Posts Tagged ‘Stony Stratford Library’

And so, early in March, to Linford Wood, in Milton Keynes, while the trees are still bare:

Sad to say the wood sculptures are not what they once were – the grand old bearded philosopher and the big gorilla are long-lost to the elements – but it’s still a worthwhile wander, eyes primed for the crafted creatures; the bluebells will be out again soon and there’s a decent chance of seeing a jay.  Here’s one of the survivors:



Meanwhile, back indoors …

Engrossing evening of a dialogue outside ‘the bubble’ with Milton Keynes Humanists guest speaker Salah Al-Ansari, Senior Researcher with the Quilliam Foundation, an academic theologian and a practising imam.  Salah is one of the leading lights of the liberal wing of his faith – what is becoming known as Reform Islam – which recognises the Koran as a sacred text but significantly also regards it very much as an historical document – pretty much as the Christian Bible is seen by most these days.

A wide-ranging, open-ended conversation ensued, which was both enlightening and entertaining.  Salah kicked off the discussion with the view that we should be talking about Islams in the plural.  Interesting to learn that when he was studying to become an imam in an Egyptian university, his professor was a woman.  It was agreed that secularism does not imply atheism.  Positive change, albeit slow and not so often visible, is happening among the Islamic communities.  An ex-Muslim atheist in the audience added spice.  There is more about Salah at www.quilliaminternational.com/about/staff/salah-al-ansari/ and from there, if you are not familiar with them, it is well worth exploring the work of the anti-extremist (from all sides) Quilliam Foundation further.

Because it was there

I have piles of books I intend to read but I often take an impulse book out from the local library for no other reason than because it’s there.  The library I mean.  Use it or lose it!  Hence the next book, that happened to catch my eye.

I’ve always looked upon the American artist Edward Hopper as the painter’s equivalent of a one hit wonder – you know, the haunting Nighthawks, all the lonely people in that late night cafe.  Ivo Kranzfelder‘s Edward Hopper 1882-1967: Vision of reality (Taschen, 1995/2006) has disabused me of this but, to continue the metaphor, I still wouldn’t want more than a single disc ‘Best of’, and vinyl at that.  A bit samey, and I’m not convinced by the (please don’t take this the wrong way) proportions and posture of some of his women (like the one on the book’s cover, actually).

It’s a handsomely produced volume, with some stunning black and white photos by Hans Namuth of the man himself, not least those taken in places he painted.  Frankly, sometimes I struggle with writing about painters and what they were trying to do, and a chapter head like The secularization of experience doesn’t help.  Apparently he didn’t say much about it himself, but what did strike me was that 1942’s Nighthawks, and a number of his other more well-known paintings, were being done at precisely the same time as Abstract Expressionism (not that I’ve got much against …) was evolving and taking hold of American art in New York.  So good for him for sticking to his guns to the end.

Anyway, not to in any way get things out of proportion, I have to claim it was a bit of a trauma – after all the landscapes, townscapes, buildings, room interiors, urban scenes and absorbed individuals, all the mustards and terracotta, muted browns, dull turquoise, beiges, greys and olive greens – to turn over from page 105 and suddenly be all at sea; as it happens one of these was the first painting he ever sold.  Normal service was quickly restored.

What it says on the poster

Staying in the library, I learned a bit and was mightily entertained by this FoSSL (Friends of Stony Stratford Library) presentation. The turbo-driven opening chords of musical director Paul Martin on the mandola suggested we were in for a treat and so it proved.  Shakespeare – a musical celebration, curated by Vicki Shakeshaft, was a fascinating and nicely paced mix of music, songs (take a bow soloist Simon Woodhead), readings and contextual history with a colourful morris dance duo thrown in for good measure.  And all, if my powers of recall are functioning properly, without resort to “If music be the food of love …”  Came as a surprise to me that “Who is Sylvia / What is she” was the Bard’s (from Two gentlemen of Verona – if asked I’d have said music hall), and my English teacher never told me that Hamlet’s advice to the players was a rant and that “Let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them” was a gripe at Shakespeare’s company’s erstwhile clown, Will Kemp, who once morris danced from London to Norwich.

Further musical adventures

No poster for the early March Vaultage, but it was a good ‘un.  Folkish duo Phil Riley & Neil Mercer – guitar and mandolin – did a great set of their own material with a singalong of Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the free world somewhere in the middle, finishing with a thrilling Russian folk dance-based tune.  Oi!  The March Aortas – nice and varied – deserves a mention too.

