Another set of tracks thrown up by my excellent little Victure MP3 player on my morning walk on Hampstead Heath – warm this morning, without being overwhelming, and not an ominous cloud in the sky, unlike Friday, when they darkened, circled and finally unleashed a downpour that half-drowned me.
Stars Fell On Alabama : Billie Holiday
(If They Asked Me) I Could Write a Book : Ella Fitzgerald
P. F. Sloane : Rumer
My Next Thirty Years : Tim McGraw
Never No Lament (Don’t Get Around Much Anymore) Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
Late For the Sky : Joan Osborne
Guitar : Tracey Thorne
Hard Promises to Keep : Kimmie Rhodes & Willie Nelson
She’s Got You : Rosanne Cash
Parchman Farm : Mose Allison
Old Time Feeling : Guy Clark
Alison : Elvis Costello
Boulder to Birmingham : Emmylou Harris
So Cold in Vietnam : Johnny Shines
What’s New : Louis Armstrong w. Oscar Peterson
As Long As I Live : Rosemary Clooney w. Scott Hamilton & Warren Vaché
What better way we thought to mark the twenty fifth anniversary of our being together, being a couple, than a trip to the sea; and what better location at this time of the year than a visit to the Folkestone Triennial – fresh sea air, a host of seagulls, a curve of pebbly beach; fine views along the coast, all the way to the white cliffs of Dover; fish and chips, and art in a variety of modes just about wherever you look.
The train from St. Pancras was twelve coaches long [typing that reminds me of an old song from skiffle group days] and far from busy; like most of the other passengers we were wearing masks. Sarah had printed out a map offering three routes and we chose The Milky Way, which begins with the Bob & Roberta Smith above and a large Gilbert & George wall piece outlining police powers of dispersal which I, somewhat stupidly, took to be the real thing. I mean, the powers might well be, but not expressed in this flamboyant form.
We were soon on the site of a dismantled gas works, dominated by Morag Myerscough’s Flock of Seagulls Bag of Stolen Chips, an arrangement of colourful panels in the shape of the old gasometer, each one bearing the words of local residents in response to questions about the site – what they remembered and how it might be developed.
Follow the black path down into the now derelict site and you come to a large screen showing a film of people elegantly and enthusiastically doing a line dance the excellent guide book informs me is called The Slosh. This is Jacqueline Donachie’s joyful and captivating Beautiful Sunday, celebrating not only the former Gasworks social club, but also “all the dance floors of Folkestone past and present.”
The third piece on this site is Jyll Bradley’s Green / Light (For M.R.), 2014, which uses green acrylic sheets and aluminium poles to merge the shape of the demolished gasometer with visual memories of the hop fields the artist remembers from her childhood. Fascinating to look at and walk through, impossible – for me, at least – to photograph adequately.
At this point, not having had a coffee hit since our flat whites from Joe & the Juice at St Pancras station, and feeling in need of a caffeine boost, we detoured to The Old High Street, before rejoining the route at the harbour, site of the former roll-on-roll-off ferry ramp, strong winds stirring the waves beneath where we were walking and sending them splashing high over the harbour edge.
We walked along the Harbour Arm as far as the Lighthouse, turning back along Marine Parade, an expanse of pebble beach to our left and beyond it the light reflecting back wonderfully off the sea.
Did we have the energy to proceed further and discover Rana Begum’s half-mile of coloured beach huts? Sad to say, we did not. Not just our feet, but various joints were beginning to ache and the 5.00pm train home seemed an inviting prospect. Briefly taking in some of Patrick Corillon’s relic boxes on the way, we arrived back at the station with time to spare and so enjoyed a little rest and recuperation in a beautifully laid out park nearby.
All in all, a smashing day – even if, somehow, we managed to miss out on the fish and chips. Might just have to sneak back, find those beach huts, after all it continues till early November.
