Posts Tagged ‘Ian Rankin’


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Briefly, catching up, top of the pile has to be:

  • The artist saying a few words amid her creation,

    The artist saying a few words amid her creation,

    Anna Berry‘s wonderful 2-hour pop-up guerilla art installation Fake plastic trees: a memorial to the Midsummer oak.  It felt good to be a part of this critical celebration of place, and of friendship.  The grand old oak was

    A l;ittle bit of magic in the wet early evening

    A little bit of magic in the wet early evening

    engulfed by the Shopping Centre extension – the bit that MK dwellers still call ‘the new bit’ despite its having had two official names so far – the extension, as I was saying, to the original Grade II listed building (oh yes), and though the tree was retained as a feature, over the years it died a slow – painful to watch – death.  Anna created “a magical forest of memories” in an underpass, but let her tell you all about it (and see some better photos than mine) at: http://www.annaberry.co.uk/3-2/installation-pieces/fake-plastic-trees/

  • Stan and NanSarah Lippett‘s graphic novel Stan and Nan (Cape, 2016) is a lovely piece of work – poignant, illuminating and profound.  I struggle to find the words to describe the artwork – far from crude, certainly not childlike, maybe outsider (yet it started as an art school project) – and will have to settle for economic and stylised.  While she can be quite busy when it helps, Stan and Nan is a prime example of
    Taken from the Guardian's review.

    Taken from the Guardian’s review.

    the less-is-more principle of storytelling.  The spare use of muted colours is at times dazzling; in no other form can you quite get spectacle, the delight and surprise, of simply turning the page and getting a glimpse into something bigger.  Stan and Nan tells with a deceptively light touch the story of Sarah‘s Nan and her man Stan.  The first half gives us their courtship and life together until his sudden death, with a glimpse of his artistic talents; the second starts with her funeral and unfolds with the tales told and the story of her days without Stan, including her close contact with Sarah.  Here are unsung superheroes, living out the days of quietly momentous lives.  It was an interview in the Guardian about how it evolved that led me to the book; go there to get more examples of how it works its magic: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jul/09/who-was-the-creepy-man-in-the-family-photo.

  • Rankin - Naming of the deadInteresting Book Group for July: Ian Rankin‘s The naming of the dead (2006).  A re-reading for me.  That’s the Rebus one taking place during the fateful early days of July 20015, with the GB meeting at Gleneagles, the Make Poverty History mobilisation and concert in Edinburgh, and the 7/7 bombings in London; it stands up well as a social document.  John Rebus’s take on the grander stuff? – “All he could do was lock up a few bad people now and then. Results which didn’t seem to change the bigger picture.”  Several of the Book Group don’t normally read genre fiction; one, disappointed that, as cream of the crop, Rankin wasn’t a better writer, had to be re-assured how bad some of his successful contemporaries are at putting a sentence together.  Another made a really good point when she said, disregarding the somewhat convoluted if intriguing plot (maybe serial killer mixed with maybe military-industrial complex skullduggery and more), that it was basically a novel about relationships.  Yes, there are indeed plenty of those, familial and professional, with, classically, Rebus and younger colleague Siobhan at its heart (and in this example also a prime example of Rankin’s most annoying stylistic habit, of unnecessary adverbial qualification or thesaurus haunting in the matter of speech):

‘ … your mum says she’s not bothered who whacked her. Nobody seems worried about Ben Webster’s death. And yet here we both are.’  He lifted his face towards her and gave a tired smile.
‘It’s what we do,’ she replied quietly.
‘My point exactly. No matter what anyone thinks or says. I just worry that you’ve learned all the wrong lessons from me.’
‘Credit me with a bit of sense,’ she chided him, putting the car into gear.

  • Couldn't manage a decent photo of the Burne-Jones window but the unstained glass offered up instant Monet

    Couldn’t manage a decent photo of the Burne-Jones window but the unstained glass offered up instant Monet

    A day trip to Cromer, the weather just right – hot enough, sweet breeze.  Nice lunch at Browne’s round the back of the Parish Church (thank you TripAdvisor) – excellent veggie sausage and mash, while Andy and pal sampled the celebrated local dressed crab.  Into the church of

    PaintShop Pro One Step Phot Fix gives us the blue sky of another era's postcards

    PaintShop Pro One Step Photo Fix gives us the blue sky of another era’s postcards

    St Peter and St Paul with an extremely tall tower and a vibrant Burne-Jones window, then sea-sidey stuff: the promenade, the Pier, the ice cream, the beach.  As Swinburne wrote, now embossed in metal and embedded on the esplanade, “an esplanady sort of place” – what a lovely word!

  • IF programmeSummer cold and/or chronic hay fever and the excessive heat meant I didn’t see as much of IF – the biennial Milton Keynes International festival – as I might have, though to tell the truth I couldn’t get that excited about the 2016 edition.  Went to the opening biggie – the largest bubble on the programme cover – the truly international Voalá: Station.  Without being really spectacular it was worth the crick in the neck.  I’ll let the programme do the talking: “Four suited and booted businessmen are swept up into a world of magic, distracted from their daily commute by a mysterious woman who unleashes four sirens who transform the men’s evening into an unforgettable and magical ‘flying’ performance.  Weaving together aerial acrobatics, music and colour, and played out above the audience” … in the Mini-Bowl at Willen Lake.  The mysterious woman had a powerful singing voice but I wish there’d been more of the accordion than the booming modern stuff.  The fireworks were interesting, not your usual, with some lovely blues if I recall correctly, but you had to be in right part of the Bowl to fully appreciate them and the action at the same time.  From others’ enthused reports, I wish I’d drag my blocked nose and sorry body out to see the Station House Opera: Dominoes event, the collapsing dominoes even going up and down the stairs in the Theatre on their route around the city.
  • Arabian tent IF

    The Arabian Bar Tent: roof detail

    Also part of IF, took in a couple of performances on the Stables Sessions Acoustic Sessions Stage in the Arabian Tent: the ancient rural seasonal reflections of the immaculate Straw Horses, and the fragrant Naomi Rose doing her greatest hits (plus an intriguing new song) – such originality.  [http://soundcloud.com/naomi-rose-2]

  • Scribal July 2016July Scribal Gathering was suffering a bit from the post-Brexit blues, the audience energy-sapped.  Shame it was this one had to be set up as a comedy themed night.  Slight of frame Muslim stand-up Zahra Barri had a wealth of decent material from her Egyptian/Irish upbringing, but it never really caught fire; shame.  Philfy Phil, singer of inventively witty dirty ditties, tried to get away with not doing his rewrite of The boxer (“Dali died” etc.).
  • Vaultage early July 16Vaultage mid-July 16What else?  A couple of Vaultages, and an afternoon’s music in Wolverton’s  Secret Garden the Sunday before last, with the ubiquitous Mark Owen, the angular funk and Jo Dervish’s distinctive vocals from Screaming House Madrigals (with a TOT WMGtouch of reggae) and  quirky compositions of some wit from The Outside This (as featured in this photo from my crappy phone).  Nice relaxed community event, and it hardly rained at all.

