Jim Burns on Dead Dames Don’t Sing

Jim Burns and I have crossed paths in a number of ways since 1978 when he first published poems of mine in Palantir, the small press magazine he edited between 1974 and 1983; poetry aside, we have a shared interest in jazz and painting and have kept up an exchange of correspondence across the years, meeting from time to time at readings – most happily one organised by John Lucas in Nottingham some little time back, when we read together. Closely associated with the magazine Beat Scene, Jim was also, for many years, a principal reviewer of poetry for Ambit, and now contributes regularly to Penniless Press’s on line Northern Review of Books, from which the following review comes.

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Jack Kiley is a one-time aspiring footballer whose career was disrupted by injury, an ex-policeman, and a jazz fan. He now works as a private detective, “investigating dodgy insurance claims, snooping on behalf of a local firm of solicitors or shadowing errant wives.” And then one day he’s asked to contact a bookseller who has been offered the chance to buy a supposedly long-lost, unpublished pulp novel written to make money by a talented, but hard-drinking, impoverished poet. The poet died years ago, but one of his daughters claims to have found the manuscript in a cottage in Cornwall once owned by the family.

The bookseller needs to know if the manuscript is genuine, and hires Kiley to see what he can find out about it. Kiley doesn’t claim to have an awareness of most twentieth century literature, apart from writers like Patrick Hamilton, Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, and Gerald Kersh, and often puts on the typically English “straight-talking, call a spade-a-spade, don’t-waste-any-of those-high-faluting-ideas-on-me act” when he comes across people connected to the arts. The thought of attending a lecture at the British Library on some poets who were “the Visionary Heirs of William Blake” is enough to make him shudder.

Perhaps his main concession to an interest in anything artistic is the jazz he listens to. He likes Chet Baker, but has his doubts about Miles Davis. He’s not averse to some classical music, either, especially if it’s likely to put a lady at ease. And he does sometimes pay attention to the visual arts, though is reluctant to admit it: “I like a good snap as much as anyone,” he replies when asked if he’s into photography.

Kiley’s investigations bring him up against the poet’s daughters. The one who claims to have found the manuscript, and have the right to sell it, is a slick opportunist who has worked as a model, actor, and photographer. She knows how to use her good looks to get what she wants. The other is a somewhat frosty individual who is employed at the Poetry Society, says the manuscript is a fake, and is about to have a “literary” novel published. She’s careful to make it clear that she doesn’t think that her father would have written a novel called Dead Dames Don’t Sing set in the jazz clubs and pubs of 1950s Soho with a cast of shady characters, and that her own forthcoming book is superior to anything in that line.. Neither woman makes a good impression on Kiley. His own lady friend is a journalist with a sense of humour and a down-to-earth approach to dealing with his hang-ups about art and life. She likes to read Dickens and similarly big books, whereas Kiley thinks a couple of hundred pages at most is what a novel should add up to.

The cast of characters in this short, but entertaining book includes the bookseller, the late poet’s small-press publisher, now a resident in a nursing home, the daughter of an actress who may have had a fling with the poet, and sundry others, such as a dead screenwriter, an equally deceased and long-forgotten, pulp novelist, and a plumber in Penzance. They all add colour to the story, as do the little comments on life in London. Kiley seems to have problems when it comes to finding suitable accommodation. He loses one apartment (referred to that way no doubt because this is an American publication: flat might better describe the kind of places Kiley lives in) when the site is about to be redeveloped, and another, above a charity shop, when the property is going to be taken over and turned into an estate agent. It’s suggested that Kiley might be able to stay if the new owners keep the flat, but he inclines to the view that he’s choosy about who he associates with. As I watch the estate agents increasingly moving into various premises around where I live I have a certain amount of sympathy with his attitude.

I won’t delve too much into how and why the mystery of the manuscript is resolved, but it’s a tribute to John Harvey’s skill as a writer that everything is neatly wrapped up in such a short space. But, like one of the people in his book, he’s had a great deal of experience over the years as a novelist, short-story writer, poet, writer for TV and radio, publisher, little magazine editor, and much more (the back cover of Dead Dames Don’t Sing notes that he’s the author of more than one hundred books) so knows how to make an impact within a limited (in length, not content) framework. His characters take on real personalities with a minimum of effort. And he cleverly constructs a couple of convincing passages from the contested manuscript. It’s easy to see why he, like Kiley, admires writers such as Eric Ambler and Gerald Kersh, who were professionals in every sense of the word. I share his tastes and was delighted recently to find several old Kersh books in a local charity shop.

