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December 31, 2008 I warmed straightaway to John Worthern’s ‘The Gang: Coleridge, the Hutchinsons & the Wordsworths in 1802’ (Yale UP, 2001). He gives great Preface about what emotionally biassed biographers have claimed for both sides on the rift between Wordsworth and Coleridge on the basis of very little evidence (more shades of Lennon and McCartney!). Knew I was going to like the book just froom the quotes before the text even starts: Johnson’s dictionary definition of gang, the government spy’s report (“a mischievous gang of disaffected Englishmen”) on ivestigating a French cadre living in the Quantocks (they spoke funny) & Coleridge calling WW the leader of the gang. There’s a tremendous passage wherein Worthern discusses how the first editor of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals left out various repeatitive domestic details and in so doing gave a skewed picture of the creative process, in this specific instance the omission of the mention of the delivery of some dung: “… the way in which the composition of a poem of the High Romantic period, one intensely concerned with the ideal life of the mind, can also be seen in the context of the pressing concerns of the every day. But of course we can only do that if the dung is allowed to play a fertilising role in the biographical account …” It all gets a bit a bit litcrit but it’s fascinating all the same, looking at them functioning as a group, swapping lines, sending one another (the women too) various drafts of poems for comment etc. rather than as – the Romantic notion – individuals. Really must do the walk they regularly did in all weathers between their two pads in the Lake District; they must have been fit in those days.
Spent time with another in the Oxford publishing Company’s ‘Power’ series from Gavin Morrison, ‘The power of the BR Standard 4-6-0s’ (2003). Again, the problem of keeping up the captions, what with ‘green livery’ in all the filthy black and white and an obsession with shed plates and esoteric railway details in the distance you can hardly see; again, could have done with more full page pictures. Was delighted to find ‘The sweeter side of R.Crumb’ for a fiver at the cheap shop. Some charming and affectionate sketches, especially the ones of his wife; nice thick paper too helps.
Went to Tate Modern for the Rothko, the Late Series exhibition. The main room was magnificent – the reds, maroons & purples – could have spent hours in there, but I have to say the darker stuff didn’t do much for me. Rothko’s work one of the great divides; my partner hates it, says it’s at best decorating, her kids at school could do better. Ho hum. Had fun the other end of the fourth floor with Cildo Meireles’ stuff – walking on a floor of broken glass in a labyrinth of – among other things barbed wire – fish tanks with fish in them et al ; the wall of clocks with many of their numbers fallen to the floor; the Tower of Babel made of radios, all on and tuned to many stations.
Telly over Christmas : ‘Gavin & Stacey’ something special, ‘Outnumbered’ incredibly funny, both the kids and the parents; lovely turn in the last one in the series, the parents arguing with one another as if they were the kids arguing with them. Seems to be a big emperor’s new clothes factor around in tellyland these days: the pathetic ‘Royle Family’ xmas special (the absurd in the bath with the turkey routine and, crucially, no Anthony) & Peter Kay earlier in the year with that awful pop idol X factor thing – was there not someone in the company heirarchies who could have said, No, hang on, this is just not good enough? On the other hand ‘My Fair Lady’ & ‘Oklahoma’ back to back on Xmas Eve – what songs! – were just superb, timeless; worryingly I seem in some respects to be becoming my parents. Not that they would have appreciated ‘Picture book’, the Kinks box set (I have my reservations as to the logic of its existence and selection but I’m still glad I’ve got it) and the superb ‘Take me to the river’, a 3 CD Southern soul compilation that just gets better and better.
December 10 The hundreds of War Department freight locos – the WDs, the ‘Austerities’ – built to keep the war effort on track in this country and help rebuild the shattered infrastructure of Europe after the war ended in 1945, always seemed a slightly alien presence in my – I admit it – trainspotting days. No charisma, usually filthy, anonymous, that clumsy tender, i now see, adding to the alien feel. And yet … in decent shining black nick they can be good looking, have real presence; there’s a certain rugged appeal and their history beckons, truly international hard working engines spreading to as far as Egypt and China. They took 6,000 man hours to build as opposed to the 34,000 for a Stanier LMS 8F so no wonder the lack of style. There are a lot of photos looking pretty much the same in Gavin Morrison’s ‘The power of the Austerities’ in OPC’s ‘Power series’ (published 2006) and the captions are an insomniac’s dream detailing the loco’s life history of shed allocation et al, so it’s a shame there’s not more full page stuff and I could have done with a lot more shots featuring them at work abroad. A decent cloakroom browse, nevertheless.
Jennie Walker’s ’24 for 3′ (Bloomsbury, 2008, a small press the year before) by poet (it says here) Charles Boyle (why does a man choose a woman’s nom de plume and then allow it to be revealed in the flyleaf?) is an interesting little novella, floating on the thoughts and short journeys of a middle aged woman struggling to understand a Test Match and, well, her life, as she prepares to leave her husband for her lover, the loss adjuster. The cricket metaphors are a lot more than the usual ones, there’s a puzzling resonance and wonder that works well. I read it twice and was much taken with its bittersweet sensuality, its commonsense and its passion. It’s as much a prose poem as a novella a lot of the time, lots of lovely little touches, like the husband rearranging his cookery books in the twilight. (But I’m afraid Jack Dee appears to have queered the pitch for East European domestics – all I hear and see here (for indeed there is one) is Magda.)
December 5 There’s a brooding intensity to ‘Bluesman: a twelve-bar graphic novel’ drawn by Pablo Callejo with words by Rob Vollmar (NBM, 2006, originally a 12 issue comic) which would have been more immediately apparent to me if it hadn’t had a grey printed background to all the speech bubbles and faces which made it hard to take in first time around. Read in decent lighting conditions this fictional tale of pianist Ironwood Walcott and guitarist Lem Taylor, itinerant bluesmen in the racist South in the 1920s unfolds with a dreadful and fatal logic; the epilogue, the last bar if you will, decades on, comes right out of the blue with its own transcendant beauty. There’s some fine interplay between the pair as their way of life is laid out for us and the sheriff is a fine creation. If that makes it sound like a bunch of stereotypes, not so – it breathes.
And speaking of grey, there’s mention of a ‘Willesden grey livery’ – unwashed, covered in dirt and grime – in Derek Huntriss’s decent collection of mostly coloured photos in “London Midland Region” in the ‘The changing railway scene’ series from Ian Allan (2008). My era again – it takes you back. A reminder of what a godawful design decision Britaish Rail blue was. While I’m grateful aesthetically for the opportunity of seeing all that steam, you do wonder why it took them so long to really modernise given the estimated efficiency of a steam loco coming in at a meagre 15% as opposed to the 55% of diesel and 90% of electric; one diesel could do the work of 3 equivalent steam locomotives. Of course the only locomotives around as such these days are huge anonymous brutes of freight locos, still being given names like Elgar and Chaucer; Edward and Geoffrey deserve, and once had, better … a handsome GWR Castle, a Britannia, resplendent in lined green … I could go on. Mind, the steam locos often had a lot of embarrassingly dumb, fawning names to their discredit – the dapper Halls for example, celebrating the residences of the exploiting classes, the Kings honouring monarchs good, bad or indifferent. My generation had the best of both worlds mid-60s – plenty of steam and the prototype diesels which still, some of them at least, had a bit of character. Grow out of that (I sold my train set to buy an electric guitar) and into the music. Not for nothing is The Kinks’ ‘The last of the steam powered trains’ one of my faves – Betjeman branch line meanderings set to a borrowed Howlin’ Wolf blues riff and a magnificent rave up climax crashing into the buffers stopping just in time, better than the Yardbirds ever did.
