media consumption & whatever else I felt like putting in
In what follows, the last stuff is at the top; if you got here via a search engine and can’t be bothered to trawl down the page to find what you were looking for (so annoying, the way they do that) then try pressing CTRL and F.
A bit about this photo of Ernest Hemingway, the work of the celebrated portrait photographer John Bryson. Many moons ago I had it as a big poster on my student bedsit wall but it was hard work even in these days of Google Images to find this low definition scan. Still timeless, though, that beer can hanging in mid-air …
Here be the last post to the old site: And lo, I am become the Typhoid Mary of free webhosting. First Dreamwater disappeared overnight; now GeoCities at least has the decency to announce their withdrawal from the scene well in advance – late October, apparently. And so I reach out for new lands. It’s hardly silence, cunning and exile though, because Papa’s got a brand new blog. I am now aboard the good ship WordPress. All future posts that would have appeared here are now at the good ship Lillabullero (that’s here, folks!) … Here we go. (August 11, 2009)
August 3, 2009 More good stuff from Kate Atkinson with her ‘One good turn: a jolly murder mystery’ (2006), the second of her Jackson Brodie sequence of crime novels. A rambling introduction of character after character at first tries one’s concentration but it all come together in the end. Tangents, contingency and contingent misunderstandings, quotable bon mots, a certain intrigue, great attitude – an open cynicism? Enjoyable, satisfying, you feel for them all.
July 18 Some hideous home truths meted out for the credulous in David Aaronovitch’s ‘Voodoo histories: the role of the conspiracy theory in shaping modern history’ (Cape, 2009). There were conspiracies in here that I never realised existed, let alone were still being taken seriously, like FDR encouraging/letting the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbour as a way of getting the US into WW2. The history of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, originating in a satirical work of fiction, is fascinating (and how disturbing is it that it’s still given credence in Palestine) while the debunking of the ‘Holy blood and holy grail’ crew is definitive (“a different kind of proof”, they claim, or something like that). Never mind JFK or the moon landings, the so-called 911 Truth movement beggars belief (the Twin Towers didn’t collapse, they were blown up by the government, is only part of it). The whole Hilda Morrell saga is depressing, while seemingly in the UK history repeats itself as farce with that Tory MP’s book saying David Kelly (MOD, WOMD was murdered, you remember), which Aaronovitch absolutely demolishes. Why are they given media space? While playing it for laughs at times, Aaronovitch’s concern is a serious examination of just how and why such nonsense can take hold among seemingly educated populations. Given the number of people who would have to be in on a conspiracy, and for it all to have worked and noone (with a name, and documented) snitching, Occam’s razor must rule. History re-written by the losers, looking to absolve their responsibility for failure is one strand of explanation, but he also considers the need for a narrative to make sense of the modern world, and the notion of hysteria. Lovely quote from Susan Sontag: “I envy paranoids. They actually feel people are paying attention to them.” This is a book that should be on the national curriculum; I don’t think I’m joking.
July 13 A bit of luck last Saturday night. Waiting for a train at Watford getting back home from a Sicilian feast friends had given us (thanks Glenda, thanks Russ) … the discovery of just how pleasant a campari and soda can be and a sensational starter of fresh orange pieces and red onions in olive oil, no really, delicious … anyway, coming back the train was delayed (points failure south of Harrow) for half an hour. But while waiting, in comes, on the opposite platform, a returning steam excursion headed by a resplendent 70013, ‘Oliver Cromwell’, our republican leader (history and morality demand I refrain from giving him the adjectival appelation ‘great’) commemorated in the form of a British Railways Standard Class 7 (aka the Britannias) steam locomotive. It was a splendid sight, the dark green livery reflecting, shining in the rain, and as it pulled out of the station the combination of the dark, the station lighting and the serious steam sent shivers down my spine. A thing of beauty, what a magnificent beast. First time I ever felt the lack of a camera on my mobile phone.
July 10 I’ve been ploughing my way through ‘The age of wonder: how the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science’ (Harper Press, 2008) for a while now, though saying ploughing does it a dis-service really, because Richard Holmes is a fine writer – infectious and highly informative. The book deserves big chunks of time to really ride the excitement. Here was a hugely creative period when poets and scientists (as they came to be called at this time) still drank and dined and enthused – in wonder – together and ‘one culture’ Coleridge could lecture to the Royal Institution and keep up with the new developments. With industrialisation and the developments described here it was never quite the same again. Given I spent my teenage years on the Slough border I feel cheated now that I had no idea, that noone told me, what Herschel was doing just down the road with his 40ft telescope – the idea of an expanding universe, other galaxies being born, dying, the concept of light years, blowing the (whisper it) whole religion thing. Maybe someone did try to tell me there was more history to the place than the Trading Estate, though I doubt it; the Plough, the Dolphin, all figuring in the tale – the pubs, I mean, not the constellations, only the names of bus stops for me then (I drank in Burnham). The discovery of new worlds above, and on this planet new ways of living, the sensuality of the South Seas, the bravery, the joy, the despair of exploration by land, sea, experiment and thought – a still astonishing tale, exceedingly well told.
July 7 I read Mark Radcliffe’s ‘Thank you for the days: a boy’s own adventures in radio and beyond’ (Simon & Schuster, 2009) despite having previously dismissed his novel as one of the worst books I’d ever finished; the new book sounded interesting and you have to hand it to him and Stuart Maconie for that radio programme despite that sometimes annoying drawl. As a writer he aint no Maconie but he seems a decent enough chap for whom the music is what still matters, with some good stories of how the radio industry ‘works’.
There is much to be said about the demise of Michael Jackson and the media constructed overkill and mostly I can’t be bothered, but I still cannot get over how the family seem to be in denial – and have been unquestionably allowed to get away with it – over their responsibility: he was your little brother, fer chrissake, how did you ever let it get anywhere near this? At the back of my mind there was a famous Danny Baker piece way back when in the NME that struck me then as a classic and worth revisiting now. I managed to track it down in an anthology of rock writing and it was worth the hunt (good old AbeBooks). Baker’s ‘The great Greenland mystery’ from 1981, describing his journey to interview the young MJ and the other Js, is a fantastic piece of work, very very funny but also very sinister in its implications, the unreality, the accepted and fostered shielding from the real world, even then. Baker’s subsequent career – and it’s not been without merit, 606 (a football phone-in) and all that – has been a loss to writing.
