently the world’s greatest performance artist. (That’s ‘performance’, not ‘performing’.)”  Except you couldn’t make it up.  Second is the flawed human being and artist … and genius (a word not to be used lightly).  Third is the embodiment of the Jungian archetype of Trickster.  The current Sinatra stuff could come from anywhere in that spectrum.  Personally I wish he’d get bored with that – though not without some merit (Autumn leaves!), surely 5 CD’s worth is enough.  I look forward to a last full flowering of his writing.

Currently, the last time I looked, none of the specifically religious material from the three album sequence of Slow train, Saved and Shot of love is featured in performance (http://www.boblinks.com/111817s.html).

The title of this piece – Trailing moss and mystic glow – is the result of an act of bibliomancy using Bob Dylan: Lyrics 1962-2001.  From the song Moonlight on the Love and theft album.  Fits as well as anything more obvious, I’d say.  Must go and remind myself how it goes.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could it have been any different?

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s happened again.  I’ve just finished reading a book about W.H.Auden and here he comes, walking through a New York hotel room door in the late 1930s, a character in the next Reading Group novel that’s up for discussion.  A novel chosen for us by the public library months in advance and about which none of us had an inkling.  Talk about intertextuality.  As Kurt Vonnegut once punctuated one of his novels, Hi ho.

AudenRichard Davenport-Hines‘s fascinating biography of the poet W.H.Auden – Auden (Heinemann, 1995) – throws up many areas of interest and speculation, some of which are dealt with detail while others are left tantalizingly untouched.  What follows are just a few things that occurred to me while reading rather than any sort of reasoned evaluation.

As a humanist and atheist I can quite happily live with other people’s religious beliefs so long as they’re not ramming them down my throat.  Hell, I’m even quite partial to Bob Dylan’s trilogy of openly Christian albums. And the poetry of Wystan Hugh (as all quiz teams will know him) holds no great problems for me.  The “correct notion of worship” for him was, “that it is first and foremost a community in action, a thing done together, and only secondarily a matter of individual feeling,” an extraordinary statement given the life he led, and I’ll return to that.

But staying with Dylan for a while, I think there’s a case for seeing the early political communist fellow-traveller Auden as the pre-electric Dylan of the ’30s.  As Davenport-Hines puts it:

Auden was a meeting ground for young people: enthusiasm for his work seemed a measure of intelligence as well as an indicator of literary or socio-political seriousness. […] The cult figure for literate young people was also a bugbear for his testy elders.

And just as Dylan’s acceptance speech to the American Civil Liberties Union in 1963 upset many followers with his, “I have to be honest, I just got to be, as I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy … I saw some of myself in him” – a very Audean statement in itself – so Auden’s stepping back from the cultural front line was a significant shift:

He disliked poets being solemn about themselves or precious about their art, and his aesthetic theory against poetic pretensions to change the world, as it had developed by the 1940s, annoyed or disappointed some of his early admirers.

By 1965 he was telling a BBC interviewer, “For God’s sake, don’t ask such bloody silly questions!” (about the same time Dylan was doing much the same, as it happens) and proclaiming, “Art is small beer.  the really serious things in life are earning one’s living so as not to be a parasite, and loving one’s neighbours.”  He had a lot to say about poets and poetry, about which he was deadly serious – “You don’t understand at all,” he told his tutor at Oxford, “I mean to be a great poet”; he got a ‘bad third’ – except when he wasn’t, like in 1948:

The ideal audience the poet imagines consists of the beautiful who go to bed with him, the powerful who invite him to dinner and tell him secrets of state, and his fellow poets. The actual audience he gets consists of myopic schoolteachers, pimply young men who eat in cafeterias, and his fellow poets. This means that, in fact, he writes for his fellow poets.

He had little time for poets who were wallowing in their own misery, rather than using it stoically, as “exemplifying the human condition” (to quote RDH) – “a spineless narcissistic fascination with one’s own sin and weakness” he called it – and, RDH reports, “… agonised confessional poetry had always repelled him” to the extent that he actually heckled Anne Sexton at Ted Hughes’s first Poetry International in 1967.

Allen Ginsberg was at that one too, and one wonders what he thought about that.  Ginsberg, of course, had been the star at the International Poetry Incarnation of two years earlier, also held in the Albert Hall, that heralded the British cultural underground movement of the ’60s (and to which Hughes’s event was almost certainly a response), and you can be pretty sure Auden would not have been impressed.  The two poets had met on the idyllic Italian island of Ischia in 1957 and argued about Walt Whitman, and there – Alan Bennett or Tom Stoppard – is a play just asking to be written;  tis reported Ginsberg wept all afternoon when he told of Auden’s death in 1973.

It would be interesting to know how, living in New York, he reacted to the phenomenon of The Beats and beyond, given that in the ’40s he was bemoaning to a friend, “the unspeakable juke-boxes, the horrible Rockettes [a dance company] and the insane salads.”  He was certainly aware of the later counter-culture, and, we are told, took LSD at some point, but Davenport-Hines just leaves that one hanging there, giving us absolutely nothing about how that went, which given the non-revelatory nature of his religious commitment could have been interesting.