First Scribal I’ve managed this year  – Out! Damn virus! – was another good one too.  Stephen Ferneyhough kicked off with a musical history of the Brackley Morris with one of those squeeze box things – I can never remember which is which.  A storming set from featured singer Bella Collins – great voice and material (folk, blues and beyond), skilled emphatic guitar, foot stomping on the floor.  Own songs and a couple of covers – Jimmy Reed’s Shame, shame, shame morphing into Prince’s Kiss and back again!  Stephen Hobbs is wearing his bardship well, as if there was any chance he wouldn’t.  Mark ‘Slowhand’ Owen’s dazzling fretwork on one of his songs had a couple of us fearing for our own fingers just thinking about it.

And finally … best book review ever (click on the picture if you can’t read what’s between the cat’s legs):





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Oh what a blowJackie Leven

Well if Ian Rankin can do it then so will I.  Vox humana, with its immaculate acoustic guitar and a lot more, is the opening track of Jackie Leven‘s fine collection of songs on the 2008 album Oh what a blow that phantom dealt me!  A line from the hypnotic blues-inflected second track – One man one guitar – is where Rankin acknowledges he got the title for his latest novel; the beautiful third track – Another man’s rain – was, after a bit of mondegreen mangling, the source of the previous one.

I gave the stunningly good Phantom a listen because I was reading the new Rankin and now I can’t stop playing it.  With someone as prolific as the late lamented Jackie Leven you can forget and still be pleasantly surprised by just how good most of what he did was.  There are plenty of other harvestable book titles on Phantom.  Other highlights include the Bacharach-ish Kings of infinite space, and Here come the urban ravens, his plaintively spare banjo-augmented tribute to fellow songwriter on the margins, Kevin Coyne.  Great performances, inventive soundscapes – you should give it a go.  And I haven’t mentioned a mind-blowing skiffle rendition of the old chestnut I’ve been everywhere as applied to German towns and cities yet, or the delightful and crucial vocal interventions of kindred spirit Johnny Dowd, and the latter’s moving recital of Kenneth Patchen‘s elegy for a recently deceased friend, The skater, against a musical setting; Jackie was ever poetry’s champion.  A great and lovely but never tame album; what that clever lager ad said about reaching parts.

Ian Rankin - SaintsSaints of the Shadow Bible

And so, onto the new Ian Rankin novel named, as I’ve just said, after a line in a Jackie Leven song.  It doesn’t sell it short.  Saints of the Shadow Bible (Orion, 2013) is Rankin writing at his very best.  Allowed back into the police force proper as a lowly Detective Sergeant answering to his protegé of old, now Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke and helping and/or being investigated himself by a Complaints division investigation into the behaviour of the first CID team he was on (the Saints of the Shadow Bible of the book’s title) John Rebus is in for a difficult time, juggling loyalties to colleagues old and new.  And that’s just the personal background to the current crimes – a suspicious car crash, a murder, which may or may not be linked – that he is actively involved in investigating, all set against a political backdrop involving leading figures from politics and business in the Scottish independence debate.

Some things about what Ian Rankin is up to here stuck out for me.  Firstly, the prose seems tighter to me, especially once the book gets going; I surmise the death of Elmore Leonard and the publicity given to his 10 rules of good writing might have jogged his finger on the delete button.  Secondly, I’m impressed with Rankin, having spent so much time with him, showing faith – rather than abandoning him – with Malcolm Fox.  The head of the Complaints, who was the leading character in two of the three books in Rankin’s non-Rebus interregnum, which while in no way bad had most fans longing for Rebus’s return.  Malcolm’s developing relationship with Rebus throughout Saints of the Shadow Bible is one of the book’s real strengths.  Thirdly, how great it is to have a fully fledged Siobhan Clarke back again, with all the subtleties of their changed professional relationship.  With those three now set up – with Rebus’s future up for grabs again, and Fox probably returning to CID – Rankin has given himself a strong platform to move off from, with plenty of room for wit, when he returns from his recently announced sabbatical.  And I like the idea of new gal Christine Esson’s potential to slip into the old Siobhan role too.

The Saints of the Shadow Bible were the team out of Summerhall back in the ’80s, the young Rebus’s first CID assignment.  They went into battle with a cassette of The SkidsThe Saints are coming in the car’s stereo and took no prisoners:

     Clarke was staring at him. “How dirty was Summerhall?”
He studied the surface of his tea. “Dirty enough. You ever see that programme Life on Mars? It felt like a documentary …”

It used to be the way of it, John – get the scumbags off the street by hook or crook,” as one of his old chum pleads in the Saints’ defence.  It’s one of those unavoidable clichés of crime fiction these days.  Rebus is still driving the Saab and being careful about drink-driving, still relying on vinyl LPs for music in his flat, but when another Saint says, “Soft drinks and playing things by the book. Who’d have thought it?”  it’s not for long; no wagon in sight here.  When Esson offers to do a food run and he asks for a sausage roll, she came back to the office:

[…] and handed him a paper bag. The lack of grease stains meant she’d ignored his request. The baguette contained ham salad.  “It’s like being at one of those health spas,” he muttered.