June 30 I don’t want to knock local and enthusiast publishing, because it’s a thing to be celebrated and the book I’m about to needlessly mock does a decent enough job of filling a knowledge gap if you need filling in on, say, the Nicky Line or Newport Nobby. Murray Eckett‘s collection of articles ‘Signals: a railway miscellany; Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire’ (Book Castle, 2008) also boasts a rather splendid period painting by Alan Ward on its fron cover, railway bridge, old LMS loco, Green Line coach, child with old pram et al. The prose that gives me pause is the caption to a couple of photographs. on p43.
“If the Underground had reached Bushey Heath, this is the type of train that would have been used on the extension, the “38TS” (this designation being applied to this rolling stock, the first production example of which appeared in 1938). arguably the finest British tube train ever built, a number of examples are still in everyday service on the Isle of Wight.”
I think it’s the ‘arguably’ that so entertains me, especially given one’s experiences out of Ryde Harbour on said Isle. Sorry.
June 29 Quick Glastonbury verdict update: Madness did it for me. I tried hard to hold out against Bruce and was succeeding, especially with the Spinal Tap moment – “House of love” indeed – but the very next song was pure Quo and you had to hand it to him after that, just the commitment to – oh help me, please, am i really typing this? – keep on rockin’. And though I’m never gonna own one of their records, you can’t take it away from Status Quo either, the, um, English Ramones? But Madness were just great – who’da thought they’d be the ones to keep burning brightest. And the new album – ‘The liberty of Norton Folgate’ is pretty good too.
June 27 I’m not a golf person, but Carl Hiassen‘s golf memoir, ‘Fairway to hell: a hacker’s return to a ruinous sport’ (Bantam, 2008) was compulsive in its misery. You get the idea from the title. The relentlessness of his failure to improve and others’ reactions are a perverted joy. He has a good heart, and some life tales worth hearing, so thanks for sharing.
A certain listlessness this weekend has meant I’ve been dipping in and out of Glastonbury on the telly. It’s pretty gruesome, and I should have known better, but all these bands still doing songs that were of their time … The Specials in a field in view of the Tor singing of urban strife; Crosby, Stills and Nash still almost cutting their hair, telling us about riots on Sunset Strip over 40 years ago, a reworking detracting from the wonderful ‘Wooden ships’ and getting a lesson in live harmony singing from that boring bearded lot half their age. ‘Peace’ indeed, Graham. Neil Young still has power aplenty though.
I’ve been putting some time into The Kinks Choral Album and those songs really are timeless. What Ray Davies – productive as ever compared with his contemporaries – has done with the Hornsey Festival Choir is a success. Shame the two most disappointing treatments are the openers, ‘Days’ and ‘Waterloo sunset’, which disappoint because not much is really added save backing vocals, but ‘You really got me’, the Village Green suite, ‘Working men’s cafe’ – the new song that can live with the classics – are magnificent and work because the full choir – the basses, the baritones – is given its head and you get something powerful and new; that intro to ‘All day and all of the night’ is stunning. My conclusion: well worth doing but could have been even better with more upfront choir and maybe even a couple of other solo voices. It needs to be played loud to get the full effect.
June 23 And somewhere back there, as I said, we had a decent week’s weather in the Lake District, did things the rain stopped us doing last year. Broke the journey, stayed over on the way up. Every town should have a Jim’s (variously Jim’s Vegetarian Restaurant or Jim’s Cafe). Nice relaxed vibe, interesting food, eminently reasonable prices. What, I wonder, has Colne has done to deserve that? In the Lakes, John Ruskin’s Brantwood confirmed as a favourite place. Nice pint or three of Loweswater Gold, supped this year outside in the sun in the garden where we stayed just outside Keswick, the wonderfully sited Heights. The day of the correctly predicted rains we did the Pencil Museum which really was quite interesting; bought a CD of decent musicians playing the Musical Stones of Skiddaw in the wonderfully old stylee Keswick Museum; then it cleared up so walked to a well stocked waterfall. And other stuff. Like I think I’ve finally cracked the difference between swift and swallows.
June 20 Job done in Marina Hyde’s ‘Celebrity: how entertainers took over the world and why we need an exit strategy’ (Harvill Secker, 2009). The sub-title says it all. I’ve always relished her football related pieces in the Guardian, exposing the moral deficiencies of selected players of the game. At one point here she discusses the legitimacy of a justification for hatred, evidenced with copious examples of imbecility (‘ours’ and theirs), inanity, ego and abuse of power detailed with a venomous and barbed wit. You could say it’s shooting sitting ducks but because one usually mentally turns off at these manifestations (Pitt, Jolie, Cruise, Bono et al) you hardly realise the enormity of it and how they get away with it. Not forgetting the editors of those mags in all this; you do wonder how they can sleep at night. Reassuring that I’m not alone in chanting at the tv screen, “That’s not news”. Splendidly venemous use of the footnote.
We didn’t actually use much of Jim Reid’s ‘Tour of the Lake District’ (Cicerone, 2007) but for what we did – Wordsworh territory via the Loughrigg Terrace – it was trustworthy, by which I mean practical, realistic, quietly inspirational . Can’t pretend to call ourselves fell walkers, but we’ll certainly use it again.