And here we have a fascinating … conundrum, not exactly contradiction, but something intriguing like that, in the life of arguably the most culturally significant homosexual of the twentieth century give or take an Alan Turing.  Auden died in 1973, Stonewall happened in 1969 and New York’s first Gay Pride march was in 1970, over which period Auden was still living in New York some of the year, and yet Richard Davenport-Hines’s Auden, published in 1995, makes no use of the ‘gay’ word at all and we given nothing as to how he reacted to these developments.  When his privately circulated 34 stanza erotic poem of 1948 The Platonic blow, celebrating in graphic detail male on male fellatio was published without authorisation, in Ed Sanders’ Fuck You magazine, with an Andy Warhol cover, he admitted to a friend, “in depressed moods I feel it is the only poem by me which the Hippies have read.”  The book, his life, is full of such wonderful juxtapositions.

The thing is, for all his later avowed Christianity, because of his avowed Christianity, he never stopped seeing homosexuality as a sin.  A trifling one compared with, say, avarice, but still a sin, and not one relished because it was a sin.  It’s hard not to argue that he got a lot of his poetic power from this and other denials.  For the poet, he maintained, unfulfilled wishes, unrequited love, were the best kind.  “Suffering has value,” he tells Delmore Schwartz (Lou Reed’s tutor, dedicatee of the Velvet Underground’s European son) in 1942, but only for what you can do with it.  Leavisite critics who ruled the English Department university roosts in the 1950s sidelined him as immature basically because they saw homosexuality as immature.  And yet he was lukewarm about homosexual law reform in England:

‘To begin with, they seem unaware that for over ninety-nine percent of us, it makes not the slightest difference, so far as our personal liberty is concerned, whether such a law be on the statute books or not.’ He judges that ‘the few who do get into trouble are either those with a taste for young boys – and I am surprised by how seldom they do – or those who cruise in public.’ The pragmatic strategy of Arran and his supporters was to stress the separateness and freakish otherness of homosexuality. Auden disagreed.

So, a man very much of his time but also transcending it, and out of it.  This is a fascinating biography and I’ve hardly scratched the surface of his personal life (never mind the work).  He discarded one of the poems he remains most famous for – the formidable September 1, 1939 (here’s a link to the original version), the one written in the first days of World War 2, containing the line, “We must love one another or die” – from the last authorised edition of his Collected poems.  As early as 1944 he’d excised that stanza from a new collection because the line was a lie, “for we must die anyway, whether we love or not“.  And when President Lyndon Baines Johnson misquoted it in a speech on the Vietnam war – “One cannot let one’s name be associated with shits” – he decided it had to go altogether.  “I pray to God that I shall never be memorable like that again.”  He told novelist Naomi Mitchison it was “the most dishonest poem I have ever written,” and he further revised other work, particularly that from the 1930s.  Many find this depressing (I probably would if I had the studying time) but he at least did it with a twinkle in his eye:

‘I get more of the crotchety, ritualistic bachelor everyday,’ he reported … ‘God! How careless I used to be. I feel as if I am only just beginning to understand my craft. The revisions will be a gift to any anal-minded Ph.D. student.’

Music, music, music

Last week it was non-stop, went to something at least every other day, culminating with the mighty Yorkiefest (click on the images to get an enlargement).  Getting fit for StonyLive!

Beechey Room May 15 Aortas 100515 Scribal May 15 Vaultage 16 May 15The second of the Saturday Beechey Room Sessions in York House delivered another grand afternoon.  Blurred lines betwixt  performers and audience made for a relaxed community of music lovers freed from the hubbub of a pub setting, for which initiative take a bow Michèle.  The music ranged from a 1927 guitar rag to Iris Dement via Donovan and Strawberry Wine (the 17 one), sung not drunk.  Another reminder too of the extraordinary emotional power that Carole King song can have for women of a certain age (quite a span, actually, but definitely older than 17).

Aortas open mic at The Old George and, having remembered to bring the words with him, Dan Plews debuted the latest version of his evolving Northampton song, Boots and shoes, complete with cricket and John Clare’s  “vaulted sky” references.   Very good it is too.  The original songs of Fraser & amazing accordionist Liz (so many buttons!) made a nice addition to the usual talented mix.

The first post-election Scribal Gathering saw Polkabilly Circus, the latest aggregation of musicians involving the Antipoet’s Paul Eccentric, strut the stage, if by strut you can understand at least two of them sitting down most of the time.  Kicking off with Polkabilly Boy you could see where the billy in the name came from, and the last song – “this is my punk statement” – gave clue to the ‘p’, if only lyrically.  In between a rich mix of many things, including klezmer and gypsy violin.  What else?  The latest installment chronicling how rotten Stephen Hobbs’s month had been, including an apology for no matter how small a proportion of his contribution to the Labour Party went towards that fucking ‘Ed stone’.

Ralph Keats (no relation) gave some Advice to J.Arthur Prufrock from the Beatles, while Vanessa got away with dissing the whole male gender even though I’m pretty sure there were plenty present who have little interest in football.  Rob Bray said it was the first time he’d played keyboards in public and proceeded to play like Jamie Cullen.  Mark Owen was his usual excellent self; Breaking waves is such a good song – any documentary maker out there working on the Mediterranean migrant boats crisis looking for a suitable song, look no further.  Danni Antagonist wrapped up another fine evening with a poetical warning – written that evening on the spot – for the electoral victors to build a nice high fence.

