This is Andre Wallace’s ‘The whisper’ (1984) located outside Milton Keynes Central Library
The 2002 and 2003 Archives
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December 14, 2003 An afternoon in Tate Modern, one of my favourite places. I’d gone to witness Olafur Eliasson’s ‘The weather project’ in the Turbine Hall and found it a source of wonder and fun. That great orange sun – visible as a bonus from the escalators and main hallways throughout the building – the light mist, the people on the floor discovering themselves in the faraway ceiling mirror … it’s worth the journey alone. And I was entranced by Cornelia Parker’s ‘Cold, Dark Matter: An Exploded View’ (1991), the surplus contents of all her friends’ garden sheds (implements, toys, rubbish) put into another shed which was then blown up by the British Army then suspended piece by piece from the ceiling – it takes up a whole square white room, illuminated from its centre by a plain lightbulb, throwing all these shadows on the walls. Somehow I’d managed to miss it before. All those stories … But first, while we’re on the subject of explosions, favourite TV of the moment is to to found on Sky One no less, and it’s not ‘The Simpsons’, ‘Malcolm in the middle’ or ‘Scrubs’ but the one and only ‘Brainiac: science abuse‘. They have such a great time being crass yet informative – ‘Jackass’ lite really with the slight educational getout – and the main presenter is a true star. They blow a caravan up once a week, they literally test the notion of defeating interview nerves by imaging the interviewers naked (or at least in their underwear) etc.
And back to the stories: Siri Hustvedt‘s first novel ‘The blindfold‘ (UK, 1993) is a compelling narrative of not quite normal if not entirely strange lives lived around New York college and art circles, even if I’m still a bit puzzled about the chronology; early thoughts of ‘how can these people live like this?’ soon dispelled by the drive. I’ve also read Book Two of Alan Moore’s ‘Promethea’ comic – just astonishing. So much in there: the power of myth, magic, full of pop and other cultural references, wit and slapstick deflating any pretension. A master at work; and his collaborators don’t let him down with the visuals either.
November 27 I’ve probably read more words of Doris Lessing than any other single writer and her latest – The grandmothers (Flamingo, 2003) – a collection of 4 long short stories, though hardly prime, certainly has its moments. On the surface she’s no great prose stylist but for me she invariably right to ‘how it feels’. I particularly like ‘The reason for it’, a nod back to her underestimated science fiction, a shifting mesmeric meditation and personal tale of failing civilisations (occasioned in part by the fall of the Storytellers and Songmakers) which is both visionary (good intentions, archaeological remains) and complaining (what a drag it is getting old, young people these days – a particularly acute bit about a pool designed for children but taken over by teenagers). Mat Coward‘s collection of crime short stories ‘Do the world a favour’ (Five Star, 2003) has some delightful moments, not least his refusal to filter out his old fashioned socialist heart. Where else would you find a murder mystery revolving around the Putney Debates (English Civil War if you must ask)? And there’s a lovely Chandler pastiche featuring a geriatric English ex-cop. But don’t just believe me; Ian Rankin has contributed a forward. Ask for it at your local library. I’m in favour of the Beatles ‘Let it be … naked’ on the whole, though the title is unnecessary because it’s naff and … it aint necessarily so: even if it does improve his vocals (they sound a lot better – ‘Dig a pony’ shines) I miss Lennon’s sarcasm.
November 13 Two steps backward on the opera front. Can’t say I enjoyed Glyndebourne on Tour’s production of Verdi’s ‘La traviata’ as much as I’d hoped, though it seemed to be the best received by the (always) full house of those I’ve tested myself against over the years. High screeching notes for the sake of it, some wooden acting from the main man (his dad was great though) and just when a melody line seemed to be going somewhere … it went somewhere else. Not enough debauchery either, given her rejecting that (and returning to it) is half the plot. However, the experience did clarify for me what it is about opera that is special: the duets, the trios, or if you’re really lucky, the quartets where you get all the players’ emotions in play at the same time. Can’t happen in the theatre or on the page … And on the page, music of another kind. Enjoyed Jessica Adams’ ‘Cool for cats’ (Black Swan, 2003) a lot and appreciated it the more I thought about it. Chick lit with a touch of Hornby really, but shot through with an appreciation of the import of music in people’s lives (or not!). 1979 and the UK music press are the setting and there’s alovely bit of writing about the Kinks’ ‘Waterloo sunset’. To quote a gem from near the end: “It’s so depressing, David. I can’t believe you think Billy Joel’s music has changed your life.” This writer cares.