Re-acquainted by chance with Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes cartoons in the ‘Something under the bed is drooling’ collection. Utter joy, instant depression cure surely? Watterson’s career saintly, just walking away because he felt he’s done all he could with his creation and more importantly, not merchandising, not milking it. (June 20)
June 11 I read the first of Martin Edward‘s Lake District Mysteries last, if you catch my drift, and it’s clear that with ‘The coffin trail’ (2004) he hit the ground running when he intoduced the ex-celebrity historian Daniel Kind and DCI Hannah Scarlett – a splendid unlikely double act. What follows in the later books is all there from the start. It’s an engrossing tale in itself – I certainly didn’t see the denouement coming – never mind the will they/won’t they interpersonal stuff. I look forward to the next one.
You can rely on Matthew Bourne. From the classic modern graphic you see projected on the set the minute you walk into the theatre, i knew we were in for a treat. Dark as it was, his company’s latest ‘piece’, ‘Dorian Gray’ – essentially a morality play without words on the theme of celebrity – was an exciting and spectacular experience, prog-rock score and all. The group work, the shapes, the moves, ones comes away in wonderment (and not just wondering what on earth was that all about?). It helped that we were treated to a Q&A with the charming man himself after the Tuesday night performance; seems I got most of the story right. And the set was a part of the narrative too, the pictures and modern art getting darker and more decadent as the whole appalling tale unfolded. I don’t really ‘do’ dance and I certainly don’t do ballet, but I do do Matthew Bourne.
June 7 The lead cop in John Harvey’s ‘Far cry’ (Heinemann, 2009) is so memorable that until I checked on the indispensible Fantastic Fiction website, just to make sure, I’d forgotten he’s featured in Harvey’s last book too; his woman partner is a lot more interesting. This seems to be a bit of a tendency with Premier League Brit crime fiction of late – come on Rankin, where’s the Siobhan novel? – not that Rebus or Banks can be called bland. Indeed this new married man of Harvey’s shows a worrying Harlan Coben-like tendency to sentimentality in the family department. No matter. Despite all this, it was a cracking read. Harvey is the supreme craftsman of narrative drive. I probably read him faster than any of my regular authors – lots of dialogue, lots of short paragraphs a la Elmore Leonard. He touches on an awful lot of the contemporary issues of crime fighting highlighted in the quality press without it seeming like an exercise and you care about the victims, the victims in the widest sense. Add some neat nods to his fellow writers and readers’ habits and I think he’s probably top of the heap at the moment. (But isn’t anyone else a trifle, um, tired with child abduction and the sex offenders register as narrative planks?)
Still buzzing from watching the Leonard Cohen Live in London DVD. What a charmer, what a performer, what a songwriter, what a 73 year old; he can almost sing properly these days too. Magic band. A celebration no less – as he says, “Happiness kept breaking through.” And people still find it hard to accept when you tell them th ol’ Laughin’ Len days are long gone (if he indeed ever really existed). He’s on our side, for which I am glad.
Voted Labour in the elections. Someone has to.
June 1 Reading Martin Edward’s ‘The arsenic labyrinth’ (Alison & Busby, 2007), walking The Rail Trail from Goathland to Grosmont in the North York Moors (it’s worth buying the guide) and in Swaledale last weekend, I’ve become aware as never before of how much industry there was in some of the most beautiful parts of the country not so long ago, whole communities been and gone; overgrown ruins remain, some you’d hardly know were there. ‘Arsenic labyrinth’ is the third in Edwards’ Lake District sequence, and the soap aspect (ok, that was a cheap shot … the shifting relationships) of the main characters is developing nicely. How long before they … ? Nice bit of crime writing, the Lake District setting all the more effective for being treated with a judicious lack of hyperbole, and with the added bonus for me of the life and visionary career of John Ruskin, a man who deserves a revival if ever a Victorian does, being invoked. (Lest we forget, “There is no wealth but life” is one of his.)
On telly, much taken by ‘The mentalist’ and Simon Baker‘s grin; his performance as Patrick Jane, a Derren Brown-like figure attached to a special police unit has great charm.
May 26 I have commented before about the mundanity of photo captions in books of railway photographs. Mike Esau‘s good and varied collection, ‘Steam’s last stand: a 40th anniversary tribute to the end of British railways steam’ (Silver Link, 2008) is not without its longeurs, but try page 35’s,
“A reminder of the markings that some of the unfortunate inhabitants of wartime ghettos were forced to carry, the locomotive is disfigured by a yellow diagonal stripe across the side of its cab denoting that it was prohibited from working south of Crewe … due to the commissioning of the electrification of the line.”
Yes, you did read that right. But it has to be balanced, if that’s the right word, against this equally unlikely but really quite touching caption from page 125:
“Prominent on the embankment behind the locomotive are beds of rosebay willowherb, a prolific plant that blossoms in July and August. I will always associate it with the end of steam, especially as the purple-red colour of its flowers almost seemed to mirror the maroon colour scheme of the London Midland Region at the time.”
It’s a decent collection though, with many full page photos nicely evoking the last 10 years of steam locomotive operation in the Lancashire conurbations and the Lake District. Tangentally, we had the pleasure of riding behind one of the survivors on the splendid North Yorkshire Moors Railway at the weekend. Recommended. (And while I’m here, a big thanks to Roy’s Autos and the Barnsley Kwik-Fit for sorting us out when the exhaust on the motor decided to disassemble itself on the way home from a great weekend in Swaledale. Not to mention the Ice Cream Parlour in Reeth).
Was persuaded to give Kate Atkinson a go and her ‘Case studies’ (2004) is as quirky a crime novel as I’ve read in a while, a bit all over the place but in a good way. She’s a fine crafter of similes and smart dialogue, and in the sardonic Jason Brodie as ex-cop private eye we have real poential. There’s dark stuff in here, but also belly laughs, not least in his relations with his ex-wife, whose leaving of him has driven him into a country music listening ghetto of some musical quality. An odd collection of characters, some surprising but not inconceivable narrative shifts (can ‘appen) and a certain compassion make for an enjoyable outing.
