The 2004 archive
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December 29, 2004 Deep breath, because we have a lot to get through. Felt my whole cultural existence somehow diminished by walking into the pissoir at Leigh Delamere Service Station on the M4 and being forced to listen to ‘Strawberry Fields‘. It’s not as if I’m a great fan of the art and drugs period Beatles – these days I think they started going downhill after ‘Hard day’s night‘ – but, well, there just ought to be a law. Surprise hit of that journey – I usually just grab a couple of tapes at random for long journeys as a potential serendip bonus and this time hit gold – was XTC’s ‘Wasp star (Apple Venus Vol 2)’ from 2000, a true legacy of the Beatles’ (over-rated bar the production) ‘White album’ – intelligent tuneful English guitar based rock with a heart, a sense of fun and adventure and a nod and a wink to Art.
Having sworn off soaps I have to admit to a serious recent ‘Hollyoaks’ habit, to the extent of actually videoing the episodes either side of Xmas. It’s based around a bunch of good looking young people in a reasonably affluent Chester suburb, but I can no longer scoff, having been drawn in by the rest of the family watching it just as I come home from work. There was a great ‘Christmas Carol’ ghost of Christmas Past episode seeing to entrepreneur and restauranteur Tony’s hard heart (but it still looks like he’s going to lose his gal, and I feel for him) and Dan’s death has been devastating. Another recent major many dimensioned plot line involved an angelic lad known to all as Bombhead not being able to accept the death of his mum and not telling anyone she’d died for weeks, just leaving her in bed. Only to be found by his mate breaking in desperate to find a bed to consummate a very shallow relationship indeed and the couple climbing into said bed. There are some great comic characters and scenes straight outta Dickens and some real dilemmas, but the programmes very real strength is that it’s centred around mainly young people generally supporting one another through various trials and it has a decent moral core, unlike most of its older cynical rivals. I do hope, however, that that blonde scouse-talking airhead schoolgirl meets a very grim comeuppance very soon. And staying with TV, I suspect I’m one of the very few people in the country who actually thought a lot of this year’s Xmas AbFab was very funny.
More December 29 A mixed harvest of holiday books. The evolution of my knowledge of evolution continued with Brian & Deborah Charlesworth’s ‘Evolution : a very short introduction’ (2003) in OUP’s splendid little ‘Very short introductions’ series. Short indeed, but still on the borders my scientific and technical savvy. Interesting how DNA fits in and seems to confirm and inform the theory. Doubt I can take this much further and can’t really see any alternative other than acceptance while trying to forget the reductionism of Dawkins and pals and still finding a personal reality for spirit and soul outside all that. Andrei Makine is a remarkable writer. ‘Confessions of a lapsed standard bearer’ (1992, translated 2000) is only 136 pages long but it’s a huge book. Could only be about Russia but it’s both relatively free of stereotypes and on the other hand breathes loving life into same from the standpoint of the international exile. This title a fond reminiscence of being young in the late 1950s when it was still possible for young Russians to believe in the ultimate and progressive victory of communism and the spectacular emotional explosion of the myth to our two heroes. The social milieu is beautifully realised; you hear the dominoes being slapped down, and the slow and moving unfolding of the generational archaeology is masterful. ‘Eats, shites and leaves : crap English and how to use it’ by A.Parody (ho hum) (2004) was given to me as an Xmas present and it is indeed almost total shite – not at all a parody, as the unambiguous title makes plain, but rather another collection of mainly tedious, tired and tenuous lists with the honourable exception of the 4 sequences of ‘The complete rules of good writing’ (“Avoid cliches like the plague”). On the whole it’s the sort of stuff my mate Mat would be ashamed of having written in his sleep. Speaking of whom, Mat Coward’s ‘Success … and how to avoid it’ (TTA Press, 2004) is a practical advice (don’t!) book which is mainly about the trials of freelance writing. It is very, very funny, and wise and insightful. He can be savage and wry in a single sentence, deeply cynical yet somehow untainted. Do yourself a favour.
December 20 I love Andy Goldsworthy‘s work. There’s some great stuff in his latest book ‘Passage‘ (Thames & Hudson, 2004) which I haven’t read but just looked at – and luxuriated in – which is enough. What he does with natural materials in natural settings is a celebration beyond words, cerebral and physical, visual artifice, full of wonder and also just being there, a part of it like his materials. Stones, sand and clay, branches and leaves, aided and abetted by the seasons, air, sun, wind and water, in a landscape or intimate natural setting. The seasonal sequences of photographs of the cairns he’s constructed in various places are deeply satisfying; in one such sequence the cairn disappears back into the shoreline. But my favourites in this collection are what he does arranging autumnal elm leaves on water near his abode in Dumfriesshire, layered to shade through burning reds, oranges, yellows and greens; by the next day the river has risen and it’s gone. In another piece the leaves transform a big branch, seemingly illuminated from within. We once went in search of one of his walls in a sculpture park in the Lake District taking a chance on the weather but never found it, or at least never identified it from the walls that were already there as a part of the old remote working environment; the map had disintegrated in the rain. There have been few times, if any, that I have been wetter, soaked absolutely, wet from within the weather(non)proofs, and some of the pathways were treacherous. We’d thought it worth trying and bear no grudges.
December 15 Here’s a thought. Bob Dylan‘s persona in ‘Chronicles‘ – remind anybody of Huck Finn? I’ve often wondered why you never see Mark Twain mentioned in Dylan criticism. They certainly inhabit the same America of the spirit: Has he ever been asked about him, or mentioned him, in interviews? “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest.” And the technical stuff on blues guitar in ‘Chronicles’ reminds me of the discussions of pilotage in ‘Life on the Mississippi‘ (one hell of a book, by the way).
Best album I’ve heard in ages is Natalie Merchant’s ‘The house carpenter’s daughter : a collection of traditional and contemporary folk music’. No-one should try to cover the Fairport’s sublime ‘Crazy man Michael‘ but she’s up there with ’em. Spare and rich, the intelligence of the album’s title says a lot, and there are great versions of ‘House carpenter’, ‘Down on Penny’s Farm’ and ‘Soldier, soldier’ (yes that one). And Jackie Leven’s ‘Songs for lonely Americans’ is growing on me enormously. Issued under the name of Leven’s alter ego ‘Sir Vincent Lone‘ and available only through a German mail and web order enterprise it has some fine songs and wonderful performances as you’d expect from a man whose quality control over the years has been practically impeccable. He gets better. There’s an unabashed love song here – ‘Courtship in Scottish factories‘ – to break your heart. Slow, spare, insecure and tenderly devoted, there’s a yearning and celebratory line in there – “I wanna dance with you on Saturday night” – just him and guitar, you get the full swirl and sway and colour of the dance in the spaces between the notes, be it ceilidh or bopping at the local hop. Magical.
Back on books, good guy Carl Hiassen’s ‘Skinny dip’ (Bantam, 2004) is delicious, beautifully strung together with all sorts of delightful tangental absurdities (the man who imagines nightmare singing pairings doing duets to specefic songs and can’t get them out of his mind …), and he really makes the bad guy suffer. Sweet dialogue, lovely tone, anti-corporation and eco-friendly; there’s no British equivalent.
December 6 Finally got round to Mark Haddon‘s prize winning ‘The curious incident of the dog in the night-time‘ (2003) and yes, it was enlightening on Aspergers Syndrome and very clever and initially compulsive stuff, but I have to say I found the unrelenting style – the world as seen through Christopher’s eyes – enlightening as it was, a bit tiresome after a while, and liked it best the closer it was to Adrian Mole, which was, to be fair, enough to keep me going. Good effective swearing placement! Very pleasant surprise watching – with no expectations – Sean Penn’s ‘The pledge‘ with Jack Nicholson as the obsessive retired cop. Mesmerising stuff, shifting emotional sands, best movie I’ve seen for ages, gets better the more I think about it. And in the end he does save her. The first two programmes of ‘Howard Goodall’s Twentieth Century greats‘ on Lennon & McCartney and Cole Porter as composers, saving music from unlistenable modernism has been a delight too; I’ve learnt a lot on the technical level which takes nothing away from one’s visceral appreciation. Enjoying the new Carl Hiassen – what deft effortless strokes and dialogue.
