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Posts Tagged ‘Wendy Cope’

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‘ :
The return of Unstoppable Nature
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.

Finally, back to unstoppable nature, a bit further north on the Grand Union Canal, part of the old railway works still standing and un-reclaimed at Wolverton:
Unstoppable nature

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Nothing to do with cricket but I will mention the set of sporty poems curated by Carol Ann Duffy in Saturday’s Guardian and in particular the splendid Wendy Cope for her presumably autobiographical ‘Sporty people’, ending as it does:

Sporty people can be OK –
Of course they can.
Later on, I met poets
Who played football. It’s still hard
To get my head round that.

No poets in an England shirt in South Africa for sure – obvious it can’t work the other way.  No, what we speak of here is another waste of space, another waste of space no less in the Milton Keynes Gallery.  The great Ian Dury, an erstwhile artist himself, was fond of the phrase, “a load of old bollo“.  and this is what we find in the long gallery – a load of balls – as described in the exhibition brochure:

ANOTHER ANOTHER RING OF BALLS (2010) displays a continuous row of found magazine pages collected over several years that are pasted around the walls of the Long Gallery.  Each page contains an image of a ball, arranged in order of size and carefully positioned so that each ball is aligned, creating an unbroken visual line that circles the space.  Inspired by geometric systems, the artist has established a discreet, simple and self-perpetuating design principle that must be unlocked in order to make sense.

Pardon my French but, like fuck it does.  The idea is so much more interesting than actually taking up the walls of the biggest room in what purports to be an art gallery.  As I have said before in these circumstances, this is not a Daily Mail anti-modern art rant; Tate Modern is one of my favourite places in London.  This show – there until mid-September – is called ‘The the things is (for 3)’, which even the brochure describes as a “stuttering nonsensical title” like that was a good thing.  The exhibition “presents the work of a London-based artist who emerged in the early 1990s”.  Furthermore, “The deliberate absence of the artist’s name […] is intended to engage visitors in a guessing game and to encourage them to put their own stamp on the work”.  This really is the higher art bollocks in its classic modern form.  Rather than a game I see it as more like those coats the police put over arrested men or women’s heads as they are taken into or out of court.  My mate Sal and I have this phrase at work when given pointless forms to fill in – “CBA – Can’t be arsed”.  The Artist With No Name?  What a wag.

As it happens, goats’ bollocks feature as a foodstuff in a scene in R.S.Downie’s ‘Ruso and the root of all evil‘ (Penguin, 2010), which, for reasons best known to the publishing industry, is issued in the US, where they allow her to be called by her actual name – Ruth – as ‘Persons non grata’.  Ruth is a lovely writer with a wonderful lightness of touch that belies the important stuff – imperialism, morality, how we should live – underpinning her tales of classical Roman times.  In Ruso, the reluctant Roman doctor detective, trying to keep an unworldly extended family on the rails, and his British female companion Tilla (‘Darlughdacha, of the Corionotatae of the Brigantes’, as she will not let people forget) she has created as engaging a pair of characters as are to be found anywhere in crime fiction and beyond.

In this third novel in the sequence the action moves to Gaul, where Tilla is appalled at the barbarity of the ‘civilised’ Roman gladiatorial sporting arena and intrigued by the spreading underground worship of ‘Christos’; she plays innocently with the literal meaning of the beliefs and teachings on display there.  As ever Downie employs the twinkling nod and wink to our times – Ruso is on sick leave with a broken metatarsal, for example – but there is real excitement and intrigue to be had here too.  She’s a star.

Finally, that rare creature, a decent music industry novel.  Bill Flanagan sidesteps the usual pitfalls of the rock novel by making his narrator Jack Flynn, the manager who looks after the members of the Ravons, a ’60s English beat group, over the decades of their rise and split and subsequent solo careers while the industry is transformed first by success and then maintained (the CD) and undone by technology (mp3s).  ‘Evening’s empire‘ (Simon & Schuster, 2010) is a big knowing book over 600 pages long written from the inside – Flanagan has been around, cites Elvis Costello, Allen Klein and Allen Toussaint among those who helped him.  Set in a land where truth is usually stranger than fiction, Flanagan’s novel harks back to an age when the novel was seen as telling what’s really going on.  Dickens and Trollope spring to mind (not that I’ve read Trollope).  We get the full absurdities of what happens to the musicians, the price of fame and the inevitabilities of excess, the difficulties of achieving self-knowledge and any sort of critical faculty that maturity – real life – might bring.  You begin to feel sorry for them, trapped by the business and their egos.  He doesn’t shirk the randomness of it all, the importance of self belief, the wanting-it that can herald delusion.

For all the cynicism Flanagan has a nice touch and he’s a deft phrase maker (I like “unearned panic”), mixing the wretchedness and the odd bit of decency that occurs with sharp humour.  It’s a burlesque really.  There’s a strong narrative throughout  – the beginnings of the group and the late ’60s scene in London are well observed – with lots of nice little cameos of the madness along the way.    For example, there’s an extended passage where Emerson, the ‘artist’, the main man, goes on a desperate safari in search of the ‘authentic’ source of the music – Africa – only to find photos of Peter Gabriel, and then Robert Plant pinned up in rural shacks.  Then there’s the full horror revealed when Flynn, a reasonably decent man doing this job working for impossible people, actually goes to a concert as a paying punter. It’s all there:  the saving financial grace of the throwaway song someone picks for TV ad, the hustling to get on big charity gigs, the necessity of the reunion tour … and I haven’t mentioned the, um,  ‘trouble’ that women bring.  It all seems horribly true enough.  Late on in the game (p517):

“I missed the days when promotion consisted of giving a bag of cash to a greasy man in a nylon jacket.  It was faster, it required less energy, and although it is never comfortable to consort with criminals it was somehow less degrading.”