December 2 Even though the last time I spent any time at all on a computer game was Tetris on an Atari ST, I was thoroughly engrossed in Tim Etchells’s ‘The broken world’ (Heinemann, 2008). It’s written as a blog walk-through of an interminably complex and incredibly violent computer game renedered in the vernacular of that youngish web community. Basically, the writer has a breakdown, a games psychosis. Nothing is given away as to the education of he and his pals, there’s hardly a cultural reference outside of games and an indeterminate (and fictional?) music and yet I was gripped. Real life keeps butting in – there’s the job at an emporium purveying ‘circular cooked food’ (takeaway pizza), a long suffering girlfriend – but there’s a symbiosis going on as well as a satire on the games industry, a morality in and out of the game, the consquences of actions and inaction. The philosophising takes on board the realisation that there are populations in the game only created to be slaughtered whereas others have a whole back story to be read in their faces; then there’s the mooted non-violent pacifist solution floated on the blogs – what a concept! There are even long periods in the game in which nothing happens. The characters you have to be in the game – Ray & Rachel (the only way through is you have to be one or the other at certain stages) – both undergo a sort of death; their meeting up again is (it’s not real!) incredibly moving. Through all the convolutions of the game and real life the book is funny and compassionate, with a fair number of decent running gags to keep you hooked; how do you like the idea of someone (a real one this time) who is so far just in the beta version? And in the end it’s a love story as the narrator gets his life (and girlfriend) back. “How can one remain independent and still be loved?” is a question from the mouth of his partner’s father, he of the interminable practical questions (strimmer or trimmer?) out in the burbs; where they are all, supposedly, crazy. Iloved it. Tim Etchells also has a huge cv as art practitioner and leading light in an active theatre group. Where does he get the time? The sculpture shown here – and another similar in a window saying, “Please come back. I am sorry about what happened before”– gets me every time.
November 26 No regrets about going to the Boston Arms again for the annual Official Kinks Fan Club shindig. The second edition of the Kast Off Kinks this time around, now that John Dalton, the original mover behind the Kast Offs, has hung up his rock and roll shoes (not that that stopped him treading the boards for a bit again). One feared for the professionalism of the ‘new’ guys, Jim Rodford and Ian Gibbons – proper musicians! – but it in the end that didn’t get in the way of the fun. And – hey – Ray turned up again and got cajoled into giving us a ‘Come dancing’, for which much thanks. Good to see the old familar faces.
Read Suze Rotolo’s ‘A freewheelin’ time: a memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties’ (2008), which is a lot more than another side of the break-up tale Dylan told in ‘Ballad in plain D’. Not that she exactly refutes his version, which I’ve just revisited – the words at least – and discover to be more self critical and not as bitter overall as I remembered; it’s one of my least favourite Dylan albums because it is so down, not least for this song full of barren regret. They were obviously very much in love with one another, as can be seen from the photos of the time that have emerged over the years. What he doesn’t seem to have realised, she implies, is her pre-feminist yearning to be more than just his girl on the scene, a scene she wanted to be an active individual in rather than playing the part she ended up with, and her frustration with the whole star trip that became inevitable as his fame grew. And she was so young, he her first real boyfriend. She looks back with affection at him (not uncritically), their relationship and the whole scene, a scene she paints a fascinating and vibrant picture of, bricks, mortar, flesh and blood. Her own tale is an engrossing one, of growing up a ‘red diaper baby’ – a term that I’d not heard before, but which says a lot in a few words – the child of a family of immigrant stock and liberal social and communist political leanings. Her trips to immediately post-Castro’s victory Cuba tell us a lot about the period too. I’d have liked to know more from her about what happened next in her life.
November 11 To the theatre yet again, this time for a tremendous production of Michael Frayn’s ‘Noises off’. Much laughter to be had in a farce of the repertory theatre world that demands timing of circus precision. A brilliant conceit of Act One we’re front of house at a rehearsal of a play that is not going well, Act Two backstage mid-run and the company is at civil war amongst itself, Act three back in the house for a distastrous end of the run in Stockton-on-Tees. Very very funny; the cast must have been exhausted.
I don’t think it’s bad rule of thumb to beware of novels that start with an undecipherable quote from George Bataille on ‘desire’ and normally I wouldn’t bother but when the writer is Howard Jacobson I carry on regardless. He is such a good writer, full of on ideas, character and emotion; there’s cleverness (a bit too much at times), wit and compassion. In ‘The act of love’ (Cape, 2008) his dubious examination of the notion of real love as a kind of masochism (and we are all either masochists or sadists, the main character maintains) takes some swallowing but then he’ll introduce the relationship of the great writer (no small fry here – Joyce, Tolstoy and chums) and his heroine, or the artist and his model as a parallel and you’re persuaded into a somehow altered universe. I was in strange waters here but was carried on by the compelling narrative. There’s a comeuppance, but, without giving anything away, the manner of it, and the actual outcomes, are a shock – muted in tone, maybe, but by no means anti-climactical and beautifully done.
November 6 And so to the theatre for a tremendous RSC production of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Transposed to post-war Italy, but no liberties taken. The acting was fine, with some great stage business from the large cast, an impressively tall set, all greys and texture, and stunning lighting effects – some dazzling spots from above, alternating with sharp tall shadows behind in the crucial two handed scenes. The onstage band setting a tone, poignant, dramatic, ceremonial, counterpointing and underpinning the action. A real theatrical experience.
Driving in to work Wednesday morning I almost had to pull over – it’s not ideal driving with fast moistening eyes – hearing the section of Barack Obama’s Chicago victory speech on the radio about 106 year old Ann Nixon Cooper casting her vote, and the changes she had seen. He was really saying something. Felt good about the world for a while.
And while we contemplate change, how about Kenneth Oldham’s ‘Steam in wartime Britain’ (Alan Sutton, 1993)?- a fascinating collection, with commentary, of photographs taken by a train enthusiast in the north of England on East Coast and West Coast lines by a teenage schoolboy, turned young worker and then RAF trainee at the start of the Second World War, when railway photography was (sort of) banned for security reasons. His tales of long cycle trips and Youth Hostelling in pursuit of his hobby, his strategems and brushes with officialdom, not forgetting his lack of concentration to the game of football field he was meant to be playing in on a pitch adjoining a railway line, are a real period piece, not without a certain innocent charm, almost Alan Bennett territory. Hard to imagine the grip of such a fascination these days.
October 31 This time last week I was sitting in the stalls at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East for Ray Davies’s musical, ‘Come dancing’. If I’d written this straight away there would have been one big question asked which the space of a week has pretty much answered itself to my satisfaction. What remains with me is not Ray’s personal contribution as narrator and singing a couple of numbers (not that I wasn’t grateful) but the cast as a whole and the live set. This is not some rock star dicking about. It’s the real deal as a musical, with some tremendous production numbers, some very good songs which need to be heard more widely and a couple of those genuine theatrical moments that you go to theatre for (if you’re lucky) and get nowhere else. It’s funny, engaging and emotional. It aint perfect – can you have a musical without a certain sentimentality? – but it can certainly stand on its own without the man being in the house and I hope it does go on elsewhere, and that the songs get a CD or DVD release. It succeeds in capturing one of those fulcrums of social change in sight and sound; the skiffle group, for instance, is one brilliant touch among many. The evening also revealed what a lightweight Kinks fan I turned out to be; there were people there who’d seen it well into double figures – hi Olga, hi Bill & Mel . And hi to Glynn, the bassist in the stage band, with whom I had some entertaining and hopefully intelligent conversation in the buzzing bar/restaurant before. On the way there I’d had a good look at the rather splendid statue of John Betjeman in the rejuvenated St Pancras Station; it does the man proud. Still suffering mild traumatic stress disorder from that Arsenal – Spurs 4-all draw midweek; Jesus, all they had to do was get it do Adebayor near a corner flag for a couple of minutes … (October 31)
October 23 Can’t help thinking of John Prine’s witty song ‘Jesus – the missing years’ when contemplating Nicholas Roe’s ‘Wordsworth and Coleridge: the radical years’ (OUP, 1988). No jokes in this solid piece of academic writing – doctoral thesis? As well as illuminating further for me what made the men tick, it made me realise the enormity of the repression in Britain in the late 18th and early 19th century, how the government could make peacefully expressing the wish for a say in how the country was run seem un-patriotic once we were at war with the French and make the people see the democratic impulse as a danger to the nation; and the patriotic suckers lapped it up. But we did get the poetry as personal survival strategy and aftermath …
The setting is still Edinburgh, but Rebus is referred to just once in passing as ‘You know who’ in Ian Rankin‘s new art heist novel ‘Doors open’ (Orion, 2008); I miss him. It’s a movie waiting to happen, Brit Tarantino without much wit, I’m afraid. Not that I didn’t whiz through it and there was a nice twist there in the middle.
