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Posts Tagged ‘Penelope Lively’

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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Ali Smith - Public libraryI loved Ali Smith‘s Public library and other stories (Hamish Hamilton, 2015) and would have probably written a lot more about it here if I hadn’t had to take it back to the public library because there were reservations on it; other people were waiting, and who was I to frustrate their reading pleasure any longer?  I may well return to it when the paperback comes out later this year.  It’s an unorthodox collection –   there is no actual story with the title Public library; in italics in between the stories are various other writers’ thoughts and memories on the crucial importance of public libraries in their early lives – the spark of imagination – and to a community.

The stories are wondrous things, putting words (“Words were stories in themselves“), writing and books at the heart of a tapestry of individual’s lives, triggers to particular moments in their lives, with hardly a physical library in sight – just the treasures they hold.  The opening story, Last (yes, it’s that kind of book), opens with a veritable dip into the thesaurus suggesting what could well be the final journey in a woman’s life; words swim in her brain (Hey: the Travelling Etymologies – that could be a decent band name, she thinks) but an unlikely sequence of events at journey’s end lead to the fresh re-discovery of the double-(at least)-entendre: finality and endurance.

In The poet, a poet throws an old book (one of Walter Scott’s from a famous collected edition) up against a wall in frustration, and in the damage done sees a page from an old music score used in the inner spine binding – something I’ve noticed (and wondered about) myself; not, I hasten to add by throwing old books against a wall – which leads us off into other paths, while telling her story.  Intrigued, through the wonders of the interweb I find she’s a real poet, find examples of her work.

My favourite piece (at least first time round), is The human claim, wherein another, more contemporary writer, researching what happened to D.H.Lawrence’s ashes (fascination enough in itself), finds herself in frustrating correspondence about fraudulent use of her credit card, which leads to her trying to find Lufthansa’s offices at Heathrow.  On that journey she sees a road sign to Harmondsworth, where Penguin books used to be published from, not least the first copies of DHL’s novels she got the bug from.  In the end she’s thankful for her credit card frustrations because they illuminate her understanding of Lawrence and his generations’ rage against TB, the disease that killed him.  It’s such a powerful story powerfully delivered that I believe I’ve taken nothing from your appreciation in giving this outline.

Tory austerity policies mean challenging times even for those institutions surviving the ongoing cull of local libraries, nevermind it remains a statutory duty placed on the relevant local authorities under the Public Libraries & Museums Act of 1964 “to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof“.  A situation these days, to borrow Hamlet’s words, “More honour’d in the breach than the observance.”  Yet paradoxically they wouldn’t dare remove the legislation.

Penelope Lively - Making it upMore short stories

There is a public library in one of the confabulations in novelist Penelope Lively‘s Making it up (2005).   She’s such a memorable phrase maker – ‘book-affected homes‘, my title here is taken from Making it up – that, suspecting it might be a neologism, I had to look ‘confabulation’ up in the dictionary; it wasn’t.   Here are seven short stories hanging on the precarious contingencies of a life.  What if she hadn’t become a successful novelist?  What if she’d got pregnant at that Chelsea Arts Ball?  And so on:

This book is fiction. If anything it is an anti-memoir. My own life serves as the prompt; I have hinged in upon the rocks, the rapids, the whirlpools, and written the alternative stories.  It is a form of confabulation.

In an introduction to one of the stories she broods on  “Contingency: the great manipulator,” and there is plenty in this rich and satisfying collection to get you contemplating the many such moments in one’s own life, a – as she vividly suggests – veritable Burgess Shale of lives not lived.  (The celebrated Burgess Shale formation is a fossiliferous deposit – it says here in Wikipedia in the Canadian Rockies where, citing Stephen Jay Gould, “the extraordinary diversity of the fossils indicates that life forms at the time were much more disparate in body form than those that survive today, and that many of the unique lineages were evolutionary experiments that became extinct.”)  So:

A faithful exercise in confabulation would proliferate like an evolutionary tree. I should write not one book but hundreds ; I should pursue each idiosyncratic path.

Three stories in particular shone for me.  There’s The Temple of Mithras, a wonderful summer soap opera of life on an archaeological dig; Comet, where the discovery of some bones from a plane crash in Italy in the ’50s which solves the mystery of a story of seemingly unrequited love back then and leads to a delightful new romance in the here and now in Oxford and the Yorkshire Dales; and Imjin River, where she imagines her future husband not surviving his National Service stint in Korea:

that is what history does to people. It picks them up by the scruff of the neck and puts them where they do not want to be.

I mentioned her way with words.  How about she and her sister’s parents presenting them “with a vision of the good life which reflected the Whig interpretation of history.”  Or a soldier on watch in Korea, staring out “into the darkness, which was leached with light, a proposal of dawn” – a proposal of dawn!  Meanwhile, “Weary men brewed endless cups of tea.”  The couple both on their second marriage: “He too was on a second shift.”  Elsewhere she opines, “I was never fully-paid-up young, and I didn’t know the tunes.”  Nevertheless, At university, there was that great swathe of required reading, which was fine, but I liked to read off-piste …”  Absolutely!

