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I love the opening, and title story, of Penelope Lively‘s first collection of short stories in twenty years.  And I love the opening of the opening story:

I am the Purple Swamp Hen.  Porphyrio porphyria, if you are into taxonomy and Latin binomials.  And, let me get this clear, I am Porphyrio porphyrio porphyrio, the nominate sub-species, not to be confused with the Australian lot […] And others. No, indeed, we are talking species definition here, the enduring stuff, and thus I endure – founding father, the Mediterranean nominate.

Do eighty year-olds write like this?  Well this one does.

Wondering where all this is going? Have patience. You’ll get your story. You know me. You know me on the famous garden fresco from Pompeii – somewhat faded, a travesty of my remarkable plumage, but nevertheless a passable portrait. You all exclaim over those frescos: the blues and greens, the precise depiction of flora and fauna. Oh, look! You cry – there are roses and ferns, oleanders, poppies, violets. […] You eye me with vague interest, and pass on. It’s just like a garden today! you cry.

That’s right.  We are being addressed by a bird on a fresco painted before 79 AD.  And it is anxious to rob us of any illusions.  Much is made in the other stories in this collection of POV – ‘point of view’.  A timeless garden scene?

      No, it isn’t. Wasn’t. […] make no mistake, the garden of Quintus Pompeius, where I passed my time, was nothing like any garden you’ve ever known.
      It hosted fornication, incest, rape, child abuse, grievous bodily harm – and that’s just Quintus Pompeius, his household and associates. We simply got on with the business of copulation and reproduction; far more imaginative, Homo sapiens. […] Eat out, sleep out, wash the dishes, pluck a pigeon, gossip, quarrel, wallop an old slave, fuck that pretty new one, plot, scheme, bribe, threaten. Get drunk, utter obscenities, vomit in the acanthus.
I saw it all. I heard it all.
      Let me fill you in on the general situation that autumn …

Which is what happens over the next 6 pages.  Dispassionately, wryly – the specificity of the acanthus! – we get amorous intrigue, dark deeds and a slave’s escape as Vesuvius threatens, then does its worse.  A tour de force.  The swamp hens, in the garden for decoration, flee to an ecologically appropriate marshy place, a habitat somewhat but not catastrophically threatened these days, our frescoed narrator assures us.

The other fourteen stories in The purple swamp hen (2016) are set in a later age.  From 1947 (a mother doing a Mrs Bennet – the story’s title – for her three daughters, the social sands shifting as each ‘comes of age’) to pretty much now, a couple of them with a gothic tinge.  They may seem to concern mainly middle class problems, but there’s a universality to the causes and resolutions.

How changing social mores and times affect individuals, the simple random contingencies of how couples come together (and how they turn out), the aforementioned importance of recognising others’ points of view, the dilemmas and otherwise of getting old, all are exposed in neat, forensic, sometimes staccato prose, often the sweet being in the sour.

A young home-help discovering the woman she helps was a spy, the ‘truth’ of writing and publishing a biography of someone recently deceased, a scriptwriter finding her professional skills are failing her in her own life – these are just three of the stories.  Abroad – opening line “50 years ago there were peasants in Europe” – has ’50s artists living cheaply in Europe using peasants as subject matter … until they run out of money and have to pay their debts in kind.  Lorna and Tim , the history of a marriage, has rich-from-birth Lorna left still not understanding how it failed; last devastating line – “You were rich.”  I think I shall be reading more Penelope Lively.

On the right here is the bookmark I was using while reading The purple swamp hen.  Quite apt in itself in that the stories take place in the decades portrayed, and the revolutionary paperback imprint Penguin was launched just a couple of years after its author was born.  As it happens, there’s a character in the very next book I read who collects Penguins: “I got a couple of Graham Greenes,” said Clean Head with satisfaction. The three-and-six editions. With the full colour Paul Hogarth art.”” Clean Head is a shaven-headed African-caribbean taxi driver, whose name I suspect derives from the jazz and blues singer Eddie Cleanhead Vincent in whose band a young John Coltrane once played, but I digress.   Now while the specific editions mentioned are not actually represented on the bookmark – that would be too perfect – I have a weakness for these little synchronicities, and it’s close enough for me.  And it is precisely the charm of these specific details that has me hooked on The Vinyl Detective.

