media consumption & whatever else I can bother to put in
In what follows, the latest stuff is at the top
If you got here via a search engine and can’t be bothered to trawl down the page to find what you were looking for (so annoying, the way they do that) then try pressing CTRL and F
Something there is about these ‘instructions’ from a pack of scented candles from Ikea, a morality tale struggling to be born?
December 30 Finished Richard Russo’s ‘Bridge of sighs’ (Chatto, 2007). Flawed but still tremendous, an emotional power in some scenes that I just had to stop reading for, to take it in, particularly Sarah on the back of the motorbike pondering nature versus nurture and free will. I think he got all the toing and froing in the timeline wrong somehow in the telling, and it’s probably too long, but I’m glad I persevered. Ricky Gervaise’s Christmas special of ‘Extras’ was something special too, a potentially cruel teaser of a twist at the end (surely he’s not going to … after all he’s just said) acknowledging our cynicism, then lovingly keeping the faith.
December 16 I’ve got a fat book downstairs and another one up. The new Richard Russo took a while to get going but somewhere in the middle it suddenly caught for me. Initially a disappointment (artists in Venice, Italy? Russo?), ‘Bridge of Sighs‘ (2007) emerges as a bit of a brooding monster addressing the not insubstantial subject of America. Coming to it after Philip Roth it seemed lightweight and clumsy but I’m glad I’ve persevered. I am now intrigued; I think he’s telling it all in the wrong order but never mind, more later. Downstairs is a substantial and literally weighty life of Rudyard Kipling; interesting, but progress is slow. In between a couple of picture books. Paul Shannon’s ‘Blue diesel days’ (Ian Allan, 2007) is testament to the disastrous design decision in 1965 that was British Rail blue for all the fascinating variety of locomotive power that was around then, all rendered equally dull. Long live two-tone green. ‘Enclosure‘ (Thames & Hudson, 2007) is the latest account of artist Andy Goldsworthy‘s sculptural adventuring. The temporary workings with found sheep’s wool and crow’s feathers are particularly fascinating. What a way – and it aint easy, as he describes the processes involved – to earn a living. Armstrong & Miller‘s take on the Sky Sports News team one of the funniest things I’ve seen all year, for all that they – the Sky Sports News football crew – do it so freshly and well.
December 1 Wasn’t sure what I was going to make of ‘The diary of a young girl: the definitive edition‘ by Anne Frank (1995 translation), such is its iconic status, but I’m glad I’ve finally read it. The poignancy comes from its being just what the title says it is, with all the usual feisty young teenage tribulations, albeit experienced under extraordinarily claustrophobic circumstances, with hardly any peer group back up. It is a relatively recent translation, but she comes over as a proto-feminist determined to fight her domestic corner both in her own family and with the others in hiding. Amidst it all, too, a sort of love story. What struck me was how ordinary – and so how much more shocking the tale is – they were as a family, the lack of discernible jewishness (remember I’ve been reading Roth and Jacobson) making the whole European aberration so much harder to comprehend. And just as optimism about the war mounts, that’s when someone informs on them and that’s the end.
Not a lot of jewishness in Philip Roth’s ‘The human stain’ (Cape, 2000). It’s broader than that, though a specifically turn-of-the-millennium American meditation. Jesus, he’s a heavy puncher; put him in the ring with Norman Mailer (RIP) and I’ve no doubts who would be the victor the longer the fight went on. This is a big book tackling the big stuff; it’s Zola, it’s European in its intensity, it’s Shakespeare, it’s the human condition, wretched and beautiful, laid out in a way contemporary English novelists don’t seem able to even try. All I seem to be able to say in praise of Roth, as I work my way through his ouevre, is that, yet again, this is a fantastic sustained piece of brilliant and brave writing. The stain is literal on one level (Clinton & Monica Lewinsky) but the push for purity and purification is the problem, and this resonates strongly now with the islamist stance. So not a lot of jokes here. Mailer’s essay ‘The white negro’ had a big impact on me and my friends in the sixties; without giving too much away, you get a whole other reading of those words from ‘The human stain’. Nice showing of contempt in passing for literary theory in the university too.
Was good to see Ray Davies do a couple of songs at the as ever hugely enjoyable Official Kinks Fan Club beano in Tufnell Park last weekend; modest and charismatic, he is indeed not like everybody else. And another fine performance of the augmented Kast Off Kinks, giving Debbie and Shirley their head with songs from the Kinks rock operas they toured with in the ’70s, songs that survive better out of their original context. Musically have also been moved by the just released on CD performance of another son of Muswell Hill and his then wife, Richard and Linda Thompson’s ‘In concert, November 1975’; powerful emotional stuff. ‘The Armstrong and Miller Show‘ has had me laughing a lot lately, in particularly the WW2 RAF fighter pilots and the divorced father and his honest responses to the questionning of his young son. It will take a long time for the memory of Ann Widdecombe‘s hideous appearance of ‘Have I got news for you‘ last week.
November 11 Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Kim’ (1901) is full of life, a bustling turn of the century India. Not what I was expecting at all really and I shall have to do it more justice by reading it rather less episodically than I’ve just managed. Kim – the ‘Little friend of all the world’ – is actually a white boy who prefers going native literally; he meets and takes on board all the major religions on his journeys, while Kipling is obviously none too enamoured of some of the English officials he meets. A fascinating introduction to the history of region and ‘The great game’ still being played out on the borders. As a writer Kipling is a fine constructor of sentences – not sure that sounds as praiseworthy as it should. I’m now dipping into a big fat biography of the man, who would appear to be pivotal to the English experience – where he came from, who he knew, when he lived – in many ways; commendably he refused a knighthood. And Philip Roth’s ‘The ghost writer’ (Cape, 1979) is another tremendous piece of writing, the young Nathan Zuckerman’s struggle with his parents over his vocation, finding his way and meeting his heroes in early ’50s America, funny and deadly serious. What is it that is so fascinating about jewish families? Is it that everything – all the themes of past and future, of loyalties, identity and survival – is so on the surface? Anyway, there’s a profound passage where NZ gives great thought to the notion of what if Anne Frank has survived the war, what it would mean for her diary (‘The diary of a young girl‘ to give it the formal title it is published as these days) and its iconic signicance, that made me think it was about time I read them, which I am now doing; and a right little young teenage madam she is in the opening pages. Can I possibly detect shades of Adrian Mole in there or is it just the genre?
Another night at the opera with Glyndebourne on Tour‘s hugely enjoyable production of Donizetti’s ‘L’elisir d’amore’ (‘The elixir of love’ sounds so downmarket in comparison, like a scent bottle bought at a market stall). Tremendous set, some lovely unexuberant but colourful, just as a series of tableaux it was a thing of joy and beauty to behold. And for a change the lead romantic female role was gorgeous, with a languid and compelling stage presence. The quack doctor and his non-singing assistant were a comic turn of note too. The whole thing was great feel good fun; something I’d never once have expected to hear myself saying, or what?
Was glued to the box for Stephen Poliakoff‘s new one, ‘Joe’s palace‘. Nothing new, but a heartbreaking storyteller – the pace, the music, the interweaving of tales – with Gambon, as ever, magnificent.
Ray Davies‘s new album, ‘Working man’s cafe‘, continues to impress with nary a weakness – there can’t have been that many relationship songs like the remarkable ‘Peace in our time’ – and his performance at the BBC Electric Proms at The Roundhouse (a place I first visited when it was a locomotive depot, a railway shed, though I hasten to say I only watched it on telly) was a treat; he just seems to get better and better live.
