Posts Tagged ‘Vaultage’

Not quite the sheep thing, exactly.  Newly widowed (nay, liberated) Cora Seaborne first meets, unannounced, William Ransome, married vicar of Aldwinter, in 1893, as they dramatically mud-wrestle to rescue a sheep stuck in the greasy mire on a river bank near a rural Essex village.  Surprise, surprise, when next she next meets him – the anonymous scruffy creature from the black lagoon – he turns out to be head of the family she’d previously arranged to stay with in Essex (friend of a friend).

There’s a quote among those singing its praises in the 2017 paperback edition of Sarah Perry‘s The Essex serpent (Serpent’s Tail [of course!], 2016) wondering whether, “Had Charles Dickens and Bram Stoker come together to write the great Victorian novel” it would have bettered the book we had in our hand.  There are big elements of Dickens in The Essex serpent, particularly in the Colchester passages (a disabled beggar – a real ‘character’ – minding a town house half-ruined courtesy of a recent earthquake early on, who also has a significant part to play near the end), but, as JD at Book Group sagely suggested, it would do no harm to throw George Eliot into the mix as well.

It’s pretty soft gothic as far as the Bram Stoker elements go.  There have been sightings of something, the return, worried villagers are suggesting, of a creature of local legend, documented back to the sixteenth century, maybe occasioned, let loose, by aforementioned earthquake, and the fear of those who fear the worst (many of them in the vicar’s congregation) and what it may portend, is real enough.

Against this background deep in the heart of The Essex serpent is a love story.  More than one, actually, as the story broadens out and travels back to London giving us a couple of deeply thwarted hopes too.  All good stuff, and you care about these people.  But with Cora and Will it is a relationship that must overcome barriers of a philosophical and spiritual nature We both speak of illuminating the world, but we have different sources of light, you and I” says Cora, and the challenge enervates him – never mind questions of morality.  In a neat twist – as far as the mysterious creature goes – it is vicar Will, with Marx and Darwin on his bookshelves, who is the rationalist as far as the serpent goes, appalled at the evangelist doom-criers, while Cora, paleontologist and big Mary Anning fan, is holding on to the hope of a living fossil, an Essex equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster.  She chides his faith:

‘Yes – a shame. That in the modern age a man could impoverish his intellect enough to satisfy himself with myth and legend …’ […]
‘I’ve turned my back on nothing – I have done the reverse. Do you think everything can be accounted for by equations and soil deposits? I am looking up, not down.’ There again was another of those little alterations in the air, as if the pressure had dropped, and a storm was coming: each was aware of having grown angry with the other, uncertain why.

There is plenty else going on though.  Poverty, slum clearance, street violence, philanthropy, the matter of socialism (with a guest appearance from Eleanor Marx, echoing the Pre-Raphaelites’ appearance in John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s woman, not the books’ only shared vibe).  Not forgetting pioneering surgical techniques, cutting-edge stuff in the face of the medical establishment.  All these themes are convincingly brought to life by a broad array of precisely drawn characters from across the social spectrum, millionaire to beggar.  Will’s autistic son’s existence is freed-up up by Cora introducing him to the Sherlock Holmes stories, while Will’s wife has a classic Victorian wasting malady fuelling an ultimately telling (and significant plot-wise) obsession collecting things of a blue hue.

After a slow start – all atmosphere and slow action – The Essex serpent romps along nicely, with promptly delivered letters (it is 1893) helping the narrative along nicely.  Sarah Perry has a lovely turn of phrase, sometimes pithy, sometimes poetic.  Here a neat bit of scene setting with “… a thicket of hanging baskets in which daffodils and primroses jostled bad-temperedly for space. The day was fine, as if the sky regretted the slow release of winter’s grip“; there a relationship sweetly nailed, as with the vicar’s wife, the man himself and her mother: “She felt then, and felt still, a fond pity for any woman who had not had the sense to marry her Will. Her mother had lived long enough to be disappointed in her daughter’s failure to be disappointed.”  Cora explains that Martha (her paid companion) “… is a socialist. Well: sometimes I think we all must be, when it comes down to it, if we have a grain of sense – [Lillabullero smiles, silently punches the air] but for Martha it’s as much a way of life as Matins and Evensong to the good Reverend here.”

The relationship of Cora and Will [no spoilers] is beautifully nuanced.  I am floored by a sentence like, “In the end it comes down more or less to this: she does not write, because she wants to.”  Ah, the aforementioned letters, but: “It was indecent – he was at his best sealed in an envelope – that he was so unavoidably a thing of blood and bones made it impossible to ignore the strong pulse beating in her neck …” Even so, I don’t feel melodrama at all.  Incidentally, in passing flirt, Will gives Cora (and us, well new to me, anyway) an admirable birdspotting tip: “‘I’m not as good with birds as I’d like,’ he said, ‘though I can tell you the blue tit wears a highwayman’s mask, and the great tit wears the black cap of the judge that’s going to hang him.’”

Near the end Will has gone “down to the river mouth, to Leviathan’s black bones, and looked out at the estuary, willing the serpent up from the deep to swallow him down like Jonah. By the rivers of Essex I sat down and wept, he thought…”  Eventually Cora, back in London, writes back to him:

Yesterday I walked to Clerkenwell in the morning and stood by the iron gate where the Fleet flows, and listened and imagined I heard the waters of all the rivers I have known – the head of the Fleet at Hampstead where I played when I was young, and the wide Thames, and the Blackwater, with its secrets that were hardly worth keeping.

(Which, of course, they were … to the book). 

I was moved by The Essex Serpent – good for mind and soul – to the extent that I don’t feel it that inappropriate that this passage had me singing I’ve known rivers to myself, Gary Bartz’s musical setting of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’ The negro speaks of rivers, which is always worth reading or hearing.  Here’s Courtney Pine’s take, from his Modern day jazz stories album, featuring Cassandra Wilson:

Vaultage – the last hurrahs!

For now, anyway.  Damn virus.  Simon Stafford has as immaculate a taste (in late ’60s & early ’70s artists’ music) as his skilled guitar playing is tasteful, and his customised treatment of the songs from that era – classic (or ought to be) – always hits the spot.  Crazy Horses’s I don’t want to talk about it, Neil Young’s Harvest moon, a spellbinding take on Dylan’s Girl of the north country, Tom Waits’ Tom Traubert’s blues (Waltzing Matilda and all).  And an arresting interpretation of Van Morrison’s Tupelo honey.

Interval: That feeling when, because you’ve never really heard the words of Tupelo honey until hearing Simon do it, you purchase The essential Van Morrison CD (I’ve got a few, but …) and one third of the way in on CD2 you discover a devotional duet with Cliff Richard; though soon we’re into Real, real gone, so a quick recovery.  And while we’re here, a compilation of performances from Ready, Steady, Go – sixth form Fridays long ago – on BBC4 the other Friday: the sheer presence of a young Van Morrison, still fronting Them, and Jerry Lee Lewis pounding the piano really stuck out; oh, and, I suppose, a reminder of why the Rolling Stones once meant something.

Paul Manning – my last in the flesh musician. So worth a photo (© Pat Nicholson)


And Lillabullero’s last pub pint for a while too. Cheers for now.  Be safe.

But back to the last Vaultage. Most of the usual suspects thinking this is the last for a while.  Great evening.  Massed singing of No woman, no cry among others, courtesy Paul Manning.  Heart warming set.  Farewells at the close – peacefully clashing elbows (remember, that’s what we were told).

Take care, all.



