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.

Pond

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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Last Batch of Books I Read

  • Willnot : James Sallis
  • Point Omega : Don DeLillo
  • The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial : Maggie Nelson
  • The Waves : Virginia Woolf
  • White Noise : Don DeLillo
  • The Crime Writer : Jill Dawson
  • The Argonauts : Maggie Nelson
  • Libra : Don DeLillo
  • Slow Horses : Mick Herron
  • Black Water : Louise Doughty
  • Apple Tree Yard : Louise Doughty
  • The Forgotten Waltz : Anne Enright
  • The Glorious Heresies : Lisa McInerney
  • Fortunes Neck : Kevin McDermott
  • A Manual for Cleaning Women : Lucia Berlin
  • My Katherine Mansfield Project : Kirsty Gunn
  • Intruder in the Dust : William Faulkner
  • White Sands: Experiences From the Outside World : Geoff Dyer

Poetry :

  • Maura Dooley : The Silvering
  • Edwina Attlee : The Cream
  • Rachael Allen : Faber New Poets 9
  • Helen Mort : No Map Could Show Them
  • Plus lots of Frank O’Hara and, always, Robert Hass

Currently reading :

  • Pond : Claire-Louise Bennett
  • Billie’s Blues : John Chilton
  • Austerity Britain 1945-51 : David Kynaston
  • Pierre Reverdy : NYRB Poets in Translation [Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery et cetera]

As the above suggests, I’m continuing to make my way back through Virginia Woolf’s fiction (aided by her diaries and Julia Briggs’ Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, which nicely links her life to the novels) while working rather haphazardly back through Don DeLillo. (Nearly succumbed to the latest in Foyles this afternoon, but, after looking a the price – £17 almost for a slender book with largish print – opted to wait for the paperback. Writing as good as DeLillo’s doesn’t date, right?)

I’ve avoided reading Louise Doughty for a while; she’s a friend of a friend and frequents some of the same North London cafés as myself – she’s usually working at her laptop or correcting proofs when I see her – and if she doesn’t look too engrossed I’ll say Hi and we’ll chat a little – all of which means I ought to have read her before now, but look, suppose I did and didn’t like what she’d written … ? But the thing is, I did. Read and like. Very much. The most recent novel, Black Water, is largely set in Indonesia, with a background involving the CIA, the Cold War and Civil Rights. If it reminded me of anyone else, it was Graham Greene – partly for the Asian setting, partly the mix of excitement and adventure with the questioning of an individual’s morality. Straight after that, I read Apple Tree Yard, a very cleverly plotted book about latter-day lust, obsession and  betrayal, told within an absorbing courtroom framework and – as it says on the jacket – absolutely unputdownable once you’ve begun.

When she saw me absorbed in Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts (more court room stuff here), the barista in the Rathbone Place branch of TAP Coffee told me it was the best book she’d read for ages, and that absolutely the best book she’d read since was Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, which was strongly recommended also by the nice chatty guy who works in the fiction department at Foyles, Charing Cross Road, and since he’d put me on to Lucia Berlin’s stories, I took him seriously. They’re both right: the stories are interestingly off-the-wall and surprising, self-indulgent but in  way that’s oddly acceptable and written in a style that doesn’t remind me of anyone else at all. Not only that, it is a lovely book to look at and to hold, beautifully published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Finally, the most delightful and unexpected book in the bunch was James Sallis’ Willnot.
Mainly known as the author of terse and elliptical crime novels, Drive amongst them, Willnot simply will not be pinned down. Woody Haut writes about it clearly and enthusiastically on his blog and I commend that to you.

Happy reading!

Walking the Resnick Walk

Yesterday, August 9th, I spent the day in Nottingham with David Fleeshman, the actor who will play Charlie Resnick in this autumn’s production of Darkness, Darkness at Nottingham Playhouse. Though David is no stranger to Nottingham – nor to the Playhouse – it was interesting for us both to trace some of Charlie’s footsteps around the city centre, even though a number of the places he would visited in the novels, the earlier ones especially, are either no longer there or have changed almost beyond recognition.

Here’s a pictorial record of our day …

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David at the Indoor Market in the Victoria Centre, where, in days (long) gone Resnick would have an espresso at Aldo’s Italian coffee stall before making his purchases from one or other of the two Polish food stalls, one of which, thankfully, remains.

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The sign outside The Peacock, at the foot of the Mansfield Road (and round the corner from the old Central Police Station) commemorates the fact that the pub has featured in the lives and work of both D H Lawrence and that bloke who wrote the Resnick books.

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Next stop, Music Inn on West End Arcade, source of a large proportion of Resnick’s music collection, Monk and Billie Holiday especially. Here’s David with the owner, David Rose.