Thursday’s Vaultage was a bit of a bear-pit, drinkers and talkers unremitting most of the time, though Breaking waves broke through – into my skull at least – again.  Was this the first Vaultage without a Dylan cover?  Pat Nicholson made the mistake of introducing his song Liberty as “This is my Brain in the jar” – another regular’s old chestnut – only for certain members of the audience to start singing that song’s chorus over the guitar intro to Pat’s song before he had a chance to get started.  Liberty hi-jacked – or is the phrase mashed up? – Pat happily sang along.  Great fun.

Yorkiefest 2015And so we come to the mighty YorkieFest and its glorious fourth annual incarnation.  Personal favourites only otherwise I’ll be here all day, but a splendid musical roster – great work from the aforementioned Pat Nicholson (not forgetting Derek Gibbons doing loads of other stuff).  The day kicked off with a refreshing change – Navaras (the name – it says here – signifies the 9 essences and colours of Indian music) playing songs from the Bollywood canon.  Keyboards man had a few jazz chops to bring to the party.  The never-failing AntiPoet brought new material: The bards of bugger all and We’re not worthy.  Oh yes they are.  Five Men Not Called Matt – usually six, actually – today 4 men and a woman, so still rousing but a little sweeter.

OmniVibes (aka Paul Jackson) was something else.  Just the one man, beatnik beard, pork pie hatted, and his sitar.  He started off with an immaculate raga, pausing only briefly to pick up a steel bottleneck slide and synch into a couple of equally spellbinding slow blues, only to finish with a foot-stomping Seven nation army, still making full use of the sitar’s sonic potentialities.  Then apologising because he was feeling a bit under the weather as he’s over-celebrated his birthday the previous night.  I just don’t understand how people can carry on boozing and bantering away while something like that is going down, but they do.  Second Hand Grenade played that funky music, and Palmerston finished everything off harmoniously, delivering quality original material – country rock as good a label as most – with elan, gusto, subtlety and wit.  Both bands had people who seldom dance up prancing, while a celebrated tea drinker was seen with a glass of red in her hand.  Splendid day’s music.  And Towcester Mill Brewery’s Rubio was a tasty tipple to accompany it all.  Bravo Pat, Derek & co.         

OmniVibe in full flow.  Photo (c) Pat Nicholson.

OmniVibes in full flow. Photo (c) Pat Nicholson.

 

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Stony Words 2015QI on the telly Friday night and in the general ignorance round there’s mention of a musical instrument I’ve never heard of.  Saturday night (a while back now, Jan 24) I get to see and hear one played.  The theorbo is a bass lute.  Given that people were smaller back then, it’s a bit of a monster.  Along with the viol, Mr Simpson’s Little Consort put it to good use in the delivery of their sacred, profane and bawdy repertoire.

pepys-gifford-1-300x292Ayres and graces

Now in its 11th year, StonyWords! – Stony Stratford’s literary festival – kicked off with Ayres and Graces at York House – John Alexander in full drag reading selections from the diaries of Samuel Pepys, interspersed with music of the Restoration period courtesy of aforesaid four-piece Consort; or music from the period interspersed with readings from … you get the picture.  It was a game of two halves, the first richly populated with the bits Mr Knox, our history master, had taken joy in hinting at back then (the complete unexpurgated edition hadn’t wasn’t published til a decade later) – Pepys as recidivist philanderer and whorer (never again, he says … again), Pepys the chronicler of his bowels and more.  In the moving second half the wig came off and we were living matter of factly through the sights and fears and practicalities of life in the Plague year of 1665 – the parallels with ebola impossible to put to one side, it was that vivid – and witnessing the progress of the Great Fire of London a year later.  A fine evening of edifying entertainment.

Hardback

Hardback

The Rainborowes

Back to the 17th century the next Monday to the Library to see Adrian Tinniswood talking with engaging enthusiasm about his latest book,  The Rainborowes: pirates, Puritans and a family’s quest for the Promised Land (Cape , 2013).  Quite a bunch, indeed, crisscrossing the Atlantic (no, really), with a particularly sad tale of one of the much-married women failing to find happiness in the New World.  Standout, however, has to be Thomas –

Paperback

Paperback

seaman, English Civil War siege-master and radical – a leading Republican soldier in Cromwell’s New Model Army and a significant contributor to the Putney Debates – the post-victory OK-what-are-we-gonna-do-now discussions forced on the Grandees by the more radically democratic Levellers.  Fascinating stuff.

Interesting discussion at the end as to the respective merits of the hardback and paperback covers, with author and small minority at the meeting holding out for the hardback (that’s King Charles’s head coming off) as opposed to the author’s agent, paperback publisher and the majority favouring the historical genre design in the shops.

Bardic trials 2015The Bardic Trials

A new tradition instituted in this, the fifth of the annual Bardic Trials.  Grey Rod, bedecked in academic gown, ceremonially knocking three times to gain entrance.  Regardless of the rod not actually being grey [but see Comments below], it would appear the position also bears some responsibility as returning officer for the casting and  counting of the popular vote, this year to be done with cheap metal washers as opposed to the traditional post-it note.  Given that Grey Rod was Stephen Hobbs, this rather scuppered the redoubtable Antipoet‘s passionate rendering, in the course of another wondrous set, this time featuring some new material – of their tuneful rousing bit of music hall chantery (composed, tis said, on Christmas day) Stephen Hobbs for Bard.