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Rankin - Even dogsBilly One

Why would you do that?  Surely a sticker would suffice?  And fend off the inevitable redundancy on bookshelves everywhere when the next one – as is greatly to be hoped – is published?  But no, the dust jacket of the hardback of Even dogs in the wild (Orion, 2015), Ian Rankin’s latest addition to the Rebus saga,  permanently boasts its credentials as ‘The new John Rebus‘ as an integral part of the design.  Like he’s Doctor Who or something.

Rebus may be feathering a bit at the edges now he’s retired – by the end of the book he’s acquired a dog (not a big one) that has wandered into his life, he’s getting a all granddaddy, and he’s accepted CDs into his home – but he’s still basically the same curmudgeonly old sod he’s always been, and he’s still driving that ancient Saab.  Getting soft in your old age, John?” he is taunted, at one stage.  “Soft as nails,” he comes back.  He names the dog Brillo.

Even dogs in the wild is essentially a three-hander.  Rebus is back as a consultant helping his protegé DCI Siobhan Clarke on a difficult case, and Rankin continues to keep faith with his later creation, the teetotal Malcolm Fox, ex-Complaints but now gaining his spurs and some cojones in CID (and also at she’s-not-my-girlfriend stage – to his regret – with Siobhan) playing a full part.  This looks to be a template with legs on it, though I’d like to hear more about where Siobhan’s coming from again – didn’t she seriously cycle at one stage?  As seems to be par for the course these days in crime fiction, there are two overlapping and red herring-ing cases on the go at once: primarily a tale of revenge tale arising from unsavoury happenings involving the high and mighty at a youth remand centre in the ’80s, while at the same time organised crime gangs are jousting for position on the same patch.  The unlikely link is Rankin’s reliable old gangster, the ageing-with-Rebus ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty; Indian takeaway menus feature strongly in the investigation as things pan out.

It’s crisply delivered with all the usual hallmarks.  Nicely paced interlocking narratives, sharp dialogue (how I love the Rebus-Siobhan double act), compassion and social commentary, commitment, character and wit, not forgetting the odd drop of Scottish lingua franca.  There’s thankfully less of a soundtrack than usual – a Brit crime trend long past its sell-by date (feel free, though, Ian, to give the Kinks a play again).  That said, there are still some neat musical references.  The book’s title – Even dogs in the wild – is significant, taken as it is from a Billy MacKenzie song on the Associates’ 1980 album The affectionate punch that has a part to play in the drama; it is not a happy song (That’s Billy One, in case you didn’t notice).  I followed through on a lesser Steve Miller song that gets a plug but was less impressed.

There’s humour in the music, too.  “I’m always happy,” Rebus protests to Siobhan at a certain stage; says she, Your taste in music says otherwise”.  “I’m Colin Blunt – no relation, alas,” is how someone helping them with their enquiries introduces himself to them. ‘ To the spy?” Rebus guessed. The singer,” Blunt corrected him with a frown.’

You want a touch of Edinburgh intertextuality?  Rebus and Siobhan again:

“What’s the book?”
He said, changing the subject. It’s Kate Atkinson.”
Any good?”
Someone keeps coming back from the dead.”

Anything more would constitute a spoiler.  (Minor oops.)

Ondaatje - Billy the KidBilly Two

Though Michael Ondaatje is one of my favourite writers – just for starters his atmospheric Coming through slaughter about Buddy Bolden is the best book about a musician I know – I struggled with his The collected works of Billy the Kid: left handed poems (1970) the first time round.  Probably because I wasn’t working hard enough; it does repay close attention.  Didn’t help that the haunting cover of the UK edition I read – the work of Mexican photographer Romualdo Garciá – I discover has absolutely nothing to do with Billy the Kid, save that his old friend and subsequent nemesis Pat Garrett gave him the chance to escape to Mexico which he didn’t take.

Ondaatje Page 1But first a brief digression on the perils of buying second-hand books.  When confronted with an opening page like this, with the text saying, “I send you a picture of Billy made with the Perry shutter as quick as it can be worked – Pyro and soda developer …” there is a sinking feeling – is there not? – that something is missing.  A pasted in place insert, maybe?  Recourse to the internet reveals I am not the first to take this trail, and with that comes the reassurance that I’m not missing anything physically, though quite what one is to take from that blank space – paint your own picture? – remains undefined.  And the discussion from keen historians of photography as to when the first Perry shutters were employed (later than when Billy became the late Billy?) does not help.  Most of the other photos printed (badly) in the book are also enigmatic.

Anyway, what we have here is a collage, a cut and paste and tinkering job in a style that modern tv documentaries have adopted, a story told using a vivid mix of actually mostly prose accounts taken from books detailing interviews from individuals who were part of the young man’s story (always polite when not shooting people etc.) and short poems some of which purport – only in the book’s title is it suggested – to come from him.  The ‘collected works’ are, I suppose, the man’s effect he had on those he met, and the legend.  The unconscious living out of Oscar Wilde aiming to be his own work of art.  Among the last pages is a bleak corpse ballad and, just before that, a crass comic fantasy involving Mexican princesses from the ’60s.  The page over from the blank photo is a simple listing of “The killed” “(By me)” – the longer list – and “(By them)”.  While there are moments of rest, respite and friendship – love, even – it’s an ugly, desolate, disturbing picture of the fabled West, of violence, brutality and madness, vividly drawn.  William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid died aged 21.  Michael Ondaatje‘s great strength as a writer is in freezing moments, of taking you there, taking over your senses.  You have to concentrate though.

     Double click on the image to get the full glory of The Lone Ranger's prose. On the night the Rocky Road Pilgrims replaced Brian's Bluegrass Bandeiros; claimed to be a gospel group but started with a John Prine song.Billy Three

Hillbilly music?  Another fine night’s singing, plucking, picking and fiddling (and a bit of band hopping) at York House’s Stony Breakdown: 4.  Double click on the poster image to get the full glory of the first paragraph’s prose.  The Harvesters duo came with the added charm of buck dancing and a beaming smile from the distaff side.   On the night the Rocky Road Pilgrims replaced Brian’s Bluegrass Bandeiros; said they were basically a gospel group even though they started with a John Prine song.  No stains on trio Stained Glass Bluegrass’s performance, while the two main voices in Band of Brothers sang so sweetly it came as no surprise to learn the actually were brothers.

