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… even if the rose at its centre is black and not exactly a Gertrude Jekyll, or a Dusty Springfield (no – really) or Peace rose.  Though peace is one of the concepts at the heart of the project.  And, come to think of it, more than a fair few of Dusty’s songs apply too.

MK Rose opening 2013

So inevitably it rained for the official opening of the MK Rose on Saturday, November 9.  But were the spirits of those attending dampened?  Maybe a little, though the idealism still shone through – as, inevitably, did the sun as proceedings drew to a close – and hearts were gladdened.  It’s worth mentioning Mayor Brian White’s speech was especially worthy of the occasion.  There were a lot more people there for that than the photo suggests.  Forget all the jokes, there’s a pride to be had in being a citizen of Milton Keynes.  Here at Lillabullero we have got somewhat behind in our chronicling labours of late so (reproduced here with his permission) I think I’ll leave it to the capable hands and fine words of MK’s Poet Laureate Mark Niel to tell what it’s all about:

A Place To Be: for the opening of the MK Rose
by Mark Niel

And so we are gifted a Rose
that speaks of love
and so much more.

A unique space:
from amazing grace
to Olympic gold,

where tales
of triumph and tragedy
are simply, honestly told.

A place to grieve
in that sea of liquid loss
only true love knows,

A place to count the cost
paid too many times
in war’s countless bitter blows.

A place to think
and be inspired
by giants that have gone before;

the inventors and pioneers
that helped unpick the
locks of once closed doors.

A place to be proud
of our citizens
like Jim Marshall, our Father of Loud;

Doreen Adcock, who taught us to swim;
John Newton, a turned round life
captured in his famous hymn.

A place where pillars teach us;
lessons etched
in marble letters,

and whether your faith is in
higher or human beings,
a place to decide “I will be better”.

A place for kisses on Valentine’s day,
for Patron Saints and
festivals of light,

for thanks and tears on Armistice Day,
honouring those who fought and
lost their fight.

A place that will shape
how the world sees us
and how we see the world,

A place for the unexpected;
for May Day dance and
wisdom’s greatest pearls.

Let the MK Rose be
a new member of your family.
There’s only one in the world and it’s ours!

So use it, visit on days
that are special to you
to remember or simply lay flowers.

The city has been gifted a Rose,
a place of reflection and grace.
Let us now own it, make it our space.

If you want more on the background to the project, including some fascinating illustrative material from artist Gordon Young‘s pictorial research prior to producing the designs for his impressive creation (along with some future developments in Campbell Park) then the official website is the place to go:  http://www.mkrose.co.uk/index.html.  You can also find more of Mark’s poems there.  Most of the marble pillars bear an inscription and a date – the blanks are built-in future-proofing – many of local relevance.  It’s a shame they haven’t (as of 18.11.13) kept up with the pillars now actually there on The Rose on the website – for there are more installed now than listed.

JTS 1One I personally was particularly pleased to see included in the quirky pantheon was writer Jack Trevor Story‘s (Click on the picture to enlarge if you can’t read the inscription).  I’ve blogged about his work here on Lillabullero and intend to do more.  Completely in the spirit of the Rose is the text that continues out of sight: JTS 2

In the same vein the pillar for another local writer from another century, William Cowper, gives the full text of his To the Immortal Memory of the Halibut, on which I Dined This Day, Monday April 26, 1784.

Some, including a few local British Legion branches, have objected to the Rose in principle – saying an Armistice Day commemoration has no place being anywhere near a pillar for National Joke Day (as it happens, July IJD1) – but there was a dignified non-religious civic ceremony there on Monday, 11th November, at which the British Legion was represented.  The joke about the International Joke Day pillar is that … well look at the picture (and some very bad jokes were made as part of the opening ceremony).  The point of the MK Rose is to echo what used to be the News of the World‘s motto – “All human life is there” – without the prurience and the paper’s dark side.