May 17 I wasn’t expecting what was delivered by Anita Shreve with her latest novel, ‘Testimony’ (Little Brown, 2008). Hadn’t read anything of hers before, and I’m told this isn’t typical – they don’t all start with an orgy, apparently – but I was much taken with this anatomy of a scandal viewed in retrospect, in the voices of the various players. The narrative unfolds this way and that, jumping about with some subtlety. Not sure I would have liked it so much placed this side of the Atlantic, where private schools are still, ridiculously, called ‘public schools’ but that’s by and by. What you get is an understanding of the way personal and private reasons mesh into why something happens the way it does – what is happening in individual’s lives – and how this can never be reconciled with the monster the media creates given the bad luck of what is the equivalent of a random traffic accident, with all the aftershocks that can bring. What happens in ‘Testimony’ is tragic, and while judgment and blame is never suspended, it is the compassion that makes what is ultimately a morality tale a very good book.
A good night was to be had at a pleasingly well attended Jazz@the’Cap at Wolverton’s Madcap Theatre on Friday. The ever dependable Cathi Cook Quintet did their stuff and then a very pleasant surprise, Martyna – a young and apparently local jazz singer (without all that scat nonsense) accompanied by the accomplished John Bowman Trio. Great voice, good songs with some nice melodic hooks emerging in places you wouldn’t expect them. She’s special , great sense of fun. Expect more.
May 10 Broke a longstanding resolution not to carry on reading books I was getting nothing from – life is too short – with ‘The last train to Scarborough’, the latest in Andrew Martin‘s ‘Jim Stringer steam detective’ series (Faber, 2009). I continued despite its opening with a pet loath of mine – dream sequences and/or delerium coming out of involuntary unconsciousness – because I thought Martin had really hit his narrative and sparely comic stride with his last couple of books, but this was all a bit laboured and frankly, leaden. And I’ve nothing against two timelines a-running, but here it was just annoying. The plot and scenario in Scarborough have potential but in the end I couldn’t care much. The early twentieth century period detail is still much in evidence but there needs to be more, and I could do with a bit more twenty first century consciousness slipped in slyly. His hero still calls his pushy ambitious proto-feminist wife – who should sparkle more – ‘the wife’ throughout, and is of limited vocabulary and, himself, a bit of a plain and simple man. I fear Martin has written his characters into a corner, which is a shame. There is one really good joke, I thought, where his wife, to his relief, says she’s seen through their rich landlord, with whom she’d been getting quite pally. There’s a word for what he was after, she says, or something like. A fuck, says Jim. No, droit de seigneur, says she. It must also be said that, as a book – no dust jacket, just printed boards – ‘Last train’ makes a very pleasing physical object.
Liking Mister Dylan‘s latest highly blues flavoured waxing, ‘Together through life’. Not a great album, but good enough to spend some decent time with, his muse being the music for much of the, um, time. Great drummer. The closer, ‘It’s all good’, is my favourite, as the band choogles along while he recites a list of bad things going on, only to chorus, “But it’s all good”. A lot of critics hear only cynical humour here. I think it’s more than that; I think he means it. I think it’s a celebration of life, and life only, too. The ‘all’ is all. As it happens I’ve finally got to the end of – I hesitate to say finished, given at times I can hardly say I’ve started to understand what’s going on – William Empson’s ‘Seven types of ambiguity’, and ‘Together through life’ is a pretty good workout. So in ‘My wife’s home town’ what we get is “Hell’s my wife’s home town”. Now as it happens, my wife comes from Cardiff, and, given the road system – at the very least – this seem’s a reasonable metaphor. But, oh no … can this be? … his wife actually comes from … Hell? I’m beginning to see what you mean, Bill.
May 4 Had a good time with Stuart Maconie in his ‘Adventures on the high teas: in search of Middle England’ (Ebury Press, 2009). What you can now call the usual mix of the best cliches (he picks well) and inspired comparisons. At first it looked like his middle England was a version of Heritage Incorporated, and there are a few longeurs where he’s leaning on guide books and websites, albeit a bit skewed. Picking on Nick Drake and Syd Barrett as somehow symbolic musically, along with all that Middle Earth Tolkien stuff seemed a bit obvious but it broadens. Strange him judiciously playing the northern prole card at times and then going on about poncey meals in Ludlow but in the end he ticks enough boxes, particularly in the humour chapter, to approach soul mate status. He likes quirky museums too. And in the end he acknowledges what he seeks is mythic, undefineable, but still of the essence. Thoughtful and silly in a good way, his antennae for change for the better, for worse, working well. Pity him, too, as he tries to find something to say about Surbiton. There are some gaps – no new towns visited, the literature is cult stuff (who else reads Joanna Trollope?), and I would have thought Ray Davies‘s masterpiece ‘Shangri-La’, and his Village Green and all worth a mention. Oh, and Harpenden is in Hertfordshire – shoot the proofreader. Enjoyable, nevertheless.
A decent enough set of photos in Derek Huntriss’s ‘London Midland Region’ in the ‘Changing railway scene’ series (Ian Allan, 2008). It’s all ’60s stuff, the time of greatest variety, proving yet again that British railways green with the lion crest was the best looking livery and British Rail blue a design disaster. Interesting that practically every book of this ilk carries a dedication to a wife (or partner) for their patience.
May 3 To return to the Isle of Wight briefly – we saw a red squirrel on the undercliff walk from Ventnor to Shanklin. And had a couple of tremendous ginger ice creams. And the biggest scampi and chips you ever saw at the Spyglass Inn in Ventnor. Have to mention Ventnor Botanic Gardens too, a great and colourful place to wander. But that was two weeks ago.
