Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

I only ask because I think it’s a good question, one of the best.  In the Great British Grammar School of life both Tony Broadbent and I are Class of ’66, while Jeremy Corbyn will have left his alma mater a year later.  So we are very much of a generation, and Jeremy: my, how knackered you must be feeling after the last couple of months.  I wish you all the luck you deserve in the years to come, which is, I hasten to add, removing all hint of ambiguity, quite a lot, but you’ll probably need some that you don’t as well (I remember the ’80s and your Trot mates).

1-909OK, blogger‘s etiquette.  Tony Broadbent is an old mate – we were in one another’s first beat combo at school – and he sent me an e-copy of The one after 9:09: a mystery with a backbeat (Plain Sight Press, 2015) gratis.  I get an acknowledgment in the acknowledgments and the Persuaders, the band Spike, the lead character in the book plays in, was the name of our group.  The impact the Beatles had on us was huge; this book is a labour of love.  Cliché time: I remember hearing Love me do under the bed sheets on Radio Luxemburg (208 metres medium wave) and feeling a tingle,  thinking – I was a big Everly Brothers fan at the time – hey, these guys are English and this is the real thing.  Tony, as he admits in his afterword to The one after Goldie and the Gingerbreads gig9:09, reverted for a while to using Paul, the first name on his birth certificate, and started speaking with a scouse accent.  Musical differences subsequently arose and Tony graduated to a band that reached the heights of supporting Goldie & the Gingerbreads – Can’t you hear my heartbeat? – at the local Ricky Tick Club.

The mystery in the sub-title concerns the story related in Beatles-manager-to-be Brian Epstein’s autobiography A cellarful of noise about how he was first alerted to the Beatles existence by one Raymond Jones coming into the record department of his family’s furniture store and asking for My bonnie, the record they made in Germany with singer Tony Sheridan.  Tony Broadbent has been working on this novel for a decade and when he started it, it was widely thought that this Jones feller was a fiction.  The surmise of The one after 9:09 is that Raymond Jones got his historically significant namecheck in A cellarful of noise because of services rendered in other circumstances in the Beatles and Brian’s rise to world domination, and the novel, among many other happenings along the way, gives one fictional explanation of what might have occurred.  Subsequently a perfectly real (and more mundane – no offence intended), a reasonable actual Raymond Jones has been found (see The Beatles Bible) but that should in no way take away from the invention of Tony Broadbent‘s weaving of what is real and what is not in the early Beatles/Epstein tale.

So, 1961, Beatles established as Liverpool’s top group, excess in Hamburg, Pete Best on drums, groups a-plenty, Teddy Boy gangs, promoters’ fierce rivalries, Brian Epstein’s paranoid homosexual misadventures, his ‘bigger than Elvis’ vision, the fight to manage ‘the boys’, the struggle to get a recording contract, enter George Martin, enter Ringo.  All pretty much as reported in the sources Tony Broadbent extensively acknowledges.  It’s weird: early on Tony pitches a fixer called Terry McCann straight into action, which I thought was an unfortunate coincidence – Minder and all that.  So I check him out and first mention in the search engine is him attending Cilla Black’s funeral; and he’s not the only one prominent in the story was there.  (Fortunately, keeping the corn at bay, Cilla does not appear in the book.)

51pqM27dAhLIf you want a lively dramatised potted history up to the recording of Please, please me, and how it all felt, then The one after 9:09 is not a bad place to start.  Into all this enter invented teenager Raymond ‘Spike’ Jones – ‘Spike’ from Milligan in The Goons – art school drop-out (same place as Lennon), sometime muscle, admin assistant (bill sticker et al), private eye’s camouflage stand-in at The Cavern (looking out for Epstein), bass guitarist, friend of the Beatles, general man on the scene, and romantic seeker and finder of true love with his judy (not her name).  The several narratives are delivered patchwork as events enticingly unfold, split-screen fashion.  The coffee bars, the pubs, the clubs, the backstreets of Liverpool the backdrop to the action with scousisms and period vernacular aplenty, and lines and phrases from Beatles lyrics worked, with a nod and a wink, into the prose – the actual One after 9:09 quote is a beaut.  Some of the Beatles’ wit could have come out of Hard day’s night, and though some of the fuller passages of dialogue – spelling out dilemmas and options – are a bit strained, I think Lennon’s character, his edginess, is particularly well done.  Raymond Chandler’s advice to writers hitting a plot wall – have a man enter the room with a gun in his hand – might be at play with the appearance of a gang of tooled up red bandana’d Teds more than once.

I’m not going to say it’s a great book – I think Tony’s Creeping narratives, crime thrillers set in post-war and ’50s London, featuring cat burglar Jethro, The Smoke and its successors, are more satisfying conventional genre novels – but it’s an intriguing and entertaining one, the mix of fact and fiction a fascinating exercise.  There were times when reading I forgot it was written by an old mate.  It had me eagerly reading on – even when I knew the score as far as the Beatles story went, tension even in those first meetings with George Martin.  That One after 9:09 is a labour of love, gratitude and affection is evident throughout.

A specific afterthought, one that keeps cropping up generally in all sorts of contexts lately: what if homosexuality had not been illegal when Brian Epstein was a young man?  How might popular music history then have been changed?


As should be obvious from the above I am interested in music.  I am also a big fan of charts and infographics.  So if a picture paints a thousand words and infographics is meant to be a way of displaying information clearly then how come I got so little from Infographic guide to music, as compiled by Graham Betts (Hachette, 2014)?  There are many reasons, not all of which apply to every page:

  • as someone who worked on a student magazine under the influence of Oz magazine I know only too well the problem of reading text (coloured or not) printed on colour; though occasionally decent examples of geometric art emerge, clarification of the issues they are not.
  • even where it’s just about readable and you can make sense of what’s there on the page, a simple list would have been more efficient and much less of an effort to read eg.  It’s your funeral (popular songs chosen for funerals – depressingly Frank Sinatra’s My way)
  • I could care less eg. Radiohead songs by genre; The 360 degrees of Jay-Z (hey, an incomprehensible pie-chart!)