November 29 Normally I wouldn’t touch a book set in the Russia of Stalin’s purges and their immediate aftermath – long ago, far away – but Andrei Makine came with a recommendation from a trusted source (hello Linda!). My normal response to foreign names in a cultural context – who does he play for? – seemed somehow inadequate. ‘A life’s music’ (2001, translated ’02) is a short novel of extraordinary beauty, one man’s story seen by another, related in the specific setting of a train stuck at a remote station in bad weather, and amounting, as they reach Moscow, to ‘War and peace’ in 106 pages, all the sights, sounds, smells. Deeply moving, a fantastic feat of writing. So good I read it twice, just like that. It will stay a long time. I feel a possible binge coming on.
November 27 I’ve been trying to educate myself after a post-Bush re-election exchange about creationism not being so bad and finding myself too ignorant to respond, so I’m checking out the chinks in the theory of evolution by natural selection, but not before grounding myself in that theory. I’m not really expecting to make the great leap over, spiritually unattractive as the notion of a blind watchmaker may be. So, start nice and gentle with Icon Books’ splendid ‘Introducing’ series, a list that older readers may recall started out way back as the radical publishers known as Writers & Readers and their ‘For beginners’ series, the model taken from the excellent introductions to Marx and Cuba by the Mexican writer and cartoonist Rius. Relatively large print and lots of pictures and cartoon diagrams Reliable as ever, Dylan Evans & Howard Selina’s ‘Introducing evolution’ (2001) has got me started well enough; that’s the foothills taken care of.
Many times while reading Nick Tosches‘ book about country music ‘Country‘ (originally published 1975) it was hard not just to exclaim, it has to be simply the best music book ever written. Factual as hell (too much sometimes with the lists of recordings) but tremendous fun too. He’s writing from the inside, drinking with a lot of these people, but there’s also a gonzo academicism that delights with its tangents about, say, the unlikely links between hillbilly music and the US political process. There is so much in this book. He starts with the boat leaving London in 1607 not Long after the Mayflower and with it the first fiddle to reach the New World, and early grounds country music deep into classical literature, let alone the British folk tradition before outlining the links with black music over the decades and the creation of rockabilly – his lodestone. The edition I have – published in the UK in 1989 – bears the sub-title ‘Living legends and dying metaphors in America’s biggest music’, which gives the flavour nicely but hardly hints at the Jerry Lee Lewis recording session described herein, though the current edition’s subtitle certainly does – ‘The twisted roots of rock’n’roll’. Shame they changed it for later editions nevertheless.
Loving ‘Blackpool‘ on the telly. Dennis Potter lives, Elvis Presley and all.
November 14 The best bit about the performance I saw of R.C.Sheriff’s ‘Journey’s end’ at the theatre on Monday was the curtain call. Did it a school a few decades ago and couldn’t remember much about it beyond it was First World War in the trenches and it didn’t have a happy ending. Was surprised at the jokes – was expecting unrelenting gloom – but they were never as funny as Blackadder. The two works certainly inhabit the same absurdity/poignancy/pointlessness of it all planet and I suspect the latter had some influence here; was almost half expecting Baldrick to make an entrance. Trouble is, in the stalls you missed the intimacy of a close-up. The actual end was deeply moving. Extended crescendo of banging and crashing, big sounds of war and alarum, and then the curtain went up slowly. The trenches were gone and the cast were revealed standing in a golden yellow light, officers and men standing together, no individual bows.
Finally dived into Dylan’s ‘Chronicles’ (Simon & Scuster, 2004), swimming joyously through, loving it, may stay here awhile, floating on my back, moving on over to different water, stay awhile in fascination. No great revelations, it’s not a ‘real’ autobiography but did we really need that? Delicious insights and detailed evocation of places and states of mind. Genius at work, simple as that. time to dig out ‘Oh mercy’ … and the outtakes.
November 7 The opera again. I even look forward to it these days. Pantomime lions and penguins, an abstract expressionist set, all watercolour landscape washes or strong Georgia O’Keefe colours, frozen oil light show slides and spectacular lighting. You want an introduction to opera go see a Glyndebourne on Tour production. With all the spectacle, the theatricality, the music can almost seem incidental and then you find that has a certain something too, trained voice and all. Mozart, coming through to see the light (say the word, the word is …) twas ‘The magic flute‘. A lot of fun and moments of musical beauty. No really.
And there’s an unexpected sense of fun too to be found in Ian Rankin‘s latest Rebus novel, ‘Fleshmarket Close‘ (Orion, 2004). It feels different. For all its central theme of the treatment of asylum seekers and the exploitation of migrants – intelligently and thoughtfully handled, the initial danger of being lectured to artfully sidestepped – there’s less angst. Rebus is more relaxed, not so much resigned as reconciled, grooving on being Rebus, with Siobhan coming on through. Some good inter-police stuff, and an interesting take on idealism and how it’s seen by hardened old cynics. I thought I had a quote was worth sharing but I’ve lost the page reference. I’m already looking forward to the next one. I’ve been saving Bob Dylan’s ‘Chronicles’, for the right space, have only dipped into it so far. Looks fascinating. Not for the first time I hear the voice of Huck Finn. Certain dismay at Arsenal’s failure to beat Crystal Palace. With the current series of ‘Green wing‘ and ‘Six feet under‘ finished (finally – Nate and Brenda, yay!) not a lot on tv save the 4th series of ‘Teachers‘, which is now transmuted into a ‘Green wing’ set in a comprehensive school; some delicious moments with more in prospect I’m sure.
October 26 Help, now I’m becoming a musicals buff. Had a great time at the theatre last night with Cole Porter’s ‘High Society’. Lovely stuff, some fine love songs and an energetic cast, all very moving, involving and feel good. Again, fascinating to hear standards in their original context – ‘True love’, ‘I love Paris’, ‘Just one of those things’. I was once in rebellion against this stuff.
And this evening the news of another good man gone. I remember our gang in a room in a uni hall of residence in the summer of 1967, John Peel on pirate radio playing the whole of ‘Sgt. Pepper’ in its entirety on its day of release. Teenage (just …) kicks.
October 24 Disappointed with Andrew Martin’s ‘The Blackpool high flyer’ (Faber, 2004). The background stuff – 1906 railway operation, wakes weeks in mill towns, music hall, socialist agitators, Blackpool for the holidays – and the characterisation, is fine, still worth the time, as you’d expect after ‘The Necropolis Railway‘. But I found it hard to live with the supposed thriller focus of the near train crash and our fireman hero’s pursuit of those responsible and his theories of motivation – jealous failing ventriloquist after a rival whose star was rising, for instance? Or am I missing something?
For my sins I finished Dan Brown’s ‘The da Vinci’ code’. Almost total crap, as stated before below. Awful flat writing, cliche characters, corny denouement. In the middle of a Paris car chase you get told how high the Arc de Triomphe. And in another the passenger breaks into an encyclopedia definition of some esoteric theory as explanation. It did have me hitting Google images for the da Vinci stuff. No great feeling of spirituality given the Grail is central to it all. The idea of ‘The British Royal Historian’ (capital letters, as if it were an official position) as a key character says it all. A couple of nice twists, a realistic presentation of how history gets written by the victors, and a tremendous narrative drive. (24 October)
October 11 “He has been labelled as everything from a republican Joan of Arc to a royalist gangster” – Georges Jacques Danton would appear to be an interesting chap.
“Contemporary evidence is virtually unanimous in presenting [him] as a full blooded man who enjoyed his pleasures, a good friend who was not too fastidious about the company he kept, and the coiner of phrases that were to drive his biographers into asterisks … he could have been either a generous and open hearted bon viveur or a cynical crook”,
writes Norman Hampson in his ‘Danton‘ (Duckworth, 1978), which unfortunately, while still being a fascinating account of the man as political operator ( a bit like Harold Wilson – talk left, act right), wasn’t the biography I wanted to read. And to be fair he says that upfront in his preface. Takes a lot about the events of the French Revolution for granted in its narrative too. It would appear the book I want to read doesn’t seem to have been written, or at least it hasn’t been translated from the French.
