First off, let us celebrate the return to the scene of Unstoppable Nature, graffiti artist of this burgh, whose tagged work was last seen by mine eyes about 7 years ago (you can see one of his earlier pieces on the Glimpses page here, about three-quarters of the way down). It’s been a long time so it may be a copyist at work, maybe a tribute, but strolling by the Grand Union Canal one day lately I did espy, at Wolverton, on the south side of the bridge just before you get to the rejuvenated Bill Billings train mural on the other side, silver letters proclaiming the job title ‘poet‘ :
One could riff on this. The unstoppable poetry of nature, the poetry of unstoppable nature, the nature of unstoppable poetry; never mind unstoppable poets. I wish someone had stopped Bono trying to sing William Blake’s poem Jerusalem in the course of U2’s set at Glastonbury. Talk about the perils of channel hopping; I came upon it suddenly out of the blue and I’m still feeling disturbed by the experience.
There was some balm to be had on Saturday, though. While Bob Dylan famously declared, in his prose poem Tarantula (never a novel – come on!) that Smokey Robinson was “America’s greatest living poet”, Curtis Mayfield can’t have been very far behind at the time. And it was with a stirring rendition of Curtis’s People get ready that the secular Milton Keynes Community Choir – some friends are members – kicked off their concert in aid of the Advantage Africa charity. That it didn’t get any better than that is beside the point really – a good evening was to be had, and the inner chorister was stirred (not hard when you’ve been to a few Ray Davies gigs) by a madrigal styled Can’t buy me love and an acapella All shook up. Strange venue, the Ridgeway Centre – a modern aircraft hangar style warehouse on a business estate taken over by the New Life Church, presumably a gospel tinged assembly, and there was a bit of that vibe to the concert which both stirred and gave this humanist soul a sliver of unease (I never doubted, not that kind of unease). The posters advertising the event had promised Bridge over troubled water and I thought we’d got away with it when it wasn’t listed in the programme – not one of my favourite songs (to tell the truth I loathe it, along with Imagine) – but lo and behold it closed the evening. Don’t you just hate orchestrated false encores?
Not much balm to be had from Dylan Moran at the theatre on Sunday. Two short sets, which on reflection I have no problem with – no support to endure and a certain compact edgy (seemingly hesitant) beauty of observation and scorn. That was him in Black Books, then. He was riffing on age, on getting old, which was bit rich given he was only born 1971, but he hit that spot well enough. Lovely extended riff on all women being Mary Shelley and all blokes the Frankenstein creation they live with, hung on a scathing look at the very idea of ‘the dinner party’. Very few belly laughs – the biggest cheer came when he hurled a bag of noisy sweets (why do they sell them in the foyer?) demanded by him from a member of the audience in the front row, scattering them on the stage behind him – but an experience; I’m glad we went. Some tremendous intro and interval music too. A terrific tribute outing on Sonny Boy Williamson’s Help me from Junior Wells and (brave man, Mr Moran, but I saw non-one flinching) the lovely and long Aisha from John Coltrane’s Ole, Eric Dolphy on flute, with Elvin Jones drumming up a storm, McCoy Tyner so lyrically rhythmic and with a bowed double bass in there too. Which was pleasantly unexpected.
Born 1971 you can reasonably guess who Dylan Moran’s parents named him after. Wendy Cope is “Sixty-one and on a diet” and for sure she is writing “for each and every hung up person in the whole wide universe” in the 63 pages of poetry in her latest slim volume, Family values (Faber, 2011) – another instance of less is more. Generally songwriters and poets as they get old, you have to struggle to justify putting the later stuff in with the greatest hits/best of/selected compilations; not so here. I love the surface simplicity of the poems, the melancholy fun that opens up valleys of feeling, glacial or fluvial, that tell you much more than a 200 page memoir could or would. This is cradle to the grave stuff (even a poem called My funeral) with love in between. She’s looking back on an unhappy childhood (reluctant to boarding school) – and wary of age, aware of death, celebrating good and precious things (“love life”, like the graffiti artist says!). As a storyteller she’s a heart breaker, but I’m sure she’d be good to know.
A Cope sampler, then. On her mother, from Brahms Cradle Song: “For all that I am grateful / As for the rest, I can begin / To imagine forgiving her.” From Christmas ornaments: “The mice attacked the Holy family“. From At Stafford Services (a rumination mid-journey, thoughts of teenage Wimpy Bars): “I could be in an Edward Hopper painting“; she finishes her coffee and leaves the painting. The chasms of a love and a despair from Uncle Bill: “Mummy’s working class relations / Didn’t get invited to dinner or tea“; he comes through though, in his own way, to the poet’s delight. And I’ve not even mentioned the delightful verse written around a music performance – players, audience – for performance with the Endellion String Quartet or the fun BBC commission stuff.
I was surprised to discover that Rhoda Janzen, the writer of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: a memoir of going home (2009, only just published in the UK) was a poet because there’s little hint of it in her prose, which operates on a whimsical stand-up level most of the time. It has its moments, I guess, this memoir of a woman academic who in her 43rd year is badly injured in a car smash just a few days after her bi-polar and abusive husband of 17 years has left her for Bob on gay.com and so retires to the non-dancing but peace-loving Mennonite community – the Amish were a breakaway group – she escaped from all those years ago to recuperate. I saw a good write-up somewhere which suggested much wit and intelligence and so gave it a go; it was a bestseller in the States, so very much a good indicator of the cultural divide. It has its moments – embarrassing foods from schooldays, her mother’s unremitting half-full philosophy and uncanny ability to shoot off at tangents, a compassionate review of her failed marriage. Her friends shower her with self-help books and she delivers her own effective 12-Step plan for recovery (“Step Eight: Make imprudent purchases” etc) which made me laugh. But’s it’s too girlie-chat (and American) for me; I kept thinking, Hang on, you’re a university professor. I laughed loudest at her t-shirt saying, “I am the grammarian about whom your mother warned you.”
I laughed a lot and loud at Geoff Dyer‘s Out of sheer rage: in the shadow of D.H.Lawrence (1997). Hard to keep in mind – it is so briefly stated that you might not even catch it – is that at its heart it’s a tale of depressive breakdown. It’s beautifully worked, with all the ellipses and eclipses, the contradictions, the excuses, the self-fulfilling and self-damning circular logic behind this account of a failure to fulfill a long-standing intention to write a book about D.H.Lawrence (the writer who first inspired Dyer to write) except, um, this one. Just as travelogue following in DHL’s footsteps (and failing to be inspired) it’s a delight, as is his sardonic and long-suffering girlfriend’s take on it all. I could quote half the book but I won’t. The title is a quote of Lawrence himself (“Out of sheer rage I’ve begun my book on Thomas Hardy“) and so it carries on. In the passage of not writing the book we do, of course, learn an awful lot about David Herbert Lawrence. Dyer can’t bear the thought of actually re-reading the novels and stakes a claim for the diaries (especially the grumpy bits where not much happens) and his poetry as being the real thing – Lawrence’s bad temper, his never being satisfied, his ever moving on, echoed in Dyer’s own narrative. I’m giving it short shrift with this lowly position in this blog post, but it is, quite simply, a comic work of genius, a book I shall, I am sure, return to again and again And no, it didn’t make me want to re-read the novels either; this, I suspect, is also a good thing.