New exhibition at Milton Keynes Gallery (seems they’ve dropped the mkG trendy naming nonsense) opened this week and it’s there for 3 whole months. Some of Gilberto Zorio‘s big sculptures and structures are not without interest, so I’m not going to call it a complete waste of space, but three months? And, you know, is it art? What will the people of Milton Keynes get from it? Very little.
October 13 Decent crime novel from Martin Edwards: ‘Waterloo sunset ‘(Allison & Busby, 2008). Harry Devlin, Liverpool lawyer, is a sympathetic sort of guy. Mary Roach: ‘Bonk; the strange coupling of sex and science’ (Canongate, 2008) – one of those books where if you don’t read the footnotes you miss half the fun. A lovely tone maintained – funny and informative. ‘Big Bill blues: William Broonzy’s story as told to Yannick Bruynoghe’ (Da Capo, 1992 reprint of ’64) is a very strange book indeed, that could only have appeared at a very specific time and come out of Europe. Close to authenticity as parodic gibberish some of the time. He was around though (even in Europe as a soldier, First World War) and it illuminates (if that is the word) the blues aand working life; nice story about him finally getting to college … as a janitor. Kevin MCormack: ‘The Midland around London’ (Ian Allan, 2008) – is my trainspotting era, early to early mid ’60s. Some good pix and a lot of nostalgia, those first independent trips to London.
Stayed with friends on the lush (and wet) Isle of Wight weekend before last, saw some rushes of their DIY heist movie ‘Death in Ventnor’; the town council won’t like it but it had us in stitches. The open exhibition/competition at Quay Arts, Newport Harbour had some good stuff and the place had a good feeling; shame MKg (or is it mkG? – hah!) can’t lower itself to this sort of thing every now and again. (October 13)
September 30 The reviews weren’t great for ‘The sorrows of an American’ by Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre, 2008); not as good as ‘What I loved’ was the gist but then not much is. I found it hard to reconcile the male voice from a woman author at first, and I’m not a fan of fiction featuring psychoanalysis and dreams, but I found it gripping and unusual, the initial central mystery petering out, yes, but it expands to much else that I ultimately cared about. This is Roth territory – the novelist in America, and the sorrows loom large on many people over three generations, the actions and scenes haunt. I don’t regret reading it; there is growth in there. James S Dearden’s ‘John Ruskin: an illustrated life of John Ruskin’ (Shire, 2004) a bit slight – I need more. There is no doubt in my mind that here is a much underplayed major contributor to Britain’s intellectual history, and we need his main message – “The only wealth is life” – to be heard a lot more.
Peter Robinson‘s new DCI Alan banks novel ‘All the colours of darkness’ (Hodder, 2008) is dark indeed without quite being noir, spook involvement in the unfolding events adding a sinister edge – not sure how Banks is going to emerge from this one in the next book. But DI Annie Cabbot, her story, continues to engage. The music quotes have become a bit of joke though, some so obscure I think he’s made a couple up. The sense of place – a lot of London in this one & the usual Yorkshire Moors – still comes over well.
The transfer of Marmite out of the iconic glass bottle into a squeezy plastic thing hasn’t proved as disastrous as feared – you can make pretty patterns on the toast and there’s no change in the taste. And those Paddington Bear tv ads are tremendous. The highs and lows of following Arsenal – can’t someone have the odd shot from outside the box? ‘No country for old men’ a helluva film that gets better the more I think about it. As does Todd Haynes’s Dylan movie ‘I’m not there’ – some tremendous performance and his early years as a young black boy really works beautifully. The film is a real achievement, the way it captures myth, but you have to know a lot about Dylan to get it. And I’ve been revisiting Dylan’s ‘Modern Times’ for a while now. I’d forgotten what a masterpiece it is, such fantastic playing.
I’ve been enjoying King of Shaves’ Azor, their new ‘hybrid synergy system razor’, a description which may be rubbish techno-ad-babble but it’s a good looking object and it gives a great shave, approaching your skin at a different angle. As for Tess of the D’Urbervilles on telly – get over it, woman! (September 30)
September 17 Fascinating to the end, Alex Ross’s ‘The rest is noise’ can be seen as a classic case study of the problem of avant gardes and the sterility of theory, artistic and political, and purism, the refusal to compromise, the fear of the artist being popular leading to the cul de sac of not ‘selling out’. You can see the logic of where it began, with, at the end of the nineteenth century, concert halls only giving space to dead men’s music and the awful corniness of real tunes, allied to the zeitgeist of modernism, the hunger of the young composer to be original and justify their existence to themselves … not caring for the middle classes’ incomprehension and hostility. Interesting, the composers mixing with the painters in the downtown lofts of New York. Nice ideas – shame about the noise. Ross is good on making the connections, showing where ideas and sounds eventually flow between the musics, jazz, pop, rock, soundtracks, how things evolve, and he’s alive to the social processes involved. It makes you want to hear what he’s writing about, always the sign of successful writing about music.
September 8 And so to The Lakes, there to get rained on mightily but, you know, what can you expect? A big plug for the M6 toll road, worth every penny. And you pass the Kirkby Longdale turn-off and the shoulders drop of their own accord and the heart lifts. First rule of a supposed walking holiday: don’t overdo it on the first day; we even acknowledged this and aspired to it. But the second rule is: the maps lie. So after the peace of Crummock Water we climb to Bleaberry Tarn above Buttermere (it was worth it) and the other way down that is clear on the map peters out into sheep paths so we lose our nerve and back track and just cannot believe that we managed all that way up. Third rule is, the journey back does not always seem shorter. Our legs are jelly and the shandy in the Bridge Hotel is pure nectar. And that, luckily enough, was the only prolonged decent weather of the week, though we did achieve a pinic in the sun at the side of Derwent Water another day, and even a precious half hour later in the garden of The Heights Hotel, outside Keswick, the bar of which was a good place to be of an evening – a nod here to Jennings’ ales – especially the nights folksingers Phil and Sharon visited. Mantra became ‘at least we’re not camping’ but we still managed to avoid the Pencil Museum. Glad we didn’t miss the actual Keswick Museum, though, and its cabinets of curiosities, not to mention the 660+ years old mummified cat and, more to the point, the amazing story of the Musical Stones of Skiddaw – an enormous xylophone made from local rock – which you are encouraged to play on (a brief ‘From me to you’ as it happens). Back in Victorian times four brothers did concerts in London on it that were major events. A fine little old style museum and long may they succeed in keeping it so.
Another day sheltering from the rain and there was a general invitation to play the grand piano at Brantwood, John Ruskin’s pad with the spectacular view over Coniston Water, but I resisted the temptation to do a ‘Louie Louie’ and regretted yet again that I hadn’t kept up the enforced piano lessons of my youth (what a rebel). It was too wet to do the gardens – next time. I knew practically nothing about John Ruskin – another mouldy old Victorian – but I felt ashamed and humbled by my ignorance. The ultimate polymath whose ideas and activities played a major part in the creation of so much of what we now take for granted – the arts, the environment, the welfare state, free universal education … I could go on. His major quote – “There is no wealth but life” – has never been so needed. One to follow up. This man should be up there in the pantheon with Dickens, Wordsworth, Brunel and the rest.
