Posts Tagged ‘Jackie Leven’

Poems cryA few months back, seemingly out of the blue, a friend asked what poems made me cry.  I wondered where that had come from.  I demurred, offered Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach as a poem that had moved me greatly, but not to tears.  Off the top of my head: novels – yes (A farewell to arms); music for sure (Elgar’s Cello concerto, Bob Dylan’s Dream/Lord Franklin); plenty of films (even Russell Crow’s demise in Les Mis).  But poetry, no: desolation maybe, bleakness, quiet revelation, beauty, compassion, contemplation, engagement, a glow; but I can’t recall more than the hint of a younger self-pitying sniffle (La belle dame sans merci).

That’s what some of the contributors to Poems that make grown men cry: 100 men on the words that move them (Simon & Schuster, 2014) admit too.  The publicity surrounding its publication is where my friend’s query came from.  Edited by père et fils Anthony and Ben Holden for Amnesty International, the book features 95 poems (5 were selected twice), 12 of which are written by women (2 of those from Elizabeth Bishop).  Arranged chronologically, which brings a nice touch of serendipity to the proceedings, the twentieth century accounts for 75% of the poems.  The majority of those doing the choosing are British, but there is a significant sprinkling from further afield.  About 50% of the contributors are writers of one sort or another (including 17 poets, some Booker winners), while the linked worlds of theatre and cinema provide another quarter, aided and abetted for the rest by a few polymath celebs, a handful of human rights activists and the odd architect and archbishop.  Not much pop culture spice: Nick Cave, Barry Humphries, Benjamin Zephaniah.  It’s basically a posh variant of those charity celebrity recipe books.

What of the poems, then?  On the back it claims to be “a collection unlike any other“; presumably because of all the “prominent figures” involved.  They introduce the poems, give their reasons, some mercifully shorter than others (and, to be frank, I’m not sure I wanted to be invited into the personal grief – suicides, the death of children – involved in some of the choices).  I first skimmed and, a fair amount of the time, in the best traditions of reverse snobbery, scorned it.  Philip Larkin’s jibe in verse about Frank Kermode (rhymes with ‘toad’) – “just a jetset egghead, TLS toff” – rather hits the spot here, even if Kermode posthumously (it’s a long story) chose Larkin’s Unfinished poem (or one of them).  But I did give the collection more time and consideration and, yes, there was some – undiscovered for me – not so obvious gold in them thar hills.  Not that any made me lachrymosal, mind.  Anyway, a few thoughts:

  • AudenTop of the pops is W.H.Auden, with 5 poems, and I’m not going to complain about that.  Ex-ArchB of Cantab Rowan Williams’ choice of Friday’s child gave me pause; as reasonable a profession of faith as this atheist can understand.  In my ignorance, I was surprised to discover that in a few month’s time I will have lived longer than the bearer of that iconic wrinkled old face – not so ancient after all at 1907-1973.
  • Tie second with 3 poems each: A.E.Housman, Thomas Hardy and Philip Larkin.  While the first two strike me as somewhat sentimental choices (bunch of wusses – no, I jest) it’s the glow I get from that miserable old “sack of meal upon two sticks” that shocks.  So thanks to Simon Russell Beale for Larkin’s I see a girl dragged by the wrists (no – it’s a good, fun, dragging): “Damn all explanatory rhymes! / To be that girl!
  • Forbidden songstwo (count ’em) of the best poems chosen have been featured on albums by late lamented singer-songwriter and poetry champion Jackie LevenJames A.Wright‘s A blessing is on Forbidden tales of the dying west, but you can also find his lovely accompanied recitation of it on YouTube.  Robert Bly reads Antonio Machado‘s eco-hymn The wind, one brilliant day – also his selection here – to Jackie’s music on Defending ancient springs.
  • Poems that make grown men (PTMGMC) cry follows the rule that any general anthology published in the last 20 years must include Adlestrop (Simon Winchester, émigré), and probably Dulce et decorum est (Christopher Hitchens); Benjamin Zephaniah surprises by contributing Dylan Thomas’s Do not go gentle into that good night, wishing his father could have been a worthy recipient of that sentiment
  • Was it them in Men behaving badly who used to mock sneeze and say “Tosser” into their hands or handkerchiefs?  I tired of some of these ‘prominent figures’ who either explained their choice at length and/or chose some of the longer works.  So take a bow: Kenneth Branagh, who is allowed to get away with a four page sermon extracted from a verse translation of a play; and also, for messing with the ‘rules’, Craig Raine, who is allowed to offer two excerpts from different Pisan cantos (by Ezra Pound, writing in prison) in reverse order and bridged by reference to another couplet therefrom quoting Chaucer.
  • Having moaned about length, I have to say one of the pieces that I was most grateful to PTMGMC for making the acquaintance of was Elizabeth Bishop‘s 6 pager, Crusoe in England, Robinson looking back, dealing with his legacy and the death of Friday from measles in England after the rescue, was the closest to a tear-jerker I found in these pages (and the lines were relatively short).
  • Another poem that made me sit up was, by contrast, one of the shortest – Randall Jarrell‘s The death of a ball turret gunner:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