Forest flowerIn praise of Charles Lloyd

It’s not often I buy an album on the strength of one short review, and there have been regrets before; not this time though.

First, a bit of history.  Back in the day when we would awake to the sound of The Doors and were discovering the delights of Beefheart and Velvet Underground a jazz record would occasionally find its way onto the turntable and time stood still as side one of the Charles Lloyd Quartet’s Forest Flower, live at Monterey in 1966, played.  Just two tracks: Forest flower: Sunrise and Forest flower: Sunset on Side One.  On Atlantic records.  Such a beautiful, gentle but nimble melody line led us in to 20 minutes of a wonder both calm and exciting.  Pianist Keith Jarrett – later to dazzle as a solo improviser, you’ve either never heard of him or he’s practically a deity – is all over his keyboard: soul jazz to Monk to the enchantment of finger-plucking at the strings in the body of his grand.  It is all so mesmerisingly fluent – pretty even, at times – but with the occasional squawks and squeals of Lloyd’s tenor sax adding to the mood – this is a flower opening and closing, invariably dramatic, never an exactly smooth operation – and the return to that gorgeous melody line and Jarrett’s groove approach divinity.

You could call it a step back, a gentler dilution of the pioneer work from the bands of John Coltrane – a huge influence – but it created a wondrous territory all of its own, and for me and my pals it was also a way in to the great man (Roger McGuinn’s guitar solo in the Byrds’ Eight miles high was too!).  Charles Lloyd took jazz to the hippies.  There’s an album recorded at the SF Fillmore called Love in and it can be argued that their flights of musical anarchy are closer to the old hippy concept of a ‘freak out’ than more traditional modern jazz improvisation.  (Yes, trad-mod: I know – I like it).  I still listen in meditative awe to those two title tracks on Forest flower and feel all the better for it afterwards.  I guess there’s a big element of nostalgia too.

Though I’m less in thrall to it Charles Lloyd played – still plays – the flute, as well as tenor sax.  He’s got a colossal discography built up over the decades, including a lot on the German ECM label, the civilised late 20th century and further home of jazz.  Now well into his 70s, he’s recording for Blue Note, the greatest jazz record label of them all.  I long to see you was released earlier this year, credited as by Charles Lloyd & the Marvels.  It’s not your standard jazz combo, nor is it really a jazz album a lot of the time, though you certainly wouldn’t want to take the jazz out of the old man.  There’s a significant contribution from the eclectic Bill Frisell on guitar, plus steel guitar, bass and drums.  Yup, sax and steel guitar.  Does it work?  You bet it does.  Then there’s the material …

Charles Lloyd - I long to see youThey kick off with a spacey, committed, blues tinged eight minute exploration of Bob Dylan‘s Masters of war.  You know, the “And I hope that you die / and your death will come soon” one.  No words.  It’s a totally absorbing spiritual experience.  The anti-war theme is revisited later with Last night I had the strangest dream, this time with Willie Nelson (yup!) providing catch-in-the-throat vocals: “Last night I had the strangest dream / I ever dreamed before / I dreamed the world had all agreed / To put an end to war.”  What else?  It is shot through with longing.  Shenandoah, the spiritual All my trials, and the hymn Abide with me, a Mexican folk ballad called La Llorona.   There are three Lloyd compositions to complete the bill, including a mesmerising sixteen minute closer that starts off meditatively and picks up energy as it goes along, and takes me right back to Forest Flower.  The only other vocal comes from Norah Jones on Billy Preston’s You are so beautiful.  And the whole thing, the whole album, is beautiful, a heart-breakingly sad elegaic lament, and totally absorbing.  ‘Extraordinary’ was the word that concluded the brief review that drove my purchase.  There is hope in the beauty.

Closer to home …

Vaultage early March 2016Scribal Mar 2016Early March Vaultage the Fabulators fabulated and Chris Beck (that’s him on the poster) did some decent stuff of his own, including a rather good song stemming from his experiences as an altar boy in church.  A sad reflection on the times that I bet some of you thought ‘abuse’, but no, it’s just that the punchline of I remember Jesus is “Jesus wasn’t there.”

Corinne Lucy steps into the breach.  Photo (c) the ever excellent Jonathan JT Taylor)

Corinne Lucy steps into the breach. Photo (c) the ever excellent Jonathan JT Taylor)

The March Scribal saw MK’s Poet Laureate Mark Niel reprise his greatest hits, accomplished as ever, Stephen Hobbs gave us the fine monologue that was posted here on Lillabullero a few days ago, and, owing to man flu (that’s what she said) the triumphant appearance of just one Straw HorseCorinne Lucy did a tremendous solo spot of her own in the band’s stead.  We loved her subtle songs and whole-hearted performance – all delivered with plenty of variation – and she reciprocated.

[If anyone’s wondering, The Antipoet album launch was far too good just to be tacked on here; more another time]

 

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