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Posts Tagged ‘John Williams’

Augustus

How do you oppose a foe who is wholly irrational and unpredictable – and yet who, out of animal energy and accident of circumstance, has attained a most frightening power?”

It’s a problem, right?  In  this instance – John Williams‘ brilliant historical novel Augustus (1973) – they’re talking about Mark Anthony.  I am so in awe of this novel that I feel the need to escape from hyperbole by slipping into anecdotage.

One of those significant moments of advance in one’s intellectual life: an A-level essay on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, which I kick off with a quote from Dylan’s recently released Maggie’s Farm – “Well I’ve tried my best / to be just like I am / But every body wants me / to be just like them.”  Turns out in the end he was a bit of a tosser “who did not even perform his own suicide well …

It is often suggested that life in Ancient Greece and Rome – events, ideas, dilemmas that I have skipped over – have in essence anticipated pretty much everything that has gone down since.  It seems a reasonable notion, and one I’m a lot more likely to explore after reading Augustus.

It’s an incredible story.  When he was 19, Octavius Caesar, Julius Caesar’s nephew, JC’s recently adopted son and successor, was off on a Greek island doing student stuff with his mates (and being educated).  No long after, in 44 BC,  JC was famously assassinated, and Octavius – like Brazilian footballers he took to being known as Augustus a bit later, as Emperor and, um, god – hastened back to a Rome that was in chaos, with civil war in prospect.  No-one expected him to pick up the reins, but he did.  When he was 19.  Diversionary tactic 2: cue my mate Naomi Rose’s song Nineteen because now it’s there it won’t go away:

By the time Augustus died he had left an economically prosperous Roman Empire at peace within itself and secure within its extensive borders – the era that is known as the Pax Romana.  But not without huge personal cost.  The story is told in a patchwork of lletters, memos and memoirs, petitions and poems, senatorial proceedings, reports, military orders, and journal notes – chronologically, but with the dates of the sources jumping backwards and forwards, providing a commentary on events. 

As the book progresses more and more space is given to the journal of Augustus’s daughter, Julia, whom he loves, but who has been callously, strategically, used over the years, and is sentenced to a lonely exile by him, for treason.  She has been on a hell of a journey.  Ordered by her father, “I returned to Rome in the consulship of Tiberius Claudius Nero … Who had been a goddess returned to Rome a mere woman, and in bitterness.”  Furthermore “I was not to be free. One year and four months after the death of Marcus Agrippa [an old, gay, mate of his] my father betrothed me to Tiberius Claudius Nero. He was the only one of my husbands whom I ever hated.”  Her fate: “So I am once again to be the brood sow for the pleasure of Rome.”  Hers is a tale that could easily stand as an outstanding work of its own.  She achieves a certain liberation, experiences sensual pleasure and ultimately reaches a peace in her situation:

Father,” I asked, “has it been worth it? “Your authority, this Rome that you have saved, this Rome that you have built? Has it been worth all that you have had to do?”
My father looked at me for a long time, and then he looked away. “I must believe it has,” he said. “We both must believe it has.”

The books ends with an astonishing 36 pages, as a lonely dying Augustus, voyaging out at sea, looks back over his life in a sequence of letters to the only surviving friend of his youth, a scholar.  It is one of the most powerful sustained passages I have read in a long time.  It’s fiction, of course, so one doesn’t know, but … well, try this:

Thus I did not determine to change the world out of an easy idealism and selfish righteousness that are invariably the harbingers of failure, nor did I determine to change the world so that my wealth and power might be enhanced; wealth beyond one’s comfort has always seemed to me the most boring of possessions, and power beyond its usefulness has seemed the most contemptible. It was destiny that seized me that afternoon at Apollonia nearly 60 years ago, and I chose not to avoid its embrace.

Compared to Alexander the Great, he opines that Alexander had it lucky, dying so young, “else he would have come to know that if to conquer the world is a small thing, to rule it is even less.”
“… I have never wished to conquer the world, and I have been more nearly ruled than ruler.”

He puts in a good word for the poets, whose company was often held against him:

Of the many services that Maecenas performed for me, the most important seems to me now to be this: He allowed me to know the poets to whom he gave his friendship. They were among the most remarkable men I have ever known …

I could trust the poets because I was unable to give them what they wanted …

Horace once told me that laws were powerless against the private passions of the human heart, and only he who has no power over it, such as the poet or the philosopher, may persuade the human spirit to virtue.