November 2 Laughed hard and loud at Martin McDonagh’s play ‘The lieutenant of Innishmore’. Mention of Irish republican splinter groups (splitter!), dead cats (plus a wonderful live one at the end) and a minor cameo for a personal rendition of Motorhead’s ‘The ace of spades’ can only hint at the bloody mayhem and deep (and shallow!) humour of this very black comedy. And speaking of shallow humour … I ended up laughing out loud at a lot of ‘Jackass: the movie’. Yes, it’s puerile and gross but also kinda … subversive of the everyday. Went in to work the next day and had an urge to indulge in, say, fully laden book trolley jousts. There would appear to be a gender and generational divide here. My youngest son loved it but women cannot, it seems, bear to be in the same room with it (“Dave, why are you watching this?” my wife plaintively asked) and they’re probably right. Certain joie de vivre though. Here would be a good place to admit that I may have hit Simpsons saturation; I’m beginning to be able to not have to watch the nth repeat. There is a new found freedom here but I do feel a little sad about this.
We went to Wales for half term. The car soundtrack was the very wonderful Fountains of Wayne’s ‘Welcome interstate managers’ which would have been more perfect if they’d kept it down to old vinyl LP length but is still the most grin inducing music I’ve heard all year – great noise, great varied songs, about ordinary ‘normal’ life. Moving and amusing stuff. “All kinds of time” is an outstanding sports song – the moment. And Ray Davies’s ’80 days’ demo was better than I’d remembered, for all that it was an nth generation cassette copy. It is criminal this stuff hasn’t received an official release. While we’re at it, I’ve recently skimmed through Andy Miller’s book about ‘The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society’ (Continuum, 2003) and it’s a nice piece of work – I learned a bit, shall read it closer and comment on it at more length on the KPS. This week also saw the arrival of a new Jackie Leven official bootleg – ‘Only the ocean can forgive’ which is pretty fine; 3 new songs and some nice live stuff. Memo to Ray Davies: this man has issued 3 quality CDs in 2003: an official release, the official bootleg mentioned here, and a spectacular live club members only CD.
Surprised at how much I liked Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ (1938). Hardly a creative comment but, um, ‘atmospheric’ is the word that springs to mind. That famous opening draws you in and the twists keep on coming. Some nice observation along the way. And I fairly zipped through Alice Sebold’s ‘The lovely bones’ (2002), a first novel that would appear to have been one of this year’s word-of-mouth successes. Very American in its feel – Vonnegut writes the Waltons plus factor in a serial killer – half the time I was enchanted, half the time had a feeling I was being conned. Commentary from heaven (a young murder victim) isn’t that far removed from the author as god I suppose and the idea of each interwoven heaven being personal has charm. Good on the dead always being with us and the importance of letting go and its timing while not forgetting. Some interesting people in there as well. Ultimately I was left with good feelings.
October 13 I have to say I was disappointed with Truecrime (Sceptre, 2003), the third in Jake Arnott‘s trilogy of the London criminal underworld and its interaction with the mainstream, political and pop culture, though it is all relative. Following on from The long firm and He kills coppers it’s a bit like reading a biography of someone famous – all the rivetting stuff is in the early making it; once fame is achieved it can all go a bit flat and, well, more or less known – nothing more is revealed. Whereas the first two novels were brilliant exercises in narrative – the voices of the protagonists driving them thrillingly along, with a wonderful twist involving the study of sociology in gaol – here they are a bit too recognisable (the Barbara Windsor figure, the criminal takeover of the rave scene, the Essex drug murders et al) and there are no real narrative surprises. It’s all a bit too close historically, straight out of the newspapers. Having said that, one appreciates the numbering of the whole modern true crime circus and its middle class mockney fellow travellers, the media careers of the Frankie Frasers and the publishing empire created by John Blake on the back of this whole hard man nonsense. And the stress Arnott gives to this stuff actually, in real life, having all too real effects, the consequences on innocent people’s lives, something which – like the women who usually end up carrying the can – usually seem to go awol within the pages of this distasteful genre.
September 15 & 25 As threatened, am now tucking into Jerome K. Jerome’s ‘Three men in a boat’ and even though the journey has not yet begun, am not regretting it. Later: bit disappointed actually. Not enough journey, too much “that reminded me of …” and the potted history interludes are a waste of time. When it’s good though – the actual expedition – it’s mighty fine.