I’m on a bit of a crime binge right now. Made the mistake of reading the second of Martin Edward‘s Lake District sequence of novels, ‘The cipher garden’ (2005) first, which probably blows whatever sexual tension there was between the two main sleuths, amateur and professional, in the the book which kicked off the series; not that that will stop me. Nice sense of place of one of my favourite places and an accomplished keeping of narrative balls in the air, the mysteries (the murder, an overgrown garden) and the various relationships of the main characters. It’s only the cynic in me that suspects the writer is angling for a tv series; I’d certainly watch it. As it happens, Ruth Downie‘s highly satisfactory second novel of what is now being called Medicus Investigations is set just up the road and across a bit on the Scottish border, albeit just a century and a bit short of two millennia earlier. ‘Ruso and the demented doctor’ (Michael Joseph, 2008) lives up to the promise of her first. A neat look at imperialism at work on the edges of the Roman empire, interactions with the natives and how they adapt or don’t, that is serious without ever taking itself seriously, even down to jokey names. Ruso as reluctant Roman sleuth is developing nicely and the places Tilla as his British partner (from slave to wife?) is going should be delicious. Nice double act, he the sceptic, she still looking to the old gods. I love the author’s helpful catalogue of characters at the front of the book, “in which our hero will be Puzzled by … Troubled by… Hindered by … Challenged by … Distracted by …” und so weiter, finishing with “Thanked by nobody.” Delightful.
April 22 And so to the Isle of Wight last weekend for, among other things, no less than a film premiere. Old friends Dave & Jill George’s ‘Death in Ventnor’ – how can it fail with a title like that? – was made locally for £2K (and they say most of that went on catering), and a lot of goodwill. It’s a huge achievement – a lot of laughs, some great dialogue and a whole slew of tremendous performances. There are lines and scenes that stick in the memory still – the early morning bagpiper is a stunning off the wall image, the post office raid pure Ealing, the lobster named Derek, I could go on. A lot of cinema homages going on too. Fascinating to have been close to the making of the movie; there was an hilarious scene involving a pensioner, a zimmer frame and a drug dealer we saw in the early rushes that had to be cut, for example, and you could see why but … bring on the outtakes! The night itself was a triumph, a real community event with over 300 people at the Medina Theatre, Newport. A delight.
April 15 A different take from Gordon Thompson on a well covered topic in ‘Please please me: sixties British pop, inside out’ (OUP, 2008). It’s an ethnographic study – there’s only a bit of theory in the intro – of the changing recording scene in London over the decade and fascinating it is too – the linkages, the class relations between record labels, producers, songwriters, engineers and musicians mapped out in some detail, as is how the coming of the Beatles changed everything as the decade rolled on. Mick Abrahams came into all this at the end of the decade, by which time the 8 track tape was the established medium. Now I’ve seen Mick play locally in the last couple of years and he struck me as a good bloke, but on the whole I rather wish i’d not read his autobiography ‘What is a wommett’ (Apex, 2008). The danger signs are all there in that missing question mark, both on the cover and on the title page. It makes you appreciate the job ghost writers can do. I’d rather not have known about what his mates tell him he did the morning after a night of drinking to excess, not that, he stresses he ever had a problem. And so on. He finds God, he becomes a mason! Still, it’s an insight into a musician’s life and there’s a certain integrity there. As usual, the best bits are up to where he achieves success. And while we’re on the question of the question mark, one of my favourite crossword clues made a return to the Guardian Cryptic last week. I give you:
? (3,1,4) or it’s variation, ? (1,6,3,1,4)
Crosswords haven’t figured in the action that is intertwined with the interminable longeurs of lingereing college courtyard pans et al in the current series of ‘Lewis’ on tv, though the ghost of Morse still looms large. But in the last of this series, the emergence from annoying cute of Helen Baxendale – how awful was she in ‘Friends’? – into a now handsome woman. And while we’re on tv detectives, I can see just how good ‘The Wire’ is, but I’m not sure I’ve got the stamina.
Crossword solutions: Not a clue & I haven’t got a clue. Sweet!
April 11 Not such a successful theatre visit last week. Quite why anyone wanted to revive ‘Boeing Boeing’ – long legged air stewardesses, short skirts, gross national stereotyping – is beyond me, but Emma said it was really funny so along we went. As a farce – timing, doors etc – it was fine, and I like a good farce, but there was an awful lot of shouting, as if that was meant to be funny in itself, and you had to wonder how the lead had the charisma to be in the position – engaged to three of the aforementioned females – he was in. Tame, inconsequential, unconvincing ending too.
‘Britain’s railways in wartime’ by Kevin Robertson (OPC, 2008) is not your usual railway photo book. Not a lot of locos but some tremendous atmospheric shots of soldiers and civilians going about their journeys, the light and shade of sun streaming through windows and gaps in station rooves, some the result of bomb damage. And railwaymen and, more to the point, railwaywomen stepping into the breech, at work. Some wonderful period shots; what it must feel like to recognise one of your grannies in there! The photos are culled from the Getty photoarchive and took me back to Shephen Poliakoff’s wonderful tv film ‘Shooting the past’, set in a photographic library threatened with closure.
Spent more than a few absorbed minutes – and for sure much longer than for the last exhibition – at the James Lee Byars show at the Milton Keynes Gallery and I shall go again before it closes in June. I guess it helps that one room is full of ‘100 one page Stone Books’ (roundels of Krauchtal sandstone, it says here), each with a few words on them – not easy to read and threatening your back getting into a position to read them, but a certain zen afterglow is the reward. My favourite piece, ‘The perfect sigh’, a large, round, flat, polished and quietly sparkling slab of, um, Labrador granite resting on a big white pillow was precisely what it called itself. It was a sigh, containing the disappointment and the promise betrayed, but holding out the promise of a next time, and why the sigh was justified. Don’t ask me why.
March 30 Another visit to the theatre last week, to see a fine cast of four in Yasmina Reza’s ‘God of carnage’, a play that, ho hum, rips the thin veneer of polite civilisation off bourgeois society when two couples get together to civilly discuss an altercation between their respective sons. Fascinating as, in a sort of Chekhov update, they play out the moral equivalent of a game of stone/paper/scissors with liberal values while a whole series of bad tempered shifing alliances develops between the four. All very funny and ultimately poignant, with the visual bonus of the remarkable angularity of Richard E. Grant’s body.
I’ve been reading (and re-reading) John Baker‘s new novel, ‘Winged with death’ (Flambard Press, 2009), but more of that in a few day’s time, when this website becomes a stop on his virtual tour promoting the book. We are indeed flattered. Over here on WordPress it’s got its own set of pages – see the right hand menu.