It’s easy to be cynical about the American ‘creative writing’ industry of academe and workshops, and Gayle Brandeis’s ‘The book of dead birds’ (US: HarperCollins, 2003) is a prime example of same, women’s ecological wing. Like, the main protagonist is the daughter of a Korean prostitute and a black GI who has – why? – inverted nipples; so we have the dying traditions of Korea and modern America encompassed for starters and a whole mother-daughter thing. But the book sure can fly. Passages of huge sadness, personal horror, ecological desecration and simple courage. There’s fun in there too, in the book of the title (the mother’s scrapbook of the daughter’s disasters with individual pet birds) and the classic American outsiders at the restaurant on the lake. And life affirming beauty there in among the corn.
Speaking of which, I’ve read the first three chapters of Dan Brown’s ‘The da Vinci code’, this year’s word-of-mouth book for people who don’t read books. Just appallingly written – travel guide Paris – but with a certain narrative brio. I might just persist, have it as the downstairs cloakroom book. The best conspiracy theory novel – by a mile – is Robert Anton Wilson’s ‘Illuminatus trilogy’; even Umberto Eco‘s forgotten ‘Foucault’s pendulum‘ paled before that great cosmic joke.
October 4 I’ve just watched ‘Bollywood Queen‘ (Jeremy Wooding & Neil Spencer, 2003) on DVD. Lovely feelgood stuff. Great blending of Bolly and a ’60s Brit movie (think Billy Liar and Morgan), some wonderful moments. Big grins and some thought not far below the surface – the Avalon Hotel for instance, in passing, and we are not talking Brian Ferry (god rot him). And a book with another East End setting, ‘The used women’s book club‘ by Paul Bryers (2003), slipped down easy enough, albeit the crime denouement a little corny. ‘Used’ as in passed around books, a nice conceit. Shame that though two meetings of said book club are an intrinsic part of the plot as alibis we never actually learn what the books discussed were. Still, some nice jokes about the unreadableness of Virginia Woolf and a flight of fantasy touting her as Jack the Ripper.
October 2 Last Wednesday night (Sep 30) had the privilege of seeing Ray Davies at the Bloomsbury Theatre, his second day in of a 5 day stint. I suspect something special happened. Can they all be that good? Great show, Ray a throughbred in fine fettle (not an ounce of flab!), showman and singer extraordinaire obviously enjoying himself. There were not a few moments as good as anything of the times I’ve seen him live with or without the Kinks. Started with a solo him on Fender, the drummer just sitting at the back, an interesting remake remodel of ‘I’m not like everybody else’, almost folk-rock flourishes. You think: he’s gonna do a White Stripes … interesting. And the drummer does come in and you get a hint thereof. The others saunter on to finish it and you think, mmmmm in the best possible sense of the sound. Then a rockin’ ‘The hard way’, a forgotten gem if there ever was one. The chronology breaks down here, I’m afraid – I don’t do set lists. Highlights there were many.
The Village Green suite of songs was exquisite and included ‘Big sky’. How brave is that? Did he get away with it? Of course he did. This section of the show, with just Ray and Mark Johns really does deserve the widest possible airing. Please Ray, just the two of you go into a studio and do it in two takes, let the wider world hear it. Johns is a superb foil, following and probing and maybe even pushing Ray’s vocal adventures, new phrasings and jazz inflections. Close your eyes and you could have reasonably thought he had Davey Graham up there with him. A bit later a great solo ‘Sweet Lady Genevieve’, seemingly just thrown off. The band are more of a band now, of course, and I’ve never seen Ray in such fine form with a guitar himself. The drummer hits impressively hard but with some fine shimmering stuff as well. The ‘new’ songs are improved, though ‘After the fall’ seems to me to be a bit Ray-Davies-written-by-computer-program in construction – which still means half way decent and not without interest. ‘Next door neighbour’ has taken on air and some space to breathe, courtesy of Mark Johns, but it’s not a favourite of mine. ‘Stand up comic’ remains a standout performance, though I could have done without the really loud bridge, which strikes me as a bit of a distraction. Still lovely stuff though.
What else? Oh loads. The last encore of ‘Lola’ was the best I can recall. The big tease version of ‘Where have all the good times gone’ is great fun and all the better for it when the big music comes in. The extended slow blues ‘You really got me’ was great in itself but also displayed just where they were coming from when they created it. Can it get any better than being in the same room as Ray Davies singing ‘Waterloo sunset’ still fresh and loving his creation? He said something about it being “everyone’s song now”. Thank you. A genuine standing ovation, a triumph. And there were more women down the front at the end than men.
September 28 Funny old word – ‘evocative’. Should be neutral, needing further detail. Evocative of anything – good, bad, horrible, pungency, awul times, the whole gamut. But usually its use invokes a certain poignancy, an enchantment of earlier days. And so it seems with Haruki Murakami’s ‘Norwegian wood’ (1987, translated 2000) though there’s a whole lot more going on. What intrigues some of the time is what isn’t there. Muzak Beatles tune heard on an airplane 17 years on from the action evokes early student days, frankly odd but attractive women, a lot of gloom, some comic observation of student life and mores. But also a fine feeling for landscape and a, um, horniness, a longing, kindnesses, the human mystery. Somehow flatly related yet full of emotional nuance and tragedy. The writing draws you in, the individuals telling their stories … and yet we know nothing of the intervening years save he has become an accustomed international traveller. Good writer.
September 25 His teams didn’t cheat, they played fair Brian Clough‘s passing (Sep 20 2004) has touched a lot of people hard, myself included.
Another prime example of the sort of extraordinary character who, if they were to appear in fictional guise in book or film would lend that artistic enterprise an instant lack of credibility. You can’t make it up. Charles Dickens might have come close, I guess, and maybe, just maybe, among our contemporaries, Zadie Smith. What seems to me to have been missed in all the eulogies was not the undoubted achievement and memorable bon mots (ho ho) is that his teams always played fair; they did not cheat in an era when cheating – Don Revie’s vile Leeds team was the worst example, when it became a major and ultimately wasteful tactic – was endemic. Nor did his defenders, though never less than brave, go into a tackle to injure, rather than hurt, their opponents. One recalls a raging bull of a striker called Kenny Burns, with a disciplinary record to make Robbie Savage appear positively cherubic, whom Cloughie turned into not only a rock of a centre half but also, in a memorable phrase from one of this week’s eulogists whose name I wish I could recall, into a “kind of East Midlands Franz Beckanbauer”. This is from Trevor Francis‘s memoire in the Guradian of 21 September – Clough bought him for a deliberately few pence short of £1 million – the day after his old manager’s death:
“Another game I remember well was my Forest debut at Ipswich earlier that year. Although if it was forgetable in terms of the way I played, the Ipswich fans loved it. They didn’t stop chanting, “What a waste of money,” but something did happen that I’ll never forget. I couldn’t reach a cross with my head so I punched the ball into the net, though I didn’t get away with it during the game. And afterwards the boss gave me the biggest dressing down of my career. He told me in no uncertain terms that if I was going to play for Forest then I played the game in the right spirit and according to the laws.”
That, for all his eccentricities, is what made – on the pitch – the man so special. Nor was he afraid to talk of socialism as something to cherish.
September 19 Had a good time at the theatre with ‘Kiss me Kate‘. So help me, I’m even finding time for musicals now, the spectacle, the stage. Hastening to add this was Cole Porter songs – interesting too to hear the recognisable ones in their original context, before they became standards. Some great performances and a couple of superb set pieces – ‘Too darn hot’ and ‘Brush up your Shakespeare’. What words, too, on the latter. Great stuff. After Fairports, on a Richard Thompson binge, only just discovering ‘Henry the human fly‘ – how have I managed to miss that one all this time?
September 16 Often very entertaining rant from Francis Wheen in his ‘How mumbo-jumbo conquered the world : a short history of modern delusions’ (2004). Scatter gun stuff – by the end you can almost hear him rousing himself to another, “And another thing …” Modern here means the era instituted with the electoral triumphs of Thatcher and Reagan and it is certainly interesting to learn of the economic realities behind the free trade rhetoric. The bit I liked best was the comprehensive rubbishing of post-structuralist academe’s abdication of judgment and practically everything but gobbledygook. He spares no prisoners with Blair’s ‘Third Way’ hypothesis either and his attacks on anti-American left defences of and excuses for militant Islam (any enemy of our enemy …) struck a chord too. Nice contradiction of anti-globalisation groups’ condemnation of the US – fair enough – for their not signing up to Kyoto, but hang on … isn’t Kyoto a global initiative? Babies and bath water though, Wheen’s blanket rationalist dismissal of all New Age schools of thinking and alternative therapies like Chinese medicine is a bit too easy, and generally you have to take a lot on trust.