September 15 A new Rebus novel from Ian Rankin is one of those rare literary occasions when I drop practically everything (do I really want to help scraping the paper off the walls in the bedroom?) until I’ve finished it. A question of blood (Orion, 2003) is as absorbing as ever. Thankfully no gangland stuff this time – it was getting a bit tiresome – but a certain recognition from Rankin that he’s not so sure about what makes his creation tick any more (there’s a plot related harking back to his failing to get into the SAS). And some thinking out loud on the causes of criminal behaviour, social and personal. We visit a fair few pubs, climb mountains on Jura and the highs and lows of the social strata of Scotland, have the usual fun and games of musical name dropping. He’s still got it.
Struggling a bit with Tim Lott’s ‘Rumours of a hurricane’ (2001). Too much period detail. Ok, so their council house is dull and uncoordinated … we’ll see. And surely the gap between Mantovani and X-Ray Spex is two generations? It has its moments I suppose but a lot of the time it feels like I’m reading about cyphers for social change rather than real people. It doesn’t help that I can’t actually place where she puts her taxi business or his model railway shop in the geographical context of the real MK. Still, any novel that puts the concrete cows to some plot use other than ridicule can’t be all bad. Nice description of that classic ’80s MK TV ad – the balloons! – “Wouldn’t it be nice if all cities were like Milton Keynes?” Well, actually … um, yes and no. And the Mantovani mention has called up a long forgotten glimpse.
August 30 For over half a century I’ve managed not to read Stella Gibbons’ ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ (1932) but it fell into my hands and I was in the mood. Perennially high in favourites lists of comic novels, I had a great time and I’m sure you will too (Maybe it’s about time I tried ‘Three men in a boat’). Eminently silly in a Wodehousian way, but if the idea of dairy cows named Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless in any way tickles your fancy then step in. It’s full of stuff like that. And while up ’til now since about 1968 when I first read him, my thoughts have always turned if only briefly to D.H.Lawrence in the spring, it won’t be so easy from now. Some lovely Bronte pisstaking as well (not that …). I won’t spoil it by elaborating on the something nasty in the woodshed. Also currently enchanted by ‘Sweet England’, Jim Moray’s first album, and his very fresh take on traditional folk music. There’s a fine lilt to his voice and the studio and dance inflected shadings take us into the newest folk ground since Fairport’s ‘Liege and lief’. Lovely stuff. (Aug 30)
August 28 Finished Moorcock’s ‘King of the City’. What a book! Moorcock is an English literary giant but obviously a background in Sexton Blake and SF and fantasy puts him beyond the pale with the Oxbridge crew that still run the ‘show’. KOTC is very politically sus reminder on a global and local scale. At times it reminded me of Doris Lessing’s visionary ‘Children of violence’ sequence of novels. Without wishing to sound naive, if I’d read this before the Iraq war started I would have vaccillated less somewhere between being pro half of the time and agin the rest. It is also great fun and an exceptional novel of rock and roll. The barbs are out all over the cultural and social landscape too, not least in the thinly veiled presence of Amis pere et fils. (Aug 28).
And somewhere in here Ian MacDonald died. I went out and bought ‘Revolution in the head’, something I’d been meaning to do for years. It was something to do. The best book, quite simply, on the ’60s in the UK, never mind the Beatles. I’d exchanged a couple of emails (friend of a friend) about Dylan and joy and coincidentally (I didn’t know then) spent a night in the Gloucestershire village he lived in a couple of years ago, at the house of the bass player in the band I’d been in at school – The Persuaders no less (1962-1964). I like the idea that at that mini-reunion (the lead guitarist was there too – he writes happy clappy hymns these days) we played Beatles songs (half our repertoire at one stage) well into the drunken night (Pete N had a three quarter size acoustic bass – I felt like Mingus!). One way or another I thought I’d meet him one day. An awful loss. RIP. (Inserted Sep 15)
August 21 Enjoying Michael Moorcock’s ‘King of the city’ (Scribner, 2000), an intriguing mix of the real and the imaginary. His scorn (for the times) tends to be infectious, but there’s a lot of affection in there too. The city is London, an updated Dickens, though the plot roams the globe. A basict triangle of a rock-star-turned-photojournalist-cum-paparazi, an international aid worker and the tycoon who ate the world. There is a basic decency here, despite the glee with which he relates and mythologises a dog fight, an element of just to make certain readers feel uncomfortable is my guess. And I’ve only just got round to ‘discovering’ just how good Ron Sexsmith can be, though elder son’s accusation that, “He sings like Barny Gumble” can’t be entirely removed from consciousness. Some great songs – current faves ‘Lebanon, Tennessee’ and ‘Gold in them hills’. And what else? Started working our way through the first series of ‘Six feet under’ on video, after which (well, after just the first two) a lot of the second series resonates more. I never realised that was also how Nate first met Brenda, for instance … Entranced of late, too, by cricket, the Test Match of last weekend, and this. Dearly want James Anderson to succeed; what cricket needs is more silly haircuts.