Father of Loud & Bernie MarsdenI bet gigging with Whitesnake back in the day (1978, as it happens) rock guitarist Bernie Marsden could never have imagined a day like this (that’s Mark Niel at the back in the photo, him with the poppy).  Jim Marshall‘The Father of Loud’ – was a big benefactor and sponsor to various causes in MK, including the MK Dons, as his business blossomed in Bletchley.  Jim Marshall’s pillar has an electricity plug wired in.  I shall now commit an incredibly corny bit of rhetoric as I tell you that Whitesnake‘s first UK hit was a cover of Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland’s Aint no love in the heart of the city.  Cue pantomime response please.

The Wolverton Silver Band were part of the celebrations – of course.  The melancholy of a decent silver band’s sound never ceases to get to me.  Playing in a marquee because of the rain, some of their instruments added a neat parallel bit of found geometrical art and design to proceedings:

Bradwell Silver Band MK Rose Nov 2013

 

 

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And more from one of the notable absentees from John Sutherland‘s Lives of the novelists: a history of fiction in 294 lives (Profile Books, 2011).  Ladies and gentleman, I give you once again Jack Trevor Story, in a piece from the rag-bag that is Jack on the box (Savoy, 1979):

On location for the Radio Times down in the gorgeous New Forest last week, one of Dave Allen’s merry men who reads my stuff said, “Why don’t you write your life story?”  I asked him what he thought I had been reading.  It now runs into six volumes, four published, two ready for the printer.  “I mean properly,” he said.  Help!

It is one of Sutherland’s themes, the significant place and placing – and manner of placing – of the events and circumstances of writers’ lives in their fictions, along with the creep (or planting) of fictions into their actual lives and personas, and the deliberate mystification of the boundaries by masters like Philip Roth.   JTS often alluded to this sort of thing in his Saturday Guardian columns of the early ’70s, protesting that his journal was not always to be taken as the literal truth.  It was a good game.  Here he spells it out (or, as Sutherland intimates for others, does he?) in a preface to a collection that wasn’t published:

Snakes shed their skins and writers go through doors … Albert Argyle went in one side and Horace Spurgeon Fenton emerged from the other.  Another skin gone, the anonymous third person god-eye removed and a disreputable version of the author babbled directly to his readers.  The last door – apart from the trapdoor that’s always ahead – opened five years further on in 1970/71 and Jack and Maggie came through […] Two fictional characters but now with skins so thin you could see the blood.  Plots so believable you can almost remember the occasion.  But not quite; the last skin is still there and the blood doesn’t drip.

I keep on batting for Jack Trevor Story because there’s an injustice going on here.  He’s almost been erased from the scene (and I don’t just mean Sutherland’s book).  Because he wasn’t angry, because he wasn’t northern, because he was funny and obtuse and went off at tangents, because the sheer love of writing spilled from his fingers?  For me he catches a certain early ’60s zeitgeist – in the Albert Argyle trilogy (starting with Live now, pay later) particularly – that the literary novelists, writers of what used to be called ‘the Hampstead novel’, missed because they never met Jack’s people.  He’s the novel’s equivalent of Ray Davies‘s songs with The Kinks; Jack may have left the village green behind, and Ray never really lived by an actual one, growing up  in a north London suburb, but there’s an affinity there – little things mean a lot.  Interestingly Sutherland chooses – and I agree – Coming up for air as his MRT (‘Must read text’) for George Orwell, a book I’ve previously mentioned in the same breath as Ray’s Driving, that small masterpiece of a song – one of many – on the Arthur album.

John Sutherland gives us a nice summary of one of the Jack Trevor Story signature traits that make his writing so attractive to aficionados:

disconnectedness […] requires the reader to leap acrobatically from one sentence to another, often slipping.  Always he wrote ‘against expectation’ […]

Only he’s describing the work of the American writer Donald Barthelme.  But here’s the thing – Barthelme was always being confused with fellow novelist John Barth, and the same thing happened frequently to JTS.  I distinctly recall reading one of his Guardian columns about it, his getting invitations (and vice versa) to inappropriate book launches and openings  intended for miserable sod novelist and playwright David Storey.  Who, for some reason, is included in Sutherland’s roll call as, I guess, the token northerner of his generation, as opposed to Braine, Barstow or, more’s the point, Alan Sillitoe.