  • Then there’s a strange poem by Gabriela Mistral (not her real name, I thought, and no, it’s not, but she’s a big deal – Chilean, first Nobel Prize for Literature from Latin America, and a career besides).  God wills it is not exactly a title to win my godless sympathies, but nevertheless, as a profession of love is not “Earth will turn against you / If your soul betrays my soul / A shudder of anguish / will run through the waters” (and it gets far worse over 21½ pages) emotional blackmail in spades?
  • I could go on, good and bad, but I won’t.

Rag & bone shopLadies, if you’ll excuse such a dated mode of address, Poems that make grown men cry is not without its merit, but if you’ve a real hankering to put an anthology of the poetical kind in the Christmas stocking of the man or men in your life, might I suggest the splendid volume pictured here on your left.  It’s been out a while now, but The rag and bone shop of the heart (Harper-Perennial, 1992) is a treasure trove not often found on the shelves of general bookstores.   The splendid title is rescued from The circus animal’s desertion, by W.B.Yeats, who does not feature at all in PTMGMC save in Auden’s majestic In memory of W.B.Yeats; in his poem the actual line is, “In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

Poem that exampleTypographical rant of a footnote:  As a posh variant of those charity celebrity recipe books, it’s not so much the concept that makes me uneasy, but rather the page design that seems to follow, the clumsy way the poetry is belittled in the book’s layout.  Never mind the choice of typeface – it’s printed throughout in a Bodoni style font (flat unbracketed serifs, extreme thicks and thins) that I think is rubbish for text, have a look at this sample double page, chosen for its conciseness.  Poem title in biggest font size – fine – and smaller capitalised poet with his or her dates.  Two asterisks.  Then we get the larger capitalised selector, and their reasons for selecting that particular poem; good on Colin Firth for his brevity here (“I’m reluctant to talk across this poem“), because, as stated earlier, some of them do go on.  Then we get the actual poem, looking almost like an afterthought, especially now that the title is repeated in bold on top of the poem with no line space between the title and the first line of the poem itself.  Two asterisks.  Then brief career resumé.  Look, I know it’s for charity, but it’s a poetry anthology.  Those personal statements should come after the poem, as reflection and explanation rather than the trumpet voluntary they are as it stands, and they should be distinguished typographically in some way too; give the poem room to stand by itself first, please.  Typography matters.  Not that impressed by the book jacket either, while we’re at it.



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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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Let us be literal for a moment.  Molesworth (I vaguely recall) and many more have probably been here before but (and the spell checker just suggested Wordsworth for Molesworth), “I wandered lonely as a cloud …”    Can clouds be lonely?   Like a lonely goat-herd?  Does it mean anything, really?  Apart from rhyming with that crowd of golden daffodils?  By the same token, looking “at clouds from both sides, now“?  “From up and down“?  Like in, as they will keep on saying, ‘downside economics’?  Whatever, it’s “clouds’ illusions” I labour my way not so much to recall as … if a picture paints a thousand words (and a photo, ergo, too):

Not a pixel was changed in the posting of this picture, no messing with Reflection effects in PaintShop Pro or whatever else you use, no Rotating mirror applied.  Those are clouds at first glance – and I wasn’t alone in this – displaying some weird internal symmetry.  Those black specks are some of the first swallows of the season, by the way.  Andrea bought me that cloud book a few Yuletides ago – might provide some clues as to what’s going on – and I fully intend to read it (The cloudspotter’s guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, 2006) one of these days, given I really don’t know clouds at all.