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A month ago now (yes, Lillabullero is lagging behind again) I came home from what in days of yore would have been called “an illustrated lecture” about the Peterloo massacre of 1819 and I was angry: they were wearing their Sunday best, had gone out of their way to behave as peaceable loyal citizens, but still got brutally attacked by the powers that be.  So I came home and caught up with the final episode of The trial of Christine Keeler on the telly and got angrier still.  I mean, I knew Stephen Ward, abandoned by his establishment friends, was stitched up by the police (under instruction from above), but quite how blatantly came as a surprise; never mind the mauling young Christine received, not least by the prosecution in court.

Still in catch-up mode I then gave the Dolly Parton – Here I am documentary shown at Christmas a spin, and some equilibrium was restored before going to bed.  Intelligence, wit, compassion, that voice, and such great songs.  What a life!  50 years married and hardly any of the musicians and industry people she’s worked with have ever met him – that is how to do celebrity and private life.  She knew exactly what she was doing with her chest – a career move – and she won, she don’t give a damn what they say ’bout that.  Then there’s her literacy campaigning, her Imagination Library free books project.  It’s a wonderful story.  And she’s always been a great storyteller.  Here’s one of the earlier, incredibly brave, songs:

StonyWords 2020 

That Peterloo lecture was part of this year StonyWords, Stony Stratford’s own literary festival.  Robert Poole was speaking to Peterloo: the English uprising – also title of his substantial and definitive study published last year for the 200th anniversary by the OUP.  I learnt at lot, particularly, as I say, about who the protesters were, what exactly they were aiming for and how they hoped to achieve it, only to be undone by the authorities’ paranoid fear of what had happened in France, the bloody revolutionary chaos of a quarter of a century previously.  There were those who had fought at Waterloo only 4 years earlier on both sides, those still in uniform hacking down those in their Sunday best.  The aftermath, the cover-ups, were instructive too.

Peterloo continued

Robert Poole is listed in the credits as ‘Historian’ in the graphic novel Peterloo: witnesses to a Massacre (New Internationalist, 2019), along with Polyp (‘artwork’) and Eva Schlunke (‘script editor’), and a fine depiction of events it makes, along with 12 pages of annotation.  Powell praised the graphic form for its ability to economically portray different points of view simultaneously on the same page.  School history lessons – the topic is a must, surely – would be enlivened if more textbooks were like this.

From page to stage as Stony Stratford Theatre Society presented Peterloo: protest, democracy, freedom, an evening of readings taken from witnesses and contemporary accounts of the massacre and its aftermath – blatant establishment cover-ups and prosecutions – selected and assembled by Rob Gifford, further greatly aided and abetted with suitable music from a small group led by Paul Martin, who also composed much of it (exit to Bacup and Rochdale Coconut dances).  What happened at Peterloo really should have a more prominent place in the national narrative.

If you count the Bardic Trials (previously mentioned in despatches) which kicked off the series of events I made it to a handful more of the two dozen events that were part of StonyWords.  Thanks to curators Rob and Liz Gifford of this parish.


Kevin Crossley-Holland told us how Seahenge: a journey (Kailpot Press, 2019), his new verse cycle, had evolved from the idea of adding a new section – recognising the import of Seahenge’s discovery, suddenly exposed by the elements near to where he lives – to a possible reprint of The stones remain: megalithic sites of Britain (1989), an earlier collaboration with photographer Andrew Rafferty.  Whereas the latter featured purely figurative black and white photography, Rafferty described how he had gone about creating – without any digital mucking about – the atmospheric impressionistic images that grace Seahenge, citing and showing examples of painter Howard Hodgkin’s work as a big influence (Hurray, said I, who have one of his as my PC wallpaper).  They gave us an absorbing performance, the verses read over colour slides.  In the discussion after, the author, talking about his creative process, described a page from a notebook he kept:  “Poetry is music,” he said, “but there are distractions.” (Thanks for my title, Kevin).

King Arthur

Medievalist Nicholas Higham was entertaining, talking to his latest book, King Arthur: the making of the legend (Yale UP, 2018), wherein he rubbishes (academically, you understand) all the posited theories as to where the legend might have sprung from over the centuries in history, from the Classical world to Geoffrey of Monmouth via Wales, and beyond – he has always been a fictional character.  Much merriment when he concluded, You’re better off simply citing Walt Disney or Monty Python’s Spamalot.

The Butcher & Mrs Bennet

Stony Play Readers gave us a rehearsed reading of The Butcher and Mrs Bennet telling the tale of … what it says on the poster.  Much disliked lady of the manor, back in 1694 – did she fall or was she pushed (or worse)?  Playwrights Mike Dore and Joe Laredo set it up as a mock trial by television of the accused butcher (although somehow the victim herself also appeared in the studio, storming off the set crying character assassination or similar).  Much comic mileage from the BBC production crew as things progressed.  Audience, cheering, jeering, as jury: not guilty.  Of course.  Fascinating bit of local history brought to life.

Peter Pan in Stonyland

And so, finally, to the (can I now call it traditional? – too soon?) “little town panto”.  Peter Pan in Stonyland featured on stage representatives from (at least) eight decades of Stony inhabitants.  Yup, great fun, from the Panto Audience Inspectors, checking out if we had a decent enough laugh to pass muster to be allowed to watch, through to a spirited performance of an “If I were not a … (insert occupation) … a (ditto) I would be” sequence, in which, on the night we went at least, no one was injured.  All the usual thrills, spills, bad puns and local references.  Long may the panto, and the Stony Stratford Theatre Society run.

And, back in the normal run of things …

Scribal and Vaultage

Sad to say, the last Scribal Gathering until further notice.  Unfortunately the regular venue has been lost; the pub had a better offer.  A goodie to go out with, nevertheless.  Naomi as charming and powerful as ever, Paul Rainey’s hilarious continuing saga of office life (it’s the way he tells it), Donna all over the place in a good way.  Not sure I’ve specifically mentioned her before, but I raise my glass (or tea cup) to Danni Antagonist, ever giving proceedings a succinct, sparky, poetic lift.  A full set from Miller & Walker at Vaultage was a treat; absolutely no harm in nostalgia for ’60s folk.  And while I’m not a fan of post-Syd Floyd, kudos for Simply Floyd for kicking off with Arnold Layne.

Vaultage is now back to be fortnightly.  Have to say I was surprised it kept going so well weekly, so congrats to Pat Nicholson and Andy Bongos.  Decision is down to the new pub owners, who are anxious to make the joint more commercially viable.  Thing is, events in pubs do need to raise bar revenue; I like to think I’ve drunk my share (if, these days, in moderation).

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Lillabullero is proud to introduce to you a guest post from the one and only Stephen Hobbs.  Every year Stephen – , storyteller, poet, music lover, MC and bardic councillor of this parish – produces and presents to the December Scribal Gathering his very own Top of My Poetry & Spoken Word Pops as applied to Stony Stratford and environs, and 2019 has been no exception.  It is reproduced below, verbatim, but before we commence to chanting the opening riff of Led Zep’s Whole lotta love, I would like to say a couple of things.  Firstly, Lillabullero is flattered to still be on the list, given our relative inactivity until very late this second half of the year, and furthermore would like to apologise to ukulele-ist Sandy Clark for knocking her back to No 17 – we are not worthy.  Secondly, let us ponder the question of Who charts the chartmakers?  Maybe we’ll just have to give him a lifetime award.  Over to you Stephen:

Top of My Poetry & Spoken Word Pops 2019

Hello Pop Pickers! This is the Top of My Poetry & Spoken Word Pops for 2019.