The Bardic Pencil is passed on.  (Photo credit due if I knew whose it was.)

The Bardic Pencil is passed on. (Photo credit due if I knew whose it was.)

At the end of the day it was Pat “the Hat” Nicholson who won out over storyteller Red Phoenix  by a single metal washer after the initial field of four had been whittled down for the penalty shoot-out.  It was a full house and the crowd was vocal throughout – another grand night.  Let us now hail the new Bard.  His Autobiographical ode to Stony Stratford, recalling his family’s Saturday shopping trips to Stony from Whaddon when he was 6 and lorries hurtled down the A5, for the High Street was still a trunk road back then, was the outstanding competition piece on the night.  He’ll be a worthy Bard, and I hope some of his Bardic duties at least will be accomplished in song with the more familiar guitar in hand; nothing in the rules against it.

Troubadour Reunion

 And so, back to York House on Friday for Ian Entwistle on acoustic guitar accompanied by, and on occasion featuring individually, the voices of 4 natural women (with a touch of recorder now and then), celebrating the singer-songwriters of the early ’70s – James Taylor, Carole King, Neil Young, Cat Stephens to the fore.  Quality performances ensured the sell-out crowd had a great evening that was testament to the emotional power of those great songs on people the first time around, back then.  There were moist eyes in every direction, and I for one had never quite realised what James Taylor meant to women of that generation; it was Neil Young’s Old man that did it for me.

That finished early enough for us to catch a bit of Speakeasy’s From Bard to verse evening down the road in The Bull.  Just in time to catch the new Bard – still sans guitar – strutting his stuff, declaiming from the centre of the floor as if to the manor born.

The Box Ticked at the Crauford

TBT at CraufordSaturday, eschewing StonyWords! for the nevertheless highly literate charms of the “quirkessentially British power pop” that is The Box Ticked in the bar at the Crauford Arms in neighbouring Wolverton.  This was the opening gig of the bands’ winter tour of Milton Keynes.  Two full and very fine sets with some shaping up nicely new stuff.  You can read all about it here, on their very own blog and website.  I suppose a satire warning is warranted before you go there; this, for instance from the blog, about the second gig of the tour:

Having found a place to crash for the night with people we know, the weary but excited Box Ticked made their way from Wolverton over towards Stony Stratford for the mid-way point of their tour of Milton Keynes.

And this from their report of the third gig on the tour:

There was a huge cheer at one point, which I’m happy to accept was a direct response to the chorus of Musical Differences, but may have been something to do with the rugby.

For the uninitiated Musical differences chronicles the supposed, um, musical differences of the two writers in the band, opposing the Carpenters with the Pistols; the point being … and it was the England-Wales Six Nations game.  But back to the slightly cavernous Crauford, where the words of the excellent Plugging away

The room is cold and quiet
And well below capacity

were delivered with a certain ironic edge.  Not that there weren’t people there (there were, but it was cold), just that the cool kids who knew the band were all sitting to the side.  Was a pleasure to be there.  And those very lyrics would ring out with a very different cadence to a packed crowd very soon in the future.

Pride and another Gathering

PrideSunday and Stony Scala Film Club is showing Pride (2014) at The Cock.  Another sell-out crowd.  Great British film about the travails of lesbian and gay group from London who set out to adopt a pit and end up in South Wales, a true story no less.  Roller coaster of emotions as they achieve a certain acceptance from most of the mining village but become an embarrassment to the local NUM, all this as AIDS/HIV is rearing its head.  Lots of great little cameos and nice little touches reflecting the times.  It brought back memories of what was a horrible time for the left in Britain, and my only criticism was its giving full rein to a sentimentality that failed to address the question of Scargill’s disastrous leadership of the miners at all.  (Slightly disturbing to discover Sherlock‘s Moriarty running Gay’s the Word bookshop.)  And so, full of sadness and gladness …

Scribal Fox… over the road and up a bit to the installation of the Scribal Gathering expansion pack in full swing at The Fox & Hounds.  The room is full, the energy high, new faces on the stage and in the audience along with the usual suspects.  A fine short quirkessential set this time from those Box Tickers again.

Literary Quiz 

Last event of StonyWords! 11 was the literary quiz.  I was on the Evil Y-nots team, amerry band of brothers.  Honour saved, we came second last.  But the teasing out of Bladerunner as an answer was worth a high-5, and this may well be the last time in my life it will ever be useful to know that Anne McCaffrey wrote the Dragonsingers of Pern sequence of SF novels.  And apparently ‘Oh, fuck off’ was not one of the houses at Hogwarts.  Innovatory new format this year – each team brings along a set of questions for one round – to overcome the handicap of actually winning (not that …), which used to be you had to set next year’s quiz.  Worked well, set a decent precedent.