Saw Gillian Welch and David Rawlings on Tuesday and they were magnificent. While the records are merely immaculate, live the duo (for that is what they are – the harmonies were perfect) are full of good humour and excitement. The songs remain central and there’s very little artifice, but contrary to the album covers she has a lovely smile. They both appear to move to the beat of a different drummer, but the music is beautifully together. Gillian, back bent, head bowed over her guitar, into the rhythm. is a strange sight to behold until you get used to it, while the besuited David is in danger of becoming a guitar hero by stealth. Great stuff. (Aug 21)
August 15 I’ve had to put IMac’s collection on hold while I catch up with some of the music he’s writing about. I think he may well be right about Laura Nyro‘s position in the critical pantheon. Which is as high as … an elephant’s eye? Lucky to find the wonderful ‘Eli and the Thirteenth Confession’ for a fiver in the HMV sale. A glorious web of music. And from the sublime to the ridiculous, zipped through Keith Altham’s ‘The PR strikes back’ (Blake, 2001) so fast I can’t remember much about it save he doesn’t like Rod Stewart at all, so he can’t be all bad. While acknowledging the talent, his mean spirited Ray Davies is recognisable. He likes Pete Townshend and thinks Noddy Holder a good bloke; Jagger gets a mixed reception. Altham was worked on NME before it was in the job spec that you could actually write before setting himself up as a top PR who worked with loads of big names. It’s one of those rivetting ‘good’ bad books. The format is fairly woeful – clumsily written 2, 3 or 4 page public letters to 30+ of those he worked for telling the tales he was employed to hide back then. If you’ve got nothing better to do and a short attention span … (15 Aug)
August 1 Finished White City Blue in the Lake District where we only got soaked once. A really good book which will stay with me awhile I suspect. Compassion and realism. Rite of passage blokestuff: one pal finds a new friend in Jesus, another comes out, the other seen as the bastard he always was but somehow it was overlooked – fine piece of writing. And I topped and tailed Ian MacDonald‘s collection of magazine pieces, ‘The people’s music’ (Pimlico, 2003). Stimulating as ever, the opening Dylan piece remains as thoughtful an approach to the man as can be found. And the closing long last piece on Nick Drake is a real tour de force. It made me go out and buy the albums (something I’ve always meant to do) just to hear them again – always the test of a music book. I.Mac has always had the best handle on the ’60s in the UK – I doubt the preface to his Beatles book will be bettered in that respect. Now I look forward to (re)reading the stuff in between.
July 25 After about two decades of meaning to I’ve just read G.K.Chesterton’s ‘ Napoleon of Notting Hill’ (1904). Strange little book – sub-Dickensian but full of ideas – with an interestong coda of a dialogue between the Humourist and the Fanatic, for him the dialectic of life. And just down the road I’m now 100 pages into Tim Lott’s ‘White City Blue’ (1999). Lad lit with the emphasis on the lit. Great bloke dialogue and observation. Tony Parsons is a puppy dog in comparison – not a compliment in my book. Absolutely nothing on telly save ‘Six feet under’; a toe dip into the soaps again this week pretty much proved I’m cured. Enjoyed the Dylan bootleg ‘Between Saved and Shot of love’ a lot – just some great organic live music making, fun and fire if no inferno. Just because I’m a great fan of the gospel albums doesn’t make me Ned Flanders. (25 Jul).
July 14 The Siri Hustvedt book mentioned earlier (What I loved, 2003) really is something, a fine sustained piece of writing and characterisation. When I finished it I just wanted to go back to the beginning again. Life’s too short but definitely one to return to. There’s so much in there. Recommended. And I’ve binged on the DVD of the first series of ‘Happiness‘ over two nights; first episode Johnny Vegas on his way to the funeral jumping off the bus and falling straight into a hole in the road … I was holding a glass of red wine at the time, laughed so much went all over my suit trousers. Luckily, as it happens a Marks & Spencer machine washable suit – have no fears gents, it works beautifully.
