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Posts Tagged ‘William Shakespeare’

No, not the Tory Brexiteers, but the police team that worked on a missing persons inquiry back in 2006 as described off-the-record by the man called upon to investigate the original handling of the case.  The case is dramatically re-opened as a murder enquiry 12 years later in In a house of lies, Ian Rankin‘s new novel (Orion, 2018), when the missing person in question turns up dead in the boot of an abandoned VW Golf found concealed in a local wood.  As it happens, the original case had been one of the last a disillusioned DI John Rebus had worked on before his retirement as a police officer, and, one way or another, he gets to tag along again.  Did Rebus really retire as a cop as long ago as 2006?  Indeed, he did.

At a certain stage late in the enquiry, Siobhan Clarke, Rebus’s protégé of old, asks him:

‘Did you at least manage to have a bit of fun, John?’
‘Fun?’
‘Playing detective again, I mean.
‘All the fun in the world, Siobhan.’  Rebus stretched out an arm. ‘It’s just one huge amusement park out there, happy families everywhere you look.’

I think Ian Rankin had fun writing this one, the twenty-second in the Rebus saga.  He’s showing his age now, of course.  ‘Still got this old thing, I see,’ observes a DC we’ve met in previous books.  ‘Are you talking to me or the car?‘ he responds.  Despite a diagnosis of COPD (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) – from which there can be no eventual escape – he’s still managing to live in his second floor tenement flat in Edinburgh’s Old Town, albeit with a 20-a-day nicotine patch habit and whisky and strong beers no longer contributing to his diet; he’s lost 20 pounds.  He’s grown a tad ruminative too: having picked up the phrase ‘a managed decline‘ at the clinic, ‘To him, it seemed to sum up his whole life since retirement, and maybe even before.

I suspect there are still at least a couple more books in him, though, through the good graces (and hefty nudges) of the now established woman in his life, pathologist Deborah Quant, who we hardly meet this time around, even if her presence is felt.  Siobhan comes to see him:

He lifted a box of tea bags. ‘Turmeric. Guess who from?’
‘A certain pathologist?’
‘She thinks I want to live forever.’ […]
They went into the living room, where a CD was playing. Rebus turned it down a notch.
‘Is that classical?’
‘Arvo P
ärt.’
‘Our pathologist friend again?’
‘Music to soothe the fevered brow.’

He’s got Brian Eno in the Saab’s antiquated sound system too, “another gift from Deborah Quant to help his ‘mindfulness’ ” – a concept about which he’s not convinced.  He uses Van Morrison’s Moondance and John Martyn’s Solid air to aid a long night session with some old case files.  And that is pretty much it for the narrative soundtrack this time around.

The main plot concerns the dead body in the car and the historical rivalry between a property developer and aspirant cultural entrepreneur (and now failing independent film maker) over ‘the palatial Poretoun House‘.  At one stage in the investigation this crucially involves them watching a movie called Zombies v Bravehearts.  Two sub-plots also bubble away nicely, sometimes spilling over into the main proceedings.  We have a pair of corrupt cops working in the Anti-Corruption Unit (‘the Chuggabugs’), who are trying to nobble Siobhan, which endeavour brings into play a sordid but ultimately redemptive family drama involving a young man pleading guilty to a killing he did not commit (the ‘happy families’ from my first Rebus quote). 

Along the way Rebus’s old sparring partner, gangster ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty – Legitimate businessman, John. That’s what the judge said at the trial.’ / ‘Aye, and like you, I could hear the inverted commas’inevitably reappears and makes a significant contribution. In passing suggesting that Brexit will give up plenty of opportunities for ‘disaster capitalists’ like himself.  Elsewhere, bon malt viveur that he now is, he admits to being brought up on ‘cooking lager’, a phrase I’d not encountered before.

