Peter Temple 1946 – 2018

The Australian writer, Peter Temple, died on the 8th of March; he had been seriously ill for some little time. I first got to know Peter’s work through his Jack Irish novels and was fortunate enough to get to know him a little personally, initially meeting him at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and then, later, in London, at the home of Sarah Lutyens, the agent who represented us both. Peter was, as someone recently suggested, one of the last great curmudgeons of our time, and great company, as long as, if his caustic ire was aimed in your direction, you were prepared to duck.

Peter’s last two books are, I believe, two of the best, if not the best, contemporary crime novels of this century. The Broken Shore, published in 2005, won the CWA Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel. That was followed in 2009 by Truth, which was the first ever crime novel to win, in 2010, the prestigious Australian Miles Franklin Literary Award. They were the first pair in a planned loosely linked trilogy, the last of which will never now, all too sadly, appear.

After reading The Broken Shore, the novelist and journalist John Lanchester wrote …

Ever since I read The Broken Shore, I’ve been hopping up and down in anticipation of Peter Temple’s next book. The Broken Shore is a masterpiece, as good as any new novel I’ve read in the last ten years. I had a sneaking thought that it might prove impossible to follow; I’m delighted that Peter Temple has and I can’t wait to read Truth.

I felt the same and I have to confess that when I first got my hands on a proof copy of Truth and read it greedily, too much so, I was vaguely disappointed. It wasn’t as good as its predecessor, surely? Then I read it again and realised I was wrong. I had been wanting something the same and this was different; it was tighter, tauter; a trap for careless readers. Each sentence, each conversation, however brief, however truncated, holds meaning; the things unsaid, unexpressed, hold meaning. I’ve read it now at least half a dozen times and each time with pleasure and still a sense of another writer’s wonder: how does he DO this? How does he do this so bloody well? Peter, you cantankerous old bastard, you were just, bless you, too bloody good!

When John Connolly and Declan Burke asked me to contribute an essay to Books to Die For, in which 119 authors choose and write about their favourite crime novels, I jumped at the chance to write about The Broken Shore. This is how my piece ends …

… there is one further thing that, for this reader, anyway, resonates from the title: the echo of Robert Hughes’s 1987 account of the founding of Australia, The Fatal Shore. For this novel is not just expertly set in a particular country – a particular area of county, a particular place – permeated by generations of history; it shows both the shifts and virtual disintegration of some communities, and the rabid racial discrimination – shockingly outspoken in some instances here – that demonises the Aboriginal people as belonging to a feral underclass.

When it was published, I was happy to be quoted as saying: “Put simply, Temple is a master, and The Broken Shore is a masterful book.” Nothing, in the four or five times that I have since read it, has given me cause to change my mind.

What was it Raymond Chandler said about Dashiell Hammett? Something about him taking murder out of the Venetian vase and dropping it into the alley. No longer the candlestick in the library, but the sap to the back of the head going the wrong way up a dingy one-way street.

Real crimes committed by real people.

Chandler didn’t do a bad job of that himself.

Neither, closer to hand, did Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo with their ten books featuring the Swedish policeman Martin Beck; nor William McIlvanney in his brilliant and inspirational 1977 novel, Laidlaw, set in Glasgow.

Whether Temple has read McIlvanney or Sjowall and Wahloo, or whether he’s read George Pelecanos, say, or Walter Mosley, is neither here nor there. What is relevant is that they all utilize the crime novel in similar ways: telling a story, yes, and a story about people, some of whom you come to care about, care deeply, but also – more importantly? as importantly – they use it as a tool, a tool with which to open up and expose a small area of society for us to examine and understand.

“I am drawn to the sparse and the dry and to the idea that if you concentrate you can do powerful things with a few sticks and stones.”

Peter Temple’s own words. The Broken Shore is very powerful indeed.