July 4 Finding it hard to keep The Pretenders’ ‘Loose screw’ out of the CD player. Chrissie Hynde’s voice has never been better, hard and tender and magnificent. The defiant ‘Walk like a panther’ struts wonderfully. Impossible not to like. Love songs from the real world. Good simple production too, opens with a bang. And somewhere back there I saw ‘Stones in his pockets’ by Marie Jones at the theatre, a cast of two actors playing 15 characters male and female. To which there was a deep philosophical point (“a little part of us in every one” – is that Neil Young?); a meditation on celebrity and the society that needs it, but enough of that. Set in contemporary Ireland, a village taken over as film set. The tour de force a communal jig where with each reel around the room the two actors danced as a different character. Great stuff. And then there’s ‘Six feet under‘ on the telly …
Three books on the go at the moment. Downstairs a disappointingly sentimental Tony Parsons’ s ‘One for my baby’ (I’m always mystified by people younger than me singing the praises of Sinatra). Upstairs the intriguing and exquisitely written ‘What I loved‘ by Siri Hustvedt (New York art scene and a lot more). And Tom Bower: ‘Broken dreams: vanity, greed and the souring of British football’ (Simon & Schuster, 2003), the subtitle of which says it all. Perfect reading the week Chelsea were bought by a Russian … um … entrepreneur. Some nice stuff on Ken Bates’s pre-Chelsea financial career (dodgy, as if you didn’t know) and for me the revelation that the hated Don Revie quit the England job not so much out of greed (Arab money) as a match fixing bribery scandal about to break. (I’ve always loathed Revie’s bunch of footballing thugs, not least because they were good enough without all the nonsense. Shame Cloughie couldn’t keep it clean off the field as well as on).
June 11 Currently laughing out loud to Mil Millington’s ‘Things my girlfriend and I have argued about’ – both the book (2002) and the website. As a novel it’s not as good as the sum of its parts, but the parts certainly have their moments. Tom Sharpe territory on the campus, very good on committees and how it is to work in the public sector. Not to mention the girl friend stuff (the raison d’etre of course, though that knid of peters out, unlike the website) and his seriously funny chums in the cafe at lunchtimes. Sample, from memory: David Bowie’s ‘Tin Machine’ nominated as a Desert Island Disc – other one thinks they meant taken to a desert island and left there.
June 9 I’ve been reading Richard Olivier’s ‘Shadow of the stone heart : a search for manhood’ (Pan, 1995) after a mention on the Jackie Leven web digest mentioned it (he figures in it as a friend). In part it’s the story of his attempts to deal with the death of his father (the big O no less) and the problems of having a much lauded parent, told alongside his part in the emergeance in the UK of American poet Robert Bly’s mytho-poetric men’s movement. As opposed to the more narrow ‘men’s rights’ tendency – these are the wild men drumming in the woods beloved of mockers. The reporting of the Multicultural Conference lead by Bly and chums in Buffalo Gap, West Virginia, is a powerful and moving piece of writing about a highly emotionally charged group reconciliation.
May 18 As you do, I’ve been pursuing mp3s of Jerry Jeff Walker‘s lovely song ‘Mr Bojangles‘ and its many renditions. It’s a jungle out there, file names a-jumble. Same versions attributed variously to the Byrds, Harry Chapin, Jim Croce, Arlo Guthrie, John Denver, Harry Nilsson and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Think I’ve nailed it. Robbie Williams a straight copy of Sammy davis Jr. My faves are Bob Dylan’s from the ‘Dylan’ CBS collection of scraps – no longer commercially available but there’s a diamond or two in there – and a live recording by David Bromberg, who tells the tale of playing it every night for two years in Jerry Jeff’s backing band. Would love to hear it from the Everly Brothers and a certain Ray Davies. Speaking of whom, I’ve only lately heard a bootleg of the Fillmore West concert of 1969. What a good band the Kinks were! I was expecting a mess. Oh me of little faith. (May 18)
May 7 I’ve laughed aloud at bits of John O’Farrell’s ‘This is your life’ especially at the start but really it pales beside his first novel, the wonderfully pained and painful and very funny ‘The best a man can get’. The new one is an emperor’s clothes media satire and quite good at the absurdities of even minor celebrity but it’s a bit mechanical and cranked out; you could do a lot worse though. As I type this I’m hearing White Stripes’ Elephant for the first time. Mighty fine noise and infinitely more satisfying than Blur’s overly clever ‘Think tank’.