There used to be a record store at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street, across the street from Selfridges, and if I were down in London from where I was then living in Nottingham, I’d make a point of calling in. Good and varied stock; friendly and knowlegeable staff. Can’t remember what it was called. But there I was – autumn of ’86? early ’87? – leafing through the racks of albums when one of the guys who worked there came over and asked if I was looking for anything special.
‘You’ve got the Kennedy one?’
The Last Campaign. Yes, I had.
‘Nothing newer than that, I’m afraid. But look …’ Reaching in amongst the albums. ‘If you like John Stewart, you might like this. Give it a listen.’
This was The Last of the True Believers by someone called Nanci Griffith. Presumably that was her on the front cover in a polka dot dress standing outside Woolworth’s, a fat hardback cradled in both hands. [On later investigation it turns out to be Donald Spoto’s biogrpahy of Tennessee Williams, The Kindness of Strangers.] And over to her right there’s a couple who might be just holding hands or maybe even dancing and the man is Lyle Lovett, surely?
I turn the cover over. Yes, Lovett’s on the record, singing harmony. And there are a couple of other names I know, Bela Fleck on banjo, Phil Donnelly, guitar. Plus another picture of Nanci Griffith with yet another book and this time it’s clearly Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, a novel I’d only recently read and liked a great deal.
And as if that weren’t enough in the way of little markers of temptation, there’s a note saying the album is dedicated to Count Basie. Count Basie?
“This album is dedicated to the memory of Count Basie because he once made my clumsy feet dance upon the University of Texas ballroom floor as if on wing …”
Lovett, McMurtry, Basie – something interesting was going on here. Passing up the invitation to listen before buying, I paid up and was on my way. Perhaps I was in a hurry. It wasn’t till several days later, back home in Lenton, that I gave it a listen.
Side one begins with The Last of the True Believers and Love at the Five & Dime – two tracks still high among my favourites. Maybe all the songs weren’t equally strong and in the higher register her voice took a little getting used to, but with the next album, Lone Star State of Mind, which followed soon after, I was totally hooked. Cold Hearts/Closed Minds; Ford Econoline; Trouble in the Fields. Great songs. She even manages to purge some of the sentimentality from Julie Gold’s From a Distance.
It wasn’t so much later – the spring of ’88 and I was in New York, visiting a friend – when I noticed that Nanci Griffith was playing at a small club in Greenwich Village – I like to think it was The Bitter End on Bleecker Street, but can’t be sure – whatever it was called both Griffith and her band were on terrific form and what sounded very good on record was even more so live.
I didn’t know then that not long after I returned to England she would be appearing at Nottingham’s Rock City. Monday, 2nd May, 1988. Tickets £5.00 in advance. [My friend, David Belbin, saved his ticket, which is how I know.] It was as good as New York had been, if not better. Another friend who was there that evening, the singer/songwriter Liz Simcock, describes it as a key moment in her life.
Liz was with me again a few years later when Nanci Griffith and her Blue Moon Orchestra played a concert in London – and this is where the wheels of coincidence start turning – because who should she invite to join her on stage but John Stewart – over here on tour himself – to play lead guitar and sing duet vocal on Stewart’s song which closes the Little Love Affairs album, Sweet Dreams Will Come.
Just one more connection. The last time I saw Nanci Griffith was at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall and a change in the personnel of her band had brought in the English guitarist – and singer/songwriter – Clive Gregson. The same Clive Gregson who would record and tour with Liz Simcock not so many years later.
When I visited the Helen Frankenthaler exhibition, Imagining Landscapes, at the Gagosian Grosvenor Hill recently, it was just a few days short of the anniversary of the death of the poet Lee Harwood, and he was very much on my mind. In particular, I remembered a conversation we had back in 2009, when I had not long begun a course in History of Art at Birkbeck College and was in the process of writing an essay about Frankenthaler. Lee recalled visiting her studio in the mid-60s with fellow poet and art critic John Ashbery and seeing Frankenthaler working on a canvas held on a low frame close to the ground, pouring paint directly onto the canvas from a number of cans that might have been old coffee tins.