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From 20 down to 11


  • “The Old Talbot Open Mic”
  • Caz Tricks
  • “The Coachmaker’s Arms”
  • Sandy Clarke
  • Dave Quayle’s “Lillabullero…Blog”
  • “The Ouse Muse”
  • Inappropriate Graham
  • Danni Antagonist
  • Storytelling at “The Feast of Fools”
  • and Mossman!

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At Number 10!

By her own standards this has been an extremely quiet year for Number 10, but Life and Stuff has intervened to keep her away from us. Nevertheless, she remains the Godfecker of Spoken Word – it’s Vanessa Horton!

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At Number 9!

Someone who never fails to reduce me to helpless laughter. Although he does read from a script (usually a no no) he’s the perfect illustration of the dictum that a true original can do as he damn well pleases. He has never appeared on this list before. It’s Paul Rainey!

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At Number 8!

Still the hardest working poetry/S&M/bass&triangle combo in the country. You’d think they would have grown out of it by now – fat chance! Another album and more merchandise than you can shake a stick at. To quote Dave Quayle “Prolific propagators and propagandists for poetry and the spoken word, they are artists of a sensitive disposition …; they are also Men of a muchness…” May you stay forever young, standing tall with the alpacas– Paul “Merlot” Eccentric and Ian “Harribo” Newman: It’s The AntiPoet!

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At Number 7!

The 9th Bardic Trials in January 2019! Just when we thought we might have run out of Bardic contenders, four came forward to contest the title; and the good people of Stony Stratford voted Mitchell Taylor their 9th Bard.

We now look forward to the 10th Bardic Trials on January 17th 2020. Are you Bard enough? There’s a leaflet on your table. There will also be a special headlining performance from the British Indian storyteller with an international reputation – Peter Chand. So join the community in voting in your new Bard, the 10th Bard of Stony Stratford. Your favourite sound system (thank you JT) will be making us all sound much better, whilst Bardic helpers will be running the bar. What’s not to like? A Bardic Council production. Bardabing Bardaboom!

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At Number 6!

Ignoring all my advice about setting up a regular storytelling event for adults in Bletchley she went ahead anyway, and “Tales Tattled & Told” is now in its 9th edition and is the perfect platform for aspiring storytellers. Storytelling with balls! It’s Lynette Hill!

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At Number 5!

It’s great to have him back, and I doubt there’s a person in this room who hasn’t benefited from him over the past 10 years. In 2020 he will be accorded the ultimate accolade of being featured on “Stony Tracks”. Maybe Stony Stratford has finally forgiven him for crimes against an Edwardian terrace house? It’s the godfather of the open mic scene in Stony – it’s Jonathan Taylor and Scribal Gathering!

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At Number 4!

Through his words and music he champions the underdog and all manner of injustice. As the current Bard of Stony Stratford he never fails to impress with his dedication and hard work. He’s even written a poem about the new toilets at York House. It’s Mitchell Taylor! All hail the Bard! (x3)

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At Number 3!

A person who continues to bring storytelling, community spirit, and youth drama to Stony Stratford in a unique and compelling way. Despite being a final year PhD student at Loughborough University; she continues to find the time to create and tell brilliant stories, write pantos, run storytelling workshops, and support all things Bardic. In 2019 The History Press published her Buckinghamshire Folk Tales. And she’s supposed to be dyslexic? She is indefatigable. It’s Terrie Howey!

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At Number 2!

Running a weekly open mic requires a lot of love, hard work, and sheer bloody-mindedness. And he’s now reached No 177! Singer/Songwriter, Poet, Bard, and Vaultage Master. It’s Pat Nicholson!

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At Number 1! 

The Top of My Poetry & Spoken Word Pops for 2019 is …..

He’s always there. Chemical Brother. Mime artist. Comedian. Poet. Singer/Songwriter. Past Bard. Consummate starer. Shakespearean actor. Storyteller. Yellow vest activist. Greek street dancer. It’s Phil Chippendale!

The traditional giant lollipop was duly presented.

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(c) Julia Reinhart [https://juliareinhart.com/]

This time of the year I’m likely to start a piece here with something like ‘another year, another Official Kinks Fan Club Konvention’.  Not so much the ‘same old’ this year though, with the unexpected passing of Ian Gibbons – cruelly the youngest of the Kast Off Kinks, lovely fellow to all reports, and a very fine musician – earlier in the year.  Gig seemed in jeopardy until Mark Haley, Kinks keyboardist in the years 1989-1993, including the recording of the much under-rated last album Phobia, stepped in.  ‘Youngster’ Mark is very much a working musician (the Rubettes are still big in Europe apparently) and resident in France, so Good Man!  He’s got a more than decent voice too, which was put to good use on the day.

I’ve written here before about earlier Konventions – they’ve been going for over twenty years now – and how they have changed, as the Kast Off Kinks mutated from a seat of the pants no band-rehearsals occasional bash to a hard-working beat combo.  The event got established, became more popular and moved venue to keep up with demand, finishing upstairs in Tufnell Park’s Boston Arms, in their ‘Dome’, with full proscenium stage (I’m not keen).  I suppose I’m nostalgic for the mid-period spontaneity downstairs, when one year we got all three ex-Kinks keyboardists hitting the keys in the same number (original pianist John Gosling, has faded from the scene), as well as two bassists (RIP Jim Rodford, another not too long gone), both drummers (Bob Henrit, lucky to be alive after a road accident, sent his apologies this year) and two backing singers at not so much a gig as a reunion.  Tempus fugit.

This year the stage was pretty full at times, with semi-regulars the Oslo Brass and Swedish vocal trio the Cherry Tops as well as the usual suspects; Pete Watkins did a couple of well-received solo spots featuring songs from Arthur (50 years young!) and joined in too.  Yup, Ray Davies turned up – not a big surprise anymore – and despite official warnings that he was not 100% so unlikely to perform – was in good voice for a full You really got me, returning for a rousing Louie Louie; in interviews he’s always says he feels most alive on stage – music has healing powers.  Show ended as usual with the unstoppable John Dalton leading the mass singing on Alcohol: “Oh demon Alcohol / sad memories I do recall“.  Was it just me or is consumption of said inebriant diminishing with each year?

Kast Off Kinks, Geoff Lewis on keyboards no less!

But back to the start.  After a couple of songs we had a semi-formal tribute to Ian Gibbons followed by the inevitable Days (too bass heavy and strident, I thought, but that’s just me) and then a storming, emotional, Better things, which really got the ball moving.  Other highlights: my mate Geoff with a guest keyboard spot for a very fine This time tomorrow, a rousing Come dancing (Mark on vocals?), and what a rocker the obscure Kinks number It’s too late turned out to be.  Dave Clarke (he does Ray and Dave a lot of the time) was in top form, for an outstanding Celluloid heroes.  A full afternoon’s music as ever.

No Milk cow blues workout this year.  One of my musical highlights of the last few years, it had been Ian’s standout piece, showcasing fully his extended keyboard skills – the excitement of the percussive Hammond organ passage always had me cheering – so understandable.  The Konvention has always been a charity gig, this year’s beneficiaries being those favoured by Ian: Nordoff Robbins and Crisis at Christmas (mad bidding at the auction!).  The Kast Offs may no longer be a touring band but there will, it was announced at the end, be a Konvention again next year.  I shall probably go.  Keep up the good work Bill & Co.