Certainly one of the modern delusions my household has seen through is ‘You get what you pay for’ as far as electric kettles go. Ever since we bought a beauteous and expensive object doubling as an icon of modern design some years ago – which exited with a minor explosion and sparks flying – each replacement has been getting cheaper and the latest – replacing one that was less than a tenner and still worked but was getting a bit discoloured and frankly grubby – was cheaper than the red wine (lower end of not plonk but nothing grand) that accompanied it to the checkout in the supermarket trolley. And what’s more the Hinari Aqua-Glow boasts a soft sort of pinky orange light that illuminates the kettle and its contents while it is doing its stuff. Now there’s an improved quality of life, particularly in the twilight as autumn draws in. Swallows low flying the school field at the bottom of our handkerchief garden today.
September 7 Learned a lot from ‘The secret lives of garden birds‘ by Dominic Couzens (C.Helm, 2004), not least about their, um, reproductive organs, which uniquely, grow seasonally:
“Outside breeding they are deemed surplus to requirements, and shrivel almost to nothing. But in early spring the ovaries and testes enlarge by as much as a thousand times in a female and three hundred times in a male. This doesn’t happen overnight …”
For which much thanks – the stuff of nightmares, is it not? And those robins are vicious little sods too. Relaxed chatty style with lots of nice analogies from the modern human life (“Song is the equivalent of a Lonely Hearts column”). Fascinating how the rise of the suburban garden has made such a difference to birds’ lives and behaviour.
Musically, much taken by Rodgers & Hammerstein‘s joyful ‘Oklahoma‘ (1955) – a glorious overture, hardly a duff line, great songs (most of which you know despite yourself), and still full of wit and wide open skies (though they could have laid off the hick accents). Imagine it in grey old North London back then and now you see the true splendour of vision of Ray Davies’s ‘Oklahoma USA‘ on ‘Muswell Hillbillies’. Geographically close, on a bit of a Fairport Convention binge (Unhalfbricking through to Angel Delight). And even as I type am grinning at the Rolling Stone’s ‘Their Satanic Majesties request’ with benefit only of a yoghurt and decaff coffee. More than a period piece – huge fun. (September 7)
August 30 I’ve liked Ian Marchant’s ‘Parallel lines : or journeys on the railway of dreams’ (Bloomsbury, 2003) a lot. Like him – and despite over a decade a decade ago of commuting – I still find an inherent excitement about railway stations, the expectation of a journey, coming and going. This book is a fine mix of mild English gonzo travelogue as he travels the land (“I really shouldn’t drink in the day. It just makes me maudlin”), autobiographical reminiscence, social commentary, history and advocacy, all laced with a humour which can be gentle, savage and slapstick in the flashing of an eye. It’s the permanent way he’s interested in rather than the motive power so it’s railway as social contribution and motor and victim of social change he pursues. There’s a futile attempt to cover the length of the London Underground in a day and journeys all over the place. Particularly funny is the chapter where he tries to make railway modellers ‘cool’ which in passing elucidates the history of modern thought through classicism, romanticism and modernism in defining just what that means. The parallel lines are the romantic idea of railways (‘Brief encounter’, various Golden Ages and all that) and the mundane reality of leaves on the line (to be charitable) and the hell of other people. Great stuff – thanks for the ride.
August 22 More Stanley Spencer in the form of Fiona MacCarthy’s ‘Stanley Spencer : an English vision’ (Yale UP, 1997). The fine catalogue of a British Council exhibition, a brief life and the 64 exhibition pics accompanied by diary or letter quotes from the man himself, starting and finishing with those two great self-portraits. While attracted to the idea of his spiritual paintings (The resurrections etc seen in daily life in Cookham) there’s a fair few I just don’t ‘see’ and I’m increasingly drawn to the naturalism – the portraits, landscapes, nature, the unforgiving nudes. Need to see some on gallery walls.
August 19 Best book I’ve read for ages was Audrey Niffenegger’s ‘The time traveler’s wife’ (Cape, 2004). Yes, it has time travel as its narrative thread and mentions in passing the paradoxes but it couldn’t be further from SF. This is time travel as problem medical condition with all the practical problems of spontaneous disappearance (and appearance, without clothes) – but it’s basically a love story set in Chicago, its real concerns loving, loss, living, longing. Which all sounds a bit grand and literary but he (librarian Henry, son of classical musicians, 8 years her senior in real time) likes punk rock while she (sculptor Clare) takes the opportunity to play Fleetwood Mac when he is off on his travels – just one of the many finely drawn details that really raise the book. I started of with a “but …” or two and soon transcended that. Beautifully written, not without humour, thrilling and deeply moving as he sees her (and she sees him of course) at various stages in their lives, he traveling back from when he’s 42, say, and she’s – first sighting – six. Lovely stuff, will stay with me a long time.
August 15 Surprised to find myself moved by the Olympic opening ceremony. Can’t say that I’d ever really ‘got’ the Olympic ideal – as peace movement – before, but seeing the athletes congregating in the centre of the arena like that, a sea of colour slowly building, I pondered where else could you see 200 nationalities altogether like that, all those smiles. For a moment never mind the drugs and the corruptions. The simple symbolism of that runner breaking the tape on the roll call of ‘1896, Athens’ … ‘1908, London’ … und so weiter, only to fall to the ground with the coming of the First World War quelled the cynic in me for a while. And there was a little bit of pride at ‘1948, London’, picking up the baton again after the second great failure. This not entirely down to imbibing a bottle of the exquisite and prizewinning Bitter and Twisted ale from the Harviestoun Brewery in Clackmannanshire in Scotland courtesy of Sainsburys, a veritable well hopped (for me the key) taste explosion. Couple of books on the go, but later for them. A short boat trip on the canal – I walk its banks often enough – an object lesson in changing perspective – what a difference a couple of metres or three can make.
August 5 Finished ‘Paddling to Jerusalem‘. Wry, reasonable and interesting, picks up when where he is has a resonance to his immediate family history. Aaronovitch is suddenly passionate about artist Stanley Spencer’s treatment of his – Spencer’s that is – first wife when he walks into Cookham. Released from the disadvantage of the restricted view he has because of his lowness in the water of the canoe by a hand injury, he is liberated by finishing the journey on foot. Good stuff on Englishness and a defence of the idea of suburbia. And I read Mark Billingham’s ‘Sleepyhead’ (2001) easily enough. Another contender in the maverick cop stakes, eve of millennium North London settings well evoked (good old Waterlow Park), nicely worked plotting and multiple voices delivering same. If another falls into my palms I’ll add it to the pile.
July 30 Casting around a bit at the moment for literary inspiration. Making as slow progress with David Aaronovitch’s ‘Paddling to Jerusalem: an aquatic tour of our small island’ (Fourth Estate, 2000) as he did with his response to a mid-life crisis – 1,000 miles in a canoe on canal and river. It’s the downstairs cloakroom book. I like him as a sound and witty columnist in the Guardian but I suspect he wouldn’t have finished this book (or the journey) if he hadn’t had a contract to fulfill. Truth be told, not a lot happens (he’s already resorted to making the case that ‘bad’ King John suffered from merely bad PR) and at least he doesn’t go for the usual cheap laughs at the expense of Milton Keynes, but ‘Life on the Mississippi’ it is not. What else? Riveting last couple of episodes of ‘The long firm‘ on the telly, in particular the third with Phil Daniels.