October 23 We got tickets for the musical version of ‘The Producers‘ because we heard Joe Pasquale raving about Russ Abbot‘s performance on the radio, but apart from his dress there really wasn’t much to it. I was underwhelmed, spoiled by the original film, I guess. The shock value of ‘Springtime for Hitler’ has long gone and the 3 best bits I remember – the audience’s reaction to the show, the gun turrets, the hippy Hitler – aren’t tried, and as a musical the new songs do nothing. I didn’t regret seeing Cory English as Max, though, especially his solo recitative in prison, complete with thoughts on the ice creams for sale in the theatre.
I read Billy Bragg’s ‘The progressive patriot: a search for belonging’ (Bantam, 2006), a mish mash of family history, memoir, working class history, folk song and pop culture primer with some political theory thrown in. The different parts never really meld but I know what he means and appreciate what he’s trying to do so was engaged a lot of thye time. Was fascinating to learn it was Simon & Garfunkel first set his musical spine tingling – I gave it a go but the early stuff all sounds so twee now – but I have to thank him for introducing me to Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Kim’. Bragg mentions him as kin to Huck Finn, one of my favourite books, and I knew Twain and Kipling were a mutual admiration society and Orwell rated him, so I’m giving it a go and – yes, indeed, am enjoying it immensely; more later no doubt.
Briefly, the coming of Ray Davies’s ‘Working man’s cafe’ is an event, with some tremendous new songs, some catchy even at first listen. Curiously, they’ve changed the name of my favourite breakfast cereal to ‘Curiously cinnamon‘; why? I feel a little compromised. Some nice black and white photos in Eric Sawford’s ‘Odd corners of the London Midland from the days of steam’ (Sutton, 2003) which included a lot in Bletchley;stars are the Black 5s and 8s, but how handsome the converted Royal Scots were too. And just a footballing thought, given Arsenal are 3-0 up at half-time in europe as I write this: what if Steve McClaren had had Theo Walcott on the bench last Wednesday against Russia, eh?
October 8 A lot of reading done lately. Philip Roth’s ‘I married a communist’ (1998) is another sustained narrative tour de force. This is a lot more than just fleshing out the rabid phenomenon of anti-communism of the McCarthy era of postwar America, which it very effectively does – the emerging themes of late twentieth century America are all in there, and the way he shows it is nicely done. The story of the idea of ‘the little man’ emerging from Second World War propaganda is beautifully handled. The meditation on the nature of deceit in all its variety towards the end is profound, as is his sharp look at radicalism and zealotry and democracy and their inter-relation. There is a fine range of characters here, all fully realised in their various dimensions and histories, and in passing the invective directed at the Nixon administration is right up there with Hunter Thompson. Roth is a real heavyweight.
It all gets very dark in Peter Robinson‘s latest crime novel featuring Cheif Inspector Alan Banks, ‘Friend of the devil‘ (Hodder, 2007). This revisits one of his previous cases – indeed, more than one in passing – and, thinking about it, Banks has really been through an awful harrowing lot; he does get more woman action than Rebus and John Harvey’s various protagonists though. It’s compulsive stuff in the end, though the pacing, particularly at the start, can be annoying with its un-necessarily abrupt changing of location and personal; it’s hard to see a logic in the spacing of the chapters and the breaks within chapters. At one time Rankin, Harvey and Robinson seem to have been in some sort of competition as far as the dropping in of musical references goes; the others have retreated but Banks’s iPod in his car carries on the fight relentlessly, and he’s now giving various book titles the nod too. I’d thought Robinson had been coasting of late but there is a renewed power emerging here. And a nice twist as to who actually dunnit.
A fair number of villains in Neil Warnock‘s eyes in his ‘Made in Sheffield: my story‘ (Hodder, 2007). A maverick – no other word, really – ex-football manager (at this juncture) with a weekly column in the Independant (which he doesn’t mention), I guess I expected a bit more from him. The narrative is all over the place, which is a shame. Not many revelations but the stuff on his difficult youth and a career as a chiropodist is not the normal stuff of football autobiogs, and his insight into the insecurity of the journeyman player, moving on every couple of seasons, adds something to the genre. What he says about club owners and chairmen can only be a useful career guide to others. Absolutely nothing is said about agents and bungs though there’s plenty about referees. Sean Bean, celeb Sheffield United fan, appears as a complete arsehole, which is a disappointing surprise. You really feel for Warnock in the injustices his team suffered last season. They were cheated, by the FA in not docking West Ham points, and by Ferguson and Benitez putting out weak teams against other relegation strugglers. But you get the feeling that Warnock will not be surprised, his chairman having opted for the awful Bryan Robson, at how the Blades are struggling this season (as opposed to fellow relegatees Watford and Charlton). He’s a good man and it’s a shame no-one will give him a job right now, because we need his like. And while we’re on the subject of the game, how heartening to see Arsenal doing so much better than all the pundits predicted.
October 3 Going to see ‘Slava’s Snowshow‘ at the theatre a second time – without the element of surprise and the gentle shock of originality – it still enchants and delights, though in different ways. You can take in more of of the wonderful ensemble clowning of the ‘chorus’, the big eared hats and long shoes like something out of a comic strip less is usually more with the eloquence of the body language. The solo routine with the coat stand and the coat and the train leaving the station (a mini-‘Close encounter’) is still breathtaking in its beauty and sadness, its simplicity. There were a lot of obvious Slava-fans there the night we went, whose enthusiasm one could have done without (you know, the equivalent of the smug bastards who applaud the opening chords of a song, who I once saw Mike Nesmith commendably quieten with a nicely nuanced put-down). Still, the use of Duane Eddy’s ‘Peter Gunn theme’ really (really) loud while the company of clowns precariously trod all over and sprayed water 9a simulation of rain from bottled water on umbrella spikes) on those in the front rows of the stalls remains as exciting and unique an experience as you’re likely to find in any theatre. (October 3)
September 27 Laughed a fair amount at Michael Frayn’s ‘Donkeys’ years’ at the theatre. Reunion 25 years on at an Oxbridge college; a bunch of character actors off telly play getting pissed one night and the consequences. Could have done without the one whose name no-one could remember – nor can I – being quite so one dimensional and inept; not the most original idea, maybe, to give him a midlands accent, when the class aspect could have made it all so much sharper. Worked well as a farce, though, and the politician’s business with his trousers and pyjamas the morning after was a good turn – sorry, too much of a cheapskate to buy a programme to give him a name check. “I have made a mistake.”(September 27)
September 23 A certain delight de nostalgie to be had from ‘Diesels around London: a colour portfolio‘ put together by David Cross (Ian Allan, 2007). Those were the days – the Pilot Scheme locos shipped out in BR green with regal lion logo and no hint of the sullying yellow noses to come – the unfortunate aesthetics of health and safety. I’m coming round to the D200 class as being the most handsome of the era and have developed a late appreciation of the Brush type 2s with the two white body stripes and white detailed cab windows as a classic, while the Type 3 Hymeks on the Western with their white cabs and the two tone green were the prettiest. And then there was that stultifying blue livery which still makes me shudder in its blandness, the real end of the romantic idea that was the railway. Some of the captions in these railway books are beyond parody in their tedious detail, mind.