While in the Lakes I started reading ‘The rest is noise: listening to the twentieth century’ by Alex Ross (Fourth estate, 2008) – a history of modern musical composition, the music makers and their contexts starting with Zarathustra Strauss and Mahler, thrilling even if I’ll probably never hear a lot of the music he’s writing about; the stuff on the importance of the African-American contribution – jazz – is fascinating, as are the detailing of the more general modernist and ideological communist positions and the ever present perceptions of the problematic relationship of serious art to popularity. And lest I forget, a dash in the rain to see The Stones, man, the Castlerigg stone circle; no visit to the Lakes is complete without and somehow on Friday morning they were an even more powerful presence as it just kept on coming down, unfortunately too much to risk the camera. Singalong holiday music in the car the joyful Mavericks, the Beautiful South and The Divine Comedy, the latter with the delicious rhymes of ‘Gin soaked boy’ ?
August 28 Read Andrew Martin’s ‘Death on a branch line’ (Faber, 2008), the latest in the Jim Stringer, Steam Detective sequence. Well up to scratch, atmospherics, plot and action. And interesting how his wife (“the wife” of old, now with a name a lot of the time) is coming into her own. Lapped up C.J.Sansom‘s fourth and latest in his Tudor crime sequence ‘Revelation’ (Macmillan, 2008). Magnificent – intelligent mesmerising page turner, historical detail, engaging characters and contemporary relevance beautifully wed, particularly around the notion of faith and its consequences. And yes, why did they ever put that vile Book of Revelations at the end of the New Testament? The trouble it’s caused.
Surprise for me on television has been how well ‘Friends’ has held up, how easy it is (ah, digital television) to watch episodes back to back and still be amazed at how much – like the best of The Simpsons – they manage to get into 22 minutes. Musically classic Housemartins and Beautiful South tunes keep insinuating themselves at spare moments and Paul Heaton’s magic line: “I love you from the bottom / of my pencil case”, which I just googled to make sure and met sponsored ads for companies selling pencil cases (the idea of which I quite liked actually). (August 28)
August 17 Finished Adam Sisman’s ‘The friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge’ and it strikes me everything, or rather the social dynamic of everything, that has happened in arts and music since is all in there from the start. I guess even if they told us back in the ’60s (and they probably did) we wouldn’t have listened. Those Romantics so rock and roll. By which I mean the aftermath too, the growing old and establishment, the damage done.
“In his notebooks” (this is Coleridge) “there is a recurrent stress on the imperative need of the creative imagination for freedom – from prosperity, from respectability, from domesticity.” (p414)
What comes as a surprise to me is how much fun they had when the going was good, how much they walked and talked and wrote, and how prim they were with it in the end – Coleridge crucifying himself on the sanctity of a bad marriage. Probably not an original thought but you can see the pair as the Lennon and McCartney of their age, the compositional method behind ‘The Lyrical Ballads’ for starters, swapping verses and lines, the euphoria, the squabbling, the fallout; Southey as Harrison, dotty Dorothy as Ringo? Good book. Now I really must read some of the poetry.
Kid’s book it may be, but Neil Gaiman‘s story and Dave McKean‘s illustrations for ‘The day I swapped my dad for two goldfish’ (Bloomsbury, 2004), the twists in the tale as he tries to get his dad back for his mum, having to negotiate a trail of swapping on and the visual continuity, are a real delight. What else? – the absorbing sight of hedgehogs mating in next door’s front garden, wheeling noisily around one another for ages, three nights last week.
August 11 The new Andrei Makine didn’t disappoint. ‘Human love’ (Sceptre, 2008) goes global, with a black African recruited by Moscow as its central character but the essentials are all there – the Russian cold, the inevitablility of what follows from a revolutionary stance, the flaws, disillusion and the redemption of a simplicity of moments, of people just being people, never forgetting or excusing the world’s imperfections and the initial impulse to change. It’s a stunning piece of writing that rejects black and white, idealism and cynicism, a brilliant grey that turns to silver. For all the contempt, Makine sings beautifully. And like his best books, I just wanted to turn back to page 1 and see what I missed the first time around – only 249 pages but it contains so much as it toos and fros through four decades of international politics, war and diplomacy. And in passing, Che Guevara has never got a worse press. These are themes echoed in ‘The friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge’ by Adam Sisman (HarperCollins, 2006), which I’ve just started. I’d never really picked up on English radical politics and its suppression at the time of the French Revolution – an area shockingly ignored, basically, in the popular history of Britain – and the poets’ retreat from the inevitable consequences of the events on the continent that had originally fired them with idealism is a tale that would have done me no harm to know bnetter back in the late ’60s. Fascinating, illuminating, and they’ve only just met. Where are the costume dramas with these guys and their women?
An enjoyable day spent on the Great Central Railway, riding in a first class carriage, the motive power a resplendent ‘Lord Nelson’ in malachite green, 82 year on. None of yer dramatic corny displays of steam for the sake of steam here, just efficient running. And an impressive set of diesels in the yard, not least a handsome Peak; notions of modernity so soon passed.
I have never been less interested in the Olympics. Men’s synchronised diving? Federer in the tennis? Oh, come on.
August 4 Looking for a slim volume that would fit in my jacket pocket for a train journey my hand did fall upon the urbane Tom Wolfe’s ‘The painted word’ (1975), his expose of the Art crowd. It’s a good story – modern art, from being a protest against literary painting ends up as primarily a text – and he has a point. Learned a bit about modern art, wished Wolfe could rein in the lists, loved his very funny description of what he calls the Boho Dance – how to make it with the rich crowd but not seem to sell out. Enjoyed Stuart Maconie’s ‘Pies and prejudice: in search of the north’ (Ebury Press, 2007) though like all travel books where the writer visits somewhere you know it makes you wonder. Just as Bill Bryson misunderstood Milton Keynes, methinks Maconie gives Sheffield a bum deal by giving so much space to the failed popular music museum rather than, say, the Crucible. The rest seems quite reasonable to me, the accusations of the southcentricity and stereotyping of the news media, drama et al, the spurious highjacking of the notion of Englishness by the Home Counties. And I like his notion that “Just like Doctor who said, lots of planets have a north … northernness is a cast of mind, not a set of coordinates”. I for one, born Wimbledon, feel the better for that. (August 4)
July 27 Two weekends, two outdoor events, two very different memories. Not that it was Jools Holland‘s fault the wind was so strong and cold, and getting near enough the stage to have Gilson’s beat shaking your bones it was a blast to hear his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra blazing away; Mark Almond did a fine ‘Say hello, wave goodbye’, but someone had to look after the picnic things and back there the sound was compromised, speakers literally blowing in the wind. Chilled in the older meaning of the word. Whereas the performance of ‘A midsummer night’s dream’ at the Temple of Venus in the gardens at Stowe had a perfect summer’s evening and was great fun. I can’t say Quantum Theatre’s stripped down production (there were only 6 of them playing many parts) was the best Shakespeare I’ve ever seen – I mean, in another lifetime I saw David Warner in the RSC’s ‘Hamlet’ – but it was certainly the most enjoyable. Accomplished, energetic, attractive and full of wit. You got the feeling that, for all the elements of modern dress and snippets of pop music emplyed – ‘The lady in red’ has never been used so perfectly (you had to be there) – they’d summoned up the spirit of the Bard and the travelling players of that time. It was good to be there.
Finished C.J.Sansom‘s outstanding ‘Sovereign‘ (2006) and it just gets better. The denouement is beautifully realised and he does great epilogue. World weariness and decency has rarely been better done. And that HenryVIII – what a bastard! Am really looking forward to getting my hands on the fourth book.