Peter’s obituary in the Australian newspaper, The Age, ends …

When his Miles Franklin-winning novel Truth was published, British crime writer John Harvey told The Age that Temple used the crime novel to strip away layers of hypocrisy. ”Truth was a pretty apt title for one of Peter’s books,’’ he said. ”He has a knack of pinning down the day-to-day nature of people’s lives and laying bare their weaknesses and obsessions.’’

The whole business was about truth, Temple once told me, creating the illusion of truth.

”If there’s going to be truth in it, it’s about the emotional response, it’s not about the accuracy of the detail. It’s about the fact that it spoke to you.’’

Sadly for readers everywhere, Temple will speak no more truth.

Temple 1

Temple 2


Problems of the Prostate & Other News …

As some of you will already know, towards the end of last year I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, for which I’m currently having treatment at University College Hospital, London. The cancer is quite aggressive [9 out of a possible 10 on the Gleason Scale], but has still not managed to breach the capsule of the prostate itself. Because of the position of the tumour, surgery is not an option, so I’m following a proven course involving on-going hormone treatment and chemotherapy, both of which have begun, with radiotherapy to follow later in the year. The care I’ve been receiving is excellent and I’m feeling very positive about the eventual outcome.

These kinds of treatments are exhausting though, and there are times, during the chemotherapy especially, when your blood count is low and you’re particularly liable to infection. [Chemo kills the good cells along with the bad!] With this in mind, I’ve decided to set aside the plans that were in place to mark the publication of Body & Soul in April, and kick up a bit of a shindig when the paperback appears, most probably early next year.

The book itself, however, the fourth in the Frank Elder series, will duly be published by William Heinemann on April 19th, and the first in the series, Flesh & Blood, has just been re-released as a fine-looking Arrow paperback.

B & S Front

F&B 1

Elsewhere, and even as I write this, producer David Hunter and his team of actors are ensconced in a BBC Radio Drama studio, doing their best to make sense of my final two scripts for the Inspector Chen series for BBC Radio 4, Enigma of China & Shanghai Redemption. No transmission dates as yet, but, be assured, I will pass them on as soon as available.

Chen 1

Chen 2

And finally, just when I was thinking it would never happen, BBC Radio 4 Extra are repeating the mammoth undertaking that was mine and Shelley Silas’ dramatisation of Paul Scott’s magnificent Raj Quartet. Starring the likes of Anna Maxwell Martin, Lia Williams and Benedict Cumberbatch before he was, well, Benedict Cumberbatch, the programmes were originally broadcast in 2005 and have not been heard since. Each is broadcast three times a day and then available for a month or so on the BBC Radio iPlayer.


If you want to find out more about prostate cancer, this is an excellent place to go.

Elder Begins …

Frank Elder first saw the light of day – in print, that is – in a short story called “Due North”, which was first published in Crime in the City, edited by Martin Edwards (The Do Not Press, London, 2002) It was reprinted in The Best British Mysteries, edited by Maxim Jakubowski (Allison & Busby, London, 2003) and collected in A Darker Shade of Blue, (William Heinemann, London, 2010). It’s currently available in an Arrow paperback.


This is how it starts …

Elder hated this: the after-midnight call, the neighbours penned back behind hastily unravelled tape, the video camera’s almost silent whir; the way, as if reproachful, the uniformed officers failed to meet his eye; and this especially, the bilious taste that fouled his mouth as he stared down at the bed, the way the hands of both children rested near the cover’s edge, as if at peace, their fingers loosely curled.

Of course, there is no peace. Certainly not for Elder, even though by the end of the story that’s what, in desperation and despair, he’s seeking, leaving his wife, Joanne; his eleven year old daughter, Katherine [“eleven going on twenty-four”]; leaving Nottingham and travelling about as far west in the country as it is possible to go, the Penwith peninsula, deep into Cornwall on the road to Land’s End.

There, brief and unsatisfactory visits back to visit his family aside, he stays until in her teens Katherine seeks him out herself and another sad chapter of their story begins.