The invention of a ’60s rock group for novelistic purposes is quite a hard act for a writer to pull off, and Andrew Cartmel doesn’t do badly at all in the The Vinyl Detective: The run out groove (Titan, 2017), the second in a series featuring said VD, a man with no name, whose business is finding rare vinyl but whose innocent jokey business card usage of the word ‘detective’ gets taken literally by others and hence into various scrapes.  Unlike the globetrotting first book in the series, this one stays in the UK.

Valerian is both the band’s name – out of the ’60s Canterbury scene – and the name its charismatic vocalist (“an English Janis Joplin“) went by.  The band broke up with her unexplained suicide, and mystery has always surrounded what happened to her young child.  It has been surmised (myths ahoy!) that the run-off groove – you know, like on Sergeant Pepper – that the run-off groove of the band’s last single – only briefly released and quickly withdrawn after her death and hence extremely rare – might offer solutions to what happened.  A relative from the US and a journalist are looking for a copy of that single … and we’re off on a plot taking all sorts of twists and turns involving a variety of ’60s survivors, and including, not least, an acid trip in a burning house and some gravedigging.  Entertainingly absurd, of course, but all done racingly well, and coming to a satisfactory and heart-warming conclusion.   The writing is smart, the series characters – a good quirky team, including the two cats – full of charm.  It would make a great tv series, properly casted, à la Beiderbecke Tapes.

I’m a sucker for the incidentals, the details – a sort of obnoxious knowingness – which may be lost on many potential readers but ring bells for me.  Like: “They might have a copy of the Artwoods’ first album, the original Decca issue, with the Mod cover.” Tinkler’s voice had softened rhapsodically.”  Or: “It’s a Garrard 301,” said Tinkler. “It’s built like a Russian T-34 tank”” – vinyl rules, obviously.  There’s even a Clean Head disquisition on the re-badging of DAF cars with variomatic transmissions as Volvos – the factuality of which I do not doubt – which while to me gibberish, still entertains in context.  I just about remember Lita Roza, or at least That doggie in the window:

I went to put some music on, to lighten the mood. I chose a Decca ten inch of Lita Roza. It was one of her true jazz recordings. She was singing here with the Tony Kinsey Quartet, including the mighty Joe Harriott on sax. The Colonel turned and listened for a minute and said, “Didn’t this girl sing ‘(How much is that) Doggie in the window’?” “She did indeed,” I said, “but not on this record, thank god.”

Guitarist Eric Make Loud – Eric McCloud to his mum – is a great creation:

Erik Make Loud strode towards us, his voice heavy with sarcasm. “My involvement with her was that I had to use the toilet on the band bus after she did and breathe the stink of her shit. I breathed the stink of her shit for four years in that band. Four years in a career that has spanned fifty years.” he actually said ‘spanned’. “I’ve played with dozens of bands and hundreds of musicians. But all anybody wants to talk about is Valerian.  It was all over a lifetime ago, but all anyone wants to talk about is Valerian.”  We’d hit a sore spot all right.

They get around him by zooming in on his playing with Frank Zappa.  But it’s that “he actually said ‘spanned'” is the kitemark of quality.  I look forward to the next volume, which apparently moves into the world of classical music.

Last month‘s Book Group book was Patrick Ness‘s A monster calls, which for me was a re-read.  The Book Group copy was the plain text edition of 2012, as opposed to the stunning prize-winning 2011 illustrated one shown here, and for me it had lost none of its power, nevertheless.  Others in the group were less willing to overlook its origin as ‘teenage fiction’ and were less spellbound by its spellbinding blend of horror, fantasy, Jungian symbolism, compassion and a young teenager’s off-handedness.

