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Posts Tagged ‘Vaultage’

… to breathe the cultural air around Stony Stratford.  Actually a few evenings, with one delightful Sunday afternoon thrown in too.  Chronologically, going back in time:

John Howarth. ©Pat Nicholson

A Blues theme was declared for late September Vaultage, and main man John Howarth delivered a varied and nicely judged set drawn from the subtler territories of the genre, playing exquisitely, singing sweetly.  An immaculately dressed gentleman sporting the Robert-Johnson-in-that-suit look (sorry, didn’t catch the name)then roughed things up a bit starting with a Howlin’ Wolf number.  Aforesaid well dressed man was wielding one of the two Resonator guitars in evidence – surely a record for at least Vaultage if not the Vaults Bar- but to tell the truth there wasn’t much blueswailing going down.  Indeed, the only harmonica seen was hanging un-played round the neck of another open-micer with one of those harness things.

Was a good evening, but I wish that when estimable MC Pat Nicholson advertises a themed night well in advance, all the participants would at least make a nod to said theme rather than doing their same old stuff; the Goodfellows at least had the grace to add the word ‘blues’ to the titles of a couple of their closely related Americana tunes, so excused.

Your humble scribe made a brief contribution. I kicked off with, “Woke up this morning / Someone told me it was National Poetry Day,” and proceeded to recite W.H.Auden‘s Roman Wall Blues.  The Sensational Alex Harvey does/did it better than me – and to music too:

Viva Vivant

Last Sunday afternoon, two hours of musical delight in York House’s intimate Beechey Room.  Vivant are a violin and melodeon duo.  Together violinist Mark Prescott and melodeon maestro Clive Williams entranced with a repertoire including some of their own compositions,  drawing on the French and English folk and early music traditions.

It was enervating yet relaxing – almost guided meditations – you could close your eyes and drift away; by which I mean bathe your mind with the beautiful patterns so woven.  Not forgetting the brief outbreak of French dancing (well, one couple, but still …) and a couple of weird waltz time signatures that I would never have realised were strange if they hadn’t explained (but then I’ve never managed to consistently count to 5 to Dave Brubeck’s Take Five).  A joy to be in the same room as two superb musicians who were so simpatico.  No higher praise: we bought a CD.

A pints-worth of the Bullfrogs in the Old George on a Friday night deserves a mention too.  All good, but the fiddler adds another dimension to their American southern border states musical mix.

What more can I say about the those Bards of Bugger All, those “paupers of the art world hegemony“, the Antipoet?  Always a joy and never a dull moment giving their all every and anywhere they go.  Invention and irreverence.  Can I remember much about this particular performance?  Apart from ex-Bard Vanessa reprising her contribution to the adaptable epic that is I like girls and the latest barnstormer that is Pointy dancing – No, not really.  Ace, though.  Of course.  Criminal that the lads never get any significant reviews working the festival circuit hard.  Not sure this one adds much either.  Extraordinary what can come out of two men, a full-size double bass and an occasional rusty triangle.  (I may have lied about the rust, but I think you’ll agree it scans better).  For the uninitiated, just stick their name into YouTube and pick at random; you might be there a long time.

Oddness at Scribal Gathering‘s September outing – save for the featured musician it was all spoken word performers, poets even.  An unprecedented absence of musos at an open mic.  Liam ‘Farmer’ Malone delivered a beautifully varied set – both sensitive and scurrilous in turn – in that warm Irish brogue.  His The gun shop is a tour de force of wit and burgeoning disbelief at the escalating armoury available on sale therein.  Elsewhere Justin Thyme’s bravura extended piece attesting that ‘We are all abusers’ was a spellbinding experience (not something you can always say); I’ll admit I may have lost the logic holding it together in the intensity of the delivery, but there’s no doubting that he meant well.

Impressive skills from James Hollingsworth with his ‘looping’ pedalboard, a contemporary update on the concept of a one-man band, performing original material.  “No backing tapes!”  You could get lost in his  ‘Psychedelic Folk Blues’ – and there was excitement to be had when he started hitting things to add some percussion into the mix – though I’ll admit to hankering for a reprise of the old style r&b strut he did for a sound check.

A while ago now, and memory fades, but mention must be made of the Stony Stratford Theatre Society’s Shakespeare’s Greatest Bits upstairs in the local Masonic Lodge’s temple, a potentially inflexible venue used inventively as the players performed excerpts from the wide spectrum of the Bard’s full canon from Titus Andronicus all the way to The Tempest with some sonnets thrown in for good measure.  And a bonus of music from the aptly named Not Two Bees (there were three of them).  Invidious to pick out individual performances, but Bravo! to director Caz Tricks.  Highly enjoyable evening.

Aeons ago now too, the Summer of Love themed Vaultage was good fun.  I’ll have another moan about open-mic-ers ignoring a theme that had been advertised and signalled well in advance, but for now I’ll let it lie and crave another kind of indulgence of my own.  While other performers sticking to the plot did covers (though gord help us from If you’re going to San Francisco) I with no little trepidation recited something I’d written in 1967.  Well an edited version thereof, major embarrassments redacted.  The scene is a room in a tower block, a then state-of-the-art university hall of residence – Sorby Hall in Sheffield, since demolished – the soundtrack almost certainly the John Coltrane Quartet’s My favourite things.  We were expanding our consciousness, ok? I was young:

Outside wind is present around the building
a modern tower M flights high
though A is the basement.
On G a red light; it is night
and rain strikes the window panes.