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It seemed right to end the day at the Playhouse – where we were delighted to bump into another Nottingham writer (and Notts County fan) William Ivory. No time for David and I to get down to Meadow Lane this time, but he’s keen to take a break from rehearsals in September and join me in the stands.

iPod Playlist, August 2016

Just for a change, instead of highlighting the dozen songs served up by my iPod’s shuffle system, here are the ones I’m playing through choice. My current favourite non-jazz tracks, in fact.

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  • Almost Liverpool 8 : Mike Hart, from Mike Hart Bleeds
  • Better Things : Massive Attack featuring Tracey Thorn, from Solo: Songs & Collaborations 1982-2015
  • Donall Og : Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill, Triona Ni Dhomnaill & Donal Lunny, from Between The Two Lights
  • Freedom for the Stallion : Allen Toussaint, from Songbook
  • Gliders, Parks : The Liverpool Scene featuring Mike Hart, from The Amazing Adventures of the Liverpool Scene
  • Her Ghost : Woman’s Hour, from Conversations
  • I’d Rather Leave While I’m In Love : Dusty Springfield, from Something Special
  • Mustt Mustt : Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Massive Attack remix), from Mustt Mustt
  • Never Not You (Remember to Breathe) : Girlboy, from Late Bloomers
  • New Orleans : John Stewart, from The Day The River Sang
  • 28 Years : Girlboy, from Late Bloomers
  • You Tattoed Me : Tom Robinson, from Still Loving You

Alphabetically listed, of course, and lacking the need for much explication. Except to acknowledge the two Mike Hart tracks were occasioned by the recent sad news of his death; that I first heard this version of Irish song, Donall Og, when it was one of Colm Toibin’s choices on Desert Island Discs and I’ve had trouble getting it out of my mind since; and that Tom Robinson’s You Tattoed Me is one of the most forcefully passionate and believable songs about love and desire that I know.

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Frank’s Friends

Celebrations of Frank O’Hara’s life and work, both, of course, closely entwined, continue apace. Last Saturday’s colloquium at the ICA – Frank O’Hara and Friends – broadened out those celebrations to include references to the work of some of the other poets and painters of the New York School with whom O’Hara was closely associated. One such, the artist (and sometime jazz musician) Larry Rivers, contributed the collage, based on his own nude portrait of O’Hara, used on the cover of the 1974 Vintage edition of O’Hara’s Selected Poems, edited by Donald Allen, and shown below. And today, it  should be noted, marks the 89th birthday of one of the foremost of the New York poets, John Ashbery.

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The ICA event was, as those occasions tend to be, a mixture of the interesting and entertaining with the academically obscure and self-serving, the first keynote speaker, Geoff Ward, Principal of Homerton College, Cambridge, being all of the former and none of the latter.  Jess Cotton, a PhD student from UCL, talked interestingly about the relationship and cross-influences linking O’Hara and fellow poet James Schuyler, and Eleanor Careless (great name!), studying for a PhD at Sussex, spoke of the connections between O’Hara and the painter Helen Frankenthaler and his poem/her painting Blue Territory in the context of “gendered risk”.

Last night’s event at Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham, organised by Leah Wilkins, was an altogether less grandiose affair and none the less enjoyable for that. Some fifty people crowded into the store, taking up all the available chairs and filling all the nooks and crannies between bookstands, to listen to largely unexplicated readings of O’Hara’s poems by, amongst others,  the poet and lecturer, Matthew Welton; the newly in place director of Nottingham Contemporary, Sam Thorne; gay literature historian, Gregory Woods; and founder of Mud Press, Georgina Wilding. As I said when someone commented kindly on my reading of The Day Lady Died, that poem is so close to perfect that being given the opportunity to read it aloud feels almost like stealing.

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Remembering Hopper

Just a day late to celebrate the birth of Edward Hopper, July 22nd, 1882.

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Edward Hopper: Excursion into Philosophy , 1959

COUPLES

2. Excursion into Philosophy

He has been reading the Tractatus, Wittgenstein.
the footnotes made him laugh; the book open
in the bed, the blue divan. How to explain
the duality  of grief and joy, relief
and guilt. The way her breathing, as she lies
behind him, legs drawn up, exposed,
her back not quite touching his, touches his heart.
They’ve been together fifteen years
and he would like to leave it at that.
The sun burns low along the ripening wheat
that looks like the wheat in the painting by Van Gogh,
the  postcard she bought him that day in Portland, Maine,
and told him if he ever left her she would truly die.
He picks up his book and begins to read,
but sets it back, drawn to the window by the sun,
the sound of a meadow lark in the field.
The only signs in the morning they were there
will be her red hair, snagged at the corner
of the pillow; the slight impression, fading,
on the mattress where they lay.

From Out of Silence: New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop, 2014)