The Old Grey Dogs (c) Ken Daniels

The Old Grey Dogs (c) Ken Daniels

The Old Grey Dogs have been playing together for 35 years, give or take the odd sabbatical, and it showed; I don’t mean that in a bad way.  You’d never have guessed banjoist Joe was playing with stitches in his index finger if he hadn’t told us, while the fiddler found places no-one else had ventured near that evening.  Highly accomplished, relaxed  ensemble playing that was thrilling in its own way, delivered with wit and seated élan.  Great stuff, lads.  Then the inevitable joyous finale jamboree.

Scribal Dec 15Scribal Gathering

I’ll admit I was tempted to go with the theme’s flow and call this one ‘silly-billies’ as per adopted Yorkshireman ex-Leeds MP Dennis Healey, but – nah.  Anyway, the ever able Mitchell Taylor kicked things off with a new song full of the joys including lines something like, “If I were Bruce Springsteen / I’d fill this song with hope,” followed by the somewhat optimistic “If I were Joe Strummer / I’d know what to do,” which strikes me as a rich vein of songsmiths worth mining further.  There was a fine set of poetry from Sam Upton, Northampton’s Bard somewhere in there; I wish I’d written his H.G.Wells.  And later Mark Owen rang the changes by doing a couple of covers.  Featured performers the Acoustic Zeroes – for the evening a father and daughter duo – were nimble, intelligent, rocking and tuneful, tambourine very much a percussive force; always good to have a song with local references.

Gary from Leeds

Gary from Leeds. Photo (c) Jonathan JT Taylor (unless I’m told otherwise)

We haven’t had a performance poet from outside the area at Scribal for a while now, so it was great to see Gary from Leeds, up from that London, who bossed it.  Starting off with a portrait of a Yorkshireman compensating for missing Yorkshire by sitting in a bath full of Yorkshire Tea eating Henderson’s Relish flavoured crisps – so not silly at all – he ranged broadly, getting laughs from a glint-in-the-eye deadpan delivery addressing, more than once, a shared pit of futility and despair, quoting, if memory serves, Kierkegaard at one stage.  The heaven and hell of the British canal network, how crap trendy London is, and the perils of declaring oneself a poet – “You should write a poem about that” as refrain – were other topics touched on in an impressive set.

In closing, Lillabullero would like to thank Mr Stephen Hobbs for its No.15 placing in his entertaining and perceptive annual Poetry Top of the Pops (complete with Whole Lotta Love riffing from Mr Phil Chippendale).  To acknowledge all the open mic-ers who haven’t had a mention; doesn’t mean you’re not worthy.  And to record his great appreciation of and thanks to Mr Jonathan ‘JT’ Taylor for keeping this show on the road (and the lollipops).

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South RidingEarly on in proceedings, Mrs Beddows, one of the bedrock heroes of Winifred Holtby‘s South Riding: an English landscape (1936) offers as an excuse for a small indulgence in the evening that she’s been “wrestling all day with fallen girls and upstanding bishops.”  Looking back from the mid-2010s it’s hard (sorry) not to see innuendo there, the sort of line that would have had them in stitches at the very music halls that characters in the novel (and, I infer, the author) are a bit sniffy about.  While not being entirely dismissive, Winifred Holtby does seem to distrust and struggle in trying, unlike her contemporary, George Orwell, to come to terms with popular culture.  Even taking into account the shifting perspectives she allows us there’s a hectoring, improving tone creeps into the writing that threatens at times – though only threatens – to take away from one’s appreciation and enjoyment of a novel that approaches greatness at others.

All things being equal I doubt I would ever have read South Riding if it hadn’t been for the Reading Group I’m in.  So hurrah for reading groups.  While we were split on the likelihood of the big romantic twist in the plot – déjà vu to that same unconvincing (or me at least) moment in the telly adaptation a few years back – everybody liked Mrs Beddows, the elder confidante of both parties:

Accustomed to take the bad with the good in this world and having wide experience of both commodities, Mrs Beddows wasted no undue sympathy. Some people, she would say, are so full of the milk of human kindness that it slops over and messes everything.

What we have here is a panoramic picture of a Yorkshire community in the mid-1930s, of decision-making public and private,  in a period of great change, seen mostly through the eyes of Sarah, the hometown gal made good returning as the progressive headmistress of the local Girls’ High School, and variously aligned local government politicians and some of the people they serve or supposedly represent.  As a portrait of the way things were, you get the feeling that that was precisely how it was.  But it’s more than just a period piece: the questions it examines – class, poverty, responsibility, sacrifice, redemption, hypocrisy, change for who? – still resonate freshly from its pages.

There’s a large cast (and thankfully – authors and editors please note – a list of Characters in order of appearance 6 pages long) with representatives drawn from a broad social spectrum.  The cynic might say all the category boxes are ticked but that’s just not fair, such is the power of Winifred Holtby‘s sympathetic imagination.  Her great strength is in the gradual (but in effect dramatic) uncovering of what makes her conflicting major players tick.  Even Snaith, the scheming capitalist bastard of the piece is given his light as a moderniser (a plan for ‘A New Jerusalem’ bringing indoor toilets to the people that he gets passed with  the help of a compromised Socialist) while his empty personal life hints of a suppressed homosexuality.  Indeed, in a novel that appeared early in the Virago imprint’s distinctive green covered mission rescuing feminist classics from out-of-print oblivion, I can only think of two characters who are given no saving graces; both are middle class women whose idea of fulfilment is their dependent marriage status, or achieving it.

So … time and place beautifully evoked, vivid characterisation and character development, a decent plot.  This is a good if old-fashioned novel – compassionate, wise and looking for a better way.  Many stories are told here, but – forgive me – I’m going to take Sarah Burton, the headmistress and central character, for granted here.  She wears it well, fights a good fight, has her doubts – a bit dated, those, actually – but sees it through.

Winifred Holtby at BrigueWhat I want to talk about is the passage towards the end of South Riding  that is so fine, so powerful and resonant, I feared it would undercut whatever happened after it – like that duet in Bizet’s opera The pearl fishers after which everything is just going through the motions, seeing the evening out – but life goes on and Holtby carries the story through to the end well enough.  The horse ride that leads to the ultimate demise (oh, sorry – spoiler alert) of Robert Carne, the sporting gentleman farmer who married the Lord’s rebellious but unstable daughter, the slow reveal of the full tragedy of how his love, passion and care for her (never mind changing economic circumstances) set him on a path to ruin is a tour de force indeed.