And while we’re in this zone, there should be a health warning on similar collections of photos of steam locos in action if therein are contained pictures of enthusiasts’ specials or workings on preserved lines – sorry, it’s just not real; I want the dirt and grime or a shine coming from a working man’s pride rather than someone’s hobby, I want people travelling to go somewhere to do something, not doing it for the sake of it. And I don’t want photos of loads of heads hanging out of windows either, unless it’s to see the sea. ‘The glorious years‘, a collection of photographs featured over the years in Steam Railway Magazine (Haynes, 2007), is almost entirely blameless in this respect, being photos taken in the ’50s and ’60s when steam was being phased out and the diesels taking over. When it was – honestly – still (just) cool to be into trains. There are some great pictures here covering many aspects of the scene and the photographer’s craft. Normal service will soon be resumed.
September 16 New Rebus novel from Ian Rankin – ‘Exit music‘ (Orion, 2007) – delivers as ever. Like downing a pint of Deuchars IPA, slips down so easy because the dialogue, the interplay, is so good. Rebus retires from the police force, though a big part of the back story is cliffhangeringly unresolved. A neat twist near the end too. I shall miss him. Rory Gallagher prominent in the ‘soundtrack’. A certain satisfaction to be taken from the football of late. I’ve always rated Emile Heskey – honest! Brave, honest, hardworking, unselfish.
September 10 In my haste yesterday I managed to forget to mention choreographer Matthew Bourne‘s dance production ‘Car man‘ – a ‘re-imagination of Bizet’s Carmen’, which I saw last week at they theatre and loved. Huge sensuous energy and movement, big sometimes disturbing emotions, some neat twists on the story (small town American garage cf. Spanish tobacco factory) and the company throws some fantastic shapes. I’m probably spoilt for dance now forever, having started with the best; I won’t cross the road for stupid ballet (like ice dance and floor gymnastics, the moves are for the technical sake of it, just ugly and unnatural half the time), but this was something else.
September 9 Have just read two very different fictional testimonies back to back. Philip Roth’s ‘Portnoy’s complaint’ (1969) is a real tour de force – fascinating to read it over 30 years on. Ended up liking (if that’s the right word) Sebastian Faulks‘s disturbing ‘Engleby‘ (Hutchinson, 2007), with its strange dreamlike coda, a lot – an accomplishment; not his usual stuff at all and for all its darkness, even some jokes. Andrew Martin‘s impressive ‘Murder at Deviation Junction: a novel of murder, mystery and steam‘ (Faber, 2007) finds him really hitting his stride, getting the balance of historical background and atmosphere, character and plot that were missing for me in the two books that came after the wonderful ‘The Necropolis railway’. With humour creeping in, I recall that his first very funny contemporary pre-‘Jim Stringer, Steam detective’ novels were very funny; I await more in the sequence with some relish now he’s been promoted.
Working my way through the 3 box sets of Big Bill Broonzy‘s recordings from 1928 through to 1951. A fascinating career path – basically a song and dance man (practically trad at times, string band, pre-rock – country blues, urban dance music) then he becomes a … folk singer in the ’50s. You gotta blame the well intentioned white lefties, I’m afraid.
August 26 James Wood‘s novel ‘The book against God‘ (2004) starts promisingly but fizzles out somewhat and in the end I didn’t care. With an old fashioned anti-hero who thinks too much, it manages to address the idea of faith without resort to biology and evolution, just abstruse philosophy. Tedious is a word that springs to mind, actually; you don’t blame his wife for leaving him. At least there’s no redemption. Oh, and John Coltrane would have been 80 if he was alive today.
August 25 I’ve just read Richard Dawkins’ ‘River out of Eden: a Darwinian view of life’ (1995). Enervating, chilling. He explains good, takes no prisoners; DNA feels no pain. Lot of pain in ‘Cassino: the hollow victory; the battle for Rome January-June 1944‘ by John Ellis (Deutsch, 1984), which has been my downstairs cloakroom companion since May and from which I’ve learned a lot. Like that campaign being more akin to the attrition of the First World War trenches (with mountain terrain added in) than I’d realised. The slog and futility of much of the campaign and the failure of the generals strategically while the infanty suffered. The willing sacrifice of the patriotic Poles, the French bravely going for glory as opposed to the tardy careful slog of the British, the American command obsessed with getting to Rome first for a photo-opportunity, the military nous of the German defense; stikes me I could almost be talking modern international football here. This is a compelling read, particularly if you just gloss over the army detail stuff (regiments etc) and all the placenames. It’s powerful stuff. And Ellis’s Epilogue is a noble piece of writing, both a paen to those who do the fighting and an eloquent condemnation of war (p478):
“In this and other books I have dwelt at length on the sufferings of the ordinary soldier in both world wars and have gone on to stress the extraordinary bonds of comradeship and genuine love that they engendered. These bonds I have presented as a victory of the human spirit and a triumphant affirmation of man’s ability to live out the Christian ideal. But it should never be forgotten that such bonds were only forged in the smithies of hell itself, where also hundreds of thousands of men were slaughtered, millions maimed and as many more driven to the very extreme of mental torment. One should ponder well whether it was ever worth it. and one should above all beware of letting this victory of the human spirit persuade one that war is therefore ennobling, and so feed a mood that can only beckon us towards the precipice. For then that victory will have been the hollowest of them all.”
There are some tremendous stories in there, not least one involving a wedding dress marauded from behind enemy lines and worn at dinner that evening, and there’s a neat musical analogy of strategy, tactics and spur of the moment initiative on the battlefield with the role of the soloist in big band jazz. And there’s this, quoted from a Polish source (p323):
“With the coming of May the land, uncultivated because of the fighting, blossomed with red poppies. Each fold of the landscape was festooned with them. At night swarms of fireflies buzzed madly above them, whilst higher up shells seared a path through the sky and the nightingales gave vent to their maddening song. Corpses and poppies, nightingales and shells, fireflies and the thunder of guns, all this helped create a strange atmosphere over which prevailed the all-pervading fear of death.”
August 24 Have to say I was disappointed with Nicole Krauss‘s first novel, ‘Man walks into a room‘ (2002) after being knocked out by her ‘The history of love‘. Probably too clever; don’t begrudge the time, though. Some interesting stuff about memory and what makes us us, but the vaguely sf scenario too contrived methinks. As expected, good on how it feels; as not expected, given the title, no jokes. Actually, that is clever – the title – now that I ponder it; basic plot is a man loses all his memory from age 12 up.
Great jazz night at the Shoulder of Mutton on Wednesday. Trumpet player at least 70; his mate the sax player must have been over 80 – he had to sit down between solos – gave a storming performance, got an ovation. Even John, the keyboard man who puts these evenings together, only knew him as ‘Ron’, had never met him before. Some lovely late ’50s, early ’60s stuff (before modern jazz got the freedom bug), sounding fresh as a daisy when they played together on the opening verse lines. Suddenly struck by this now being an old man’s music, saddened by the thought, but then how old would Coltrane and Miles be now? Eight (I counted ’em) real ales at the bar. Mine’s a Deuchars IPA – nectar.
