Posts Tagged ‘Pete Brown’

Bedsit disco queenHer music has meant very little to me over the years but I heard Tracey Thorn talking on the radio and liked what she was saying so I read the book.  Bedsit disco queen: how I grew up and tried to be a pop star (Virago, 2013) is a delightful memoir, one of the very best of its oeuvre – honest, witty, intelligent, ironic, natural. sardonic and life affirming.  The promise of that extended title is more than fulfilled, and there’s the added frisson of integrity of its being published by Virago.

Born 1962, a child of the Hertfordshire suburbs who came to musical consciousness in punk’s year zero, her first efforts surfed the post-punk DIY indie wave.  The unpolished, minimalist Marine Girls – now, she bemusedly reports, lauded on the internet as “a somewhat seminal post-punk DIY band” and a favourite of Kurt Cobain’s – were enthusiastically reviewed in the NME while Tracey was still at school doing her A-levels.  She met label mate Ben Watt in her first week at Hull University; they formed Everything but the Girl (EBTG) and made a name for themselves while still studying full time.   Tracey ended up with a First in English Literature; she did an MA later too.

What makes Bedsit Disco Queen so insightful and charming about the music business is this sense of contingency combined with a certain reluctance and intellectual distance.  They had stumbled into a career:

Part of me enjoyed the limelight, but another part, possibly a larger part, was happier in the library.

Later, after considerable success, in a career limbo -“I hadn’t belonged anywhere for a few years now” – and a few years on from their initial DIY motivation:

Luckily, Ben decided to contract a life-threatening illness, and in doing so, saved us.

And there she is chuckling to P.G.Wodehouse sitting for weeks by Ben’s bed in hospital.  Later again, offered a world tour with the all-conquering U2, she retires to be a mum.  For 5 years she doesn’t miss it, and then she does, so a solo album.  Making videos had always been one of the least favourite tasks on the treadmill, but now:

Here I was again with a stylist and a rail of the latest clothes, having my make up done for me. It was like a mum’s spa-weekend dream come true … to dip into it was a perfect antidote to midlife melancholy.

Ah, yes, mid-life.  What got her back working was:

I wanted to make a statement that I was still that girl who’d gone and bought an electric guitar aged sixteen and formed bands.

We get a lot of that girl and the joy of it is that Tracey kept a diary – don’t you wish you’d kept a diary, even if it was just the bands you saw? – so she can actually take us to the moment.  It’s brilliant, captures that initial unvarnished rush.  Here she is looking forward to the Anti-Nazi League rally in Victoria Park in April, 1978 (hey, I was there and all I can remember is someone selling Rock Against Racism rock):

We are going to see loads of bands we like AND stop the Nazis, all in one day.

(She has a way with CAPITALS throughout, which works beautifully.)  “All of a sudden,” she says, “it seemed as if everyone I knew was forming a band” but then:

If at this point it all sounds a bit Enid Blyton, it was about to get a bit Irvine Welsh.

All this while still doing A-levels remember, and in the full throes of sad teenage angst – one’s heart goes out to:

Meanwhile I was hopelessly in love with someone who was either not interested at all, a little bit interested, or very interested but too inept to do anything about it; I never really knew.

The wise and wary young aspirant could do a lot worse for sanity’s sake than read Bedsit disco queen as a career 101.   By page 289 Tracey is telling us “How peculiar and unpredictable and uncontrollable a career in the music business can be,” and her story certainly bears that out.  I won’t go into details of the twists and turns involved – the out of the blue involvement of Massive Attack is, well, massive – but there’s certain demystification, a de-mythification of after the event hagiography at play here:

There’s a random element to how bands develop, which goes against the idea that there has to be some unifying plan or manifesto giving rise to the band’s sound and identity.  Often, it’s more that there are chance meetings with people who turn out to be important.

There’s the recognition that “An element of almost ritualised humiliation seemed to be part of the process” and given the pandering that goes with this, “You can see why celebrities turn into arseholes…” while Spinal Tap isn’t a cartoonish satire at all but in fact the most accurate film ever made about what it’s like being in a band – any kind of band.”  And then there’s the record company:

Now I’m not saying you should never listen to your record company, or that no one ever knows better than the band themselves, but in this instance, IN THIS INSTANCE, that really was not what we should have done. And what’s more, it didn’t even work.

