Look hard enough & you’ll find this venerable old gent in Linford Wood (or maybe not … enjoying the bluebells this spring I discover he’s been replaced by a younger man)
The 2005 archive
Chronologically you should start at the bottom of the page. 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
December 31, 2005 Finished Giles Coren’s ‘Winkler’. Turns out strange but intriguing, Dickensian with a twist and a vicious half – the moving denouements of parenthood and origin updated to mid-twentieth century Europe. I’m not sure we ever learn Winkler’s proper name but I can certainly share his frustrations with contemporary England (comically portrayed but not necessarily comical) though his moment of ‘liberation’ – the random murder of a fat stranger who it turns out was probably suicidal anyway – is a bit tough to live with. I suspect not a few would dismiss this novel as plain nasty, but there is a kind of redemption in there too. Intriguing on notions of jewishness and Englishness. Very funny on the Trustafarians, and a thumbs up for giving a couple of cricket matches a place in the plot.
Christmas in Wales, a bridal path away from the Amroth on the coast just after where Carmarthen becomes Pembrokeshire. The sun shone by day and then spectacular night skies; there should be a light tax on towns and cities – we’ve been robbed. A nod to the Everly Brothers in the bar at the Traveller’s Rest who provided music and cajoled me into a public performance for the first time in decades, a rendition with a 12-string of Buddy Holly’s perfectly constructed ‘Well alright’ which wasn’t too embarrassing by all accounts; of course the drink had nothing to do with it. Stumbled on a repeat of one of this year’s Doctor Who two parters – the 1941 one (‘The empty child‘ and ‘The Doctor dances‘) – which again moved me to tears. And had me ecstatic. So much going on, and a nod to the NHS at the end. “Everybody lives, Rose! Just this once – everybody lives!” Absolutely fantastic stuff. Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper have been magnificent in the central roles and will be a hard act to follow. The Doctor dances! Oh, and did I say I have to admit to having been a little caught up with ‘Strictly come dancing‘? Go, Darren, go! Happy New Year.
December 24 Solstice Greetings and a Merry Crimble one and all. Saw a pretty dismal MK Dons performance in the LDV Vans Trophy Southern Section Quarter Final on Tuesday. First proper football match I’ve been to for well over a decade (if you don’t count seeing Peter keeping goal for MK Lions Under 12s or some similar age); had forgotten the buzz of approaching the ground, the programme sellers, the smell of dead animal flesh burning from the burger vans – shall go again, nevertheless. Thanks, Sal. And I played the Prince of Peace in a Mummers Play, which was nice. Thanks, Andy. Have taken great joy from Gracie Fields’ ‘Every little girl would like to be a fairy on a Christmas Tree’ this festival season. Reading Giles Coren’s ‘Winkler’ (Cape, 2005), a sometimes entertaining mixed bag of a London novel, with not a few wasted words. The return of the anti-hero. Am still intrigued as to how it turns out though. And still listening to The Decemberists with great pleasure, even though ‘Like a lion’ (deeply obscure track) is the most desolate piece of music “ever heard in my life”, as Eric Burden used to say; compelling stuff.
December 16 I didn’t mention the tree walk in Salcey Forest earlier, did I? We didn’t know it was there so a very pleasant bonus to what was just going to be an amble, weekend before last. Certainly worth a mention. You rise slowly through the trees and there’s a final staircase to a viewing platform, Northampton and Northamptonshire laid out before you. Hats off to the Forestry Commission. Have still never seen a woodpecker there, though. Promises.
December 12 A pleasant evening with the Albion Christmas Band. Kellie While has a lovely voice, but still a strong voice – I am so sick of vocalists who can’t sing (always honourable expception Bob Dylan). All this band can. Liked Ashley Hutchings’s colourful musical motif shirt too. Have started about six books at the moment, waiting for one to catch a bit of momentum. (12 December)
December 5 Went to see ‘Lady Salsa‘ at the theatre not knowing what to expect and had a good time. Good band, great dancing (they almost got me out of my seat) and lovely visuals. Edification and celebration and pride too – a history of Cuba by Cubans illustrated through its musics. Viva Fidel! Which reminds me that I haven’t mentioned Alan Bennett’s ‘The history boys’, seen a couple of weeks ago. Very funny but also a wonderful and serious rumination on the nature of history; the man is a national treasure. Speaking of which, another such – Raymond Douglas Davies – has a new album out in February, briefly put into the public domain via a cockup (?) on the record company’s Swedish website. On first hearing ‘Other people’s lives‘ sounds very good indeed, a substantial collection of work added to his canon.
For some reason most of the decent television seems to be concentrated on Friday nights these days – ‘Bleak House‘ (did you not cheer when Tulkinghorn was shot?), the never tiring ‘Have I got news for you‘ (a blessing really, that Angus Deayton went), something really funny from Ben Elton (as writer and director) in ‘Blessed‘ which is full of wonderful performances, not least from the band, and the splendid QI; there’s even bits of Jonathan Ross and Jools Holland worth staying up for, so long as it’s not Coldplay (it’s a complete mystery to me, by the way, why this eminently forgettable and tedious band are so big). All in all, well worth the license fee (it’s a UK thing). And while we’re watching telly, I have to give a nod to Jeremy Clarkson and ‘Top gear‘; I’m no car person – I drive a Citroen Saxo for god’s sake – but that programme is a nice, compulsive even, piece of ensemble playing.
I’ve been reading Martin Amis‘s intriguing ‘Koba the Dread: laughter and the twenty million‘ (Cape, 2002) which I would have read earlier if I’d realised it was in small part an extension of his autobiographical ‘Experience: a memoir’ (2000). Certainly puts Andrei Makine’s fine novels more in context for me – I mean, you knew it was bad, but … it beggars belief, what happened in Stalin’s Russia and how it was (or was not) perceived. Amis has a way – he plays off ‘Big Moustache’ against ‘Little Moustache’ – of presenting things which brings a freshness to the material that makes it all the more shocking. (5 December)
December 1 Read ‘The likes of us: a biography of the white working class‘ by Michael Collins (Granta, 2004). More two centuries of Southwark and a family history but illuminating for all that, not least on the old ‘north/south of the river’ divide – poverty being a factor there. So … ‘white trash’, the only ‘tribe’ the intellectuals and media classes can scorn in these multicultural days; whereas, Collins maintains, that is only one of the the distinctions within (respectable, criminal etc), the situation not having really changed since Mayhew reported in the nineteenth century (and the later ‘hooligan’ social panic) though he acknowledges drugs have made a difference. He doesn’t use the word ‘lumpen proletariat’ once, but he’s devastating on the damage the middle class planners did post-war, and puts the early racism of the post-war communities into context and instructively asks, who has been at the frontline of daily living-out of multiculturalism if it isn’t the white working class? As opposed to the middle class columnists and leader writers and their double standards. Good piece of balancing polemic, a useful contribution to the debate on Englishness and an engaging piece of family history. And in the week George Best died, the theme of the import of funerals, of communal mourning, that Collins uses as one of the lynchpins of his notion of continuity is confirmed.
We’ve got a radio-controlled clock now so know the time in – so to speak – real time; it makes a subtle difference. And we loved, laughed out loud, at the last of the Shakespeare ReTold series on the telly, Johnny Vegas and a tremendous sprinkling of all the usual suspects in ‘A midsummer night’s dream‘ – brilliant.