Conor’s mum is dying, his dad elsewhere, his grandma is a nightmare ( “… the way she talked to him, like he was an employee under evaluation“) and he has withdrawn into himself at school when his situation became known.  A tree, a Green Man’s representative of a tree, walks up and starts telling him stories (You think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness?“) and leaving berries on his bedroom floor.  The resolution of all this, his pain at home, at school, the moral of the tale – I’m not saying – is beautifully done; it had me lachrymose and beaming. 

What I picked up on this time was the tone of the prose, Conor’s surface refusal to descend into melodramatics:

      The monster looked at him quizzically. How strange, it said. The words you say tell me you are scared of the berries, but your actions seem to suggest otherwise.
“You’re as old as the land and you’ve never heard of sarcasm?” Conor asked.
Oh, I have heard of it, the monster said, putting its huge branch hands on its hips. But people usually know better than to speak it to me.

How effective the italicisation of the yew tree’s voice is!  As is the defense of story: Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might awake?”  And, finally, how about this as a summation of young boy’s misery?:

Some bread in the toaster, some cereal in a bowl, some juice in a glass, and he was ready to go, sitting down at the little table in the kitchen to eat. His mum had her own bread and cereal which she bought at a health food shop in town and which Conor thankfully didn’t have to share. It tasted as unhappy as it looked.


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Patrick Ness - More than thisGood though it is – and it is a very good book indeed – I’m afraid the title of Patrick Ness‘s latest young adult novel still can’t cancel out an annoying reminder of the death knell of a decent Desert Island Discs that is Frank Sinatra’s treatment of My way; not that I necessarily blame the singer for that, just the bastards who pick it.

You can only really give More than this (Walker Books, 2013) a ‘young adult’ label because its three major protagonists span the teenage years between them.  And there are certainly plenty of life lessons to be had.  No, this is dystopian science fiction of the highest literary order, the sort of stuff that graced the best pages of those Dangerous visions anthologies of old, or more recently Lost on tv.  I’ll mention Philip K. Dick and Aldous Huxley for starters, hazard cognitive psychology as one of its drivers.  This is a big book in every way, not just in its page length; the hardback also has a tactile cover (and you see that title on yellow through a hole in it).

“Whatever is true, whatever this place is or isn’t, whether it’s all in his head or whether this really is the way the world turned out … “

It starts with a boy called Seth drowning – dying – in graphic detail, bones breaking against the rocks the sea throws him against.  But he wakes up naked, weak from thirst and lack of food in some sort of derelict waste land.  Or hell.  Or what?  He discovers that he’s in England where he grew up, although he was drowning in the US.  He discovers he’s not alone, finds the older cynical Regine and young innocent Tomasz and they form an uneasy alliance.  Ness is such a good writer you are with them all the way.  As they venture out they also painfully re-discover details of their old lives and how they got to be where they are.  And work out they’ve somehow emerged into a world that went badly wrong.  I don’t think I’ll give much more away here save to say it started with people escaping reality online and this trend is developed exponentially in classic SF fashion.

What I like about Patrick Ness is the way he plays with the idea of story, turns it upon itself.  So, before he’s met the others, Seth is reading a book his parents stopped him reading:

A book, he thinks at one point […] It’s a world all on its own, too. […]  A world made of words, Seth thinks, where you live for a while.
“And then it’s over,” he says. He’s only got about fifty pages left, he can finally find out what happens in the end.
And then he’ll leave that world forever.

Except More than this isn’t that kind of book.  It stays with you powerfully a while after, tantalizing beyond its last page.  Again, later:

“Crap sci-fi.” Seth mutters to himself. “Life is never actually that interesting.” […]
It’s the kind of story where everything’s explained by one big secret, like everyone going online and what’s real and what’s not being reversed. The kind of story you watched for two hours, were satisfied with the twist, and then got on with your life.
The kind of story his own mind would provide to make sense of this place.