And, not sure quite why at this particular time and from where, but a song from the first Soft Machine album seems to have lodged itself in my head of late, probably work related. I recall, when I was in Sheffield back when it was first released in 1968 taking the train over the Pennines to Manchester there to purchase this wondrous thick carboard (with spinning wheel insert) covered vinyl object – it was only available as an import and there were only about 3 shops in the county at the time that did rock imports (first Beefheart, the proper first Mothers of Invention as a chunky double etc) – only to leave it on the train. Luckily – a function no doubt of a combination of my progressive musical taste and more honest times – I was able to recover it from the Lost Property office. Probably haven’t heard it for at least a decade and a considerable bit; must dig it out and give it a spin. Anyway, from Kevin Ayers’ Gurdjieff (remember him?) inspired ‘Why are we sleeping?’:
“It begins with a blessing
And ends with a curse
Making life better
By making it worse.”
[I just checked it out and the old memory aint what it used to be:
“It begins with a blessing
But ends with a curse
Making life easy
By making it worse.”
Think I prefer what I mis-remembered. As Kurt Vonnegut used to say, “Oh well.” (1 August)]
I had fun reading Stuart Maconie‘s commendably wide-ranging musical memoir, the splendidly titles ‘Cider with roadies : from school bus to tour bus without ever growing up‘ (Ebury Press, 2004). Even though he was well after the NME’s golden era, which he fondly recalls reading at school, there is still a certain intoxication at the thought of it and his adventure therein. Some nice touches on the difference between music journos and the real thing. Shame he had to spoil the bit on nightmare interviewees – only mention (now there’s a surprise) of Ray Davies – by moving the Konk studios to Notting Hill. Set me off on a couple of false musical trails; thanks but no thanks for the Gentle Giant tip, Stuart – should have relied on my judgment at the time. Which, it has to be said, hasn’t let me down that much over the years. A couple of times Maconie uses the – to me, valid – notion of the sharing a pint or three with musicians on the basis of their music as a crucial tool of critical judgment. It’s something I’ve often said about writers. Good lad. (30 July).
July 20 Mary Lawson’s ‘Crow Lake’ (Chatto, 2002) has been something of a word-of-mouther but you won’t find me passing it the word on. Missing link between Annie Proulx and the Waltons. And no crows. I read it easily enough and the regional stuff (Canadian forests) is fine, but I tired of the hanging backwards and forwards narrative – just tell us what happened.
July 8 Well into Haruki Murakami’s ‘Dance Dance Dance’ (originally published1988 in Japan, translated 1994) which strikes me as being very prescient in catching the trends emerging in what it calls ‘modern capitalism’ – I was surprised how long ago he wrote it. Central narrative continues to intrigue even when it seemingly goes off on long tangents (or literally to Hawaii – it’s set in Japan) and it seems to me he has a reasonable take on modern life – the wish for a reasonable ‘ordinary’ existence against the creation of consumer desire, the price of and un-freedom of celebrity, the notion of work as ‘shovelling snow’. Will there be a denouement as the narrator pursues the deepening mystery of a lost love, or just a displacement? (8 Jul 2004). [The latter, it would seem, but, you know, thanks for the journey. Appearance of the Martin Amis notion of the murderer and murderee (cf ‘London Fields, 1989 – not that I’m accusing anything). (added 20 Jul 2004)]
July 7 Falling behind again. Had a good time with Mark Steel’s ‘Vive la Revolution: a stand-up history of the French Revolution’ (Scribner, 2003) and his modern analogies as to how it must have felt and just how big a deal it really was, lest we forget. Didn’t actually learn that much – take a bow Mr Knox, A level history teacher of distinction – but it was good to be reminded of what a big deal was going down; maybe the wanton Danton needs to be investigated further. One would wish to shuffle off this mortal coil a citizen rather than still a subject. One can also wish the author does a similar job on the English Civil War; how come we don’t call that one revolution too? Book Three of Alan Moore’s ‘Promethea’ (originally 2001/2 as comic books) continues to excel on about six different levels, not the least visually (no credits here because there are too many of them). Here he starts to explore and explain the Kabbalah, no less.
I’ve watched the DVD of Bob Dylan and Larry Charles’ ‘Masked and anonymous‘ (2003) twice now and I’ll be watching it again. You have to be into Dylan really, but if you are it’s a cumulative treat. There is good cinema in there but as a movie as a whole it’s not without problems (wha’appenin’?). At its core is a stunning and incredibly brave couple of minutes of stillness which I found extremely moving and am saying more about. The musical performances are great – I can’t get ‘Dixie’ out of my head; there are entertaining musical references throughout and I’m not telling what happens to one of the original bluesmen’s (Blind Lemon?) guitar. But it’s not just about Dylan, fame and legend, art and commerce. Though seemingly set in a banana republic, it is also about America – love and loathing, the whole complex of thoughts and emotions that it is necessary to comtemplate and embrace. Anyone got a decent copy of ‘Renaldo and Clara’ which I completely forgot to video the one time it was on TV? – now there’s something that would get me to sign up to digital.
Who knows how many times I’ve listened to ‘The Kinks are The Village Green Preservation Society‘ (1968) over the years – even if it wasn’t, for shame, in 1968 – but it has never sounded better than in the remastered stereo version that comes as part of the new 3 CD ‘de luxe’ edition (2004). You can hear more going on – more clearly – not least giving due credit to Mick Avory’s drumming. Masterpiece, no less. Fell asleep watching ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail‘; I was tired, but maybe so was it some of the time. (7 July 2004)
June 21 – the boy Rooney done good. Tempus fugit. Both the web digests I contribute to (Kinks, the estimable Jackie Leven) have discussed Neil Young’s ‘Greendale’ album with combative stances on both from both sides. It’s that sort of work. Quintessential Neil Young. By that one means not only is it exciting, accomplished, full of insight and compassion and good playing (delightfully blues rough at the edges) but also the thought lingers that he might well have done it all in his sleep. And I don’t mean the difference from track to track, but from one whole riveting performance to whole snoozathon (what is the point of this noise?) play through. Intriguingly he even starts off saying something to the effect of, “Here I go again, doing some more songs.” For a crack at ‘Under Milk Wood‘ it’s a shame it has to hinge around a cop murder but that works too in its own way. (Compare and contrast ‘The Kinks are The Village Green Preservation Society’). I find it hard not to be affected by the plea for ‘A little love and affection’.
The introduction of the character of crime writer JD into his Sam Turner novels allows John Baker to play all sorts of entertaining and apologetic tricks, commenting on the book in hand and his oeuvre. Not the least being that novelists are usually writing the same book over and again – which could be said of him, though they are all shaded differently. ‘Shooting in the dark‘ (Orion, 2001) starts off at a confident (joke)cracking pace that signifies definite promotion to the writing premiership. Doesn’t quite carry on through to the end, though there is a refreshing coda where previously they all just ended with a bang; only one Dylan quote slipped in too. Breaking with tradition I’m not sure there’s a single visit to Betty’s Tea Rooms in ‘The meanest flood’ (Orion, 2003), and the title and intro quote is the Bob quota. It’s the most ambitious of the Sam Turners, with the notion of magical illusion – on stage, on the grand stage of life, the writer’s art – at its heart (along with the serial murders, of course). Sam certainly suffers, and Geordie as autodidact is still developing nicely. And here endeth my John Baker binge. Not because I’m tiring but because I’ve read ’em all. Which leaves a bit of a gap for the moment.
Welcome through the letter box recently was the these-day-seems-to-be annual issue of Gary Spencer Millidge‘s self-published Strangehaven black and white comic, now up to issue 16. One of these days I’m going to treat myself to sitting down and reading it all through from the first issue. This tale of village life has great charm; a West Country ‘Emmerdale’, it’s very close kin to ‘The Prisoner’ and probably more to the point, ‘Twin Peaks’. Lovely stuff, and this issue has a cast resume which helps greatly when the gaps between issues are almost as long as an episode of ‘Kingdom Hospital‘ can seem – now that I have given up on it. But was enthralled and amused by Bryn Terfel‘s many guises as Satan (hairy backed in a fetching sequinned little black dress) in the tv showing of Gounod’s ‘Faust’. Angela Gheorghiu was gorgeous too. That last scene in hell worth a lot of the longeurs that preceded it. Help – I’m quite getting into this opera lark. Happy midsummer’s.