Focus on the red light inside the building
and let the red light grow out of itself to take in a room.

Five guys sit
in fact one of them lies stretched out
and in the red light
a blue music swells
pure, clear.

And the music is found and the music is black
and the music is round;
flat notes maybe
but even, true.

A kind of ether rests on the five
sitting, lying,
shamelessly indulgent
in the light of that red light
in the night with the wind.

Two of these guys are talking
about technique
and ‘the Bach of our time’
and the ‘intelligence’ of a record.

Two more know
that some of this is what they like
and are discovering more.
And one of their number is asleep.

The ether of the red light
is all-embracing
within the confines of the room
precariously timeless.

 

 

 

 

 

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Calling this piece A memorable Merchant I get to feel like an old sweat of a drama critic, as if I’d seen a few productions of Shakespeare‘s The Merchant of Venice, which is not the case.  But there are moments from the Stony Stratford Theatre Society’s production of the play that stick in my mind over a fortnight after the experience – I’m not the first to call it that – and my memory’s not what it used to be.

The venue – upstairs in the actual Temple of the local Masons’ Lodge (No 1639) (and the stairs were steep and not wide) – is about the size of a thin tennis court, with audience seating two rows either side.  It made for an intimate setting that demanded something special for the enterprise to succeed.  Which it certainly did; there were times when I forgot some of the actors were friends.  Invidious to single out individuals – this was a tremendous ensemble performance – but Bill Handley’s Shylock (bottom right, below) was an absolute stunner, scary in its intensity.

Official photographer Paul hands’ cast shots

As I said, this is a play I’d not seen before, probably down to my shying away from its character’s expressed anti-Semitism.  Which was certainly not shirked here (I was shocked), though precisely because of this Shylock’s ‘If you prick us’ plea was powerful indeed.  “For me,” writes director Caz Tricks in the programme notes, “Shylock is not a bad person but he makes a very bad decision which he then won’t back down from” – locked into his own logic and circumstance, very much a trait of our times too.

It was a modern dress production shaded by a few timeless-cum-period costume hints that pushed us back in time, aided and abetted by the venue’s dark wood fixtures and fittings, in particular the Lord High Poobah’s ornate throne at one end, and a long thin black and white chequered carpet down the centre – a rectangular chess game?  The court scene was electric.  The comedy coda – the Shakespearean unmaskings of disguised identities, the happy ending – brought much relief.

Stony Stratford Theatre Society is, again quoting Caz from the programme, “a mix of professional and amateur actors.  Amateur stems from Latin, amare ‘to love’ and this company loves what we do.”  You could feel they love.   A friend who goes to the Warwickshire Bard’s Stratford a bit said – honest! – it was much better than some she’d seen there.  A triumph.  Bravo Caz Tricks!  Bravo the lot of you!

MK Calling 2017

I don’t go ‘up city’ much anymore.  The usual trigger is the need to replenish the caddy with Whittard’s loose leaf English Breakfast Tea – the only way to start the day.  The absurdity of the idea of ordering such a traditional luxury online is too much to contemplate – it just would not taste the same.  I used to try and combine this essential purchase with a visit to Milton Keynes Gallery.  As explained in the gallery’s press release below, however, this has not been possible for some time now, but at present there is a temporary respite:
This spring, MK Gallery showcases new and exciting work by over 70 emerging and established artists in MK Calling 2017. This exhibition will celebrate and champion the breadth of creativity in and around Milton Keynes and includes a wide range of art forms …
Over the last few months, the Gallery has been examined by architects and builders through digging, drilling and other physical interventions to test the foundations, structure and services in anticipation of its major expansion. For this exhibition, the basic access and health and safety have been temporarily restored to enable the building to be opened up for one last time before construction begins. With the exhibition designed to make the most of the makeshift quality of the building, artists and visitors will have exclusive behind the scenes access to the entire ground floor, including the old workshop, loading bay, shop and other improvised areas.
It made for a fascinating stroll, with, as suggested, all sorts of decent pictures, thoughts and things on show.  I liked Marion Piper’s In Side – “chalk on existing painted wall” – in the loading bay, with the attribution and explication sellotaped to the floor:

 

Anna Berry‘s intriguing Atomize (more details can be found here on her website, from which the full installation photo is lifted: http://www.annaberry.co.uk/3-2/installation-pieces/atomize/) had a particular resonance for me (as well as Anna being a friend) – those MK postcards were on sale where I used to work, I’ve sold and sent a few in my time.  The more detailed photos below are mine (click to enlarge).  Which and/or what exactly are ‘the spaces in between’?

On the way out Clive Doherty’s Percy the hungover robot made me laugh, though coming full circle, the video loop of an overflowing cup of tea (sorry, I’ll give the attribution when I have it) made me shudder:

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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:

2011

2017

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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patti-smith-m-train

Patti Smith’s M Train

Roaming around, my title today, comes from a random dip and blind finger point into Patti Smith‘s M Train (Bloomsbury, 2015), a book that opens with the words, “It’s not so easy writing about nothing“, addressed to her by a cowpoke in a dream.  A malaise is upon her and she’s drifting.  Being Patti Smith she has some interesting options, like a bizarre chat with ex-chess champ Bobby Fischer in Iceland, with Buddy Holly (about as rock and roll as the book gets, actually), and, he stipulates not chess on the agenda.  Or slobbing out to Midsomer Murders and other tv crime repeats, which I find wonderfully reassuring, in a London hotel; big fan of Scandi-crime too.