April 29 Seems I’ve been cured of the soaps. World Championship Snooker from the Crucible has taken a grip again. And while we’re at it, surprised at the depth of disappointment I felt when Bolton’s second goal went in against Arsenal on Saturday, seemingly handing the Premiership to Man U and the ogre Ferguson. (April 29)
April 7 Lewis Shiner’s ‘Glimpses’ (St Martins Press, 1993) is fascinating both as the picture of a ’60s survivor undergoing a breakdown and a tale of time travel, our hero from 1989 going back to change rock’n’roll history so that, for example, Brian Wilson’s ‘Smile’ and the third ‘proper’ Doors album get finished; and he tries to keep Hendrix alive. Fascinating nicely written page turner and meditation on the run. Has certainly made me appreciate Brian Wilson’s situation and the ‘Smile’ project more than I have so far felt inclined and had me seeking mp3s hungrily again. Beautifully done dream sequence in ‘heaven’ near the end where the consequences of his actions are reviewed by the various participants. Worth seeking out.
Graham Swift’s ‘The light of day’, his new novel, is a nice piece of work, the slow revelation of how things happen and everything is changed. Wimbledon private eye in love with the jailed murderess who employed him. Muted and quietly epic of seeming ordariness.
And in a disturbing development I find myself watching the Sunday omnibus of Eastenders (UK tv soap). I have to admit to quite liking Emmerdale (Marlon Dingle truly Dickensian) and I used to be more partial to Corrie than I am right now (too many tedious story lines post-serial killer Richard) but Eastenders I can’t usually stomach (the unrelenting misery and unpleasantness). Kevin from Manchester loved it when it started, having taken Coronation Street as a personal affront for years: “Now you bastards in London know what it feels like”. Anyway, it works better as an omnibus methinks, the storylines having more room to breath somehow (and it helps that Pauline doesn’t feature too strongly plotwise at the moment). It struck me that here were people in genuine torment. Fat useless Barry, in the middle of an escalating psychotic episode, gets covered in cold custard at the wake following his father’s funeral (itself not without incident), the custard being part of a completely unrelated April Fool revenge. Brilliant and brave soap moment. (And in parenthesis, even if you don’t watch soaps, Alison Graham’s weekly column in Radio Times is a regular delight.) (April 7)
March 30 I’m back on the road with Iain SINCLAIR’s ‘London Orbital’, his perambulation of the land and countryside – old asylums, golf courses, shopping malls, industrial parks et al bordering the M25. Often baffling but usually rewarding chewing over of many things, like modernity, the idea of heritage, art, wealth distribution, history, psychogeography, decent breakfasts and the like. A certain illogical logic and fascination of its own. Bizarrely I start again with the section on Harefield and its hospital which I visited recently as a visitor to a relative. ( Mar 30)
March 26 And so to the theatre for Cav & Pag, the operatic equivalent of spag bol. But first a mention of Peter ROBINSON’s ‘Dead right’ (UK: 1997), from his late middle period before he got really good and Inspector Banks was still living with his wife (at the start at least). How about: “Banks stood by the phone for a moment, head in his hands, tears burning in his eyes. Then he did what any reasonable man would do in his situation. He cranked Mozart’s Requiem up as loud as he could bear it and got rat-arse drunk.” This almost makes up for the cheap joke at the expense of country music which had me on close to giving up on the book very early on. The man should watch the very wonderful recent BBC2 four parter on said genre – ‘Lonesome highway’ – as soon as possible. Anyway, over 30 years ago, I used to say I could listen to anything good except for country music and opera. Mea culpa. The former fell very soon thereafter but the latter took longer. I tried to hold out but my chum Glenda’s campaign slowly wore me down. Still no opera buff, me, but when it’s good (say Glyndebourne touring) it’s great to experience the full blown spectacle; but be careful – it can still be what Mat calls “Italian shouting music”. I’ve yet to try Wagner and have no plans in that direction; Mark Twain’s hilarious account of a visit to Bayreuth in one of travel books cannot be allowed to be diminished by any suggestion that he may have been exaggerating. Anyway Welsh National Opera‘s travelling production of Mascagni’s ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ was a joy, the sets and crowd scenes a moving painterly delight (Dutch Old – or even new – Masters) and some decent tunes. To tell the truth was a bit bored by Leoncavallo’s ‘Pagliacchi’ which was the second half of the show and none of the above. (Mar 26)