Keyboard wizard Geoff Lewis maintains some splendid Kast Off Kinks web pages (http://kastoffkinks.co.uk/ ) where you can find some fascinating interviews (slightly hidden tab at the bottom of the page) and videos.  The only long term member of the Kinks never to grace the stage with the band is Dave Davies, which is a shame, although for the first time this year he did turn up at one of the Kinksfan Kollektiv’s pub evenings.  As it happens, while I didn’t indulge in the de luxe box set reissue of Arthur, I did as usual succumb to the two CD re-master, disc 2 of which re-creates The great lost Dave Davies album, which (thank you Pye Records) never saw the light of day back then.  It’s an excellent piece of work, which is another shame because it would have established the man as a country rock pioneer in the UK.

Right, quickfire catch-up …

Paula Reago

The bride – a personal mythology in bright colours. Yup, that’s a crocodile.

Such was the impact of the Paula Reago: Obedience and Defiance show at MK Gallery earlier this year that I can still pretty much walk myself around each room in my head.  That whole long wall of the works painted in the lead up to the Portuguese abortion referendum campaign of 1998 – nothing graphic bar the misery – was a statement of incredible power.  Elsewhere, colour, variety, darkness, energy and fun (even) aplenty too.  You walked through her early abstract (but politically referenced) works through to her later figurative stage in awe; the size of the canvasses helped too.  Fascinating that Swinging London played a part of her growth as an artist.

She reworks things and notions – folk tales, fairy stories, Hogarth’s Marriage a la mode – and examines relationships to great effect.  The picture on the poster – The angel – portrays, (of course, you say, after immersion in the show) an avenging angel.  I really appreciated the reversal of the male artist / female model trope (hanging by the entrance to the café!) after I’d read the rubric.  Hey, this brilliant show happened on my doorstep in good old Milton Keynes!

Annoyingly MKG don’t reproduce their posters on their website, so here’s a photo with reflections of the theatre square taken on a cheap phone.

George Stubbs

Not just horses, then.  George Stubbs: ‘all done from nature’ presents him as an eighteenth century Enlightenment figure.  That’s his famous Eclipse in the poster, spectacularly presented at MKGallery with the actual skeleton of said quadruped.  Apparently he dissected 18 horses and published anatomy books (we saw them too) as well as, um, just painting.  Some of the ‘exotic’ animals he also painted, like cheetahs – pretty much a first such representations at the time.

Sir Henry Nelthorpe and his second wife Elizabeth (c1746). What does what she’s doing with her left hand signify?

There are society family portraits (Wedgewoods, so-so) but also, more interestingly the grooms with the horses, groups of horses (1762’s fetching Mares and foals, a lovely composition), a group of labourers commissioned by their (modern-thinking) employer, and some 2D front-facing Soldiers of the 10th Light Dragoons, looking very contemporary in illustration terms.  Sometimes there’s more going on in the animals’ eyes – a post-wink glint, even from Eclipse – than in those of the humans.


Scribal Gathering

Oh, memory, memory. I’ve lost me notes.  Sorry people.  Entertaining evenings all.  Shame to have had to miss the Xmas mega-bash.

In the end, the poetry slam came down to Sami (upfront about his trans-travails and triumphs) & Sam, current and ex-Northampton Bards, who tied in final, and who tied in the tie break.  Sam Upton won on countback, his H.G.Wells poem about wanting to become a time traveller proving to be, um, timely.

Fay Roberts as spellbinding as ever, Simon Cleary well weird – performance art, angstful meditation on all sorts of things, miming to a tape throughout (I had to be assured of this after (I’d thought it was only some of the time)), Robert Garnham whimsical, like it says.  Wednesday’s Wolves shimmered, Steve Gifford accomplished.

Open mic of late has been graced with Paul Rainey’s odd little stories; quirky’s the word.  Rob Bray’s take on Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah was delightfully short and comic (not that he wouldn’t have done it better than most, all the verses).


I can’t keep up with Vaultage any more, now it’s gone weekly, and keeping up continued delivery of quality music with some regularity.  I’m not even going to try henceforth.  Bravo Pat Nicholson (not a bad singer-songwriter in his own right too)!  I don’t think I’ve missed out any posters of nights I was there, but there may be posters here of when I wasn’t.  What a rotten chronicler you turned out to be.  As I said for Scribal – oh memory!  But it’s been a while …

So, highlights?  A stirring acapella After the goldrush from a vocal quartet whose name escapes me.  A fine short set from another acapella grouping (with some of the Five Men not called Matt) with a great name – the Bold Marauders (Richard & Mimi Farina, right?).  Spontaneous four-part harmony from the audience in that bit of The Band’s The weight from Hell & High Water.  A lot of people try, but Mike Betteridge does the best Come together.  Stephen Hobbs gamely flies the storytelling flag.  Somewhere between phone and scribbled notes I’ve drawn a blank for much more specific.

Someone – was it Rowland Dexter? – did an immaculate one man-one guitar Strawberry Fields, which was a wonder to behold.  And then he only followed it by doing the same to Eleanor RigbySandy Clarke, one-woman-one ukulele, has given us a remarkably varied repertoire over the weeks, from Justin Timberlake to the great lost Kinks classic God’s children, from Let’s get it on (yup, ukulele) to Friend of the devil and Bessie Smith (but, Bat out of hell), and for her featured set pulled out all the stops with her son on classy lead electric guitar and Mike Hall a skillful Mr Bass Man, and Andy bongo-ing too.  Not forgetting Highway to hell – a constant breath of fresh air.  Someone else (sorry) introduced me to a wonderful song of James TW’s: When you love someone.

Mysteriously I find ‘Miranda’ appearing in the middle of the scant notetaking that survives, but I have no idea why.

Stony Music Hall 5

And sometime way back there was Stony Music Hall 5 at York House, Bubbles back on the high chair, accordion in harness for some classics.  Andy Powell’s coster Mr Bojangles was a lovely touch.  Fun evening as ever.

Havana, Isle of Wight

And finally, a touch of Cuba on a mid-day stroll back in the summer.  Not what you’d expect to find promenading between Shanklyn and Sandown, but they were good.  Making a good day better.

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Later being the word.  Last post posted how long ago?  Who knows where the time goes?  That’s a rhetorical question.  Excuses a-plenty, but they’re … just excuses.  Not that … oh, wotthehell, Archy, wotthehell.

Another Antipoet review, you say?  Well someone has to do it until they get more of the recognition they deserve.  What do they do?  They cross boundaries is what they do: comedy, music, rap, poetry?  “It’s just entertainment.” they rather disingenuously say.  Or more specifically, their brand of Beat Poetry.  Anyway, album launch: Punk Unkle, Volume 7 in the saga, upstairs in The Crown, Stony Stratford, Wednesday, July 3.  ‘Fresh’, as they say, from Glastonbury.  No, and they were.  All that coverage, but do the BBC as much as mention, let alone venture near, the poetry tent? (Thank you for The Cure, though, in their entirety.)

The Antipoet do mostly the new stuff (of which more later) with – unusual sight – a drummer: Mark Gordon, who produced and played on the record.  Same old joyous, energetic performance though.  They do a cover!  Ian Dury’s There aint half been some clever bastards!  (“Lucky bleeders! lucky bleeders!“).  Only the very same tune that Mitchell Taylor celebrated his song contest win with last month in StonyLive; much more of this and it’ll be a square on next year’s cover band bingo card.