And at a certain stage, the Is that all there is ? moment:

The success we’d managed to come by in the last couple of years had been seemingly at our own expense, in that it left us feeling impoverished.

I really liked this book but I’m sorry to have to say that I’ve never been able – and regrettably still can’t – to transcend the problems EBTG have had with the gap betwixt the perception and appreciation of what they do with their perception of what they were trying to do.  Their concern that “the quiet, minimalist thing could easily be misinterpreted as easy listening” because “sounding like Astrid Gilberto while coming on like Gang Of Four [brilliant! say I] was always going to be a problematic approach.”  Later on “those dreaded words, background music and easy listening” got an upgrade and they “found ourselves being offered a new radio home, within a new format called New Adult Contemporary, or NAC, which would turn out to be a very scary place indeed.”  Still, two decent people are making a decent living out of it, and that is good.

Tracey photographed in North London2012 Pic by Edward Bishop

This is Edward Bishop’s fine photo that currently (May 2013) fronts Tracey Thorn’s official website. I hope they don’t mind my putting it here. At http://www.traceythorn.com/ among other things you can hear some tunes and access her gardening blog.

At times Bedroom disco queen feels like it’s come from different planet to that of the last music biz memoir I read, Pete Brown‘s disappointing White rooms and imaginary westerns.  Indeed, Tracey and Ben belong to that post-punk DIY generation of musicians that Pete scornfully resented as “scab labour“.  I’m still surprised he couldn’t appreciate the spirit of the age, but then I guess they were getting the recording contracts when he wasn’t.  What does link Pete and Tracey, though, is a shared crisis of confidence in their vocal abilities, the feeling that they were not as good singers as the accompanists and session musicians they were working with warranted.  Even now – “I still really think of myself as ‘someone who sings’ rather than ‘a singer” – the modest but never dismissive of her talents Ms Thorn makes no great claims for  the in-demand entity that is ‘The voice of Thorn’.

Pete Brown best-of compilationAs it happens I’ve been listening to Living life backwards, the interesting anthology CD of Pete Brown‘s ’70s bands, the Battered Ornaments and Piblokto, and I have to say that, though obviously influenced by the man, I prefer his vocals to the bluster and bombast of his vocal hero Jack Bruce.  Good collection of songs that grew on me, in particular the haunting  Thousands On A Raft (that’s us, that is) and the brilliant Things May Come And Things May Go But The Art School Dance Goes On Forever (that’s us too).


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White rooms

The Cream legacy continued to haunt me in various ways …” writes Pete Brown near the end of his autobiography, White Rooms & Imaginary Westerns: on the road with Ginsberg, Writing for Clapton and Cream – an anarchic odyssey (JR Books, 2010).  This is such a bad thing that the paperback edition has been freshly titled as Eric, Jack, Ginger and me; Oh! And Ginsberg, Corso, Burroughs and Ferlinghetti too … (Clarksdale, May 2013).  The main title of the hardback at least only alludes to that connection – interestingly there actually was a white room in Chalk Farm that was the Brown abode before it became White room the Cream song, while the Jack Bruce track Theme for an imaginary western is in fact in part the story of “pioneers and outlaws” saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith and Graham Bond, two of Pete’s friends – though both hardback and paperback books might well fall foul of the Trades Descriptions Act; the pages on which Ginsberg and the Beat poets are mentioned can be counted on one hand, and Eric Clapton is easily the least mentioned of the musicians in Cream.

I had high hopes of this book because it’s Pete Brown. I’m not sorry I read it, but it should have been a more satisfying read.  Anyway, the man’s own words, from the opening paragraph of the introduction:

I think I’ve had quite an interesting life […] However, I’m not a book writer [… ] Originally, perhaps in a fit of musician’s laziness, I wanted Harry [music biographer Harry Shapiro] to write it; but [publisher and friend] Jeremy liked my sample chapters ‘because they had my voice in them’. That gave me a signal – I would not try to do beautiful writing (which would have added several years to the project) but tell the story more or less as if I were speaking it.