I was going to say at least I got a certain sizeist satisfaction from The height of pop success when it said that the average height of The Beatles was only 5’8″, but on checking who was the short arse I discover that that’s not right.  With Lennon and McCartney at 5’11” and George at 5’10” not even Ringo coming in at 5’6″ can bring them down to that.  Another couple of small saving graces: an analysis of opera endings, Is it over when the fat lady sings? – no, it isn’t; the wit of selecting (of which there was not enough) as a topic What’s on ZZ Top’s mind? (women and/or sex 46%), even if it was actually a list with a pop art illustration.  A random pick-up at the library; at least it adds to their issue statistics.

11949477_10153176884968525_4198881650354426198_nOut and about

Back after its summer break Scribal Gathering picked up where it had left off and hit the eclectic ground running in a half redecorated upstairs at The Crown.  Featured musical ensemble The Outside This (outside the Box?) with the unusual line-up of guitar, drums and three female vocalists (one with added violin for lilt and lyricism) entertained with an energetic and varied set of catchy original material.   They deliver what must be more demanding arrangements than they end up sounding.  Intriguing, and getting better all the time.  Elsewhere a distinct touch of the Brecht/Weil’s from Mitchell Taylor with his jaunty (and now vindicated at least for now) hymn to Jezza, Leaders, and Sian Magill’s ditty, complete with controlled angry rapid recitation, about a friend being made redundant.  Prize for what is Scribal’s loudest spontaneous singalong must surely go to experienced but Scribal first timer, musician to the Brackley Morris, Stephen Ferneyhough, accompanying himself on Anglo-German concertina, with a delightful rendition of the KinksDedicated follower of fashion.  Oh, yes he is: a perfect match.  Some may even call it folk music.

Shakespeare at WestburyGreat little show of snippets from Shakespeare, part of the open weekend at Westbury Arts Centre, a fine old 17th century farm building with extensions in the attractive setting of Shenley Wood, in Milton Keynes.  Should have taken my camera, just for the splendid old wooden doors, never mind the sculptures in the grounds (including a couple of rusted and artistically arranged Austin mini-Metros).  We were treated to extracts from five (or was it six) of the Bard’s comedies (they all tend to jumble up in the memory) on the theme of revenge, delivered in unorthodox style by (it says here) “local Westbury ACprofessional and amateur actors” though you couldn’t really see the join.  Should it be surprising that the Bard’s sharp comic dialogue came over, in one instance, so well as an exchange of text messages?  Beautifully done.  Most inventive of all was that Shylock speech from The Merchant of Venice – “If you prick us do we not bleed?” –  delivered as a slow and meditative monologue by a woman artist who spent plenty of time setting herself up and making herself comfortable in order to sketch us, the audience, before thinking out loud in between further bouts of sketching; tremendously effective.  The joshing of Falstaff in The merry wives of Windsor was another piece that has stayed with me.  Thanks too, to the artists who opened their studios to us.

Walter-Tull-Flattened-239x300Oh, and I put in a stint at the latest Cock & Bull Beer Festival at York House, Friday Night.  Reminded me a bit of being on the enquiry desk at the Central Library – great fun once you’d worked out which way the beer was going to come out at (some down, some sideways).  Didn’t drink much either side of the bar, but I will mention the delicious aroma of elderflower that greets the drinker from Buntingford‘s Sun Star (and very nicely floral it tasted too), and the vibrant ruby delight of the Magpie brewery’s Angry bird (oh yes).  Great Oakley scored well as usual in my book, with their Welland Valley (practically a mild, hurrah!) and Walter Tull, their tribute to a great man and no longer forgotten local hero, the first black outfield professional footballer (Northampton Town and Spurs), the first black British army officer, who died leading his men out of the trenches in the Great War.



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SL ProgCouple of times during StonyLive, Stony Stratford’s annual week of more than usual music bash, I had one of those Feeling/Like I’m almost twenty again moments.  That sense of refreshing wonder, a certain mixture of disbelief (and belief) at what you were hearing.  Discovery or rediscovery.  When you look around and the delight is palpable – all varieties of  glowing smiles and beatific grins on the faces of those around you in a small crowded room.  Take a bow, Forest of Fools and the Dave Cattermole Band.  Anyway, later for them.   Here we go, at least a week and then some after the events of StonyLive 2015 – I’ve been away in Wales – a personal chronicle of the week.

Rose & Castle

Rose & Castle

Saturday lunchtime, June 6, I wend my way, pausing briefly for the ritual purchase of this year’s raffle tickets and to take in some of the dancers on the High Street – young and old, tall and tiny, contemporary all the way back to Morris – to the Fox & Hounds, there to sup a pint to the traditional bluegrass opener, this year from the Hole in the Head Gang with their (and I quote) “annual rehearsal”.  Always an uplifting start to proceedings.

“In comes I …”

This year I’m trying to pace myself, and so it’s out on the street again to further experience this year’s wider spectrum of local dance – including Irish and Middle Eastern (the exotic Rashiqa from Wolverton) – and, of course, the Stony Stratford Mummers mumming.  As well as stalwarts Rose & Castle and Old Mother Redcaps, we had a new mixed side, New Moon Morris, from Ivinghoe, strutting their stuff.

Captain HumeSaturday night and at York House a select audience settle down to what it says on the poster on the left.  To be honest, given that there punning of ‘Leera Waye’ and Mr Simpson’s Little Consort‘s Samuel Pepys evening earlier in the year, I was expecting something filthier, but that takes nothing away from the exquisite nature of the fun and entertainment.  There were more songs and tunes from John Dowland and Thomas Ford than your actual gentleman prankster, mercenary, lech and musician, Captain Tobias Hume, one of whose songs made the case for putting love and tobacco on equal footing.