Throwing the choice of oldie encore open to the audience Paul Eccentric explains that Tights not stockings is a number they only do on special request these days, given the rise to prominence of Me Too and other sensibilities.  Even though it is actually a moral piece about the plight of a middle-aged man struggling to keep his inner perv in check, enthusiastic audience participation has tended to cloud over its origins.  I can’t remember if they did the “Boots, no knickers” section, but I have an indistinct memory of a “Sandals no socks” refrain somewhere in there as well.  Or am I imagining this (I need to know).

Punk Unkle, the CD, is great fun, and shows no signs of a decline in invention.  More of the usual good natured, righteous scorn (still righteous, still scorn, mind) that had me smiling all over.  Aided and abetted with a bit more production than usual, musical trimmings well beyond the double bass, but still with some stunning verbal dexterity to the fore.  Bravely kicking of with that old cliché of twiddling the dial searching for a station on an old steam radio, there are sprinklings of various (local) radio interviews featuring Paul Eccentric and Ian ‘Haribo’ Newman from the last five years throughout.  I say bravely, because these intervals could constitute a huge hindrance to continued entertainment, but inasmuch as they are not that far removed from what you hear in live performance anyway, they work well, explaining and expanding the broader tale.

  • Does my bass look big in this: travails of gigging with a double bass: “a fully paid up member of the act / and as such treated equally“.  The import of the bass in the duo’s presentation and persona is an amusing sub-theme running through the interview snippets. Never liked that phrase in the first place, never mind it’s high-jacking here – and the title ‘track’ of their last year’s print memoir, but, damn me, it ‘s become my current earworm.
  • Lament for the motorway service’s ‘good ol’ mug of tea: that’s lament as in furious rant about the modern evolution (or demise) of “the weary muso’s mecca“.  Paul is not a coffee drinker, distressed that “proper urn-stewed tea” is no longer available.  No-one’s gonna call their simple needs for “A plate of chips and a wagon wheel and a good old mug of tea” a meal-deal.  A terrible joke/pun occurs towards the end.
  • Kids today: they may have dedicated this cd to Ian Dury but it’s Lonnie Donegan to the fore here.  “Kids today / they’ve got no respect / and they tend to be / grammatically incorrect” – proper word magic!  Multi-tasking: not only a swipe at snowflake millennials and younger, but also a parody of the sort of people – “never did us any harm” – who go around bemoaning , um, kids today.  Singalong chorus of “Stick ’em up the chimney” just for starters.
  • They don’t need it: kicking off with the Range Rover on the half-mile school run, this is a wide ranging attack on conspicuous consumption in the age of late capitalism.  “They say I’ve a sanctimonious philosophy / and they won’t heed it“: no mate, it’s a problem.  More strong lines for audience participation.
  • It’s not guns that kill people: constructed from the sayings and writings of members of the National Rifle Association in the US, irony is the closest to humour you’ll get on this atypical track.  Loud hailer vocals against a soundtrack that is straight outta Gil Scott Heron.
  • If it hurts: ah, the simulated to camera tortuous agonies of the big voice reality/talent show vocalist – “suffering for their art / as if they’re reeling / from being shot“. “If it hurts, why do it?” Paul plainfully asks, bidding them “Don’t murder yourself or the song“.  Featuring outstanding use of the verb “eschew”.  One I really look forward to seeing live.
  • Smugness incarnate:  Cuban rhythms established, “He’s riding his pushbike / to the shops” is the mild opener to a rant about “that middle class nazi fitness caliphate“.  Yes, that innocent lycra clad cyclist is but the first of “those middle class nazis” that Paul is “quite prepared to hate”; highly inventive use of the rhyming dictionary (just kidding) thereafter ends each verse.
  • They’ve got to learn: Lonnie Donegan again, wherein the lads are teaching the younger generation about swearing: “It’s common / and it’s lazy / if it’s not bang on the money.”  They are, of course, “glad to be of service / teaching how to cuss“, skillfully rhyming that with ‘blasphemous’.  Swearing is, they say, “an art like any other“, and they are not wrong.  Live, a singalong ensues as per the photo above.  (Aside: The year of the rabbit on Channel4: that’s proper swearing – timing is all – and Keeley Hawes too).
  • The pointless princesses: absolutely to the point about modern royalty.  About Beatrice and the other one.  Republicanism rules: “just don’t presume / that you can make me curtsy / or walk backwards from a room.”  (“Bang goes the knighthood,” someone in the audience said).
  • Punk Unkle: the muted strains of the opening chords of the Sex Pistol’s Anarchy in the UK open another warning to nation’s young: “Listen up kids …”  The black sheep, the family pariah, “the ne’er do well / whose picture’s missing / from the mantelpiece” no less.  Beware this “chocolate biscuit dunking” individual at your peril.  Or sing along with him.  Your choice.

The album Punk Unkle is dedicated to the memory of Ian Dury: “he was the finest ‘beat poet’ of his generation, and is overlooked on that front.”  Amen.  It was mutual love of Dury that was the common ground around which Ian and Paul’s partnership was forged a decade ago.  Bonus tracks – five of ’em – include a two-man rendition of Ian Dury’s aforementioned There aint half been some clever bastards with an added verse: “Ian Dury was a genius / to ignore this / would be heinous“; “our punk uncle,” says Paul.  The whole thing ends with a straight-faced recitation of the full album credits.

Other musical events are available

Moving backwards in time, at July Scribal

Oh look, it’s the Antipoet again only a week later.  A set entirely culled from Punk Unkle.  Do they get away with it?  Of course they do.  A talented singer and ukulelist of (near) this parish, who had never seen them before, expressed it (as I recall) thus: “Mind. Blown.”  On the open mic two brave young people – The Autistic Poets – impressed in many ways, a well deserved ovation (https://www.facebook.com/theautisticpoets/).

June Scribal, it’s worth chronicling, was an elf takeover, with poorly voice-gone JT’s able assistants, Jill and Caz, in charge; it was fresh, it made a change.  Fresh from a standout StonyLive! performance or two, Corinne Lucy – great voice, fine guitarist, accomplished writer – opened proceedings and wowed with Nauseated blues.  Now blues is not the genre one would expect from Corinne, but this was powerful, lyrically inventive stuff.  Confirmed what I thought I’d heard the previous week in another song, that nod to Bob Dylan: “Think twice, babe / It’s not all right.”

Hannah Chutzpah scored with Shithead Bingo, a culture wars hymnal cataloguing the perils of one’s work colleagues opinions, and something called Butterfly Hoarder, the title of which I wrote down but can now remember nothing about, but it must have been worthy of something.  Mudlarking broadened things with her thoughts on hunting for history in the tidal mud of the River Thames’ banks, while she brought the house down with Dear Pet Crematorium, customer feedback to a North London pet crematorium that delivers the dear departed cat’s ashes well enough, but also with a bonus of Clinton’s Cards verse thrown in.  Go on, you know you want to: https://hannahchutzpah.com/2016/02/09/necrokitty-video/

Noah’s Cape (say it slowly out loud – it took me a while to get it) is MK Poet Laureate Mark Niels’s new folk-ish group; probably wrong of me to call it ‘his’ – an accomplished trio of seasoned performers, anyway.  Broad entertaining repertoire with some originals, and a very moving Galway Shawl.


Click on each poster to read what it says about the featured artists’: I can’t better some of the descriptions.  And I can’t remember too many specifics either, I’m afraid.  Take a bow Pat Nicholson for the continuing excellence of an evening at Vaultage; not forgetting the open mic-ers.