I was amused by the fact that attitudes towards crime novels and pulp writing (not necessarily the same thing) among some literary types are shown as still being coloured by their belief that they often represent an inferior area of activity. I’m possible prejudiced, having enjoyed many crime and pulp novels and short stories. And I’m convinced that the writing in them can sometimes be far superior to what I’ve read in “literary” novels. I’ve delighted in books by Gil Brewer, Richard Deming, John D. MacDonald, and William P. McGivern. Just a few from the hat. Those are the names of older writers, I know, but they’re the ones I like to read and even, in a small way, collect. With newer novelists I’d have to point to John Harvey as someone whose books always appeal to me.

A note on the publisher of this book. The Mysterious Bookshop is located in New York and Harvey’s book is the thirty-third in what they call their Bibliomysteries series, all the stories having connections, of one sort or another, to writers, bookshops, libraries, and books in general.

Dead Dames Don’t Sing is available now in paperback, or signed hardcover, from The Mysterious Bookshop, and will shortly be available also as an eBook.

The Northern Review of Books can be found here …

Jim Burns essays, reviews and articles have been collected in a series of volumes from Penniless Press Publications : Radicals, Beats & Beboppers (2011); Brits, Beats and Outsiders (2012); Bohemians, Beats and Blues People (2013); Artists, Beats and Cool Cats (2014); Rebels, Beats and Poets (2015); Anarchists, Beats & Dadaists (2016)

An Actor Speaks Out …

The actor Martin Miller, who plays Keith Haines in the Nottingham Playhouse/New Perspectives production of Darkness, Darkness, wrote this piece for the New Perspectives blog, and gave his permission for it to be reproduced here …

And so it’s all over bar the shouting. After 4 weeks of intensive work on John Harvey’s excellent stage adaptation of his final Charlie Resnick novel, Darkness, Darkness, we now leave the relative safety of the New Perspectives rehearsal room in Basford and move into the Nottingham Playhouse from next week to start the technical and dress rehearsals for what will be the next show of the Sweet Vengeance season. If anything, this is where all the hard work needs to come together. The actors need to adjust their performances from the intimacy of the rehearsal room to the theatrical space without losing any of the subtleties and truth of their characterisations that have been developed through the rehearsal process (so rule one: don’t panic, rule two: don’t start shouting). Our hardworking technical crew including Kathryn Wilson (Deputy Stage Manager), Drew Baumhol (Sound Designer), Azusa Ono (Lighting Designer), Ruth Sutcliffe (Set Designer) amongst many others will be collaborating with our director Jack McNamara to bring the world of the 1984/5 Miners’ Strike and Harvey’s CWA Dagger award – winning Detective Charlie Resnick seamlessly to life, and from Friday 30th September audiences will see the finished product.

I have been impressed throughout this process by the collaboration between Jack McNamara and John Harvey. It is rare for directors and writers to cooperate so effectively. I worked with Jack on a previous New Perspectives play about Alfred Hitchcock and he has a strong sense of how to engage with a piece visually, almost filmically, and in collaboration with our Video Designer, Will Simpson, audiences will find themselves transported to the heart of a mining community bitterly divided by the strike, and of a murder investigation 30 years later which threatens to open these divisions once more. Harvey’s skill has been in not only placing Resnick front and centre of this action in the theatrical space, but also in bringing the world of this torn mining community to life. One could argue that the work is even more politically charged and relevant today with the recent announcement of an inquiry into the events at ‘The Battle of Orgreave’ . Harvey’s play explicitly references Orgreave and its aftermath, indeed Resnick finds himself conflicted by the police conduct on that day, and we see the casual brutality of the Met. The recent inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster laid bare the failings of South Yorkshire police and the Hillsborough families had to fight courageously and persistently for years to get any semblance of justice. The Orgreave families have had an even longer wait. Indeed, post-Brexit result, it appeared the issue could conceivably be dropped from the government agenda altogether. How can one even begin to disentangle the bloody events at Orgreave, of systematic and systemic state and police collusion, the very worst example and excess of what Tristram Hunt MP called ‘legalised state violence’?

Over thirty years on, the events of the Miners’ Strike still divide communities and we see in the play how these divisions are just as raw today. All of this plus at the heart of the play we see the dogged determination of Charlie Resnick to solve one last murder case before his impending retirement. John Harvey first created his famous Nottingham Detective back in 1988 and I am confident that with the team Jack McNamara has put together and the strong collaboration between cast, production team, director and author that we can do it justice. As we head into our final rehearsal week, John Harvey’s beloved Notts County have just beaten Leyton Orient 3 – 1. Surely a good omen? Hope to see all you Resnick afficionados in the theatre bar afterwards for a drop of Highland Park. “No sense arguing, Resnick raised his glass and drank…”.