Which, sad to say, is a shame, because Harry might have pulled a few of the themes of this undoubtedly interesting life together and given the book some sort of shape rather than the chronological litany it is, and probably not slipped so often into pub bore – inconsequential, repetitive and self-serving – or sour raconteur mode that I’m pretty sure is not the man at his best.  I hate to say it, but Peter Cook’s E.L.Wisty even sprang to mind at one point.

Cover art by the late great Mal Dean

Cover art by the late great Mal Dean

But it’s not Pete Brown‘s fault that he didn’t write the book I wanted (which was, rest assured, not more Cream stories).  No, it was the poet I wanted more of, and there’s not a line of poetry to be had in the whole book, so if you didn’t know his work before you’d be none the wiser after reading this; hardly a song lyric either, for that matter.  I think this important because if it wasn’t for the beat poetry scene, the pioneer performance poetry gigs with Mike Horowitz and the jazzers who were part of that (including the 2/3rds of Cream for whom claims of deity were not made) then the invite to help with those song lyrics would not have arisen.  And to be honest, when assessing Cream’s success, I don’t think the lyric content actually counted for much (which is not an exercise in lit crit, I hasten to add).  Towards the end he says he’s writing and performing poetry again;  we are vouchsafed not a hint, not a line, of its nature.  Shame.

'Thousands on a raft' album cover

‘Thousands on a raft’ album cover

So.  War child, Jewish parents’ bombed out East End shop, safe Surrey abode.  Bus spotting, boys’ high jinks.  Fails English Literature O level.  Jazz, beat poetry.  Early ’60s beatnikdom, hitchhiking to poetry gigs all round the country, booze to obliteration.  With partner in lyrical crime Oxford drop-out Mike Horowitz.  Edinburgh, Albert Hall Poetry Incarnation, Ginsberg et al (as previously blogged about here at Lillabullero).  Somewhere in there giving up booze leading to an improved sex life.  A guarded welcome to the Summer of Love, Cream, growing musicianship, own band, blowing hot and cold with Jack Bruce (employee? friend?), often being the only sober drug free bloke in the vicinity.  Money comes, money goes.  Session work, producing, writing for films; true love, dodgy health scare but surviving, unlike some of his big chums; new work, autobiography.  It’s a life all right.

Shame too about the sneering: Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are “so-called poets“; Dire Straits and Elvis Costello’s “musical efforts” are not to his taste (efforts?); Keith Richards is “grossly over-rated” – all with no explanation.  And then there’s punk:

I believe that nearly all the Beat poets … had musical aspirations. Unfortunately, it was their punk disciples such as Lou Reed and Patti Smith who later had such a destructive and counter-musical influence.

He has a real problem with punk (but he was a punk poet ahead of his time!) courtesy of which he was made by the music industry to feel like “a fossil“.  So even the telling of the impact of the coming of skiffle gets a welcome with a proviso: “British amateurism […] was born, and it would reach its ultimate ghastly flowering in 1976 with the horror of punk.”   Never mind the gig that – legend has it – sowed the seeds for so much creativity in the city, “In Manchester we played in a place where the Sex Pistols had preceded us, and punters who had gone to see them out of curiosity had been appalled at how bad they were.”  I’d love to know what poet Pete thinks of John Cooper Clarke but he’s not mentioned at all. “Most artists harbour some kind of desperation,” he generously grants, “but the punks, having no skills, would do anything for money. They were, in effect, scab labour.”  What can you say to that?

2010's 'Road of cobras' with Man keyboards player Phil Ryan

2010’s ‘Road of cobras’ with Man keyboards player Phil Ryan

There’s candour and honesty aplenty about personal and professional failures along the way, but little of the humour that was a major characteristic of the poetry – after all, Let ‘Em Roll, Kafka was the title of one of his slim volumes.  There are flashes: in the East End of his youth there’s a  “nearby family of rampant greengrocers“; there’s the friend of a friend who, “took it upon herself to gradually dismantle my virginity.”  The Edinburgh Festival one year was, “a mixture between a holiday, an emotional trauma, an alcoholic binge and the Paris Commune,” while at the legendary Albert Hall Incantation, “It was great to see so many spectators at the poetry zoo.”  Pete Brown‘s White Rooms & Imaginary Westerns is certainly some sort of document of its times.  His music, with Piblikto and beyond, is worth a visit to Spotify too.