August 14 So back to the religious channels on satellite tv. You could not make it up. 772 on Sky, Genesis Channel – Genesis as the true history book of the universe. Tony Pawson, I presume an Englishman from his educated accent, complete with a neat white movie archaeologists’ beard, delivering public lectures from a lectern to a captivated audience in oh so measured and reasonable tones. They have this thing about Chinese pre-Christian pictograms proving that the Bible is real history, because – get this – the pictogram for boat includes 8 people and there were 8 people on Noah’s ark. What more do you need for proof? These people are mad. One of his American colleagues can say, in all seriousness, laying out his bona fides to testify, “My father was a professional wrestler. Does it come any simpler than that?” Now that, Confucius say, is a question. My wife had to drag me away out into the sunshine. Compellingly awful. The Bible isn’t God’s answer to mankind’s problems but to his own. I kid you not. Aint the twenty first century grand?
“Life is beautiful” one of the jewish characters in Nicole Krauss’s ‘The history of love’ writes on a slip of paper he slides under his friend’s door. “And a joke forever” comes his friend’s scribbled response. That’s more like it. And more close intimations of mortality from another old jew, the narrator in Philip Roth’s ‘Everyman’ (Cape, 2006): “Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre“. Thanks, Phil. This brilliant review of a life seen from its twilight doesn’t hold out much for us, I’m afraid, save disappointment and memories, memories of hopes and remorse. It certainly engages. A beautiful image at the end.
August 8/14 I was so knocked out by Nicole Krauss’s ‘The history of love’ (2005) that when I finished it I went straight back to the beginning and started again to catch the resonances I probably missed. Very cleverly constructed, but don’t let that put you off because it’s very moving. There’s a lovely momentum as the sections criss-cross borders and decades (pogroms, the Beatles) and emotional situations, the spaces in between, the timing of lives intersecting – so near yet so far – fortune and loss. It’s full of poetry but nor is it devoid of wit. A lovely Borges reference. Wonderful piece of writing. And I developed a stunned disbelieving fascination for the religious channels on Sky (“the Bible as real history”), staying at a friends house – I can never resist going through all the channels seeing what I’m, um, missing with my humble Freeview box. Maybe more later.
July 31 Good new novel from Harlan Coben. His ‘The woods‘ (Orion, 2007) is a real page turner despite the creeping sentimentality about family that is one of his calling cards. Bit of a drama queen of a tale too: leading man’s wife dead from cancer, his sister seemingly murdered 20 years ago, reappearance of his first love from that same summer camp a serial killer kicked his career off at – you get the emotionally loaded picture? The people are engaging though, the narrative turns a treat, and there’s some good stuff about justice, utilitarianism, loyalty and compromise without spelling it out.
July 22 They tell you to renew Philishave – electric shavers – rotary heads every two years; what they don’t say is that at £14 each you might as well buy a new shaver. Graham Swift’s ‘Tomorrow’ (Picador, 2007) is a bit of a tease too, first in what is actually going to be revealed and then in that the consequences of what is going to be said ‘tomorrow’ are left open. It’s an interesting take that had never occurred to me on a subject I’d not given much thought to, though to reveal just what that is would be a bit of a spoiler. Some good incidental stuff on a ’60s generation couple growing up and growing old, but he’s done better books.
July 16 Finished Richard Russo’s ‘Nobody’s fool’ and it just got better. Nicely paced ending, beautifully done, well judged characters. Zipped through John Harvey‘s efficient new police procedural, ‘Gone to ground‘ (Heinemann, 2007). There’s no hanging around and a lot of dialogue, with Cambridge the new location (though he still manages to work Nottingham into the tale). New central characters, one his youngest lead yet with a young family; is there a Coben-like sentimentality creeping in? Neat off-centre denouement. Hardly anything on telly but still managed to miss the third ‘Jekyll’ on the box weekend before last and – lo and behold – the fourth starts off with flashbacks that predate the opener – still gripped, but what the fug’s going on? And from our gardening correspondant: a curse on all bindweed.
July 1 Seem to have lost my rhythm a bit with this. Got a couple of books on the go. In the downstairs loo I’m making slow progress – a bit like the campaign itself, really – with John Ellis’ ‘Cassino: the hollow victory; the Battle for Rome January-June 1944’ (Andre Deutsch, 1984); my father was there at some stage. War is hell. Other book is wonderful, don’t really want it to finish. A recommendation from my chum Sally, one of her favoutite books. ‘Nobody’s fool‘ by Richard Russo (1993) is a lovely piece of writing, a long winding tale set in a faded East Coast American small town. Some great characters, a celebration really of the human spirit – sardonic, laconic, funny, loving. Here’s to Sully, whose age in the tale I am about to share; seeming loser or no, I’d like to think there’s a bit of Sully in all of us.
Glad I recorded the droll Alan Yentob-aided round up of clips from Simon Amstell’s first series on ‘Never mind the buzzcocks‘. Very very funny. Discovering a lot of Patti Smith‘s work for the first time; that ‘Holy‘ incantation is really something, and, no, being an atheist takes nothing away, I insist.
Yay to the pubs going smoke free today; a good time for me to discover the delights of beer – well kept Deuchars, the hops with that hint of ginger. A delightful fiddle player at the Shoulder last Friday.
Might be intersting to see if anyone is actually reading this; let us know …
June 17 Bit of catching up to be done. Oliver St John Gogarty’s ‘Tumbling in the hay’ (1939) is a fictional memoir of student life and the pubs of Dublin early twentieth century. The idea struck that he could be seen as the Jack Kerouac of that scene save that it was written 30 years on. Certain breathlessness, huge amounts of blarney and, for me, a somewhat blurred timescale such as to make you appreciate the economy of James Joyce. It has its moments though, not least an edifying and moving oration on medicine as a profession from a doctor who had just been taunted by his students for successfully diagnosing a patient as having a condition to which the playing of a wind instrument could have been a factor, only for the patient to admit that, yes, he did play, but the instrument was an accordion.
And so to the worst book I’ve read in a very long time: Mark Radcliffe’s ‘Northern sky’ (Hodder, 2005). I suppose it’s probably quite good on what will arise when a local musical scene seems to be going up a league or two – the old rivalries, the jealousies, the need to want success as a factor in actually making it. But the death of a key player is a real copout ending (one I used, in fact, for a story about a group I wrote at school aged about 15, and I knew it was rubbish even then). There are a few good jokes, but there are some awful lines of dialogue that are so bad I can’t refrain from quoting them. I thought this amusing:
“Remember that time Freddie had the audacity to suggest he thought Nick Drake was overrated? What was it he said – ‘Drake was a middle class tosser wallowing in self pity’? You went for him like a bloody panther. If me and Lane hadn’t pulled you off …”
But then there’s: ” ‘Bloody hell, the Royal Festival Hall? Where Nick Drake played that famous gig supporting Fairport?’ ” And then … shudder:
” ‘The bastard. I mean, I’m no prude about the odd bit of blow, but offering Jennie coke! She’s had enough health problems without getting stuck into that muck. suppresses the appetite as well, doesn’t it?’ “
(Unbelievably, she’s been struggling with an eating disorder). If I hadn’t have been on holiday I would never have made it through to the end; nice large print though (this is beginning to matter).
That was in North Norfolk, where, against the odds and the weather forecast, the weather treated us well. Went on the Poppy Line though there weren’t mamany of those out. Locomotive power was a restored ie re-unconverted ‘streamlined’ shiny Battle of Britain class, resplendent in BR green. A trifle anomolous on a restored branch line on the North Norfolk coast but still a buzz; that was the class I cut my trainspotting teeth on almost half a century ago, back in Wimbledon. Let’s be corny … that smell, the smoke, the steam.