Musically it’s the usual late-Rankin mix.  Rebus has a B.B.King ringtone on his mobile phone, uses John Martyn’s Solid air as soundtrack to some serious thinking and (mysteriously) puts Spooky Tooth’s second album on in the car to quell his rising blood pressure.  There’s also some rather good banter between him and Malcolm concerning the latter’s brown shoes and Frank Zappa‘s Brown shoes don’t make it opus that has a nice pay-off line.  There’s probably a full listing of all the references on the website.

“But I know what Miles Davis would say […] .”
Clarke narrowed her eyes. “What would he say?”
He’d say: ‘So what.’

So this is Ian Rankin in his pomp.

Hamid - Reluctant fundamentalistThe reluctant fundamentalist

The book group talked discussed Mosin Hamid‘s The reluctant fundamentalist (2007) longer and more intensely than most titles that come under their purview.  The differences were not so much about its intriguing quality and the strangeness of its narrative device – a conversation at a café table in Lahore between Changez, the Pakistani narrator, and a visiting American from which we only get to hear the former’s contribution, so it is effectively a monologue – as to the increasingly tense and ambiguous outcome.  Are they CIA, who is Changez working for, where exactly is he coming from?

Changez has indeed been through some changes.  He’s the bright kid from the village who gets taken up by Princeton and starts to live the American dream.  The only actual mention of fundamentals in the text is in the context of how the ruthless capitalist consultancy powerhouse that he starts working for operates.  Three things bring his idyll into question: a tragic love affair with an American girl, his seeing what the firms’ inter-continental activities do to decent people’s lives, and changing attitudes in the US after the events of 911, in particular in relation to his appearance – I wasn’t the only one who thought back to what happened to an Irish friend in London at the time of the IRA bombing campaign.

This is a relatively short book but it covers a lot of ground.  American arrogance turns Changez, but it is never quite clear into what.  He deliberately fails at his job and goes back to Pakistan, to his family and his roots, working as a university lecturer.  The American, who may be carrying a gun, reluctantly hears Changez’s tale and is led into … who knows?  But on the way there is some fine writing to enjoy. Here’s  Changez in pre-011 New York: “One evening I was walking with Erica through Union Square and we saw a firefly. “Look,” she said, amazes. “It’s trying to compete with the buildings.“” And that firefly’s flight is followed in enchanting detail.  In another passage that sticks in my mind, in the café in Lahore, Changez tries to explain the uniqueness of their olfactory situation, of the delicacy of jasmine’s perfume “against the robust smell of roasting meat.”  An intriguing novel indeed (and I’m a vegetarian).

Switch on poetry 2013The lights, the lights

That time of the year again and so, Morris dancers and Mummers in the Stony Stratford High Street, all the fun of a mini-fair, tombolas, raffle ticket sellers and massed crowds for the Lantern Parade (quite a few Tardis-es this year) and the switching on of the Christmas lights.

And A Switch On Poetry Showcase upstairs in the kept open in the afternoon for the occasion library (with Santa’s grotto downstairs).  Bard Richard Frost had assembled a fine collection of poets for the delectation of … a dedicated few.  But hey, it was an audience and the words (and tea, and some mulled wine) flowed,  all nicely rounded of with a couple of storming performances from a pretty much family friendly The Antipoet (shame on those who left after their slot!) and The Screaming House Madrigals (plus bongo-ist and washboard).


Alan Wolfson without the orange pork pie hat that was the abiding image of his performance. Some fine words were spoken.

We may well have danced this dance before but it’s a good dance.  And so outside again for the parade’s arrival in the Market Square, two countdowns’ worth of light switch failure and The Bard’s specially written poem, which we heard at the back, if not the actual words.

(The statue in the poster is The Ancient Mariner at Watchet, in Somerset).
And as a special Christmas bonus, here’s a link to a Screming House Madrigal’s gig in London two days later.

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A casual vacancyJust because I’m being short and sweet about J.K.Rowling‘s The casual vacancy doesn’t mean I wasn’t impressed by it or didn’t enjoy it a lot.  She’s not one of the great prose stylists and plot liberties of a factual kind are taken but I ceased to care too much about the clunkiness of the former or the strict accuracy of the latter as this tale of small town social life, politics and hypocrisy in Middle England increasingly got its hold on me.

The casual vacancy starts off like Middlemarch (without the intellectual pursuits but with teenagers), morphs into Dickens on his best moral high hobby-horse and finishes with a proud egalitarian flourish beyond the realms of either.  The action revolves about the gap left in the community by the death of one Barry Fairbrother, prole made good who’s not about to forsake or sacrifice the chances of those left behind on the wrong side of the metaphorical tracks (I presume they lost the railway line in the Beeching era).  There is a rich and varied cast of characters all with their own frustrations, while there’s a clever plot driver in a series of postings from ‘The ghost of Barry Fairweather’ to the parish council website and the repercussions they cause.  It all works up to a very nicely paced climax of a birthday party at which much drink is taken; its aftermath and the related series of events that follow with devastating consequences make for a highly satisfying and bracing novel with more than just a big heart.  She’s a fine storyteller who doesn’t sit on the fence and it’s good to know the book is selling so well.  (I’ve not mentioned Harry Potter because – no excuses – those are children’s books.)