July 17 I was recommended C.J.Sansom‘s sequence of novels featuring Matthew Shardlake, a London lawyer in Tudor times, and he’s rather taken over as far as books go. I’m reading them in sequence – definitely recommended – so have got through ‘Dissolution‘ (2003) and ‘Dark fire‘ (2004) and am now well into ‘Sovereign‘ (2006). They get bigger and better. Now I’m not really one for historical novels, let alone historical crime, and I can’t say the Tudors have ever really interested me, but I’m hooked here. Bit of a cliche – he makes the history come alive. I’ve learned loads; suddenly all those monastic ruins make sense, what was gained and what was lost. The writing is deceptively simple; Sansom tells you a lot and with a tremendous narrative drive, and the characters engage – the hunchbacked Sheldrake, of course, and the streetwise Barak, are becoming one of the classic double acts of detective fiction. There are no purple patches, there is no striving for fine writing but he reaches out well beyong the genre and you are moved, intellectually, spiritually, emotionally. Without spelling it out, all the debates, the events that fuel the conflicts, both personal and social, have tremendous resonance with today. And his understanding of the way social change works, its internal logic, its complicated relationship with morality – idealism and opportunism – is a big part of that. The chorus of Ray Davies’s ‘Village Green Preservation Society’ seems apt:
“Preserving the old ways from being abused,
Protecting the new ways for me and for you”.
And a couple of my favourite lines from the poet Yeats fit with Sheldrake too:
“The best lack all conviction,
The worst are full of passionate intensity”.
I’ll throw in some Dylan too: “I used to care, but things have changed” – yes, but you still wrote that song, Bob. Sheldrake cares and is still one of the best. And I do hope he gets a gal. Thanks for the tip, Neil.
The standout piece of Richard Woods’ ‘Flora and fauna’ exhibition at mkG (Milton Keynes’s Art Gallery) is – and I’ve only just recognised the word play involved here – the stand on piece – the floor. He’s covered the floor throughout the ground floor, all three rooms and the entrance – with consistently patterned handprinted wood cut laminate-like strips in green, brown and yellow and it just looks amazing; this is more than just interior decoration. And what he’s done to the exterior of the building – covered it with a collection of large block prints of non-specifc but what are undoubtedly logos drawing inspiration from nature, from, well, flora and fauna – is interesting too. One of their better shows.
We went on a day out to the Nene Valley Railway and Peterborough. An absorbing collection of locos in varying condition on and around the shed at Wansford, even if the motive power on the journey was – sorry – a bit boring, a 1945 saddle tank. The international nature of the operation and the variety of motive power – a massive Polish loco which to use its technical description as a tank engine rather misses the point, for example, the presence of some diesels (D306 in shining BR green!), never mind a fine Standard Class 5 in gleaming black, make this an original operation. And in Peterborough the Railworld Centre, a distinctly odd museum with, let’s say, great potential if only the money available matched the enthusiasm. Hugely well intentioned environmentally, and with a few interesting objects (couple of locos unusual in a british context, needing a lot of work) but amateurish in presentation, sometimes charmingly so. I wish, in particular, the new pa kua (is that right?) garden, utilising as it does, all sorts of odds and sods and bits and bobs from the railway environment in a spiritally themed planting plan encompassing flower colours, well. At the moment though, that makes it sound better than it is. Peterborough Cathedral has had a bit longer to bed in. We should have spent more time there. Reading the Shardlake novels certainly helped me with the history of the place – I even found myself getting interested in Catherine of Aragon – but it was the spectacular fan-vaulted ceiling in the east end that really got me.
June 29 I’ve finished Philip Hensher‘s engaging ‘The northern clemency’ (Fourth Estate, 2008) in record time, given it’s a 700 pager. It’s a tremendous book, one you inhabit; I want to know what happened to their children too. Focussed on 1970s and ’80s Sheffield – a lot of the action in areas I’m familiar with – the novel is an epic constructed around a newly built suburban street on the western – close to the Moors – edge of the city, on two families really, one of which has moved from London. State of the nation for sure – miner’s strike and all – but an emotional epic too, also the fallout from what happens in families, how children turn out, how people change and are changed. Heartening and depressing – the human condition no less. In a way a very old fashioned – or should that be classic? – novel. If there’s any justice it should win prizes.
Glastonbury channel hopping including the red button, it’s Buddy Guy who’s the star for me. What a showman, what a show! (June 29)
June 22 If memory serves correct, in an essay in his ‘Advertisements for myself’, Norman Mailer chided Ernest Hemingway, the great realist, for chickening out when it came to using direct obscenities in his characters’ speech, whereas Mailer famously managed to push the boat out with “Fuggin‘ “; I think ‘For whom the bell tolls’ is a better book for it, those people retaining a nobility without the relentless fuggin’ swearing – as authenticity – the loss of which inevitably follows Mailer’s supposed veritee approach. It’s not as if Hemingway doesn’t intimate what’s being said, but rather frames it. I’m not sure I would have finished R J Ellory’s ‘A quiet belief in angels’ (Orion, 2007) if I hadn’t known I was going to meet him. The level of violence seemed gratuitous, and the relentlessness of Joseph Vaughan’s wretched life is over-determined, though his kind of victory is moving. He is striving to write American literature while living in the Birmingham but you certainly can’t deny the commitment to writing and reading. I can forgive a fair amount for a mention of Don Marquis‘s wonderful ‘archy and mehitabel’, Archy being a former a vers libre poet reincarnated in the body of a cockroach (and so unable to use the shift key on a typewriter), Mehitabel the office cat; I love those books. Indeed, rather than provide, like a lot of his contempories, a soundtrack as the action progresses, Ellory gives you a reading list in passing.
When you get down to it there is nothing quite like live music. And nowhere better than in a pub. Week before last was ‘Stony live’ and, as usual, we should have seen more. There was a nice little Lonnie Donegan tribute (it’s only lately I realise just how important he was), and a lunchtime session with the Concrete Cowboys – accomplished bluegrass from men with beards of a certain age – in the ‘Fox and Hounds‘ really hit the spot. The culmination of the week with Folk on the Green saw more men in beards getting acrowd moving with more rockin’ Americana – I give you Fat Freddy’s Cat and the Bullfrogs. Solo folkie acoustic guitarist Gran Bartley did well after a rousing covers band – Band Substance – had the crowd on their feet. And then we had Great Pig in the Sky – a decent Floyd covers band. You couldn’t deny their popularity and I’m pretty sure it’s more entertaining seeing a Floyd covers band than listening to the real thing’s records, but it’s so ploddingly boring. Has there ever been a tribute song so imappropriate to its subject than ‘Shine on you crazy diamond’? Where is the Syd Barrett who wrote ‘Bike’ in that? Do Floyd covers bands ever actually do any of Syd’s songs? Probably not. Enough.
A brief mention for the quality of the dialogue and David Duchovny‘s performance in the US tv show ‘Californication’. And Alan Ayckbourn‘s swinging ’60s relationships farce ‘Relatively speaking’ at the theatre was very funny, some beautiful timing – Peter Bowles superb.
Deep into the Philip Hensher‘s brick of a book ‘The northern clemency’ (Fourth Estate, 2008). Absorbing – doesn’t feel like a 700 pager. Some lovely set pieces.
June 3 And so I finally catch up with Ernest Hemingway’s ‘For whom the bell tolls’ (1940). Why am I surprised it’s such a huge book? Not the number of pages, but in its thematic scope – philosophy, politics, faith, commitment, compassion, how things happen, how people are, how to live. Key twentieth century text. Then there’s the quality of the action, the interactions, the description. Not sure the old charges of misogyny can really stick what with Pilar here and Lady Brett in ‘Fiesta’. Great writer, unfashionable too long.