November 22 Quite a week. Sandwiched between two Glyndebourne on Tour performances, visits to the British Museum and Tate Modern. Highlights at the BM the renovated building itself – I hadn’t been since the ’70s – the spectacular glass domed ceiling, enlivened by a couple of maintenance guys actually walking across it with hoses and other cleaning stuff. Spent almost 4 hours there and hardly scratched the surface. ‘Cradle to grave‘, an art work from a group calling themselves Pharmacopia, mapping two lives with – literally – the prescription drugs that saw a man and woman through to the end, laid out in a long cabinet, accompanied by photos from the lives at various stages of the group’s families was engrossing. The haunting memory of William Empson’s poem of homage – ‘There is a supreme god in the ethnological section’ and his wonderful annual readings – with his weird white facial hair – in one of the basement lecture theatres in the Arts Tower at Sheffield; how great to be able to say I was there and saw that. And then at Tate Modern, Rachel Whiteread‘s polystyrene boxes in the Turbine Hall (‘Embankment‘) were transformed for me by the knowledge of where the idea came from – a cardboard box full of old toys in her parents’ attic. Wandering through this space filled with empty copies of boxes full of memories became a moving experience. Mozart’s ‘The marriage of Figaro’ was great fun; loved it, not least because there is none of the warbling and screeching that can bedevil the opera experience. Bring on Wagner in the new year! And never mind the shit reviews, Glyndebourne’s stab at the 19-30 demographic, John Lunn’s (music) & Stephen Plaice’s (libretto) intriguing ‘Tangier tattoo’, had me gripped. Given the reviews we were half expecting to leave at half-time but this ‘operatic thriller’ had enough going for it – plot, Moroccan influences in the music, an exciting set (Alison Chitty deserves a credit) including the inventive use of video screens, a certain sensuality, a really good song about love (‘Out of the blue’) and a great joke about the tattoo towards the end. The line, “No, I’m on a gap year”, a splendid pisstake of opera recitative, would have been better if – the major fault – the singer hadn’t been too old to be doing one; could have been more operatic too – sung dialogue was a bit flat, there could have been more proper duets methinks. No regrets about going at all, though.
Finished Tim Hilton‘s book on cycling, a lovely and loving social document and memoir with charm in its eccentric structure and a lot of learning imparted en route. Like the inspiration for the title of Becket’s ‘Waiting for Godot‘ being French cycle race fans hanging around waiting for their hero, a rider named Godeau. Have to mention here how much I’m enjoying the Beeb’s ‘Shakespeare retold‘ series. And Thierry Henry‘s goals (and understated celebrations).
November 10 Just watched Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film ‘Downfall‘ (2004) about the final days in Hitler’s Berlin bunker as the Russians closed in. Spellbinding, shocking and strangely moving even in the Nazis’ madness, never mind the physical bombardment. Tremendous cast, an enormous canvas, a stunning piece of work; how does it feel? – indeed. (November 10).
November 8 That Orange ad where the oldish couple start ballet dancing picking up things in the kitchen and then dance on out into the garden and up the lane is a thing of beauty, a lovely tv moment. Liked Marina Lewycka’s ‘A short history of tractors in Ukrainian’ (Viking, 2005) a lot. Great fun overlaying great heart and thought – the intersection of biography and history (the Ukraine, England), morality and cheap humour which works. Some memorable and hideous characters (not to mention ‘crapcar’ – that one word is important) and a nice look at the relationship of two sisters, a war baby and a peace baby; the history of tractors has its moments too. I’ve started on Tim Hilton’s ‘One more kilometre and we’re in the showers: memoirs of a cyclist’ (2004), a fascinating melange – I had no idea about its social significance, the links with British Clarion socialism – beautifully written. The sort of book it is, where else could you find a sentence like, “We can safely say that Kafka has a negative influence on sports journalism.”?
October 30 Little bit of the old teenage nostalgia with Derek Huntriss’s ‘Green diesel days’ (Ian Allan. 2005). The ’60s were an interesting period of transition on the railways too, with lots of loco experimentation. The text is minimal but there are some fine photos here featuring the classic green BR livery, some even before those hideous yellow safety panels messed with the aesthetics of the locomotives; I still think the two-tone green with white cab Type 3 Hymeks were the handsomest though I am increasingly drawn to the real pre-D prefix prototypes. (It’s another world, obviously). And speaking of other worlds, I have to say I was a bit disappointed with Neil Gaiman’s ‘Anansi boys’ (Review, 2005) though it rallied a bit towards the end. The storytelling and myth-weaving (the spider of Caribbean fable) is still there but this one is closer to Douglas Adams than Alan Moore, two of the “godlike geniuses” Gaiman mentions in one of the appendices he wittily – the DVD extras! – sticks at the back of the book, and it feels contrived and unconvincing in parts. There is a lovely phrase though, about someone discovering “his inner Drifters” when it becomes necessary to take the mic and sing at a crucial stage in the action; he sings ‘Under the boardwalk’. Watched Stephen Poliakoff’s ‘Perfect strangers’ (2001) again on DVD. Has there been anything better on TV? Totally absorbing, stunning cast – Michael Gambon superb; I wept, among many other things. ‘Bleak House‘ looking good currently on tv, Gillian Anderson mesmerising and loads of good performances already; might have to read the book – don’t read enough Charles Dickens. (October 30)
October 17 Close escape. Such was the enthusiasm for Stephen Sondheim displayed in Ned Sherrin’s ‘Ned Sherrin : the autobiography‘ (Little Brown, 2005) and then lo and behold here’s Neil Gaiman citing him as one of his “Top three godlike geniuses” in the backpages of his ‘Anansi boys’ – already a great title, and all I’ve read so far of the story – (Review, 2005) that I almost ordered ‘Side by side by Sondheim‘ (London cast, of course, that Sherrin produced) blind (so to speak). Sanity prevailed and I tried the samples on Amazon and I would have hated it; this is not necessarily a condemnation, I mean, I never thought I’d like opera, but hey, I shall be seeing my first Wagner soon. I enjoyed Sherrin’s book a lot, though; he gives great anecdote and has achieved so much, not least in his non-rock and roll ’60s contributions (he produced ‘That was the week that was’ – Millicent Martin was my first pin-up) that to accuse him of name-dropping misses the point really. Self deprecation is one of his modest fortes and he ends up reporting on his gig as memorial service correspondent for ‘The Oldie’ magazine. Would never have had him born a Somerset farmboy. He doesn’t treat his gay sexuality as an issue at all, it’s just there. Some would say smug, I’m sure, but it’s a fascinating, witty and occasionally moving read.
Musically I keep going back to The Decemberists, a unique feel to the timbre of the band, that individual voice and those tunes coming at you again like the embrace of dear old friends. Also strikes me that Jack Dee‘s outro to his ‘Live at the Apollo‘ tv shows – the text messages – is as funny as you can find these days.
October 9 I ended up being annoyed by the ending of Ron McLarty’s ‘The memory of running’. If anything the alternating time strands of the final chapters detract from any narrative imperative and lead to nothing but pure (hah!) Hollywood sentimentality. Was never really convinced by the narrative voice either. Nor by Matt Allen’s in his ‘The Crazy Gang: the inside story of Vinnie, Harry, Fash and Wimbledon FC‘ (Highdown, 2005). Too much from the sports pages and not a lot of evidence of fresh interviews or insight. Which is a shame because it’s a fascinating story – English underdogs. Didn’t actually learn much, got sick of the nicknames (as if he was one of the lads) and the repeatition. Was interesting to be reminded that Don Howe was their coach the year of the Cup Final win against Liverpool and I’d completely forgotten the disastrous reign of the mad Norwegian marxist in wellington boots. Still waiting, really, to be engaged by football this season.