Omnivibes, Paul Jackson, was just sensational on amplified sitar.  Two plugs and leads, the drone having its own, he lit a couple of joss sticks, positioned himself on his sitar case cum miniature stage and had us spell bound playing two ragas, in the middle of the second, without pausing, he slipped a steel bottle-neck on his finger and slipped in a blues interlude, finishing with a short blues.  Amazing instrument, amazing sounds, amazing player.

More blues the previous week from the slimmed down two-man Ramblin’ Preachers.  If just the two acoustic guitars can produce that much excitement … A couple of powerhouse self-penned opening numbers, bit of a comparative rest and then a storming  Damn right I got the blues.  And a hell of a blues voice too.  Phew.

Fraser & Toots started off like they’d walked right in off a Parisian boulevard (an accordion will do that), albeit with a song boasting the line “Moscow, where the reds play the blues”.  Their clever self-penned songs ranged wider after that, though you have to say the highlight was a cover … of a Beatles song declared “impossible to play”: an immaculate For the benefit of Mr Kite from Sgt Pepper, no less.

Santini are a duo, vocal and guitar accompanist, with an interesting and wide-ranging set of covers.  An immaculate rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit (or was it Somebody to love) (or was it even both?) are the specifics I remember, but she has a fabulous voice, powerful, controlled … if she were Portuguese she’d be singing Fado.  Great fun too.

Consummate musician Rob Bray does what it says on his poster: spiritual, vulgar, carnal, charming.  Ditto for Stephen Ferneyhough and his concertinas: Morris tunes, music hall, Booby Vee and The Kinks.  He’s big on audience participation; which they do.  And somewhere in there (Vaultage and/or Scribal), a set from ukulelist Sandy Clarke that went from The ace of spades to Won’t get fooled again via I am the walrus; another time (Vaultage for sure) Dion’s The wanderer, lyrics duly amended beyond “Well I’m the kind of gal …”

And just in case anyone is unfamiliar with Ian Dury’s Clever bastards (b-side of Hit me with your rhythm stick), you now have no excuse:




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Out of towners start here: every year in early June, a band of concerned citizens in the old Buckinghamshire market town of Stony Stratford – “the jewel in the crown of Milton Keynes” – have put together StonyLive!, a programme of musical and other cultural events over and above the rich activity that persists all year round.  (To get an idea of its breadth, you might still find further details at https://www.stonylive.info/).  Now read on, for what it’s worth, for one man’s journey through StonyLive! 2019:

Prelude 1

About halfway into Corinne Lucy‘s outstanding featured guest spot at the previous Thursday’s Vaultage she opined, “It’s not all folk noir.  I can write pop songs too” – and very accomplished and uplifting A hundred roses was too.  She finished a powerful set of heartfelt originals with Chasing the centre, a song and performance so good I was thinking if I don’t get to hear anything like again this year, it will have been a good year.  I heard it again, twice, in the course of the next six days: Hey! StonyLive!  More about that song later, by which time, I’d thought of a way to describe it worthily enough (you read it here first).

Vaultage footnote: esteemed open mic ukulelist Sandy Clarke did a touching rendition of When I ruled the world, a song that I did not recognise.  My companion was embarrassed to be able to tell me it was one of Coldplay’s.  Which just goes to show something or other.

Prelude 2

Saturday and Sunday performances of the Carabosse Theatre Company’s Another round of real ale & drama shots were in the StonyLive! programme, but I saw it on the Friday, so here, on a technicality, it must be in the Prelude.

Seven short plays and considerably more real theatrical moments – whaaat? – superbly staged and acted in an intimate venue, stage and fourth wall on the long side of the rectangle.  Harrowing start in the Great War trenches, the first of a series of reverses or, depending on the pace, dramatic twists, that followed.  No, I’d never imagined what the life of the Tooth Fairy was like, but it would never have been like that.  This followed a tense two hander Harold Pinter meets Pete and Dud.

The show closed with an examination of the nature of faith disguised as a Doctor Who episode scripted by Samuel Beckett (a joyless bowler hatted cyborg battalion … but without the Doctor).  There was a lot going on throughout, all neatly compered by minimalist clown-face troubadour Billy Nomad.  Very dark, but absolutely not without humour.  Invidious to single out any of the actors, but Bravo! Artistic Director Sally Luff.

Saturday: Act One










A Brackley Morris Man levitates

New Moon, a mixed “Morris fusion” with a touch of cyberpunk from Ivinghoe, Bucks, let out for the day.

Saturday and it’s bread and eggs from the market and the Day of Dance on the closed to vehicles High Street.  Not just Morris – all manner of terpsichorean delights were on show throughout the day.  Fine weather smiled upon us.

And back to see Corinne Lucy kick off – she had other places to be – a staggering line-up of almost wholly local talent; and talented is the word.  We are blessed.  An entertaining afternoon was spent until the sun’s heat got to me.  Pacing myself for the week … and feeling the lure of the football (only the Champions League Final) … I retired early.  The football was uninspiring (except Liverpool won, said this Arsenal fan) and to all reports a grand time was had in the Stables courtyard of the Bull all evening too.

Sat with a fellow Dylan enthusiast when Corinne was on.  Floated the idea that that song had an angry echo of The gates of Eden about it, but I wasn’t there yet in pinning it down.

Act 2: Classic Cars

And so to Sunday, another fine morning and the traditional (how long does it take?) Classic Cars show.  Plenty of people, plenty of cars, but it’s possible I’m getting a bit jaded.  The more modern expensive stuff has no interest for me.  No great Wows! this year and a couple of old favourites were absent – still interesting though – and nostalgia took hold.

From the top: driving practise around South Bucks in my mum’s Morris Minor, trafficators (hence the ‘Attention’ in the photo) – indicators sticking out of the side of the car – before she had the garage put in lights.  Rovers 95 and 100 (unfortunately the other way round in the photo) and sinking into the leather seats of my mate Mark’s dad’s car (it might even have been a 90) in Birkenhead, very early ’70s.  And the Austin A30.  At uni I had use of another mate’s van while he was doing his term abroad (scholastic, not prison); battery needed attention, got it, but in the process I inadvertently ruined – thigh denim disintegrated when I scratched an itch – a perfectly good pair of jeans; remember batteries, never mind battery acid, as a thing to worry about?  There’s another story too, but … no, too long a tale.

Act 3: Monday

Early evening joined the Stony Stratford Theatre Society‘s Shakespeare Walkabout – excerpts from the plays, a sonnet or two, bracketed at each location with songs from the Not Two Bees, who were great fun.  Nice to be reminded, too, of Lord Buckley‘s hipster (old school) take on Mark Anthony’s funeral oration from Julius Caesar:  “The bad jazz a cat blows / wails long after he’s cut out.”

Blues from the Ouse captured the previous day at Classic Cars.

And then it’s Blues from the Ouse.  Again.  Started off quietly enough with just a handful of us in the Vaults Bar but it soon filled up and a fine evening of da blues was had, Ian Anderson’s strong voice never faltering (he’s a busy man) and young cohort James Ives playing up a subtle storm.  Ian: “I played a bum note there, but … a tip I got from James: keep playing it and they’ll think you meant it.”  Audience member: “So you can teach an old dog new tricks.”  Took me by surprise when they finished with a glorious, swinging, celebratory take on Van Morrison’s Moondance.

Act 4: Tuesday

There is so much going on most nights that a choice has to be made between something not usually on offer – hey! Flanders & Swann – and being loyal to one’s confreres, or worse having to choose between two of the latter.  One of these StonyLives! I will make it to the big A Capella session in the Vaults, and doubtless drink too much and lose my voice for the rest of the week.