Was very moved when I caught up with ITV’s documentary about Brian Clough, simply called ‘Clough’, that aired last week to tie in with the film of David Peace‘s excellent novel ‘The Damned United’. It was a joy to see clips of his television appearances – what a sparkling man, what a great story with Derby and Forest, the likes of which we’ll not see again; what a shame it had to end so sadly.
Just heard an official download from Dylan‘s new album and I cannot wait. The man’s third series of his Theme Time Radio Hour just goes from strength to strength – the original ‘Down on Jollity Farm’ followed by the Kinks’ ‘Animal farm’ last week! I know a lot is probably researched, but he’s having so much fun.
And while we’re on music, I read ‘The Guardian book of rock & roll’ (Aurum Press, 2008) and was a bit underwhelmed. It failed the basic music book test – I didn’t want to go straight to the music – save for John Harris’s piece on Captain Beefheart, chronicling his attempts to see what everyone else was going on about. Yup, thanks John, I’d forgotten how great ‘Clear spot’ and ‘The spotlight Kid’ are. There are two very fine somewhat bemused (and, seen from 2009, very amusing) anonymous news items about the rock’n’roll cinema riots in Manchester (‘Rock devotees turn hose on cinema manager’) and the heinous spread of the juke box into pubs, the latter telling the tale of a factory where:
“A youth who acts as a tester … spends his day dropping threepenny bits in each of the long row of machines. Their sound equipment has been removed to preserve his sanity”
There’s a poem there. Was good to read again Richard Williams on his first seeing the Stones as a Nottingham schoolboy, and Simon Hattenstones’ unfortunate interview with his hero, Lou Reed remains a classic.
March 22 Something really special at the theatre last week. Sam Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ from, as you can see, a great company of actors having a great time of it with this deeply … um, depressing, um, uplifing (the leaves on the tree second act!), um … I can see I might be on the verge of a new obsession here. It’ll pass the time. What an astonishing piece of theatre and such outstanding performances. Ian McKellen the greatest living Englishman? A master in his pomp, having a great time with his mates.
March 20 A bit of catching up: Had a cold the other week, badly blocked nose. Best thing to hand in the medicines stash seemed to be Potter’s Traditional Catarrh Pastilles. Read (I’ll read anything) the instructions on the back with the aid of a magnifying glass which warned not to take more than 20 pastilles in 24 hours – as if – advice for which I was obviously thankful. Was helpful, too, to read: “Breathe through the nose while sucking the pastille to allow the decongestant properties to work directly upon the respiratory system”. A useful hint, but why was I sucking one of these vile little pellets? Ah yes, because I had a blocked nose. Thanks, Potter.
Though not really a crisp eater, I have voted for Builder’s breakfast in the Walkers Crisps election to choose their next mass produced flavour. I would urge you to do the same. Onion bhaji was ok too, and Crispy duck and hoisin had an interesting contrast betwixt aroma and aftertaste. Fish and chips were, frankly, a disappointment (where was the fish?), and the less said about Cajun squirrel the better.
Bill Bryson’s ‘Shakespeare: the world as a stage’ in the Eminent lives series (HarperPress, 2007) is a nicely downbeat look at the age and urb that produced the bard, thankfully short on fawning adulation though never short changing the genius while pointing out that all is not great or exactly (GCSE kids, you are not alone) clear. I was surprised that still, despite all those big fat books claiming much new evidence over the last two decades, just how little is definitively known of the man. A good brief starter if you need to start somewhere.
And lest we forget, Sky Sports News‘ coverage of the Arsenal-Roma penalty shoot out a while back was great TV. The agonies & ecstacies, the resignation & exhultation of messers McAnally, Walsh, Nicholas, Merson and the splendid Jeff Stelling watching each pen on their monitors, they might as well have been taking or saving them themselves. And the joy of Charlie Nicholas and Paul Merson high-fiving at the death warmed the cockles. (March 20)
March 8 A rare Sunday at the theatre for Ed Byrne’s ‘Different class’ show. He was very funny indeed. Some of the biggest laughs were about his wife’s snoring, and WAGs may be an easy if deserving target (“I won’t be telling that one in Manchester”), but this was intelligent wide ranging stuff, with a nice knowing handling of the farce that has become the programmed encore. “Well that was my last joke, unless …” I’d see him again.
Liked Linda Grant’s ‘The clothes on their backs’ (Virago, 2008) a lot. Quirky fictional memoir of growing up the daughter of emigres in mid-century London, and the different ways her parent’s generation got along. Certainly put the career of slum landlord Rachman, on whom her uncle is based, in a new light for me. Fascinating on Eastern Europe in the first half of the twentieth century and life and various lives in London in the ’70s, the Anti-Nazi League and all that. Vivien’s growth, her emerging from her shell (and her bad luck) all nicely handled. There was something in the tone of the opening pages that rang a bell with me but I can’t place it. You wonder how autobiographical, say, the experience of uni in the book was.
Ended up liking the first novel by R.S.Downie (later, rather soon actually, Ruth Downie), ‘Medicus and the disappearing dancing girls’(later ‘Ruso and the disappearing dancing girls’) (2006). This first Ruso and Tilla investigation starts a bit like ‘Up pompeii’ without the innuendo (modern parallels about NHS efficiencies etc) but then hits a more confident stride. There’s a nice little ensemble in the making here, at its centre Ruso, the reluctant Roman medic and sceptic, and the spiritual Brit slave, Tilla, he buys to save her from punishment (and, he thinks,) as an investment, who I bet will becaome more prominent as the series progresses. Interesting treatment of all sorts of issues, the modern outlook informing a period in history where it’s hard to tell que actually passa – with little known of what was there before the colonisation, there’s an examination here of the double edged spread of ‘civilisation’. But there’s a lot of fun, fun and morality always a decent combination. I look forward to more.