From his position atop the rough stone wall, Elder tracked the progress of the bus as it trailed around the road’s high curve, the rough-hewn moor above, the fertile bottom land below. Today the sky was shade on shade of blue, and palest where it curved to meet the sea, the horizon a havering trick of light on which the outline of a large boat, a tanker, seemed to have been stuck like an illustration from a child’s book. Elder knew there would be lobster boats, two or three, checking their catch close in against the cliff and out of sight from where he stood.

He watched as the bus stopped and Katherine got down, standing for a moment till the bus had pulled away, a solitary figure by the road’s edge and, at that distance, barely recognisable to the naked eye. Even so, he knew it was her; the turn of her head, the way she stood.

With a quick movement, Katherine hoisted her rucksack on to one shoulder, hitched it into position and crossed the road towards the top of the lane that would bring her, eventually, down to the cottage where Elder lived.

Dropping from the wall, he hurried across the field.

That’s from chapter two of Flesh & Blood, originally published by William Heinemann in 2004, and just reissued by Arrow Books in a paperback version designed to match the new and fourth Elder novel, Body & Soul, which has a similar beginning; only Katherine is now in her early twenties and sorely troubled, seeking something – solace? answers? – from her father that he finds it close to impossible to provide.

Flesh & Blood is published today, March 1st, and this month is available as a Kindle Monthly Deal at 99p.

Body & Soul is published by William Heinemann on April 19th.

F&B 1

B & S Front




Now’s the Time … Again

A swift return to the first Resnick story, the opening section of which is reprinted in the previous blog … and here comes the ending. Don’t worry if you still have the whole thing to read and want to avoid spoiling the denouement, the final surprise. There is no surprise. “They’re all dying, Charlie,” is how the story begins and that’s how it ends. How most stories end, I suppose.

The maitre d’ at Ronnie Scott’s had trouble seating Resnick because he was stubbornly on his own; finally he slipped him into one of the raised tables at the side, next to a woman who was drinking copious amounts of mineral water and doing her knitting. Spike Robinson was on the stand, stooped and somewhat fragile- looking, Ed Silver’s contemporary, more or less. A little bit of Stan Getz, a lot of Lester Young, Robinson himself had been one of Resnick’s favourite tenor players for quite a while. There was an album of Gershwin tunes that found its way on to the record player an awful lot.

Now Resnick are spaghetti and measured out his beer and listened as Robinson took the tune of ‘I Should Care’ between his teeth and worried at it like a terrier with a favourite ball. At the end of the number, he stepped back to the microphone.”I’d like to dedicate this final tune of the set to the memory of Ed Silver, a very fine jazz musician who this week passed away. Charlie Parker’s ‘Now’s the Time’.

And when it was over and the musicians had departed backstage and Ronnie Scott himself was standing there encouraging the applause – “Spike Robinson, ladies and gentlemen, Spike Robinson”- Resnick blew his nose and raised his glass and continued to sit there with the tears drying on his face. Seven minutes past eleven, near as made no difference.

That Gershwin album – The Gershwin Collection – was used as background in a number of scenes in the television version of the first Resnick novel, Lonely Hearts, one of the two in which Tom Wilkinson played Charlie. [And before you start asking, neither Lonely Hearts nor Rough Treatment are commercially available and the BBC have no plans, apparently, to repeat them. Please don’t ask me why because I don’t know.]

Towards the end of the 1990s, I booked the 100 Club in London’s Oxford Street for a Slow Dancer Press publication party and booked Spike Robinson as the evening’s featured guest, sitting in with the Nottingham-based band, Second Nature, in place of their leader, Mel Thorpe. And so came to pass one of my proudest moments, when I got to climb up on stage, take the microphone, and say, “Spike Robinson, ladies and gentlemen, Spike Robinson.”

Spike Robinson died of a heart attack just a few years later, at the age of 71.

My friend Tony Burns, whose band played opposite Second Nature on that occasion, died in 2013 at the age of 72.

“They’re all dying, Charlie.”