I keep going on about the omissions – there’s a list in my previous post – and to be fair to Sutherland, he does make his excuses, saying the book’s big enough already and that, basically, in a field as broad as this, It’s my party and I’ll include who I want to.  Just English language fiction, including short stories, the book is a substantial achievement, well worth at the very least extensive dipping into.  There is wit, learning and wisdom in abundance in passing.  Look up the book in a library catalogue and you will still find its CIP (Cataloguing in publication) record with its sub-title given as a history of fiction in 282 lives, as opposed to the 294 in the actual published book.  Who are the late inclusions, one wonders; was pressure applied?  It’s a history of the novel form in all its genres but there’s no – to add a few more names to my previous list – J.R.R.Tolkien, J.K.Rowling (there are other children’s authors), Robert Tressell or G.K.Chesterton just for starters.  Someone called Jennifer Dawson (even though she “has left little lasting mark on the annals of literary history“) and Sylvia Plath both get 3 pages.  (The most anyone gets is 6 – step up messers Defoe, Waugh, Updike, Barnes and Roth,P.)

The story emerges that it certainly helps to have a lousy childhood, a disastrous love life and an alcohol problem.  Sutherland sounds a bit of a prude at times (“How, one wonders, can these sexual depravities be related to the novels one used to read with such enjoyment” – that’s Graham Greene) and manages to come up with plenty of period euphemisms for homosexual activity.  His basic thesis – his justified counter attack against the literary theorists, the structuralists et al – is that the lives matter when considering the work.  He bemoans “Henry James’s posthumous exploiters” and talks of them doing “their grisly work” but doesn’t hesitate to mine many examples of the genre for innuendo.  Here’s a low example of the method, about Malcolm Lowry:

On the face of it, the size of the novelist’s tool should be of no more literary significance than Virginia Woolf’s anything but tiny nose, but in Lowry’s case it links – or so it is speculated – to his dipsomania.

There are times when you wonder whether John Sutherland, born 1938, enjoys putting people’s noses out, whether he’s being a waspish imp, a bit of a wag, or just a bitching bore.  Quite what sort of a run-in he’s had with Martin Amis in the past, you wonder, when he gives contemporaries Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes 5 and 6 pages but restricts Martin to sharing a section with Richard Hughes the theme of which is unfulfilled promise (“If Amis is the hare on steroids, Hughes is the tortoise with arthritis“) and he makes no mention of Money.  Ernest Hemingway is reduced to being an adjunct to one part of Scott Fitzgerald’s life while his short stories are only mentioned in the context of crime writers like Dashiell Hammett (who does get his due).

But it is in relation to the rise of feminism that Sutherland really indulges himself, to the extent of making himself sound like a comic character in a campus novel; you can already see a hint of it in that quote about Lowry above.  He talks about Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf biography as blowing away “the fogs of feminist mystification that swirl around the Woolf“.  (You can’t help but smile at ‘the Woolf‘ though).  Then there’s the exclusion of Nobel prizewinner Doris Lessing, which is baffling unless you see it as the deliberate cocking of a snook.  And how about George Eliot (given only 3 pages)?

In 1934 Lord David Cecil, in his […] Early Victorian Novelists observed, with a donnish sigh, that the dust lay heavier on George Eliot than on her great contemporaries: Dickens and Thackeray. That dust has been blown off […] in the last eight years. Two mighty winds are responsible for the de-dusting of George Eliot: 1. feminism and its energetic search for female Shakespeares; 2. the rise of Ph.D. Sponsored ‘research’.  What once looked like ‘dull’ is now Arnoldian ‘high seriousness’.

That’s her sorted then.

I could go on.  There’s a very strange entry for Thomas Hardy (5 pages) which is mostly about public hangings and doesn’t mention his abdication from novel writing.  I’d not heard about The Wizard of Oz being a socialist allegory.  I like the idea of D.H.Lawrence being called ‘Bert’ as a young teenager (and his hating it ever after).  Mark Twain‘s attributes of greatness Sutherland paraphrases as “Voice, eye, attitude” – absolutely – and here at Lillabullero I cannot disagree with his description of Tristram Shandy as “English literature’s greatest comic novel“.  Enough!