And so to the other stuff:

Stony High Street morris 2012

The massed ranks of morris men and women and steppers as Old Mother Redcap prepare to take to the street outside the church.

It’s that time of the year again.  Morris sides in the High Street, the lantern parade, the fairground organ, the bumper cars, the raffle tickets and the turning on of the Stony Christmas lights.  To which this year must be added the library open on a Saturday afternoon for Santa and the Bard’s hosting of a poetry event with readings from a lot of the usual suspects and more.  I’d not seen former bard of Northampton Donna Scott give her entertaining exploration of the whys, wherefores and consequences of her given name before but was glad to do so now; and let us not forget The Antipoet again struggling with the concept of family friendly material.  In its 50th year, the actual switching on of the lights fell to a well chuffed Danni Antagonist, the current Bard of Stony Stratford now nearing the end of her reign, whose celebratory ode is a good example of the way she has played it, placing trigger local events in a broader frame.  Here’s the final verse:

So here’s to the illuminators
Who bring the vital spark,
Stay strong against the nay-sayers,
And fight back against the dark.

Live at the Checkerboard LoungeAnd so from Stony to the Stones, on a completely different tack.  Watching Muddy Waters & the Rolling Stones Live at the Checkerboard Lounge, Chicago 1981 had me feeling queasy and unclean.  Some fine blues from Muddy Waters & his band until the Stones entourage turns up.  And yes, I know, Muddy invited them up on stage and seems to be enjoying himself, and I’m fully cognisant of the part the Stones played in boosting his reputation and earnings in his homeland, but really – the sight of the prancing, gurning v-necked pink tracksuited Mick Jagger had me embarrassed, not knowing where to put myself … me and my generation.  I’m still shuddering at the thought.  Remember that caption in the NME about Freddie Mercury – one of that paper’s many finest moments: Is this man a prat?  Yes, but never mind that.  Regardless of the Stones’ undeniable heritage (by 1981, new output waning anyway), how did Jagger get away with it so long?  Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, by the way – back at the Checkerboard – in the brief space given them, are magnificent.

MM tw3And I’m still reeling, having moved from the thought that she looks familiar to the dawning then sudden realisation that … the woman paying Daphne’s awful mother in the still infinitely watchable Frasier is none other than my very first pin-up: Millicent Martin.  Well, well.

Bill MaherFinally, nothing personal, but the news of the pregnant Kate & Wills has me shouting at the television.  The prospect of 6 more months and years beyond of this drivel hijacking valuable news time coverage of events that might actually matter is daunting.  Does Nicholas Witchell ever wake up and remember the time when he used to be a proper journalist?  I keep asking rhetorically to the tv screen, “How old are you?” at the loosely ringletted and simpering ‘royal expert’ Kate Williams, when she’s a respected academic and author D.Phil, MA and a lot of other things too, so shouldn’t have to.  You know, the one who looks like she wants to be painted by the Pre-Raphaelites.  Isn’t it time this country grew up and ditched the whole notion of hereditary monarchy?  Aren’t you embarrassed?  Isn’t their suddenly becoming the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge just absurd?  Did anyone ask Cambridge?  As ever, American comedian Bill Maher hits the nail on the head in this quote from the New Rules section of his US tv show, broadcast at the time of their wedding:

Now that the royal wedding is finally over, the next person who uses the word fairy tale must be led into the woods by a dwarf, turned into a faun and be eaten by a witch …  Now, Kate and Wills seem like nice kids but I hope at some point they say, “We just feel creepy about other human beings calling us Your Highness.”

Wouldn’t it be nice, but as Harry Hill might say, What are the chances of that?  Meanwhile there’s http://www.republic.org.uk/ for some sanity and lots of intellectual ammunition.

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If you take the creation of the Friends of Stony Stratford Library (FOSSL) in response to an attempt some years ago to close the upper floor of Stony Library as the Pilot episode, then the reprieve granted at last night’s Milton Keynes Council budget setting meeting, at which another year’s funding to keep both Stony and Woburn Sands Libraries open while a full and proper value for money (VfM) review takes place was agreed – the amendment carried in the early hours of Wednesday morning by 50 votes to less than a handful apparently –  makes for a fitting climax of the First Series.  Needless to say, pre-production plans for the Second Series are already in hand.