Now’s the Time …


Time 2

… borrowed as a title from Charlie Parker, was the first Charlie Resnick short story I wrote – just about the first of any kind. It was first published in London Noir, a collection edited by Maxim Jakubowski for Serpents Tail in 1994; since then it’s been reprinted several times, twice in the States, once in Germany, once in France, and on two more occasions here in the UK, notably in the collection of the same name, first published by Slow Dancer Press in 1999 and then, in an extended edition, by William Heinemann in 2002 and still in print as an Arrow paperback, I believe.

This is how it begins …

“They’re all dying, Charlie.”

They had been in the kitchen, burnished tones of Clifford Brown’s trumpet, soft like smoke from down the hall. Dark rye bread sliced and ready, coffee bubbling, Resnick had tilted the omelette pan and let the whisked eggs swirl around before forking the green beans and chopped red pepper into their midst. The smell of garlic and butter permeated the room.

Ed Silver stood watching, trying to ignore the cats that nudged, variously, around his feet. Through wisps of grey hair, a fresh scab showed clearly among the lattice-work of scars. The hand which held his glass was swollen at the knuckles and it shook.

“S’pose you think I owe you one, Charlie? That it?”

Earlier that evening, Resnick had talked Silver out of swinging a butcher’s cleaver through his own bare foot. “What I thought, Charlie, start at the bottom and work your way up, eh?” Resnick had bundled him into a cab and brought him home, stuck a beer in his hand and set to making them both something to eat. He hadn’t seen Ed Silver in ten years or more, a drinking club in Carlton whose owner liked his jazz; Silver had set out his stall early, two choruses of ‘I’ve Got Rhythm’ solo, breakneck tempo, bass and drums both dropping out and the pianist grinning, open-mouthed. The speed of thought; those fingers then.

Resnick divided the omelette on to two plates. “You want to bring the bread>” he said. “We’ll eat in the other room.”

The boldest of the cats, Dizzy, followed them hopefully through. The Clifford Brown Memorial album was still playing ‘Theme of No Repeat’.

“They’re all dying, Charlie.”


“Every bugger!”

And now it was true.

SILVER Edward Victor. Suddenly at home, on February 16, 1993. Acclaimed jazz musician of the be-bop era. Funeral service and memorial meeting, Friday, February 19 at Golders Green Crematorium at 11.45 a.m. Inquiries to Mason Funeral and Monumental Services, High Lanes, Finchley.