Oh, and there was the History Mystery: a charter in time creative chronicling competition.  Procrasturbation meant I didn’t manage to get an entry in in time.  I did have an idea, though.  The thing is, as well as this year’s 800 years of Magna Carta, it was 1215 when King John visited Stony Stratford, and, hearsay has it, giving Stony its own charter granting township status.  Except nobody’s ever seen said piece of parchment.  There’s no documentation.  So the competition was to speculate what might have happened to it.  My idea – and it won’t be the only one, I’m sure – was time traveling mischief.  This is what the judges were spared:

        “Oh bloody hell, Wells.  Not you again.”  Finding himself on the banks of a river, coming round from yet another crack on the head, Herbert George Wells, author of the purportedly fictional book The time machine, was the last person Samuel Clemens wanted to see.  His own book, published under the pseudonym of Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, was another traveller’s tale marketed as fiction to keep the reality of time travel secret.  “We must stop meeting like this.”
“Twain, you old bastard,” responded the pompous little philanderer, whose friends may have called him HG [must look that up],  “Happened again, has it?  You really ought to wear something to protect that soft head of yours.”
Anyway, at some stage along comes King John, who autographs the Charter, and one way or another – maybe the two authors end up fighting over the Charter for some reason, ripping it asunder, the pieces falling into the river; or one of them, suddenly excited by inspiration, the prospect of another masterpiece, uses the back of it to take notes on; or, indeed, for some other less savoury use (do I have to spell it out?)

Charter or no, the Stony of StonyWords! 11 – and I haven’t covered it all at all – was a good place to be.

Shadows in the nightBob Dylan

While all this was going on Mr Dylan released a new platter for our entertainment and enjoyment.  In case you haven’t heard, it’s an unlikely 10-song strong collection of popular songs from the Great American Songbook which have been previously recorded by Frank Sinatra.  It only takes up, no – fills, 40 minutes a go – good old vinyl LP length – of your time.  Amazingly enough, it works.  Singing sweetly (or as sweetly as, you know, but still sweetly), accompanied by his sparingly augmented touring band, slow-paced, with the pedal steel player in a crucial role, it’s rather wonderful.  You’ll never hear the songs quite the same again.  Yearning, regret, acceptance they’re all in there in abundance.  The man owns Some enchanted evening, (“Fools give you reasons / Wise men never try“) and That lucky old sun, the closer, just rolls around heaven all day.  It’s lovely.

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GoldfinchI started Donna Tartt‘s The goldfinch (2013) towards the end of June, on holiday.  There was a hardback there where we were staying and it was urged on me.  I got over half way but it was too big – 784 pages – for the suitcase so I didn’t bring it back with me.  I bought the paperback – now ‘grown’ to 864 pages – but it just lay there on the Welsh dresser gathering dust while I caught up with other stuff (a book from a library waiting list, book group, real life).  But when I picked it up again a couple of weeks ago it was like I’d never been away.  Donna Tartt is one vivid writer.  People, places and emotional spaces.  I sped through.  Fantastic book, glorious ending.  Do not hesitate.

Terrorist bombing in a New York art gallery.  13-year-old Theo Decker’s bohemian single mum is killed, he gets out with a unique painting – the Dutch Master goldfinch of the title.  He spends time with rich school buddy’s folks and meets an antique shop restorer and owner.  I’ve already left one crucial romantic thread out.  Legal stuff because of his age means he ends up with estranged father and moll on the desert fringes of a failed real estate venture on the outskirts of Vegas.  Meets up with Russian kid Boris for a couple of years of slacker delinquency.  Epic solo Greyhound bus ride back to NY with hidden dog.  Makes a go of it with the antique dealer and meets up with the tragic rich kids’ family again.  Dodgy antiques dealings, meets up with Boris again, now an international criminal.  Mechanics of the stolen art market, In Bruges sort of happenings in Amsterdam.  Back to NY eventually, surprise denouement, and aforementioned glorious soaring ending.  By that time I think he’s reached his late 20s.  Phew.  And a whole lot more.

Dickensian for sure, but without the complex sentence structure, and cut with, I think it’s fair to say, a dash of modern world Ripley mode Patricia Highsmith.  Great dialogue and, as I’ve said, incredibly vivid prose.  The description of what happens in the explosion in the art gallery is just stunning.  Here’s how vivid: there’s a passage where Theo tries to end it all (no great spoiler here, given he’s the narrator and there’s a way to go yet) with a combination of booze and drugs; while reading this I dozed off and spilt a cup of coffee in my lap.  OK, I’d woken up way too early that day.  But, trust me: she takes you there.  Dramatic and contemplative, always a page turner, but still concerned with – well, basically – the human condition, the ambiguities of morality.  Discussing events: “I think this goes more to the idea of ‘relentless irony’ than ‘divine providence’.”  Relentless irony!

FreewheelinAs regular readers here at Lillabullero will know, I’m likely to pepper you with quotes, tasters.  I usually take the odd note as I read a book, but I soon realised with one like this life was too short.  But as it happened I’d spent some time with a friend who had a black and white art print of an outtake from the photo sessions for the Freewheelin‘ cover about to go up on his wall and the fine passage that follows was on pretty much the first page I read in The goldfinch when I got back.  Jungians like to call this sort of thing synchronicity though I’ll stick with happy coincidence.  This is how Theo Decker was feeling one day as he walked the narrow streets of Greenwich Village:

… more than perfect [ …] the kind of winter where you want to be walking down a city street with your arm around a girl like on the old record cover – because Pippa was exactly that girl, not the prettiest but the no-makeup and kind of ordinary looking girl he’d chosen to be happy with, and in fact that picture was an ideal of happiness in its way, the hike of his shoulders and the slightly embarrassed quality of her smile, that open-ended look like they might just wander off anywhere they wanted together…