Photo from © Karen Parker Photography - more in her Flickr photostream

FOSSL did a tremendous job setting up and then following up on the initial (global!) impact of the ‘Wot no books?’ campaign.  People Power indeed.  And I guess, says this lifelong socialist democrat, one has to acknowledge the eloquence of certain Tory councillors, pitching in at just the right time too.  The Save Stony Stratford Library Facebook telling the tale now needs a new name. 

  • As well as Karen’s Flickr photostream it’s worth having a look at her own website for some brilliant prizewinning animal photos.
  • Previous postings here on Lillabullero can be found by clicking on the ‘Saving Stony Stratford Library’ tag in the column on the right.

As it happens I wasn’t at the Council meeting.  Blame Matthew Bourne and his company’s production of ‘Cinderella‘,  tickets bought months ago, but another day for that methinks.  I’m slowly working my way through ‘The book of lost books‘ but I’ve only just got out of the Romans so, given I’ve hardly read a lot of the found ones so far, it’s all a bit lost on me.

FOSSL main man Peter Waterman (another from Karen ©)

Anyway, it’s not often one has cause to sup a glass of champagne at lunchtime, and I was there.

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I know one shouldn’t mock the afflicted but when, in response to mild heckling at the Cabinet Meeting in the Milton Keynes Council Chamber on Tuesday night (Feb 15 2011), Councillor Jenni Ferrans – the cabinet member with responsibility for  the Community Strategy & Regeneration portfolio (which includes libraries) said something about the pointlessness of anyone heckling because she couldn’t hear what was being heckled since she was “deaf in one ear”, one could not but extemporise soto voce on the theme: deaf in both ears to all reason and rational argument was more the point.  As a librarian, albeit an ex-librarian, I can confidently say that the case for targeting Stony Stratford Library – the third busiest in the authority – in the cuts exercise, beggars belief.  The minority-ruling Lib-Dems were a shabby bunch Tuesday night.  They didn’t budge an inch – some consultation exercise.  Things one expected never to hear oneself thinking, let alone saying: a couple of Tory councillors were magnificent last night, promising to ring compromises from the Lib-Dems at the full Council budget meeting next week, so there is hope yet.  The joys of kimby-ism (Keep-It-in-My-Backyard).  Click on Stony Stratford Library in the tags on the right for previous episodes.

So, as E.M.Forster used to say, “Two cheers for democracy“.  Which nobody can deny.  As it happens the current book for the Book Group I’m a member of – that meets in the library – is Forster’s ‘Howards End‘, published in 1910 and doesn’t it show it.  I wanted to strangle them all, even the two gals (especially when Margaret marries the older man, that widower sod of a capitalist); it’s so bleedin’ precious.  ‘Only connect …’  is his motto – again, which nobody can deny, and there are some decent thoughts and ideas at play.  But given, in a book ostensibly in large part about the class system and urbanisation, that the lowest social class gent on display is a C2 clerk called Leonard Bast (!) one wonders just how rare the air was in Bloomsbury.  What about the workers? – it’s a fair question in that Socialism (with a capital S) is a topic of conversation in the novel; the Schlegels and Wilcoxes – the families at its heart – probably never got further north than Hertfordshire.

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

Elsewhere, in similar vein, there is – Jimi Hendrix fans – talk of this being a rainbow bridge, no less.  Can I see Helen, the younger sister, and poor Bast in bed? – no.  Back then the world really was crying out for D.H.Lawrence.

Can’t see Benjamin Zephaniah arguing with the theme of ‘Only connect’. Here, from the poem ‘Overstanding‘ (lovely word):

Open up yu mind mek some riddim come in
Open up yu brain do some reasonin
Open up yu thoughts so we can connect
Open up fe knowledge an intellect

It’s certainly what he’s trying to do in ‘City psalms‘ (Bloodaxe, 1992), making all sorts of connections, saving poetry from academe for his people, for we the people.  And he certainly connected with me when he turned down an OBE in 2003 (hey – rhymin riddim), making his reasons explicit in the Guardian.  I’ve always thought Benjamin – dreadlocked Aston Villa supporter, British citizen of the world – was a good ting (sorry) but I’d never really thought to pursue  his stuff on the page. I won ‘City psalms‘ in a raffle at the Read-in at Stony Library on the recent national ‘save libraries’ day of action, where it had been donated by the Bard of Stony Stratford – a formidable performer himself – no less.  I shall donate it to the Library shortly.  Should I be surprised when I get more from it with closer re-reading?  Probably not.

There is verbal excess on the page, as opposed to in performance, and I wish never to see that horrible convolution of a word – ‘politricks’ – ever again (two cheers for democracy!) – but there are also some fine phrases, passages and poems worth a place in any contemporary anthology. ‘Dis poetry‘ spells out his mission (“WID LUV”) while ‘Money (rant)’ is a fine exercise in spelling out Ruskin’s great truth (“There is no wealth but life“).  He has a decent website too.  Since ‘City psalms’ was published, BZ, who left school at 13,  has received a handful of honorary doctorates from Exeter and various other universities, and his work is now studied in schools.

