A Writer’s Life

I had written a lot, done work of much difficulty; had worked under pressure more or less since my schooldays. Before the writing, there had been the learning; writing had come to me slowly. Before that, there had been Oxford; and  before that, the school in Trinidad where I had worked for the Oxford scholarship. There had been a long preparation for the writing career! And then I discovered that to be a writer was not (as I had imagined) a state – of competence, or achievement, or fame, or content – at which on arrived and where one stayed. There was a special anguish attached to the career; whatever the labour of any piece of writing, whatever its creative challenges and satisfactions, time had always taken me away from it. And, with time passing, I felt mocked by what I had already done; it seemed to belong to a time of vigour, now past for good. Emptiness, restlessness built up again; and it was necessary once more, out of my internal resources alone, to start on another book, to commit myself to that consuming process again.

V. S. Naipaul: The Enigma of Arrival

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Rhythm is Our Business

 

Prose

In her, to me, fascinating book, Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose retells the story of the aspiring young writer who told his agent he wasn’t really interested in what he wrote about, what he really concerned him, what he wanted to do most of all, was to write really great sentences. Promise me, the agent replied, you will never, ever say that to an American publisher.

Perhaps the writer in question, apocryphal or not, had been reading Hemingway’s account of his early writing life in A Moveable Feast – also quoted by Prose.

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going … I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.

As Prose points out, that raises the question of what exactly constitutes a ‘true’ sentence. She  thinks it might mean a beautiful sentence, while appreciating that such a concept is equally hard to define. For me I think it would be a combination of sound and meaning: the right rhythm, the most appropriate choice of words, the right sense of balance, all of those combined with the clearest meaning – while acknowledging there are times when that meaning will be purposefully ambiguous.

“All the elements of good writing,” Prose says, “depend upon the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another.” And further, “Rhythm is nearly as important in prose as it is in poetry. I have heard a number of writers say that they would rather choose the slightly wrong word that made their sentence more musical than the precisely right one that made it more awkward and clunky.”

Sometimes people ask me if also writing poetry has affected my writing of fiction; others ask, to what extent has your love of jazz – and the fact that you used to play the drums – influenced your writing? The answer to both is the same: hopefully both have helped me to develop a sense of rhythm. The Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, pre-eminent in the States in the 30s, had as their virtual theme tune a piece called “Rhythm is Our Business”; perhaps we writers could adopt it for ourselves.

The story Prose tells about the writer and his agent reminded me of an occasion a couple of years back when I was being interviewed by fellow-writer Mark Billingham on stage at the Harrogate Crime Festival. I can’t remember Mark’s exact question – we were discussing my then latest novel, Darkness, Darkness –  but my answer was something to the effect that whatever the strengths (and weaknesses) of the book might be, the greatest sense of achievement for me came from writing one single sentence that seemed to me to be just right. My publisher was in the audience and she said afterwards she’d wanted to ask what exactly the sentence was, but had refrained. Maybe just as well – few sequences of words, taken out of context – because the context within which they occur, is, of course, intrinsic to their meaning – would live up to such expectation.

This past week, labouring over the proofs of both a new novel and a new collection of short stories, I’ve had the fairly unusual experience of reading quite a lot of my own writing, some time, as it were, after the event. In part, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, this can be a fairly chastening experience, one which was occasionally redeemed for me by coming across a sentence or two which brought me up short with a sense of yes, okay, I just might be getting the hang of it after all. The three that follow are from the stories in Going Down Slow, to be published in November.

Melanie Lessing stood in the hallway, the ghost of prettiness hovering about her, anxiety startling her eyes.

Slowly, she uncurled, face turning towards the light.

She left the room and he heard the fridge door open and close; the glasses were tissue-thin, tinged with green; the wine grassy, cold.

All right, nothing to set the world on fire. But they gave me a little chill of pleasure when I wrote them and they still do. The way, in the last one for instance, both parts of the sentence, either side of the semi-colon, balance and match; the repetition in ‘green’ and ‘grassy’; the near-echo in ‘thin’ and ‘tinged’; the final emphasis of ‘cold’. That lovely bloody semi-colon.

iPod Shuffle, September 2017

On what is, apparently, the first official day of Autumn, this is what my iPod came up with this morning, as I was walking to the Royal Free Hospital for a routine blood test …