 

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Next to being a famous and rich writer, instantly recognised on the streets by your gold bicycle, acclaimed in public places, lionised by ladies and bowed to by posh people, much nudged about, next to all this the perennial juvenile dreams of some quieter status; of finding his name listed (not vulgarly, right at the top, but certainly not at the very bottom which is also too conspicuous) and among the significant literary figures of the century.

Thus Jack Trevor Story‘s hopes when reviewing someone else’s book in … I know not where because the rag-bag collection of pieces I’m quoting from – Jack on the box (Savoy Books, 1979) – unfortunately doesn’t give any original publication details.  A not unreasonable aspiration, nevertheless, given that JTS is one of the great English novelists, comic (which he certainly is) or otherwise, and when, in particular, his Horace Spurgeon Fenton trilogy is a bildungsroman of the writing life in his auspicious times.  But it’s a hope dashed even posthumously as far as John Sutherland‘s Lives of the novelists: a history of fiction in 294 lives (Profile Books, 2011) goes.  You’re in decent company, Jack.

Here are just some of the writers who, in no particular order, didn’t make it in either:  Doris Lessing, Thomas Pynchon, your mate Michael Moorcock, John Cowper Powys, Jack Kerouac, Kate Atkinson, Philip K. Dick, Joseph Heller, Philip Pullman, Michael Ondaatje and P.G.Wodehouse.

I mean, we all know how meaningless ‘greatest’ lists of anything can be.  But this is not one of those;  what it purports to be is history of the whole field, including the popular genres, seen in the lives of its significant players.  That list does give cause for serious pause.  Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating overview in many many ways, and I’m still ploughing my way through.  There’s a particularly interesting sub-plot which must reflect Sutherland’s experience of the rise of the feminist wing in the groves of academe in the last 30 years of the twentieth century; how exactly he suffered at their hands one can only guess, but the scars are there for all to see.  More about Lives another time, and the same goes for Jack (“Writer, Artist and Yearbook“) Trevor Story; and indeed he who is up next.

I’ve also got on the go the new book from the author who chooses simply to be known as Bateman these days.  Very funny man, some great lines, and here are just two of them, which are even funnier if you know the context but still work quite well enough if we let them stand on their own here:

‘And how is the poetry business?’
‘Cut throat’

And so to Stony Stratford’s fiercely fought Bardic Trials, held last week, where, in the final, the diminutive (in stature, in stature) Danni Antagonist narrowly – three votes in a crowded room – took this year’s crown in back room at The Crown.  Splendid night, finished off by another storming performance from (yet to be discovered national treasures) The Antipoet.  Double bass and far-from-beat poetry, on this occasion ably augmented by a bongo-ist.  (There’s plenty of previous evidence on TouTube)

Not has Stony got (to the James Brown backing track) got a brand new bard,
but Danni’s got a brand new blog
here at http://stonybard.blogspot.com/

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Jack Trevor Story‘s ‘Mix me a person‘ (1959, pbk 1962) is not the greatest of books but it’s still interesting on two counts – both as a period piece of some originality (though it reeks of black and white British film, which it became in 1962, Adam Faith in the lead role) and for its place in the development of JTS’s book writing career.

Apart from Colin MacInnes‘s ‘Absolute beginners‘, published the same year, I can think of no other novels published this side of the Atlantic that recognise the existence and importance of London’s nascent youth culture.  While we can see with hindsight that MacInnes (born 1914) is portraying the ‘modernist’ movement that Mod emerged from, the teenagers Story (born 1917) deals with in ‘Mix me a person‘ are a more generic coffee bar crowd.  Harry is condemned to hang for a murder he didn’t commit.  His case is taken up by Anne, a psychologist specialising in teenagers:

“That Saturday night Ann went into La Paloma and looked around her. This is where it had all started. These were Harry’s friends. Primrose pathfinders of the new Elizabethan age; the epitome of flaming youth. Initiative mis-applied, dull evenings lightened with small crime whenever it was available. Boys who had failed the eleven-plus still striving for recognition in other directions. Ordinary young people riding the dangerous years; all different and yet all the same; tied together by an idea, an attitude, the beginning of a thought. Sharing a mutual philosophy that lay in the abstract plane somewhere between existentialism and a quick game of darts.”

It’s that acute last sentence – wit and wisdom – that is pure JTS.