As Eleanor Munro further described in Originals: American Women Artists …
She tacked a seven-by-ten foot piece of unsized, unprimed cotton duck to the floor and, working with oil paint thinned nearly to the consistency of watercolour, poured and pushed it in its meanderings. By this method, she … gained what watercolorists have always had – freedom to make her gesture live on the canvas with stunning directness.
It seems that she controlled and shaped the flow of the paint to some degree, using squeegees or sponges, so that the resulting painting was a mixture of accident and design, resulting, as another New York poet and art critic, James Schuyler, put it, “chanced beauty”.
As Frankenthaler herself said, “I think most of my accidents are predetermined accidents.”
The exhibition at the Gagosian – beautifully and spaciously displayed – has thirteen works, ranging from the early 1950s to 1970s and illustrating the artist’s progression from paintings which included some figuration to a purer abstraction – but an abstraction which never quite leaves behind a suggestion of landscape.
I first came across Lee Harwood’s work in the 19th of the excellent Penguin Modern Poets series, purchased in 1971 when I was teaching English and Drama in Andover, Hampshire, and just beginning to send a little work of my own off to small magazines. Sandwiching, as it did, Lee’s poetry between that of the American John Ashbery – along with Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler, the best known of the New York Poets – and the British, but, like Lee, quite strongly American influenced, Tom Raworth, the selection opened me up to a new set of influences, a new range of possibilities.
From Andover, via Stevenage, to Nottingham, source of my first Harwood collection, The White Room, which combined some of the major poems from Penguin Modern Poets – “As Your Eyes Are Blue … “, “Landscape with 3 People”, “When the Geography Was Fixed” – with many others quite new to me and equally beguiling. Poems with stanzas underlined, scribbled down in notebooks, poems asterisked and starred, committed to memory. Poems I hamfistedly used as models, ending up with so many poor imitations. So much so that when I went as a participant to my first ever Arvon poetry writing course at Totleigh Barton in Devon – driving down from Nottingham in the midst of that amazing hot summer of ’76 in my green Citroen 2CV – the work I presented to the tutors at our first meeting must have read like the discards from Lee’s waste paper basket.
Without ever, I think, losing it altogether, that influence lessened with time. Truer to say, perhaps, I found a way of aligning it with that of Frank O’Hara, the two voices strongest at the back of my mind, until that day in 1993 when I first heard Robert Hass reading his poetry – but that’s another story.
I met Lee and we became friends …
Walking with Lee along the front by the sea, ruins of the old West Pier, shift and change of house fronts between Brighton and Hove. Small cups of coffee, thick and black; we go out for focaccia and cheese and bring them back
… and I was proud to publish three collections of his work with Slow Dancer Press: Dream Quilt – 30 Assorted Stories (1985); In the Mists – Mountain Poems (1993); Morning Light (1998).
Here is one of my favourites of Lee’s poems, “Gilded White”, the opening poem in Morning Light.
The last time I saw Lee we were both reading with John Lake’s jazz quartet at a small festival in Shoreham, not far along the south coast from where he lived. If there had to be a last time, I’m happy this was it, Lee’s voice soft yet clear over the shifting rhythms of the music, so clearly, so identifiably his.
In the September after Lee’s death, I was proud to be invited to read alongside Tom Raworth and others in a celebration of his life and work.
I’m reading a new book of poems by Ruth Valentine while behind me, though the open window, wide open because of the heat, the head of the local comp across the street hands out prizes for Art, Drama & Design and the students applaud enthusiastically, with the occasional whoop and holler, the sound underscored by the low, spaced sounds of Morton Feldman’s ‘Two Pianos’ on the stereo.
The poems are fine and spare, controlled in their sense of loss and pain. The applause rises to a crescendo. This music, reads the sleeve note, is intended to be quiet and is best played at a low volume.
A small group of the students is singing, sad, perhaps, or happy to be on the point of leaving; and overhead young swifts dart and sway, performing parabolas in the heavy air, testing their wings for what lies ahead.