If Carne is a man who stands for tradition, who instinctively feels and cares for the land and ‘his’ people, the modern world has a double whammy for him; there’s the new rampant capitalism and materialism, and, my concern here, its opposition in the form of the Socialist Astell, another finely nuanced character, who thinks and cares for ‘his’:

Queer, thought Carne. Socialist chaps like Astell think it’s us employers who grudge the unemployed their dole; but it’s the old workers, like Castle, who are far harder on them.

Astell’s commitment and idealism is never doubted – he is no comic character, has a back story to prove it – but he’s still a bit of a prig: “The traditional humour of the poor angered Astell. He felt humour to be an inappropriate emotion.”  Of the working class at leisure he thinks, “They moved to a rhythm without reason …” but you have to sympathise with him when he observes, “You begin by thinking in terms of world revolution and end by learning to be pleased with a sewage farm”.  Yup, so it goes.

Three more things I feel the need to mention.  Firstly, and irrelevantly really, in the character of young Lydia, an intelligent child trapped in poverty but whose “mind ranged free through moonlit Athenian forests” reading a book atop her family’s railway carriage home I kept getting glimpses of a young Caitlin Moran.  Secondly, a reminder of how far we’ve come in the UK – in the report of the local Watch Committee’s interference with the books in the public library – that someone with power can get away with

… Aldous Huxley was “a disgusting pervert,” Virginia Woolf a “morbid degenerate” and Naomi Mitchison “not fit for a lunatic asylum.” “No. I’ve not read it all through, but I know enough,” was his favourite condemnation.

And thirdly, made an issue here most might say unfairly and rather gratuitously, here’s some of the worst writing about football I’ve ever found in any novel of quality otherwise thoroughly decent prose (unless anyone knows better):

… on the Saturday evening after the gigantic victory of the Kingsport Rovers over the West Riding Wanderers and the city was en fête. […] After that glorious contest in the mud … after that last goal shot just before the whistle blew …

Enough.  Though it doesn’t have its intellectual clout – nor a hint of a Casaubon – with its close examination of how a community works and fits together, George Eliot‘s Middlemarch, is often cited in connection with South Riding.  It is certainly a major work of its time and I’d say it’s to be regretted very few novels even attempt this kind of big picture in mainstream quality fiction these days.  Of late I can only think of Philip Hensher’s ambitious try with The northern clemency and, for all its faults, J.K.Rowling’s post-Potter The casual vacancy.  It’s an abdication that has been left for crime fiction to pick up, in the work of writers like Ian Rankin.

Dark entriesSpeaking of whom …

Dark entries: a John Constantine novel (2009), a small format black and white graphic novel in DC’s Vertigo Crime series, scripted by said Ian Rankin, looked to have a lot going for it, both because of Rankin’s involvement and because it’s John Constantine, who I first encountered in an intriguing comic called Hellblazer during a lengthy post-Watchman comic binge.  It’s worth checking out Constantine’s Wikipedia entry for a fascinating over-view of the fictional career of this “working class magician, occult detective and con man” and his dry wit.  I never realised he was originally (yet another) Alan Moore creation; such is Constantine’s stature that some of the best comic book creators have leant their talents over the years to his ongoing story.

Sadly if this had been a blind reading … no, let’s re-phrase that: if I had read Dark entries without knowing of Ian Rankin‘s involvement I never would have guessed it.  And I’m afraid I was unenamoured of Werther Dell’Edera’s artwork, which had me regularly confused as to what was actually going on or to who.  Set in ‘Anytown’ (but a town with the London Transport broad horizontal line through the circle) it starts off with JC being conned into entering a big brother style reality tv house with added hauntedness.  As you’d expect, Rankin’s cynicism is to the fore in the establishing scenes.  The ‘reality’ turns out to be very different as the perceived landscape switches to one inhabited by the denizens of hell.  Don’t know about the chronology, so this might have been a fore-runner, but the reality tv horror scenario is pretty much a well established sub-genre by now, is it not?  The white bordered pages turn to black – actually rather effectively – with this revelation, but it’s just yer standard stuff of horror fantasy, which has never been my bag.  Pity, but putting Dark entries out under the Vertigo Crime logo is a bit of a misnomer.

Music Hall encounters & whatever the collective noun for songwriters is …

Sand dance

Photo (c) Ken ‘Danny Boy’ Daniels but mucked about a bit by Lillabullero

Friday night and we have monologues, melodrama and a sand dance as just some of the ingredients that went to make up Stony Music Hall 2! at York House.  Throw in Swannders & Flan, Pat as the Stony nightingale, and some clog from the same couple of Stony Steppers – out of the folky streets and onto the stage, an early staple of the Halls – with the irrepressible Bubbles closing proceedings and a fine frolicsome and fun night was had by all.  Bubbles chose songs that were directly relevant, or were popular at the time, to the First World War and it was a strange feeling to be singing along to “Come on along / Come on along / and join Lord Kitchener’s army” to the Lord Kitchener featured on 'British Army War Song Album' of WWI, 1914-18 (colour litho)tune of Alexander’s Ragtime BandPack up your troubles morphed into It’s a long way to Tipperary (or vice versa).  The deliciously delivered Spotted dick song is a perfect example of the sort of thing that made the South Riding progressives so uneasy:

We’re having a bit tonight, tonight, we’re having a bit tonight.
Me mother says I must be quick to get me bit o’ spotted dick.
I loves me roly-poly. It fills me with delight.
I haven’t had any since Christmas, but we’re having a bit tonight.

Boom, boom.  All ending with an ensemble Daisy, Daisy.  Another fine evening’s entertainment, not forgetting the Great Oakley brewery’s Welland Mild and our impressive, ineluctable, ixistential impresario – thanks Ken.

Sunday night the fruits of the latest AORTAS Songwriting Workshop (Association for Oral Traditions and AortasSongwriting, no less, if you’re wondering) are delivered to market at the Old George.  And a fine and varied night of infectious music and fellowship it was too.  It would be invidious to single out specific performers on the night.  They obviously had a grand time in what must have been difficult circumstances – an enforced last-minute change of workshop venue – though judging from his FB post, by the end of the night Dan must have felt a long distance away from the earlier desperation; Dan and confrères dared and won.  Mr Plews’ Death wore a gaberdine raincoat is my current earworm and no bad thing for that.  (You can also find his lovely Hearts and books at that link too, booklovers).