Last thoughts:

  • our hero can be spotted in the ’60s cash-in-now-cult-classic movie of awfulness Gonks go beat  – “there’s trouble brewing between the rock and roll loving residents of Beatland and their ballad-singing neighbours on Balladisle” says the Amazon blurb – which has now become a must-see item for me
  • and he also appears in Alasdair Gray‘s epic cult novel Lanark.  (There are cults and cults).
  • Not Forgotten AssociationOh how I wish I hadn’t let go that The Not Forgotten Association vinyl album of Brown reading his early poems with occasional accompaniment from an impressive roster of muso pals.  Not because it sells for a packet on eBay these days, but because I fancy hearing it again and it’s nowhere to be found (apart from occasionally for silly prices on eBay).
  • this is the second book running I’ve read – the other a novel not yet blogged about – that mentions Sidney Bechet in glowing terms.  He’s one I’d somehow missed; no longer – thanks, chaps.

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Karl Marx by Mayall c1870 mucked about by Quayle 2013In his snappily titled Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon of 1852 Karl Marx wrote that “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Or to paraphrase, as we do, “History repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”  It’s an attractive idea, but what happens when – as can be seen from the history of, say, rock music – it happens again and again.  Better, perhaps then, to turn to pioneer performance poet and musician Pete Brown and the title of his song (and the album that it saw the light of day on): Things may come and things may go,
but the Art School Dance goes on forever

Young RomanticsI’ve been reading about the second wave of English Romantic poets in Daisy Hay‘s Young Romantics: the Shelleys, Byron and other tangled lives (Bloomsbury, 2010).  It’s an absorbing tale and while she doesn’t seek to unduly disguise its academic genesis Ms Hay’s never dry telling rolls along nicely, it’s a fine read.  It has struck me before that there is potential just waiting to be exploited (in the best possible sense of the word) in TV soaps of quality following the unfolding sagas of intellectual coteries such as this dashing bunch, or Samuel Johnson’s mates and hangers-on.  After all, it was all happening.  For my sins I hardly knew the bare bones of the lives described here.  Whether fuller knowledge of what they tried for and the consequences of what went down in their lives would have made a blind bit of difference to – if you’ll excuse the phrase, which rather gives it away – my generation‘s aspirations and actions (or those of some of us) is a moot point, but there would certainly have been forewarning of what was likely to crop up along the way.  More Marx, from the same entertaining magazine article quoted at the start of this piece: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”  Yes, but.

Shelley bookWe start with Leigh Hunt’s support group in gaol in London in 1810.  The early optimism of the French Revolution has long run it’s course and the first generation of Romantic poets are off being lonely as a cloud on the road to respectability.  The publisher of an influential radical magazine and a poet, Hunt is in gaol for ‘libel’; it’s basically government repression, but his brother keeps the mag going and even though in prison Leigh effectively becomes the centre of a focussed radical literary salon, a social movement in microcosm, that continues outside when he’s served his term, theorising and living ideas of free love, atheism, republicanism.  With the Napoleonic war’s end the scene moves, for various reasons – ignominy, scandal, economics, health – to Europe: Switzerland, then Italy.  Masterpieces are written, stuff happens.  Then Keats, Shelley and Byron die and we’re back in London and the aftermath.

Hay successfully blows the Romantic myth that has grown up around the members of the group.   “great literature did not have to be the work of isolated genius […] it could be inspired by conversation and friendship” and she also gives the contributions, concerns and travails of the women of the group due space and credit in the enterprise:

Creativity for the first generation of Romantic poets was inherently solitary, since it stemmed from, and idolised, the genius of the individual spirit. Hunt’s poetry subverted this model of Romantic individualism, and suggested that inspiration was located in communality and in collaborative creative practice. He located inspiration in tangible everyday things: firesides, tea parties and the Hampstead fields. Foliage [a collection of Hunt’s poetry written about his friends] thus presented an avowedly democratic project, since it suggested that anyone could be a poet, as long as he or she understood that poetic inspiration was present in the sights and relationships of ordinary life, and not just in the vistas of the Lake District …