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Here’s Martin, during rehearsals, with Emma Thornett, who plays his wife, Jill.

Photo © Robert Day

Dead Dames Don’t Sing

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Some time ago now, Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop in the States began a series of short stories and novellas under the blanket title of Bibliomysteries – crime stories that, one way or another, have a strong connection with the world of books, book collecting and book selling. The first of these, The Book of Virtue, was written by Ken Bruen, since when authors have included Ian Rankin, Megan Abbott, Joyce Carol Oates, Denise Mina and John Connolly. Published as single small-format book(lets), they are available in hardcover editions, limited to only 100 copies, numbered and signed by the author, priced $50, and in   in paperback for $4.95 each. They are also available in Ebook format through MysteriousPress.com.*

When Otto first approached me to contribute to the series, I was slightly put off by the minimum word requirement of 10,000 words, the majority of stories I’ve successfully written in the past coming in at considerably less than that; but once an idea had taken hold– the provenance of an unpublished crime novel by a minor but highly collectable Modernist poet, with its origins in mid-20th century Bohemian Soho – and with the considerable expert knowledge of my friend Giles Bird, book seller extraordinary** – I breezed past the limit by a good 3,000 words and very much enjoyed the experience.

This is how the story begins …

Once upon a time Jack Kiley lived over a bookshop in Belsize Park. Nights he couldn’t sleep, and there were many, he’d soft foot downstairs and browse the shelves. Just like having his own private library. Patrick Hamilton, he was a particular favourite for a while, perversity in the seedier backstreets of pre-war London: The Siege of Pleasure, Hangover Square. Then it was early Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, Gerald Kersh. He was four chapters into Night and the City when the envelope, pale blue and embossed across the seal, was slipped beneath his door. Notice to quit. The shop was being taken over by a larger concern and there were alternative plans for the building’s upper floors that didn’t include having a late-fortyish private detective, ex-Metropolitan police, as tenant. Kiley scoured the pages of the local press, skimmed the internet, made a few calls: the result, two rooms plus a bathroom and minuscule kitchen above a charity shop in a less buoyant part of north London, namely Tufnell Park. If not exactly low rent, it was at least affordable. Just. And no more a true park than it’s upscale neighbour.

Having to pass through the shop on his way upstairs, Kiley’s eye grew used to picking out the occasional bargain newly arrived on the rail: a v-necked sweater from French Connection, forty percent cashmere; a pair of black denim jeans, by the look of them barely worn, and fortuitously his size, 36” waist, 32” inside leg. The book section was seldom to his taste, too many discarded copies of J. K. Rowling and Fifty Shades of Grey, whereas the ever-changing box of CDs offered up the more than occasional gem. A little soul, late 50s Sinatra, Merle Haggard, a little jazz. He was listening to Blues With a Reason, Chet Baker, when his mobile intervened.

“Jack? I’m across the street at Bear and Wolf if you’d care to join me.”

Kiley pressed stop on the stereo and reached for his shoes.

Tempted? If so, copies may be ordered from the Mysterious Bookshop …

* Ebook not yet available, but will be shortly.

** Giles may be found, professionally, at BAS Ltd., London, N7 8NS

 

Darkness, Darkness in Rehearsal

Here they are, the cast and director of the Nottingham Playhouse – New Perspectives production of Darkness, Darkness, busy in rehearsal at New Perspectives HQ in Basford, Nottingham. All photos ©Robert Day.

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David Fleeshman as Charlie Resnick, Simone Saunders as Catherine Njoroge

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Director, Jack McNamara, with Kathryn Wilson in the background

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Elizabeth Twells as Jenny Hardwick

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John Askew as Danny Ireland

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Jonathan Woolf as Adam Uttley

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Chris Donnelly as Peter Waites & Barry Hardwick

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Emma Thornett & Martin Miller as Jill & Keith Haines

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Emma/ Jill Haines talks it over with David/Charlie

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The author gets into the spirit as the cast record the voices for a miners’ picket

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Simone/Catherine & David/Charlie mutually supportive towards the end of another gruelling day

 

Secondary School Reunion

There’s a feature in today’s Guardian about inspiring teachers, a not uncommon subject and, as a former school teacher, of course welcome. But what about inspiring pupils? To take just one of the schools at which I taught – Harrow Way Secondary Modern School in Andover, Hampshire, where I was Head of English in the latter years of the 196os – I could single out one former pupil who is now a college principal, one who went on to become Head of History in a comprehensive school and another, who, after many years of dedication, hard work and study, is now a surgeon. And, yes, this was a secondary modern school; these were all people who were rejected by the education system at 11 plus as not fit for academic study. And these are but three inspiring examples.