June 7 To the theatre again for Bill Bailey on his ‘Half troll‘ tour. Exhaustingly funny (I was knackered from laughing), brilliantly inventive and, I suspect, the man has a good heart. Huge affection for him from the packed house and it was deserved. Musically adroit too, with a hillbilly and a banjo ‘Stairway to heaven’ (‘Sacrilege’ he said but it didn’t stop him) among many songs given one treatment or another (Portishead doing ‘Zip-a-dee-doo-dah’ with all the lighting effects as a potential new bational anthem). Highlight? If pushed the long fantasia with starts with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit walking into a bar and ends with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. And hardly an obscenity all night, which just goes to show.
In my capacity as judge in the case of the art establishment versus Jack Vettriano, the man wins hands down. Some stunning stuff, full of narrative but also a stillness which belies their often erotic nature. Figurative for sure, but where’s the problem? – he arrests, he intrigues and he’s a self taught genuine working class hero (his was one of the better Desert Island Discs too). The women are fabulous. Some see Hopper in there, though he says he wasn’t aware of Hopper’s work; I see a lot of Magritte with the humanity put back. Not his fault they sell as greetings cards; I’d love to see some on a wall. In the meantime I make do with the nicely designed ‘Lovers and strangers‘ with a bio and introduction from Anthony Quinn (Pavilion, 2000).
June 6 To the opera once more, there to see Bizet’s ‘Carmen’. Our first ‘repeat’, so we didn’t have to worry too much about the story. This was, I guess – there was a live horse and a gypsy dance troup – a populist production from the Chisinau National Opera, one of those Russian states that no-one’s ever heard of because nothing much bad happens there. I loved it – the spectacle, the music, the movement, the mediterannean colours. Helped this time by Carmen actually being the most attractive and beguiling of the women on stage. Shame about the ending. I mean, I know she has to die, but isn’t it all a bit sudden? Couldn’t she have a dying aria (a reprise of the beauitiful ‘Love is a wild bird’) or even duet of same with her spurned soldier ex-lover gaining some wisdom from the events?
Finished ‘To kill a mocking bird‘. Some nice writing, a lovely tone to the book – civilised Mark Twain – and an eminently decent novel; with over 30 million copies sold (it says on the cover of the edition I bought) the planet really should be a better place. The long coda after the suicide is what makes it real class. I bet I’m not the only one who for decades just presumed Harper Lee was a man? I even thought having the narrator Scout as a (most of the time) well disguised girl was a brilliant stroke; it still is, of course, but things are changed.
Having a lazy or lethargic day off with many things to do (you choose) I happened upon an afternoon tv showing of David Lean‘s film of ‘Hobson’s choice‘ and decided to give it a chance – the world could wait. Was rewarded by one of the great comic performances – Charles Laughton staggering drunk out of the pub to encounter the reflection of the moon in a puddle. Still things to discover out there!
What else to catch up on here? Julie Myerson‘s well received ‘Something might happen‘ (Cape, 2003) started off by annoying me intensely. Opening lines: “People think when someone is stabbed they just fall down and die. Well they don’t.” Well they may do in ‘Carmen’ (see above) but on the whole, after all the film and tv we watch these days, I’m not sure ‘people’ do; there’s something a bit middle class that irks about the whole tone of a lot of the book. And there’s a dumb bit of police business which suggests the sea only has one tide a day. But the narrative – mostly dialogue driven – soon grips hard enough and I read it just like that. A random brutal murder in a sleepy small Suffolk coastal town is the specific something but it’s not a crime novel … just the precariousness of it all. My wife (who likewise zipped through it) was irked by all the men fancying the narrator. I still think the victim’s heart being ripped out was unnecessary. Alan Moore’s ‘Swamp Thing: the curse’ (originally 1985) a reminder, if one was needed, of what a master he is. It’s always the little things that really count with Moore, that enable him to transcend whatever he’s working within – here horror traditional and technologically ecological and sociological. So Alec, aka the Swamp Thing – a vegetable/plant/human hybrid – discovers an ability to move around the continent by just regrowing himself. So Abby, his (unreconstituted) woman, says: “Y’know what? You don’t ask me to feed you, or tidy the swamp, or iron shirts, and I get fresh flowers all year round. You’re just the sort of person I imagined marrying, when I was little … except, you know, not green … and without all the patches of fungus.” Could Shakespeare have done better? And I’ve been investigating the artist Stanley Spencer via the book by Duncan Robinson (Phaidon, 1990) – the divine in the everyday, the resurrection in Cookham, Berks, the First World War. A great variety of subjects and approaches, with mixed responses from me. Is it reasonable, if not chronological, for me to see Beryl Cook in some? I need to see witness them on a wall. (June 6)
May 20 Mark Clapson, who lives in the city, has written ‘A social history of Milton Keynes : middle England / Edge city‘ (Frank Cass, 2004) to set the record straight and lay the cliched old ghosts of instant dismissal that still bedevil perceptions of the place. It’s academic (planning history is the discipline) but eminently readable, giving an entertaining potted history of the Garden City and New Town movements (precursor in Minoan Crete, indeed the first symbol of the MK Development Corporation was derived from there), putting the growth of MK from conception to now in the context of what was going on in the UK contemporaneously and acknowledging the real lives that have been and are being lived right here, right now. Not all roses, of course, but for once here is the city (bah! who needs royal approval?) being given its due. (May 20)
May 19 I’m reading HarperLee’s ‘To kill a mockingbird’ (1960) which I’d somehow managed not to read so far. Hints of Mark Twain in the voice, which is never a bad thing, but I can’t escape the presence of Gregory Peck, which is not itself – or indeed himself – a bad thing, but I somehow feel cheated. If you’re tempted to investigate John Baker because of what I’ve said earlier, I wouldn’t start with the fourth in the Sam Turner sequence, ‘Walking with ghosts‘ (1999). Not that it’s not good, just that it is not typical – sombre to say the least. Sam’s new woman is dying – a compelling life retold in her fading memory. It is in great part a meditation on how people cope with loss (albeit serial killing being one response). Moving on, it would be easy to point and shout, “Nutter” at M.J.Harper. His ‘The history of Britain revealed‘ (Nathan Carmody, 2002) actually reveals little – that’s not the game. It’s a fascinating, testing and short examination of certain academic paradigms and how they are maintained (what he calls the three card trick). Of course no-one is going to take him seriously because he carries none of the baggage of scholarship – bibliography, citation etc – and his weapons are logic, sarcasm, wit and a loathing of academe (something must have happened …). As such it’s a combination of entertaining and unexpected read and pub bore. Nevertheless: what language did they speak to greet the Romans in what was to become England? Eh? And how do we move from Anglo-Saxon to modern English in a couple of centuries, seemingly against all the rules of language change. And was ‘Middle English’ ever really spoken, or indeed did it exist at all beyond the academic necessity of providing a missing link between Beowulf and Chaucer? There’s certainly an energy here. (May 19)
May 7 To the theatre, there to witness the Reduced Shakespeare Company enact ‘All the great books (abridged)‘. They claim 90 in 90 minutes. Great energy and very funny. Particular favourites: the Brothers Karamazov as circus jugglers and a Blind Date featuring Jane Austen, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf; refreshingly there’s no ‘Lord of the Rings’ and they allow Huckleberry Finn to escape with dignity. (May 7)
May 6 And so to Lake Garda and back. Long coach rides – a nod here to our redoubtable drivers Scott (who played Jamie Cullum) and Eric (a great comedian who pointed out the First World War graves at Vimy Ridge with simple dignity – “the young men”) – but the Paul Auster and Ian McEwan in the bag remain unread. Not so the next two Sam Turner novels from John Baker – ‘Death minus zero‘ (1996) and ‘King of the streets‘ (1998). Great little cast he’s built up here of recovering alcoholic Sam who turned Private Eye after his bluff was blown at a Men’s Group and who thinks he looks like Gene Hackman, the homeless waif he rescued in the first book called Geordie (and his dog) now eagerly catching up on his education (not the dog) with the help of Celia, retired teacher who has decided to wear purple and is their office admin, and Marie, all of them retreating to Betty’s Tearooms with some regularity between being variously beaten up, shot, held hostage, run down, blown up, whatever. A mix of light, acute and very heavy that mostly works although quite where the police and other emergency services of York are while an awful lot of this is going on we must ignore in the interests of poetic justice. And certainly a sense of justice and a righteous passion and compassion are there in JB’s writing. The first book here looks at psychopathy and the havoc it reeks, the second centres on organised child abuse, organised crime and other harmful personal addictions. He’s writing for no less than each and every hung up person in the whole wide universe. Flawed certainly, the way the plot lines seem to coalesce conveniently around our merry crew’s friends and acquaintances. But, listen:
“He was sitting on the remains of a tabloid newspaper, both of his legs splayed out in front of him. He wore a pair of battered trainers and his jeans were thin and torn around his legs. He had two sweaters, a red one and a green one, and a hat made of black wool which he’d pulled down low over his eyes.
