I 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.
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!
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 …
They 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 …
Early 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.”
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 Horse. Corinne 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]