Truth be told, I had to open PaintShop Pro just now to make sure I got the terminology right and resistance to the urge proved futile.  It’s a great function, bestowing a sense of immanence to the most mundane landscape.

It can do magical things with trees, never mind creating three-legged people.  But enough of that.  I drift.

I’ve been dipping into Thomas Hardy‘s poetry lately.  Mostly in the bath, but fear not, despite being advertised as ‘good’ on AbeBooks, it’s a crap old desiccated and browning copy, though, bought for peanuts and I wasn’t expecting anything else really, so no harm in prospect.  Anyway, I’ve done my best to block out the Titanic commemoration mania so I’m in no position to know if Hardy’s fine poem, The convergence of the twain (Lines on the loss of the Titanic) has been quoted much, but somehow I doubt it, in that he gives equal time and back story to the iceberg.  I’m going to stick my neck out here and suggest it’s not about fate and destiny.  But the main reason I started on Hardy here are some lines from one of his prefaces.

In his ‘Introductory note’ to his last slim volume of poetry, Winter words in various moods and metres, Thomas Hardy writes:

My last volume of poems was pronounced wholly gloomy and pessimistic by reviewers – even by some of the more able class.  My sense of the oddity of this verdict may be imagined when, in selecting them, I had been, as I thought, rather too liberal in admitting flippant, not to say farcical, pieces into the collection.

Which echoed something that has stuck in my mind over the years.  I once heard Jackie Leven, responding to someone in his audience’s half-joking plea tell of a Townes Van Zandt gig where someone shouted out requesting him, “Play us a happy song“.  Professional miserablist and songwriter’s songwriter Townes’ response?  “These are the happy songs.”  Jackie wrote a song about TVZ called Townes at the Borderline – as good a portrait of anyone as you’ll find in song .  It’s on Jackie’s last lovely album, made with long-term collaborator Michael Cosgrave, Wayside shrines and the code of the traveling man,  and on a collection of Townes songs by other artists called Riding on the range, which is well worth exploring.  There are better lines to quote but they don’t make as good a link as what’s to come next than, “I noticed in his guitar case / he had pictures of lost gods / and a small notebook with the cover torn / for when he was lost in words.”

So back briefly – lost words, lost another way – to Thomas Hardy.  Not long ago I posted here in full his poem The goldfinch, including the later suppressed last verse wherein a lover’s gift of a small exquisite feathered creature was rendered as “gave her the bird“.  More of the same from John Keats in his Ode to a nightingale, in stanza 6 of that double-edged ode to joy:

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain –
To thy high requiem become a sod.

And a bit of a miserable one at that.

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The autumn of the Egyptian Geese

In August we spotted what we first thought were a couple of obscure ducks.  It was at the weir close to Wolverton Mill, betwixt Stony Stratford and Wolverton, on one of our regular walks along the Ouse .  First sighting was actually the male seeing off the heron that had initially caught our eye, but they were obviously not your common or garden Anglo water bird.  Our books didn’t help; we were baffled, even with the rich brown of those eyes and the colours at the rear.  Next time we went back there were goslings.  Eight at first,we were later told, seven when we first saw them, and down to six the last time, but you have to say … result!

It became a regular jaunt for me, checking on the family’s progress, an important part of my autumn, and occasionally one met others who were doing the same.  It was from one such couple I learned that they were Egyptian geese, almost certainly strays from a collection of decorative exotics.  Under the protective eyes of their parents the goslings prospered and grew, even going native, picking up on the feeding habits of the local ducks and swans and readily showing an interest in potential bread benefactors.

At a certain stage I noticed the male had difficulty walking and though the next time I saw him he seemed a bit steadier on his legs, that was the last time I saw him.  Did he become a victim or – one asks with an element of wishful thinking – do the males just leave the mums to it at this stage in the breeding cycle?  It saddened me.  But the goslings continued to grow.  They even started coming up onto the river bank, by which time they were almost the same size as their mum; it was only the lack of marking around the eyes that gave them away.