October 2 Great week last week to feed my musical soul. Martin Scorcese‘s Dylan documentary ‘Don’t look back‘ on Monday and Tuesday (and the promise of even more jewels to come on the DVD) and Ray Davies at the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday. First time I’d seen the Albert Memorial since it was cleaned up – bigger than I remembered and gaudy and very un-English. This was the third time I’d been to the Albert Hall. First was for Dylan with the Band in 1966 (no, I didn’t boo) – now there’s history; I was up in the gods. Second was for the Cream farewell concert and believe me they were crap. This week Ray showed an appreciation of the historical significance of the place, nodded to Proms (and why don’t they sing ‘Days’ or ‘Waterloo sunset’ along with ‘Land of hope and glory’ on the Last Night? – we certainly made up for it). Heckled to play, and I quote, “rock and roll”, he responded, “I shit rock and roll”, following up with, “Are you the guy that heckled Dylan?” (I think he’s been watching Jack Dee). A lovely ‘I go to sleep’ was the magical highlight, and there was a very welcome ‘Oklahoma USA’ (just him and the wonderful guitarist, Mark Johns). A tremendous singalong ‘Sunny afternoon’ followed by a lovely Django Reinhart guitar duet in the middle of ‘Dead End Street’. I like the way the slow blues introduction to ‘You really got me’ is growing in length and the acoustic ‘Two sisters’ was exquisite. All the slow ‘obscure’ stuff was received in rapt silence and to rapturous applause in the end. An almost New Christy Minstrels treatment of ‘Picture book’ worked well. Definitely a night to remember – over 30 songs – a big audience full of love, affection, enthusiasm and respect. Got the new EP in the post yesterday – ‘The tourist’ living up to its promise, very catchy and a great noise, and a longer ‘Storyteller’ taking on more weight.
Reading Ron McLarty’s ‘The memory of running’ (Time Warner, 2005). Could only be American in its sentimentality for all its difficult subject matter (madness, disability, death, Vietnam fallout). It’s a road novel, albeit the journey of liberation that of a fat man on a bicycle; moving in parts. (October 2)
September 19 OK. This strikes me as fairly typical.
” … one can admire the elegance of line with which the bedframes are drawn, the delicacy with which he artist has picked out the patterns of wallpapaer and coverings and his success in conveying the silence heavy in bedrooms during the day. But, on looking further, ambiguities are apparent; these rooms do not behave as we would expect. In Farmhouse bedroom the perspective is distorted so that the landing and stairs are out of ‘proper ‘ relationship to the room, and in fact do not lead anywhere. We are trapped in this room and begin to realize that the obsessive quality of the patterning is destroying any notions of charm which we might have first experienced.”
I just see a couple of dodgy clumsy paintings. Can’t say I’m entirely sold on Eric Ravilious as a painter and I’m not sure Freda Constable‘s text and selection in ‘The England of Eric Ravilious‘ (Scolar Press, 1982) do him many favours. Like some of the landscapes a lot but he can’t do trains from the outside; ‘Train landscape’, though, is a real glimpse in the best sense of the world, the Westbury Horse chalk figure seen through a train compartment window.
Thoroughly enjoying Patrick O’Brian’s ‘Master & Commander’ (1970), the first of his sequence of naval novels set in the time of the Napoleonic wars. Once you transcend the naval terminology (just don’t bother, it signifies action and activity is all) it’s fascinating, a lot more than just an adventure yarn. People (hello Brian) have been urging me to read O’Brian for 30 years but it’s taken The Decemberists (Dickens alt.country?) to give me the final push, so thanks for that and those melodies and songs. It’s a sequence of novels I shall pursue at leisure, a couple a year maybe, looking forward in particular to the discussions of Captain Jack Aubrey and ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin within the mayhem.
September 13 To the theatre to discover, within 30 seconds, as something of a surprise that it was a play we’d seen before. No matter, Tom Stoppard’s ‘The real thing’ can stand it – so many intelligent words – and couldn’t remember what happened anyway. An extraordinary moment – a silent tangible tingle around the auditorium – when the main man discusses at length the difference between good and bad writing with reference to a cricket bat and a block of wood and what happens when you hit a ball sweetly. Cricket – who’d have thought it as a bearer of general euphoria? You couldn’t make it up, this wonderful Ashes series. And yes, of course Jerusalem should be the English national song, especially at sporting events. “And did those feet?”
Steeping myself in the new Jackie Leven album, ‘Elegy for Johnny Cash‘. Still a bit mystified to tell the truth and I can’t really put my finger on why, it’s not as if there’s much new here. Some lovely moments for sure and it’s already growing on me more.
September 7 Northern Ireland 1 – England 0 beggars belief. The best thing about tonight was Ian Wright’s bereft look of contempt for them allowing it to happen. Some stunning stuff on Bob Dylan’s ‘No direction home’ cds. The slow blues take on ‘Leopard skin pill box hat’ is fine indeed and the jaunty tuneful ‘Stuck inside of Mobile’ is a revelation – he’s still smiling. The live ‘Mr Jones’ is noisily majestic, tremendous rough edge vocal, better by far than the studio version – this on a song I have no great love for with some Great Garth Hudson organ too. People booed this? And the beauty of the much earlier ‘I was young when I left home’ on the first CD had me lachrymose.
Downstairs cloakroom book for some weeks now has been Mike Pearson’s ‘Conversations in British jazz’ (Soundworld, 2004), a real enthusiasts labour of love full of typos but also full of some good stories of the working life and tales of real musical dedication from the makers of works I’ll probably never get to hear much of, though the two Gilles Peterson ‘Impressed’ cd collections haven’t been far from the cd player for some time now and are a great taster. Some fine stuff that got missed, people like Michael Garrick, Don Weller, Don Rendell, Stan Tracey, Ronnie Scott. (September 7)
September 2 Just because I haven’t mentioned the cricket doesn’t mean I haven’t been as enthralled as everyone else by the current Ashes series of Test Matches; beside it most professional footballers are now clearly shown for all to be the spoilt children they have been for a long time. And yes, it’s good that they’ve taken over the sports pages, but that also means they now get stuck with all the appalling tabloid inanities, puns and antics usually reserved for football (“Over the toon” – poor old decent old young Michael Owen goes to Newcastle, poor sod – someone got paid a lot of money for that). Fourth Test I saw the last Australian wicket fall, thought they can’t possibly mess that up and went for a walk by the riverside and along Welsh country lanes only to hear an England score of 90 for 4 from a car window. Help! Phew! Am I excited by the prospect of the Wales v England footie match this Saturday? – I’m working and not that mithered about it, actually. And while we’re in Wales I would urge you to visit the National Botanic Garden of Wales if you get the chance. The Great Glasshouse is an architectural phenomenon – sci-fi in green pastures, never mind the plants in it. There’s all sorts of decent sculpture and design and – oh, yes – some great flower displays and spectacular views. Best value ice creams you’re likely to find in the UK too, even if they had sold out of Celtic Crunch the day we were there. When the planting is finished in the Double Walled Garden (just over a half done now) it will be even better.
It would be easy to take the piss out of Michael G. Harvey’s ‘Forget the anorak: what trainspotting was really like’ (Sutton, 2004) given that it is almost beyond parody a lot of the time – Michael Palin’s ‘Ripping yarns’ springs to mind. For a start he tells us anoraks weren’t around then, they had Pac-a-macs. And a prose stylist he aint. But as a slice of social history, what it was like for a boy to grow up in the ’50s and early ’60s it’s a real find. Hell, I was a train spotter and although I’m a bit younger than he is I recognise a lot of the tale told here, can smell it, Proustlike. I’m a bit older than the writer of the only other contender in this field, which I notice Amazon have as a ‘perfect partner’ – Nicolas Whittaker’s ‘Platform souls: the train spotter as twentieth century hero’ (1995), which gets as desperate as his post-Hornbyan title suggests at times with it’s “We wore fashionable clothes, talked about soul music” special pleading (I’m closer to him spiritually, if the truth be known). The things is, it got us out and about, and … what larks! Never mind aesthetic beauty. Harvey’s tales of week long Rail Rover trips, living on chips and Tizer sleeping on trains and in waiting rooms, show a world of discovery and innocence it would be hard to find an equivalent for these days. The book that remains to be written concerns the moral dilemmas, like what can be counted as ‘seen’, ‘spotted’ or, to be more authentic, ‘copped’. Obviously someone is beyond the pale if they count engines seen on telly (I knew such a one) but what about stuff seen from afar, like if your mate has the bottle to make it over the wall into the shed and you (with a sporting injury) don’t – which happened to Harvey but he doesn’t discuss these finer points. And that hardly scratches the philosophical surface. It’s a past I have no regrets about and so rejoice at the Kinks’ ‘Last of the steam powered trains’, marrying as it does the end of that era with – lo and behold – Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Smokestack lightning’ – a very different kind of train (I ride).