Soprano Cate McKee sang the melodies that in Dowland’s day were listed as being for ‘high voices’ with great charm (her facial expressions an object lesson in restraint – less is more – for Miranda Hart), while Phoebe Butler coaxed sweet music from a recorder I was not the only one present had not thought previously possible.  With Dawn Johnson alternating between lute and theorbo (a big bottomed lute with a giraffe’s neck) and Piers Snell bowing away on the viola da gamba (more stringed cousin to the cello) it was relatively fresh musical territory for me but I couldn’t help catching the intrinsic folk and jazz inflections that attracted guitarist John Renbourn – who ventured in these lands himself – and made him such a favourite of mine.  For a finish they attacked Monteverdi’s Zefiro Torno – his setting of a rhapsodic pastoral ode to the west wind auguring spring and the potential it brings for dalliance and romance – with such gusto that they had to pause, breathless, mid-way through.

And so out into the June night and a quick dash down to the Vaults Bar for the storming end of the Bearcat Blues Band set, a jump of three centuries from Restoration England of the 1660s to a classic ’60s rhythm and blues quintet of some distinction in less than half a mile.  And so to bed.

The chunky Rover 90.  My mate Mark's dad used to have one of those in Birkenhead.

A chunky Rover 90. My mate Mark’s dad used to have one of those in Birkenhead.


A certain Je ne sais quoi.  My “Best in Show”.

Sunday we had a family celebration lunch to attend deep in the suburbs of Solihull so I only had time for a quick recce of the Classic Car Festival but even at an early hour with the fine weather the place was buzzing.  And so apparently it carried on, to the extent of almost drinking the Crown dry, much to the chagrin of Monday’s gig goers.

Scribal June Sunday 15Back in time for the Sunday Scribal Gathering at the Fox and Hounds, and wasn’t that a treat.  Forest of Fools triumphed almost from the opening bars of whatever it was that they opened with.  Loud, driven dub folk with glorious blasts of melodeon – ace players all, attacking drummer, rapid fire percussionist stage right, energetically nimble bassman at the back, rounded off stage left by man with sousaphone, with added (have I got this right, or did it just sound like?) throat singing.   Most of the audience (myself included) had little idea what to expect and the excitement, the buzz, the joy, was instant.  This was Forest of Fools CDglorious.  Then a short manifesto statement of  folk roots, name-checking Cecil Sharp, and straight into an acapella Dogger Bank.  Now while it has to be said that their rendition lacked the sheer brio and muscle of Five Men Not Called Matt‘s interpretation, in context it was more than fine enough.  And then back to the folk driven shuffle of Bar room brawl (Here’s a YouTube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kx9-cBg9iWw.)  Later another controlled workout wherein the strains of the Mission Impossible theme was distinctly discernible among the more traditional melody lines.  And so it continued.  They took the roof off (or would have if there had not been a first floor intervening).  I even bought a CD.

Roddy et al - Andy Powell snapper

The Roddy Clenaghan Band (& sound man) – Roddy second left – upstairs at The Crown, giving a taste of The Crown’s eclectic decor. Photo (c) Andy Powell, banjo-ist of this parish.

Tom Manning.  Photo (c) Andy Powell.

Tom Manning. Photo (c) Andy Powell.

Monday, and so to The Crown, a pub with no beer (real ale anyway).  Guinness it was, then.  Apparently one of the Andys in Roddy Clenaghan‘s Band suggested, after Tom Manning‘s quality opening set, that they should be supporting him.  I’d say not so much a game of two halves as a double-A side (that’s a 45 rpm vinyl reference, younger readers).  Tom, a fine guitarist not scared of a jazz chord and in great voice, impressed with a mix of his own songs (one including a line about “the mourners at the wedding“) and some well-chosen, if you’ll excuse the expression, covers.  Finishing with an exuberant version of Love’s Alone again or from the eternal Forever changes album, which brought back to life the inner-hippy in a broad sway of the audience: “I think people are the greatest fun“.

Mournful as some of his song selections can be, there was plenty of fun to come too:  Roddy performed a short solo set, reminding me what a great writer Nanci Griffith is, and then brought on the two Andys for a set heavy with Bob Dylan songs, but who’s complaining?  They even kicked off with a twelve-string led Mr Tambourine Man) but the class showed with the selection of songs from the later canon – It’s not dark yet from Time out of mind – and a driving version of Things have changed.  “I used to care, but …”  Yeah, Bob, but you still wrote that song.  Another fine evening’s music.

(Is the dark Things have changed that well-known a Dylan song?  If not, it should be.  Originally from the soundtrack of Wonder boys, the movie  based on Michael Chabon’s novel – was Michael Douglas ever better? – the promo video, including clips from the film, is well worth a look.)

Scribal Jun Tuesday 15Tuesday I’m in The Vaults again for a pint’s worth of the A Capella Song & Ale Session and as luck has it I get over to Scribal in time for Paul Martin and friend’s footstomping set of vigorous dance tunes, Paul on mandocello (a big double stringed mandolin with sitar like harmonic drone potential)  and his mate on French pipes (not bagpipes, it was stressed, as if … there were pipes et un bag).  Enervating.  Rob Bray‘s new duo venture, The Straw Horses, for all his dapper tight grey waistcoat and trews, were singing new songs of olden days rural agri-folk (so more Thomas Hardy than Wurzels) with a hint or three of Wickerman about them.  His companion – Corinne Lucy – had one of those classic female folk voices and sported a wonderful smile.

Wednesday and it’s a decent turnout for Ken Daniels’ Alice‘s 150th birthday tribute to Lewis Carroll, Happy Birthday, Alice at York House, for what used, I guess, to be called a lantern slide show.  Fascinating collection of a wide variety of illustrators’ work over the century and a half, delivered with aplomb.  Then a walk down to The Bull for a change, humming Jefferson Airplane’s White rabbit to myself.