I was surprised by the intensity I found in the relationship.  And then they were gone, migrating (presumably) to where?  I do hope they’ll be back next year.

And here’s a thing or two I’ve meant to mention
the past few months but somehow never quite got round to them. 

I love this photo, found on the web, and I’d like to be able to credit it (if indeed, there aren’t any objections to its being here).  It’s Jackie Leven, sitting somewhere entirely appropriate.  I still feel hollow at the thought that I’m not going to be able to see him sing and talk and play again, a unique experience.  A true troubadour, he was special in many ways, not least in his championing poetry, his confidence that enough of us would get it.   We’re fortunate that there is so much music out there to keep returning to.  Today I am floored by his setting of Robert Frost‘s Stopped by woods on a snowy evening, on the Creatures of light and darkness album.  Is there anything more lovely and at peace (though he knows he must move on) than that voice crooning, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.”

In a previous post I mentioned how Jackie eschewed encores, but I could only précis his words.  This is what he said performing at ‘A Cornish pub in Germany‘ in November, 2005, quoted from an official bootleg of the gig.

I think we’re coming towards the end of our time together. So we won’t be doing an encore; it’s a load of bullshit. I know that, you know that. What is the point of us going and standing through there, while you’ve got to go: “More! More! More! More!” and then we come back. It’s fucking ridiculous. We’re not going to go through that … So this is our last song, and we look forward to seeing you again next year.

A slight return to another JL gone too soon.  Tim Riley’s recent John Lennon bio, reviewed here earlier this year, contains a tale or two about his life with Yoko in the apartment in New York and her reliance on a “coterie of astrologists, psychics and numerologists” – leaving a rather obvious question, which I’ll let lie – up to and beyond choosing a label for the release of Double fantasy, their return to recording.   Label head David Geffen was invited over, after, Riley cites Geffen himself, “she ran “his numbers” (a combination of his birthday, address, phone number, and ‘who knows what’)“.  On the album they used a couple of musicians from the band Cheap Trick, and – I really like this story, which reassures me somewhat – Carlos, one of those musicians, reports of the sessions:

“Yoko’d be in the booth and say, ‘Does anyone want some granola?’ or whatever she had, and it looked like animal feed. And John would be like down the hall with the roadies, you know, sneaking a slice of pizza.”

After reading Riley’s book I hunted out a copy of Double fantasy from my local library and was underwhelmed; any more is best left unsaid, so I’ll leave it at that, I think.

And now for something completely different.  After some additions to the list of words that barely exist outside of a 15×15 crossword square, a few more faves from the Guardian cryptic.   When was the last time you saw or heard used in everyday speech or print the words ague, alack, tarry, litotes or stevedore?  Thought so.  And so to some clues that gave pleasure.  As you’ll see, I tend towards the simple life:

  • from Tramp the awesome: Ulterior motive of Haagen-Dazs? (6,6)
  • from Rufus the beautifully simple: It became you (4)
  • and the classic: Lover of Bess in musical heading off for wild party (4)
  • from anon Everyman in the Observer: A motoring offence in Shepperton (6-7)
  • zen from Orlando: Al most (6,3)
  • and the elegant: Effie is in Sheffield but he is in Manchester (4,6)
  • a cringing pun from Araucaria: Don Quixote’s horse, say? (6)
  • and a couple more from Rufus: More than one rock group (6)
  • Metal detector (6)
  • redeemed by: Treatment for refusal to play guitar (7)
  • and the simplicity of:  A round game, perhaps (3.3)
  • the sweet punning of Arachne gives us: Dames popular with sailors (6)
  • but weep at the sheer majesty of Auracaria: Complaint that one could hear Forsyth greeting relative? (11) (which I would never have got without a Warren Zevon song)

Answers at the end of this post …
underneath evidence (well, you’ll have to take my word for it) of one of my great achievements in 2011.  You know how you say of something, That is just fucking im-poss-ible?  I speak of Advanced Heading in the Balance category of WiiFit exercises.  Never mind that it’s told me on occasion I’ve got the body of a 20-year-old and that my movements are full of grace, after months of doing Advanced Heading on WiiFit I managed to avoid all the boots and pandas it could throw at me and successfully made contact with all the footballs and racked up a Perfect Score.  More than once.  Hell of a buzz.