Was enthralled by Ali Smith‘s stunning novel ‘The accidental’ (Hamish Hamilton, 2005). This despite it’s employing stream on consciousness – shudder – from a pre-pubescent girl, male teenage schoolboy, their writer mother and uni Literature lecturer/lecher for the basic narrative, parcelled within an occasional aetherial cinema zeitgeist and historical recitation. So it’s very cleverly constructed. The ‘central’ character who just happens along and changes everything has no voice of her own, but it hits all kinds of emotional buttons that are resonating for me still. It’s a liberating book and the denouement is beautifully done; for all its tragic moments it is also very funny. There is also a joy in language. A novel, ultimately in the traditional sense, speaking of the human condition right here, right now. I loved it (even though – surprise – the men don’t exactly come up as the best folks). (September 2)
August 25 Moral or handy hint for today: never pass on a chance to go see ‘Circus Oz‘ when they are anywhere near. Acrobatics, excitement, spectacle, contortionism, great wit and slapstick, and the music (all over the place, a great violinist/multi-instrumentalist, a good loud drummer) is worth the trip alone.
August 24 Fine piece of writing from David Mitchell with Cloud atlas (Sceptre, 2004). He overcomes the potential handicaps of a clever symmetrical structure – 5 stories ranging progressively in time from the 1850s to the far flung future split in half like a multilayered sandwich around a centrepiece written in dialect (which usually just annoys me) – with great style. There are some fascinating games being played here with the personal, geographical and big thematic links between the narratives, and with the mixing of fictional and non-fictional voices – a decent genre novel as novel is one of those narratives. It is a book full of thought and imagination and has a big heart too. He addresses how we live and the nature of collective and personal survival but it can make you laugh too. The book deserves long stretches of reading time rather than the short bursts I mostly gave it. The author pulls off this wonderful trick at the end, concluding the oldest narrative openly, of filling you with optimism despite all that has gone before on the pages, though it is after chronologically.
I zipped through Mark Billingham’s ‘Lifeless’ (2005), his latest crime novel featuring Tom Thorne (hey, another maverick cop who cares and has problems) and you have to say he’s a contender in the Rankin division. Some interesting stuff on London’s homeless and only the odd PC twinge in evidence. You can hardly zip through the second series of ‘Twin Peaks‘, David Lynch’s classic tv show. With its longeurs it’s a long term project, but when it delivers it’s worth it – seriously strange and twisted, funny and scary, you care about these people.
Spending more time with Beatles outtakes and discovering the 3 volume Anthology isn’t as satisfying a verite offering as one would hope, a bit like the official Dylan ‘Basement tapes’. I know it is all meant to be tremendously creative and groundbreaking and all that but I think they lost somehing with their retreat into the studio. ‘Revolver’ to me sounds strangely sterile. I think it’s unfortunate they stopped playing live, that the madness of the times (those screams) and the fact that the technology of live performance wasn’t then up to it, stopped them performing – and inevitably thinking – as an ensemble. Apart from the songs (what a ridiculous thing to say!) it is that vision of John (or Paul) at the one mike, George and Paul (or John) joyously sharing another, that lingers. (August 24)
August 7 Was impressed by Craig Thompson‘s lovely and very moving graphic monster – 582 pages – ‘Blankets: an illustrated novel‘ (Top Shelf Productions, 2004). Isolation, self discovery and love deceptively simply drawn. There are some things, some places, only a graphic novel can reach and the moment when you turn over the page that reveals Raina’s present to Craig is something really special, all the more so – and better – for being in black and white; I just can’t see it working half as well in prose or on film, no matter how long the camera lingers. Helen Dunmore’s ‘With your crooked heart’ (UK: 1999) opens with a sensuous bang and then works a compelling moral narrative – moving forwards and backwards in time – which transcends the problem of hardly a one of her characters – a late twentieth century England I recognise – being that attractive people most of the time.
Last week’s ‘Extras‘ caused a rethink, with Kate Winslet seriously funny and Gervais himself trying to pull at a prayer meeting. And I’m revisiting the Beatles mainly through some fascinating downloaded outtakes and shamefully discovering that I’ve been taking them for granted for too long while wondering if George Martin didn’t lose something in the pursuit of a certain perfection. Strange Montana band ‘The Decemberists‘ have woven a certain spell too, the missing link twixt the Fountains of Wayne and the Handsome Family. Music that sticks in the mind. (August 7)
July 24 Same old same old. I read Peter Robinson’s ‘Strange affair : an inspector Banks mystery’ (Macmillan, 2005) as much out of habit as anything else. It’s all right, but I already tire of the east Europeans, people smuggling into prostitution as crime novel staple. And does every ‘tec have to have a dodgy brother, a daughter who’s had a hard time and a female colleague who threatens to get more interesting than the main man? The debt to Richard Thompson in the title is acknowledged, though it’s not essential, and not really an apposite soundtrack. However, with Alan Moore’s ‘Promethea : Book 4’ (2003) the repetition of comment here is a very good thing indeed. Absolutely stunning layouts (they deserve credits of their own) take you where the words could never as we continue this – at one level – fascinating and illuminating trip through the Qabalah. Genius is not a word to be used lightly, but it’s the contemporary asides from popular culture, from rolling news culture, from myth and literature, make this a series out on its own. Whatever it means. Frustratingly, we are left hanging here, pondering the conflict of Christianity and Islam.
Watching the BBC2 sequence of comedies on Thursday night I came to the conclusion the funniest thing on tv at the moment is not Ricky Gervais’s ‘Extras‘, which did indeed have it’s moments, nor is it by a very long mile, Catherine Tate, who I just cannot watch – self-love, silly voices, taking the piss out of the plebs – but the splendid Stephen Fry, John Bird and their supporting cast in the intelligently written ‘Absolute power‘. PR gets no better than their negative campaigning ads (rejected by No 10) in favour of identity cards, unless it is the idea of combining ID cards with … the lottery. It’s not just the sharp satire; the inter-office politics is delicious too.
July 19 Jools Holland & his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra in Campbell Park MK on a sunny Sunday evening. Nice boozy picnic atmosphere with plenty of people and energy and space enough. Ruby Turner’s ‘Blowing in the wind’ looked a bit corny on tv recently but here there was a collective chill of engagement down the collective spine. And some big band ska. Rico! Who’d have seen this when ‘Up the junction’ came out, eh?
July 17 Bobbie Ann Mason is a fine writer of fiction and her short biography of Elvis Presley, simply called ‘Elvis‘ (2003) does what the best novelists are so good at – getting at the heart of how it felt for the main players. It’s a well known tale told well by a fellow Southerner who knows the territory. The tragedy of the poor humble white boy made good, ill served by his own, who never overcame the insecurities of growing up in poverty on the edges of respectability, the only real transcendence there in his art. That voice and talent, those good intentions and joy in music, deserved so much more – spake the Colonel: “I don’t want him reading any more books! They clutter up his mind.” A working class hero is indeed, in the end, not a lot to be. And you couldn’t make it up: “Elvis was living in Hollywood in a Frank Lloyd Wright house rented from the Shah of Iran … the day the Beatles called.” That visit was a disaster, by the way, the Beatles overawed. As am I continuously by he writing of Andrei Makine. There’s an intensity of ‘Requiem for the east‘ (UK trans, 2001) breaks your heart. There’s the usual stuff, the frozen moments of the horrors of war and hardship and the magic of sudden respite and joy, an added dimension here of the futilty of the international agent game played in small sordid wars by people who no longer believe and regret that. There’s the rottenness and disappointment of old and new Russia but it’s full of poetry and there’s three tremendous love stories in here too. He’s epic. As was Patrick Viera at his best – power, skill, speed, pride, grace and intelligence – playing football for Arsenal; sorry to see him move on, but thanks. Liked ‘Last orders‘ on dvd, that rarity a good film from a good book (Graham Swift‘s second best). Lovely collection of vintage English actors without guns in their hands and the London accents not played up. Touching.