She drinks a lot of coffee – has her spot in a cafe over the road from her frugal New York apartment, mostly furnished with books.  When the coffee shop guys move to Redondo Beach (yup) to set up there, she visits and buys an old wreck of a house there on impulse (I say, impulse, but she’s not a cash buyer); in the storm that comes in hard later in the year the boardwalks are washed away, his cafe is lost but her house survives.  Along the way she writes with feeling about life with her late husband.  She’s more beat and Euro-bohemian than rock and roll in M Train.  There’s an engrossing trip to Japan.

I admire Patti Smith enormously.  She goes her own modest, decent and powerful way.  I love a lot of her songs, and she’s a compelling performer (when not shrieking).  She is steeped in culture, with and without a capital C.  I’ll admit don’t really get the Polaroid photos that illustrate M Train – my guess is they bear the same relationship to her friend Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographic work as Samuel Beckett’s prose does to his pal James Joyce’s – but this is an absorbing memoir of a year that in other hands would seem self-indulgent and pseud.  I can see myself reading it again, not least to try and catch that fleeting reference to the actual M train to see where she was coming from in choosing her title.

strange-library-01The strange library

One of the springboards of  Patti Smith‘s actions in M Train is the writing of the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami (hell, I was even prompted to pick up a cheap copy of his 600-page Wind-up bird chronicle that I’ll probably never get round to reading as a result).  As it happens, I’ve had a copy of his The strange library (Harvill Secker, 2014) sitting around for a while now (I used to be a librarian), so it seemed an auspicious time to actually read it.  Which I have done twice now – it’s not a big book – and it’s only a struggling to justify itself better judgement that is stopping me playing the emperor’s new clothes card.

strange-library-02It’s certainly a handsome, fascinating and fun exercise in book design, or even art; that library issue pocket on the cover is three-dimensional, there’s, for example, a full-page illustration of 8 variously decorated ring donuts against a pink background and many other enterprising graphic injections, some of the pages show signs of wear, marbled endpapers etc.  Here’s an example of a double-page spread.  Plot line?  A bit of a swot is on his way home from school wondering about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire.  (I know – why?).  He drops into his local library and is led down into a labyrinthine basement where he is abducted and confronted with all sorts of Borgesian creatures, friends and monstrous foes both, and undergoes various trials.  Or various sillinesses, the sceptic in me says.  “All I did was go to the library to borrow some books” is his complaint.

On second reading I began to wonder if I was meant to wonder about each actual choice of word and phrase, something to do with the magic of the written word.  I was struck by the notion of the boy worrying about his pet starling being fed while he was trapped; ridiculous I thought, until I googled it and, yes, it seems people do keep starlings as pets, especially in Japan.  Fantasy horror has never been a genre I’ve managed to live with, so I’m floundering a lot of the time, though I’ll grant a sense of the young hero’s devastation that haunts.  And I worry about that “After that, I never visited the city library again” line near the end.  But The strange library is a splendid object, that I flip through again now, with a strange affection.  Maybe the charity shop will have to wait, after all.

i-capture-the-castleI conquer the castle

No such ambiguity about December’s Book Group book.  I loved Dodie Smith‘s novel I capture the castle (1949) to bits, all suspension of disbelief willingly surrendered to one of the great opening paragraphs:

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea cosy.

I capture the castle is Cassandra’s journal.  The conceit is she’s 17, wants to be a novelist and is recording family life to hone her writing skills.  Hers is a wonderful voice – naive, moral yet seeking wisdom, full of heart and good intentions, modern even – looking forward to Adrian Mole, backwards to Janes Eyre and Austen : “I kept pretending we were in a Victorian novel” she says.  She has an older sister, Rose – “I know she is a beauty. She is nearly twenty-one and very bitter with life. I am seventeen, look younger, feel older.  I am no beauty but have a neatish face.”  At a certain stage she says of her sibling: “And I regret to say there were moments when my deep and loving pity for her merged into a desire to kick her fairly hard.”

It’s an eccentric family in the eccentric setting of an old ruin taking in a castle tower in the country.  Father – Mortmain – once had success as an avant-garde novelist: “Years and years ago wrote a very unusual book called Jacob Wrestling, a mixture of fiction, philosophy and poetry,”  a novel that critics, whom he scorns, have given the label ‘enigmatism’; “he says the American critic has discovered things in Jacob Wrestling that he certainly never put there“.  He’s written nothing for years, their income is practically nothing.   In response to the family’s urging, “His only weapon has been silence – and sometimes a little sarcasm“.  This neat little nod to James Joyce‘s conclusion – “silence, exile and cunning” – in The portrait of the artist as a young man is a nice example of just one of the strands, a look at contemporary artistic circles, of this splendidly exuberant novel.  Mortmain’s second wife, Topaz, was an artist’s model in London taken to expressing risible attitudes, cavorting naked in nature worship, and capable of kind of Topazism it requires much affection to tolerate“.