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SteppenwolfI first read Hermann Hesse‘s Steppenwolf (1927; translated 1929/63) in 1969.  In an Author’s Note written in 1961 he suggests I shouldn’t have:

…of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was more often and more violently misunderstood than any other […] Partly, but only partly, this may occur so frequently by reason of the fact that this book, written when I was fifty years old, and dealing, as it does with the problems of that age, often fell into the hands of very young readers.

Yeah, well – we were so much older then, we’re younger than that now.  Steppenwolf was one of those books in the ’60s, post-Beat hip.  There was even a band called themselves Steppenwolf after it, though their main claim to fame, the stodgy Born to be wild, as featured in zeitgeist movie Easy Rider, rather misses the point.  The thing then was that what happens to the protagonist at the end of the book, in the Magic Theatre, is kinda trippy – psychedelic literature from Germany between the wars no less – and it still is.  But there’s a whole lot more to it than that.  I’ve been surprised this time around by its power.

Now, I’m not going to spend too much time even trying to explain what is going on in the book; not that I’m that sure about it anyway (though don’t let that put you off).  You have the wolf and man, the dichotomy of animal flesh and human mind (and/or soul, or spirit), and there’s a critique of that dualist approach to psychology, but it’s a lot more nuanced than that.  Harry Haller, the Steppenwolf, whose testimony forms most of the book, is also a loner, a lone wolf existing in the arid steppes of bourgeois society, an intellectual whose asceticism has led to his painting himself into a corner where suicide seems a logical option.  A smug, painlessly comfortable bust of Goethe, one of his heroes, contributes to his losing it at a dinner party, leading to a sequence of events that cause him to reconsider his life and priorities, key components of which are the process of learning to dance in preparation for a Grand Ball while enjoying the company of good-looking women, to embrace life and, in passing, ‘get’ jazz.  The Ball reaches its climax in the corridors in the bowels of the Magic Theatre, where each door opens to a fresh world of experience.

Behind one door, for example, he is returned to his youth and the precious moments of first love where he’d faltered and is now blissfully  allowed to act differently and change what he never gained.  Behind another he partakes of the ‘Great Automobile Hunt’ – what now reads like an epic and bloody shoot-em-up game taking in brutal roadside ambush and general mayhem.  That was one episode took me by surprise, that I had no recall of at all.  Another was the appearance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (“the most beloved and the most exalted picture that my inner life contained“) who gives Haller a hard time and then raps – yes RAPS:

Mozart laughed aloud when he saw my long face.  He turned a somersault in the air for laughter’s sake and played trills with his heels.  At the same time he shouted at me: ‘Hey, my young man, you are biting your tongue, man, with a gripe in your lung, man?  You think of your readers, those carrion feeders, and all your typesetters, those wretched abettors, and sabre-whetters.  You dragon, you make me laugh till I shake me and burst the stitches of my breeches.  O heart of a gull, with printer’s ink dull, and soul-sorrow-full.  A candle I’ll leave you, if that’ll relieve you.  Betittled, betattled, spectacled and shackled, and pitifully snagged and by the tail wagged, and shilly and shally no more shall you dally.  For the devil, I pray, will bear you away and slice you and spice you till that shall suffice you for your writings and rotten plagiarizings ill-gotten.’

When Harry complains about gallows humour Mozart tells him all humour is gallows humour.  Mozart turns on the radio – “the last victorious weapon in the war of extermination against art” says Harry – for a bit of Handel:

At once, to my indescribable astonishment and horror, the devilish metal funnel spat out, without more ado, its mixture of bronchial slime and chewed rubber; the noise that possessors of gramophones and radio sets are prevailed upon to call music.  And behind the slime and the croaking there was, sure enough, like an old master behind a layer of dirt, the noble outline of that divine music.

Mozart tells him, after explaining, among other things the penetration of radio to places the music has never reached before (and remember it’s 1920s audio he’s dealing with here):

Listen, then, you poor thing.  Listen well.  You have need of it.  And now you hear not only a Handel who, disfigured by radio, is, all the same,in this most ghastly of disguises still divine; you hear as well and you observe, most worthy sir, a most admirable symbol of all life.  When you listen to radio you are a witness of the everlasting war between idea and appearance, between time and eternity, between the human and the divine.

Between the Ideal, populated by the Immortals, and … real life, no less.  Don’t lose your awareness, but loosen up, laugh a bit about it all, is Wolfgang’s advice:  “Learn what is to be taken seriously and laugh at the rest.”  Harry’s trip doesn’t quite end here, but I will.  Except to mention some interesting musings of Harry’s as he gets around to loving jazz.  And to say that, You know those big lists of Great Books of the twentieth century or whatever other appropriate category? – well I reckon Hermann Hesse‘s Steppenwolf warrants a place on ’em and, despite all those to-be-read piles and lists, I’ll probably be returning there again soon.

Makkai - The borrowerThe borrower

The cover of the large, C-format, paperback edition of Rebecca Makkai‘s ambitious novel The borrower (Heinemann, 2011) that I read was artistically rendered to take on the typical wear and tear you find on the kind of well-read library book that it seeks to praise.  I think it’s a shame that the idea hasn’t been continued with subsequent paperback editions; they lose something from it.  I only discovered this neat deception when I looked to download the image for the purposes of this blog and when I pointed it out to other members of the Book Group I’m a member of it took them by surprise too.  It was an interesting discussion, people taking different things to like about the book; some weren’t convinced by the librarian but liked the kid, and vice versa.  But I jump ahead of myself.

OK – basic plot.  Small town Children’s Library in Hannibal (not that Hannibal), Missouri.  Children’s literature is cleverly referred to or inferred throughout, not least, of course, with the book’s title.  26-year old Children’s Librarian Lucy with a Russian parents back story that kicks in as the action progresses and 10-year old voracious book-lover Ian.  Classic librarian’s dilemma: his mum complains about what he’s reading – “What Ian really needs right now are books with the breath of God in them.”  Lucy is concerned about the influence of Pastor Bob and his anti-gay Glad Heart program (Ian showing all the signs, worries his mother) pushing delicate souls towards manly pursuits.  Events transpire for them to go on a Thelma and Louise road trip, driving from Missouri to the Canadian border via Chicago.  He’s clever, strings her along on the adventure; she starts off thinking she’s saving him but is digging a deeper legal hole for herself the longer it goes on; there are lots of nice incidentals and social commentary along the way but some of what goes on doesn’t completely convince.  It all ends wonderfully, though.   Anti-climactically, beautifully, with the bonus of a deliciously executed prank leaving an open-ended coda.  I’m not sure what got us to it is up to the same mark, which is a shame – I might have faltered were it not a Book group book – but I’m certainly glad I saw it through to the end.