Here’s the back cover of the paperback I got through good ol’ AbeBooks.  It’s a period classic.  The blurb is nothing to do, I’m sure with Jack, but he does manage to straightfacedly smuggle into the text this classic piece of cod beatnik in the coffee bar:

… the stray ends and beginnings of all the important Shepherds Bush talk.
“Crazy man, crazy!”
“What’s with you, Mac?”
“So I said, ‘Are you flip, man?’ “

And he certainly captures a moment – the change that had to come – when, in a flashback to his school days, Harry recalls the attendance record incident when he felt moved not to answer the required  ‘Adsum’ (‘I am present’ in Latin apparently – I just looked it up) when his name is called, but rather just ‘Uh-huh.’  It’s interesting, too, the way Story has the women – the young and the middle-aged, no victims here – using sex not so much as a weapon, but more as a matter of fact tool.

The plot hinges on Harry stealing a Bentley to impress a girl and – being in the wrong place at the wrong time – getting mixed up in an IRA hi-jack of an army munitions lorry in which a policeman gets killed.  It’s 1959, remember: there’s still the death penalty and the IRA (‘the boys’) can be described as just ‘ playing cowboys and indians.’  The aforementioned Anne (who just happens to live with the unbelieving original defense counsel, a sub-plot in itself) takes up his case and with the help of Harry’s mates, and at a late stage the police, gets Harry off and the guilty men brought to justice.  It’s all done quite neatly, and so it should be, because here’s the thing: the story was not original – it’s recycled from one of Jack’s earlier little earners, a contribution to the Sexton Blake Library, no less, where he was one of a stable of writers that also included Michael Moorcock.  With a little bit of re-jigging Psychiatrist Anne takes the role of Sexton Blake.  This was the first time JTS played this stroke, but not the last.  I urge you to visit Guy Lawley’s splendid JTS website for further details, including a tribute from Moorcock.  Also fascinating is Mark Hodder’s web tribute to Sexton, the other great Blake of English literature, who first appeared in print as a commercial rival to Sherlock Holmes back in 1893!

What I cannot say is whether the advice a tramp gives the teenagers in ‘Mix me a person’ is also related in the Sexton Blake version.  It is worth saying again:

“That’s the tragedy of human kind you know. Not enough love to go round. Not enough for everybody. Some have to do without […] After all, we can’t all receive love, but we can all give it. We can all avoid hate and dislike – the poisonous negatives of love. Every time you don’t hate somebody the ratio goes up. Don’t give up.”

Which is kind of apt to the pearl of information I leave you with.  I’d certainly never heard mention of it before or made the connection, but in the lead up to a silly and sad – albeit karmic if not exactly comic then ironic – end to a girl called Mona (she who first mentioned the Bentley as it happens), she goes to a library looking for a poem to accompany her ultimately flawed gesture.  The librarian suggests Rupert Brooke:

“Here you choose. You wouldn’t believe it but half the suicides in South Ken. last year had recently borrowed Rupert Brooke – they do a sort of survey.”

Can you credit it?  And is there honey still for tea?  Has this ever been the case?  Is this one for the estimable Straight Dope website, where in one medium or another they have been “Fighting ignorance since 1973 (It’s taking longer than we thought).” (If you’re tempted, try ‘What’s the story behind ‘Stairway to heaven?’).  I think I’d better stop now.

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The trouble with Harry‘ was first published in 1949 so Jack Trevor Story was probably writing it the year I was being born.  It was his first book, but there’s a freshness, an attitude, that still shines through that I doubt many of its contemporaries could muster.  Alfred Hitchcock made a film of it, released 6 years later and although he transferred it to an American – albeit New England – setting, the movie still relied heavily on the original dialogue in the novel, which much say a lot.  Here is the prototype of the joy – to be taken in prose, situations and people – that is the hallmark of all Story’s work: vernacular, democratic in scope, open, relaxed, and funny.  There’s a whiff of Wodehouse at work but situated in the real world.  He shares with Kate Atkinson the love of going off on tangents that makes her such a distinctive writer.  He’s a hard act to categorise and hugely under-rated – if mentioned at all – in any post-war history of the English novel.  The  ‘Live now pay later‘ trilogy is surely the definitive fiction take on Macmillan’s “Never had it so good” era, and there was better to come.  I’ve loved his work for 40 years now.  He is a delightful writer, an author who delights.