July 4 Read John Harvey’s ‘Ash and bone’ (Heinemann, 2005) easily enough. He knows how to drive you on well, lot of deft dialogue. Still don’t really understand why he put his new man, ex-DI Elder, down in Cornwall, given most of the action here is London – a North London I recognise well enough – or Nottingham; still miss Resnick, who has another step-on role. Marek Kohn’s ‘The race gallery : the return of racial science’ (Cape, 1995) was highly stimulating, how the exploration of DNA has changed the landscape of the nature / nurture debate, of so much discussion. Biologically no race but the human race, but … in a diversity to be celebrated, difference can have, say, huge health consequences. Fascinating look at the way science works, the political travails of the genome project among the organised indigenous groups, its import, its relation to the general culture. The best episodes of Larry David’s ‘Curb your enthusiasm’ are like the best of the Simpsons – so much happens, there is so much funny stuff, it beggars belief that they come in at under 30 minutes. Binge-ing the Complete Third Series DVD set, it hits classic stride with ‘Krazee-Eyez Killa’, an encounter with a rap star friend of a friend (“Yo’ my caucasian!”). Dead pan hardly comes close; some wonderful running gags. Finding it hard to keep Davy Graham’s ‘Folk blues and beyond’ – 40 years old and still fresh as a (fresh) daisy and ahead of the game – away from the CD-player. So open and driven. That and Dylan’s ‘Gaslight tapes’ from 3 years earlier, so so much better than that first studio album – an incredible performance, talent and tradition flowering before your very ears.
June 26 Glad I caught White Stripes at Glastonbury on the telly – a tremendous performance. Most of the rest has left me cold (pun originally unintended).
June 24 Coupla DVDs that have given great satisfaction: ‘Sideways‘ (must try some pinot noir) and ‘The station agent’ – people films. Summer’s here and the time is right for absolutely nothing on the television. Had a good time at ‘The Spice Lounge’ in MK’s Theatre District – good food, good music from Cathi Cook’s band.
June 19 Can there be many more better opening lines than, “My grandfather, for instance, created an entire religion based upon chips” ? Move from there to the London Blitz and back again to the present where said ancestor is practising ‘Anti-faith healing’ in a market town and enjoy the mystery. Mat Coward‘s lovely story ‘Persons reported‘ in ‘Green for danger‘, the Crime Writers Association 2003 anthology edited by Martin Edwards (The Do-Not Press, 2003), is definitely one to seek out. And Carole Cadwalladr‘s novel ‘The family tree‘ (Doubleday, 2005) was a tremendous read, me laughing and crying along; given the space I’d just have just read it straight through. There’s at least four engaging timelines going on here, three generations of stories with turns at every juncture and some great zeitgeist and cultural fun and a sub-plot of the narrator being married to a biology academic, so the genes in genealogy and evolutionary theory are just two agendas being addressed here in this at first deceptively light-seeming novel (a strand it keeps reviving), which also knows a lot about the writing of fiction. Reviews of Greil Marcus’s ‘Like a rolling stone : Bob Dylan at the crossroads’ (Faber, 2005) have been mixed. It starts off surprisingly shakily but once in its stride he is magnificent – on being Dylan, the times, and the work in hand. Sometimes in other books he can disappear up his academic theoretical arse, but not here; nobody does it better, by which I mean, makes a decent stab at the intangible. A masterly analysis of ‘Highway 61 revisited’ follows the detailed moment of the creation of the single, that instant living piece of music, that, as he says, changed everything. Interesting on the American context (“we can do it good as the Brits” is one of the messages – something we this side of the Atlantic forget). I liked the story from the early folkie days about Blind Lemon Jefferson’s ‘See that my grave is kept clean’. Try this for flavour and an arrow hitting its target:
“In the early sixties, the Cambridge folk singer Geoff Muldaur was so caught up by Jefferson’s plea that he told all his friends he was going to travel to Jefferson’s grave with a broom and sweep it off. Dylan’s performance of the song gave the lie to the conceit. Why should I sweep his grave? I’m in it.”
Saturday nights will be a bit empty now the current series of ‘Doctor Who‘ has finished. Great plaudits to Russell Davies, the main writer. Incredibly powerful emotional and intelligent television drama for a 7 o’clock spot. Lord knows what the kids have made of it. Gooseflesh all over when he kissed (multidimensionally) the superb Billie Piper. Deeply moral stuff too, decisions about actions and their comsequences, along with the laughs and the grounding in people trying to make a decent life (now her mum seems to be over milking the compensation). Looking forward to the new guy already. (June 19)
June 5 Tadpoles no more in the pond, rather frogs-in-waiting, but some are dying; plenty left though. Reminded of why I don’t watch too many TV documentaries last week, watching ‘Compulsion – Waiting for Brian‘ (BBC2) one night, Brian a 58 year old middle class alcoholic who can still smarten up but hates himself drunk, drinks cos he’s not too fond of himself sober either, just about holding body together and a hostel roof over his head. Sad and depressing, more so by a slim margin than he next night’s ‘Make me normal‘(C4), about a splendid special school for autistic kids; the title says it all – you feel for them, living with the knowledge of their condition, trying.
Fascinating though Bryan Sykes’ ‘The seven daughters of Eve’ (Bantam, 2001) undoubtedly was – only seven mitochrondial DNA maternal lines for modern Europeans, back to the Ice Age for the oldest ‘daughter’ – it was all a bit charmlessly delivered. Less eloquent popular science – the man’s a world expert – than ghostwritten sportsman or entertainer’s autobiography at times. Shame. And amazingly, no bibliography or further reading. As opposed to that supplied by Jeremy Narby in ‘The cosmic serpent, DNA and the origins of knowledge’ (Gollancz, 1998), fully one third of which was bibliography and notes. For the latter much thanks. At least it made the text slimmer and more readable. A fairly traditional tale: anthropologist takes psychedelic with indigenous tribe, undergoes revelation leading to overthrow of a large chunk of conventional knowledge. “According to my hypothesis”, he writes, “Shamans take their consciousness down to molecular level and gain access to biomolecular information” – first hand knowledge of DNA aka the cosmic serpent. Oh sure. Probably hocum (I’m glad I’d read other stuff recently to know that what he says is impossible about the theory of evolution is not so unlikely) but it’s quite a trip and he’s a good man, no charlatan but an inhabitant of chapel perilous. Spoils it rather by being so sure life originally comes from outer space; so where did it come from before that and how did it start out there?
It could be said of Andrei Makine that he tends to write the same couple of books again and again, but when it’s as good as his latest, ‘The earth and sky of Jacques Dorme’ (UK trans 2005, France 2003) who cares? More a long poem, a series of epiphanies of love, peace and beauty, backwards and forwards in time. Russia, the Great Patriotic War, the fascination of things French for a young boy. Then there’s Dorme himself, a Polish volunteer airman. It’s brilliant stuff. And in this one he returns to post-USSR Russia and is not impressed; nor is modern France what he went looking for. I’m already looking forward to the next one.