Byron 2ShelleyShe quotes critic Jeffrey Cox to the effect that Hunt sought “to provoke the reader into new practice, to argue we should adopt what we might see as a counter-cultural lifestyle devoted to free nature, a liberated community and imaginative freedom.”  A bunch of hippies?  Byron, one of the crew, noted Foliage was in fact addressed to “men of the most opposite habits, tastes and opinions in life and poetry (I believe), that ever had their names in the same volume,” but for Hunt that wasn’t the point.  It was:

… a response to critical voices both from within and without his circle […] codifying its activities as philosophically significant for English poetry. Blackwoods had sought to destroy Hunt by imposing a pejorative collective identity on his friends and now Hunt proclaimed that identity in his own writing, wearing his leadership of the ‘Cockney School‘ as a badge of honour. […] in the public imagination figures such as Keats and Hazlitt now became indelibly associated with Hunt.  As a result, his circle gained in significance as they came to represent a distinct ‘counter-culture’.
Such cultural significance, however, came at a high cost for the various members of the group, and it did little to shore up some faltering personal relationships.

How strange that appellation of the Cockney School now sounds, but as tactic in the culture wars its appropriation is a nice stroke, one surely familiar to rock and poetry scholars.  But note the warning of problems to come in that last sentence.

Then there’s the problem of Don’t believe the hype.  In 1822 Edward Trelawny, a Premier League bullshitter with a completely fabricated back story, joins the gang Pisa in 1822 and they are taken in:

Trelawny was himself a Byronic creation. He modelled himself on the hero of The Corsair … which had taken London by storm in 1814. Trelawney was more Byronic than Byron himself, and it was flattering – if a little odd – for a poet to meet a man who had taken on the identity of one of his creations. For the others, the combination of Byron and the personification of his hero was irresistible.

Trelawny was to play up his role in the group for decades later, and help further the Romantic cliché of the poet as lonely individual genius, of which more later.

And then there are the After the Gold Rush moments.  A year later, after the death of Shelley and with Byron away liberating Greece, those remaining throw a birthday party for Hunt.

Despite the apparently familiar combination of music, puns, flowers and laughter, the Novello’s party was a fantasy, a bringing together of people who had little more than memories to unite them.

While Hunt was trying to keep the radical ball in the air:

The network which sustained his imagination during his absence turned out now to be a chimera. As far as Hunt’s friends were concerned this was a natural progression, in which the demands of work and family took precedence over youthful ideals of communal living. […] and their individual responsibilities towards parents, husbands, wives and children increased.

He was still banging the gong, though:

‘What is wanted,’ Hunt writes to [poet] John Clare, ‘is a regular supply of unchanging and straightforward spirits, inflexible alike either to misfortune or worldly interest […] We will love deeply; we will not refuse any lighter solace of sociality, that comes; we will have our sprightly songs, as well as our war songs & our marches …

Sound familiar?  And he’s right, of course.  With that big but …  The tragedy and farce and great times that is the Art School Dance that moves things along, of the movers and shakers who Move on up (and in other directions too).

One of the fringe players, Charles Brown, a close friend of Keats, knew only too well that, as Hays says, “posterity would view his relationship with Keats as his greatest achievement.” “His fame … is part of my life,” he readily admitted.

In the years following the deaths of Keats, Shelley and Byron, their old circle discovered the accuracy of this statement, as individual lives were shaped by other people’s fame. Some, such as Haydon and Hogg, found this difficult, while others – chiefly Mary and Hunt – came to realise that the stature of their friends offered them the chance to reshape their own lives according to a particular set of ideals, and that they could use the past to reinvent themselves. What they failed to realise was that, in the process, the memories of friends would be transformed from sources of consolation into sources of conflict, and that separate versions of a shared history would test the allegiances of the remaining members of Keats’s ‘web … of mingled yarn’ to the limit.

You can still see it happening with each artistic and political movement or generation’s shift into heritage, in the memoirs and autobiographies of the survivors and what Hay calls “the battle for ownership of the past.”