And in the sun in the dunes at Wells, the tide going out, steam rising from the wet sand and a sea mist coming in from the other direction, a Midwich cuckoos moment. Thanks, Isabel.
And so briefly to Bath on a work thing. Parts of it surprisingly shabby. Went into The Old Green Tree pub, regulars lining the bar, felt like we’d walked into an Ian Rankin Rebus book. Turned out OK in the back; no danger of any food there – a proper boozer.
Made to think a bit by ‘Faking it: the quest for authenticity in popular music‘ by Hugh Barker & Yuval Taylor (Faber, 2007), the best book on music I’ve read for ages. What is real, and what is not. Fascinating meditation on the notion of blues, ‘Folk’ et al – who does the defining and how it can affect the players themselves, what a trap it can be. The opening chapter, musing on Kurt Cobain’s choice for his last broadcast song, a Leadbelly number, on MTV’s Unplugged (realer!) show, skillfully throws up in the air the threads followed throughout the book. Nice telling of the tale of Big Bill Broonzy, a sophisticated musician who ended up making a career in Europe out of being a folk blues ‘primitive’.
Since moving house it’s been easier to play my vinyl again so i’ve been slowly working my way through the LPs that the charity shops didn’t get, many retained just for the nostalgia of the covers. Absolutely bowled over by Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 revisited’. Nothing to do with sound quality or warmth, just the handling of the object, and hearing track after track of sheer inventive brilliance. What? How did it feel back then? We take so much for granted. And then you turn it over … ‘Well God said to Abraham / Kill me a son … ‘ Just that act of turning the album over remakes it anew.
Currently swimming in the Traveling Wilburys re-issue. Glorious.
May 29 Liked Marina Lewycka’s ‘Two caravans’ (Fig tree, 2007) a lot. It’s basically a comic novel, but she works on so many levels practically all at once, from linguistic slapstick (the limited knowledge of English of the migrant workers is both very funny and sets up a lovely innocence, Rousseau’s Emile in a global economy set against old notions of England) to a violent insight into the world of migrant workers and those (often from within their own) who prey on them and the tragedy of AIDs in Africa. Not to mention the chicken farm and factory. There are twists and turns that engross; it’s a love story or two too. The multi-national cameradie is great; is this what it’s like in the Bolton Wanderers dressing room?
Am I glad I went to see ‘Acorn Antiques: the musical‘ at the theatre? I guess. It’s all over the place really. Can never really be sure whether it wants to be just a pastiche of the musical form and a celebration of the sketch from Victoria Wood‘s tv show or a bit more. I’ve always thought Wood was underrated as a songwriter; there’s real pathos and lovely melody in her best work in that area, though it’s not much in evidence here; the best song and musical moment is a completely straight (you know what I mean) love song, a duet sung by a middle aged gay couple. You know she knows this and it makes some of the silliness (the bucket, for example, his silly voice) seem just, well, silly. Some good jokes though, and from the young actress playing Mrs O, a fine piece of clowning. But also what I want to know is, why do they always run out of the ginger and honey ice cream?
Music: Patti Smith‘s covers album ‘Twelve‘. She doesn’t actually do much with the songs but it’s a classic case of less is more, which throws the words into focus, and it continues to grow on me. Muted but real passion and warmth emerge. The most radical reworkings – Paul Simon’s ‘The boy in the bubble’ and the banjo-lead ‘Smells like teen spirit’ – really hit the spot. Watching the re-release of D.A.Pennebaker‘s absolutely essential Dylan film ‘Don’t look back‘, this time around I’m struck by how good Joan Baez sounds and looks, by Alan Price confirming to Bob he’s left the Animals (“It happens“) and turning away and playing a deep blues roll on the piano. And one of the bonus bits, just audio, a stunning driving solo version of ‘Love minus zero / no limits’ from the Newcastle concert (“Over …” he says of the title, “It’s a fraction“; I never saw that before). The extra DVD that comes with the de luxe edition doesn’t add much. (May 29)
May 21 Normal service resumed. Somewhere in there we moved house. Went OK save for the cooker not fitting, not being able to plumb in the dishwasher, oh, and having the central heating boiler condemned; could have been worse. We’ve already seen a regular thrush in the garden, a pair of tame blackbirds who devour the snails thrown over Andy’s shoulder as she works the borders and bats in the evening. Saw Ray Davies open his UK tour at The Stables with a new guitarist – Milton MacDonald‘s first gig with the man is in Milton Keynes. Great show, still fresh – best version of ‘Sunny afternoon’ I can recall seeing, with some lovely jazz inflected guitar chops. Re-read Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slapstick, or, lonesome no more’ (1976); not where to start if you’re new (lucky person) to Vonnegut. Need to know his earlier stuff for the resonance otherwise it’s a bit silly, a concept novel as if written by Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s delicious joke alter ego hack SF writer. The point about Laurel & Hardy, to whom the book is dedicated, he says, is, “They never failed to bargain in good faith with their destinies”.
Moving throws up things you’d forgotten about, like Paul O’Flinn‘s slim volume ‘Them and us in literature‘ , which was one of the first titles published by the left wing Pluto Press in 1975. It’s a brief and oft times witty Marxist reading of what kids then had to study in school, trying to put them right about a few things; its sweeping naivety – human nature, that old ideological con trick, a relatively easily changeable creation of social relations as opposed to a condition of nature – now makes it a period piece. Did we really think like that then? Certainly some of the time. But there are some still valid points in there. Like the notion of Shakespearian tragedy being about character flaws. So:
“Schoolchildren all over the world have therefore been informed that Hamlet’s tragic flaw is indecision. The ghost tells him to kill his stepfather but he can’t bring himself to act. Murdering when ordered to do so by an authorative figure is, it would appear, a quality we would like to see developed in all our young men, so Hamlet stands as a sort of glum moral warning about what happens when this quality is found wanting.”
Funny, if a touch unfair, but not as funny as the seemingly serious quotation of a letter from Lenin concerning the ‘demand (women’s) for freedom of love’: “That is not really a proletarian but a bourgeois demand,” says the great man. Then there’s that other old ideological con trick, the happy ending. Those were the days.
And incredibly out of same era, we have Jimi Hendrix, subject of the first in a new BBC series on rock music. BBC4 also showed the film put together by Joe Boyd among others not long after his death, another real period piece (did we really talk like that? – some of the time). I’d forgotten just how special he was. And I’m not sure how much I appreciated then just how good a player he was live. There was a Sheffield University Rhythm & Blues Society coach trip across the Pennines to see him at UMIST in Manchester; I found it a bit of an anticlimax, to tell the truth, him already going through the motions of the performance rather than the playing. The received wisdom is his last performance at the Isle of Wight was lifeless; the ‘Red house’, at least, shown in the film, was stunning – reflective, powerful, restrained, without the pyrotechnics, a bluesman.
April 27 I first read Michael Green’s ‘The art of Course Rugby’ (1960, revised 1995) when I was at school, and erstwhile drummer, handsome Cliff Pocock, was trying to get us to try the oblong ball game. It made me laugh out loud then and it just did again. (“Finally, a word about training. Don’t.”) The second chapter describing an actual game is a classic of comic writing. It strikes me that one of the reasons Howard Jacobson’s ‘The mighty Walzer’ (see earlier) is so good is that, for all the main man’s being really good at it, the table tennis passages in the book echo Green’s comic masterpiece in sentiment. Speaking of Jacobson, my binge continues with the scatalogical (to be strictly accurate it’s crap as metaphor) and filthy ‘No more mister nice guy‘ (1998). It’s desperate, dark and scornful and funny – he’s does scorn so well. There’s a shift of scene towards the end that comes out of nowhere but has a logic of its own, an – almost signature – technique that he’s used elsewhere to good effect.