Great book.  Capital G.

Razor Girl

And now for something completely different.  I love reading Carl Hiaasen, just gulp his books down.  What it says on the cover.  He specialises in outlandish, yet I thought the actions of the woman of the title of his latest book were too much, even for the Florida of his oeuvre.  And then I read the disclaimer to Razor Girl (Sphere, 2016):

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. However, true events in South Florida provided the lurid material for certain strands of this novel, beginning with the opening scene. The author also wishes he’d dreamed up the part about the giant Gambian pouched rats, but he didn’t. Those suckers are real.

There’s a lovely rhythm to his writing that just pulls you along.  Here’s the opening paragraph:

On the first day of February, sunny but cold as a frog’s balls, a man named Lane Coolman stepped off a flight at Miami International, rented a mainstream Buick and headed south to meet a man in Key West. He nearly made it.

That ‘He nearly made it’, if you’re familiar with Carl Hiaasen, is no harbinger of doom for Coolman, but rather an invitation to the reading treat in store.  He keeps a handful of narratives going and works seamlessly to intertwine them with calamitous and desperate irony.

There‘s the central character, Yancey, a disgraced detective who now, busted to public hygiene inspector, works the roach patrol in local restaurants, is anxious to get his old job back.  So he involves himself in what starts as a mistaken kidnapping which introduces into the plot a top-rated scripted fake reality TV show called Bayou Brethren about a hillbilly family business breeding speciality chickens for fly-fishing flies.  Enter a psychopathic fan of the show who has bought into its conceit – including unofficial dodgy right-wing rants on YouTube –  wholesale. Then there’s the out-of-his-depth guy running an eco-destructive con providing sand to hotel beaches who owes money to the mafia, who ends up mid-chase electrocuting himself trying to recharge a stolen Tesla.  Not to mention the tangled love lives and Yancey’s real estate problem of how to get rid of potential next-door neighbours threatening to build big and destroy his view. Among other things.

Hiaasen is basically a moralist, appalled at what big money has done and is doing to Florida.  Razor Girl displays less of the eco-warrior than usual – and it’s hard not to rue the non-appearance of Skink, the ragged one-eyed wild man ex-governor of Florida who’s gone native in the Keys, who features in some of his other books, but Hiaasen is still rooting – relatively speaking – for the good guys, albeit with many degrees of grey on the way.  The mafia guy is appalled to discover that the beach con man has been using a fake Helper Dog jacket on any old mutt to milk the privileges that one brings.

Carl Hiaasen is a master of dialogue and pushing the action along.  And he can be very very funny.

The reader on the 6.27

Weird, touching on desolation, yet charming, Jean-Paul Didierlaurent‘s The reader on the 6.27 (Mantle, 2015), translated by Ros Schwartz), is one of those shortish books that seem to only ever appear in translation.

Guylain Vignolles has not had it easy with a name that, subjected to spoonerist manipulation, gets him called ‘Ugly Puppet’.  He has a soul-crushing job in a factory pulping books.  He rescues random pages that escape the machine and recites them out loud next day to commuters on the train to work.  Some even look forward to it.  At work there’s a bossy boss and a jealous assistant.  There’s a sub-plot that takes in his reading for an hour, by invitation, at an old people’s home.

A while ago there had been an accident at work and a friend had lost a leg to the grinding machine; he, the friend, had traced how the pulp produced that day had been used, and was buying up copies of the cook book printed on that paper; he’s buying copies up.  Guylain helps him by pursuing second-hand copies at weekends, looking to help his friend get some sort of closure from a full set on his bookshelves.

One day on the train home Guylain finds a USB stick and discovers thereon a quirky document written by a woman working as a concierge in a public toilet in a shopping centre.  Enchanted, it is from this he now reads to his fellow commuters, and makes it his mission to find the writer.  And in the end, a drawn out love story.  Weird, charming, and highly recommended.

Scribal Gathering

You’d think the energy, industry and invention that went into The Antipoet would be enough for most mortals, but no, Paul Eccentric (“the mouthy half of … the beatrantin’ rhythm’n’views act” as estimable host Jonathan JT Taylor described him in the events page for the evening on FB) is an accomplished solo spoken word performer and, after a change of jacket, seated vocalist with the entertaining Polkabililly Circus,  who variously rocked, folked, emoted and mixed it up as you’d expect from their name. (Not to mention his other side projects:  http://pauleccentric.co.uk/ ).  Another fine way to spend an evening with Scribal: other poets and musicians were standing.