Time 1



Time 4

Time 3

(Annotated) iPod Shuffle, Feb. 2018

  1. Somewhere Over the Rainbow : Buffy Ford *
  2. 44 Vicksburg : Little Brother Montgomery
  3. Lady Day : Rod Stewart **
  4. Joanne : Michael Nesmith***
  5. Arkansas (Part 1) : Bill Frisell
  6. Lights of Laramie : Ian Tyson
  7. If I could be With You (One Hour Tonight) : James P. Johnson
  8. Rosetta : The New York All Stars
  9. Parchman Farm : Mose Allison ****
  10. My Girl : Otis Redding
  11. Now’s the Time : Charlie Parker*****
  12. Me & Paul : Willie Nelson
  13. Going Home : Leonard Cohen ******
  14. Pancho & Lefty : Willie Nelson
  15. Evening Shuffle : Johnny Shines
  16. Gimme An Inch Girl : Ian Matthews
  17. Duke of Earl : Gene Chandler
  18. Billie’s Bounce : Charlie Parker
  19. Time on My Hands : Billie Holiday *******
  20. Cold Hearts/Closed Minds : Nanci Griffith ********
  • * This solo version was recorded by John Stewart’s wife, Buffy Ford, as part of a short-lived project called Darwin’s Army, a four-piece group in which John & Buffy were joined by John Hoke & Dave Crossland sing a mixture of traditional American folk songs, mixed with compositions by the likes of Tim Hardin, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan … and Yip Harburg & Howard Arlen’s all-time classic. Not, in truth, a great album [Appleseed APR 1025] but this, I think, is a lovely version of the song.
  • ** My only other experience of Rod Stewart having been seeing him at the Richmond Jazz and Blues Festival in the mid-60s, when, introduced as Rod the Mod, he was a less-than-convincing second vocalist to Long John Baldry in Steampacket, a relatively short lived blues band [the nucleus of which – Brian Auger on organ, Julie Driscoll on vocals – went on to form the more successful Brian Auger & The Trinity] I was almost totally unprepared for Stewart’s first solo album, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down, (1970) on which, supported by Ronnie Wood & Ian McLagan from the Small Faces amongst others, he uses his rusty voice to great effect on a range of songs, from Jagger & Richards’ “Street Fighting Man” to a rearranged “Maid of Constant Sorrow” (“Man” in this version) and – quite superb this – Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town”. Four of the songs, including the title track, were written by Stewart himself, as was this one, “Lady Day”, which comes from the equally fine follow-up album in the same vein, Gasoline Alley41NA4mNgHdL
  • *** Probably the most musically literate of The Monkees, Nesmith [whose mother made a fortune from Liquid Paper – Tippex to you and me] released some good country albums with the First and Second National Bands in the 1970s, the majority of them featuring Red Rhodes on pedal steel guitar. “Joanne” is perhaps the best known of the songs he composed, along with “Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun to Care)” and “Some of Shelley’s Blues”, both of which are on the album, Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash. I saw him perform a couple of times during this period, once at the Roundhouse in Camden, the other time at a theatre in Victoria, at the end of which evening, in the spirit of something I didn’t quite understand, he told us the evening had been as much about  the way we were communicating with him as he was with us and bade us, therefore, not to applaud after his final number, but to leave in a mood of quiet contemplation. Which, mostly, we did.
  • **** I first heard this in the late 50s/early 60s, and almost certainly bought the album, Local Colour, from Chris Willard’s jazz record shop in New Cross, because it was one of the tracks. Allison was a better-than-average post-bop pianist – he made early recordings with Al Cohn/Zoot Sims and with Stan Getz – and a distinctive singer with a soft and insinuating southern blues-tinged voice that was a clear inspiration to Georgie Fame. When I saw him performing at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho some dozen years ago, it was good to see Georgie sitting in the audience. R-4576302-1368876126-1817.jpeg
  • ***** There are two quintessential sets of early Charlie Parker recordings; those he made for the Savoy label in the mid-40s and those on Dial, mostly slightly later. Both “Now’s the Time” and “Billie’s Bounce”, also included in this shuffle, were recorded in New York City on November 26th, 1945 by a group known as Charlie Parker’s Reboppers, in which Parker’s alto was joined by Miles Davis on trumpet and a rhythm section of Curley Russell on bass, Max Roach on drums and (possibly – there’s some discographical argument, I understand, about this) Dizzy Gillespie at the piano. And talking of the piano, my favourite version of “Now’s the Time”, Parker’s aside, is by John Lewis on his 1960 album, Improvised Meditations and Excursions. Love it! Play it all the time!
  • ****** It’s difficult to listen to any of Cohen’s albums in the last decade of his life – Old Ideas, 2012, Popular Problems, 2014 and You Want It Darker, 2016 – without realising that he had a keen and growing awareness of his own mortality. You Want It Darker, which he was only able to finish with help from his son, Adam, was released just a few weeks before his death and is, to my ageing ears at least, easeful and disturbing to varying degrees. Comfort listening for those about to enter their final decade.Cohen
  • ******* There’s an affecting scene in David Hare’s film for television, Page Eight [the first of what later became The Worricker Trilogy] in which Bill Nighy shows Rachel Weisz a segment  from the 1957 American television programme The Sound of Jazz from 1957, in which Lester Young on tenor sax is among Billie Holiday’s accompanists as she sings “Fine and Mellow”. In the clip Nighy chooses, we see Young, far from well, soloing, then a close up of Billie Holiday listening intently, love, regret and admiration mingling on her face. As Nighy points out, however, the moment the solo is over, she is sharp to the mike to continue singing. For Nighy, it’s both a way, I think, of persuading Weisz into loving him, at the same time as saying that when push comes to shove, as inevitably it must, it’s work that wins. The critic, Nat Hentoff, was in the studio during the filming of The Sound of Jazz, and had this to say about that part of the session: Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard, and [he and Holiday] were looking at each other, their eyes were sort of interlocked, and she was sort of nodding and half–smiling. It was as if they were both remembering what had been—whatever that was. And in the control room we were all crying. When the show was over, they went their separate ways.
  • ******* “Time on My Hands” was one of the many songs Billie Holiday recorded with various Teddy Wilson aggregations during the late 30s and early 40s, many of them featuring Lester Young. Here, the tune is played almost painfully slowly, Billie’s voice weary yet knowing; the only solo is from Wilson on piano, and all we hear of Lester is his saxophone behind Billie’s voice more or less throughout, the sound distant and subdued.
  • ******** This begins with two of the best opening lines from a Dear John song that I know … “Bags are waiting in a cab downstairs, Got a ticket in my  pocket says I’ll make it out of here”. Only rivalled, perhaps, by these from “Bittersweet” on the Everything But the Girl 1985 album, Eden. “Don’t talk to me in that familiar way/When the keys are in my hand.”
  • Nanci