Following on from his 2020 residency, Walter Price’s exhibition at Camden Art Centre – Pearl Lines – is his first solo show in England. Combining work begun during that residency with newer pieces made during lockdown in New York, the paintings and works on paper mix reality with abstraction, thriving on a jaunty sense of shape and colour, and on the relationships between different elements of his canvas – collage, coloured pencil, oil paint and acrylic. Encouraging, while perhaps simultaneously discouraging, too straightforward a reading of their ‘meaning’
In a statement quoted in the File Note Essay by Rianna Jade Parker on sale at the gallery, Price says …
They (this was in context to white viewership but it can also be applied to a general audience) want it (the art) to be easier for them to understand. They want the final answer. They want it to be already figured out. “He did this because he went to the Navy” or “he did this because he’s from the South”. I’ve been dislocated from my own roots. I don’t owe them location or context. I want the work to offer wonder, yet avoid being condensed to the politics around my identity.
Pearl Lines continues at Camden Art Centre until 29th August.
Setting off on my Hampstead Heath walk this morning, the rain was falling quite strongly – but not strongly enough to prevent me calling in at the Lido Café for one of Allesio’s excellent flat whites – and by the time I was close to half way round my usual Sunday route – three miles or so in total – and passing Kenwood House, it had more or less ceased.
I don’t know what it is with these algorithms, but the third song that shuffled its way into my headphones and out of my MP3 player was Creedence Clearwater’s Who’ll Stop the Rain ? … Spooky.
Body & Soul : Lester Young w. Oscar Peterson Trio
Across the Border : Linda Rondstadt & Emmylou Harris
Who’ll Stop the Rain? : Creedence Clearwater Revival
St. Olav’s Gate : Tom Russell w. Shawn Colvin
In the Ghetto : Elvis Presley
Old Chunk of Coal : Billy Joe Shaver
You Win Again : Mary Chapin Carpenter
Daniel : Elton John
Hard Livin’ : Martha Redbone
L. A. Freeway : Guy Clark
I’ve Got It Bad & That Ain’t Good : Thelonious Monk
Each one hour episode is broadcast at 10.00am, repeated at 15.00, and available later on BBC Sounds. Produced by David Hunter, it features Tom Georgeson as DI Charlie Resnick, Sean Baker, Paul Bazely and Kate Eaton as his fellow coppers, and John Simm as the young hospital doctor, Tim Fletcher.
A quick reflection glimpsed in the glass door before him and Fletcher turned his head in time for the downward sweep of the blade, illuminated in a fast curve of orange light.
*All five BBC radio dramatisations – Wasted Years, Cutting Edge, Slow Burn, Cheryl & Bird of Paradise – are available as an audio download from Penguin. 507 minutes total.
* I’m delighted to report that the first edition of Aslant [Shoestring Press, 2019] featuring my poems alongside my daughter Molly’s photographs, has now sold out and a reprint is imminent.
“John Harvey’s poetry is spacious, unhurried, measured, taking its time to unfurl its effect but keeping its hooks in the reader by careful control of pace and by making every word count.” Robin Thomas : The High Window Press
Copies will be available from all the usual sources, but I’d ask you to consider ordering from your local independent bookshop, in my case Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town https://owlbookshop.co.uk (close enough for me to nip in and sign or add a dedication if that’s your fancy). Alternatively and not exactly local, I’d recommend the excellent Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham. https://fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk
* More generally I’m pleased to report that although, my blog and the occasional Monday morning Twitter poem aside, I might have retired, such is not the case with my agent nor my publishers. Audio rights to the Frank Elder books have recently been sold to Denmark and Norway and Donmay Publishing continue to bring out beautifully designed hardback editions of the Resnick novels in Taiwan. Almost everything in the backlist seems to be available one way or another, as ebooks or in print, including a bunch of westerns from Piccadilly Publishing and some very early crime fiction from The Mysterious Press/Open Road.