SL Evening bardAn Evening with the Bard & Friends featured many performers previously mentioned in despatches here at Lillabullero.  Given the luxury of fuller sets and Mark Owen and Naomi Rose duly delivered.

Vaultage SLThursday it’s back to The Vaults for another Vaultage, and a bravura performance from the Dave Cattermole Band.  With mesmeric acoustic guitar rhythm playing from the man himself, embellished by spare less-is-more lead lines on a Fender Start nodding to a wide spectrum of the instrument’s history or silky flat steel, and a hell of a cajon percussionist, they cast a spell.  Pièce de resistance was an extended spellbinding, rhythmically subtle, inventive uptempo meditation – shades of John Martyn – incorporating a hummed almost monastic song of praise which, one gradually became aware, had mutated into Stevie Winwood’s Blind Faith era song Can’t find my way home.  Magic moments in a small venue.  Feeling privileged.

Mark Owen was everywhere this week.

Mark Owen was everywhere this week.  WS himself would be proud of his ‘Breaking waves’.  Mitchell Taylor, who also did a few stints, & yr humble blogger, look on in rapt attention.  Photo (c) Pat Nicholson

Probably the first time this millennium I’ve been out five consecutive nights so Friday I hit a music and beer wall.  Feeling / like I’m definitely my age again.  Didn’t stop us catching the whole early evening Shakespeare in Stony trip though.  Choice selections from the Bear County’s Bard played out by a motley crew at various locations around Stony.  Rain on and off did not deter or (sorry) dampen spirits; indeed as King Lear‘s youngest daughter put it on FB, when the rain was at its heaviest, in the Fox & Hounds garden – which was always gonna be the most challenging stage on the journey – it seemed to supercharge the performance.  Juliet on the balcony in The Cock courtyard was outstanding too, while the Mummers, as the rude mechanicals from A midsummer night’s dream, were something else again.  Danni Antagonist had multiple roles – including being a witch in Macbeth, one of a spooky trio in the old graveyard, and Lear‘s decent daughter, Cordelia (and how many actors can make that claim in one day?).  I’d say her thespian experience is being  carried over into her poetry performancee on the evidence of a couple of days later.  Was good to be a part of the decent sized mobile audience.  Muchos kudos to Caz Tricks for putting it all together.

FringeFatigue lingering, Saturday lunchtime and it’s just a shandy for The Ozarks (another pooling of the MK bluegrass talents) for the country & bluegrass outro at The Fox, and then a stroll down to the The Bull’s yard for Part The First of the Alternative  Fringe.  The Caution Horses have some decent songs of their own but surprised (all the more dramatically so because it was unexpected) with an original treatment of the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby which gained something for these ears from missing the string quartet.  Paul Eccentric emerged from behind his Caution Horse kitchen percussion kit for some solo poems, which made a nice change.  But I was still tired so … that’s all she wrote for Saturday.

FotG15Sunday afternoon I flitted in, out and around Folk on the Green, which was lucky with the weather again, but stayed rooted for the duration of the Dave Cattermole Band‘s set, the band this time augmented by a bass player.  They did it all again with Can’t find my way home.  Sublime, tasty, tasteful, no posing.  Shame they couldn’t play longer.  On my way to the Alternative Fringe, Part Two, Subsection 1, I heard someone singing something about selling his soul for rock and roll, which made me feel old.

So here we are in the Vaults again, where the assembled poets (top and bottom three on the poster) did battle to be heard with the post-Folk on the Green topers, but the poetry won out in the end (we had a volume control knob and Richard Frost knew how to use it).  More than just the poets were entertained.  Then briefly down to the Stables Stage.  Now a four-piece, Glass Tears‘ wove their enchanting mix of originals and original treatments and I lingered for a bit more but  … a little sympathy please … I was tired and was driving to West Wales on the morrow.  Exit Lillabullero with a whimper.

It was a great week’s music.  Wish I’d had a bit more stamina.  Just because I haven’t specifically mentioned anyone doesn’t necessarily mean I didn’t appreciate them.  Huge thanks to the StonyLive Committee (not forgetting the entirely separate FotG people) and all generally involved.  Appreciated.

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If this winter was a cricket team it bats a long way down the order, it’s got a long tail.  And spring is going to have to draw on the sort of recovery the England Test Team is currently showing in New Zealand if it’s to live up to its name and put one back in our step when we venture outdoors.  In the meantime, luckily we have the arts to keep us warm.  Nevertheless, the car was iced up all over when we emerged buzzing from the theatre on Wednesday night.

RSC - Winters Tale The winter’s tale

The set of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The winter’s tale was intriguing from before the off – a video backdrop of mediterranean island coastline and sparkling sea, lots of sea, a bit like one of those screen saver animations that had their moment a few years ago. When the action started – the party goers waking up – I thought, blimey, that makes a change: Shakespeare done in your actual traditional Shakespearian costumery.  It was only on starting to read the programme the day after I discovered that this was not actually the case.  So I stopped reading the programme as not to cloud my impressions of the night until I finished this.  Act 2 and they’d gone all eighteenth century Lutheran bureaucrat until the emissaries to Delphi appeared in Ripping Yarns (or was it cod Victorian) explorers garb, while the shepherd arrived tooting the horn on an upright Edwardian bicycle.

This is a photo of gas holders for younger readers who are wondering what on earth I'm talking about.

This is a photo of gas holders for younger readers who are wondering what on earth I’m talking about.

Following the interval it got even more postmodern diverse, but that was after the famous ‘Exuent pursued by a bear‘ stage direction moment in which a giant bear emerged from a turbulent video sea in some sort of transmutation from a sea monster and the veranda/ramparts centre piece up to then of the stage had been inexplicably lifted up as if it rested on top of one of those old gas holders that used to dot the urban landscape as the gas holder refilled.  After the interval this structure, turned around, was revealed as some sort of steam punk industrial interior cum helter-skelter ride at the Donald McGill postcard people populated seaside complete with pier on the video backdrop (not forgetting the morris dancers).