Nevermind the plot, which involves a rich American family inheriting the pile, with the two young sons thereof doubling as romantic leads, leading to Rose’s pursuit of financial stability through marriage, Cassandra’s poignant discovery of love herself, and how they get Mortmain writing again, along with the progress of various other characters’ storylines … the joy of I capture the castle is in the playful invention (a village called Godsend with a sceptical priest, pets named after Heloise and Abelard) and the voice, Cassandra’s thoughts and voyage of self-discovery.  Here just three prime examples:

As we walked back to the house he asked if I thought La Belle dame sans Merci would have lived in a tower like Belmotte. I said it seemed very likely, though I never really thought of her having a home life.

The last stage of a bath, when the water is cooling and there is nothing to look forward to, can be pretty disillusioning. I expect alcohol works much the same way.

A year ago, I would have made a poem out of that idea. I tried to, yesterday, but it wasn’t any use. Oh, I could think of lines that rhymed and scanned but that is all they were. I know now that is all my poems ever were, yet I used to feel I could leap over the moon when I had made one up. I miss that rather.

But still capable of “She is a good-looking girl. Enormous feet, though“.  How can you resist?  It has a rather lovely ending too.

Roaming around locally

scribal-dec-2016December Scribal: Brian & Krysstal a sublime old style Music Hall or Variety act for the twenty-first century.  Think Hylda Baker and the ‘She knows ya know’ routine and then forget it.  Krysstal the bored gormless glamorous assistant cum straight woman (but with a killer dead pan delivery when left to her own fill-in devices), Brian musically a shambling long-haired filthier Lonnie Donegan combined with a loquacious dash of Tommy Cooper without the fez just for starters.  “They reckon observational comedy is funny, but I can’t see it.”  Probably the funniest act I saw last year.  Immaculate timing.  Try http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6aiSdg0UEc0

we-built-this-cityAt Milton Keynes Central Library until the end of January, and a contribution to the MK 50th anniversary celebrations (yes – celebrations!), We built this city on rock’n’roll is a collage of MK’s musical history – both local and The Bowl as national venue (when we lived on Eaglestone we could hear the guitar lines coming over on the wind) – collated by contemporary local historian Lee Scriven, along with artefacts and a collection of some very fine portrait photography by the man himself of some of the major players in the city’s cultural evolution.  Let’s let him speak for himself:

To some rock n roll is Brylcreem, drainpipes and blue suede shoes, to others like me, it’s a turn of phrase to describe an attitude towards life. The talented, gifted and maverick ensemble of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, who created this city back in the 1970s, possessed a true rock n roll arrogance.
But as you are about to discover, the real pioneering heroes of Milton Keynes were the local residents and personalities who individually and collectively got off their backsides to create a very unique culture. Their collective efforts left more than just memories, they created the City’s cultural DNA and embodied the true spirit of Milton Keynes; be daring, be original and be brave, in other words be: Rock n Roll.

I’m not nit-picking about any of that (well not much, and not right now), though I will say that, for all it’s – and ultimately, I guess, ok, excusable – rhetorical power in this context, I’m still cringing from the thought of that horrible Starship song.  I have always run screaming from it.  Seems I’m not alone in my musical fear and loathing either, of what GQ in this article, called “the most detested song in human history”; beware, though – the fucking thing starts playing of its own accord from that page unless you are careful.  How strangely reassuring to learn Bernie Taupin had a hand in its writing.

No photos of my favourites at Stony Stratford’s New Year’s Day Classic Car Show this year, I’m afraid.  It was pissing down.  Did my duty and went – as hearteningly did plenty of others – but kept my camera dry.

Enough!  But just for the record, the launch of the Stony Bardic Trials at the library on Lantern Parade and Lights switch-on day and a Vaultage:

mitchell-taylor-at-bardic-launch

An intense Mitchell Taylor sans guitar. Photo (c) Bardic Council.

bardic-council-of-ss-photo-liam-farmer-malone

Liam ‘Farmer’ Malone. Photo (c) Bardic Council.

vaultage-early-dec-2016


 

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a strip of fly paper,” says the sage in the first book I mumble about here, “Every thought, however fleeting and inconsequential, sticks to it.”  But later for that.

Languor, laxity (spell-check suggests laxative), and a lack of discipline in the powerful face of television narratives – yea, even unto Lovejoy and Pie in the sky, the unique qualities of which were hidden from me first time around – those things and a tendency for procrastination, combined with the regular practice of grand-parentry, all these things cry out for a timely return to the brevity that once existed here on Lillabullero.  Well, that’s the intention anyway.

garden-of-evening-mistsThe Garden of Evening Mists

Tan Twang Eng‘s novel The garden of evening mists (2012) was last month’s Book Group book.  In as much as we probably talked more about this book – without going off at tangents – than any other, it certainly engaged most of us, but I wasn’t the only one who concluded after all the discussion that my mixed feelings and confusion about it remained un-un-mixed, albeit with amendments therein.  And life is too short for a clarifying re-read.

But I’m not sorry to have given the book its reading time, though.  Those critics’ words on the cover certainly apply some of the time (though Reading Group members didn’t necessarily agree to which parts).  Rich and indeed over-rich similes abound (you can judge for yourself later on here).  It’s set in Malaya, and one gets to feel and learn a lot about the place, its history, and the times.  Senses are mobilised: the garden, the tea plantation, the mountains, the rain forest.