It’s that last sentence that is the rub, that nags away in the unreal circumstances they find themselves in (and also admits the novelist’s dilemma in supposedly dealing with ‘real life’):

“The rain that puts out the fire and also traps us here so we can talk,” he continues. “A chest injury that heals fast enough for me to get away. It all just sort of works, doesn’t it.”

And so it goes on.  “He is back to believing we are made up“; because “That’s what would happen if this were a story“; or “If this is my brain telling me a story-“.  Until Regine explodes, with “I swear to God, if you say one more philosophical thing to me-”  But stories, she say elsewhere:

“People see stories everywhere,” Regine says. “That’s what my father used to say. We take random events and we put them together in a pattern so we can comfort ourselves with a story no matter how much it obviously isn’t true.” She glances back at Seth. “We have to lie to ourselves to live. Otherwise, we’d go crazy.”

And sometimes we use those stories, she tells Seth, as excuses, to expunge our own guilt at not making a grab for happiness, for not even trying.  Because More than this is a lot more than just ideas.  It’s how Seth, Regine and Tomasz cope with it all in their own ways and together.  It’s a reader’s delight to watch as the understanding and warmth grows between them:

     “People break,” he says again. “But we got a second chance, “the three of us.”
Regine laughs once. “You think this is a second chance? How shitty was your life?” […]
She gives a wry smile. “I used to be a really nice person.”
Seth smiles back. “I don’t believe that for a second.”

With echoes back to A monster calls, Patrick Ness’s previous book, near the ‘end’ of More than this Regine tells Seth:

      “Real life is only ever just real life. Messy. What it means depends on how you look at it. The only thing you’ve got to do is find a way to live there.”
“Now make hay, dickhead. While the sun still shines.”

Scribal Gathering: the Allographic edition

Fay Roberts by Karen Kodish detail

Red-Top-Hat

November Scribal and ideally I’d have one photo of the immaculately red top hatted guest host Fay Roberts here.  C’est la vie – Dyna bywyd, even.  At least it’s the right venue in the pic.  Another fine evening but it was well over a week ago now and – though I can’t possibly ignore it – I can’t remember too much or many of the specifics.  As compère Fay was playful, shouty and mellifluous and as a poet impressive yet again with that quiet power of hers, when not rhythming and rhyming.  And bongo-ing for the Last Quarter, who did the lovely Ugly beauty beautifully. Fay says on FB: “11 poets, 4 musical acts, great audience, beautiful venue” and who am I to argue.

Scribal Alographic

Engelbert Humperdinck does Roald Dahl

Hansel and GretelYup, that’s the wicked witch, and he was a tenor.  Something I’ve not seen before: empty seats for Glyndebourne on Tour at the theatre on Tuesday.  More fool those who couldn’t be bothered because this was a superb modern production of Engelbert Humperdinck‘s Hansel and Gretel; those who did certainly made up for the numbers with their applause and acclaim at the end.  The sets and were stars on their own, never mind the full orchestra, the costumes and the singing.  It’s not great on tunes you come away humming but that never gets in the way.

We came knowing little about it save for cramming with the Brothers Grimm tale in the morning, which wasn’t that clever given someone didn’t die and wasn’t the heartless baddy we were expecting.  Knew we were probably in for a treat when the front curtain was a brown-taped brown paper parcel with a big bar code bottom right.  When that went up H&G’s parents’ cottage was made of tatty thick corrugated cardboard.  Nicely done.  The leafless branchless forest H&G got lost in was like one of those Paul Nash paintings of wasted post-battle landscapes from the First world War, post-apocalyptic German expressionist maybe.  When they dreamed of food the 14 ballet angels sat in a ring eating MacDonald’s, and played fascinated with the plastic bags littering the floor.  The Sandman was in a spangled white uniform that might have come out of Woody Allen’s Sleeper or something similar.