The winter’s tale is oft described as one of the ‘problem plays’ and it’s an odd one.  I crammed the plot and skimmed the play before going, as you do, and didn’t get the usual frisson of recognising book titles drawn from the text; indeed, that ‘Exuent pursued by bear‘ seemed to be it.  And with director Lucy Bailey’s inventive take on the play the schism between the straight jealousy plot and the light interlude of the sheep shearing festival/seaside holiday episode was all the more disjointed by Pearce Quigley‘s show stealing comic turn as the pickpocketing con man (and here also beach entertainer extraordinaire) Autolycus;  Bohemia had become Blackpool, but this small time rogue is tellingly the crucial link in the play’s happy ever after resolution.

I loved the whole show and gloried in what I thought was this glorious a-historic anarchic mix; though I’ve still got doubts about the gas holder’s rise, it’s innards were brilliant.  I’ve never been convinced by Othello‘s jealousy – oh come on, man, don’t be so bloody stupid – but the passage in Winter’s Tale where Leontes tells the audience of his growing suspicions, delivered here with his wife and brother (innocent, but adulterers in his eyes) bathed in a red spotlight and moving ambiguously in slow motion, was a fine example of the imagination on display in this enervating and entertaining production.  The music, scored by Bellowhead’s Jon Boden judiciously and atmospherically helped the action along and was a delight in itself beside the seaside, beside the sea, too.  ‘Twas a good night out, well spent.

(From what I read of the programme before I stopped, the production was set in the 1860s, the Pre-Raphaelites and all that – well they painted scenes from Shakespeare in trad costume – so the seaside 1880s (there is a 16 year gap in the action of the play) was yer first generation proletarian holiday makers courtesy of the railways.  I think I prefer my jumble.)

As a bonus on the first night in MK, the Stony Steppers clog dance side were performing in the theatre entrance as the audience came in.  The marble floor and the atrium acoustics made for a sharp variation to their usual sound.  Sad the sight of the lanky Nureyev of the troupe, Shaun Lambley, ankle in plaster in a wheelchair.  Get well soon.

Scribal Gathering

Scribal March 2013The March Scribal Gathering was a belter.  Freezing on the walk there, I could swear it was the temperature had risen outside by the time we going home.  Warm-up act was three-quarters of the featured band The Screaming House Madrigals – great name, great band – and when just half of them launched into a rousing take on The Civil Wars’ Barton Hollow we had lift-off in the room from there on in.  With the addition of a cellist in the bass role the full band’s main self-penned set was a performance of subtle power and rough beauty (not to mention the occasional vice versa), post-Zep folk blues with jazz infusions.  Rapunzel-haired charmer Jo Dervish can go from blues shouter to a hint of Billie Holiday in the space of a song’s line; an extraordinary voice, delivery of which is enhanced by an elegant range of hand inflections that could stand on their own as mime.


Poeterry by Ant Smith (on another night)

Featured poet was the immaculately suited Poeterry, who was, as ever, in fine form.  Poeterry – “Wycombe’s finest romantic poet” it says on his rrrants page – is a phenomenon, a presence, great fun.  Chocolate daddy, The masterpiece …  lust and love, so concise: “And I thank you,” as most of his pieces end.  High standard of both regular and fresh open mic performers too, except for a rancid reworking of the Bee Gee’s po-faced New York Mining Disaster 1941 (with its ‘Mr Jones’ chorus line) boasting of cuckoldry.  Good shout for the choice of a song that deserves a going over, massive shame about the manner of so doing;  Billy Paul’s Me and Mrs Jones it was not.  Pat Nicholson – beer had been taken – saved the day with his blazing harmonica.

Crossword clues of distinction

Interviewed after he had revealed he had cancer of the oesophagus in one of his regular Guardian crosswords, John Graham aka Araucaria, doyen of the setters, said, “I have a vague picture in my mind of an idealised solver, who is a combination of everybody I’ve loved.”  That makes me feel good.  Lovely man, lovely interview (click for the link).  Here are a few that I’ve appreciated lately from his colleagues:

Clue me three times

  • from Pasquale: Merriment authentic in cathedral? It’s without joy! (10)
  • Paul: Mountain meat and drink for man at top (5,4)
  • Gordius: A pious type, Winston, fit to move the queen (10)
  • Picaroon: Shakespearian warrior reportedly gave battle wearing ladies’ lingerie (10)

Missing letters

  • from Brendan: Doing crosswords and so on? Not I – I’m a philosopher (6)
  • Brendan: Things scheduled apart from hospital, for famous doctor. (6)
  • Rufus: Cut, cut hard (5)


  • from Paul: Kaleidoscopic expression coming up now certainly – ouch, that’s horrible! (12,4)
  • Tramp: Fish catcher? Source of the runs around India (4)
  • Crucible: Smell ship’s captain (4)
  • as opposed to Paul’s: Reserve suggesting no need for deodorant (4)

Just groan …

  • from Araucaria: Having a strong local accent? More or less (7,8)
  • Puck: Drinking session to make Scrabble player’s day? Just the opposite. (5,2,3,5)
  • Crucible: Some say stain leather in compound (7)
  • Orlando: Fussy car rental (4,2,6)
  • Pasquale: Defiled building looked over by Indian musician (8)
  • and timely from Rufus: Doesn’t include signs of spring (6,3)

You can find answers and workings out under these pictures of an unlikely candidate to appear in our latest seasonal wine box.  Had to be a spicy shiraz.  Not exactly a ballbreaker, didn’t set me on the highway to hell, certainly not a whole load of rosé, no let there be hock, cue whatever other bad puns to be found in the AC/DC discography.  Was OK, pretty tasty actually.