There are three time-lines running for Yun Ling, a recently retired Cambridge educated judge suffering from the early stages of aphasia, who is the narrative centre of the book.  It has to be said for a long time I had to keep reminding myself she’s a woman; the author is a man.  It’s a curiously detached voice a lot of the time.  Anyway, (mid-1980s?) she returns to the place in the country where many years previously she had spent time with the remarkable Arimoto, a Japanese gardener who is introduced with the book’s humdinger opening line: “On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan.”  In order to counter her aphasia she chronicles her time spent as his apprentice during the anti-Communist emergency in the 1950s.  Both time streams hark back to her earlier traumatic experiences as a teenager in a Japanese slave camp in World War 2, with various characters, and/or their friends or relatives tangling relationships over all three.  I’m abdicating on the actual plot details.

Quite where Arimoto fits in with the grand historical narrative of Japan’s war effort – what one Book group member rather harshly described as “the descent into Dan Brown territory” – is ambiguous, but his is the remarkable presence that dominates the book.  He’s a master gardener in the classic Japanese tradition – loads of fascinating detail about shakkei, or “borrowed scenery” and the like –  who ritually starts the day with a bit of zen in the art of archery (but is also taking blood pressure tablets).  He and Yun Ling become lovers but of that side of their life nothing is revealed.  Having spoken of the philosophy of Lao Tzu he just one day – the garden is finished? – makes a Lao Tzu-like disappearance and Yun Ling returns to Kuala Lumpar until when the novel starts.  His sketches (oh yeah, he did that pretty well too) play a big part in the final action.

It’s a novel of increasing moral complexity, a bit of a thriller, a spiritual fable and a consideration of the notion of memory, detached and yet in its setting sumptuous, a haunting sequence of tableaux running back and forth.  Along the way you get a look at the small details of imperialism and colonialism, and racial and community tensions in Malaya: a ‘banana’? – a Chinese who was yellow on the outside, white inside.  The conduct of the British in the Boer War is thrown into the mix, and I was ignorant about the Malayan Emergency of the ’50s, when the Brits (yup, us again) reined in the (British trained) Communist brigades who had been, in Malaya, the ones who successfully fought against the Japanese on the ground.  There is an extraordinary tale within a tale of a Japanese flying instructor falling in love with the young man who was scheduled to fly the last kamikaze mission of the war; and of the proud aircraft designer angry about the sloppy production values that were allowed in the making of the planes that the kamikaze pilots flew.  All sorts of details like these make for a fascinating, if at times frustrating book.  And I haven’t even mentioned horimono, the Japanese art of whole body tattoos.

I mentioned the language, the similes, earlier.  Fine writing, sheer poetry, or, oh give it a rest, won’t you?  Just three of my responses to stuff like this:

In the shallows, a grey heron cocked its head at me, one leg poised in the air, like the hand of a pianist who had forgotten the notes to his music.

He skims a large magnifying glass over the first print, distorting the shapes and colours beneath like the lights of a city skyline seen through a rain-splattered window.

he pointed to the barbed wire strung around the fence. ‘A weed that is strangling the country. It seems to have sprouted everywhere.’

talking-to-the-deadTalking to the dead

So much for the brevity of which I spoke.  Which means the second book here gets short shrift where normally I might have given it more time and sprayed choice quotes all over the place.  But Harry Bingham‘s Talking to the dead (Orion, 2012) is the first of a sequence and there’s a fair chance I shall be returning to the young peppermint tea drinking Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths’ professional and social life soonish.

The locale is a recognisable Cardiff and surrounds (where my wife comes from).  Fiona – Fi – tells her tale in the present tense, and there’s a nice taste of the Philip Marlowe at the back of her.  If you like the sound of:

I got a note this evening. Through my letterbox. It said, WE KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE.’
That’s a bit of a cliché, isn’t it?’
I wasn’t asking for literary criticism.’

or this, arising from a text from a suspect on a phone she shouldn’t be using professionally:

I love everything about that message. I like the fact that it’s properly spelled and punctuated. I like the repetition of ‘fuck off’. Not elegant, but pithy, and you can give me pith over elegance every day of the week.

then I’m guessing you’re open to her crime fighting tales, stretching the bounds of credibility as the plot and action do at various points (like her escape of disciplinaries for starters – “I don’t think the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed DC Griffiths would thank me for fessing up to her evil twin, the house-breaking, phone-stealing, bad DC Griffiths“) as the story unfolds.

So yes, she’s – that inevitable word for a fictional female cop – feisty; and sassy with it too.  But also vulnerable, because her main ‘thing’ – fictional detectives have to have a ‘thing’ – is that for two of her teenage years she suffered from Cotard’s Syndrome, an extreme manifestation of depersonalisation, a feeling that you don’t exist, that you are dead.  In Talking to the dead she spends an extraordinary clandestine night in the room in the mortuary where two victims in the case’s bodies are being kept, but there is reassuringly no hint of the supernatural.  Fi’s struggles with the experience of living on what she calls ‘Planet Normal’ are nicely done.  Her other two ‘things’ are a secret buddy and guru – Lev, ex-Israeli secret service martial arts expert she met at Cambridge while getting her philosophy degree (not that you’d notice) – and her close family, including a dad, whose current success and local helpful influence was not exactly achieved by legitimate lawful means (but we don’t talk about that), and a cod Welsh mum.