As well as the human story The borrower champions the importance of books, reading and libraries in people’s lives.  And it also sweetly plays with the novel form and the way libraries are organised.  ‘If a Book Lacked an Epilogue, Ian Would Frequently Offer His Own’ is the chapter head of the epilogue and on the last page she acknowledges some people’s reading habits with “Here are some hopeful last words for the peekers-ahead … who couldn’t help but read the last sentences first.”  Near the end Lucy ponders:

How do I catalogue it all? What sticker do I put on the spine? Ian once suggested that in addition to the mystery stickers and the sci-fi and the animal ones, there should be specials tickers for books with happy endings, books with sad endings […] But what warning would I affix to the marvellous and perplexing tale of Ian Drake? A little blue sticker with a question mark, maybe. Crossed fingers. A penny in a fountain.

This is an intriguing and loving book.  She believes “that books can save you” and the book is its own testimony.  Amen to that.  But can the pedant forgive the poetic licensee?  “Before this all began,” she says – in italics – in the Prologue (“Ian Was Never Happy Unless There Was a Prologue“) that

… one day I’d arrange my books by main character, down through the alphabet. I realize now where I’d be: Hull, snug between Huck and Humbert, But really I should file it under Drake, for Ian, for the boy I stole …

That’s actually Huck Finn, ma’am.  Oh, all right.

Careful use of complimentsThe careful use of compliments

The careful use of compliments (2007) is the fourth out of – so far – nine books in the prolific Alexander McCall Smith‘s Isabel Dalhousie sequence of (sort of) crime novels.  I wanted to get a taste because I’ve just ‘discovered’ W.H.Auden and McCall Smith has recently published a book on him, the reviews of which mentioned Isabel’s fond habit of quoting him.

I like her, and, though they inhabit very different Edinburghs, I suspect Ian Rankin’s John Rebus would come round to her refined feistiness once he’d got past her house door number being in Roman numerals and use of words like agape, which I had to look up.  (To be fair, that was part of an internal monologue – unconditional love, by the way, from the Greek but appropriated by Christian theologians).  As the editor of a small academic journal – crucially for the ongoing dialogue with herself and others it’s the Review of Applied Ethics – and with no financial worries due to inherited wealth, she can afford the indulgences of pondering life’s little dilemmas and nuances philosophically.  This can be mostly charming though occasionally tedious, but satisfying enough to make me think I’ll start the sequence at the beginning.

There’s not much of a crime in The careful use of compliments.  What there is concerns the authenticity of a painting by a Scottish artist, which does develop into a neat plot involving a visit to Jura, which itself allows some thinking about of George Orwell writing 1984 there.  Indeed, a lot of the time there is more suspense involved in whether Isabel will succeed in re-building her relationship with her niece after she’s fallen in love and had a baby with one of said niece’s romantic rejects but it’s these little nuances – she still resents it – entice you in.

Anyway, Isabel rues the fact that there are no public statues of dentists, who should be honoured because they tackle and relieve pain head on – she’s that kind of gal.   So, when the academic who has led the putsch against her editorship says he’s coming to Edinburgh to discuss the changeover, she wonders whether to meet him at the station, and her reasoning process is pure Auden:

Her natural goodness dictated that she should offer to be there; but her humanity, which, after all, was not restricted to kindness and sympathy – qualities of humanity surely can be bad, because that is what humanity is like – that same humanity now prompted her to be unhelpful.

Her overcoming of his challenge for the control of the journal is both appalling from one point of view but delightful from another (hers and ours!).  The theory and practise of moral philosophy is nicely toyed with nicely, and she’s good company:

… that was the trouble with most people, when it came down to it; there were very few who enjoyed flights of fantasy, and to have that sort of mind – one which appreciated dry wit and understood the absurd – left one in a shrinking minority.

Without giving anything away, the book concludes, “There is a sea of love.”  And why not, once in a while?


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Oh what a blowJackie Leven

Well if Ian Rankin can do it then so will I.  Vox humana, with its immaculate acoustic guitar and a lot more, is the opening track of Jackie Leven‘s fine collection of songs on the 2008 album Oh what a blow that phantom dealt me!  A line from the hypnotic blues-inflected second track – One man one guitar – is where Rankin acknowledges he got the title for his latest novel; the beautiful third track – Another man’s rain – was, after a bit of mondegreen mangling, the source of the previous one.

I gave the stunningly good Phantom a listen because I was reading the new Rankin and now I can’t stop playing it.  With someone as prolific as the late lamented Jackie Leven you can forget and still be pleasantly surprised by just how good most of what he did was.  There are plenty of other harvestable book titles on Phantom.  Other highlights include the Bacharach-ish Kings of infinite space, and Here come the urban ravens, his plaintively spare banjo-augmented tribute to fellow songwriter on the margins, Kevin Coyne.  Great performances, inventive soundscapes – you should give it a go.  And I haven’t mentioned a mind-blowing skiffle rendition of the old chestnut I’ve been everywhere as applied to German towns and cities yet, or the delightful and crucial vocal interventions of kindred spirit Johnny Dowd, and the latter’s moving recital of Kenneth Patchen‘s elegy for a recently deceased friend, The skater, against a musical setting; Jackie was ever poetry’s champion.  A great and lovely but never tame album; what that clever lager ad said about reaching parts.

Ian Rankin - SaintsSaints of the Shadow Bible

And so, onto the new Ian Rankin novel named, as I’ve just said, after a line in a Jackie Leven song.  It doesn’t sell it short.  Saints of the Shadow Bible (Orion, 2013) is Rankin writing at his very best.  Allowed back into the police force proper as a lowly Detective Sergeant answering to his protegé of old, now Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke and helping and/or being investigated himself by a Complaints division investigation into the behaviour of the first CID team he was on (the Saints of the Shadow Bible of the book’s title) John Rebus is in for a difficult time, juggling loyalties to colleagues old and new.  And that’s just the personal background to the current crimes – a suspicious car crash, a murder, which may or may not be linked – that he is actively involved in investigating, all set against a political backdrop involving leading figures from politics and business in the Scottish independence debate.