So after all that excitement I leave you with the Crossword answers:

  • from Tramp the awesome: Ulterior motive of Haagen-Dazs? (6,6)
  • from Rufus the beautifully simple: It became you (4) THOU
  • and the classic: Lover of Bess in musical heading off for wild party (4) (P)ORGY
  • from anon Everyman in the Observer: A motoring offence in Shepperton (6-7) Double parking
  • zen from Orlando: Al most (6,3) Nearly all
  • and the elegant: Effie is in Sheffield but he is in Manchester (4,6) City centre
  • a cringing pun from Araucaria: Don Quixote’s horse, say? (6) DONKEY
  • and a couple more from Rufus: More than one rock group (6) STONES
  • Metal detector (6) COPPER
  • redeemed by: Treatment for refusal to play guitar (7) NOSTRUM
  • and the simplicity of:  A round game, perhaps (3.3) CUP TIE
  • the sweet punning of Arachne gives us: Dames popular with sailors (6)  (Norfolk) BROADS
  • but weep at the sheer majesty of Auracaria: Complaint that one could hear Forsyth greeting relative? (11)  BRUCE-(E)LLOSIS !!! (it’s a lung disease of cattle, mentioned in Play it all night long, Warren Zevon’s paen to the farming life, his comment on the getting back to the land hippie fallout movement after the gold-rush, so to speak)

New Year’s wishes to each and all.

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The impossible dead (Orion, 2011) is Ian Rankin‘s second outing for Malcolm Fox and his Complaints team – now renamed (a new cliche of crime fiction, all this reorganisation) Internal Affairs.  It’s not so much that I miss Rebus (I do, but never mind that) as his DS, Siobhan.  We’ve got Fox (divorced, sworn off the drink long term, quarrelling with his sister about their dad in an old people’s home) aided and abetted by Tony Kay (bawdy drinker) and young Joe Naysmith (keen, bit of a tekkie): it’s a boy’s club.  It’s still a decent enough ensemble Rankin has put together and, as you’d expect, morality – personal greed, public face, political ends and means – is at the story’s core.  A routine disciplinary investigation leads to the maverick Fox pursuing a successful businessman, brother to a minister in the Scottish parliament and married to a police chief, for a crime dating back to the time – how long ago it now seems – before Scottish nationalism figured as an electoral force.  The security forces were involved then and the action now takes place against the background of a terrorism alert.  The soundtrack that accompanied Rebus has gone – hardly a music mention, and I doubt Jackie Leven, if he were still with us, would have been writing any songs – as he did in his Jackie Leven said collaboration with Rankin – about the haunting of Malcolm Fox.  Won’t stop me reading the next one, though.

I here indulge a short, picky, grumbling addendum.  I get annoyed at some sentences, at unnecessary wordage.  So on page 89 we get,

When she gestured for him to sit, he did as he was told, brushing his hands across the knees of his trousers.

Why does he have to do anything with his trousers.  What does it signify?  Indeed, what is going on?  Across his knees – is he doing the hand jive?  In a similar vein we get (p172):

Having finished his coffee, he pushed the plastic lid into the crushed cup.

Can’t he have just finished his coffee?  Or shouldn’t he have pushed the lid in first, before crushing the cup.  Unfair, this, I know (and Peter James is guilty of far worse – see later) and, on the other hand, we do get (p274),”You’re the Complaints, not some fucking Simon Schama“; to which the riposte is, “History seems to have a funny way of repeating itself.”

More impossibility – but of the phantasmagorical kind – with Angela Carter‘s brilliant Wise children (1991).  As Dora Chance, the narrator says at one stage, “What larks“.  Delicious, delightful and oftentimes wonderfully absurd, it all leads up to a glorious set piece at a physically injury free family apocalypse of a party.