The crimes are unpleasant – people smuggling, sex trade, high-level gangsterism – but related with candour and compassion.  As a police procedural it struck me as refreshing – “I have no musical taste at all” – effective and fun.

Musical adventures

scribal-oct-2016vaultage-mid-oct-2016Before the proceedings kicked off at the October Scribal I think I saw spoken word artist Rob Auton taking a close-up of the mic on his phone, begging the question, among many, of the existence of some sort of archive.  Wednesday’s Wolves – all two of them – scored with some great harmonies on original material and showed how a cajon can be a musical instrument, more than just percussion, in its own right.  Rob started with a more frenetic version of his delightfully exercise in logical absurdity Heaven food than the one on YouTube.  With Rob you’re never quite sure where (or if) the stage persona ends.  He wandered away from the mic at times.  He said about how his nephew had learnt the word ‘orange’ since he’d last seen him, and wondered to himself: What have you done in that time?  Which hit home vis-a-vis the grandparenting.  He finished with A letter from Father Christmas, a long piece from his Sleep show; after the entertainment a brave and vulnerable work-out way beyond self-help book territory: “As a gift to me I would like you to attempt to become as comfortable within yourself when you are awake as you are when you are asleep.”

At the mid-October Vaultage John Howarth managed to be both suitably raw and skillfully accomplished in a set taking in blues, township and more sophisticated African musics – nice one.  (Co-headliner on the poster was a no-show).  Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize announcement earlier that day was celebrated by the performance of his When the ship comes in at dirge-like speed; anonymity to protect the guilty, but it wasn’t Pat.

ss-shak-400willie-the-shakeSweeter than Roses one Saturday at York House saw the welcome return of Mr Simpson’s Little Consort to York House, featuring a programme of music and readings from Shakespeare and others.  This evening mostly as a consort of viols (small, medium and large; treble, tenor and a couple of bass viols, one with a pleasing figurehead of piratical appearance) and featuring soprano Cate McKee.  Entertainment, a touch of education, and much charm.  A couple of numbers – described as “mad music” – featured the bass viols up against one another.  A sort of Tudor Duelling banjos.

A week later, same venue, someone had to do the actual Duelling banjos in a very different musical landscape.  The fifth and broader flavoured Stony Breakdown featured five bands coming at Americana refreshingly from a variety directions of country and bluegrass.  Standouts for me were a couple of the guitarists – some classic country picking from he of the Jackson Creek Band (all the way from Cambridge) and stylings taking in Django Reinhart and country swing from John Lee (who I’d only known before leading a jazz group from the keyboards) with Oakland County.  It all blurs a bit in the memory, but hard to forget Stained Glass Blue Grass’s fine bluegrassification of Neil Sedaka’s Breaking up is hard to do; of course we joined in.  Take a bow, too, the Rocky Road Pilgrims and the Band of Brothers.  And that pint of Bucks Star’s Magnovinium 45, a dark ale, went down a treat.

Another brevity fail, then …

 

 

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instructions-for-a-heatwaveWhen does a novel become a historical novel?  How many years can/should have passed after the writing before you can legitimately call it that?  When the author has to do the background research?  What if the events are still vivid in the reader’s mind (or so they think)?  I only ask because in the notes at the back of the Richard & Judy Book Club edition I just read of  Instructions for a heatwave (originally published 2013), author Maggie O’Farrell says she was only four years old in 1976, when the novel is set.  And I thought I remembered that time well.

First the book, which I read voraciously once I got started, all plot reservations suspended for the duration (and which I’m not going to pick at).  Michael, Monica and Aoife are the son and daughters of the Riordans, an Irish couple who emigrated to England after the war.  They have all long flown the nest, but return to the parental home in North London when their father goes out for a paper one morning and fails to return.  Their mother, at first a wonderfully drawn comic Irish mother, is all over the place; and as things develop she loses that comic patina.  The solution to the mystery lies back in the home country, where they eventually travel.  There is some lovely description of a remote cottage and its environs, where they stay, and remembrance of family holidays spent there.

But the real power of the book comes in the siblings’ relationships, and in turn their’s over the years with their mother; except for his absence, the father hardly figures, now I come to think of it.  Michael and Monica’s marriages are in different states of crisis, while the much younger Aoife, who was not an easy child, with problems of her own, has been leading an edgy bohemian existence in New York.  Their stories and crucially their shifting alliances are thrillingly told both in a series of passages as we see through their eyes how each sibling got to here, and through their interaction, conversations and individual acts as the novel progresses over the course of four intense days in July.  And when I say thrilling I’m not talking car chases; rather family secrets and dramatic old misunderstandings uncovered, and burgeoning self-discovery, warmth and kindness.  Seems that for this sort of thing three siblings is the magic number.  Bit of a spoiler: the actual outcome, the future, is left open, though it’s hopeful, to say the least.