* And finally, let me put in a plea for what will almost certainly be my last piece of full-length fiction, Blue Watch [Troika, 2019]. Set in London during the Blitz and dedicated to the memory of my father, who served in the Auxiliary Fire Service throughout WW2, it was mainly intended for younger teenage readers, but I’ve heard from a growing number of adults who’ve enjoyed it and you might, too. Independent booksellers as above.
It was one of those nights when it seemed as if the whole of London was on fire.
When I was a student at Goldsmiths in the early 60s, Laurie Grove Baths, almost adjacent to the college was, well, Laurie Grove Baths … destination for those families and individuals lacking home facilities and for regular crocodiles of children from nearby schools, looking forward to splashing around and maybe even learning to swim. The baths – more properly designated Swimming Baths, Slipper Baths and Laundries – were opened in 1898 as part of attempts to improve local health and sanitation. At roughly that time, some 1,000 families in the Deptford area were living in single rooms, with shared outside toilets, and disease was rife.
Come the early years of this century, the baths were no longer seen to fulfil a necessary function and were acquired by Goldsmiths with a view to turning them into a showcase for contemporary art. The architecture collective, Assemble, winners of the Turner Prize, were commissioned to redesign the buildings, while maintaining much of their original structure and protecting the Grade II listed water tanks and plant-works. The new gallery – Goldsmiths CCA – opened in 2018.
The current show, which my daughter Molly and I visited recently, features the work of the Algerian born artist, Mohamed Bourouissa, who uses photography, film and installation to examine and portray – to celebrate wherever possible – the lives and culture of communities who are living on what might be termed the edges of society, drawing attention to the ways in which they have been victimised by the twin forces of colonialism and capitalism.
Although, as I’ve said, Bourouissa was born in Algeria, he grew up in the banlieue of Paris, which, as the Exhibition Guide suggests, enables him to bring a specific view of the street and hip-hop culture to his work. As a counter-balance to the negative images that were shown in the media after the Paris riots in 2005, for Périphéries (2005-08) Bourouissa orchestrated a series of photographs showing a broader set of circumstances, some making reference to classical paintings such as Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (right, below) with the flag being lowered rather than raised.
Particularly effective in a not dissimilar urban context is the sound installation in the Roden Courtyard Gallery, which has reinforced iron along one wall and is open to the air, the abstracted voices rising and falling before echoing off into the sky – all the more effective on the day we visited for the two buzzards – yes, buzzards in New Cross – that were circling overhead.
Bourouissa’s usual method of working, when he chooses to focus on a group or area of society with which he is unfamiliar, is to immerse himself within their culture by living with them for a period of time, as he did with the Australian Aboriginal Yuin people from the South Coast of New South Wales, resulting in the installation, Brutal Family Roots (2020). This was also the case for Bourouissa in the Strawberry Mansion area of North Philadelphia, where the black members of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club challenge the predominant image of the white cowboy, as shown in the film, Horse Day (2015).
Whoa! There are four more pieces in the exhibition that I haven’t touched upon, including a beautifully made film, All-In (2012), which shows coins being engraved inside the Paris Mint to the accompaniment of the French hip-hop artist, Booba, singing of his efforts to extricate himself from life on the streets.
This is vibrant, challenging art that is varied in its means and consistent in its concerns. It’s a long time since I felt such an almost visceral excitement walking around an exhibition – I know, it’s a long while, a pair of small but tasty Rauschenberg shows aside, since I walked round any exhibitions – but this show at CCA makes it all too vividly clear why art can be exciting and important. It’s open until August 1st – see it if you can.
Molly and I were still buzzing as we stepped out onto the busy thoroughfare that is New Cross Road, and which doesn’t seem to have changed a great deal in almost sixty years. What we were in need of, the CCA café being closed, was somewhere calming to relax with good coffee and good grub and we found them just across the street at the rather wonderfully named Wakey Wakey. [Older readers – much older readers – will remember this as the opening cry that signalled the beginning of the Billy Cotton Band Show.] New Cross, it’s closer than you think.