More Wasted Years …

Wasted Years was the first of five radio adaptations based on the Resnick novels and short stories. First broadcast in 1995, it has been repeated several times since, and is about to be broadcast again, in two parts, on BBC Radio 4 Extra on Monday, February 5th and Tuesday, 6th, each episode playing three times – 10.00am, 3.00pm and (for the insomniacs out there) 3.00am the following morning.

Like all of the other dramatisations, Wasted Years was produced by David Hunter [with whom I’m currently working on the Inspector Chen series for Radio 4] and, unlike the others, featured Tom Wilkinson as Resnick. Tom, of course, had played the role in the televised versions of the first two novels, Lonely Hearts and Rough Treatment, which were shown on BBC One in  1992 & 1993. Two other actors also reprised their roles: Kate Eaton as Lynn Kellogg and Daniel Ryan as Kevin Naylor.

The radio version of Wasted Years is also notable for the performance of Gillian Bevan, who plays the singer, Ruth Strange, and sings the title song over the credits. The song was written by singer/songwriter Liz Simcock [recently on tour in a duo with Clive Gregson], the lyrics based on those I came up with for the original novel. Gillian sings it so well that every time the programme is broadcast there are enquiries as to whether it is more generally available – which, sadly, is not the case. Maybe Liz can be persuaded to include it on her next CD.

Every night I spend waiting
All those dreams and wasted tear,
Every minute, eery second, babe,
The worst of all my fears.
When you walk back through the door again,
All you’ll have for me is empty arms,
And empty promises,
And ten more, ten more, oh baby,
Ten more wasted years.

Wasted 1

People sometimes ask me which of the Resnick novels is my favourite, and, over the years, my answers have varied; but somewhere around the middle of Wasted Years occurs one of my favourite chapters, not least because [like the final speech in the Nottingham Playhouse/New Perspectives production of Darkness, Darkness] it contrives to yoke together Thelonious Monk and Nottingham’s Old Market Square.

In the square, a fifty-year-old man, trousers rolled past his knees, was paddling in one of the fountains, splashing handfuls of water up under the arms of his fraying coat. A young woman with a tattooed face was singing an old English melody to a scattering of grimy pigeons. Resnick stood by one of the benches, listening: a girl in denim shorts and overlapping T-shirts, razored hair, leather waistcoat with a death’s head on the back, standing there, oblivious of everything else, singing, in a voice strangely thin and pure, “She Moved Through the Fair”.

When she had finished and Resnick, wishing to say thanks, tell her how it had sounded, give her, perhaps, money, walked purposefully towards her, she turned her back on him and walked away.