“His guitar was backless and had only three strings, one of them broken and tied together again over the sixth fret. ‘Guitar’ was a misnomer, for this was no longer a musical instrument. Neither John Williams or Eric Clapton would have had the ability to make it sing.
“While he strummed away at it, Marie counted the coins on the rag between his legs. One pound forty-seven pence. An old woman stopped for a moment and added another twenty pence. One pound sixty-seven now, and going up. Two thousand years of constant and unending progress.
” ‘You know what I thought?’ she told Celia later. I couldn’t get the thought of Dickens out of my head. Not that he would come back and make sense of it. Help us to get rid of it. Not that at all. What I thought was that it was time for another Dickens. A Dickens for the end of the century. The world seems to be full of writers and journalists, politicians who are all impotent. One Dickens could replace them all … ‘ “
In his own modest way I suspect that’s where Baker is aiming with his later Stone Lewis novels. There are many pub arguments to be had in that tribute to Dickens, but he’s worth it, and it makes a change from football. And while we’re on that subject, how deeply satisfying is Arsenal’s success this year – the world is a slightly better place. (May 6)
April 21 I’ve been looking at Bill Brandt : Photographs 1928-1983 (Thames & Hudson, 1993) – and am entranced by the continuing freshness of his originality – the human body in and as landscape, the almost abstract landscapes, the portraits, the journalism, he’s a master of all trades. The ’40s English stuff is definitive too, Kinksfans, if you’re looking to see the milieu the brothers Davies were born into – some stunning images of the people. And I decided to make a start on addressing my complete ignorance of Islam by reading ‘Introducing Muhammad’ by Ziauddin Sardar and Zafar Abbas Malik (Icon Books, 1994/9) and it was indeed illuminating on the origins, the perfidy of the Crusades and the original (merciful) insights of the founder; suicide bombers have no place, same as Ian Paisley is no Christian. This is a series and format – the old ‘For beginners’ almost comic book approach – I’ve always liked a lot right from the start with Rius on Marx and Cuba. Downstairs cloakroom book for months has been ‘Alan Moore: portrait of an extraordinary gentleman‘, a festschrift on the occasion of the great man’s 50th birthday edited by Smoky Man and Gary Spencer Millidge (Abiogenesis Press, 2003) which kept me entertained in those quiet moments. The long fax dialogue at the end with Dave Sim, creator of the highly original Cerebus comic book, covering a wealth of ideas is particularly fascinating, showing Moore at his best, capable of moving from high serious moral thought and intellectual argument to pop culture references and not always particularly good jokes at the wink of an eye. The book is marred by the unfathomable outpourrings of a few cult-stud academics who are thankfully very much in the minority; shame the type face is so small (even with my new glasses). (April 21)
April 4 A new episode in the continuing saga of The Webmeister versus Opera. Three and a quarter hours of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Eugene Onegin’ took its toll. Thankfully it was a decent production (Welsh National Opera) with a certain energy and a great set, and being Russian there wasn’t a lot of caterwauling. Indeed, I have to report I’m beginning to appreciate the trained male voice. And the next week – modern dance: Matthew Bourne’s ‘Play without words’ at the theatre wove a seductive spell. Never a dull moment, the pre-psychedelic sixties shift nicely nuanced and I shall never contemplate chunky cricket sweaters in quite the same light again. A man, a woman, a kitchen table – such shapes of beauty. Great jazz score too. And I’ve just zipped through jazz fan John Harvey‘s new crime novel ‘Flesh and blood‘ (Heinemann, 2004). A return to top form featuring Elder, a new – albeit retired to Cornwall – Detective Inspector. He travels the land as an old case in the news reminds him of a promise made to a seeming victim’s mother. Old favourite Charlie Resnick makes a guest appearance (hurrah!). Hell of a lot going on, all drawn skilfully together and building into a compelling climax. I hope it’s a sequence he continues. Lovely April Fool by The Today Programme (BBC Radio4) about a supposed new Archers signature tune, a new Brian Eno. Beautifully constructed item moving more and more into absurdity as modern composers were cited, all leading up to a truly awful piece of music which really should have given the game away. Early impressions of the Jamie Cullum album not disappointed – great artist, I enjoy it more each time I hear it. (April 4)
Spring Equinox On an author binge at the moment. British crime writer called John Baker. I’ve just started on his first sequence of books featuring York-based (tea at Betty’s!) fledgling private investigator Sam Turner, having raced through the later Stone Lewis novels (all two of ’em so far – The Chinese girl (2000) and White skin man (2004)). These latter are more ambitious, striving for social and psychological significance in a grittier Hull, but they don’t clunk too much and still retain a comic strand with a good sub-plot and supporting cast of his aunt and her man; the odd sentence approaches poetry. Meanwhile, the promisingly titled Poet in the gutter (1995) is great self-deprecating fun. Baker drops Dylan quotes into the dialogue with barely a nod and wink and without missing a beat. I’m already looking forward to reading more. And I have to say I approve of Jamie Cullum in spite of the hype – a lot more than soft jazz. Strikes me, with Twentysomething, that he’s the real thing. (Spring Equinox ’04)
March 10 Swimming and bathing in – rather than reading – Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Sandman : endless nights’ (Vertigo, 2003). When they finally get me on Desert Island Discs my book is going to be The Sandman in its entirety, all 75 comics of it – I don’t see that that’s not too much to ask. Such story telling – one of the major narrative achievements of the C20th. This sumptuous coda does not disappoint. More!