Some things about what Ian Rankin is up to here stuck out for me.  Firstly, the prose seems tighter to me, especially once the book gets going; I surmise the death of Elmore Leonard and the publicity given to his 10 rules of good writing might have jogged his finger on the delete button.  Secondly, I’m impressed with Rankin, having spent so much time with him, showing faith – rather than abandoning him – with Malcolm Fox.  The head of the Complaints, who was the leading character in two of the three books in Rankin’s non-Rebus interregnum, which while in no way bad had most fans longing for Rebus’s return.  Malcolm’s developing relationship with Rebus throughout Saints of the Shadow Bible is one of the book’s real strengths.  Thirdly, how great it is to have a fully fledged Siobhan Clarke back again, with all the subtleties of their changed professional relationship.  With those three now set up – with Rebus’s future up for grabs again, and Fox probably returning to CID – Rankin has given himself a strong platform to move off from, with plenty of room for wit, when he returns from his recently announced sabbatical.  And I like the idea of new gal Christine Esson’s potential to slip into the old Siobhan role too.

The Saints of the Shadow Bible were the team out of Summerhall back in the ’80s, the young Rebus’s first CID assignment.  They went into battle with a cassette of The SkidsThe Saints are coming in the car’s stereo and took no prisoners:

     Clarke was staring at him. “How dirty was Summerhall?”
He studied the surface of his tea. “Dirty enough. You ever see that programme Life on Mars? It felt like a documentary …”

It used to be the way of it, John – get the scumbags off the street by hook or crook,” as one of his old chum pleads in the Saints’ defence.  It’s one of those unavoidable clichés of crime fiction these days.  Rebus is still driving the Saab and being careful about drink-driving, still relying on vinyl LPs for music in his flat, but when another Saint says, “Soft drinks and playing things by the book. Who’d have thought it?”  it’s not for long; no wagon in sight here.  When Esson offers to do a food run and he asks for a sausage roll, she came back to the office:

[…] and handed him a paper bag. The lack of grease stains meant she’d ignored his request. The baguette contained ham salad.  “It’s like being at one of those health spas,” he muttered.

Musically it’s the usual late-Rankin mix.  Rebus has a B.B.King ringtone on his mobile phone, uses John Martyn’s Solid air as soundtrack to some serious thinking and (mysteriously) puts Spooky Tooth’s second album on in the car to quell his rising blood pressure.  There’s also some rather good banter between him and Malcolm concerning the latter’s brown shoes and Frank Zappa‘s Brown shoes don’t make it opus that has a nice pay-off line.  There’s probably a full listing of all the references on the website.

“But I know what Miles Davis would say […] .”
Clarke narrowed her eyes. “What would he say?”
He’d say: ‘So what.’

So this is Ian Rankin in his pomp.

Hamid - Reluctant fundamentalistThe reluctant fundamentalist

The book group talked discussed Mosin Hamid‘s The reluctant fundamentalist (2007) longer and more intensely than most titles that come under their purview.  The differences were not so much about its intriguing quality and the strangeness of its narrative device – a conversation at a café table in Lahore between Changez, the Pakistani narrator, and a visiting American from which we only get to hear the former’s contribution, so it is effectively a monologue – as to the increasingly tense and ambiguous outcome.  Are they CIA, who is Changez working for, where exactly is he coming from?

Changez has indeed been through some changes.  He’s the bright kid from the village who gets taken up by Princeton and starts to live the American dream.  The only actual mention of fundamentals in the text is in the context of how the ruthless capitalist consultancy powerhouse that he starts working for operates.  Three things bring his idyll into question: a tragic love affair with an American girl, his seeing what the firms’ inter-continental activities do to decent people’s lives, and changing attitudes in the US after the events of 911, in particular in relation to his appearance – I wasn’t the only one who thought back to what happened to an Irish friend in London at the time of the IRA bombing campaign.

This is a relatively short book but it covers a lot of ground.  American arrogance turns Changez, but it is never quite clear into what.  He deliberately fails at his job and goes back to Pakistan, to his family and his roots, working as a university lecturer.  The American, who may be carrying a gun, reluctantly hears Changez’s tale and is led into … who knows?  But on the way there is some fine writing to enjoy. Here’s  Changez in pre-011 New York: “One evening I was walking with Erica through Union Square and we saw a firefly. “Look,” she said, amazes. “It’s trying to compete with the buildings.“” And that firefly’s flight is followed in enchanting detail.  In another passage that sticks in my mind, in the café in Lahore, Changez tries to explain the uniqueness of their olfactory situation, of the delicacy of jasmine’s perfume “against the robust smell of roasting meat.”  An intriguing novel indeed (and I’m a vegetarian).

Switch on poetry 2013The lights, the lights

That time of the year again and so, Morris dancers and Mummers in the Stony Stratford High Street, all the fun of a mini-fair, tombolas, raffle ticket sellers and massed crowds for the Lantern Parade (quite a few Tardis-es this year) and the switching on of the Christmas lights.

And A Switch On Poetry Showcase upstairs in the kept open in the afternoon for the occasion library (with Santa’s grotto downstairs).  Bard Richard Frost had assembled a fine collection of poets for the delectation of … a dedicated few.  But hey, it was an audience and the words (and tea, and some mulled wine) flowed,  all nicely rounded of with a couple of storming performances from a pretty much family friendly The Antipoet (shame on those who left after their slot!) and The Screaming House Madrigals (plus bongo-ist and washboard).


Alan Wolfson without the orange pork pie hat that was the abiding image of his performance. Some fine words were spoken.

We may well have danced this dance before but it’s a good dance.  And so outside again for the parade’s arrival in the Market Square, two countdowns’ worth of light switch failure and The Bard’s specially written poem, which we heard at the back, if not the actual words.

(The statue in the poster is The Ancient Mariner at Watchet, in Somerset).
And as a special Christmas bonus, here’s a link to a Screming House Madrigal’s gig in London two days later.

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Jackie Leven & Michael Cosgrave 2The title of Ian Rankin‘s new novel – Standing in another man’s grave (Orion, 2012) – is a mondegreen, a mis-hearing of a lyric, of a Jackie Leven song.  (There’s a certain satisfaction, given both are men of Fife, to be had from knowing the origin of the word mondegreen comes from a mis-hearing of an old Scottish ballad, the Boony Earl O’Moray.)   Rankin dedicates the book to Jackie, his friend and sometime collaborator, who died just over a year ago.  I miss him; the year somehow doesn’t seem complete without a new Jackie Leven album to spend time in wonder with.  The song is the exquisite Another man’s rain from, as the man himself would say at gigs, his “fantastic” album Oh what a blow that phantom gave me from 2007.  The album’s title is taken from an anthropologist’s memoir; it still blows me away.  Here’s the Spotify link for the album.  If you don’t know it (and for sure, not enough do) there’s a brilliant version of I’ve been everywhere you would not believe and a poignant tribute to fellow maverick Kevin Coyne (Here come the urban ravens) among the other pearls and moving delights.