T.S.Eliot apologises to Groucho Marx about that sort of thing:

When I told him that my daughter Melinda was studying his poetry at Beverly High, he said he regretted that, because he had no wish to become compulsory reading.

Groucho writes to Gummo.  Actually, I’m kinda glad he was because I wouldn’t have got ‘The waste land‘ then otherwise.  The cigar’d one’s exchanges with the poet are among of the highlights in ‘The essential Groucho‘ (2000), a compendium of film script excerpts, reviews, interviews, radio and TV quiz show one liners and repartee, and journalism by and about Groucho Marx, who was pretty much the only man to be a success in music hall, theatre, cinema, radio and television in one lifetime.  ‘Essential’ can hardly be the word, though, for such a visual and expressively dead-pan performer when print is the medium; the magazine pieces were pretty good too.  Was disappointed to be underwhelmed by the quiz show stuff (if that was the best …); better than most is him telling a couple of elderly newlyweds about his own wedding where, “They threw vitamin pills” rather than confetti.

The letters are interesting though, especially the correspondence with Eliot (a big fan of the movies), which led to the meeting mentioned above.  It’s a tale oft re-told but worth telling again.  The Waste Land poet reports:

The picture of you in the newspapers saying that, among other reasons, you have come to London to see me has greatly enhanced my credit in the neighbourhood, and particularly with the greengrocer across the street.  Obviously I am now someone of importance.

But enough of Groucho, except to say, because of this book I felt the need and I now own DVDs of some of the movies.

I read ‘The essential Groucho‘ because it was one of the books I wouldn’t normally have had in my hands were it not for filling my library ticket as part of the Friends of Stony Stratford Library’s successful PR campaign to empty the library’s shelves in protesting its mooted closure.  You could say such an action – serendipity-ly filling your library card and seeing what you find – deserves to be another random nudge, an extra card in Brian Eno’s ‘Oblique strategies’ pack;  I ‘discovered’ Eels out of it, for which I am extremely grateful.

Didn’t discover too much from Michael R. Turner’s selections in ‘Parlour poetry: 101 improving gems‘ (Michael Joseph, 1967).  On the whole I was not improved by this odd collection of the poems that were recited in the parlours of the middle classes in the UK and the USA in the nineteenth century.  No great finds even of the so-bad-it’s-good category among much of the moralistic doggerel.  A lot of heart-rending sympathy for the dying and abandoned poor, young and old, but no hint of a political solution, only Gawd and personal responsibility are the game here.  The best work (from real poets) one knew – If, The charge of the Light Brigade, Vitai Lampada, Maud (“the black bat night”), The Raven – but, oh the potency of a decent opening line: “The boy stood on the burning deck” (from ‘Casabianca by Mrs Hemans quiz fans, a deeply moral tale of bravery and foolhardy loyal obedience) or “There’s a one eyed yellow idol to the north of Katmundu” (J.Milton Hayes).  Shame how often that’s the best line too.  Then there are oft-repeated refrains and refractions thereof, like Rose Hartwick Thorpe’s tolling, “Curfew must not ring tonight”

Of the ‘established’ poets, I wasn’t prepared for quite how uninspiring Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Robert Southey would prove to be, but it was good to be reminded of the sheer brilliance of the word juggling that is Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘ The raven’; Robert Browning’s ‘How they bought the good news from Ghent to Aix‘ isn’t bad in that regard either, though the question remains – news of just what?

I could go on, so obviously it wasn’t so bad a choice of book.  Benjamin Zephaniah has this great line, “I wish I had a working wishing well“.  There’s a witching well in the last but one of my own contribution towards clearing the library’s shelves, a graphic novel scripted by Bill Willingham with atmospheric visuals mostly from Mark Buckingham, ‘Fables: the Good Prince” (Vertigo, 2008).

I went through a big comics phase a while back when the saintly Neil Gaiman (who has always championed libraries) was producing his momentous ‘Sandman‘ sequence of books – as splendid a piece of storytelling as any in the late twentieth century. The ‘Fables‘ series (this is the seventh) came in its wake and shares some of the territory.  There’s quite a back story.  And I quote:

The immortal characters of popular fairy tales have been driven from their homelands and now live hidden among us, trying to cope with life in [the] 21st century …

In ‘The lost prince‘ the janitor of Fabletown, an ex-frog prince, breaks out from his despair to create Haven, a heaven on earth sort of ghost town (or at least, it’s real it’s created by ghosts who were dead at the bottom of the witching well.  Confused? – you will be. I’m not sure I knew what was going on half the time, but how to resist a book where there’s a character, a builder called Weyland Smith (out of Weyland the Smith from Beowulf and North european legend, and feel the resonance with Oxfordshire’s Wayland’s Smithy ancient monument), where Little Boy Blue (‘Blue’ to his friends) is addressing the girl he fancies (futile tho’ the pursuit is) as ‘Red’ (that’s Red Riding Hood to us), where Hansel and Gretel are on different sides … you get the picture?