The Hazards are a theatrical dynasty, the impoverished Nora and Dora Chance, the by-blows of the patriarch; I had to look that up – they’re bastards.  Unacknowledged, by Sir Melchior Hazard, they worked the variety halls, aided through life by his brother, the magical Peregrine, who is both a literal prestidigitator and narrative conjuror (making love to Dora on his hundredth birthday is the least of it).  Twins abound and the bard of Stratford’s works are never far away in the glorious bawdy narrative, delivered by the life-embracing Dora at the age of 75.

There I go again! Can’t keep a story going in a straight line, can I? Drunk in charge of a narrative.

The language, the phrase making, is a sustained feast of invention; the action, taking in the sweep of the twentieth century, is energetic and engrossing, the twists of mood beautifully paced, while the satire is prescient and, in parts, horribly precise – Angela Carter saw it all coming.  The family names and the Shakespearean twins are the vehicles addressing identity, contingency, love, luck, confusion and injustice, and more pointedly, notions and perceptions of of paternity and maternity and their relation to the physical facts of the case.

Impossible not to quote liberally and with joy. How fixed for you now are the sights and sounds conjured up by, “Music from the days when men wore hats” or (Jane Austen adapters , take note) “little ladies in period cleavage“?  Fiction and reality are all in the mix.  John Osborne’s end of the pier comic creation Archie Rice briefly appears, while Dora’s romance with a Hollywood writer – ‘Irish’ put her through a literary education –  is more than a nod to Scott and Zelda.  They’re in Hollywood making a hilariously awful and doomed Midsummer night’s dream extravaganze:

You’ll find me in his famous Hollywood stories. The last flame of a burnt-out case, but, oh, it had a glorious light! I never rate more than a footnote in the biographies; they get my date of birth wrong, they mix me up with Nora, that sort of thing. And I’m bound to say my best friend wouldn’t recognise me in the far-from-loving portrait he’d penned after I’d gone.  […]  Such turned out to be the eternity the poet promised me, the bastard.

There’s no business like … Carter invents a game show, hosted by legitimate son of the Hazard line Tristram, so inane and utterly devoid of skill or knowledge that it can compete with Deal or no deal (remember she was writing 20 years agao), while his brother is a missionary:

Gareth and Tristram, the priest and the game-show presenter. Not so different, really, I suppose. Both of them in show business. Both, in their different ways, carrying on the great tradition of the Hazard family – the willing suspension of disbelief. Both of them promise a free gift if you play the game.

There is a serious side at play here – the consequences and responsibilities of fatherhood, maternity, their relation to environment, inheritance – and it is wonderfully forwarded and subverted by speculation about Mrs Lear (we know nothing of her – where did those daughters come from?).  The narrative hinge is an old music hall joke, the punchline of which is, “‘Don’t worry, darlin’, ‘e’s not your father!“:

What if Horatio had whispered that to Hamlet in Act 1, Scene I?

The book’s last words: “What a joy it is to dance and sing.”  What a joy it is to read.  The discovery that Wise children is an A-level text, to be studied and examined on – that there is a York Notes for it – fills me with all sorts of … despair.

Which is not far from the effect, I’m afraid, that Dead like you (Macmillan, 2010), the sixth in Peter James‘s series of crime novels set in Brighton featuring detective Roy Grace, also had on me.  I got about a quarter of the way through the 550 pages of it and, really, I should have trusted my instincts and parted company with it at that badly written first paragraph.  Look, I know, he’d written – no, had published – nearly a score of novels when this one appeared, and I haven’t got so much as a first draft festering in the bottom of a draw somewhere, but consider this:

We all make mistakes, all of the time.  Mostly trivial stuff, like forgetting to return a phone call, or to put money in a parking meter, or to pick up milk at the supermarket.  But sometimes – luckily, very rarely – we make the big one.

That’s his opening.  Is that not rotten, clumsy prose?  This hasn’t taken me long:

We can all make mistakes, at any time.  Mostly trivial stuff, like forgetting to return a phone call or put money in the parking meter, pick up milk at the supermarket.  But sometimes – if we’re really unlucky – we make the big one.

I’d say that was a vast improvement, but then I’m not winning awards and topping bestseller lists.  Which is why I had a go at Dead like you, to see if, given all this action, the big three of British crime – Harvey, Rankin, Robinson – had a new contender in the wings.