March 7 I’ve had a lot of fun with Lynne Truss’s ‘Eats, shoots and leaves : the zero tolerance approach to punctuation’ (Profile Books, 2003) – seems reasonable to me. Watched the DVD of ‘Concert for George‘; I liked the Shankars’ contribution and was moved by Joe Brown and Billy Preston but left oddly cold by the massed ranks of guitars. Been to the theatre a couple of times in the last month. ‘Taking sides‘ (by Ronald Harwood) got us talking a bit bit I didn’t think Neil Pearson was big enough (voice, presence … size) as the brash artless American major opposite Julian Glover’s charismatic German conductor. Glad to have experienced the full on charisma of Simon Callow in Simon Gray’s ‘The holy terror’; some neat staging with the very funny conceit of the narrative vehicle being a talk to a Women’s Institute in Cheltenham or more probably Chichester (it’s the way he told it). Bought Otis Taylor’s ‘Truth is not fiction’ on the strength of a snippet heard driving home on the radio (Paul Jones’ show always a good source of new and new-old stuff) and of his being my favourite version of the traditional ‘The cuckoo‘ of the 20 or so versions I collected on mp3 of that extraordinary song last year. At the time I knew nothing about him but he’s active and contemporary. Extraordinary intense driven folk-blues – the man is a god (but, then I’ve been reading comics again, of which maybe more soon). (March 7)
February 23 Pride of place has to go to Doug Hinman’s ‘The Kinks: all day and all of the night’ (Backbeat Books, 2004), a day by day Kinks chronicle, no less. A satisfyingly substantial tome, massively researched and nicely designed with some great photos thrown in. I’ve hardly scratched the surface so far, but some of the stuff on the early pre-Pye years is fascinating and certainly new to me. If you’re here because you’re a Kinks fan, you owe it to yourself to own this beauteous object. The second in Alexandra McCall Smith‘s The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, ‘Tears of the giraffe’ (2000) carries on where the founding volume triumphantly left off. Such is the surface simplicity you want to cry out ,”Emperor’s new clothes” but the original charm ultimately doesn’t diminish. What he pulls off here is writing about good people doing, or trying to do, good things. Whereas Chandler’s Marlowe – “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean” – cannot avoid being compromised by his milieu, Precious Ramotswe survives relatively and cheerfully untouched. The discussions of the moral philsophy of her trade (the trade-offs) are all part of the rich human web; only tangentally crime writing, it’s a superior soap set in a Botswana detective agency … with a running joke about Nigerians! ‘Pretty girl in crimson rose (8): a memoir of love, exile and crosswords‘ by Sandy Balfour (Atlantic, 2003) attempts to do for crosswords what Nick Hornby did for football with ‘Fever pitch’ and a lot of the time works pretty well. The notion of community and the tie-in with Britishness, particularly the frozen crossword moments criss-crossing the narrative over the years, are telling, but overall the conceit can creak a bit at times. Recommended though, for fellow sufferers, because it has certainly improved my knowledge and performance. Peter Robinson‘s new Inspector Banks mystery ‘Playing with fire‘ (Macmillan, 2004) creaks a bit too. The musical references, previouly interesting, are here something of an unconvincing empty ritual. There’s still good stuff in there though, not least in some of the incidental characters. At other times he’s coasting or parroting with the fire investigations and forensics. For all that, I read it just like that and he certainly sets up the next book interestingly enough. Could have done without one particular superfluously detailed sexual encounter too. Peter, you need an editor … (Feb 23 2004)
February 9 So, did I watch 6 hours of award winning ‘Angels of America‘ or did I watch the Leeds Legolas (what was his name, blonde, later died of cancer? 10.10.09) winning the snooker at Wembley? The latter. I even watched ‘Get me out of here I’m a celebrity‘ until Rotten walked; a rivetting performance, he still has it – and has, with any luck killed the genre stone dead into the bargain. The new series of ‘Six feet under‘ seems to be lacking something … Brenda. Read Zoe Heller’s ‘Notes on a scandal’ (Viking, 2003) easily enough but I’m not sure much will stay with me. The scandal is a middle aged woman teacher having an affair with a 15 year old pupil (he’s the Camden Town thrown into the Hampstead & Highgate), the notetaker her older spinster ‘friend’ and half the tale is what she tells of herself. It’s good thoughtful stuff, sparely told with some wit. The school background and the staffroom isn’t really a patch on ‘Teachers‘ (UK TV) though. (Feb 9)
February 2 Siri Hustvedt’s ‘The enchantment of Lily Dahl’ (1996) – her second novel – is another impressive piece of work, taking her oddness of characters (that’s a collective noun I just made up for her) into small town America, though one of the main weavers of a seemingly (yes it is. no it isn’t, yes …) sinister web of personal stories is an artist out of New York. Never mind Lily herself. There’s a production of ‘A midsummer night’s dream’, a smalltown cafe and its breakfasters, a remarkable old lady, a variety of damaged and good people, the power of a pair of high heeled shoes, local legend of a murderous disappearance, reported sightings angels or mothmen, all leading to a shocking denouement after a seeming anticlimax … hell of a writer of people and places. Again, the temptation just to start reading from page one again. (Feb 2)
January 19 Charles Frazier’s ‘Cold mountain’ (1997) deserves to be given the time and space to be read in big chunks. That way Inman and Ada’s journeys – his over the hostile terrain, hers while learning a new life on the farm – become more vivid, spiritual and compelling that way, I suspect. The American Civil War has never been of much interest to me before, which may well change now; I was surprised at how much music there is in the novel.
I can’t remember quite how my longstanding love affair with Bill Watterson’s ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ newspaper strip started – it must have been through a collection in book form that just fell into my hands – but I can’t see it ever ending. Especially given his history of: a). refusing in principle to have anything to do with merchandising his creations, and b). making the decision to stop drawing the strip and sticking to it because he felt he had nowhere else to go with it and loathed the idea of just repeating himself. These thoughts prompted by ‘Calvin and Hobbes: Sunday pages 1985 – 1995‘, the Catalogue from an exhibition of the work in 2002 bought for a pittance in one of those cheap book shops. Sheer delight and kid’s despair – family dynamics full of intelligence, wit and joy all exquisitely drawn. Try the neo-cubist sequence (“it all started when Calvin engaged his dad in a minor debate. Soon Calvin could see both sides of the issue. Then poor Calvin began to see both sides of everything.”). In case you don’t know the work, Hobbes is a floppy tiger doll who takes on a dynamic of his own. The lengthy sequence in which the pair cavort (Calvin in dark glasses) to classical music played at 78 rpm is one of the great joyous dances of life. As I say, bought at a cheap shop and worthy of a quote from another real bargain, bought as a makeweight on an Amazon order to get the free postage and packing – how have I managed without it all these decades?: “You know that I could be in love with almost everyone / I think that people are the greatest fun” – especially Sancho Panza toy tigers. I speak of course of Love’s ‘Forever changes’ (1968). Renewed acquaintance too with the absorbing ‘Harold and Maude‘ (1972) on DVD … hello old friend … leading me in the direction of investigating Cat Stevens, something I’ve not done before. Help! And have laughed hardest lately at a ‘The good life‘ (UK tv) repeat – ‘The early birds’ from 1976 – the one where Tom decides he and Barbara would operate more efficiently if they went to sleep when the sun goes down and get up at the break of dawn. Great writing, classic comic timing. (19 Jan)
January 6 Just what is all this fuss about The Strokes? No really … Fountains of Wayne do the noise almost in passing with memorable songs and a great sense of humour too. I know I’ve given up soaps but I just happened to see the episode of Emmerdale in which Tricia was pronounced brain dead. Other than her eyes being closed how could they tell? Have never understood that plot line, because husband Marlon Dingle is one of the great soap characters and performances.
January 3, 2004 Liked Andy Miller‘s Kinks book well enough to spend more time reading him. His ‘Tilting at windmills: how I tried to stop worrying and love sport‘ (Viking, 2002) is full of good and bad humour, self deprecation and the odd belly laugh. The kid who was always chosen last at school, he came to the unpleasant conclusion that he had become as rigid in his dismissal of sport as those who were incredulous at his active disinterest in same, so resolved to do something about it. He tries supporting QPR and talks to various sports people, competitors and administrators. He is disappointed to find all the gym teachers he talks to are reasonable people rather than the ogres who made his school life a misery – there is just no place in the National Curriculum for the Brian Glover character from ‘Kes’; he’d fail the OFSTED inspection. Andy ends up representing the UK on European and World stages at … crazy golf (that’s mini-golf to non-Brits). His trials, travels and tribulations make for a good read and his thoughts on what makes a sport are worth the airing too.
I loved Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency’ (Polygon, 1998), which I just zipped through. Big word of mouth on this one over the last year or so because it’s not like other books. With deceptively simple prose, although it does feature a detective agency which solves crimes and Agatha Christie gets namechecked, it’s more like Idries Shah’s Sufi tales a lot of the time. Morality and wonder and … a slice of soap opera. The unique setting helps – modern Botswana, so relatively successful a part of Africa that it never features in the news – and the people are wonderful. Mma Ramotswe is a great creation, full of life, love, practicality and goodness. I’m hooked – luckily it’s the first of an ongoing series.
Xmas TV highlight was the conclusion of ‘The Office‘ – so beautifully done, holding out the possibility of redemption for almost anyone. Though sadly not ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge‘ the latest tv adaptation of which moved me to tears (his devastation, he tried so hard … a real tragedy, whereas I just think Othello is stupid) but left my partner cold, saying it was a waste of time because they were all horrible except for the daughter; we don’t usually disagree quite so fundamentally. For Xmas younger son bought us the well reviewed Bush mini-record deck, so I can play my vinyl again after all these years. But can I face a Beefheart binge just now? MP3s find me fascinated by Beatles ‘Abbey Road’ outtakes (the final version is too polished and worked over) and the original pre-Spector Glyn Johns working of ‘Let it be‘; I still think the recent reissue is the best.
Saw the New Year in with ‘Eddi Reader sings the songs of Robert Burns‘ and abandoned Jools Holland (Lulu being one of my prime candidates for the cabaret on the Titanic) for the realtime BBC1 ‘traditional’ Scottish alternative, as in Capercaillie, Roseanne Cash, Kate Rusby and some fine fiddlers. You know it makes sense.