Oh, and in the context of the clearing of the library shelves stunt … on the second page of this narrative someone is complaining about needing to re-shelve piles of books – fables no less.  I couldn’t live with this stuff in prose or film, but I love it in this form.  The book design, its use of panels and columns is refreshing, hypnotic even.  And it passes the graphic novel test, when you turn the page and are confronted with sudden occasional spectacular double page spreads of great peace and beauty (or indeed, mayhem) with flying colours.  A delightful reminder of joys past.

The last book that filled my library card – now renewed of course – is ‘The book of lost books‘, which I’ve only just started reading.  I’m tempted to plead poetic license and say I’ve lost it but I know just where it is.

And seeing as we’re in the land of the lost, a slight return to the fields of Parlour poetry for one of my favourites.  Look out, here comes an omega moment:

The lost chord
by Adelaide Ann Proctor

Seated one day at the organ,
I was weary and ill at ease,
And my fingers wandered idly
Over the noisy keys.

I know not what I was playing,
Or what I was dreaming then;
But I struck one chord of music,
Like the sound of a great Amen.

It flooded the crimson twilight,
Like the close of an angel’s psalm,
And it lay on my fevered spirit
With a touch of infinite calm.

It quieted pain and sorrow,
Like love overcoming strife;
It seemed the harmonious echo
From our discordant life.

It linked all perplex-ed meanings
Into one perfect peace,
And trembled away into silence
As if it were loth to cease.

I have sought, but I seek it vainly,
That one lost chord divine,
Which came from the soul of the organ,
And entered into mine.

What a shame she couldn’t just leave it there but had to spoil it with a final verse of religious mumbo-jumbo:

It may be that death’s bright angel
Will speak in that chord again,
It may be that only in Heav’n
I shall hear that grand Amen.


For previous episodes of the Stony Library saga click on Stony Stratford Library tag in the column on the right.

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Stony faced
by Mark Niel

From the first scratches of stone on stone
To marks in clay and cuts in bone
From papyrus, parchment, paint on silk
To Guttenberg’s bible and printer’s ink
People have recorded knowledge they gained;
Events and mysteries have been explained.
From classic novels to Winnie the Pooh,
A universe of writers wait for you.
And when you walk through a library door
That world is yours to fully explore.
But where doors are closed, our minds may follow
And saving money sounds far too hollow
When future generations will bear the cost
If their doorway to the world is lost.
So I hope the protest of empty shelves
Makes the purse holders ashamed of themselves.
The lack of books
Speaks volumes.

This poem was commissioned by the Friends of Stony Stratford Library.  It’s in the public domain so long as Mark is credited (and you spell his surname correctly).

Mark Niel is one of the main movers of the MK poetry scene, and recently edited (or ‘reluctantly edited’ as it says on the title page) ‘Reflections from Mirror City: a Tongue in Chic anthology’ (TiC, 2010), which featured the work of local and visiting poets at the Tongue in Chic sessions.  Mark has his own website, ‘A kick in the arts‘, and you can find more on the web by using ‘mark niel’ and ‘poet’ in your search engine; those quote marks are functional, not ironic.  ‘Stony faced‘ was premiered at Stony Stratford Library this morning (Saturday, February 4).  it was one of the  contributions to Stony Stratford’s read-in as part of the national day of action in defence of libraries.

In case you missed it, Stony was the library that loaned out all its books; every book was borrowed, leaving empty shelves – a protest that achieved global recognition (no, really).  The struggle continues.  The ‘Save Stony Stratford Library‘ campaign has a Facebook page.  Lillabullero (this here blog) has two previous relevant posts, the first about the birth of the ‘Wot no books’ campaign, and another one, with more about Stony Stratford and my personal contribution to emptying the shelves here.

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OK – what exactly is Stony Stratford and what is it, or is it not, a part of?  It’s fairly obvious the UK media is always willing to take a stab at getting it wrong.  Stony is an old coaching town, an old market town.  In Roman times it was on Watling Street; much later the A5 main road went through the High Street.  There is a certain amount of cock and bull talked about it being the origin of the phrase, “Cock and Bull story”, but what is certain is that in ‘Withnail & I‘ the part of Penrith’s King Henry pub was actually played by The Crown on Market Square, Stony Stratford.  And the Penrith Tea Room, where Richard E. Grant declaimed, “We want the finest wines available to humanity. And we want them here, and we want them now!” is now a branch of Cox & Robinson, the small chemists chain, situated on the same Square.  Just round the corner from the Library as it happens.