Back in BlackBack in black - B side

Clue me three times

  • from Pasquale: Merriment authentic in cathedral? It’s without joy! (10) Funereally
  • Paul: Mountain meat and drink for man at top (5,4) Alpha male
  • Gordius: A pious type, Winston, fit to move the queen (10) Churchgoer (Churchill is fit so he’s not ill)
  • Picaroon: Shakespearian warrior reportedly gave battle wearing ladies’ lingerie (10) Fortinbras

Missing letters

  • from Brendan: Doing crosswords and so on? Not I – I’m a philosopher (6) Hobbes  cf Hobbies
  • Brendan: Things scheduled apart from hospital, for famous doctor. (6) Watson cf What’s on
  • Rufus: Cut, cut hard (5) Sever cf Severe minus the e


  • from Paul: Kaleidoscopic expression coming up now certainly – ouch, that’s horrible! (12,4) Technicolour yawn ( it’s an anagram)
  • Tramp: Fish catcher? Source of the runs around India (4) Ibis
  • Crucible: Smell ship‘s captain (4) Boss
  • as opposed to Paul’s: Reserve suggesting no need for deodorant (4) Book ie bo-ok

Just groan …

  • from Araucaria: Having a strong local accent? More or less (7,8) Broadly speaking
  • Puck: Drinking session to make Scrabble player’s day? Just the opposite. (5,2,3,5) Night on the tiles
  • Crucible: Some say stain leather in compound (7) Dioxide (Dye ox hide)
  • Orlando: Fussy car rental (4,2,6) Hard to please
  • Pasquale: Defiled building looked over by Indian musician (8) Ravished
  • and timely from Rufus: Doesn’t include signs of spring (6,3) Leaves out

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And so to the theatre, there to be entertained greatly by Lucy Bailey’s highly inventive staging for the Royal Shakespeare Company of the Bard’s problematic old chestnut, The taming of the shrew.  Period dress, but the period was circa late ’40s Italy, working well.  Lisa Dillon played Katharina as an out of control hard-drinking Courtney Love, while sister Bianca could have come straight off the set (or album cover) of Dreamboats and petticoats, and David Caves as Petruchio was a study in intelligent mocking brash.  His great height and hard-hinted Northern Irish accent and Katherina’s short stature made for some good moments.

The set was interesting even before anyone stepped on it, even more so when it became an integral part of the business and fun that kept everything beautifully in motion.  It consisted of a mound covered by a huge sheet, rising to a classical wall full of shuttered openings that functioned variously as doors and windows, the occasional comic use of which recalled Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (the ancient groundbreaking American TV comedy that some of you will remember), the sheet performing a number of roles as the action progressed, not least as a bed.  There was a fair amount of farce in the mix, particularly with the supporting cast and plot-lines, with some great comic characterisations drawing on half a century of popular culture, but there was some terrific acting going on too.

The actual taming – the route march – was a brutal display of brainwashing.  The Prologue, or Induction, was not dropped, so the action was framed, giving us the play-within-a-play get-out for Shakespeare‘s pronounced misogynist streak in this text.  Before delivering the notorious acquiescence speech at the end, Katharina lit a cigarette and continued smoking throughout, a sign, maybe, that she was still holding something in reserve.  Much was made of the drunken Christopher Sly character, a comic tour de force from the substantial Nick Holder, who gave a woman a couple of rows back in stalls a shock at the start that she’ll be dining on for a few years hence, I’ll wager.  The audience came out buzzing.

I didn’t get the joke in the title of Bateman‘s The day of the Jack Russell (Headline, 2009) until I went looking for the jacket illustration to lift on Amazon (think Frederick Forsyth).  It’s a splendidly plotted crime thriller overlaid with (at times, one would have to say, overladen) with some great comic writing and dialogue.  Be prepared: relentless gagging is in play.  For years I’ve wished there was a British Carl Hiassen, and Colin Bateman (or simply Bateman as he now advertises himself) is the closest we’ve got.  And although he’s missing the underlying seriousness of Hiassen’s ecological concerns, along with the Floridan’s ability to strategically rein himself in to good effect at times, he’s pretty good at doing what he does and is very funny in his own farcical – I mean that kindly – way.

This is the second of his Mystery Man novels.  The main man, who does a bit of private eye-ing on the side, runs a bookshop straight out of Black Books, but specialising in crime fiction.  This allows for some nice digs and asides on the topic of crime fiction and its readers, like the Christie-like denouement (or not, as it turns out) which Bateman places mid-service in a crematorium.  Mystery Man – “I’m pretty good at reading people, although better at books” – is a chronic hypochondriac self-medicator and man of excuses who is systematically and rigorously working his way down the menu at his local Starbucks; along with many other such prejudices he holds a particular grudge against personalised car number plates.  The supporting cast, not least his girlfriend, Alison, all make their contribution, though I’m not sure his mother quite needed to have had an Alison-induced stroke (though, to be fair, I haven’t read the first book).

My doctor says I’m the first patient he’s had with Seasonal Affective Disorder who gets depressed by all four seasons.  He says his nurse calls me Frankie Valli.  […] I tried yoga once, but got tendonitis.

Undemanding he may be, but I shall be reading more in the future, I’m sure.

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Propeller’s ‘Henry V’

How good was the Propeller production of Shakespeare‘s Henry V at Milton Keynes Theatre this week?  What if I say there were moments when I wasn’t sure which way the battle at Agincourt was going to go?