The dust jacket of the 1967 Howard Baker reprint.

As I say, ‘The trouble with Harry‘ was only his first book but there are plenty of hints of what was to come and it’s a pleasing novella – 121 pages – in its own right.  The trouble with Harry is, of course, that he’s dead.  Not so much a murder mystery – though the blame for the deed, if deed indeed it was is uncertain for the first 2/3rds of the book – as a bedroom farce without the bedrooms, Harry’s body being buried and dug up the equivalent of  hiding under beds or in wardrobes.  There’s a penniless artist (handsome, rich of singing voice, a free man), an old sea dog (well, a retired Thames tugboat lighterman), a spinster, an unhappily married young mother, the owner of the cramped Wiggs’ Emporium and two or three others, not least a millionaire there to serve up the rather fantastic ending.  They all live on a bungalow estate off a main road on the edge of a wooded heath – Sparrowswick, but in the back cover blurb of the 1970 reprint, Sparrowsick – in somewhere like Hertfordshire.  The dead body is a catalyst for what happens and old-fashioned romance is in the air.

Like most of Story’s work ‘The trouble with Harry‘ is out of print and it’s not an oeuvre that is to be had from AbeBooks for pence and postage.  I got my copy nearly 5 years ago in one of those bookshops –  floor to ceiling jam-packed shelves, a warren of rooms and staircases, that smell of old books – in this instance Bookcase in Carlisle, on one of those wet days when you just have to give up on the Lake District.  I then managed to lose said book in a move but it has semi-miraculously reappeared so I’ve only just now had the pleasure of it.  I was in another such splendid emporium a couple of weeks ago. 

Scarthin Books, taken from one of their postcards

Only Scarthin Books, near Cromford in Derbyshire, makes Bookcase seem positively cavernous.  Hard to believe so many books in one small terraced period property – not a bare wall to be seen.  There’s a nice homely cafe upstairs behind some hinged bookshelves and the setting of the shop, on the edge of the Peak District, overlooking  a mill pond, is a joy on a fine day.  Cromford Mill – Arkwright’s original – is just round the corner.  Lovely  website too, quirky, committed and fun, not least the essay ‘The ecology of books‘ on the bookman’s dilemma … to compost or what?   They didn’t have any JTS though.

Here, for your delectation then, a few snippets of ‘Harry’ to savour.  Here’s Albert Wiles, the Captain: ” He gripped a point-two-two rifle in his arms and a pipe of unknown calibre between his teeth.”  He contemplates the dead body:  “It was called Harry. Probably she could remember when it walked and talked and breathed and filled in football coupons.”  This is where Albert lives: “It was a bungalow that had suffered abominably from bachelors.” Among its contents: “Relics that ranged from a life-belt that had saved Albert Wiles’s life, to the suspender belt of a Dartmouth barmaid who had almost wrecked it.

And that’s just Albert.  He woos Miss Graveley, who, “When she spoke she enunciated her words carefully, as a prime minister about to sell out the country might do.”  About a minor character: “He was a small man, full of unpleasant energy.”   And here’s Mrs Wiggs’ Emporium:

Mrs . Wiggs sold groceries, lisle stockings, bacon and other provisions, toothache tincture on cards, beautifully coloured packets of seed, stationery, shopping bags and everything imaginable except the thing you wanted when it was early closing in the nearest town.

Enter the charismatic male lead, artist Sam Marlow: “… under his arm he carried an easel and the things with which to make coloured pictures of what he saw and felt and believed.”  There’s poetry to: “The sun went down and the moon came up like some ponderous juggling act.”   And could there be a simpler rendition of love blossoming than this (Hemingwayesque?):

“She smiled at him again and he enjoyed it.”

Guy Lawley maintains a comprehensive website dedicated to Jack’s life and work. And Reinkarnation Books have just reprinted two of his best novels – the absolutely brilliant ‘Hitler needs you’ and ‘One last mad embrace’.  I feel a JTS binge coming on.

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