Frozen shroudThe frozen shroud

Closer to home, I’ve been reading another of Martin Edwards‘ always welcome Lake District Mysteries featuring retired tv historian Daniel Kind and DCI Hannah Scarlett, who started her police career with his father as her boss, in charge of the Cold Case Team.  A satisfying mix of the modern cozy and police procedural set in one of my favourite places, The frozen shroud (Allison & Busby, 2013), the 6th in the series, didn’t disappoint.  Two murders in the same place nearly a century apart, then another one and several plot twists, including a diversion I fell for, carry us along nicely, while the soap opera elements that are inevitable in a long running series continue to entertain.  I think Edwards does this better than any of the crime novelists I regularly read, including bigger names, but please Martin – don’t let them get together long-term.  Beware resolving the sexual tension; it has destroyed, for example, obscure tv humourous crime show (Freeview channel 61)  Castle, I’d say.

As usual
, Edwards provides some neat touches, using ex-Lakes dweller Thomas de Quincey’s On murder considered as one of the fine arts as a prop, having Hannah’s mate Terri call her cat Morrissey, Hannah’s boss issuing “a suitably bland, reassuring and mendacious news release” to counter a rumour.  I’ll give a hurrah, too, for Daniel’s visit to Keswick Museum & Art Gallery, too, with its musical stones; I hadn’t realised it had been closed for improvements and am delighted to learn it hasn’t lost its quirky old chamber of curiosities ambience.  I suppose it is inevitable, more’s the pity, that police reorganisation is now pretty much a staple of British crime fiction.  Nevertheless, I look forward to the next one with relish.

The Goldfinch: a slight return

Fabritius - Goldfinch

‘The goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius.

This is not the first time goldfinches have featured here on Lillabullero.  We’ve had plenty in our garden over the years – a ‘charm’ of goldfinches is the collective noun, and rightly so – and it’s good to know they are on the increase in the UK, one of the great recoveries.  To think they used to be caught and caged.  I was half expecting Donna Tartt to make a reference at some stage to Thomas Hardy‘s poem, A caged goldfinch, given her erudition, but no.  Not that that’s a problem.  Anyway, it’s a poem with an afterlife, a tale with a bite in its tail, that takes me back to a lecture theatre and the eccentric Englit scholar Roma Gill, when I was 18.

It refers back to a scene in one of his most miserable novels. The Mayor of Casterbridge I think.  Here’s the poem as it first when first published.  Just put ‘Hardy goldfinch’ into a search engine and more often than not it only has two verses:

Within a churchyard, on a recent grave, 
I saw a little cage 
That jailed a goldfinch. All was silence, save 
Its hops from stage to stage. 

There was inquiry in its wistful eye. 
And once it tried to sing; 
Of him or her who placed it there, and why. 
No one knew anything. 

True, a woman was found drowned the day ensuing. 
And some at times averred 
The grave to be her false one's, who when wooing 
Gave her the bird.
Later editions of his poetry – issued while he was still alive, by his own hand, after someone had explained negative music hall audience feedback to him – appeared without that final verse.

StablestockStablestock

For the second time this year a gig in the stables yard at The Bull in Stony survived virtually unscathed in the face of the previous day’s doom laden weather forecasts.  I have to admit partaking of 5 of the 6 beers available for the occasion meant I missed the last two bands; no stamina these days.  Particularly liked the 3 Tuns’ 1642 and Liverpool Craft’s American Red, which exploded with flavours; chickened out of Crazy Days.  Music was all good and strong too.  Palmerston‘s original country rock material impressed again,while Glass Tears‘ take on Phil Collins’ In the air tonight (no, really) never ceases to move me, and there was a lot of fun and fine voice to be had from the Vaults mob one way or another, earlier.

Palmerston strung out

Palmerston strung out

The mighty Antipoet strung things together with their usual charm and wit, and peppered the day with a few of their own classic compositions (there’s plenty of examples in YouTube); with them there’s no danger of familiarity staling the palate. (And here’s a local nod to organiser Terri; Oakham’s Scarlet Macaw may have been on tap, but Red Phoenix was on the ball ‘backstage’).

Appropos of nothing

And just for the sake of it, here’s a supermoon pic.  Not great, I know, but I was pleased to catch some of the brown in the clouds:
Supermoon

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Not necessarily in that order.

This is Joan Cusine Cusine, who used to be in charge of the family owned winery Parés Balta in Catalonia’s Penedès region.  He’s the middle Joan – Joan can be a bloke in Spain – between his father and one of his sons.  It’s the sons who run the show now, with his daughters in law in charge of the winemaking – the oenologists beloved of crossword and quiz compilers – but middle Joan is still very much involved.  We were part of a group that had the pleasure a couple of weeks ago of being taken round by him and talked through their organic vineyards and winery, while being instructed in what goes into the producing of good wine.  The tasting was a pretty tasty experience too.