On the steps, in the shadow of the lions, couples were kissing. Young men in short sleeves, leaning from the windows of their cars, slowly circled the square. Across from where Resnick was standing was the bland brick and glass of the store that twenty years before had been the Black Boy, the pub where he and Ben Riley would meet for an early evening pint. The glass that ten years ago was smashed and smashed again as rioters swaggered and roared through the city’s streets.

No way to hold it all back now.

Inside the house, he showered, turning the water as hot as he dared and lifting his face towards it, eyes closed; soaping his body over and over, the way he did after being called out to examine some poor victim, murdered often or not for small change or jealousy, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Steam clouded the bathroom, clogged the air, and still Resnick stood there, back bent now beneath the spray, content to let it wash over him.

In the kitchen, he felt the smoothness of the coffee beans in the small of his hand. He knew already which album he would pull from the shelves, slide on to the turntable from its sleeve.

The purple postage stamp on the cover, Monk’s face in profile at its centre, trilby had sloping forward, angled away, the thrust of the goatee beard rhyming the curve of the hat’s brim. Riverside 12-209: The Unique Thelonious Monk. “If only they’d take away the blindfold and the handcuffs,” Elaine used to say of Monk’s playing, “it might make all the difference.” Resnick would smile. Why play the right notes when the wrong ones will do?

Resnick set his coffee on the table by the chair and cued in the second track.

Monk picks the notes from the piano tentatively, as if it were a tune he once heard long ago and then, indistinctly, through an open window from an apartment down the street. There is more than uncertainty in the way his fingers falter, sliding between half-remembered chords, surprising themselves with fragments of melody, with things he would have preferred to have remained forgotten. “Memories of You”.

Moments when it is easy to imagine he might get up from the piano and walk away – except you know he cannot, any more than when the solo is finally over he can let it go. When you’re sure it’s over, probing with another pair of notes, a jinking run, a fading chord.

At the track’s end, he seems to hear her feet walk across the floor above: door to dressing table to wardrobe, wardrobe to dressing table to bed. If he went now and pushed open the door into the hallway, would he hear her voice?

“Charlie, aren’t you coming up?”

The final weeks when they lay beneath the same sheets, not speaking, not touching, catching at their breath, fearful that in sleep they might be turned inward by some old habit or need.

“Christ, Charlie!” Ben Riley had exclaimed. “What the heck’s the matter with you? You got a face like bloody death!”

And in truth he had – because in truth that’s what it had been like: dying.

A long death and slow, eked out, a little each day.


“Don’t you see, Charlie?”

Once the blindfold had been taken away, it made all the difference.

from Wasted Years, first published, Viking, 1993

Wasted 2

Out of the Archive: a Slow Dancer Reading

A few days ago I was reminded a piece by the poet Anthony Wilson called “Life Saving Poems”, describing his visit to a Slow Dancer poetry reading at the Voice Box at the Royal Festival Hall. It was reprinted, with Anthony’s permission, on the old Mellotone blog in 2013 and seemed so evocative, so well-written, that I’m reproducing it again here …

Sometime in the early Nineties I did a very brave thing. I took myself to a poetry reading. I went on my own. I knew nobody there and none of the poets who were reading. The reading took place in the Voice Box on the top floor of the Festival Hall, at London’s South Bank. I was terrified. For a start, everyone seemed to know everyone else. There seemed to be a lot of kissing. It was a bit like showing up at church.

Next, I saw immediately I had woefully misjudged the dress code. The crumpled writer look (grandad shirts and jackets; cursory and floating dresses) was very much de rigueur. Retro ice cream salesman shirtsleeve stripes and baggy shorts were very much not.

For safety, I sat somewhere near the back, praying no one would speak to me.

The evening was hosted by a very impressive and confident looking man wearing the most crumpled suit in the room. He introduced himself as John Harvey, editor-in-chief of Slow Dancer Press, the reading’s sponsors. He told us a few jokes, and explained in a manner that was both light-hearted and somehow menacing that Slow Dancer really did need our money and we should all subscribe to its poetry magazine.