The narrative of Dead like you skips unnecessarily backwards and forwards between ‘1997’ and ‘Now’.  Even with short chapters it’s hard to keep one’s bearings.  There’s a one-off (I think, remember I’ve given up a quarter through) labelled, rather confusingly, ‘1979’, in which we see the genesis of the designer shoe fetishist rapist and murderer who features in both strands, though I suspect there are actually two shoe fetishists out there (remember I’ve only read …).  This shifting backwards and forwards is a pathetic attempt to rack up the tension and terror on the first victim’s fate (she’s taken, she’s in the back of a van, she escapes the van but not the lock-up, he comes back …) – look, we know something bad happened; just get on with it and spare us the nastiness, please?  Needless to say, there’s a cold case team to hand.  A specialist rape interview centre is described like a PR release.  And as well as all the shoe desigbers you have to put up with stuff like:

Roy Grace grinned and stared into her eyes.  When colleagues, off duty, got wrecked in the bar upstairs at Brighton nick or out in pubs, and talk turned, as it always did among men, to football – something in which he had little interest – or to birds, the girls got divided fifty-fifty into those that blokes fancied because of their tits or those that blokes fancied because of their legs.  But Roy Grace could honestly say that the first thing he had fancied about Sandy was her mesmerizing blue eyes.

Yeah, me too Roy – more the smile, actually – but, you know, sorry, but … pass.  Disappointing.

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Jackie Leven 1950-2011

Damn. Jackie Leven, Celtic soul troubadour, Iron John come down from Fife … brown bread.

I think I’ve seen Jackie Leven play live more times than any other artist, and I was looking forward to increasing that number. Sadly, not to be.

Never mind what he did with the underrated Doll by Doll (a band whose name came from an e e Cummings poem), since 1994’s stunning solo album The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death – still as fresh as the day it was forged, if you don’t know it, it will amaze you – his body of significant recorded work – singing, writing, playing – is surely unparalleled in both quality and quantity. The now inevitable ‘Best of’ will have to be a double at the very least to even scratch the surface. Too long a secret, he really was one of the major creative figures of his generation, loved by those he touched. There are so many songs.

Live, he was intense, mesmerizing. A rich warm voice that could chill, drawing you into the song; dazzling guitar, never for its own sake. Poortown and Jim O’Windygates (both from the outstanding Fairy tales for hard men) could make you weep. An early outing of Classic northern diversions, upstairs in a nondescript Oxford pub, his opening song to an audience of no more than 20 souls, was one of the most exciting things I have ever heard or seen. His comic Rabelaisian between-song tales were not to everyone’s taste but something was necessary to break up the intensity of the songs and usually were funny, not to say righteous. He was a big man in every way, but approachable. I’m glad to have shaken his hand a couple of times.

He didn’t do encores. Not of that sort, anyway.  This was important, made him special. His shows weren’t planned to arrive at climaxes; you could say each song was a compassionate climax. There was humour, gratitude, good grace, intelligence, respect in play. Hence the lack of encores. He’d say, “right, this is my last song. You’re all adults. I could get up and walk out that door and you could clap and I’d come back and play the song I’m going to play anyway. Thank you for coming.” It would sound better if I could quote verbatim. And, of course, he was right; every ritual orchestrated encore diminishes us.

On record he could create spare epic layered soundscapes. Shining brother shining sister, for example, has a lovely sway to it. His broad expanse of work really should have been better known and far better rewarded. Poetry was one of the mainsprings of his creative force, an early love from errant schooldays, encouraged by a sympathetic librarian. He talked interestingly about this and other influences to those at Jockstock, an occasional event created around him, in 2004;  a text of what he said is reproduced in part on a page of its own here.

You have to say it sometimes. His heart was huge, the world is a smaller place. His Courtship in Scottish factories, tucked away on a Sir Vincent Lone album – a pseudonym because his main label, Cooking Vinyl, only allowed him one a year – is one of the great love songs.

“There are spiritual story tellers and there are soulful story tellers. I hope to be a soulful story teller. I see the two kinds as two different directions. Spiritual is ascending. Sky, God and all that. I hope my story telling is going down into the earth, is wetter, has more moisture.” Jackie Leven

For those who haven’t had the pleasure, there’s plenty on YouTube for starters.
Travel well.

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