The gingerbread house of old was here constructed from …  tall supermarket aisles full of gaudily packaged sweet foodstuffs – stuffing being appropriate here.  it also made for a flexible platform to be scampered all over.  And into the centre of which the witch fell and spectacularly exploded.  This is where the Roald Dahl stuff came in, with the liberated chorus of kids who’d been fattened up for their slaughter.  (A friend had earlier seen Wallace and Grommit references which I missed).  Great fun, yet at the same time, a brilliantly conceived commentary on contemporary consumerism.  Hugely enjoyable.  You can always trust Glyndebourne on Tour.

 

 

 

 

 

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‘People’ is actually the title of the play we saw last week but it can also serve as a portmanteau for all that’s included here in an attempt to half-way catch up on my cultural consumption.  Anyway …

People and the power of story

Patrick Ness - A monster callsI loved Patrick Ness‘s A monster comes (Walker Books, 2011).  Hard to avoid superlatives; a beautiful emotional piece of book-making all round.  The original idea for the story came from Siobhan Dowd, another children’s author, who didn’t live long enough to write it herself.  It is wonderfully illustrated by Jim Kay with several dramatic double page spreads that often creep onto – even invade – adjoining pages’ text, while other pages and subtly decorated.  It’s done so well I’d say that the publishers producing a text only paperback edition, which they have indeed done, borders on the criminal.

Conor O’Malley is having a tough time dealing with his mother’s battle with cancer.  They are a one parent family; his dad is concerned but away with his new family and there’s an uptight grandmother hovering.  Conor is also being bullied at secondary school.  It’s a sad, sad, conflicted situation.  Help, though Conor doesn’t always see it as that, comes from the monster of the book’s title (or is it ‘just’ the elm tree at the back of their house and his unrestrained imagination?).  The monster speaks in italics: I have had as many names as there are years of time itself. I am Herne the Hunter! I am Cernunnos! I am the eternal Green Man!  There’s a transcendental passage soon after that introduction that has all the power of Kenneth Grahame’s Piper at the gates of dawn (you know, in The wind in the willows). 

Ness is a brilliant story-teller, and he places stories at the heart of the tale.  The monster says he will tell Conor three stories (Three tales from when I walked before) and then Conor will have to tell his story, his truth.  This comes to pass as the action unfolds.  Stories are the wildest things of all, the monster warns him.  Stories chase and bite and huntAgain: Stories are wild creatures […] When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?  This does not come easy for Conor:

You think I tell you stories to teach you lessons? the monster said. You think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness?

I’ll say no more about the moral of the story and what Conor (and not just Conor) takes away from the experience, which is more than just the threat and actuality of bereavement and grief.  It strikes me that the value in reading quality ‘Young Adult Fiction’ (to use the book industry category) is in its dealing with life concepts that are new to the combatants, that are not so much reduced to simpler terms but made plainer, are felt more acutely, so that if the characters can engage the older (jaded) reader, then they too will come away reminded and refreshed.   A monster calls is unique in having won both of the UK’s premier children’s book awards – chosen by librarians – for both fiction (the Carnegie medal) and illustration (the Greenaway) in 2012.  It is a great book, a lot more than just the prime bibliotherapy material it undoubtedly is for those – young and old – involved in its specific sad situation.  I haven’t been so moved by a book in a long time.

Poetry people, people’s poets

W.H.FluffypunkI’ve been dipping into, working my way through, a couple of slim volumes of poetry for a couple of months now.  I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to W.H.Auden – I mean, he was there in that ancient red-covered Faber Book of Modern Poetry that served me so well decades ago – but I’m hooked.  Nevermind all the limestone (which I now get), I wasn’t prepared for the sheer range and variety of material he put out, its seriousness, its breadth of thought and feeling  and its wit.  The chronological arrangement of John Fuller’s fine short introductory selection for Faber (published 2000) – one poem for each year from 1927 to his death in 1973 – displays this beautifully.  And a lot of it feels contemporary again, the same questions in a different context, the double-edged musings around the notion of The cultural presupposition – as opposed to nature’s creature’s unthinking existence – both bracing and celebratory.   And yet, with Since he can start a poem with: “On a mid-December day, / frying sausages / for myself …