Oh, and saw a couple of kingfishers on the Ouzel last weekend. I’m sure you can never get blase about that experience. (5 June)
May 23 Spent a few days in the Lake District, days full of mountains, hills, trees, water and shafts of sunlight. Glimpses all over the place. It all changes so quickly. The biggest rainbow I’ve ever seen over Derwentwater. A steam train journey. Pints of Jennings’ Cumberland ale in the evenings. And in the freshly laid pavement slabs in the harbour of Maryport a poem lately carved in slate – you have to walk it to read it. Official and brave public art which allows the poet saying he or she wishes were on a Turkish beach. No attribution – anyone got a clue? With lines like, “Dead crabs stare at passing cars / rusty anchors smell of blood / mercury fish stampede in black water” and “Grubby seagulls / squawk / like bitchy girls” though the seagulls we saw were pretty clean. Had a decent vegetarian pastie too, that they took an interest in. Took books but they were just so much baggage. One song penetrated from the mix tapes in the hotel bar – Joan Osborne’s ‘What if god were one of us’. Not sure about the theology but love the ringing guitars and the relaxed but energetic impulse in there to singalong; I’ve been humming it to myself ever since – enigma, almost restraint, and a sort of triumph. (23 May)
May 15 Good evening in the company of Mick Abrahams and Blodwyn Pig on Saturday, infinitely more satisfying, I would imagine, than that Cream do at the Albert Hall. Some lovely inventive playing, the occasional jazz phrasings making all the difference. Playing for the love of it. And a stunning Doctor Who, Billie Piper messing with time to see her dead dad. Intelligent, powerful, emotional stuff – never mind the monsters.
May 8 After finishing ‘Darwin’s dangerous idea‘ with its metaphorical tales of skyhooks (or lack thereof) and cranes (the earthbound mechanical kind, not the ones decended from dinosaurs) the grey matter needs a rest so let us wallow in P.G.Wodehouse. One thing worth saying before we leave Dan Dennett though – save he has me convinced – is to praise his practise of, at the end of each chapter, giving a summary of what he’s just said in that one and what he’s about to tell us in the next one, so allowing one to catch up again, or even cheat, which seems fair enough given the level of some of that stuff. You only need to read P.G.Wodehouse‘s Preface to his ‘Blandings omnibus‘ (1915, 1929, 1933) to understand he’s one of the funniest writers ever to grace the planet; it was reverse snobbery that kept me away so long despite the urgings of various compadres. The language is just delicious. And, lo! In ‘Something fresh‘ (1915) we have a famous Quayle featuring, albeit a fictitious one in a fiction (a character in a series of books one of the characters writes). My sons should consider themselves lucky I didn’t know of this a score and more years ago otherwise one of them would have gloried in the name of Gridley somewhere.
The more I think about Neil Gaiman’s ‘Marvel 1602’ (Marvel, collected edition 2004) the better it becomes, a brilliant conceit that I’m now re-reading straight off, having suffered just a bit from what he mentions in his afterword, the perils of dealing with 30 major characters at a throw. The idea of casting pretty much all the Marvel Universe characters back into the last days of Queen Bess in period costume (Peter Parquah, who’s intersted in spiders etc) in an unusual mucking about with the fabric of time tale is interesting enough, but what he does with Captain America, invoking the failed colony at Roanoke, is just astounding and something I’m not giving away. Nor the secret of the Templars, which is, of course, vintage Gaiman. The covers of the original comics, evoking Elizabethan engravings, are brilliant too. And staying with comics, the latest issue of Gary Spencer Millidge’s ‘Strangehaven’ (no.17) popped through the letterbox recently – usually am annual event these days – promising no.18 in the summer. This is altogether too much, given the entertaining nature of the excuses/explanations that pile up in each issue of this lovingly produced indy comic concerning the reasons for the late arrival of said issue. The comic itself – an English ‘Twin Peaks’ out of ‘The Prisoner’ isn’t bad either. (May 8)
April 25 I … should have known better / with a girl like you. No – let’s try that again. I should have known better. When we booked, of course, we had no idea that Doctor Who was going to be on that Saturday night, but what the hell. The blurb said. “Capture the excitement of the big Broadway musical” (something I’ve been developing a taste for in the face of, oh, being presented with Franz Ferdinand as the next thing since the last best thing – they’re all right – that and early country blues) “and the sweet syncopation” (yes!) “of the Big Band era with Northern Ballet Theatre‘s song-and-dance extravaganza set to some of George and Ira Gershwin‘s most enduringly popular songs.” Tempting, as I say. The giveaway should have been that ‘Ballet’. Name of the show was ‘I got rhythm’ and … oh no, you haven’t. Timing maybe, in technical abundance, but hardly ever rhythm. It may be admirable that limbs can actually do some of that stuff, but, like watching ice dance, I fail to see much elegance in there. And nor can the band swing, I submit, your honour, when the drummer is playing from sheet music. Lesson learnt.
I’ve had A.J.Mullay’s ‘Streamlined steam : Britain’s 1930s luxury expresses’ (1994) as my downstairs cloakroom book seemingly for ever, but it would be churlish to complain about it’s not being the publication I would want to read. It’s only a train book, after all. It’s the incidentals and pictures I look at this stuff for. Like the biggest picture I’ve encountered yet of that most hideous sight – the GWR’s token attempt at streamlining a Castle; or the knowledge that the Gresley A4’s efficient handling of smoke from the chimney (important so the driver could see the signals – crucial to high speed running) was down to the fortuitous imprint of a thumb on a plasticine model just before it was put in the wind tunnel; or the magnificent sight of an LMS Coronation class still in full streamline drag but painted anew shiny black, without those dumb speed stripes and so full of power. There are worse things to be interested in; as exercises in industrial design locomotives – steam, diesel, electric – still fascinate me. The A4s (“Streaks” – a nickname not mentioned in the book) looked by far their best with the fairing above the driving wheels removed and in classic British railways outlined green. The classic Great Western Castle and King 4-6-0s art nouveau, Arts and Crafts, in motion. (April 25)
April 18 Zipped through Harlan Coben’s ‘Gone for good’ (2002). Lotsa dialogue and nary a wasted word. No great profundity but a heart in the right place and a hell of a twist which I didn’t see coming. Reliable and entertaining. Still proceeding at a snail’s pace with Dan Dennett’s ‘Darwin’s dangerous idea’, as previously mentioned in despatches. Hard work, it’s a bit like being a student again, but worth it just for the delicious analogies, let alone the relentless logical workout. Evolution – one definition of fittest being a knockout tennis tournament after each set of which there is literally a game of Russian roulette; the defence of religious truth in the face of scientific thought, as being a matter of faith, dealt with by saying – Ok, god is that ham sandwich over there, because I believe it is so. Not that I am not a spiritual person, full of soul. A bit bereft of musical inspiration of late. Bopping along to Hank Williams. Who’da thunk it? Over thirty years ago I travelled over 100 miles – a big deal then – to see the Cream Farewell concert (it was disappointing); would hardly cross the road these days. A word about American book design that I meant to say last time talking about ‘The rose and the briar‘ – it’s the best in the world, books put together like someone still thought about it and cared. And I’m a sucker for uncut edges too – a wondrous aesthetic experience – but that’s another matter. Drinking red wine (nothing special) spode-ee-o-doh. (April 18)
April 10 The addictive qualities of the Tanita Digital Bathroom Scales – even if they’re not in the bathroom – that give your previous reading as well as the current one. Hard to resist last thing at night, first thing in the morning – with pit stop in between; you invariably lose. James Hawes’ ‘Speak for England’ (Cape, 2005) is a nice bit of satirical novel writing. Reality tv survivor (literally – in the jungle) stumbles across a group of airline crash survivors stuck in 1958 (it was a Comet) and still in Cold War mode. Some neat twists and period touches and what happens politically when they get back to the UK is funny and disturbing. Hard to refute the logic of making carrying cash over £100 illegal; why else carry that amount if not for a drug, black market or tax dodge deal? I learnt a fair bit from ‘The rose and the briar : death, love and liberty in the American ballad‘, edited by Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus (W.W.Norton, 2004), albeit it’s a bit of a curate’s egg – not sure quite why some of them count as ballads. Strongest on the older stuff with pedigrees back in the old countries. In particular I liked Sharyn McCrumb’s story of the travails of the stock characters of balladry, hanging around in ‘the green room’ waiting on the singers to call them forth and what they put them through, what with the changes of interpretation over time and oceans. David Thomas is good on ‘The wreck of Old ’97’ (cf. ‘Dead man’s curve’!) – it’s just a small part of his fascinating essay, but the locomotive wasn’t old and the official report said it was the driver’s fault – no hero, he, but that’s not allowed in balladry.