March 9 Kitty KELLEY’s ‘The Royals’ (US: 1997) reads like a Monty Python sketch much of the time, especially the stuff about the royal households. And Diana’s lovers. And her family, let alone her in-laws. And the bestowing of titles and their nuances. And, and, and … Surprised to find myself saying even now, when much of it is out in the open, it’s compulsive reading, though as literature it’s a bit of a shambles. Never published in the UK. The thing about monarchy, apart from its inherent absurdity, irrationality and anti-democratic nature, is its basic inhumanity to the poor sods/parasites (delete where applicable – but does it make them happy?) who have to live in palaces, go on world tours etc. (9 March)
February 28 And for a some while now I’ve been slowly working my way through ‘Living on a thin line : crossing aesthetic borders with The Kinks’ from Doug Hinman’s Rock’n’roll Research Press. This is a strange marriage of a collection of academic essays (a good reminder, on the whole of why I didn’t stay in academe, but the odd insight made it worth reading) along with a bunch of really interesting interviews with ex-Kinks from all eras of the band. It’s been the downstairs toilet book for most of the year so far. Good chapter on music hall influences and the closing piece from one of the editors on gaps in the biography of Ray and the shifting sands of interviews over the years is a good question mark to end on (Feb 28)
February 21 & 28 Dave EGGER’s ‘A heartbreaking work of staggering genius’. It’s OK I guess. Extremely clever (postmodern, self-consciously self -conscious even down to the back of the title page) but I’m afraid I end up reading it as fiction a lot of the time – especially the stuff after his mother dies – so has it failed? Later: Impressive frisbee throwing on the beach coda pulls it off though … and through that back to life and literature (hello Molly!). And the impossibility of what he’s doing with integrity and sometimes achieves. (28 Feb)
February 21 A stunning piece of music from this week’s Desert Island Discs – the only radio I consistently listen to, though broadband and the BBC’s radio on demand has got me checking out their various specialist music programmes. The sculptress Cornelia Parker’s first choice on the island was a piece from the minimalist Wim Mertens (who I’ve never heard of) called ‘Maximising the audience’ which requires pursuing further.
Media? It’s my site and I’ll include what I want. Like the fridge magnet her sister gave my wife for her birthday: “A clean house is a sign of a wasted life.” That sister-in-law was also the source for an update on the usual “Clean me” written in the grime on the back of an unwashed vehicle: “I wish my wife was as dirty as this car.”
February 13 Such activity. As much so far in less than a couple of months as I can sometimes manage in a whole year. The amazing Antonio FORCIONE (‘guitarist’ hardly does him justice – wizard? A blues extemporisation like no other and that was only ten minutes of a two hour show; I’d had no idea what to expect, was knocked out) at The Stables on Feb 9. And the next week, Jackie LEVEN again, this time at The Borderline. The opposite of at Oxford – downstairs in a packed cellar club with musical accomplices. I’ve seen the big man 4 times now, all in completely different circumstances, and each time his commitment to his songs is total. ‘Poortoun’ and ‘Jim o’Windygates’, both from ‘Fairy tales for hard men’ album, have been the rivetting heart of each performance. The new album, ‘Shining bother shining sister’ continues to reveal new gems with each listen. ‘Classic Northern diversions’ is a great new song though I have to say I preferred it solo through a distorting PA as per …
And so on Tuesday 4 Feb to Oxford, there to witness a performance from the finest performing British troubadour. Jackie LEVEN from the kingdom of Fife (for it is he) in fine form as ever, integrity to his wonderful songs shining humbly through, he and his guitar undiluted a unique experience. Upstairs room in a real pub, tickets a fiver, there were 20 of us. This is both a shocking condemnation of the great English public and incredibly lucky for those of us there. Good to see he’s lost a bit of weight too, and none of his wit.
February 3 Peter ROBINSON has joined the ranks of those writers (along with Ian Rankin and Doris Lessing) who for me mean that most else goes by the board until I’ve finished the new book. His ‘The summer that never was’, the latest Inspector Alan Banks mystery is gripping stuff. Two crimes are at the centre of the book, one in contemporary North Yorkshire, the other 1965 Peterborough, and the mysterious disappearance of one of Banks’s young teenage friends. Cue a contemplation of growing up in the ’60s along with much else. Plot, character and place – fine stuff.
Sometime in January 2003 Dragged to the cinema – a rare experience for me – to see ‘The Two Towers’. Whereas I emerged from ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ feeling enobled, I came out of 2Towers feeling like I’d been shouted at and beaten on for 3 hours.
Stephen POLIAKOFF’s ‘The lost prince’ was wonderful television, had me liquid and lachrymose all over the floor. A beautiful piece of work. And later that week the video of ‘Perfect strangers’ did it to me all over again. Jackie Leven says in an interview the core of his work is the intertwining of beauty and sadness. Sums Poliakoff up perfectly.