25 May And so to Broxbourne’s Civic Hall on a Saturday night to witness John Dalton (‘Nobby’) hang up his rock and roll shoes and give his gold Elvis suit an airing and exercise all his inimitable proud flourishes. Top gig with a full complement of Kast Off Kinks including vocalists Debi & Shirlie given their own solos (‘Nothing lasts forever’ and ‘Mirror of love’ respectively – great songs out of their Preservation contexts) and cameos from Bob Henrit & Ian Gibbons. Less mucking about than the Boston Arms shindigs, cracking versions of ‘Waterloo sunset’, ‘Shangri-La’ (John’s favourite Kinks song) and ‘Celluloid heroes’; and a splendid work out on ‘Milk cow blues’ to give most a run for their money. Hell, I even liked ‘Juke box music’ from ‘Sleepwalker’, my least favourite Kinks album. Dalton for me was the definitive Kinks bassist – end of an era, no question.
May 22 When I hit Wells Next The Sea with time to kill I sat outside a pub near the harbour and read some more of Hemingway’s ‘To have and have not’ in sight of boats announcing they were for hire for fishing trips. Light years and oceans away from the Cuban and Florida coastlines but a certain kinship, of making a living, nevertheless, a quaint juxtaposition anyway. It’s a book I really liked, although I read somewhere Hem himself wasn’t that keen. The panorama of the rich households he takes you on as the shot up boat with the body of Harry Morgan on it is towed back in from the Straits is a devastating picture of a society gone awry. And I’ve followed it straight up with ‘A farewell to arms’ (1929) which didn’t disappoint 40 years on from my first reading it. Never mind the vivid action and sense of place, he does men talking and drinking so you’re there at the table, in the bars. And he knows being in love; I’m not sure the charge of misogyny sticks as much as it used to, either. A growing feeling of a society and meaning being lost but still a huge poignancy at the end. Anti-war because of what it does to people, radical but hardly pacifist – what a writer. And so on to ‘For whome the bell tolls’, this one for the first time. Then I’ll have to find something else.
Time on the North Norfolk coast: the seals on Blakeney Point, the sight of terns diving. A cinnamon ice cream on the way down to the beach at Sheringham, a pistacchio and amoretto ice cream on the way back (from Ronaldo’s of Norwich). Sheringham an interesting little seaside town, Smuggler’s Cave a terrific emporium of imported goods from Asia browsed with pleasure.
We got to Sheringham on the North Norfolk Railway, motive power a shining black WD (War Department) 2-10-0, precursor of the 9F Standard freight engines that were British steam’s final flourish. Way back when, in trainspotting days, the WDs (aka ‘Austerities’), with their much more numerous 2-8-0 smaller brothers, ugly and usually filthy to boot, were the least of my interest but now I just want to know more, particularly about the war service overseas, of these truly international loco classes. Another railway connection – the old station at Wells is now a rambling Bookshop and Pottery (one of those bookshops, stuffed to the gills, full of memories). I was disappointed I couldn’t find anything I really wanted to buy. What didn’t disappoint was a reacquaintance with a few pints of Woodforde’s Wherry, full of taste and a mere 3.8%. And a heated up cheese and onion pastie at the end of a walk the length of Holkham Nature Reserve and back along the dunes and beach – was it ever going to end? – was indeed the food of the gods. (May 22)
May 12 I read ‘Mister Pip’ by Lloyd Jones (John Murray, 2006). Wish I could remember – senior moment – who it was recommended it to me. On the cover it says, ‘A book can change your life for ever’ and I’m thinking, Oh no, I don’t know how bad ‘The Celestine prophecies’ were but I do know Paulo Coelho’s ‘The alchemist’ was dreadful. But it’s actually Dickens’s ‘Great expectations’ it’s referring to, with that book having a leading role in an Oceanic setting. It’s a complex tale and there’s magic in the telling, a parallel rites of passage narrative with a shocking civil war climax and a fascinating denouement. And yes, it did make me want to go back to ‘Great expectations’, which, as it happens was one of the formative books of my youth, leading me to the socialist position I wish I wasn’t so disillusioned about now (not that I’ll ever vote Tory). But Charles Dickens will have to wait – too much richness for someone still deep into a Hemingway binge. (May 12)
May6 I always wondered how long it would be before Charlie Resnick achieved full resurrection (I know, he never died, but you know what I mean). The other coppers John Harvey has featured never really came off the page with the same affection and Charlie kept making guest appearances. So here here he is again, in ‘Cold in hand’ (Heinemann, 2008), a book that fair zips along for all its grief (there’s a significant death); the musical references this time are obscurish (to the general reader) ’50s jazz mostly, plus a Romanian avant-garde pianist out of Monk, with some early dub reggae thrown in. At one stage Harvey also seems to have developed an unhealthy namedropping interest in trainers. You do wonder how much the genre can take of East European crime gangs, immigrant labour and inner city youth violence as its thematic content as far as the crime that drives it goes without collapsing into boredom; the specific social significance factor creaks a bit. Still, as I said, I zipped through it just like that.
Reading Ernest Hemingway rather spoils it for you when you read other writers, who can seem like lazy bastards, wasting words, not cutting to the bone but also detracting from the bigger picture and essence at the same time. It strikes me that the opening section of ‘To have and have not’ (1937) is as near perfection as it’s possible to get in the downbeat existential thriller mode – not that you can categorise writing of such sheer quality. He takes you there. (May 6)
April 27 ‘Havana Rakatan’ at the theatre was colourful. It was good to see and hear the Cuban dance troupe and musicians but it to tell the truth it was frenetic and a bit wearing; even ‘Guantanamera’ was high energy. As threatened am now deep into an Ernest Hemingway binge. ‘A moveable feast’ (1964) can feel a bit odd, a time warp kicking in now and then, not the least the Gertrude Stein chapter and the stuff on homosexuality therein. But he takes you there, and Paris way back then seems a pretty good place to be. Wish I’d kept a notepad for some wonderful phrases. Spare but vivid prose. “It was the year that the rich showed up” – he writes as the fun goes out of a ski scene. And talk about taking you there – ‘Fiesta: the sun also rises’ (1927) is a tremendous piece of writing, the absolute moment, the sadness, the land and cities so vivid; no jokes but a huge feeling of wellbeing for enough of the time too. He’s so good that stuff you aren’t that keen on the idea of – bullfighting, game hunting – has you completely. There’s a two part Nick Adams solo fishing trip in ‘The first forty-nine stories’ (1939, but written 1921-38) that is mesmeric. Moments in a man’s life in the context of a world full of terrible things, moments of salvation in the personal. Unfashionable but a huge presence.
Watched the dvd of ‘Atonement’. A fine film, the war scenes devastating – Hemingway would approve I’m sure – but is ‘atonement’ quite the right word for what that bitch Briony ‘achieves’ after a successful writing career 50 years on? I don’t think so, and how can she? – now there’s 20 novels I wouldn’t ever want to read. There have always been monsters at the core of many of Ian McEwan‘s books; maybe that’s what I hold against him. [Dreadful football dilemma of who do I least want to win the Premier League. Ferguson such a pain (of course Carrick handled) as against a team bought with money stolen from the Russian people, but then there’s sympathy for Avram.] (April 27)
April 11 Catching up with the sequence chronologically, re-read Mark Billingham’s ‘Lifeless’ (2005), the one where Thorne goes undercover among the London homeless. The backstory certainly enhances the reading and you learn a bit about the milieu.