He pulled from his suit pocket a pale looking book of poems, which turned out to be his. With great seriousness and tenderness he read us a poem. The room went very quiet. At the end of the poem we clapped and John introduced us to the evening’s first poet, Lee Harwood.

Lee also seemed very sure of himself. He shuffled papers and old copies of his books and gave the appearance of not knowing what he was going to do next. At the same time he seemed ruthlessly calm and in control of everything he said. His poems seemed carved out of a different language to me, especially those about the natural world and climbing, of which he read several. For twenty-five minutes I did not hear myself breathing.

When Lee had finished reading we clapped and John got up and read another poem and again I seemed to stop breathing. The poem was about Chet Baker, I think. Then he introduced the next poet, Libby Houston.

I wasn’t sure then, and am still not sure now, what to make of Libby Houston’s reading. (I mean this as the strongest praise I can offer). By turns hilarious, unflinchingly honest, deadpan, slapstick and wildly lyrical the words of Libby’s poems seemed to pour out of her at a variety of speeds. Sometimes they came in a torrent, and sometimes in a whisper, almost like a child. But they all seemed to contain vital energy and truth, including the knowledge that Libby herself did not fully understand where some of them seemed to be coming from. In the twenty or so years of going to poetry readings since, I have still not heard anything like it.

When Libby had finished John stood up and said we would need to recharge our glasses during the interval, which was now, and while we were about it please could we buy some Slow Dancer books and magazines.

At this point of the evening I became aware again of my lack of knowledge of poetry reading protocol. People walked purposefully around the room in the direction of the poets who had read, including John and the evening’s final poet, Peter Sansom. I noticed that many of them were holding open the books and magazines they had bought from the table at the back. This seemed to me the best way of engineering a conversation with one of them without appearing strange. I bought myself a couple of back issues of Slow Dancer, and waited in what looked like the most busy queue, which was the one for Peter.

I had been sending Peter Sansom my poems to The North, and had even bought one of his books. In truth, he was probably the reason I went to the reading in the first place. For reasons I had not stopped to analyse I thought of him as a bit of a hero. So as I edged nearer to him in the queue I began to grow very nervous. I realised I had no idea what to say to him. If I said my name that would appear boastful, as though I was expecting him to know it. If I mentioned that I’d been sending him poems that would also look self-promoting, as though my poems were somehow more memorable than the thousands of others he received each week in his mailbag. On the other hand I could hardly resort to what I was overhearing others saying to him further down the queue, most of which sounded like offers of a place to crash for the night.
When it came to my turn l blurted to Peter everything I promised I wouldn’t in the queue. Amazingly, he seemed to know exactly who I was. He appraised me for a moment, shook my hand, and taking from my other a Slow Dancer to sign said: ‘You’re looking very cool, Anthony.’ His reading, from his soon-to-be-published January, was similarly generous: full of anecdote, good natured red-herrings and warmly lyrical.

The evening’s final act, a late night solo, it occurs to me now, was a reading by John. From the same pale book he chose its title poem, ‘Ghost of a Chance’. To the now familiar pin-drop quiet and lack of oxygen I now became aware of moisture gathering in the corners of my eyes. As one of John Ash‘s poems puts it, the surprise was ‘like a snowball in the back’. I’ll never forget it.

Ghost of a Chance
He plays the tune lazily,
pretty much the way he must
have heard Billie sing it,
but slower, thick-toned,
leaning back upon the beat,
his mind half on the melody,
half on the gin.

Between takes he stands,
head down, shrunken inside
a suit already overlarge,
cheeks sunken in.
He thinks of her, Billie:
already it is possible
he has started to bleed within.

From the control room, laughter,
but that’s not the sound he hears;
tenor close to his mouth,
he turns towards the doors:
unseen, not quite unbidden,
someone has just slipped in.

At the end of eight bars
he closes his eyes and blows.
After two choruses he will cover
his mouthpiece with its shield:
not play again.

John Harvey, from Ghosts of a Chance (Smith/Doorstop) 1992. Reprinted in Out of Silence (Smith/Doorstop) 2014