“My friend Serge has bought a painting …” Saw Yasmina Reza‘s play ‘Art’. Wonderful stuff about art and friendship. The climax, the desecration of the ‘painting’ one of the great comic and dramatic moments.
Alan SILLITOE : Saturday night and Sunday morning‘ (1958) and ‘Birthday’, it’s sequal 43 years on. The vibrant working class community in the original almost seems like a lost domain these days. So much energy there and in Arthur Seaton, a joie de vivre. I’ve a lot more to say about him in the main part of this site. ‘Birthday’ an odd little requiem; the spirit is still there but depressing really. We all get old. And John BRAINE’s ‘ Room at the top’ (1962) – a surprisingly good read only opened because I was doing homework for the main part of this site.
Late December 2002 Tony BROADBENT : The Smoke (2002) – intriguing picture of immediately post-war London through the eyes of a cat burgler cum theatre stage hand fresh from active service on the Arctic convoys who does a jewellery job at the Russian Embassy and gets drawn into the ambit of the intelligence services and organised crime. Good atmospheric stuff with some nice action sequences (although it gets a bit brutal towards the end). Nice touches abound – Shakespearian references, rhyming slang, the sense of a living city … to live outside the law you must be honest. Can’t resist saying we were mates at school. Nice one, old chum.
Elizabeth WOODCRAFT : Good bad woman (Collins Crime Club, 2001): a feisty lesbian lawyer for a change. ‘Murder with a dash of Motown’ is the enticing cover hookline. Entertaining enough self-deflationary diversion set im modern Islington and environs. 12.02
December 12 Andrew MARTIN : The Necropolis Railway (2002) – turn of the last century murder mystery (and so much more) set in London and centring on Nine Elms railway shed and the amazing Necropolis Railway, built to ferry funerals out to a suburban cemetery development or Victorian city of the dead. Rivetting rite of passage stuff.
Iain SINCLAIR : London orbital – ‘epic’ walk and meditation around the M25 with his chums. Like the walk, a slow read. Not so much hard work as … you have to concentrate … it’s usually worth it.. I’ve had to surrender it because there’s a waiting list at the library. I shall return. Great rant against Best Value made me laugh out loud. 12.12.02
November 2002 Andrew MARTIN : Bilton – a very funny novel jousting at ‘lifestyle’ journalism. Indeed I’ve read all his stuff recently … quite a comic talent.
October 2002 Shawn LEVY : Ready, steady, go! Swinging London and the invention of cool – good primer, especially good on the nascent scene (meritocratic, exclusive) before commercialisation and drugs set in.
Neil GAIMAN : American gods – brilliant big novel out of The Sandman stable, nice twist at the end a la Pullman. Would have just read it straight through again to spot the links (from page one) if life wasn’t too short and the book pile too big.
Zadie SMITH : The autograph man – enjoyed this a lot. An energetic meditation on celebrity. 10.02
September 4, 2002 Still on a bit of a Harlan COBEN binge …
Joy of joys … came across a CD of the Charles Lloyd Quartet’s ‘Dream weaver’ after many years’ hoping. Last heard it (chunky American LP cover) about 30 years ago. Had forgotten the somewhat tedious ‘Autumn sequence’ (more interesting without the flute, actually) but the title stuff very fine indeed (the rest of my family hate it), ‘Sombrero Sam’ a delight as ever.
Solomon Burke’s ‘Don’t give up on me’ is timeless with some lovely touches like the mention of ‘Bonaparte’s retreat’ becoming ‘Joe Henry’s (the album’s producer) retreat’ in one of the Van Morrison songs, and the Dylan references (whose work was that?) in the Dylan song that sounds like something off ‘Love & theft’.
On a Harlan Coben binge bookwise. Lovely tone (jokey Chandler modern) and a fruitful area of contemplation (ostensibly Myron Bolitar earns his crust as a sports agent).
Read Vikram Seth’s ‘An equal music’. A friend had told how he’d almost fallen out terminally with one of the great loves of his life over this. He thought it was the best description of actual ensemble music making and the music life he’d ever read (he’s decent standard amateur) while she dismissed it as Mills & Boon. Has to be interesting. I tend to go with him but can see what she means. The main protagonist’s agony and breakdown wouldn’t fit into her dismissal though. Intelligent, heady, moving, lovely sense of place (London and Venice) and a very funny passage concerning a wrong phone number.
Younger son’s mate bought a DVD of the second series of ‘Spaced‘ round and I now have a deep affection for all of them in the house. Adept stuff.