March 29 A special thank you to those responsible for those wonderfully complex roundabouts – incomprehensible to anyone not used to them – and road signs – never there when you really need them, as opposed to sending you two ways at once – in Cardiff. Bastards. Liked the self-referencing and knowing new Doctor Who, Northern accent and all; loved the conspiracy theory website hunting down his legend. Promising. Lots of tadpoles in the pond. (March 29)
March 25 To the opera again last Wednesday, to see one I’ve already seen. Which makes it twice I’ve done that now – I must be into double figures overall. Can buffdom be far away? A modern dress – swinging ’60s backdrop to the parties – production of Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ from the Welsh National Opera, who, like Glyndebourne Touring, never let you down. Some great voices and the modern dress worked well, I thought, restoring meaning to a fancy dress ritual without losing the spectacle, though overhearing conversations coming out – despite the rapturous applause – others were less impressed with Violetta staggering about a hospital ward hanging on to a drip for the final aria before she kicks it. I was moved – I even thought she was in with a chance of pulling through.
Finished another Andrei Makine, his first, ‘A hero’s daughter‘ (France 1990, UK 2004). More good stuff though not yet fully into his stride. What it did bring home is what an awful compromising, brutalised, illusion-strewn time the Russians have had both before and after perestroika. This is as much about the (almost accidental) war hero (formally, an exalted ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’) and his fate – disillusioned vodka death after a sweet tragic wartime romance – as much as the progeny of that romance of the title, who doesn’t exactly have a grand time of it living the modern life in Moscow. You can see why Makine got out even though the times were a changing. Makes you hate what Abramovich has done with Chelsea even more. I’ve started on Daniel C.Dennett’s ‘Darwin’s dangerous idea : evolution and the meaning of life’ (1995) and am looking forward to an exciting ride. (March 25)
March 14 We’ve already got a pond full of frogspawn, but enough of that. It is impossible to escape superlatives talking about Andrei Makine, an emigre Russian who writes in French. I’ve been on a bit of a binge. He is a fantastic writer. Funnily enough the book of his that I’ve had the hardest time with is the one that made his reputation, uniquely winning all the major French literary prizes in the same year; it is also his longest. ‘Le testament Francais‘ (France 1995, UK 1997) gets you there in the end, but I have to say whereas the others have gripped from the start it annoyed me for a lot of the time. Probably something to do with the structure, because the elements that make his other stuff so great – a liberating growth of personal awareness and escape and possibility (hey, hey, it’s the ’60s! but …), a sense of time (the Russian revolution and its consequences for later generations) and place (Russia, Siberia, France) that are fine indeed but also transcended – are all there. Just don’t start with that one. Try, rather, the brilliant and captivating ‘Once upon the river love‘ (France 1994, UK 1999) as it celebrates the impact of a season of Jean-Paul Belmondo movies on a small Siberian town and three young teenage boys from a nearby village in particular. Rites of passage abound – the journeys through snow, the accidental train ride to the coast, the prospect of the west. Lyrical, moving and magical, the dignity of ordinary Russians coming out from under the memory’s shadow of the privations of the war and Stalin, the doubletalk. And then there is the ‘The crime of Olga Arbylina‘ (France 1998, UK 1999) which will take you places you never imagined. Like an immediately post-war Russian emigre community on the outskirts of Paris. Starts off with a seeming murder mystery, two bodies, one dead, at a river’s edge. In the end you find how they got to be there. Some journey, personal odysseys in the swirl of history and more snow, an incredible piece of writing, frenzied and still; where Olga takes you is hard to bear and yet … all I can do is repeat myself and descend into the platitudinous – an incredible piece of writing. The thing about everything of Makine’s that I’ve read is that you feel like starting over again right away. And at the back of my mind, the slightly daunting thought that I may have to dip my toes in proust after all. Thanks Linda, for the tip.
I re-read Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse – Five, or, The children’s crusade’ (1970) after hearing the author on the radio on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the fire bombing of Dresden, and it’s the sub-title that sticks these days; those who go to war can invariably be so young. Vonnegut used to be one of my main men, I’d read everything, but at a certain stage I stopped, baulking, I guess, at the repeatition. And just getting older maybe. ‘Slaughterhouse 5’ remains a lovely piece of work full of sanity, a good man who’s on our side. As was Dave Allen, whose death, reported over the weekend, aged 68 (I start doing the sums), left me feeling diminished. Loved his sign off, ‘May your god go with you’. Looking forward the tribute programmes and repeats so long as they are long on him.
‘Superman : True Brit‘ (DC, 2004) should have been a lot better, given the supposed contribution of John Cleese to Kim Johnson’s script. The premise – the spaceship carrying the babe Superman lands in Weston Super Mare rather than the US – hardly delivers. “What will the neighbours think?” is the running jokes of his boyhood and adolescence; a slightly better one is his using his heat vision to warm up cold cups of tea. Not worth seeking out.
February 22 As a book design decision I’m not impressed by always having a new chapter start on the right hand page, thus leaving a blank left hand page whenever the text of the previous chapter doesn’t stretch far enough to impinge on the left. Strikes me that blank pages should have textual significance. Add to that 10 blank pages at the end of the book and it has to be a right cock up which someone of Tom Sharpe‘s pedigree really doesn’t deserve. ‘Wilt in Nowhere‘ (Hutchinson, 2004) is his first book since 1996 and takes up the Wilt baton dropped 20 years ago. Whereas a lot of his other English novels have a strong whiff of upper class cartoon about them, the compassion that suffused the Wilt trilogy brought out the best in him. While those books were often laugh aloud funny with some heart, this one struggles with cardboard cutouts – a gross American, American cops – and is, regrettably, nowhere very much for much of the time. He still has his riotous moments (usually involving pain and discomfort, of course) and he remains a master of the sparingly used and skillfully placed expletive, but on the whole, a bit of a disappointment. Shame.
February 18 Marek Kohn’s ‘As we know it’ was hard work but I got there in the end. His strength is to illuminate complex ideas with examples drawn as often as not from popular culture. His modest task here is to discover what went into the moment our distant ancestors became ‘human’ – the evolved mind – and take from that the notion that evolution (and by extension sociobiology) doesn’t have to be reductionist and right wing, and can indeed be a source of hope. This from extended discussion of the handaxe. Not for the fainthearted but I’m glad i read it.
I’ll read Neil Gaiman in places I wouldn’t normally bother with, he’s such a good writer and storyteller. ‘Creatures of the night’ (Dark Horse, 2004), a work (a comic) with artist Michael Zulli doesn’t disappoint. Intriguing stories that stick with some stunning full colour colour pages; the creatures in the two stories are a cat that keeps the devil at bay and the outcast daughter of owls. As ever, the devil is in the detail – in, say, the shapechanging devil’s red eyes, which should be impossible through night sight glasses? Suspension effortlessly achieved. Gaiman is also one of the collaborators in Charles Vess ‘s ‘The book of ballads’ (Green Man Press, 2004). Vess was the artist on what I thought were the best two issues of Gaiman’s Sandman – the two Shakespeare based ones – and here he illustrates 13 ballads from the British folk tradition in an effective black and white. Other contributors include Sharyn McCrumb, Charles de Lint and others from the fantasy sphere. Some work better than others but he got me back in the territory. He acknowledges the inspiration of the Fairport Convention of ‘Liege and lief’ and Steeleye Span and there’s an interesting introduction by Terri Windling outlining the background of the tradition and how it’s been used by fantasy writers. There’s also a discography with some strange gaps, not the least being Bob Dylan – how can that happen? Compare and contrast, by the way the Fairport’s ability to make your spirits rise and soar and the leaden sounding Steeleye. Sorry chaps.