From initially being a sceptic over modern dress (or just messing-about-with-the-period dress) drama productions I am now – despite that dubious Welsh National Opera outer space setting of Wagner‘s  Flying Dutchman – an enthusiast.  While last-minute theatre goers were getting into their stalls seats a grubby squaddie straight outta Afghanistan came and stood, watching, quietly menacing, in one of the side aisles.  That was the first sign we were in for an experience.  When the similarly garbed troupe gathered on the stage and started delivering the Prologue collectively, each actor taking a couple of lines in turn to give us the Chorus’s lines – “O for a muse of fire, that would ascend / the brightest heaven of invention!” – from different positions while going about their business (something would continue to great effect all night), and the house lights were still up, was the second.  And the excellence just kept on coming.

But pardon, gentles all, / The flat unraised spirits that hath dar’d / On this unworthy scaffold …”  the Bard has them apologise.  Yeah, yeah.  This was a highly spirited, lusty, loud, energetic, thoughtful and inventive show delivered from a stage set that basically consisted of … scaffolding – brilliant! – augmented by a handful of constantly shifted wooden military trunks and cases (oh, and an occasional chair).  The costume design was all over place, but it worked.  First World War, Second World War, Middle East conflicts: the twentieth century universal soldier, no less (thanks for that insight, Andy).  So, was the play treated as a patriotic or an anti-war text?  For this Band of brothers, it has to be both – it’s the only way to do it justice.  Though it could be argued the Epilogue may be asking whether, for all the heroism and slaughter, it was worth it; the gains were lost again in the reign of Henry VI soon enough.

There was no shirking the violence, but there was a sly humour beyond the text too.  And contemporary relevance.  The scenes from Act 1, where Henry sought assurance from the bishops about the moral and historical justification of his claim for France, was pointedly and deliberately played.  At one point early on, as the army mustered, they burst into The Clash’s London calling – what a moment! – while a visit to the French camp was accompanied by Chanson d’amour on the accordion.  I’ve never seen violence portrayed to such chilling effect in a theatre before; I don’t know how original a technique it was, but the sight and sound of a soldier on each side of the stage laying into suspended punch bags with baseball bats while the victim of these dogs of war writhed around centre stage certainly had impact.

Propeller is, oh I’ll just quote their website, “an all-male Shakespeare company which seeks to find a more engaging way of expressing Shakespeare and to more completely explore the relationship between text and performance” – this they do, spectacularly well.  “Mixing a rigorous approach to the text with a modern physical aesthetic, they have been influenced by mask work, animation and classic and modern film and music from all ages.”  A few faces we recognised, but being cheapskates as far as buying a programme goes, I can’t give you any names; they all played many parts, save for Henry, who in his shifting moods and modes he played a blinder. Most (it might even have been all) of the cast even gave us a full-throated and lusty session in the atrium in the interval, singing – for charity, a bucket collection – a rousing Wild rover and an ecstatic Sloop John B; a band of brothers indeed.

A tremendous night.  For shame, the people of Milton Keynes and surrounds, for the Wood family were in evidence on the opening night. (I got that ‘Wood family’ from Angela Carter; in Wise children, that’s what the theatricals call empty seats).  If Propeller are anywhere near, go see.


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Resisting the urge to shout, “Shoulda gone to Specsavers” – always a problem with Shakespeare’s mistaken identity plays – simply had a great time with the Illyria Theatre Company‘s Twelfth Night in Campbell Park last Friday.  A splendid cast of just five kept the ball in the air through – if not a starry one, at least – a dry night, with the moon edging over cloud enough to remind us it was there.  Fun, fun, fun.  I love it: travelling players, theatrical business all over the place – slapstick, a nod and a wink, the full repertoire – the words both a vehicle and, of course, a huge poetic bonus, the audience invited to share the fun.  Out in the open, transported back to the Bard’s day – they must have felt like this, then, too.  I’d forgotten that the oft quoted greatness lines (“Some are born great, some achieve greatness” etc) originated here as a piss-take on Malvolio and his yellow stockings.  Sir Toby played by a woman with comedy moustache a hoot.  The Illyria trick of giving the characters different regional accents worked brilliantly – Malvolio again, obsequious Scottish of course, Feste the Jester, Yorkshire – and the spare music was a joy, comic and affecting in turn – ‘If music be the food of love‘ yer basic Blue Moon chords on guitar.  The way they handled the ending, the forlorn and still single Sir Andrew seated sadly moping, was beautifully done.

A different kind of performance at the August Scribal Gathering, where the curly wired-haired force of nature that is Alex Iamb, gave an energetic, committed and spellbinding performance that will not be easily forgotten.  Made us laugh too.  His long poem using chess as a metaphor for a failed relationship – Fool’s mate – was a master class in pace and timing, the pauses the hitting of the chess clock.  Was a good night overall, with Badger ending proceedings with his best yet, an accomplished Delia’s gone.

Martin Edwards‘ last Lake District Mystery, The Serpent Pool, made me think Thomas de Quincey’s On murder considered as one of the fine arts was worth a read.  I still haven’t managed that and in the latest addition to the series, The Hanging Wood (Allison & Busby, 2011), Daniel Kind, the escaped celebrity tv historian, still hasn’t finished his book about it either.  Readable as ever, the three deaths here are suitably agricultural, not to mention particularly horrific this time  – suffocation in a grain silo, skull bashed in and thrown in a slurry tank, in the teeth of a DIY saw mill.  The workings of the plots past and present are neatly delivered, helped in passing by a sprinkling of cultural clues and/or red herrings – a Millais painting, a character called Aslan – while the Lake District is a splendid backdrop, still understated (he doesn’t gush) are a bit more to the fore than previously (or is it just that we’ve done that walk past Friar’s Crag around Derwent Water?).  The ballad of Daniel and Hannah Scarlett, head of the cold case team in the local constabulary – now, I would say, established as one of the finer double acts in British crime fiction – entices (some lovely nuances of touch) and is left dangling … yet again.  You bastard, Edwards!  How can you finish it with her going of for a drink with him? Write the next one soon, please.