Archivists please note: JMD was unable to attend.

YorkieFest 2017

Best for me at YorkieFest this year, the fifth no less, were tucked away in the middle of the day.  Innocent Hare‘s repertoire draws masterfully from a number of folk traditions and the trio – a family affair – ebulliently led by Chloe Middleton-Metcalfe, went down a storm with the modest collection of souls in attendance at that time.  The ever immaculate harmonies and musicality of The Straw Horses followed, and in retrospect it was a mistake on my part to try to eat a vegetarian crepe (from La Crepe Franglais) – delicious though it was, it required concentration with that plastic fork – while they were on.  The continent-wide African guitar work from Safari Boots impressed. 

Special mention should also be made for my introduction to the sport and art of Tea Duelling from The Order of the Teapot, aka the local Steampunks.  It involves biscuit dunking, judgment skills and a lot of nerve.  Shame a few more didn’t come given all Pat Nicholson (one half of Growing Old Disgracefully, or GOD) and others’ hard work, but glad to say, money was made for the charities supported.

Chloe gave me a sticker to stick on an instrument to spread the word. I guess this my instrument. And I’ll stick it on the notebook I carry.

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Naked guideBe nice if every city had a guide like The naked guide to Bristol: not all guide books are the same (5th ed: Tangent, 2015).  Scathing wit and a whole lot of sub-cultural love and knowledge, a production of real urban identification and affection.  Organised energetically by postal district BS1 to BS8, and by theme, giving a people’s history.  We were out in the suburbs in BS9, Henleaze, but I thought this publication worthy of mention.  If its span had reached as far as where we were staying I’m certain they would have raved about the fruit and veg shop on the main drag – beautifully presented and full of temptation beyond what we had the capacity for.  Wish I’d taken a photo of that basket mixed in shape and colour – purple, green, yellow, oh, and red – of English tomatoes.  Also Badock’s Wood.

Chestnut blossomA short stroll over a minor crossroads and up a bit, Badock’s Wood is an oasis of green in a mild sea of mixed suburban housing – if Richard Thompson’s Mock Tudor had been a song rather than an album title I might have been humming down some of the streets.  According to its Friends organisation “It is a small, semi-natural, broad-leaved woodland situated in a limestone valley with adjacent areas of grassland.”  There’s a small river along its edge and the circular fitness route the council has instituted with unobtrusive distance markers involves, as we shall see, a bit of a climb.

Badock’s Wood has survived because it was given to what was then the Bristol Corporation in 1937 by Sir Stanley Badock, a local landowner and industrialist – something to do with metal smelting and refining – so that the citizens of Bristol could enjoy the woods as a public open space in perpetuity.  The deed of gift specifically excluded the erection of any buildings on the land.  Good for him; and wouldn’t developers just love to get their hands on it.  I mention this because I was reminded that within living memory financial success was once regarded as an opportunity to make a grand gesture and give something tangible back to where you lived, as an expression of civic pride; rather than, these days, self-indulgence far away.  (Locally one must give a very big nod of appreciation to Jim Marshall, of Marshall Amplification no less, and all that he contributed to Milton Keynes, but inevitably the nature of philanthropy, of land or libraries, has changed.)

Badock's Wood wild garlicAnd for sure the locals do appreciate Badock’s Wood.  Especially the dog owners and the keep-fitters and those with babes napping in prams.  Walking by the wild garlic in full flower and scent, then through a carpet of pink chestnut blossom.
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On the path (river to the right) up to top of the woods a bisected fallen tree trunk invites you on, but not before taking in the not wasted opportunity for a bit of wood sculpture – the spider stood out but other creatures and the inevitable serpent featured on the other side of the path too.

At the top a wild flower meadow and modest tumulus – a Bronze Age burial mound – and rumours of a windmill.  There’s a stainless steel sculpture marking the tumulus that plays nicely with its position and the light, the work of Michael Fairfax.  The hole is at adult face height.

20160523_8The windmill is anecdotal – there used to be one somewhere around here – but that seems ample justification for the inscription curling at the foot of the piece, written by the sculptor’s dad, John Fairfax:

At Badock’s Wood ghostly windmill sails turn / and like a rewound film spin through history / to remote times when this was burial place for bronze aged warrior / In that landscape wolves prowled / and nervy red deer grazed / while hog rooted among the trees.