Last week I had the very great pleasure of meeting up with another former student from Harrow Way, Mary McCormack. Mary, who now lives in Ireland, was over to visit her daughter, Lucy, who lives in Dalston, East London. It was the first time we’d met in 46 years. Mary had been one of the bright lights of my English class – I still recognised her writing, when she showed me, on her iPad, a poem she’d recently written – and she had been one of a small number who had helped run the school’s weekly radio broadcasts. It was lovely to meet her – Lucy, too – and to catch up over a long lunch. [The lamb was especially delicious.]

Just a couple of hours later and we were saying goodbye again. Lucy had arranged to take Mary to have her first tattoo as a 61st birthday present. And it was Lucy  who took this photograph of Mary and I outside the grocer’s conveniently adjacent to the restaurant: as happy to have met one another again as we look.

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Light in the Darkness

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Here we are, meeting and greeting at Nottingham Playhouse this Tuesday just past, the cast of Darkness, Darkness – most of them – along with the director, Jack McNamara – that’s him far left in the snazzy shirt– and the designer, Ruth Sutcliffe, looking suitably designery in black at the centre. Otherwise, left to right, you’ve got Martin Miller, who plays Keith Haines; David Fleeshman, who is Charlie Resnick; Chris Donnelly, who wears, as it were, two hats, those of Peter Waites and Barry Hardwick; Emma Thornett, who plays Jill Haines; Elizabeth Twells, playing  Jenny  Hardwick and John Askew playing Danny Ireland. And that’s me, nicely squeezed in between Emma and Elizabeth.

That afternoon, we all headed up to the  New Perspectives’ home in sunny Basford, north of the city centre, to begin rehearsals. And here we are – having been joined by Simone Saunders who plays Catherine Njoroge – reading through the script.

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That looks suspiciously like the stage manager about to make her escape through the window and into the waiting bus!

Rehearsals continue through the month, with me in attendance on occasion, but certainly not all the time. The actors have got to be able to rubbish the lines without worrying I might be in earshot.

Tickets are selling well and if you’re thinking of coming along and haven’t already booked, you might be well-advised to do so. Details here …

We’ve got a great cast, the set design is really exciting, and I’m excited, also, about the other elements such as visuals and sound that will add immeasurably to the final work and help to bind it together.

I would say more, but it looks like another email has just arrived from the director asking about a few more rewrites …

 

Last Dozen Films I Saw …

Fire at Sea : Gianfranco Rosi (2016)
Maggie’s Plan : Rebecca Miller (2016)
Three Colours Blue : Kieslowski (1993)
Three Colours Red : Kieslowski (1994)
Late Spring : Ozu (1949)
Eva Hesse : Marcie Begleiter (2016)
Casablanca : Michael Curtiz (1942)
The Battle of Algiers : Gillo Pontecorvo (1966)
White Dog : Sam Fuller (1982)
Ingrid Bergman – In Her Own Words : Stig Bjorkman (2015)
Julieta : Pedro Almodovar (2016)
Goodbye, First Love : Mia Hansen-Love (2011)

An outstanding couple of months of cinema, I’d say, with four or five stone cold classics and a couple of excellent documentaries – Fire at Sea and Eva Hesse – the latter being just about the most interesting and well-assembled film about an artist I’ve seen. I hadn’t seen either The Battle of Algiers or White Dog for some years and neither has lost their power or, sadly, their relevance. Casablanca, of course, I had seen on a number of occasions, sometimes perhaps, lazily on television with other things going on around me, but watching it on the big screen at the BFI Southbank, I was struck both by how well-made and effective it is as an engaging story (those close-ups of Bergman!) and the degree to which elements of its underlying narrative – the plight of refugees fleeing from conflict in search of a better life – are still pertinent today.

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As I’ve recounted elsewhere (a tweet, I think) the first thing that made me think I should read Claire-Louise Bennett’s short story collection, Pond, was the strong recommendation it received from a barista in the Rathbone Place branch of TAP Coffee, where I’d take refuge so as to fill in time before the first day of auditions for the Nottingham Playhouse production of Darkness, Darkness, which I’d adapted from my own novel, and which were to take place in the basement of the American Free Church nearby. There I was, sitting patiently waiting for my flat white (think New Zealand time) and reading Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, when the barista interrupted herself from her task long enough to call across, “That was the best book I read the whole of last year.” After which, while I was still waiting for my flat white, she further said, “If you like that, you should read Pond.” And I thought she said Pound and was about to say I didn’t think so (my good friend Tom had recommended Pound to me when we were both at Goldsmiths, many years ago – the ABC of Reading, if I remember correctly – and I hadn’t really got on with it, though of course I would never have admitted it at the time) but then I realised she had said Pond and not Pound, at least that’s what I now thought, so,  to be sure, I asked her again and wrote the correct title down in the back of my notebook before leaving.