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Not much rain in evidence on the blasted heath (I know – blasted is  Macbeth but let it lie) in the Donmar Warehouse production of ‘King Lear‘ at MK Theatre this week.  Abstract sound and lighting effects and such an unearthly echo put on Lear’s big “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” speech that the words themselves were lost.  More about the production later, because first I have a problem with the play itself.

Groucho Marx puts his finger on it in his letter to brother Gummo describing an evening he spent in the company of T.S.Eliot (reprinted in ‘The essential Groucho‘).

…  I took a whack at ‘King Lear’. I said the king was an incredibly foolish old man, which God knows he was …

That, too, failed to bowl over the poet. He seemed more interested in discussing ‘Animal crackers’ and ‘A night at the opera’. He quoted a joke – one of mine – that I had long forgotten. Now it was my turn to smile faintly. I was not going to let anyone spoil my Literary Evening. I pointed out that King Lear’s speech was the height of idiocy. Imagine (I said) a father asking his three children: Which of you kids loves me most? And then disowning the youngest – the sweet, honest Cordelia – because, unlike her wicked sisters she couldn’t bring herself to gush insincere flattery. And Cordelia, mind you, had been her father’s favourite.

And there you have it.  I blame the Bard.  Wam bam, straight into the action with no back story, no hint of the nature of his past kingship, no real reason why, and before you know it, an old man’s anger, full-on bitching and civil war. I’m with Groucho, floundering.  What comes later in the text deserves a better setting, a better beginning.  (And I could do without the eye gouging).

We get there in the end, of course: life, the universe, everything.  This production is highly stylised, leaving the words, the actors, the lighting and sound effects to do the work.  Indoors and outdoors the set is unchanging, crudely plastered (faux marble?) planks – across the back and sides of the stage, on the floor and the ceiling; hardly a prop, no scenery.  Further stylised in that practically everyone was dressed in black (in period style but non-specific period) save for Lear in his white smock at the end, Gloucester with a white shirt (to show the blood) and Cordelia’s dark purple dress, not forgetting the Fool’s muted but still motley.

The cast was tremendous, of course.  For all that I’ve said above I was enthralled.  Derek Jacobi‘s Lear, after the initial Mr Angry, played a blinder.  I’d never really thought of Gina McKee as a stage performer before, but as Goneril hers was a huge presence, with – for me – unexpected moments of real erotic power.  So for all my reservations, about play and production, another memorable night at the theatre.

As it happens the romantic climax of George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch‘ is acted out against a backdrop of heavy rain storm, gusting winds, thunder and lightning.  Not that you notice really, because the emotion is so intense.  This climatic accompaniment is par for the course pace Em B I guess, but here the taboos are social, financial.  She’s not only gonna marry beneath herself but giving up a hard-earned inheritance too.

Middlemarch: a study of provincial life‘ is set in the early 1830s (Great Reform Bill and all that) and was written 40 years further down the line.  It is a book to cherish on so many levels – as a portrait of a society in change, for its observations of people rather than caricatures, as a vibrant storytelling embrace of ideas – and not least, as said in my last post, its anticipation of prose and authorial tone to come.  Here too is recognition that, as Ruskin maintained, “There is no wealth but life” , even if Dodo did have a private income before she married the mad old failed uber-intellectual of a clergyman who tried to forbid her true love from the grave.  There’s more humour than I remember too, some lovely sardonic stuff about the way women and what is seen as their function was regarded.  Lovely bitter-sweet coda too, telling how things turned out later for the main participants.  Great book, simple as that.  I’m confident I’ll pick it up again in the years to come.

I read it on an iPad and ended up highlighting so many passages.  Here are just a token to taste, starting off with the justly celebrated closing passage:

… for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

… who can, as it happens, drop in lovely jaundiced asides like:

… the red drapery which was being hung for Christmas spreading itself everywhere like a disease of the retina.

Here’s Casaubon, the heroine’s first failure of a husband, and his intellectual’s fear of music (she was fooled by his seriousness):

“I never could look on it in the light of a recreation to have my ears teased with measured noises,” said Mr. Casaubon. “A tune much iterated has the ridiculous effect of making the words in my mind perform a sort of minuet to keep time — an effect hardly tolerable, I imagine, after boyhood.”

And here comes Oscar and his many heirs and heiresses even up to the present day, with a nod, of course, back to the Romantics, from the man she marries for love (from Chapter 22):

“To be a poet is to have a soul so quick to discern that no shade of quality escapes it, and so quick to feel, that discernment is but a hand playing with finely ordered variety on the chords of emotion — a soul in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge. One may have that condition by fits only.”

“But you leave out the poems,” said Dorothea. ” I think they are wanted to complete the poet. I understand what you mean about knowledge passing into feeling, for that seems to be just what I experience. But I am sure I could never produce a poem.”

“You are a poem — and that is to be the best part of a poet — what makes up the poet’s consciousness in his best moods,” said Will, showing such originality as we all share with the morning and the spring-time and other endless renewals.

Enough. And now for some more crossword clues from the Guardian cryptic that have raised a smile of late.  As should be obvious, what we like are the puns good and bad, the word play.  Answers below, in pale green so they’re not that easy to view:

  • Spooner’s pet’s entry to working-class symbol (4,3)  a beaut from Araucaria
  • Lionel, fine as a composer (6) easy but irresistible from Gordius
  • Perhaps Horace is aware of pronounced facial feature? (5,4) – thank you Arachne
  • This land is in our heart and it’s in the head (7) – a patriotic Boatman
  • It’s about Ulysses: say, is he queer? (7) – the master Araucaria again
  • Made fish pie for the hungry (8) – neat from Rufus
  • 19th centurt Act to improve the police? (6,4) – Rufus again, and
  • They serve little Arthur during drinking bouts (19) – raise another glass to Rufus


Flat cap (cf cat flap) / Bartok / Roman nose (like Arsene) / Br-it-ain / Odyssey (odd is he?) / famished / Reform Bill (groan) / b-art-enders

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