The twelve-year gap betwixt disappearance and the discovery of a dead body gives plenty of opportunities to comment on changes in policing and in the wider society.  As Malcolm Fox, almost a veteran himself in the Rebus saga these days, says: “My time in Professional Standards, Rebus was never far from a bollocking or a suspension.”  Our man worries to Siobhan that the Chuggabugs might still find something to compromise him from the original inquiry (there is, but never mind that): “‘John, every officer who ever worked with you has something on you.’ / ‘Fair point.’ Rebus tried for a look of contrition but failed“.  But here’s an old school colleague of his who also worked the case in 2006: ” ‘Seems the wrong word or look gets you accused of bullying. Wouldn’t have happened in our day, John.’ / ‘Might have been better if it had,’ Rebus said ruefully, draining his cup.”  Then again, the by-the-book head of the 2018 inquiry ends up admitting, “‘I sort of wish you were still on the force.’ / ‘Aye, me too,’ Rebus confessed.

He rues austerity and the demise of neighbourhood policing: “… and a dumped car with four flat tyres and a notice on it that said POLICE AWARE. Rebus smiled at that. Back in the day, there would have been a beat cop who would have known every face, able to put a name to each. Not these days, not outside the Oor Wullie cartoon in the Sunday Post Rebus had just bought at the shop.”  On the other hand, current more enlightened views on homosexuality – the mis-per was gay – would have meant the original inquiry could not have been so deeply flawed.  Then there’s the rise of social media; he’s saddened “… that so much these days happened online, with every keyboard warrior suddenly a ‘commentator’ or ‘pundit’ or ‘news-gatherer’. There was a lack of quality control“.  There are, as ever, major roadworks to contend with in Edinburgh.

I enjoyed In the house of lies immensely, not least for its character driven dialogue and humour.  Rebus, Siobhan and Malcolm make for an entertaining triple act (Steele is one of the Chuggabugs):

Steele’s going down for something, Shiv, trust me.’
She stared at him. ‘What do you know that I don’t?’
‘Well for one thing, I can name every Rolling Stones B-side from the 1960s.’
‘Would you put money on it, though?’ Fox asked.
Rebus started counting on his fingers. ‘ “
I want to be loved”, “Stoned”, “Little by little” …’
‘Don’t encourage him,’ Clarke said to Fox. ‘It’s just his way of ducking the question.’
‘She know me too well,’ Rebus agreed with a shrug in Fox’s direction.

Hell, I even guffawed at: “The room was stuffy and Dean had removed his jacket but kept his waistcoat on. It boasted a fob watch on a gold chain, just when Rebus thought he couldn’t dislike lawyers more than he already did.”  As I say, Rebus must be good for a couple more books yet, but I have every faith that Siobhan – what a great line “Rebus could sense her tired smile” is, by the way – is ready to take up the slack: “DCI Mark Mollison was seated behind the world’s tidiest desk” is one of hers.

Meanwhile, as someone else said of someone else, Roll on John.

Painting Shakey black

What, you say?  Spend a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon watching a set of excerpts from Shakespeare delivered by the Stony Stratford Theatre Society upstairs in the Temple of the local Masonic Hall?  Yes, please.  They’re such a talented band of actors and it’s such a great intimate – whites of their (and our) eyes – venue for this sort of thing.

Intimate, you say? Ginny Davies photographed in action by Andy Powell from one long side of the temple, with a chin-stroking Lillabullero in the audience on the other.

Intimate, you say?  Yup, long and thin, which means all ends and sides of the audience get an equal viewing chance, and lends a valuable variety and freshness to the simple staging; static it cannot be.

What has stayed with me was Sam Marsh’s singing Sonnet 104 (“To me, fair friend, you never can be old …“), sung faithfully to the tune of the Rolling Stones’ Paint it black.  That and Susan Whyte as a bag lady pulling along a shopping trolley (can’t remember the character, I’m afraid – bonus photo at the end here).  But it was all good.  And as broadcasters are wont to say: other playwrights are available – a little touch of John Webster and Chris Marlowe in the afternoon.  Bravo Caz!

Haulage

Couple of Vaultages of note.  Or Haulage, as the autotext on my phone tried to suggest.  The astonishing Larry Stubbings only does covers, but what audacious covers! One man, one guitar.  Highlight was a stunning rendition of Led Zep’s The immigrant song, losing nothing of its power, but he kept rapt for well over half an hour, whoo-whooing to Sympathy for the devil and (even me) singing along to AC/DC’s Highway to hell. (Now there’s a thing: Caz told me the original idea for Sonnet 104 was to set it to Sympathy, but the actor decided Paint it black worked better).