The book, when I came across it a few days later, face out on the shelf in Foyles (the Charing Cross Road branch) made me want to pick it up immediately, and I would, in all probability, have done so even without the earlier recommendation, it looked so perfect. White text on a strong and plain blue background, just the title and the author’s name and the name of the publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions. Great job, Fitzcarraldo! Just to be sure, I checked with the guy who works in the fiction section who’d previously recommended Lucia Berlin, and whose judgement could therefore be trusted, and when he gave it the thumbs up, without further hesitation, I bought it.

You know how sometimes you start on something you’ve been really looking forward to, the spaghetti vongole your partner has been labouring over in the kitchen, for instance, or an old and lovingly remembered episode of Homicide or Hill St.Blues, and almost immediately doubts appear? Well, I have to say, that happened here. After three weighty quotes in the frontispiece, one from Nietzsche, the first story, “Voyage in the Dark”,  just over half a page long, seemed worryingly precious and rather transparently ‘meaningful’, and I had the kind of feeling I used to get stepping into the rooms at Tate Britain showing the work of that year’s Turner Prize nominees, namely, Oh shit I ought to like this or, at the very least, I ought to defend the right of others to like it, but then, mercifully, and before that thought could be fully formed or acted upon, I turned the page to the second story, “Morning, Noon and Night”, which begins …

Sometime a banana with coffee is nice. It ought not to be too ripe – in fact there should be a definite remainder of green along the stalk, and if there isn’t, forget about it. Though admittedly that is easier said than done. Apples can be forgotten about, but not bananas, not really. They don’t in fact take all that well to being forgotten about. They wizen and stink of putrid and go almost black.

Oatcakes along with it can be nice, the rough sort.

And so it goes for eighteen pages, expanding its focus outwards and inwards from bowls strategically placed on the window sill to display aubergines and squash, and some more discussion of the possibilities of breakfast, to the place where she now lives, the place where she used to live, her interest in and aversion to gardening of various kinds,  baths, the language of love and her relationship, hinted at, with a man who may (or may not) live close by, finally settling for a detailed description of the stone cottage, in the kitchen of which she’s standing, chopping walnuts. All in prose that could seem long-winded and unnecessarily tortuous if it weren’t for the fact that you can read it aloud almost at first sight without ever stumbling, so well-judged is it in its balance, its distinctive rhythms and repetitions.

As the man from Foyles said, it doesn’t always work but when it does …

The stories centre around the narrator living on her own in a fairly remote stone cottage which I venture to guess from the weather is somewhere on the west coast of Ireland. She’s on her own, but not quite on her own; there seems to be at least one gentleman caller, though sometimes she calls on him (them?) and returns with her knickers worn inside out over her tights. As the blurb writer puts it nicely on the back jacket, she is “captivated by the stellar charms of seclusion but restless with desire.”

I’m tempted to say Bennett’s  method in these stories and, to a lesser extent, the style, remind me of Virginia Woolf (or Katherine Mansfield?) filtered through a contemporary sensibility, the internal thought – contradiction on contradiction – held steady by a precise description of the everyday that is so detailed and yet, somehow, shifting, that it verges on the surreal.

As the barista might say, it’s the best book I’ve read so far the year.

Pond

 

 

 

 

Jumpin’ with Jazz Steps: Blue Territory Returns!

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October looks as if it’s going to be a busy month, one way or another, with most of my activities – just for a change – centred around Nottingham. Darkness, Darkness is at  Nottingham Playhouse for the first two weeks of the month, and, during the second of those weeks, the band, Blue Territory, [that’s us in action, above] and I will be repeating out previously successful mini-tour of Nottinghamshire libraries [No band bus, no Smarties in the Green Room, and positively no groupies] following the estimable Dave O’Higgins to  Worksop, Southwell and West Bridgford.

Along with some of the familiar pieces about Chet Baker, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, we’ve been working on some new material, including a small tribute to Jack Kerouac, whose poetry and jazz readings with the likes of Al Cohn and Zoot Sims in the 1950s lay at the heart of much that we do.

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