Stony is one of the three towns and fifteen villages that became part of the designated area of the New City of Milton Keynes, a new town launched in 1967, the summer of love.  It’s never actually officially been a city, but hey – who needs royal approval?  MK was part of the county of Buckinghamshire, the highest tier of UK local government, responsible for libraries, until 1997, when MK became a unitary authority, taking over that responsibility.  The MK Council area also took in the small towns of Newport Pagnell and Olney to the north, which had been outside the designated area of the New City.  The current status of Buckinghamshire as far as most of the inhabitants of MK goes is neither here nor there, only that of the residual ghost of – a redundant line in – the postal address (although I’m told there is still some resistance to this notion in far-flung Olney).  Stony also has a Town Council – the lowest tier of UK local government, the civil equivalent of a parish council – to do what it can do very locally and, in this instance, hearteningly vocally.

So Stony is a small town within a much much bigger and fast growing town that calls itself a city, even though it can’t give us a decent bus service.  It is MK Council that is trying to close Stony Stratford Library, the third busiest and nowhere near being the costliest in pence per visit terms in MK.  Stony is generally seen (OK, likes to pride itself, but most will agree) as the jewel of Milton Keynes, and no-one can deny that culturally it is significant in the life and identity of the ‘city’.  Losing the library in Stony is unthinkable unless you’re a Lib-Dem MK councillor; I just add in passing that the Lib-Dems have never achieved anything electorally in Stony.  The struggle continues.  For the nitty-gritty you can visit the campaign’s Facebook site.  And here are links to that of the Town Council and the MK11 AboutMyArea pages.

Anyway, in the spirit of this blog and the protest action, these are the books wot I borrowed as part of the globally celebrated ‘Wot no books’ campaign, a campaign which spectacularly emptied the library shelves to international acclaim, even though the full allowance for loans on an MK library ticket is – compared to a lot of other places – a meagre 15.  Being in on the caper I got in fairly early so didn’t have to plump for mere physical objects or Mills & Boons to fill my card.  I would hope this shows the variety and value of what can be found in any half-decent branch library anywhere in the land. I hope and suspect many interesting discoveries and tangents will have been revealed to the citizens of Stony and its surrounds just because they borrowed their full complement for the sake of it.  We shall see.

I already had a couple of splendid books on typography out from the Central Library, along with a rather dull book relating Stony’s history, so here’s what I got:

  • Bill James: Hotbed.  Crime novel set in Cardiff, the Harpur & Iles series one I’d long had a mind to investigate.  Couldn’t get beyond the first paragraph.  I get Agincourt, don’t need to be told it’s “a famous British victory in the fifteenth century.”
  • Locomotives: a complete history of the world’s great locomotives and fabulous train journeys.  Worth a skim as a reminder of what a great variety of industrial design is at play here; shame the photos were so small, hardly any approaching postcard size and many not much bigger than a definitive postage stamp.  One of the fabulous journeys is Bedford to Bletchley.  I kid you not.
  • Simon Barnes: the meaning of sport.  Again, didn’t get far with this one, even though I’d thought it worth a gander for a while.  Utterly pretentious;  I think he knows that and that’s part of what he’s trying to do, but, you know … the pile’s too big
  • Alexei Sayle: Stalin ate my homework.  Comedian’s memoir of growing up in a Communist Party household.  I skimmed it with high hopes, but Alexei was never subtle; there are few belly laughs and there’s little poignancy here.
  • Mark Oliver Everett: Things the grandchildren should know.  Not that you’d realise it from the packaging, but this is the creative guy from the band Eels – a very decent band – whose dad was “a humble mechanic.  A quantum mechanic.”  I’m reading it; could be this is the sort of thing I’m looking for – something fulfilling that I would never have normally picked up were it not for ‘Wot no books’.  Deserves fuller coverage another day, methinks.

And these that follow I haven’t even looked at so far, but I won’t take them back to the library just yet:

  • Done in a flash: 100 speedy wok and stove-top stir fries.  I’m full of good intentions in the kitchen.  Andrea will spot the irony here.
  • Fables: the good prince.  A graphic novel; I used to read a lot of these.  Looks good, lots of colours.
  • Parlour poetry: 100 improving gems.  Because you never know when you might need one.
  • The Stanley Holloway monologues.  Ditto.
  • The essential Groucho.  Marxisms galore.
  • Andrew Collins: That’s me in the corner.  Seems a sensible, entertaining chap in Word magazine.
  • The book of lost books: an incomplete history of all the great books you will never read.  Somehow – remember those empty shelves – the perfect title, in so many ways, to end this post with.  I look forward, of course, to getting lost in it.  (As opposed to leaving it on a train, almost certainly nowhere between – no offence – Bedford and Bletchley.)

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