Of course open mics can be very hit and miss, but when you’ve got something like Vaultage picking up a head of steam, very interesting things can happen.  Hence Kevin, who lives in Turkey, but was spending a few days in Newport Pagnell, coming along and delivering a sinuous jazz tinged Sunshine of your love that gave the song room to breathe and for my money easily trumped the original.  Another turn-up for the books: two Crowded House songs in one night – such melody!  Good Time Jazz, experienced and accomplished musicians all, did what is says on the tin: Summertime,  Bye Bye Blackbird, Oh when the Saints and more from the repertoire done justice to.  Great to hear a saxophone for a change.

Tombland

I’ve been looking forward to the latest “bit of Shardlake” (“I like a bit of Shardlake” © an esteemed nephew of mine) but I’m sorry to say I’m giving the one that’s finally arrived – the first since 2014 – I’m giving it a miss until a period of as yet unscheduled enforced convalescence crops up in my life.  For why?  Because C.J.Sansom‘s new addition to the canon, Tombland (Mantle, 2018) is – in shape and weight – a brick, 801 pages long and then some, with a historical essay, Re-imagining Ketts’ rebellion, and bibliographical apparatus, bringing the total to 866.  And the to-be-read pile is high.

Here are the people introduced on just the opening page of Tombland:

  • I (Matthew Shardlake)
  • messenger from Master Parry
  • Master Perry, Lady Elizabeth’s comptroller
  • Lady Elizabeth
  • Catherine Parr
  • The old king (Henry VIII)
  • Lord Protector Somerset
  • Lady Mary, Henry’s eldest daughter
  • Young King Edward
  • Holy Roman Emperor Charles, Mary’s cousin
  • Thomas Seymour (the Protector’s brother), married to CP

All this, for all 866 pages, without hint of a Dramatis Personae for future reference.  Hell, I need a Dramatis Personae to keep up these days.  

And to finish, here, as promised, the STTS, doing Shakespeare. Photo © Andy Powell

 

 

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

John Howarth. ©Pat Nicholson

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

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

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

Viva Vivant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Official photographer Paul hands’ cast shots

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

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

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

MK Calling 2017

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

 

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

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

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

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

2011

2017

Meanwhile, back indoors …

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

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

Because it was there

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

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

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

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

What it says on the poster

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

Further musical adventures

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

garden-of-evening-mistsThe Garden of Evening Mists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

talking-to-the-deadTalking to the dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Musical adventures

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

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

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

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

Another brevity fail, then …

 

 

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sunny-afternoon-programmeI’ll take it as read that Sunny Afternoon is this hugely enjoyable and successful award-winning musical, that it’s much more than just juke box theatre, and that it is performed  superbly by a multi-talented cast.  What we have here is ensemble playing at its best, full of energy, emotion and period feel.  (And of course there had to be dolly birds).  I’m taking the Kinks history for granted too.

So, I record just a few things here that occurred, after watching the touring cast at Milton Keynes Theatre, to one who has (for his sins) read all the Kinks biographies and was championing the songs long before the cliché of Ray Davies as ‘national institution’ was a given, before that soubriquet started being attributed liberally to any old Tom, Dick and Harriet.

Obviously much had to be telescoped into or left out of this telling of the story, but I thought the crucial dramatic band episodes were mostly nicely handled and worked well as theatrical moments too, in particular:

  • the ousting of co-manager Robert Wace as singer; ’50s crooner blown away mid-song by Dave’s blues guitar
  • the full enactment complete with legendary insults of the Cardiff incident where Mick Avory thought he’d killed Dave on stage in mid-show with a drum pedal
  • a collage of the all action run-ins with the unions and other awkward Americans leading to the band being banned from the States for 3 years.
  • (although I have to say, as a veteran reader and listener of the Kinks story, I thought the partial destruction of the Little Green Amp section a bit hammy, to tell the truth)

I particularly liked the way the songs were chosen and used, not necessarily chronologically, and not necessarily exclusively from the time frame of the show (1964-69), with some put into unexpected mouths as the story unfolded:

  • so Days is started by posh-boy managers Robert and Grenville when they’re given the boot; a lovely and powerful acapella spell cast over the audience as most of the gang join in
  • Pete Quaife’s exit to A rock’n’roll fantasy, the latest song in the canon featured, from 1978’s Misfits album; one of my least favourite Kinks songs, as it happens (but let’s just leave it as that being my problem for the time being).  (A friend with his own Kinks website describes “Dan is a fan” as the worst line Ray ever wrote; it has also led in fandom to disputes as to who Dan was, with pathetic claim and counter claims).
  • remind me, was Dead End Street, featured early in the show, sung initially by Ma and Pa Davies?
  • that passage in the play a lot of reviews mention, when Ray is calling wife Rasa on the phone from America, he singing Sitting in my hotel, and she the sublime I go to sleep as counterpoint; and yes, you really could have heard a pin drop.  Extraordinary moment.  I seem to recall she did a touching Tired of waiting directed at Ray as well.

A few other things less easy to categorise:

  • I was never a fan of the phenomenon, but that brilliant and witty drum solo at the start of the second half, after one had got over the initial shock of its unexpectedly being there at all, had me (and the audience) engrossed; I think it must have been a particularly good night because I thought I saw some congratulatory banter from the non-acting musician tucked away at the back of the stage.  Proof positive, I would say, that Ray does not share Dave’s famously derogatory opinion of Mick Avory’s skills.  Andrew Gallo take a bow.  (Have to report, too, a certain bewilderment for me that he was a spitting image of my niece’s husband; kept thinking, What’s James doing up there?)
  • the recreation of the genesis of Waterloo Sunset in the recording studio was beautifully done
  • Ryan O’Donnell has to get a name-check here as entering fully into the spirit of Ray; while Mark Newnham actually looked like Dave (but had a better voice).  The whole cast was tremendous (with the bonus of  Grenville and Robert being proficient on trombone) and their CVs refreshingly free of the usual Casualty, The Bill and Midsomer Murders credits.
  • a lot of football metaphors thrown in, but I thought they made a bit of a rush job with the collage of Sunny Afternoon, the show’s title song, and England winning the World Cup
  • Class: in the US Ray and Dave play up as working class socialists, and it is made quite clear that the touted classless society of the early ’60s was, if not an illusion, a very short-lived phenomena
  • a couple of neat ‘time traveller’ jokes
  • is Sunny Afternoon set to be the middle part of a very broadly defined trilogy?  I wonder this because of the way it ended, with Allen Klein reintroducing them to the American stage.  So we’ve had the Davies family background in more detail with the earlier rather fine but never made it to the West End Come Dancing musical, albeit with a fictional plot overlaid, and Ray is talking about “something epic” when the Americana – the what came next – CD is released?
  • so Allen Klein: I must admit I hadn’t realised that it was his team that cleared the legal or bureaucratic decks that allowed the Kinks to work in America again, and although there was the dramatic moment in the show when Ray made sure they didn’t sign another damaging management deal with him after he’d sorted a few things out (unlike the Beatles and the Stones), Klein’s voice announcing their return to a big New York venue seemed an odd way to end the narrative.  As if “the rest is history”, except for most people, it isn’t.  Apart from Lola.
  • indeed, I have to say I thought the admittedly joyous singalong clap-along audience on their feet finale of Lola was a bit of an artistic cop-out, a populist failure of nerve, seeing as the song Lola – the one, of course, the whole world knows – had no point of reference with the basic narrative in the show that had gone before.  Don’t worry, I was up on my feet with the rest of the audience, but I’d have preferred a reprise of Sunny Afternoon.
  • Great night, nevertheless!  I think I can see why a few of my Kinks fan community friends have seen the London cast show many, many times.  At certain times, excitement revived, when the lads picked up their instruments you could close your eyes and …  As well as all the fun.