Didn’t really like Ian McEwan’s ‘On Chesil beach’ (Cape, 2007), which struck me as being a bit prurient, like a lot of his early stuff. For sure Edward and Florence’s sexual disaster may well reflect the misery that afflicted couples before the knowing ’60s (not a problem, really, in ‘Atonement’, set some 20 years earlier, by the way), but to posit the problem of premature ejaculation as some sort of turning point is pushing it to my mind; the Chuck Berry, and too early Beatles & Stones references are wrong – shoulda been Big Bill Broonzy? I have this problem with Ian McEwan and his giant reputation, and it’s not just that he uses posh people and rich backgrounds – I really like Poliakoff‘s work, after all – and drops high culture references all over the place. So I forced myself to read ‘Atonement’ (2001), which loads of people, including my partner, absolutely love. It’s clever stuff (the playing with notions of fiction and mucking us, the readers, about, are well done) but there are too many words and – what does this say about me? – too many unnecessarily long paragraphs. I’m a sucker for decent dialogue as narrative drive and I just don’t need all that description, ‘fine’ writing though it may be. I’m in danger of diving for the Hemingway to compensate. Having said that, I was gripped a lot of the time, not least by the Dunkirk section. The final ‘surprise’ was well worked and the young Briony is one of the prize bitches. What I can’t lose, however, is the feeling that, given how hard it is to get a rape conviction even these days, Robbie wouldn’t have beaten the bum rap that is central to the book (not that we are party to the court scene), never mind that she, the victim … but I won’t give it away.
Was good to be in the audience for ‘Zorro: the musical’; lot of colour and movement, a set that really worked and some great music – Gipsy Kings tunes – compensating for its somewhat uneven tone; death scenes, cod fights, Bond jokiness, gentle humour, heroism from a little guy with big heart – soap really, I guess, but genuinely entertaining. I’m listening to the Gipsy Kings right now.
On TV, the second series of ‘Gavin and Stacey’ hits a lot of spots – ‘What’s occurin’?’ Barry lass Ness a deadpan delight. And that episode of ‘The class’ where Richie drives his car into the convenience store front is a real classic – so much going on. (April 11).
March 30 And so to the splendid new (well, it was to me) Wembley Stadium to see the mighty Dons beat Grimsby and so win the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. Good day, lucky with the trains; shame Wembley has to be in, um, Wembley. They reckon about an eighth of the population of MK was there. I’ve always seen Jeff Beck’s ‘Hi-ho silver lining’ as some sort of musical nadir, but I guess there’s a time and place for everything. And while we’re on music – what a joy Nick Cave‘s video to ‘Dig, Lazarus, dig’ is. And I’m working my way through a boxed set (not that big a box, it must be said) of Lonnie Johnson, who not only played the blues, but also with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington along the way. Great guitar and an education in music history, further evidence that we rock kids of old were blinded by a certain notion of authenticity. Speaking of which, is there a better book written by a participant than George Melly’s ‘Owning up’ (1965), telling the tale of his days in a jazz band from the period of the post-war birth of the revivalist movement in the UK through to the Trad boom (and bust) and beyond? Fascinating, informative and very funny. I’ve got 4 CDs of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens to look forward to, too. Behind me, a performance of the RSC production of Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’ at the theatre. Neil Pearson’s performance was worth seeing but I came out saying, “What was the point of that?” To which Andy wisely replied, “Precisely”. Because that seemed to be the conclusion that the soppy girl and her uncle came to about life; oh yes, but there’s a spectacular starry sky to look forward to at the end apparently. You can see why the Russian Revolution was such a pushover for the Bolsheviks.
And, what a hectic life I lead … had a good time Thursday in the Fox & Hounds in Stony with modern and fusion jazzers the Cathi Cooke Band. All this and Jackie Leven tomorrow night. After these 6 days it’ll take a while to recover.
March 24 Keeping it chronological, Mark Billingham really hits his stride in the fourth Tom Thorne book, ‘The burning girl’ (2004). The plotting gets niftier, the characterisation hits decent sitcom level when it doesn’t have to be too heavy. The title image of the burning girl haunts; chilling stuff again, socially and personally. As a copper, Thorne is a bit of a grumpy old man, but this is his basic credo:
“He stood for a minute, and then another, letting people move past him as the day began to wind down. It wasn’t that he had any grand moral notions about serving these people. He didn’t imagine for one second that he, or the thousands like him, could really protect them. But he had to side with those who drew a line … “
In passing, he’s a Spurs supporter. Should never a surprise that football can be so dispiriting; I’ll just say: Cristiano bloody Ronaldo, Didier bleedin’ Drogba. (March 24)
March 16 The third of Mark Billingham‘s Tom Thorne sequence of crime novels, ‘Lazy bones’ (2003) keeps up the good work, this one with a sharp eye to the consequences of violent crime on generations of families, and the disappointments and blindnesses that can happen, without resort to sentimentality. It’s powerful and chilling stuff, but the sometime comedy of Thorne’s day to day existence is still there. John O’Farrell’s ‘An utterly impartial history of Britain, or 2000 years of upper class idiots in charge’ (Doubleday, 2007) made me laugh a lot but I learned a fair bit too from its 400+ pages – like the weather rather than Francis Drake & the English navy defeating the Spanish Armada and what a big deal David Lloyd George was. The main trick is to present history with an easy contemporary perception (the Vikings = lager louts etc) and the luxury of hindsight, but also with a canny eye seeing parallels of today’s news with historical events. ‘The Bronze Age: when the clever kids did metalwork’ is a fair reperesenation of the sub-chapter heads and gives a flavour. There’s also the quiet and moving celebration of the emergence (relatively peacefully) of democracy in these islands, of the common people (now there’s a phrase) making their way. Finishes with, “Why don’t I put the kettle on”.
Spent a diverting 20 minutes at mkG for the Marcel Broodthaers retrospective, left with a wry smile; had no idea he died 30 years ago until I read the handout afterwards – not so modern, then, this wide variety of ‘art practice’. Liked all the work that had gone into the message in a bottle – the wine bottle, the elegant graphics, the literary touch.
March 3 Some catching up to do.
And so, a long time ago now, to the theatre, there to enjoy Matthew Bourne‘s production of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker’. Great set, great music, moving, charming – my favourites the licorice allsorts. He did a Q&A afterwards; along with all the stupid stuff, like, “Where do you get your inspiration?”, some intersting autobiog from him and on how the company works. When asked what his next ballet was going to be he averred – no, I don’t do ballet, we put on a SHOW. I don’t do dance or ballet but I do do Matthew Bourne.
‘South Pacific’ a week later was mostly hopeless. Am-dram, fiddly sets, mannered, unnecessarily cod American accents, horrible synthesizer backing track, no sexual chemistry. And very long.
What Kevin Keegan calls ‘the people’s theatre’ – you do begin to feel sorry for Kevin – the mighty Dons (Milton Keynes Dons – a football team) get into the final of the Johnson’s Paint Trophy at Wembley via a penalty shoot out. Nice Swansea chant of “We’re the sheepshaggers from hell”. You still can’t get away from the fact that an awful lot of stupid people, especially kids trying to impress their mates, go to football.
Reading matter of late:
Robert Spencer: ‘The truth about Muhammad: founder of the world’s most intolerant religion’ (Regnery, 2006); it’s not pretty. A warrior prophet into conquest without the wait; with Christianity it was the kings who converted a few centuries later who started slaughtering people. People of the book? – Spencer can’t find anything to substantiate the claim that Muhammad was the fulfillment of anything foretold in the Xtian scriptures. The prophet seemed to get some awfully convenient messages from the angel Gabe at certain junctures. Depressing stuff.
Knocked out, as ever, by the fifth and final book of Alan Moore‘s phenomenal comic ‘Promethea’ (2005) – we, our thoughts, what we make and do, are all still part of the big bang. Worth many, many more conventional works of exegesis – wit, learning, wisdom.