February 17 F inished ‘A reason for everything‘. So it’s British Birdspotters & Butterfly Collectors 2 – European Grand Theory Philosophers 0. I’m hooked. The idea that the leaves on the trees turn red and yellow in autumn for a reason, that it takes energy to do that, has me hooked. As Kohn says, “Reason reinvents a world lost in childhood, in which trees talk”. So it looks like I’m going to have to read Dawkins. But in the meantime it’s Marek Kohn‘s earlier book ‘As we know it : coming to terms with an evolved mind‘ (Granta, 1999) that has my full attention. Great excitement last Friday, a tree full of waxwings at the back of where I work. Rather made up for the poor showing in the RSPB Garden Birdwatch the previous weekend. (Feb 7)
January 31 Shirley Collins says she only wrote ‘America over the water‘ (UK: SAF Publishing, 2004) – described on its cover as “An emotional journey into the cultural roots of traditional American music with legendary archivist Alan Lomax” – when his account of the same journey in 1959 relegated her to a single sentence on p330. There’s little spite here, though, just a fascinating account designed to set the record straight, intercut with glimpses of her growing up in an unorthodox politically left background in Hastings (she was born in 1935) and the birth of the folk music scene in Britain, in which she played a significant part as a performer; she’s even honest enough to admit to not being impressed by Bob Dylan’s first fabled UK club appearance. It’s a shame there’s not more of those aspects of her tale. Based around letters she wrote at the time, as they roamed the American South both as archivist and research assistant in search of traditionally based music and as lovers, it feels like a time machine and as travelogue is a bit of an eye opener as to just how much has changed, both here and in the US. The ‘discovery’ of Mississippi Fred McDowell, his quiet dignity, is incredibly moving.
I’m deep into Marek Kohn’s ‘A reason for everything : natural selection and the English imagination’ (Faber, 2004). To be honest I’m not too sure how much of the biology I’m actually understanding properly, but it’s a group intellectual biography of the highest order with a real human story to tell of some very interesting people, which has me wanting to know more. Meeting the eccentric marxist JBS Haldane in his various habitats is worth the price of the ticket alone. It’s a quality lives and times exercise with characters like Aldous Huxley – none too flatteringly as it happens – popping in and out on the periphery. A taster of the style:
“Philip Sheppard arrived at Oxford with an RAF greatcoat and a diploma, third class, in cottage gardening, earned through a correspondence course in Stalag Luft III. He spent three years there, after his bomber was hit by a German minesweeper on his twenty-first birthday, and took part in the famous escape scheme that used a wooden vaulting horse to conceal a tunnel: he helped dispose of the excavated soil.”
Great stuff. Makes the case that reductionism doesn’t necessarily take away the wonder.
January 18 One way to see Jack Vettriano is as a missing link between Rene Magritte and the golden age of railway posters with intrigue, an ambiguous sexual narrative, thrown in. Don’t care about Art; I just like the pictures, the images, fantasy figures yet real people somehow in their mostly dashed hopes. Moments, stories, citizens I’d never be or see but who resonate. There is new stuff worth seeing in ‘Jack Vettriano‘ with fresh text from Anthony Quinn (Pavilion, 2004) and the older material, some of which I’d not seen before, presented chronologically this time. Not one of my favourites, but in ‘Scarlet ribbons, lovely ribbons’ there’s a woman in mild bondage pose that I’d wished wasn’t there, really, until realising what she’s tied up to is the artist’s easel.
‘Liquid City‘ by Marc Atkins and Iain Sinclair (Reaktion, 1999) is a book of Atkins’ black and white photos with plenty of accompanying prose from Sinclair, on various London walks with whom most of them were taken. Though never without interest, I suspect the photos really need to be seen rather than looked at in a book. Iain Sinclair’s prose is unintelligible to many – it’s an almost instant allergic decision – probably because he’s both down to earth and pursuing intangibles (like writers no-one reads any more …) and is so self-referencing (his mates, his books!) but I can swim in it happily enough, full of shimmering ideas and unlikely landscapes. And one of these days I’ll read ‘Downriver‘.
Jessica Adams’ ‘I’m a believer’ (Black Swan, 2002) has its comic moments, particularly around the school staff room, but I wasn’t convinced by the narrative as being told by the bloke – too new man – the detail wasn’t there. It’s not good enough to be visited from the spirit world by a famous ’50s footballer, we need to know which one. I was happy enough when they got together in the end though not convinced by, say, dead partners making the microwave display say ‘hello’ as the antidote to cynicism. But in passing, a nice light touch. (Jan 18)
January 10, 2005 I thought it was great to be able to see all two hours of ‘Jerry Springer – the opera‘ on the good old Beeb. Fun and some decent tunes and set pieces and certainly a ‘proper’ opera. I particularly liked God as a fat white-suited Southern gentleman requesting help in his task. Was instructive too to someone like me who’s been averaging an opera or two a year just lately starting as an experiment moving towards appreciation to see the interaction betwixt soloists and chorus (swearing and all) and the duets etc in a context I understood more or less completely. Somehow made sense of the form of opera which, for me after this, becomes more comfortable. A valid subject matter suitably treated; without the ‘language’ (as mother and father used to call it) it would be diminished.
Mat Coward‘s detectives – Packham and Mitchell – get to be a better act with each book, though I find it difficult to be objective about a writer who is a friend. I can often look upon reading a book as like holding a conversation with the writer – how does it feel? – and feel it’s a valid critical tool to ask, would you fancy an evening in their company in a pub? Anyway ‘Over and under‘ (Five Star, 2004) allows Mat to indulge himself and entertain with the murder under investigation taking place at a cricket match involving a team of comedians, thus taking in two of his major predelictions. He’s hardly likely to challenge Rankin or Robinson but he tells a better joke. I was beginning to think I was too old for Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Letters to a young poet’ (written 1903-1908) but I’m giving them another go with more space and they’re not without their rewards; I have doubts about the translation (M.D.Herter Norton, 1934), though, feels clumsy to me. Wasn’t too many years ago I still thought Rainer Maria was a woman but his is a name which just keeps cropping up (namechecked by Jackie Leven for instance) and I shall be investigating the poetry.
Speaking of whom – Leven – his song ‘Courtship in Scottish factories‘ is a lovely piece of work, hell of a love song full of vulnerability and devotion, of a longing past desire; it’s a fine social historical document too (it’s on an album called ‘Songs for lonely Americans‘ released under the nom de plume of Sir Vincent Lone). Also enjoying an album of Stephen Foster songs performed by people like John Prine, Michelle Shocked and Mavis Staples going under the title of ‘Beautiful dreamer‘ – astonishing that so many songs you take for granted were the work of one man who died over 140 years ago. My wife bought me ‘Tom Jones & Jools Holland‘ for Xmas because she fancied hearing it; it certainly has its moments. He’s always had a great voice – ever see the clip of him on an early ‘Top of the pops’ in a black leather jacket with his band doing a dynamite ‘What’s I say?’. Got a Charley Patton (small) box set and was delighted to hear a really fresh (1929!) ‘We shall overcome’; makes me forget for a while my sincerely held belief any white middle class demo or movement sings that song is bound to lose. ‘Desert Island Discs‘ is never without the odd surprise for too long that makes even the seemingly most unlikely participant worth a listen; so Andy McNab (SAS, Iraq and Ireland, writer who I’m hardly gonna read unless it’s the only book in the house) picks the Clash and the Pogues.
And more BBC: half-way through the DVD set of Dennis Potter‘s totally absorbing ‘The singing detective‘. Very funny list of things he chooses to recite to himself in an effort to think of anything but anything remotely connected with sex as the delicious Joanne Whalley administers the medicinal balm to his lower regions. Lousy to think how very unlikely it is they – even the BBC – would invest in a 6-parter like this these days. You need to really concentrate for an hour at a time, you see.
Who’s that lady?