And so to an interesting Evening with the Bard and Friends. Which started with a worthy history lesson-come-poetic disquisition on racism and white privilege, in which a few pearls shone out, like “The two Isaacs, Newton and Gregory” (or was it the other way round? – still good).  It lightened up somewhat after that.  Donna Bond made me laugh.  Stony Bard Mitchell Taylor commendably didn’t take up too much performance time for himself (I mean that in a good way).

Memo to aspirant Spoken Worders: the use of a staple gun to clip the pages of long pieces together is not to be recommended, especially if you’re holding a mic in the other hand.  Employing the method adopted by Sam Upton – dropping the sheet to the floor when the words thereon have been spoken – is not only practical but also conveys a certain je ne sais quoi.  I’m saying nothing about the use of mobile phones.

Mojo Mules finished the evening in great style, with vigour, skill and wit.  Another blues duo, jazz tinged this time, with, progressively, added lap steel, and then an upgraded washboard with bells on (or rather one bell, £2 on Amazon, which made his life complete, said its wielder).

[A Bill Withers moment: pretty much the same time as Manny was incorporating a Bill Withers song segment in one of his songs (was it Ain’t no sunshine?), over in the Vaults A Capella session, as later found in FaceBook, they were doing Lean on me.  For people in both venues, then, near the end of a Lovely day]

Act 5: Ode to the Siren

Event of the week for me, and I’m not the only one.  A brave and timely (see Thursday) concept wonderfully realised.  Take a bow Jill and Jonathan Taylor.

Corinne Lucy again, with her powerful, heartfelt story songs (wishing an ex- happiness, Neil Gaiman’s take on The little mermaid (she said that), Bird of paradise inspired by eighteenth century naturalist specimen collectors, among others) and then Chasing the centre again, that closing line to all three verses, “And I knew it was lying“, still echoing in my head 6 days on.  OK, here we go: imagine Alan Ginsberg’s Howl personalised – one of those best minds desperately pacing the city streets looking for signs and answers – and sung by Joni Mitchell (with an English accent).  No spoilers.

Naomi Rose, another great original songwriter and performer, mentioned previously in despatches, was on the top of her game too.  As were poets Danni and Vanessa.  All topped off by the wonderful Fay Roberts, fresh sonnets to deliver, speaking of little known feminist heroines (should that be heroes theses days?), and more.  I know, I’ve mentioned Fay’s ‘quiet power’ before, but I’m sorry, I can’t do any better.  She enchants, entrances with a vivid mix of language old, new, formal and vernacular.

Archivists note: regrettably Naomi couldn’t make it.

Act 6: More songwriters

Is there a collective noun?  Anyway, Thursday and it must be Vaultage but with something fresh this StonyLive! week.  No open mic and a strict 12 minutes, no covers, rule, with a cash prize for the best song.  Amazingly went smoothly, flushed out some newcomers to Vaultage and some decent songs.  Apples and oranges, but, you know, it worked as a show.  As one of the four judges (plus Chair in case of a draw), I have to say it gave me an insight into what hell being on a Booker Prize panel might be like.  Luckily two of our panel were in agreement from the start, otherwise discussion might have gone all night; even then, the audience were getting restless.

Worthy winner was Stony Bard Mitchell Taylor with For the benefit of, a sprightly and muscular original take on mental health issues.  Icing on the cake, his encore and a singalong of Ian Dury’s There aint half been some clever bastards. Nice to be reminded.

Friday wimp out

Not to put too fine a point on it, I wimped out.  The rigours of the judging and four consecutive nights out – unprecedented this, oh, millennium – took its toll.  Thought of just walking up and down the High Street playing Cover Band Bingo but in the end stayed in and caught up on a bit of television.  Next year, Lillabullero, you shall go to Woburn Jazz.


Who knows what tomorrow will bring, but a traditional lunchtime pint in the Fox to the accompaniment of the Concrete Cowboys seemed somehow compulsory.  Couldn’t face Saturday night crowds but that’s irrelevant because – I know, I know – I should have gone to IOTA in York House.

Postlude: Folk on the Green

Definitely not part of StonyLive! Oh no!  As part of the permissions  needed – Horsefair Green is surrounded by houses – no pre-publicity and no leaking of the line-up beforehand.  A local festival for local people.  A fine and mostly local line-up it proved too.

Wandered down the road to buy a programme at mid-day to find the upful jangling African guitar sound of Safari Boots, rather than the usual mournful solo artiste starter, filling the air.  And so it continued, next up the excellent Innocent Hare.  The roster of acts signalled a shift back towards folk on the Green’s origins, so the accomplished kids from MK Rock School were the rockest act on show: no token gesture this, as far as age goes, either, though it did seem a little strange watching young teens ripping into Smells like teen spirit, written by Kurt Cobain when he was 23.  A hard rock Come together came together nicely too.

Follow that, the fragrant Naomi Rose, and she did, to much appreciation, finishing with the wonderful The wonderful (which, of course, isn’t on Soundcloud, but her opener, a song about Milton Keynes is: be my guest).

Then the Cock and Bull Band, who were playing (well, a couple of them) the very first Folk on the Green I ever went to, many moons ago, before we even moved here.  Full of bounce, quite why there was mass dancing to Togmor rather than they I can only put down to it only being the half-way point in proceedings.  10 acts in total, and the beats went on.  Relaxed, satisfying, weather behaved itself, a good one.


Cheers to one and all on the StonyLive! Coordinating Committee – ‘the best ever?’ I have heard suggested.  And to the Folk on the Green Committee for its refocussing of a community event to be proud of.  And the volunteers, sponsors and performers.  Thanks again.  See you next year.

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My title is drawn from Ben Aaronovitch‘s The rivers of London (Gollancz, 2011).  A vestigial function is not a bad description of how Lillabullero (this humble blog) quite often feels about itself.  Anyway, it’s how the Metropolitan Police Commissioner has always thought, reasonably enough, given the rise of science, about the special section of the Economic & Specialist Crimes Unit that Peter Grant, official apprentice wizard, serves in.

The rivers of London is a magic realism police procedural with a violent macabre streak.  It is the first of a series of books that now boasts seven titles, and if its successors continue to maintain this energy level I shall be impressed.  If you can put the episodes of video game gore to one side (faces viscerally falling off) it is great fun and, rich as it is in the psychogeography and history of London, highly educational too.

Peter Grant is a mixed race Londoner, son of an English jazz musician who once played with Tubby Hayes (such detail is important), a functioning drug addict with a “finely tuned ability to sabotage his own career“; his mum is a high-end office cleaner, with all the perks that can provide, originally from Sierra Leone.  Their council flat makes for a welcome port in the eventual storm, an affectionate interlude rich in family back story.

Peter’s first task, fully fledged PC, fresh from completing his probationary years, and relieved not to have been posted to the Case Progressions Unit, is to help in trying to stop a turf war breaking out between the street crews of the river gods: Mother (aka Mama) Thames (“the goddess of the river”, actually Nigerian), who rules the tidal section, and the Old Man of the River, Father Thames, who’s a bit old school fairground, hanging out at the source.  He liaises through various water sprites, guardians of the Thames’s tributaries.  At one stage Mama mentions his father:

You know my father?’
‘No,’ she said, and gave me a knowing smile. ‘Only in the sense that all the musicians of London belong to me, especially the jazz and bluesmen. It’s a river thing.’
‘Are you on speaking terms with the Mississippi, then?’ I asked. My father always swore that jazz, like the blues, was born in the muddy waters of the Mississippi. My mother swore that it came from the bottle, like all the devil’s best work.