Another man’s rain is a stunning piece of work, a thing of great beauty, a perfect example of Jackie’s poeticism (he was ever a champion of poetry), his lyrical inventiveness and, as it happens, his genius for musical quotation (go listen).  It contains one of the loveliest quatrains anywhere in popular music:

Every man has his flower
Though he knows it or not
From the mighty old English rose
To the humble forget-me-not

Here’s the specific Spotify link for the song.  Performed live it developed a life of its own, especially when he could play with Michael Cosgrave.  Here are a couple of YouTube links – sorry, I really should upgrade my WordPress account so I can embed stuff like this – both from Dutch gigs:



standinginanothermansgraveThe big news about Ian Rankin‘s novel is, of course, that after three without him he has brought back Jackie Leven-listening Scottish detective John Rebus.  And crucially not just Rebus but his long-suffering and sometimes soul sister and partner Siobhan Clarke, though this time he’s working to her since post-retirement he’s been recruited to the Cold Case Unit as a civilian.  I know, CCUs have fast become a bit of a cliché in crime fiction, but if it means we’ve got Rebus back I’m not complaining; we also get a serial killer and child abuse in the mix too, though in Standing in another man’s grave there’s a neat undercutting plot twist between the trigger that catches Rebus’s interest and the smoking gun.

I think Rankin is pleased to have the old guy back.  There’s a comfort and a touch of humour to the writing and the reading that was missing without him; not, I hasten to say, that I’m suggesting anything too comfortablewe’re still spending time out on the edge.  In a recent edition of Alan Yentob’s Imagine tv show – Ian Rankin & the case of the disappearing detective – Rankin says he still hasn’t seen any of the Rebus television series because he doesn’t want his hero contaminated by an actor’s characterisation in the way that Colin Dexter admits his writing of Morse changed in the light of John Thaw’s portrayal.  “I want him to change for other reasons.”  Nevertheless – no bad thing – it’s hard not to see and hear the masterful Ken Stott in Standing; less so Siobhan.

Naturally there’s plenty more music – mainly ’70s – most obscure being probably Michael Chapman (has to be Fully qualified survivor?) and Scottish dialect words (someone is huckling for a move, it’s hard not to imagine what a dreich weekend is, someone else’s place is a bit of a guddle).  There’s a nice running joke of Rebus referring to Siobhan’s boss James Page (“a suit and bean counter”) by way of Led Zeppelin song titles.  Rebus is smoking and mindfully drinking a little less (though one evening he “emptied a fair amount of Highland Park into himself“).  As he drives up and down the A9 he encounters old-style but “venerable” petrol pumps (fine word!).  In talking about the old days and ways of policing (of hunches rather than computer probabilities) Siobhan tells him, “You’re vinyl, we’re digital” but she’s not necessarily knocking it.

With the changes in retirement age legislation it seems Rebus can reapply for a job as a serving copper again, and he’s thinking about it.  I always drop most other things to read a new Ian Rankin at a pace and I’m hoping Rebus (or Siobhan with him as at least armchair adviser) can be  around for the next few.  (One demurral here: I’m still a bit puzzled as to why the photographs? … but I don’t want to spoilt it for anybody.)

CrosswordsAnd now given that a rebus is a puzzle

Let’s get cryptic:

… just a few more crossword clues that have tickled my fancy lately, courtesy of the Guardian and Observer (Everyman) with some tipsy toilet humour, not a little cleverness and a couple of real ‘Ouch-es’:

  • from Everyman: How Monopoly starts, as it always has (4,3,4,2)
  • and: Marksman notes owl (12)
  • the first from Paul: Distribute the report of a yobbish baker? (4,3)
  • from Shed: Being one of 12 getting hurt (6)
  • Paul again: Fugitives wary as unprepared (8)
  • from the mighty Araucaria: Copy concerned with backing Mussolini (9)
  • a couple from Paul involving real people: Savage going after wild animal, a bloomer (5,4)
  • and: Toms Cruise, Selleck or Courtenay, but ____ , I don’t want them! (2,6)
  • from Gordius: Ointment for a Frenchman round the bend? (7)
  • and Philistine: Trouble in the loo (13)
  • Arachne: Rendered incapable (9)
  • Bonxie rolls in with: Mean drunk provides watery food (9)
  • and seasonally, from Rufus: They lead the way in the present transport system (8)

Answers appear after this latest instalment of Alison Graham doing what she does best in the Radio Times – trashing the trash.  (And though as far as The hour goes Andrea and Val disagree, I still trust the woman implicitly):

  • Bomb girls ITV3 10 Nov 2012: “… you can always admire the lovely cardigans.”
  • The Hour BBC2 14 Nov 2012: “It is still hard to fathom whether there remains less to The Hour than meets the eye.”
  • Hunted BBC1 15 Nov 2012: “I don’t think Hunted is ever going to end. It will just go on and on for ever in a parallel universe where it actually makes sense. Back here in our world, people keep kicking each other while more characters who are never explained keep popping up. And everyone in the wretched thing is horrible […]  Meanwhile other people look enigmatic at railway stations, get shot in the head, and in one horrible sequence, are suffocated with a plastic bag.
  • but she’s made her mind up about The Hour (round-up Dec 1-7 2012):  “The Hour wears me out. In between yelling at news producer Bel Rowley, “Call yourself a journalist? You couldn’t uncover a duvet,” I project my own emotions on to it, just to liven things up a bit.  [… ] Creator Abi Morgan … tries … to convince us that Bel and reporter Freddie burn for one another. But there’s nothing between them. They are two fan heaters set on cold.”

Crossword clues – the answers:

  • How Monopoly starts, as it always has (4,3,4,2) From the word Go
  • Marksman notes owl (12) Sharpshooter
  • Distribute the report of a yobbish baker? (4,3) Dole out (Dough lout)
  • Being one of 12 getting hurt (6) Injury (Ouch)
  • Fugitives wary as unprepared (8) Runaways (anagram)
  • Copy concerned with backing Mussolini (9) Reproduce !!!
  • Savage going after wild animal, a bloomer (5,4) Tiger lily
  • Toms Cruise, Selleck or Courtenay, but ____ I don’t want them! (2,6) No thanks
  • Ointment for a Frenchman round the bend? (7) Unguent
  • Trouble in the loo (13) Inconvenience
  • Rendered incapable (9) Plastered
  • Mean drunk provides watery food (9) Shellfish (selfish drunkenly)
  • They lead the way in the present transport system (8) Reindeer (it’s Christmas)

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