Nice is not exactly the word that springs to mind when reading Johnny Rogan’s ‘The Kinks: a mental institution’ (Prometheus, 1984), wherein the Davies brothers do not emerge as great human beings, but there’s a lot of information – failed ahead-of-their-time projects, unissued songs – in there and it will be used to improve the raison d’etre of this website soon. It was the first published bio, so closer to the events it tells of and Rogan talked to a lot of poeple. I’ve waited a long time to get my hands on a half way decently priced copy (good ol’ AbeBooks) and it’s been worth the wait.
April 26 A cat got a pidgeon in our garden this morning. The sparrows were picking up the pigeon’s scattered feathers for their nests from the lawn – it must have put up quite a fight – even before it was dead. BBC website reports the arrest of Hugh Grant for assault on a paparazzi. He
“allegedly kicked Mr Whittaker three times before kneeing him in the groin. He then picked up a family-sized tub of beans and chucked them at the photographer. Yesterday the Daily Star reported that Mr Whittaker was left “bruised, battered and covered in baked beans”.
Great. One forgives HG much for that. (26 April)
April 15 I’m on a Howard Jacobson binge at the moment. For a book that won prizes for comic writing ‘The mighty Walzer‘ (1999) packs a hell of sad kick in its final chapters, when you find out what happened to them all. It’s tremendous on growing up, on belonging, on table tennis before the fancy bats came in, on family (Jewish, natch), on class, on love. And very funny, in particular when he goes up to Cambridge:
“Returning along Jesus Lane, absorbed in perturbations not of my own making. I knocked a small elderly gentleman,who on a second glance proved to be E.M.Forster, into the gutter. Too overawed to apologize, I backed into the road and was hit by C.S.Lewis on a bicycle.”
Well, I guffawed, anyway. As we did quite a lot last night, at the theatre for Brendan Thomas’s ‘Charley’s aunt’, an affectionate and energetic production of a real comic tour de force dating back to 1892. Absurd plot of course, upper class twits at Oxford / inheritance / coincidence etc. but the physical timing was splendid and from Stephen Tompkinson in drag you got a real whiff of what the great Music Hall dames must have been like. The wise college servant, winking at the audience, and Charley were especially good too. A lot of fun.
And in the July heat of this April afternoon I’ve just finished reading a very fat book by Stephen Oppenheimer – ‘The origins of the British: a genetic detective story’ (Constable, 2006). I say read – skimmed and pretended to understand is more to the point. I’d say read the prologue and epilogue and judiciously dip if you’re interested in the subject, which is fascinating. He tries to join up genetics, archaeology and linguistics to test the traditional notion of British history being a wave of genocidal invasions, including the Celts, themselves driven west in turn, coming over from mainland Europe. Seemingly not. There is a genetic stability (aint DNA great?) to the islands that goes back to the re-population following on from final glacial retreat, the Celts coming up the western seaboard from the Iberian glacial refuge, while the Anglo-Saxons probably had a presence here before the Romans came. It is one of the great mysteries – is it not? – that we haven’t got much of a notion of what language was spoken here before the Romans came. Norse or one of the Germanics in the east maybe.
The final episode of ‘Life on Mars‘ didn’t clear much up either. Neat ending nevertheless, with the girl from the old test screen, colour balance dubious, walking up the cobbled Manchester street hand outstretched to turn the telly off. Did he die on the operating table, or was it just telly, just a story? Sam Tyler’s late discovered tumour being benign was a nice touch as we get all serious and contemplate the unromantic bureaucratic meeting-ridden and proper notion of modern policing as opposed to the righteous (violent, often corrupt, righteousness), um, romanticism of the ‘frontier’ lawman. Footie results more satisfying this week, even though Leeds won. ‘LDN is a victim‘ on MySpace made me laugh out loud.
April 14 Wisdom from Roy Keane, who I’m coming round to now he’s not regularly injuring people on the pitch, quoted in the Independent:
“I do not think I will ever be happy. I do not think I will. It is not in my nature, it is not in my blood. I get glimpses of it”
– which is precisely why ‘glimpses’ is one of my favourite words. Strikes me that anything else is chasing an illusion; one has no right to be happy, to think it’s possible on any other basis. As depressing a set of football results last weekend (April 7) as I can recall. Arsenal play West Ham off the park and lose nil-one. Sheffield United lose again, Crewe Alexandra lose (it’s their calendar on the office wall, courtesy of Sal, whose enthusiasm is infectious), MK Dons lose, Leeds win. All this somewhat offset late in the day by a splendid comedy own goal from Rio Ferdinand. I have a soft spot for Sheffield United going back to uni days, when Bramall Lane only had 3 sides and a cricket pitch at one end and I rate Neil Warnock as a human being, his weekly column in the Independent has charm and a certain sanity. Which, broadening things out to life, the universe, everything, you can certainly say about Kurt Vonnegut, who died last week and the world seems smaller.
Kurt Vonnegut 1922-2007
“So it goes”
There was a time when I could say I’d read everything of his that had appeared in book form and I get the urge again now – ‘Sirens of Titan‘ is such a lovely book, never mind the acknowledged masterpieces. Think I’ll try ‘Slapstick‘ again, mystifyingly (for me, then) dedicated to Laurel & Hardy, now that they make me laugh.
April 14 Bob Dylan on the second of his Theme Time Radio Hour on the subject of trains, introducing Tiny Bradshaw’s ‘The train kept a’rolling’, the original of the song the Yardbirds play in the club in Antonioni’s ‘Closeup’, probably the best rock music in a non-music film, ever:
“I want you to listen to the beginning of this record. There’s a call and response section. Tiny goes Boo-dow and the whole band goes Boo-dow. Then Tiny goes Boo-day and the whole band goes Boo-day except for one guy who still goes Boo-dow. Nowadays you’d just take that guy out or maybe you’d re-record the whole track. but back then it was more important to be great than to be perfect.”
Or maybe just not caring cheapskate, but I know what you mean, Bob.
Seems I cannot resist the charms of the Posterise function in PaintShop Pro…
enabling each to be their own Andy Warhol for well over 15 minutes. This from the Woodham’s scrap yards at Barry, many years ago.
April 1 To the theatre for the Welsh National Opera’s ‘Carmen’. Seems I’ve come so far with opera now that I have to say I was disappointed. It was my third Carmen (the last one had a real horse) but this one had an abstract impressionist set and seemed strangely static, the action more a progression of tableaux, the buzz was missing, and Don Jose seemed to have problems moving his arms – Igor in a horror movie came to mind. Not much charisma to the woman herself either, really. But the orchestra was full of energy, the singing was fine (like I know … ) and Bizet’s music made up for a lot. Interesting to see the musicians – we were up in the upper circle for a change. And that song about love being like a bird can never fail.