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Serious concerns

I got hold of Janet Fitch‘s ‘Paint it black‘ (Virago, 2006) because of a reported Kinks reference (which was there and is duly noted on the ‘Kinks in literature’ page here) but I wasn’t prepared for something quite so intense, driven and accomplished.  This is fine writing, generous and often poetic but never overblown. The narrative hook is the suicide of gifted artist and Harvard law dropout Michael, girlfriend of Josie (white trash, liberated by the early ’80s LA punk scene) and son of Meredith (rich classical pianist of pre-war high cultured jewish emigre stock, living out in the Hollywood hills).  The depiction of these scenes – the sights, the sounds, the smells –  is skillfully done.  The struggle for Michael between the two women, before and after his death, and their shifting relationship is played out in layers of the onion fashion.  Josie discovers more and more about the man she thought she knew, and loved and grieves for, and what is revealed as his own struggle to, um, live with the common people, and goes on a journey of self discovery of her own. It’s a broad canvas; there is compassion here for people trapped in a life and a great feeling of exhilaration, hope and despair at the possibilities of escape for good or ill.  Josie’s retracing of Michael’s last journey way out into Joshua tree territory is a powerful piece of writing indeed.  Really good book.

I’ve been reading more Wendy Cope, the three slim volumes – the deliciously titled ‘Making cocoa for Kingsley Amis‘ (1986), and ‘Serious concerns‘ (1992),  and ‘If I don’t know‘ (2001) – that contribute most of the Selected volume commented on earlier.  It’s interesting to see what was left out, and I can’t argue with her judgment overall but it was still worth seeing the lot; maybe she thought the spot on ‘Strugnell in Liverpool’ too cruel or easy these days, and I would have thought the full ‘From June to December’, the record of an affair, could have remained intact.  I like her response to criticism in the title poem of the second volume – should she concentrate on being more pretentious and less amusing, to satisfy a named critic?  It would appear it’s the difficult third volume in her case, almost acknowledged in its title and ‘Being boring’ (good poem, let it be said), a certain quietude and writing about writing.  A good woman, methinks.  And the setting of her joy tinged ‘After the lunch‘ to music by Jools Holland with Louise Marshall singing, renamed ‘Waterloo Bridge‘ on his ‘The informer’ album of 2008 is beautifully, infectiously done.

Finally, have I got anything to say about the latest exhibition at Milton Keynes Gallery?  Nope, nothing.  Another waste of a decent space.  Can’t blame the ‘artist’, who died nearly 20 years ago.  Oh yes, must mention the pleasure had from Julien Temple‘s film of Madness performing their brilliant ‘The Liberty of Norton Folgate‘ music hall stylee intercut with the lads’ Dickensian forays into the City the other weekend on BBC4.

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My mate Chris (with whom I disagree on this) says, “I don’t much read women writers. I have tried […] the issue certainly is not humour or insight or writing skills. It could be because I like to learn something from a book.” Well I’ve been reading a woman poet who certainly delivers in the first three qualities. Did I learn anything from Wendy Cope? I guess; she certainly wears her heart on her sleeve.

I’ve got a photo of my mum back in the ’70s looking just like Wendy Cope on the cover of her ‘Two cures for love: selected poems 1979-2006‘ (Faber, 2008) which is slightly disconcerting, but that’s my problem.  On the surface she (that’s Wendy, not my mum) may appear to disagree with Leonard Cohen on dealing with the diagnosis of love (“There aint no cure,” says he, if you needed to know), but there is much here to delight – a touch or three of Betjeman, a sprinkling of Larkin with even a hint of Pam Ayres.  It’s joyously all new to me.  The title poem is a two liner worthy of standup, the ‘Waste land limericks’ (“In April one seldom feels cheerful”) are a hoot.  There are great fun and games to be had here in these celebrations of poetry, love and life but there are simple and subtle depths too, not least in the more personal poems.  I regret not ‘discovering’ her earlier.  Good, too, to make the acquaintance of Jason Strugnell, her parodic bard of Tulse Hill – long may he run.  Also worth a mention for the smiles it brings is ‘Waterloo Bridge’, the Jools Holland  Big Band setting to music her ‘After the lunch’ with Louise Marshall singing, which is suitably infectious in the best possible way.

American novelist Richard Yates has his champions and seems to undergo a revival (or comes back into print) every decade or two.  His ‘Revolutionary Road‘, originally published in 1961, has been on my list for some time, being rated highly by a couple of friends (hi again, Chris).  I’m glad I finally read it.  It certainly is a powerful piece of writing.  It’s very much of its time, a decent map in ithe narrative of why the ’60s were waiting to happen – remember psychoanalysis as a tool for adjusting, fitting in, used against people? – but the unfullfillingness of Frank Wheeler’s existence, the drift from the hint of the expectation and tactical postponement of something special into deeper suburbia and the lonely crowd can still echo, if the fate of his wife April is more tragically timebound (not least in the gynecology department), and again, a statement of another problem, even if I suspect Yates had only the smallest glimmering of an  emerging feminist agenda.  There’s an awful lot of drinking going on and in the end, melodrama.  While you can’t be simpatico with the characters you cannot help being sympathetic.  No, I haven’t seen the movie.

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