He’s a delightful man, wearing his undoubted passion for what they do lightly, with charm and good humour.  Said he had a soft spot for the British because – inspired by the Beatles – he spent time in England in the ’60s.  He had our attention from the start.  Being organic, for instance, means they have their own herd of sheep for the direct application of fertiliser to the vines.  He also outlined a fascinating approach to instilling in the young the difference between taste and consumption; you establish a regular time for the whole family, you make it an event, to try five examples of, say, bottled water one time, bread, milk, and so on another, exploring the differences.  So by the time you get to alcohol you’ve sewn the potential seeds of appreciation, of savouring rather than just necking it.

Abandon cheap mass-produced supermarket vino he politely pleaded, and give the good guys a chance; their range starts at a modest  €7 a bottle.  He’s agnostic when it comes to screw caps – no problem – which is a relief.  They have a neat highly informative website here.  (If you get a bit confused by the A unique heritage page, just click on the A variety of microclimates photo and take it from there.)  So that’s http://www.paresbalta.com/ in case that link doesn’t work.  Not that I’d bet on me in a blind tasting, mind, but, you know … I appreciated the ambience and good vibes.

There’s a few fine wines necked for all the wrong reasons in I am the secret footballer: lifting the lid on the beautiful game by, well, The Secret Footballer (Guardian Books, 2012).  I zipped through this.  From what I recall of them, it’s a bit more than just the Guardian columns anthologised – he’s been running there for over a season now – and some, like the one about what it’s like for a player’s family during the autumn transfer deadline dash, aren’t included, which is a shame.  I’m not that deep into the minutiae of the game to be able to make a sensible guess at his identity, but the revelations that Ashley Cole and John Terry are not particularly pleasant human beings and the opinions that Alan Shearer contributes nothing to punditry and that Robbie Savage is a gobshite hardly narrow the field.  There’s an unofficial website that speculates about who it could be.  He started writing the column because he wanted people to know the tabloid portrayal of players was over-generalised, inaccurate and didn’t do justice to, well, him at least.  It’s revealing on Premiership football as a job, albeit a well paid one even for the journeyman, as a workplace.  His resolve to keep in touch with his council estate roots engages, while his arguments for the usefulness of agents are not the usual stuff of broadsheet journalism.  There’s much else besides.  Well worth reading.

Meanwhile the book group book this month was Bernhard Schlink‘s The reader (1997).  I could do a number here about you reading about me reading a book about someone else reading books but I shall refrain.  The reader is one of those books that had me reeling with compassion, incomprehension and a certain understanding.  It hinges on three big sudden revelatory twists and I don’t want to take away from them or put anyone off reading it by even hinting thereat.  I will say it’s mostly set in Germany in the ’70s and within the spare prose of its 216 pages (paperback edition) it addresses a cartload of issues of individual and social morality, responsibility and behaviour, both directly and implicitly, between the lines.  The novel functions over and above its specific dramatic situation; we are struggling here with the basic human condition.  I’d read The reader before and couldn’t remember too much about its specifics so tried to approach it sceptically this time – is it not most 15-year-old boys’ fantasy to be inducted into the delights of sexual intercourse by an elder woman? – and gave pause to the thought that one of the crucial plot twists was carrying too heavy a load, but in the end it got to me same as before.  It’s one of those books.

And so for light relief and some jokes we turn to Harry Lipkin P.I. (Polygon, 2012).  Barry Fantoni‘s novel has Harry – “the world’s oldest detective” as it says on the dust jacket – telling of the case of a series of thefts from a rich old Florida widow’s mansion and what he found investigating Columbo-like the various backgrounds – ethnic mostly, but not too stereotypical – of all the suspects, her domestic staff.  There is a twist at the end which I guess you could call tragi-comic.  It is not so much a crime novel, more an extended gentle and enjoyable jewish stand-up routine, his age – at 87 is there much scope to keep a series going? –  being the source of a fair bit of it.

The jewish humour slant on classic Raymond Chandler-isms works to occasional treat too.  If you like:

Half the paintings were the kind you see people walk past in a modern art museum.  The other half were by old Dutch masters.  Windmills.  Skaters.  Taverns full of guys smoking pipes […]

Or,  “There was a long pause.  I could have read a whole sentence by Proust.  She didn’t want an answer.”  Or when the hippy gardener turns nasty, “His voice didn’t sound quite so Mister Tambourine Man now“, if those hit the spot there are plenty more where they came from.

Not wild about the book design, though.  In my book, if you’re being consistent throughout, chapters should always start on the recto, the right hand page, and not, as here, the verso because the chapter headings are always on the recto and accompanied by some scratchy drawings (not by the author), the bulk of which add sod all to the enterprise as far as I’m concerned, and lead to an awful lot of white space and blank pages, which I find deeply annoying.

Have been giving Babel, that difficult second album from Mumford & Sons a spin this week.  They’ve ducked the issue, really, in that it’s not far removed from Sigh no more but inevitably lacking the surprise of the majestic emotional swell of the latter’s arrangements.  On Babel they sound more like assemblages built from the first album fed into a computer.  Marcus Mumford’s voice remains distinctive but apart from the title track all the songs start slowly and quietly and build to their frenetic acoustic climaxes (and still effective anti-climaxes) with the banjo still holding its own.  Couldn’t a couple of tracks kicked off loud and strident and faded for a change, lads?  Or just been, well, songs?  I’ll still defend them against the scoffers and snobby musos who bemoan the success – hell, they’ve even got a book club on their website – because I think their hearts are in the right place, even if the well-intentioned lyrics (always focussed on the I as a part of a we rather than me, though old before their time) don’t exactly read as profound as they can sound fragmentally.