White roomsI was going to look at Pete Brown‘s autobiography in the light of the pattern of events that Daisy Hay so ably chronicles in Young Romantics, but this post is long enough already.  Regrettably Pete suffers like Keats’ mate mentioned above from – shall we call it? – Charles Brown Syndrome.  The book goes out, after all, under the title White rooms & Imaginary westerns, referencing songs other people made famous.  I’ll give it space another time.

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Cheers - We winA brief Huzzah! for the reappearance of Cheers on the UK’s television screens – a double helping early evening weekdays on ITV4.  What took you so long?  Didn’t realise until very recently (like, searching for the picture, actually) that the heartening ‘We win‘ photo in the opening credits comes from the end of prohibition in the US in 1933.  One of the very best, still so funny and with the bonus of Frasier Crane as a younger man.  Frasier – the best spin-off ever?  And while we’re on telly: Dancing on the edge – not the greatest Poliakoff, but still Poliakoff.  Meanwhile one of Channel4’s programmers did well on Sunday night with the absurd but watchable Morgan Freeman runaway train movie Unstoppable followed immediately by The runaway jury; the possibilities are endless.

New poems on the UndergroundChildren of Albion

Performance poetry

It’s not a spin-off and you can’t exactly call it a victory but there must have been more than a coincidental historical irony involved when considering Children of Albion: poetry of the ‘Underground’ in Britain (Penguin, 1969) in the light of what was to follow (not that I’m knocking that later worthy initiative).  The Michael Horowitz curated anthology, complete with his extended Afterword essay, is a manifesto: the (mostly) stoned ’60s update – the Beats plus Blake – of Shelley’s declaration of poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”   You win some, you lose some.  This is very much a historical document, embarrassing in places but fascinating to return to now.  Some of the verse is dreadful, gibberish; The Antipoet’s Random words in a random order could well apply.  But Horowitz argues well for the rescue of poetry from the academic page and the immediacy of the moment of poetry in performance, though evidence that drugged revelation necessarily delivers any sort of antidote is not easy to find in these pages.

There is some decent stuff still to be found here but there’s a dreadful irony in the alphabetically egalitarian arrangement of the collection, closing as it does with the poem One flower from Michael X, looking forward to the new community he was helping to build; yup, that Michael X, convicted of murder in Trinidad in 1972, only three years after the book’s publication.  Of the 63 poets featured only 6 are women; the oldest was born 1911, the youngest in 1950, over half between 1935 (Horowitz himself) and 1946 (Tom Pickard).  The Liverpool Scene poets (save the bizarre Spike Hawkins) and a couple of others from elsewhere are absent because by then they were overground (and he’s already snooty about Henri and McGough) though that doesn’t stop him giving a maximum 15 pages to the well established Adrian Mitchell (and himself, as it happens).

Children of Albion is a clarion call, still buzzing from the energy of 1965’s legendary International Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall and the canonisation of Allen Ginsberg (which is savailable on film as Wholly Communion).  In his essay Horowitz looks to the spontaneity of jazz and the Beat poets as a source of energy and performance, and is wary but not dismissive of rock and roll; ironically (that word again) one of the pioneers of the new poetry in Britain, his mate Pete Brown, was to earn pots of money writing for Cream, while Patti Smith has spread the Ginsbergian gospel as much as anyone and John Cooper Clarke has done the English teacher who inspired him proud in taking poetry to a much wider audience; be interesting to hear his take on those two.

The contemporary English poetry on the page that Michael Horowitz rails against – that of the movement known as, um, The Movement – has broadened considerably in many ways in the days since that ’60s explosion, though it’s still disappointing to hear the straight delivery of bright poets like Wendy Cope, who is great on the page and would not be harmed with a touch of the Pam Ayres, or the dated deadpan of a Simon Armitage even though he’s been in rock bands.  (Mind, I’m still reeling in disappointment at those scratchy recordings of W.B.Yeats reading his verse in that posh English accent with absolutely no hint of an Irish brogue.)