Hard to know exactly how to take Chris Waitt‘s film ‘A complete history of my sexual failures’ (2008), how real it was, how much staged; certainly felt awkwardly honest. Lovely idea though, to look up all his old girl friends to see what he, a serial dumpee, had been doing wrong. This shambling project – a film and a personal quest for salvation – intrigued, to say the least. Not to mention the belly laughs on the way. The whole thing justified by the wonderful smile on the face at the end of the one – the love of his life, he realises, a victim of commitment phobia – that got away, the mutual affection. And there’s life after that.
Becoming evangelical about James McMurtry as songwriter and performer, a bard of the bits of America in the middle. Last year’s album ‘Just us kids’ what we used to call heavy. Townes van Zandt with a rock and roll band. Some wonderful hard rocking noise some of the time but there’s an emotional power, scorn and a huge compassion on display. Try and keep a dry eye to ‘Alice Walker’. Some great lines spread throughout that I’m too tired to check out exactly. How about,
‘And I don’t want another drink
I just want the last one again’
The title track as good a song about getting older as to be found anywhere.
February 22 Tremendous stuff from Richard Price with his latest novel ‘Lush life’ (Bloomsbury, 2008). The police procedural as state of the nation, or at least the American city. Some acute dialogue, a rising sense of frustration and futility, but also an appreciation of survival at all sorts of levels, not least as it touches the decent cops. There are some deftly handled anticlimaxes, shifts in the narrative, that are in no way deflationary. Beautiful sense of the way cities change, the way the artists move into an area, the false hopes of the creatives and the natives, what families and their breakdown do and don’t do. The centre piece memorial service a fabulous piece of writing. Some lovely similes and that notion at the end, of a New York theme park, a very neat downbeat coda. The whole thing an engaging mix of Dickens & Chandler. Is a British equivalent possible? Or does distance lend an authenticity? Would I want to read or watch the same set in South London or Manchester?
Her name was the only good thing my wife, Andrea, could appreciate about Polly Apfelbaum‘s installation at Milton Keynes Gallery. She just walked out after 30 seconds and in this instance I can’t say i really blame her. The title was promising – Anything can happen in a horse race – but a set of unwashed jockey’s silks would have been more engaging. Nothing was happening here. Modern art practise is one of those areas where my wife and I usually disagree. I’m open to it if somewhat wary, but this was art bollocks of highest order. The pieces in the ‘forthcoming’ programme, printed in colour and produced well before the exhibition opened, looked intriguing enough – what the current handout reasonably describes as: “sprawling patterns as expansive floor-based installations. […] as ‘fallen paintings’ these works were both painting and sculpture, engaging colour, form and surface.” The exhibition specific notes explain what is now on show as: “a significant departure … these works use what appear to be offcuts of highly reflective sequined fabric.” It’s that “appear to be” that is the giveaway. And what do you know?: “The sequins also invite participation because their colours shift and move with the viewer.” Absolute genius, eh? Deep. “It’s important for me that the work is made in reaction to the place.” Can’t think much of the place , then, is all I can say. “Her work is characterised by a complelling investigation into colour and form.” NOT. This is a bunch of offcuts strewn around the floor. Sorry to sound blimpish, but it’s all a scandalous waste of a public space – nearly two whole months – and public money. Emperor’s new clothes.
Speaking of which. I have now listened to that Fleet Foxes album that won all those end of the year plaudits three times. I’m still waiting for it to begin.
February 18 Meaning ‘beautiful thinking’, Eunoia is the shortest word in the English language containing all 5 vowels. It is also the title of a strange but enchanting little book by Christian Bök (real name Book, says Wikipedia), a Canadian wordsmith of great ingenuity. ‘Eunoia’ (Canongate, 2008) manages to easily survive a cover endorsement from Gyles Brandreth. Each chapter contains only words containing the nominated single vowel and there are other rules he set himself too:
“All chapters must allude to the art of writing. All chapters must include a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pastoral tableau and a nautical voyage.”
Given all that, there’s a nod to dada but also much fun and bawdy to be had and much sentiment and poetry found as the letters seem to take on tastes and characters of their own. Absorbing to say the least; the equivalent word in French is oiseau – bird. Given the inflexible artificiality of the plan, you have to say it flies, makes all sorts of moves and engages emotions and the spirit.
More fabulous wordplay in Fanatagraphics’ beautifully produced compilation of the full page coloured Sunday strips of the last years of George Herriman‘s syndicated Krazy Kat comic strip, ‘Krazy & Ignatz: ‘He nods in quiescent siesta’ 1943-44′ (2008). Never realised Herriman was a Creole, of mixed heritage before; he kept working pretty much to the end. This sketchily drawn wonky triangle – Krazy loves Ignatz (a mouse), takes his brick throwing as a sign of affection, Offissa Pup loves Krazy, tries to protect Krazy against the anarchist Ignatz – set against an everchanging desert backdrop, with a rich if spare cast of supporting characters, is a profound, exquisitely designed, delight for eye and brain.
‘In Bruges’ the best movie I’ve seen for ages. Some rich performances and great dialogue. Laugh aloud funny where it should never be – the crux of the narrative the accidental death of an innocent child in an assassination gone wrong. And ‘St.Trinians’ (the remake) the worst. Not a patch on the originals. Never made its mind up what it wanted to be and never recovers really.
February 8 Fascinating and sad sad story in Simon Winchester’s ‘The surgeon of Crowthorne: a tale of murder, madness and the Oxford English Dictionary’ (1998). Beautifully handled and constructed, the sub-title says what it is; if that doesn’t pull you in then I doubt I can do more. One expects a feelgood factor to kick in but there’s a shocking denouement followed by a skillful slow winding down, a contemplation of the times and lives involved, of why things happened, that is elegant and moving.
Heartily sick of the snow and cold that just won’t go away; once every 18 years or so, they say.