Instructions for a heatwave has four sections – each day as the action unfolds is heralded by excerpts from the Drought Act introduced by the government to deal with the chronic water shortages brought on by an unprecedented heatwave that year.  That heat is ever-present in the novel  but it is not over-worked or used as a grand metaphor (and, again, spoiler alert, there is no liberating rainstorm at its conclusion), rather it is used to ground it in time.  Michael’s thwarted academic career, for instance, is a function of the morals of the age.  The IRA mainland bombing campaign was also active, and there’s a short but telling passage in Instructions that reflects the suspicion and animosity the sound of an Irish accent could arouse (something an Irish colleague of mine at work back then suffered).  Again, in the Q&A at the back of the paperback I have, Maggie O’Farrell, whose parents emigrated when she was 4, declares herself “wary of producing something fake and ‘Eiresatz’“, of not wanting to write “the literary equivalent of the Irish-theme pub“.  No, there’s a richness here that seems real enough to me.

But I was so sure …

I thought I had very specific memories of the summer of 1976, of the unbearable heat.  I was living in London, in a shared flat just off Baker Street and the heat off the tarmac and pavements was unrelenting.  I’ve often told people that was the first time I’d set foot in a hairdresser’s for a proper shearing for nearly a decade – well, a multi-sex salon on the Edgware Road; hard times for barbers in those days.  I’ve got a timeline I’ve worked up on a spreadsheet; I checked it to see where I was working, what else I might have been doing that year, and it would appear I’d moved up to Tufnell Park by then.  So all my supposed memories of the 1976 heatwave actually apply to the year before, which, to quote a weather website, “was one of the ten warmest summers of the 20th century, though it was beaten thereafter (comprehensively) by 1976, 1983 & 1995”.

Anyway, so back in George Street in the summer of 1975, windows wide open we’d do rain dances and chant along to Traffic‘s Rainmaker, from the aptly titled Low spark of high-heeled boys:

and, despite the somewhat contradictory lyrics of the chorus – “Rain, rain, go away / come again another day” no less – Mike Nesmith‘s version of another song called Rainmaker, one of Harry Nilsson’s that comes with a twist worthy of a Mark Twain short story, from his Nevada Fighter album:

When it did finally rain we went out and frolicked in the street.

As it happens I have no specific memory of the heatwave of ’76 even though it was so much worse, and it was a pretty momentous year for me in other ways; nor does A.  Similarly, for what it’s worth, I’m mystified when older people, and indeed people of my generation go on about the long drawn-out winter of 1963, the big freeze and deep snow that stayed.  Even though it was a three-mile bike ride for me on mostly country lanes to school, the best memory I can dredge up is not personal but of an oft-dragged out in documentaries film clip of a snow-plough train itself getting stuck in the snow in Scotland.

Back in October, 2016 …

tony-hill-at-vaultage

Tony Hill at Vaultage © Tony Hill

vaultage-oct-early-2016A jolly fine set from Tony Hill at the recent Vaultage.

All his own stuff bar one cover (that was new to me), he book-ended the slower “heartfelt” stuff with a couple of driven, rockier, songs, deftly constructed with the effective employment of a loop pedal, delivered to much acclaim.  I say “heartfelt” in speech marks because that’s the word that’s used on his website, and I can’t come up with anything better.  Great singing and playing, emotion, charisma and good vibes.  The website (http://tonyhillmusic.com/) carries a neat video with storyline of Bones, one of those quicker numbers.

Taylor Smith, a trio on the day, with the cajonist (I wish I could remember her name) singing sort of cello parts to great effect behind the outstanding Blood of St George – a song that serves as a suitable riposte to the nationalistic nonsense heard at the Tory Party conference last week.

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david-gates-jerniganIf I only had one word to describe David Gates‘s novel Jernigan (1992), that word would be sour.  With the amount of alcohol consumed Peter Jernigan has to be that literary beast the unreliable narrator, but at the end we find there’s even more to it than that.  Still makes for a compulsive read though, and I might just read it again (it’s relatively short, 238 pages) some time.  Naturally he’s an anti-hero, albeit with a nicely sardonic sense of humour and self-knowledge – “I had my usual thoughts about everything being debased” – when he’s not being a complete arsehole; not so much a bad man as one circumstances and life choices have made less than good most of the time.  At least he isn’t physically violent.

Jernigan is a tale of the American suburbs.  It tells of a massive bender, its pre-history and its consequences.  After a family tragedy, and engineered by his somewhat problem teenage son and his even more damaged girlfriend, Peter Jernigan moves in with her mum, Martha.  Who has a secret that blows up in her – in all their – faces one nightmare Christmas Eve, which sends him off on a desperate lone drunken drive to a remote cabin in a snow storm, said adventure proving near fatal.  Before he sets out, Martha has offered:

‘You believed exactly what you wanted to believe, Peter,’ she said. ‘Did you actually think there were all these nice wholesome families just ready and waiting for you to come along?  You’re a drunk whose drunk wife killed herself.  And you want to know something really pathetic?  You looked good to me.’

Cheerful, eh?  Somewhere in it all there had been some good intentions – and actions – on both sides, a dab of compassion here and there.  A previous argument, after he’s lost his job:

‘Peter, my only vision was that whatever you did you might get some enjoyment out of your life for a change.  I should’ve – I mean, everything I knew was literally screaming that you were incapable of any sort of joy whatever.’
Should I say figuratively?  Better not.  ‘A trenchant analysis,’ I said.
‘Fuck you too.’
‘Trenchanter and trenchanter,’ I said.  ‘Repartee City around here this morning.’