I love reading Carl Hiassen‘s novels and his new one – ‘Nature Girl‘ (Bantam, 2006) – delivers as usual. What is great about Hiassen is that his bad guys all end up suffering hideously (usually this involves irony, if not sarcasm) and the good guys and gals’ lives are changed for the good, this often involving a tangent arising from the action, which is a neat web of character, inevitability and chance, and the luck can be good or bad. Delicious fun with a heart, it slips down so easily. (April 1)
March 25 More art bollocks at MKG, this time from David Austen & his bog wall drawings (‘Indian ink’, it specifies in the handout) – ‘the darker side of human relationships’ indeed. I was going to say don’t bother unless it’s raining really hard but its allotted time (6 weeks of mostly wasted space – some of the stuff in the long gallery was not without interest) is up. Which reminds me … back in mid-February I reacquainted myself with Tate Modern, a favourite London haunt of mine. A bit diappointing this time; the Rothko room was closed for photography and maintenance and I wasn’t interested in those stupid fairground slides. Rothko one of those great fault lines in personal taste (like do you lick the lids of yogurt cartons? – yes). I could spend hours communing with those big canvasses. Compensation, though, on that day, in the National Portrait Gallery, a place i’d never been before. Engrossing – practically everything on the walls seen before on book jackets – but what a relief to reach the late nineteenth century and beyond, where the Impressionist liberation of painting suddenly allows a flavour of the person being portrayed, like a breath of fresh air; I shall return. Tangentally, strange tv week with the excellent John Simm seen as Vincent van Gogh (a dead ringer) and hilariously as a Camberwick Green puppet, the latter happening in ‘Life on Mars‘, the only essential viewing for me at the moment. And while we’re watching the telly, thought ITV’s ‘Mansfield Park‘ hilarious. Not that I’ve read the book, but I’m pretty sure those acres of flesh are not to be found in Jane Austen‘s prose; I kept waiting for the Tardis to come and take Billie Piper (who I’ve nothing against, but faces like that didn’t exist back in the early 1800s, surely) away from it all. What to make of a modesty and apology expressed by a male at her being seen in her night clothes, which covered far more of her skin than anything she wore in the day.
Finished Howard Jacobson’s ‘The making of Henry’ and found much to admire therein as it built. Some nice twists. Did I say the humour was sly? How good a line is, ‘Though Henry offers to be jaded, he marvels easily’? Some glorious intellectual slapstick and belly laughs as things develop. A tremendous book – one feels for them all, which is quite a feat for such a spiteful humourist. And Henry finds love – hurrah! The missing link between Tom Sharpe and Martin Amis?
I read Mat Coward‘s newly collected set of SF and horror stories, ‘So far, so near‘ (Elastic press, 2007). There are some ideas and images that will continue to lurk, like dead ghosts. Horror is not a genre I’ve ever spent any time with so it’s the sf here that affects me more – the brilliant ‘Time spent in reconaisance’ and its close cousin ‘Remote viewing’ with their delicious tangental humour, the lingering regret of ‘We all saw it’, the tale of a carload students who see a ufo and that siting’s psychological fallout on the rest of their lives. It’s strange, reading the published work of someone you know. I can’t help but acknowledge the stories I like best are those that I can see him smiling behind, which may not do him justice. Mat is not a great writer and I’m sure he’d settle for good, but he has some great sentences (some might say gags) under his belt.
‘”You’ve not met my parents, have you?” He knew perfectly well I hadn’t, but the Welsh can never resist narrative structure.’
Or, again, from ‘We all saw it’:
‘Joany practises serial spiritual monogamy. She weds each truth in turn, is utterly faithful to it, and is always shocked and shattered by the inevitable divorce.’
Surprised to find myself listening to the Doll by Doll reissues more than I expected. The good stuff improves with more hearing (the imperious ‘More than human’ isn’t the only one), while the period pieces sound even more embarrassing given the company they’re already keeping. A real curate’s egg of a collection, but with the great body of subsequent work, Jackie Leven really should be right up there in the critical canon with the really big names. And there’s enough harbingers (he’s not averse to recycling his own melodies in better circumstances), nay, and real achievements here to make for a fascinating few hours listening yet. A ‘best of’ would still be a good idea though for those outside the Church of Leven.
Sad little tale: my elder son is doing a criminology course as a part of his degree. Earlier this week the were scheduled to have a session with someone billed as ‘an ex-offender’. Had to be cancelled because he was back in jail.
March 13 Finished Lee Scriven‘s memoir of MK in the ’70s. Would be easy to pick holes – why the shiny paper for a start? – but he’s not just a tryer, he’s a doer, and it’s great the book exists. These pioneer tales never pale for me. I raise a glass of chenin blanc to the hippy architects of the original Development Corporation. Hard to credit we’ve been living here for over half of MK’s short life. Appreciated a photo of our estate under construction. I look forward to a sequel, Lee.
Struggling a bit with another product of ’70s in the shape of the reissues of Jackie Leven‘s old band Doll by Doll‘s four albums. Had high hopes given I’d not heard much of it before and how highly I rate his solo work of the last 13 years. A ‘best of’ would have sufficed and would garner better reviews. Some horrendous time-bound production and the rhythm section just not up to it really. A few decent songs & ideas but mainly interesting – seeing the hints of what was to come – as archival stuff, not that impressive on its own; some horrible falsetto. Then there’s the shock of the melodic template of the exquisite and often showstopping ‘Exit wounds’ in ‘Natural’ on ‘Grand passion’, in the guise of a Duran Duran sounding track. The vicious attack on the man that left him unable to sing for years certainly improved the voice – before so thin, after so rich – in the long run.
Started on another Howard Jacobson. His ‘The making of Henry‘ (2004) didn’t grab as instantly as ‘Kalooki nights‘ but it’s growing on me – the humour slyer, the narrator’s age a bit close for comfort, The University of the Pennine Way a nice bit of invention.
March 4 For once a celestial event with clear skies. I’d like to call the colour of the moon at eclipse blood red but it was closer to dried blood so not so poetic. Coppery red has been settled on in the media – fair enough; you can see how it would have scared the shit out of em in days of yore. Finished ‘Kalooki nights‘ and I was impressed by the final chapters of the novel, an ending that lingers. Was expecting to be left dangling about what happened to Asher and the shikseh Dorothy, whose love is one of the cores of the narrative. It was sobering to find out and the deflation of the ‘author’ is acutely handled; I shall have to read some more Howard Jacobson. “That’s not a blasted oak, it’s a bloody yew” – synchronicity from ‘Carry on Dick‘ on the telly as I type; the glories of Film4. I’m reading Who fan Lee Scriven‘s labour of love and pride, ‘3 curly wurlys & 106 roundabouts: one man’s story of growing up in Milton Keynes‘ (LJS Publishing, 2007), with affection. Who’d have thought Jim Marshall (of Marshall Amplification, without whom etc etc) was a drummer before he put his hands to building amplifiers? I expect to learn a lot more like that. MK: just don’t believe the jokes from those who’ve never got off the train or motorway. Long live the concrete cows! (March 4)
February 27 Much to be enjoyed with Frank Loesser’s ‘Guys and dolls’ at the theatre. Some decent song and dance set pieces and a great set, not least the huge Havana moon. Much to admire in Howard Jacobson’s ‘Kalooki nights’ (Cape, 2006). The ebb and flow in time of the narrative works well and he’s seriously funny about the strengths and weakness of the Manchester jewish community and growing up in it. It’s a fascinating portrait that asks some interesting questions of more general application about personal and community identity. Jackie Leven’s ‘Oh what a blow that phantom dealt me’ continues to satisfy. Fantastic album, some great singing. I love it for it’s musical glee and humour. Leven is a master of musical (and self-) quotation. And there’s an intriguing boot of the Bob Dylan session that produced ‘Tell ‘ol Bill‘ which includes a fast workout and a compelling try-out in a minor key among the twelve takes; it doesn’t pall. Oh yes, and we had 8 frogs frollicking in the pond last weekend and a whole lotta spawn.