February 6 More from The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and I’ll leave it at that for now. This is why I love Laurence Sterne’s book, from Vol IV Ch XXXII thereof:
“And now that you have just got to the end of these four volumes —- the thing I have to ask is, how you feel your heads ? my own akes dismally — as for your healths, I know, they are much better —- True Shandeism, think what you will against it, opens the heart and lungs, and like all those affections which partake of its nature, it forces the blood and other vital fluids of the body to run freely thro’ its channels, and makes the wheel of life run long and chearfully round.”
I’m certain Laurence Sterne would have approved of the late Humphrey Lyttleton and it was a joy to work my way slowly – too many at once spoil you – through a bunch of what I thought were his introductions describing the town they were broadcasting from that week with that gem of a radio programme ‘I’m sorry I haven’t a clue’ (the ‘antidote to panel games’), collected together in ‘Lyttlelton’s Britain: a user’s guide to the British Isles’ (Preface, 2008). Should I be disappointed that they were not actually written by him but by one Iain Pattinson? You have to smile at each variation of the basic “X is a fine town boasting a rich and varied history” opening, leading as they do to a stream of wordplay, double entendres and some truly dreadful jokes and puns. They’re laugh aloud funny on the page let alone it being practically impossible not to hear Humph’s voice and immaculate (disbelieving) delivery – and the audience’s delight – as you read them. Shame the book is a bit shoddy in production – the quality of the photos could be sharper and how on earth did Leeds and Sheffield ever get to be in the north west?
February 4 Still struggling with William Empson’s ‘Seven types of ambiguity’. I have my own reasons why I persevere with this as my cloakroom and bath book (shocking admission, I know, but it’s an old copy, and I hasten to say, mine own – people who read library books in the bath deserve a slow drowning). It has its moments and I suppose it might help if I knew more about the poetry he’s citing most of the time, but who can resist, in his preface to the 2nd edition:
“I was surprised there was so little of the book I should prefer to change. My attitude in writing it was that an honest man erected the ignoring of ‘tact’ into a point of honour […] I claimed at the start I would use the term ‘ambiguity’ to mean anything I liked …”.
I didn’t do Literature at uni but one of the delights was Empson’s annual reading of his poetry in one of the raked lecture rooms in the bowels of the Arts Tower which – amazingly – is still standing and visible from a distance from certain directions in Sheffield. The memory of this scrunched up but dignified little (was he?) old man with his white hair and mandarin beard intoning his Auden piss-take, “Waiting for the end, boys, waiting fro the end” has stayed with me for nearly 40 years. I’ve long thought his
“There is a supreme God in the ethnological section”
from ‘Homage to the British Museum’ one of the great opening lines anywhere. Anyway, there’s a passage in ‘Tristram Shandy’ that seems appropriate for the ‘Seven types’:
“Now the use of the Auxiliaries is, at once to set the soul a going by herself upon the materials as they are brought her ; and by the versability of this great engine, round which they are twisted, to open new tracks of enquiry, and make every idea engender millions. “
Versability indeed and all very confusing to this simple (and, I still like to think, poetic) soul.
January 19 It is with some chagrin that I discover that what I said about ‘Tristram Shandy’ not long ago – great shaggy dog story – is pretty much, give or take a word or two, how Christopher Ricks describes it in the opening sentence of his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition. I hadn’t read that when I wrote it, honest. I have become besotted with that book, even more so when I read the editor’s preface as to how they’ve retained the original punctuation because to modernise it would be to make too many judgments as to what Sterne actually intended. This comes as a great relief to me because at times I was struggling with the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, great fun, very modern in its self referencing and playfulness with the novel form, and full of humanity in the best possible sense of the word. You could quote many many quotable quotes and it’s commendably bawdy too. One of those books I get the urge to start in on again as soon as I’d finished it.
Some nice bits of nostalgia (and well beyond, back to the 1930s) from Kevin Robertson’s ‘The Southern scene’ (Ian Allan, 2008), a collection of black and white railway photos culled from the photo libraries of news agencies, so no great attention to locomotives and such and railway people and passengers featuring a fair bit, so it’s something of a social document too, especially the women working in the sheds and signal boxes in wartime. Having said that, I’m only just beginning to appreciate just what handsome beasts the Lord Nelson class steam locos were.
Richard Thompson’s ‘Thousand years of popular song’ show at the theatre on Sunday a triumph. Witty, wise, and some great music from him and his two woman ensemble, including the best Kinks cover ever – a mesmeric three part harmony version of ‘See my friends’. Hell of a guitarist.
January 19 Catching up with BBC4’s programme Comedy songs: the pop years with my my progeny, I bemoan with disbelief the absence of Half Man Half Biscuit from the proceedings. Who? they say. So I play them some and they hardly raise a grin while I still think the music alone is hilarious. The ghost of Jimmy Clitheroe, Fred Titmuss, Bob Todd (to whom 90% of gargoyles bear a resemblance) all meaningless to them, of course. And while we’re at it, where too were the talking blues of early Dylan?
January 9 Julian Temple’s ‘Pandaemonium’ a great film if lousy history. Wordsworth was not the man from Porlock who interrupted Coleridge in full flow with Kubla Khan, and where was Sarah Hutchinson for starters? Should really come with a health warning, but visually outstanding, and the feeling of change, of the new poetry, is intoxicating. Add to that the modern visual interjections of the plane in the sky, Windscale etc. and it’s a stunning piece of film making. Unfair to Wordsworth, though.
January 5, 2009 Floundering a bit at the start of the New Year. Frankly, can’t be arsed at this juncture to keep up with tradition and start a fresh page, so 2009 continues here. (Oh no it doesn’t, not now I’m luxuriating in the wonders of WordPress – the calendar rules again!) Maybe I’ll change the font colour … anyway, I’m particularly floundering with Laurence Sterne’s ‘The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’, surely the longest shaggy dog story ever – takes half a book for him to be born, and he’s the narrator; it can be a little hard to follow at times, but it’s as nothing compared with William Empson’s ‘Seven types of ambiguity’. As to just why I’m reading the latter, it involves an old bus ticket and a trip down memory lane, of which maybe more later. Both books worth persevering with, I trust.