Meanwhile Mr Dylan‘s difficult 35th studio (it’s the official website that’s counting) and 50th anniversary of his first album album, Tempest, is repaying repeated listening. The larynx may have gone, but the phrasing, the rhythmic qualities of the delivery, still have plenty of petrol in the tank.  The band, his touring band, is outstanding and there are some lovely musical moments.  The beauty of the arrangement for Pay in blood is in start contrast to the savagery of the lyrics, while the narrative tensions of the death ballad Tin angel or the Barbara Allen reworking Scarlet Town are prime Bob Dylan.  There are a few seconds of accordion from David Hidalgo (he of Los Lobos) on the second Chicago blues workout, Early Roman Kings that shine in their sheer classicism (though I retain a slight regret that the Kings are a New York street gang rather than yer actual ancients).  The two tracks that all the pre-publicity was about, a 15 minute song about the sinking of the Titanic – the title track, no less – and the John Lennon tribute , are frankly superfluous.  I haven’t managed to sit through the former once without nodding off or drifting into doing something else.  Just as well they’re the last two songs on the CD, which is otherwise an exhilarating and mysterious ride indeed.

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Feels like I’ve done more socialising in the last ten days than in the last hundred.  But first, a word from our sponsor.  Now it’s safe to have Herbal Essences branded product in the house again – now that those blatant Meg Ryan fake orgasm rip-off TV ads are history – we have just added to our extensive collection of shampoos one called ‘Fresh balance‘, which claims to be a ‘clarifying shampoo’. I am, ahem, unclear as to what exaclty this means.  The mirror gives no hint that anything new has happened (either that or the shampoo has simply failed) though the citrus blossom and green tea odour was pleasnt enough.  Mind, I know about shampoos.  In the mid-60s my mum worked on the shop floor at 4711 on Slough Trading Estate, where they produced some of the first specialist shampoos – Stablon (for blondes) and Brunatex for … you guessed.  Except it was the same stuff put into differently labelled plastic bottles of contrasting hue.  True story.

So … the last Scribal Gathering of the year saw a performance by Final Clearance  – and it worked well that the lead guitar/vocals looked like the politely bearded, be-tied and be-jacketed manager of an emporium advertising just that – who teasingly prefaced half their songs with slow ornate airs from Christmas songs before jumping off into some lively and very together, energetic yet controlled, ditties of their own, the presence of a violinist doing no harm at all.  No featured poet so mine host Richard Frost stepped up to the plate with among other pieces a splendiferous poetic performance of his prize winning bitter-sweet Weekend dads rant and rue.  I did a slot that wasn’t embarrassing and thus a relief.  I-wish-I-could-remeber-his-name did some of his Chemistry poems to great acclaim.  How can a man fail who starts his set, arms reaching out, chanting ‘Chem-ist-try-yee’ in the manner of Gary Glitter’s finest 3 minutes (Rock and roll).  Another good night’s culture.  Somewhat distracted at one stage at our table by not being able to remember Galliano‘s name (the acid jazz rappers), whose works I re-acquainted myself with later in the week; to just mention and say that Stoned again is one of the all-time great comedy records probably does them a dis-service, but wotthehell, Archy, wotthehell.

And from Scribal to Scrabble.  Helped the Scrabble Queen of Milton Keynes get her mojo back by losing by a couple of lengths in consecutive games.  Then the local Humanists solstice party included a Wooing Play (a Mummers variant) and Stewart did Jake the Peg complete with extra leg.  Oh, and a first public performance on ukulele by your resident blogger, backing the Quaylettes for the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Daydream.  What a day.

More mummers at a musical solstice evening on the shortest day.  These were mainly proper musicians with proper voices who would say things like, “Let’s do number 13 in the Green Book,” so I recited Adelaide Ann Proctor‘s epic of good bad verse The lost chord of 1858 (“Seated one day at the organ / I was weary and ill at ease …“).  I was St Andrew in the Mummers play (one of Andy’s innovative insertions, like the Queen of the May) but my Scottish accent became problematic.  One of the songs that I could join in on was The Holly and the Ivy done to the rollicking pub version of the tune (as opposed to the usual hark-the-angels-sing melody).  I wish I knew what to call it – you know, there’s something like Crimond for a hymn with opposing tunes – but here the internet (and a ‘proper’ musical chum) has failed me.

Yet more mummers in a pub yesterday and full-on full-blooded and musical it was too.  The Stony Stratford Mummers (the bunch in the picture at the top of this post) in the Fox and Hounds in the full white-faced, morris beribboned, top hatted fashion parade of tradition, Bealzebub an effective foil for crowd control.  They finished with a rousing non-mainstream Holly and the ivy too.  How I relish the memory of  sixth-form wassailing for charity in the pubs of Burnham at Christmas – the Boar’s Head Carol the fave – ending up at the trad jazz bearded communist (so exotic) music teacher’s house where he plied us with drink (well, a glass thereof).

And after that entertainment,  home to catch up with the final two episodes of The Killing II.  Bloody hell.

And the birds pick up on the change, time to start singing again.

 

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