shakespeare-circleMeanwhile, 400 years earlier …

Exactly 400 years had passed between his birth and the start of the action in Sunny Afternoon and You really got me being released, but there are still many things that are unclear about the life of William Shakespeare, born 1564.  Friday before last (Sept 2), in the local library in Stony we had a couple of world-class superstars of Shakespeare biography introducing their book The Shakespeare circle: an alternative biography (Cambridge UP, 2015).  The need for “Imaginative biography” is the phrase they used, if I remember correctly.  It was a fascinating evening, all done without the help of  a ss-shak-400PowerPoint presentation.  Paul Edmonson and Stanley Wells made for a fascinating double act, a splendid mix of wit, friendship and scholarship, their depth of knowledge staggering (but then this is what they’ve been doing for most of their adult lives).  Here’s the publisher’s puff, because I feel like being lazy:

This original and enlightening book casts fresh light on Shakespeare by examining the lives of his relatives, friends, fellow-actors, collaborators and patrons both in their own right and in relation to his life. Well-known figures such as Richard Burbage, Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton are freshly considered; little-known but relevant lives are brought to the fore, and revisionist views are expressed on such matters as Shakespeare’s wealth, his family and personal relationships, and his social status. Written by a distinguished team, including some of the foremost biographers, writers and Shakespeare scholars of today, this enthralling volume forms an original contribution to Shakespearian biography and Elizabethan and Jacobean social history.

All great fun, honest.  50 years ago, in year 2 of Sunny Afternoon, I did a sixth form project on the question of ‘Who Wrote Shakespeare?’ prompted by John Peirce, an inspirational English teacher who knew of my keenness for Mark Twain and guided me to a late work of his, published 1909, Is Shakespeare dead?  (Here’s a link to the Wikipedia entry).  There Twain details humourously and not unseriously the known facts of the actor William Shakespeare’s life and compares them with the width and breadth of knowledge displayed in the plays, and promotes a conspiracy theory that has been repeated over the decades, invoking various other writers for any number of reasons, as the true authors.  All nonsense, of course, and research has found a lot more about the Bard in the century hence.

No-one directly brought up the question of authorship, but one of the questions from the floor invoked the supposed “missing years” in the documented life of Shakespeare, which some have used to reconcile the mismatch Twain highlighted – did he go to Italy, for instance, and pick up all the knowledge thereof that’s there in the plays?  Apart from the fact that London was a major cosmopolitan trading port where all sorts of things could be picked up in bars etc., Wells and Edmondson said that many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries also have big gaps in their documented existence, indeed one would expect it, given the times.  Anyway, mention of ‘the missing years’ reminded me of John Prine‘s rather wonderful part-song part-recitation  Jesus the missing years, which I leave you with here, to enjoy:

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Pigs in heavenand somebody says, ‘Oh, that’s a great one, did he get hit by the train yet?’ “

It was only when I was trying to see if there really was a place called Heaven in Oklahoma that I became aware that Barbara Kingsolver‘s Pigs in Heaven (Faber, 1993) was actually a sequel (to 1998’s The bean trees), though it was her breakthrough book.  It’s great.  It’s where my opening quote comes from, but – no other spoilers, but, rest assured, nobody gets hit by a train.  I read it slowly so as not to miss a single delightful nuance in the prose.  Like:

  • His idea of marriage is to spray WD-40 on anything that squeaks.
  • Alice wonders if other women in the middle of the night have begun to resent their Formica.

and that’s just the first two pages.  Then’s there’s the description all tied beautifully in, like this on the same page as the Formica:

The neighbourhood tomcat, all muscle and slide, is creeping along the top of the trellis where Alice’s sweet peas have spent themselves all spring. She’s seen him up there before, getting high on the night perfume, or imagining the taste of mockingbird. The garden Alice wishes she could abandon is crowded with bird music and border disputes and other people’s hungry animals. She feels like the queen of some pitiful, festive land.

Pigs in Heaven is concerned with many things: family, belonging and commitment; the survival of the Cherokee Nation, mixed race adoption and child custody.  It is also a classic American road trip (on the road but not for the buzz of it), a tale of fateful twists and contingency, it’s full of conflicting good intentions, of youthful idealism and an older wisdom.  The main players are all women, but the men have their uses in the end.  (“She feels she has died and gone to the Planet of Men Who Cook.”)  All are interesting at the very least.  Turtle, an abandoned (that happened in The Bean Tree) and damaged 6-year-old is the plot driver, but unlike a lot of fictional children, she’s not annoying at all.  There’s even a decent fictional musician (his band the Irascible Babies break up, but here come Renaissance Cowboys).