Which I can see Jon Seagrave kicking off from as well.  His The sustainable nihilist’s handbook: words by Johnny Fluffypunk (Burning Eye, 2012) lives up to the promise of its title well enough and is hugely enjoyable; not that there’s not a certain seriousness and poignancy lurking beneath its comic surface.  “I have not always been the urbane sophisticate,” says the author of Dog shit bin in one of the mytho-autobiographical pieces that pepper the collection.  In War on the home front he admits to holding to “a body of political opinion / gleaned from the sleeves / of punk rock records” but as the book progresses (via two pages of Baiku: Poems about bikes / in seventeen syllables? / Let’s call ’em baiku”) he’s delightfully baking, at some length, Bill Blake’s birthday cakein the oven of my heart’s desire“.  Which is followed by the sublime The best poem in the world, which among other things will “make computers weep.”  Great fun.

Mine was beat up like this one too ...

Mine was beat up like this one too …

Postmodern poetry postscript: I suppose it was hearing veteran late Scottish rocker Alex Harvey‘s musical take on Roman Wall blues on Soldier on the walls, his last album, that was belatedly the nudge for me to give Auden another goThere are a few visual treatments of it (cue pic of Hadrian’s Wall) on YouTube – here’s one link.  Definitely worth a listen.  Meanwhile, the final poem in John Fuller’s selection of Auden’s poems is called No, Plato, No.  I find it impossible not to read or hear those words in any way other than in the phrasing and timbre of The Big Bang Theory‘s Sheldon Cooper’s ailing nocturnal cry of “No, Goofy, No” in the episode where Penny has taken him to Disneyland.  Incongruous, I know, yet somehow deeply satisfying.

Alan Bennett’s People

People - ABWe came out of the National Theatre’s touring production of PeopleAlan Bennett‘s newest play, mightily entertained but wondering what exactly he was trying to say.  Two sisters argue over what to do about the crumbling family pile that no-one’s going to inherit.  One favours the ultimate victors, the National Trust, the other making a last-ditch go of it or a private sale.  It’s a bit of a rag-bag play.  Bennett puts his customary wit to work on the poignancy and bad grace of a bright young thing grown old, while generous portions of broad social satire rub shoulders with occasional state of the nation pronouncements.  To which must be added – with the filming of a porn movie on the premises – some beautifully executed and extended passages of high farce.

It was a distinguished cast, with Siân Phillips outstanding as the once glamorous sister surviving in the house with her dowdy live-in housemaid/companion, and Selina Cadell as the practical one bringing in the NT.  It was only afterwards we realised that the live-in companion (she on the left in the picture) was Brigit Forsyth – only Thelma from Whatever happened to the Likely Lads; their song and dance routine to Downtown (and another couple of ’60s ‘classics’) were delightful interludes.  Michael Thomas was good as the NT man, excited over the personal piss-pots of the great and good of the early twentieth century.

Reassuring to hear, too, that Alan Bennett wasn’t that sure what it’s about either:

I could say what 40 years on was about and I could say what History Boys was about. I don’t think I could quite say what Enjoy [about the NT adopting a northern back-to-back terrace] was about, as I can’t say exactly what this is about …

He describes People‘s origin as an itch, but insists there’s not so much a criticism of the National Trust intended as a recognition of the dilemmas of conservation and presentation in the matter of ‘England’:

It was an itch and I still have it. But when I go around country houses, and t’other people, and I think, what is it they’re … What have they come for? – and I think, well, what have I come for? The fact that you can’t, or very rarely can, explain why you’re there or what it is you hope to come away with depresses me really …

I know what he means.

 

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