It’s a thought.

StonerStoner – a slight return

Back home in time for Book Group.  Half of us had read John WilliamsStoner (1965) before but none regretted a re-read and it retains its quiet power admirably.  This is a special book.  Put simply, the only son of a farming family who could have posed for Grant Wood’s American Gothic, William Stoner, at the urging of the Land Agent, goes to uni to study agriculture, struggles with the compulsory EngLit intro until he has a classroom revelation and devotes the rest of his life to medieval and renaissance literature there.  His dissertation? – “The influence of the Classical Tradition upon the Medieval Lyric.” But you don’t hear much specifically about that.

He’s not that great a teacher, though he gets a bit of a mojo in that regard after a personal tragedy brought on by backstabbing spirit-destroying departmental politics.  It’s the story of a decent man’s life, how he copes with its slings and unreasonable arrows (“…the density of accident and circumstance”), related in an even-toned unspectacular yet haunting prose, and it is absolutely thrilling.  Incredibly sad and yet so life-affirming.

Reading it the second time round I was struck by how vivid the supporting cast are; the slow tragedy of his mentor’s despair as he sees how others react to the Great War (“There are wars and defeats and victories of the human race that are not military and that are not recorded in the annals of history”), seeing his mate Finch as less of the uncaring careerist I’d thought, and further ruing the loss in that war of the third of that Friday night drinks trio, who, for all that he “gave him a glimpse of the corrosive and unspoiled bitterness of youth”, might have given Stoner the odd useful kick or pointer when he needed it: “Dave Masters, the defiant boy they both had loved, whose ghost had held them, all these years, in a friendship whose depth they had never quite realised.”

And then there’s his wife …  Now I wasn’t the only one – and I’m the only male in the group – who’d wanted to strangle the bitch (sorry, it just slipped out, but it’s visceral in the book), but discussion had us wondering how damaged she was even before she met Stoner: when her father dies she comprehensively destroys all her stuff with any connection to him, and cruelly reclaims their daughter, the saving grace of the marriage for him – is it more than jealousy and bloody-mindedness?  If I ever read it again – not out of the question, it’s a great book – it’s something to look out for.  Again, on second reading, the hope and excitement of his compensating affair seemed even more vivid: “after a while, the outer world where people walked and spoke, where there was change and continual movement, seemed to them false and unreal.”

He was forty-two years old, and he could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember. (p181) [that number again!]

He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance. (p275)

Thrilling? Life affirming?  A life worth living?  A book worth reading.  You betcha. 

Here’s the link to what I said at first reading a couple of years ago: https://quavid.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/this-is-your-life/

Vaultage late May 2016A Vaultage that was a bit special

And not just for the launch of the T-shirts (see photo below).  Two very fine guest acts who formed a mutual admiration society while being quite different in their subtle offerings.  First up were hazeyjane – one word, no spaces – two blokes with no qualms about bravely wearing the Nick Drake influence on their sleeves, but doing their own nicely crafted material.  Was that a five-string bass?  Indeed it was, being mellifluously played behind some accomplished singing and guitar from the writer.  Only thing I would say, is you probably need to dig a bit deeper in the Drake oeuvre to find another name, not because of gender confusion but because it’s already quite a well used web identity.  There’s even a US ‘saison’ beer (whatever that means) from the Mystic Brewery.

Then we had Wednesday’s Wolves – that’s them on the poster – two young women who describe themselves on their worth a visit website as doing ‘contemporary folk’, again doing their own stuff.  Enchanting vocals, some aetherial harmonies, engaging songs, the one who didn’t play guitar getting away with playing glockenspiel on a couple of songs in an often noisy pub.  As Lois, who had got these two duos to come along, said: a magical evening.  (Not forgetting the open mic-ers too, he added, of course).

Dynamic duo

Now seems a good time for a photo of Pat Nicholson and Lois Barrett, two fine performers and writers in, um, their own right, who host Vaultage, sporting the aforementioned t-shirts. And a nod to the Vaults Bar in the Bull Hotel, Stony Stratford for this and many other things.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stoner

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

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

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

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

Fire and brimstone

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

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

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

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

Recent musical adventures

Dan plews framed

Dan Plews framed

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

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

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