So many passages I’m dying to quote.  Like Cash, doing traditional Cherokee beadwork for tourists, to earn a spare dime:

… but since he started putting beads on his needle each night, his eye never stops counting rows: pine trees on the mountainsides, boards in a fence, kernels on the ear of corn as he drops it into the kettle. He can’t stop the habit, it satisfies the ache in the back of his brain, as if it might fill in his life’s terrible gaps. His mind is lining things up, making jewellery for someone the size of god.

Or a short-term travelling companion who’s “accepted Barbie as her personal saviour.”  Prompting the thought:

Like Lucky Buster, Barbie doesn’t strike all the right chords as a true adult. Taylor wonders if this is some new national trend like a crop disease. Failure to mature.  Taylor matured at age nine, she feels, on a day she remembers …  You don’t have to talk to her, that’s the cleaning lady’s girl”

(I find myself saying, “Grow up” at the television an awful lot lately.)  Or the poetry of:

Along the highway the cornfields lie newly flayed, mile after mile, their green skin pulled back to reveal Oklahoma’s flesh of orange velvet dirt. The uncultivated hills nearby show of a new summer wardrobe of wildflowers. The massed reds flecked with gold are Indian blanket; Cash recalls the name with pleasure, like a precious possession lost and retrieved. He fixes the radio on the sweet, torn voice of George Jones and breathes deeply of the air near home.

I’ve not the time for much plot here, but the book is a delight; I loved it.  And although the Native Indian experience is significant – and the ancient and modern ritual Stomp Dance is a riveting episode near the end – there’s also a broader canvas drawn – Americana, no less; it made me think of Bob Dylan‘s Basement Tapes, of that ‘weird, old America’ it summoned up even in the mixed-up confusion of the modern world.  Like this song (a version here by two of the Roche Sisters):

And another tune that I couldn’t keep away, James McMurtry‘s awesome Choctaw Bingo.  The climax of Pigs in Heaven takes place in a meeting room where there’s a poster advertising a debate to be held in the same building, as to whether or no the community should adopt the Choctaw Bingo route to financial security.  What the song describes mostly happens off-page in Pigs in Heaven, but it’s undeniably there at source:

Meanwhile, backtracking …

Illyria's arrival

The arrival of the Illyria Theatre Company to Linford Manor.

… old news, a stomach bug and a vicious summer cold ago, Illyria came to town.  Arrived late to cheers and applause on the back of an AA transporter and proceeded with great dedication to erect their stage on the lawn in front of Linford Manor and get right on with a performance of A midsummer night’s dream only an hour and a bit late.  Luckily the weather held though it got a bit chilly towards the end.  Great little company, obviously full of talent, versatility, energy and commitment.

A-Midsummer-Nights-Dream-IllyriaShame about the production, then, which was … shouty.  If you’d closed your eyes and didn’t know the play it would have been hard to distinguish which of the three kingdoms of the play – the nobility, the rude mechanicals, the Faeries – were on.  And I couldn’t get behind a twitching Puck with ADHD.  Shakespearista friend left more than tutting at half-time.  Shame.  That said, the children in the audience were obviously enjoying it greatly so, regardless,  some sort of win for the bard.  And there was some tremendous acrobatic physical humour in the second half.

Magdalen FayreSame weekend, Medieval stuff.  Bigger and better than last year, so building nicely.  Actual full-gear – an illuminating demonstration – combat (no, not really real, but it looked tiring enough), so what with that and the return of Robot Wars to television later that evening, a touch of Sunday ultra-violence to see out July.

Have I got anything to say about the Olympics?  Not really, though I watched a lot of stuff I wouldn’t normally watch.  Liked Mark Cavendish’s interviews, was moved by Michael Johnson’s mini-essay about Jesse Owens, got sick of Phil and his microphone.  And not just him, but that question: “How does it feel?”;  and that answer: “Unbelievable”.

 

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