Ah, that job.  Taken as a short-term measure after graduation and an interesting student existence all those years ago, and challenged about it by his father, an artist, the last time he saw him before his death, to:

… tell me what the hell you’re doing as an assistant vice shoeshine boy at some outfit that’s doing its bit to help squeeze the working man out of New York City.  Not to mention the painting man.’
‘The money is fine … it beats junior professor money.’

OK, his father, who is interesting:

I mean, he was Francis Jernigan and everything, but the real money got made off of stuff he’d let go for a couple of thousand dollars in like 1952.  My mother split in 1956, he boozed from then until ’64 or ’65 … You know, what can I say?  By then it was all Andy Warhol or something …

Peter makes a sort of pilgrimage with his son to the deeply rural location where his father had lived (and died in a fire).  His alcoholic lack of self-worth is relentless:

It amounted to a moral failing not to have learned the names of trees.  It amounted to a moral failing, too, that this landscape looked dead and tattered to me, instead of sternly beautiful.

At a certain point he puts a bullet through the webbing between his own thumb and index finger.  He tells us:

That’s Jernigan all over: first you swallow a bunch of drugstore anodynes and then you want to feel something and then you bitch and moan because it hurts.

Jernigan is – for all its pain and misery – a sustained, unrelenting and compulsively readable literary tour de force.  I have barely scratched the surface of its characters or hinted at the intriguing cultural breadth of references.  It is only in the last couple of pages that the occasion of its composition – of how and why Jernigan is writing it – is revealed, involving a small act of rebellion that one cannot help but acknowledge and semi-reluctantly cheer; I’m not giving anything away.  But so absorbing was Jernigan to me that that ending was an inducement to start all over again.

Where Richard YatesRevolutionary Road documented the sterility of the ’50s American suburbs and signalled the necessity, the inevitability, of the social changes of the ’60s, David GatesJernigan inhabits the toxicity of the same locales in the decades following on after, as Neil Young so eloquently put it, the goldrush.

I may or may not thank David Gates for bringing Wallace Stevens’ long and at first glance difficult though intriguingly titled poem The comedian as the letter C to my attention, and I’ll willingly admit to never having heard of the country singer Webb Peirce, mention of whose music crops up every now and them.  Don’t let this put you off:

Words and music
closer to home

aortas-sept-2016scribal-sept-2016poetical-vaultage-sept-16Conjunctions of the planets in the night sky excite astronomers almost as much as astrologists (or vice versa), but the vagaries of the calendar meant the three premier Stony open mics all happened within the space of 5 days.  Warning: may contain in-jokes.

And now a diversionary dip into cultural archaeology.  I was going to say I was going to do a Friends on this one, you know, the way they gave each episode a title that started either ‘The one where …’ or ‘The one when …’ or ‘The one with …’ but I remembered that maybe that wasn’t necessarily the provenance.  It was a device that Bobbie Ann Mason had used in her memorable In country novel of 1985, about a Vietnam vet travelling across the US to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, when they were talking about episodes of (was it?) M.A.S.H.  (There are always some books you live to regret including in the charity shop cull, aren’t there?).  And it had occurred to me then, when I’d first noticed what they were doing with the Friends episode titles, whether someone involved in Friends had read In country and nearly a decade later thought Yea, let’s go with that.  (Did I mention it’s a powerful novel?)  I’d like to think so, rather than the more mundane explanation that that’s just the way people talk about show episodes anyway; though kudos for adopting it anyway.  It’s just that I like to see the connections.

So, AORTAS – collage ©Dan Plews – mostly the usual suspects (no bad thing), but distinguished by being (at greater length than the classic form): the one when the dog disgraced itself; the one when we had fun at the back injecting the word ‘chainsaw’ into song titles (“For the times, they are a chainsaw”); the one where Stephen Hobbs performed a story about a parsnip (and people listened).

Scribal Gathering: the one when Jonathan was stuck on the M25 and Mark had to kick things off totally acoustically; the one when both members of the Straw Horses managed to be in the house at the same time (exquisite and immaculate harmonies); the one when Ian Freemantle returned to fight the good fight of the working men of England, rhythmically and righteously in his own distinctive way; the one when Stephen Hobbs explained why for him August is the cruellest month and moaned about not getting a mention lately here on Lillabullero (but I’m not falling for that one, oh no) (though the temptation to spell his name wrong is great); the one that finished with the accomplished James Hollingsworth delivered a mesmerising and rousing paen to Thomas More’s Utopia (another 400th anniversary of 2016) aided by a tape delay (or was it just a big echo) on his guitar.  And that wasn’t all; yes, it was a good one.

The Antipoet at Vaultage was always going to be interesting.  Fully costumed bassman Ian striding down the High Street double bass in hand in his high-heeled platforms evoked a cheer from some builders on tour before he’d even reached the Vaults. “We’ve done these all better,” said a ‘slightly tipsy’ Paul Eccentric (I’m quoting the Antipoet management here) through the giggles at one stage.  Not exactly entirely their usual crowd  but they had a good time – “an audience you want to take home with you” (ibid) as did we.  Raucous, anarchic, with a skillful element of crowd control on display.  Ian in full gimp mask for the start of Sign of the times, which must have been hot.  Stony Bard Vanessa Horton stood in for the ailing Fay Roberts (archivists please note – get well soon, ma’am), with her own salty set, then adding a fresh contribution and slant to the annals of the Antipoet’s I like girls.  Hot and knackered I’m afraid I left early – apologies to those performing after the Lads.

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