The performance poetry I’ve witnessed the last couple of years is a different animal to that envisaged in Children of Albion with its Blakean battle cry (though I daresay a time traveling Justin Thyme, Raising the Arwen instigator in Northampton, would not be out of place) never mind the world-changing optimism (ah yes, I remember it well!).  The children and grand-children of the Children of Albion are often closer to stand-up and music hall than holy communion though the vibrancy, joie de vivre and community, the people’s poetry regained, the energy is – if you’re lucky – never far away at scenes like Scribal Gathering and others up and down the land.  (If none of this means much to you, you could just put ‘Rrrants’ into YouTube or go exploring the Rrrants – Rhythmical ravings and rants – website and see where it takes you).

Shatter the bonesStuart MacBride

Not a lot of poetry to hand in Stuart MacBride‘s crime novel Shatter the bones (2011) but the prose is sharp and energetic enough, nicely leavened with wit and thankfully free of extraneous literary flourishes (except for a genre gripe I’ll bring up later).  The dialogue flows nicely too with some excellent banter.  In fact when I started on it I thought, rather cynically, he’s written this to read like a tv cop show – the way it was paced, the quick cutting the editing between locations – though with a detective team like this lot it makes for a more than decent situation comedy; I’d lost my cynicism long before the end.

I picked up Shatter the bones because I’d been surprised to discover it was top of the pops and Stuart MacBride had somehow passed me by.  The last crime author (I hesitate to say writer) I’d investigated by the same logic had disappointed greatly, but, this, with full Scottish noir credentials, I enjoyed a lot – he’s a contender.  It’s the seventh in the Logan MacRae series of police procedurals, set in Aberdeen, and I had no problems picking up on the soap opera aspects of the ongoing social affairs of the squad.  Of course Logan is a maverick cop, but then so is his immediate boss, the entertainingly brash no-nonsense Scot lesbian Roberta Steel; on this evidence I’m likely to read a lot more to see just where they came from and what’s gonna happen to them (I’m worried about his girlfriend, Jenny).

The plot involves the kidnapping of a successful reality talent show mother and daughter duo while the squad is also handling a big drug bust, both of which allow for some wonderful dollops of sardonicism.  MacBride even rings a lot of humour from the team having to interview everyone on the sex offenders register and, much easier targets, university students in their (poster-decorated) rooms: “Oh to be young and pretentious.”  Elsewhere there’s “The kind of girl-next-door you didn’t want living next door to you” while Jenny responds to Logan’s scoffing at her watching talent shows on the telly with, “The Simpsons isn’t bloody Panorama, is it?”  My one cavil involves the short clichéd sequences – not unusual in the genre – where you suddenly get what’s happening to the victim, a child in this case, seen through the victim’s eyes in a stilted language, usually in the present tense, that, for me adds nothing and just annoys.  But I particularly liked this – the cops are trying to get into a drug dealer’s house:

‘Who is it?’
Logan put a tremble in his voice. ‘Dave … Dave says you can … you know?  Set us up and that?’
Another pause.
‘How much?’
It didn’t matter who they were, they always knew a Dave.

As someone who once played in a football team alongside 6 other Daves, I can appreciate that.

Stanley and Pamela - Dancing on the edgeDancing on the edge

Since starting this piece I’ve watched episode 5 of Dancing on the edge and I have to say, the more the critics whine the more I am sold on it.  Poliakoff has you on an edge – not necessarily a conventional, expected edge, not your reasonable suspense – in a unique almost revelatory way.  I can agree it sprawled a bit compared with his finest, but I’ll live with it for socialite Pamela Luscombe (bravo Joanna Vanderham) coming good in that last episode, and good on you Stanley (Matthew Goode being really good).  And didn’t bandleader Lester look great in Marseilles?

Few by Pete Brown

Final indulgence: one of my all time favourites from the pages of Children of Albion, a poem by the previously mentioned in despatches Pete Brown, whose autobiography I’m looking forward to reading shortly.  This was early to mid-’60s, each word perfectly chosen, perfectly placed:


Alone tired halfdrunk hopeful
I staggered into the bogs
at Green park station
and found 30 written on the wall

Appalled I lurched out
into the windy blaring neon Piccadilly night
thinking surely,
Surely there must be more of us than that …



And here’s the
late great Mal Dean’s
accompaniment to Few‘s first appearance in print in Pete Brown’s first collection Few poems,
published by the
Migrant Press
in 1966.



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