It’s Peter’s boss who smooths the waters with Father Thames:

My contribution to the conversation was cursory at best,’ said Nightingale. ‘A great deal of it was technical, groundwater overdrafts, aquifer delay circles and aggregate catchment-area coefficients. Apparently all these will affect how much water goes down the river this summer.’
‘If I was to go back two hundred years and have that same conversation,’ I said, ‘what would the Old Man have talked about then?’
‘What flowers were blooming,’ said Nightingale. ‘What kind of winter we’d had – the flight of birds on a spring morning.’
‘Would it have been the same Old Man?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Nightingale. ‘It was the same Old Man in 1914, I can tell you that for certain.’

I know – this is probably too late a text, but hey, it breaks up my text.

Meanwhile, all hell is breaking loose in Covent Garden, culminating in murderous mayhem spreading out from – get this – a Royal Opera House performance.  This is the culmination of a series of violent episodes, revealed (with the help of the memories of a couple of well-preserved theatre-going river sprites), as the actions of a revenant, one Henry Pyke, “a vampire ghost bent on revenge who was acting out the traditional story of Punch and Judy using real people as puppets“.  Pyke goes back a long way, a theatrical failure and maybe wrongfully accused murderer, fuelled by injustice, and now intent on acting out a particular eighteenth century Punch & Judy text.  In passing we get some fascinating background on Punchinello as “the spirit of riot and rebellion.”

The ghost of Pyke gets its energy from the anger of modern London.  There’s a tour de force five-page passage set in a multiplex cinema foyer, as a well-dressed, middle-aged woman with four girls age 9 to 11 in tow, tries to buy tickets to see a film, including cashing in some vouchers.  With the frustrations of a first, long slow-moving queue and a then an obtuse ticket seller, she loses it completely:

‘I just wanted to go to the pictures,’ she said. ‘When I was young you just went to the local Odeon and said ‘a ticket please’, and you gave them money and they gave you a ticket. When did it become so complicated? When did these disgusting nachos arrive? I mean, what the fuck is a nacho anyway?’ One of the girls giggled nervously at the profanity.

The rivers of London is a fast-paced treasure trove of wit, observation and (among many other things) architectural commentary.  Suspension of disbelief is obviously compulsory (Isaac Newton also wrote a Principia Artes Magicus), though some of the straight police procedure stuff seems knowledgeable.  A couple of one-liners to leave with you: No way,” [says Beverley, a river nymph] “You’re not getting me up past Teddington Lock. I’m strictly tidal ...”  Meanwhile, on the streets of London, “clusters of young people from all over Europe exercised their time-honoured right to block the pavement from one side to another.”

A musical interlude

A grand night’s shantying at York House a couple of weekend’s ago.  Ably supported by the 6 men and 1 woman of 5 men not called Matt, the 4 men of Kimber’s Men made it sound like like there were more of them than a quartet – the value of a spectacularly resonant bass anchor sees to that.  Hailing from landlocked Halifax, West Yorkshire, “the centre of the shanty universe” – Hull an hour and a half’s drive to the east, Liverpool ditto west, plus other cardinal points of the compass – they entertained us, made us laugh, and moved us, and a sparing tactical use of guitars on a couple of songs gave a bit of variety to proceedings.  A rousing, joyful evening, but something special happened to the audience during Don’t take the heroes, concerning the Penlee lifeboat disaster of 1981.  All 11 singers hit the stage for a final encore of Shenandoah; one had not realised there were quite so many verses.

Before I go to sleep

Have to say it, and it’s true.  I read a lot of the early part of S.J.Watson‘s Before I go to sleep (2011) in bed, before I went to sleep.  Not a good tactic a lot of the time, though it’s a habit – one tends to forget, and have to recap – but given the nature of the inevitably repetitive nature of Before I go to sleep‘s narrative, not so bad.  After a traumatic assault 20 years previously, 47-year-old Christine Lucas has literally has no memory of herself: “What are we if not an accumulation of our memories?”  She can function on a practical level, but when she wakes up she has to be reminded who she is, who the man she is living with, the whole lot.  She sees a younger woman in the mirror.  There have been documented cases in the scientific literature.

Christine has a new therapist, who, seeing hints of something returning, tries a new tactic: her keeping a secret journal, which she has to read every morning to keep herself up to speed and not lose any fleeting real memories she might have gained.  (As it grows, of course, she must surely have to find more and more time to read, a problem which is not addressed in the narrative).

It’s a page-turner all right, as she approaches an inkling of what happened to get her like this, and then events take over – who to trust, a red herring, revelations and, in the end, edge of the seat stuff.  The trouble is, as Judy said at Reading Group, the book is marketed as a thriller so the fascination with her dilemma – that of living without an identity – is subsumed in the expectation of something really bad happening.  One’s reading is being engineered.

That said, there is plenty of fascination to be had from Christine’s existential insecurity and the seemingly real glimpses of memories returning, especially after contact is made with Claire, her closest friend from university, Claire.  Add into the mix that Christine discovers she’s a published novelist.  Within two pages we are, it might not be too far-fetched to say, in Philip K. Dick territory:

[p103 pbk] I know that the book I am writing – my second, I realise with pride – may be dangerous, as well as necessary. It is not fiction. It may reveal things best left undiscovered. Secrets that ought not to see the light of day.
But still my pen moves across the page.

[p105] I felt solid ground begin to slip away. Maybe everything I had written was a lie. I am a novelist, after all, I thought. Or I used to be.
The futility of my logic hit me. I used to write fiction, therefore my assertion that I had been a novelist might be one of those fictions. In which case I had not written fiction. My head spun.

The ending is left nicely ambiguous as to how much genuine memory has been recovered as opposed to supplied, how much she will wake up with on the morrow and the next day.  But when we compare memories, two buddies and I, from university, disparities, never wilful, persist.  Couple of Christine’s, sparks to her further seeking, strike me as being ‘real’ enough, though.  Like this one where her mate Claire has set up a meet with her future husband:

‘So where’s this guy, then?’ I say, but she, doesn’t hear me. I feel the buzz of the alcohol and the weed and begin to dance.  The room is full of people, dressed mostly in black.  Fucking art students, I think.

Briefly, a chronicling catch up:









Just goes to show how lax Lillabullero has been, due to events and among other things … Channel4 adding the truly great Cheers to their early morning menu of Frasier (even though I have the box set) and Everybody loves Raymond and the morning has practically gone.  Discipline is required.

Highlights only, then, casting no negative aspersions (and memory fades).  Click on the images for further details.  Hard to resist a woman with a dobro and a big hat playing driving Americana (Jasmine Burns at Scribal), while new Bard Mitchell Taylor skillfully mixed poetry and song in his set.  Tim B has a powerful voice, while Crossroots, with their new lead vocalist have a great encore in Hava Nagila.  Open mic-er Chloe at Vaultage deserves mention: if I’d closed my eyes during her I’d rather go blind I could have sworn Bonnie Raitt (probably three times her age) was in the house.

Johnny Fluffypunk at Scribal (photo © Jonathan Taylor) was an experience.  This “sustainable nihilist” covers a lot of bases, playing homage to the rarely used word that is ‘micturate’ along the way.  With a delivery that could have carried all sorts of nonsense never mind the quality stuff on show and still scored … I wish I’d taken more notes.

To call Kenneth J Nash homely doesn’t recognise the depth  of his sweet and sour songs.  Lovely relaxed voice too, I seem to recall.

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