February 17 Saw Martin Freeman give a tremendous comic performance at the theatre in ‘The last laugh‘. The play was good on humour and the why of theatre though I wasn’t totally convinced by the transformations the play wrought – Roger Lloyd-Pack a bit too close to the absurd or Python at times. Was glad I went though. And he’s right – it does have to be a tin of green paint (Is yer husband in? / No, I’m afraid we buried him yesterday / Oh. Did he say anything about a tin …).
“For once Wenger agreed with the Bolton manager. “To miss two penalties, by two Brazilians, is exceptional,” he said.” – from the Grauniad. Great game of football though, deeply satifying, Arsenal poetry in motion first half on Wednesday. Finished Derren Brown‘s entertaining ‘Tricks of the mind‘ (2006). Some good stuff as he lays into psychics’s claims and describes their ‘cold reading’ techniques, never mind the outright frauds; a champion of the scientific method and Dawkins, no less. Not bad for the kid who went up to uni as an evangelising True Believer and saw the light. Neat annotated booklist at the end too.
Endless repeats of ‘Scrubs‘ – the only decent hospital drama going – continue to charm thanks to digital tv. I’d forgotten the glee to be found in best of Mott the Hoople – all seven songs. Roll away the stone, indeed.
February 12 For all its grime and rottenness, I struggled at times with the very American sentimentality – going gooey about his nephews is the least of it – of Harlan Coben’s ‘The innocent’ (2005). He always engages, nay grips, though. Coben’s skills at driving narrative, its twists and turns, and a certain acuity of phrase haven’t deserted him. My old English teacher John ‘Tom’ Pearce (an inspiration, actually) used to say the perfect story opening was, ” ‘I didn’t kill her’, said the bishop”, because it hit all the targets, combining sex, murder, religion and class in just 7 words. The start of Coben’s third chapter isn’t quite so succinct or all embracing, but you can’t deny its power:
” Essex County homicide investigator Loren Muse sat in her boss’s office. ‘Wait a second,’ she said, ‘Are you telling me that the nun had breast implants?’ “
Elsewhere, “She shifted in her chair. Her every move, intentional or not, came over as a double entendre” hits a certain spot, though maybe Chandler wouldn’t have bothered with the ‘intentional or not’.
February 5 The joys of a Freeview digital tv box: the ftn channel has re-runs of Bullseye and Krypton Factor from the ’80s. Hard to imagine anything more redundant. I sit and watch in a kind of trance – time travel was never meant to be this dull. The handsome pages of ‘Homo Britannicus‘ jumped from its survey of the climate driven viscissitudes of human occupation in Britain over 700,000 years (colonised and abandoned at least 7 times, homo sapiens only finally sticking 11,500 years ago) to a sermon on the dangers of global warming and the need for action. Fair enough. Derren Brown‘s book has helped me remember my new library card number. No, the conclusion of the excellent ‘Five days‘ apart and a decent new album from Jackie Leven with ‘Oh what a blow that phantom dealt me’), it’s not been the most rivetting of weeks.
January 29 In praise of cinammon. Nestle’s Cinammon Grahams cereal – whole grain and melt in the mouth. It’s got to the point where No 1 son and I have our own labelled packets; unfortunately it’s great for snacking too. And the Drink Me Chai company’s Spiced Chai powdered latte drink is delicious – just add water and whisk, though it’s even better with a bit of milk added.
Marion Hill’s ‘Milton Keynes: a history & celebration’ (Francis Frith Collection, 2005) is an OK potted history of the much over-maligned MK from pre-historic times, though it all gets a bit too rosy spectacled and breathless PR the closer to now it gets. The problem of having an out of town shopping centre as its heart is not acknowledged. The special town of Glastonbury, with all its charm, is a major character in ‘Marco’s pendulum’ by Thom Madley (Usborne, 2006), seemingly the first of an older children’s series. Some decent narrative action and neat even-handed touches throughout, and a tremendous climax which leaves the doors open, still begging the mystical. I look forward to the sequel with some interest, when Marco’s sceptical chum from london is promised to figure. As it happens, the diviner’s skill with the pendulum is one of the things for which Derren Brown offers a rational explanation in his ‘Tricks of the mind‘ (Transworld, 2006). It’s a fascinating read of which maybe more later when I finish it; certainly his first memory exercise worked for me. Verbose and full of himself of course, but he delights in throwing weird tangents (did I just read that?) which I take as a good sign. I’ve also got Chris Stringer’s ‘Homo Britannicus: the incredible story of human life in Britain’ (Allen Lane, 2006) on the go. Goes back a long way, it seems. This handsomely designed account of archaeology in Britain and the state of current research findings of the AHOB (Ancient Human Occupation of Britain) project feels good even if it’s not exactly an easy read, especially if only consumed in small chunks. And did those hippo and hyena feet indeed? Can’t help but feel some sympathy for the neanderthals, who weren’t all that their name has been attached to in common parlance. Then there’s the excitement at the first cave paintings.
Superior tv from BBC/HBO with ‘Five days‘ which just draws you in not just because of the mystery at its heart but also because you care for them all and feel their pain. Tremendous power when the father attacks strangers leaving flowers at the layby, the site of his wife’s disappearance. You just think: Yes!
Slightly disappointing RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch – blue tits, great tits, a goldfinch & a magpie, sparrows, starlings, a collared dove.
January 14 In the end I have to say Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The road’ (Picador, 2006) is magnificent. I struggle with the genre (post-major unexplained catastrophe survivors in a dead land) at the best of times and dislike dreams in narrative. I found the lack of names and repetition just annoying (the son calls him Papa is all, deeply annoying on its own). And for all the desolation (and it is desolate) there’s a uniquely American sentimentality about it. But a powerful allegory wins through a frankly corny end – good guys, bad guys, passing on the flame – and out of the sparseness a sudden flowering of what has been lost, so economically evoked. Tremendous line from one of the few they meet on the road: ‘There is no god and we are his prophets.’
January 8 I read Hilary Mantel’s ‘Beyond black’ (Fourth Estate, 2005) at a pace. It’s an odd book and a nasty one a lot of the time. Two main female characters, an overweight clairvoyent with a deeply unpleasant childhood and her cold dry business partner and a spirit world full of frustration, mischief and malice. There’s entertainment in the sub-culture of the psychic fairs and shows, the weekly grind of them earning their crust, trading tips about suppliers, bitching about their contemporaries. But there’s an uneasiness about suburbia and for all the spirits (apparently she’s a sceptic agnostic) it’s a disturbing view of the world bordering the M25 in which they are allowed to have an existence here. Good writer, but a strange one.
Another sort of spirit rising with the perfection of Tomas Rosicky‘s first goal against Liverpool on Saturday and then Thierry Henry‘s at the end; and tonight the Arsenal reserves put six past Liverpool at Anfield in the Carling Cup. Sometimes football can be a wonderful game. That’s not to mention the Mighty MK Dons exciting last minute draw last night on Sky.
January 2, 2007 Not a lot to report as yet. ‘Torchwood‘ on the telly had an emotional power that I doubt bears too much analysis so I won’t bother, won’t spoil it. Tremendous use of Cardiff, mind.
I’d like to know who
the photographer was.