Read ‘Reading in bed’ by Sue Gee (Headline, 2007) in bed, naturally. The plight of a couple of, on the surface, contented, well off, well educated 60 year old middle class women pondering retirement and the passing of time, and of their nearest and dearest, centred on the worlds of academe and do-goodery in north London. Light and dark, with some nice authorial touches – compassion and contempt. I cared what happened to them all.
Much laughter at ‘Rafta Rafta’ at the theatre. Went on as long as ‘South Pacific but I could have taken much more. Poignant too, this tale of two generations of Indian immigrants in the north of England. Beautifully acted and a tremendous set, a house with kitchen, living room & two upstairs bedrooms all there all the time, cast going up stairs etc. Some lovely comic timing.
Somewhat entranced by MasterChef on the telly. Superior reality tv (can you say that, given what they were cooking?) with finalists Johnny, James & Emily all such – well – nice and good people, all of whom I wish well.
February 11 I’m still not convinced as to quite why they twinned the two murderers at the start of the investigation in Mark Billingham’s ‘Scaredy cat’ (2002) but that hardly matters as he develops his detective, Tom Thorne, and the action and agonies mount. “Were they mutually exclusive – the good copper and the good person?” pretty much sums it up, as he gives it a haunted go. The first book in the sequence – ‘Sleepyhead’ (2001) – works well too, emotional twists and all. Couple of really disturbed villains in these two novels. Hard, too, to resist a line like, “Johnny Cash made good music to read post mortem reports by.”
Omid Djalili live was much better than I’d feared – we’d bought the tickets before his tv series was aired. Less of the shouting and none of the naff sketches. With room to breathe there was some very funny stuff and some great body language. And a rich vein around the mantra of, “Racism … or playing with race?”, which as an Anglo-Iranian, he can do.
Intriguing exhibition at the British Library – ‘Breaking the rules: the printed face of the European avant garde 1900-1937’. Now graphic design classics, of course, but what a leap it must have been back then. A lot of it still fresh. Was particularly taken by,
“In 1930 Marinetti published a manifesto of Futurist cuisine in which he attacked bourgeois cooking and proposed the abolition of pasta.”
And back a couple of weeks, a Saturday in the winter sun in Brighton, buzzing with life. Couple of 12 year old buskers doing great business with spirited versions of stuff like ‘Knocking on heaven’s door’ and another troupe, a Spanish (?) style brass band, hugely entertaining, near the Pavillion. Along the shore, loads of washed up timber from a distressed cargo boat, being shaped into words of love (and, though less, it has to be said, obscenity); a couple of teepees constructed, Incan (or was it Aztec) sun patterns, sculptors amateur and pretty obviously not so amateur at work. Not to mention a terrific meal at ‘Terre a terre’. Spoiled for taste now, after that.
January 21 Back to a quick blast of Brit crime fiction complete with soundtrack in the text. The latest Tom Thorne from Mark Billingham, ‘Death message’ (Little, Brown, 2007) does very nicely thank you. Younger than Rebus and Banks, but maverick enough, best mate a gay pathologist with piercings – interesting enough to make me want to start the sequence from the first book, anyway. Some nice one liners about living in London. Musically, of late, a Sonny Boy Williamson compilation is hard to remove from the CD player.
January 13 Totally absorbing 90 minutes of film by Thomas Riedelsheimer – ‘Rivers and tides: Andy Goldsworthy working with time’ (2001). The artist biting off bits of an icicle to make it fit. Feel the disappointment of the literal collapse of a project. That battered and damaged state of the man’s fingers from being hands-on with his material, outdoors, creating temporary wonders, making you see the landscape and its processes, humanity’s interactions, afresh.
January 17 Major contribution to the literature of The Kinks from Thomas M. Kitts with ‘Ray Davies: not like everybody else’ (Routledge, 2007), the most detailed examination of the man and his work yet.; I learnt from it.
Philip Roth‘s novel featuring the writer Nathan Zuckerman, ‘Exit ghost’ (Cape, 2007), continues in his usual cheerful vein about the joys of growing old (not) and muses over many things, not the least being the idea of literature, of literary reputation and, indeed, creation itself. There’s a fine rage here and some great dialogue, some of it imaginary in the context of this fiction, fuelled by desire. Hell of a writer, the plotting, carrying on from his ‘Ghost writer’ intrigues as well, and does not disappoint. He makes one of his characters write a letter to a newspaper complaining of the celebrity status that fuels the book world these days:
“If I had something like Stalin’s power, I would not squander it on silencing the imaginative writers. I would silence those who write about the imaginative writers. I’d forbid all public discussion of literature in newspapers, magazines and scholarly periodicals. I’d forbid all instruction in literature in every grade school, high school, college and university in the country. I’d outlaw reading groups and Internet book chatter, and police the bookstores to be certain that no clerk ever spoke to a customer about a book and that the customers did not dare to speak to one another. I’d leave the readers alone with the books, to make of them what they would on their own.” p184
Mad, of course, and impossible – an inevitable contradiction in there – but you can see what she/he means.
January 10 Finally finished a great fat bio of Rudyard Kipling going under the title of, um, ‘Rudyard Kipling’, by Andrew Lycett (Weidenfeld & N, 1999). It went on a bit, to tell the truth. I read this because Billy Bragg mentioned Kipling’s ‘Kim’ in the same breath as one of my favourite books – Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’ – and was knocked out by it, full of life and beautifully written. He was a Daily Express reader at heart but at his writing best a daemon (the word he used) of greater wisdom took over. Jingoism & empire but virulently anti-Fascist (if pro-Mussolini) – see what I mean? The man is something else, full of contradictions. In India, he favoured the Muslims, but was a pretty unreligious man prone to giving praise to Allah. Great champion of the airplane but wouldn’t have a phone in the house. 35 years in each century, family connections with the Pre-Raphaelites and Tory prime Ministers. He was a friend of George V but refused a knighthood. Never mind ‘The jungle book’ and his personal Great War tragedy – jingoist recruiter whose underage son was killed on the first day he was ‘legal’ to fight. Some choice quotes to make you ponder:
” … Rudyard replied, saying he liked the descriptions of sights and smells [in a book about Marrakesh] but could not understand his friend’s liking for the ‘barbaric music … for I always thought that Europeans were not affected by the scales of coloured people – always excepting those imbeciles who find satisfaction in the horrors of ‘jazz’ music which is pure nigger.’ ” (Well I’m the king of the swingers!) p500
“This may well have been the occasion when Rudyard was examined rectally. He later joked, or so Oliver Baldwin liked to recount, ‘If this is what Oscar wilde went to prison for, he ought to have got the Victoria Cross.” p511
” … his concern at what he saw as the breakdown of established values in the countryside. He attributed a spate of country house fires directly to the practice of allowing junior maids to smoke, for example. He felt that morality was being eroded by servants staying out late at dances.” (Needless to say, he was a smoker.) p551
“Although … paid $25,000 each for [movie] options on … [‘Captains Courageous’ and ‘Kim’], Rudyard had come to view this aspect of his business with wry scepticism. When the studio asked if he could add some sex appeal to the script of ‘Captains Courageous’, he provided the information that ‘a happily married lady cod fish lays about 3 million eggs at one confinement’.” p577
January 3, 2008 Saturday night we’re in the pub playing book-the-cabaret-for-the-Titanic. Switch to New Year’s Eve in front of the telly (yeah, I know) and some of the first names mentioned in the pub are there from the off in Jools Holland’s ‘Hootenanny’. Lulu, Kylie, the stupid big-grinning face of Lenny Henry. Well I’ve been wavering of late, Jools, but now you’ve really blown it for me. Surely someone can come up with a reasonable alternative also minus the drunk celebrities dubiously bopping in their seats? Like just having Seasick Steve (thanks for that at least) interrupted by the bagpipes at the right moment. And some people (hi Sal!) still won’t believe it’s pre-recorded.
Russel Lee: Couples at a Square Dance, Oklahoma 1939/40