Jarrett

Meshell

  1. A Song For You : Dusty Springfield, from Something Special
  2. When Your Lover Has Gone : Ray Charles, from The Genius of Ray Charles
  3. What You Came Here to Do : Girlboy, from Late Bloomers
  4. Keep it to Yourself : Amy Rigby, from 18 Again
  5. A Bitter Mule : Me’Shell Ndegeocello, from Weather
  6. Prelude & Fugue No. 10 in C Minor : Keith Jarrett, from Shostakovich 24 Preludes & Fugues
  7. My Romance : Warne Marsh, from A Ballad Album
  8. Teachers : Leonard Cohen, from The Songs of Leonard Cohen
  9. Baby Took a Limo to Memphis : Guy Clarke, from Dublin Blues
  10. The Last Campaign Trilogy : John Stewart, from The Complete Phoenix Concerts
  11. Two Pianos : John Tilbury & Phillip Thomas, from Morton Feldman, Two Pianos & Other Pieces, 1953-1969
  12. Ad Lib Blues : Lester Young, from The President Plays

Stewart

Feldman

Remembering Tony Burns: Blues in Time

One of the ideas informing my dramatisation of the Resnick novel Darkness, Darkness for Nottingham Playhouse was that while we ourselves are alive, the dead – the dead that we know – never quite die. The plot is set in motion by the discovery of the body of a young woman who disappeared during the Miners’ Strike, some thirty years before; what the story then does is revisit the significant moments in that young woman’s – Jenny’s – life, showing them in juxtaposition to the present. To Resnick, who knew her only slightly and is now investigating the circumstances of her death, she was little more than the memory of a bright, lively and outspoken young woman, a firebrand, and during the course of the play he gets to know her more clearly, more roundly, so that, in the scene towards the end [possibly my favourite scene of all], when she visits him in his house where he is getting dressed ready to go to her funeral, it is – bar a quick and instant frisson – no real surprise. She talks to him and he answers, much as he would if she were still alive, much as we hold conversations (inside our heads, more usually, rather than out loud) with those we knew and maybe loved long after they are gone. Much as Resnick, in the play, holds sometimes grudging conversations with the strike leader whose funeral he has attended just before the action opens and who, like a somewhat guilty conscience, comes to haunt him – haunt, the word is correct here, I think – as the play progresses.

That I’ve been thinking about this at all was not sparked directly by the Playhouse/New Perspectives production of Darkness, Darkness [though it does tend to haunt me, both by what was and, perhaps even more strongly, what later might have been] but by the gift of a CD, a remastering of a session by the Gerry Mulligan/Paul Desmond, originally recorded and released in 1957 and sometimes titled simply Quartet, sometimes Blues in Time.

Mulligan 2

Listening to it now I am back in the home of my friend Tony Burns, the back bedroom of a house in Finchley, north London, both of us in our late teens; Tony is learning the saxophone – the alto, initially – and I am, less methodically, less seriously, learning to play the drums. Desmond, who plays alto, most usually in the Dave Brubeck Quartet, is probably Tony’s favourite player at this time, though he likes Mulligan too, and, like Mulligan, will play baritone – only finally settling for tenor some good few years later.

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Tony Burns

By profession a tailor, Tony continued to play jazz semi-professionally, only stopping a relatively short time before his death in 2013. By some quirk of circumstance, I was lucky enough, using a borrowed set of drums – my daughter’s – to play with him on a number of occasions in those later years, evening sessions in a pub near the Archway, each one for me a joy. Tony had a way of making you sound better than you really were.

Here, in the final section of a longer poem from Out of Silence called Winter Notebook, are the lines I wrote shortly after Tony died …

My friend, Tony, with whom I first listened,
really listened to jazz, the two of us practising
in his parents’ bedroom, he on saxophone,
me drums, rustling brushes in four-four time
across the top of an old suitcase –
my friend Tony is in a hospice:
the volunteers at the desk welcoming and polite,
all chemo stopped, the carpet deep, the furnishings
not too bright; visiting, we keep our voices low,
talk around you, and just when we think
you’ve drifted off to sleep, you rebuke us
for some mistaken reference to a recording
you know well, Brubeck, perhaps, Mulligan or Getz;
and when Jim retells a joke you first told him
many years before – its punchline too crude
to be repeated here – how marvellous to see
you throw your head back and laugh out loud.

For now I sit alone with you and watch you sleep,
breath like brittle plastic breaking inside your chest,
and, for a moment, without feeling I have the right,
reach out and hold your hand.

One day soon I will push through the doors,
present myself at the desk, only to hear the news
we know must come. It happens, no matter
what expectations we have, fulfilled or not.
And not dramatically, like some monster
rising from the marsh to seize us, drag us down,
but deftly, quietly, like someone switching out the light.

There … you’re gone.

… but not forgotten.

Version 2

Tony with, to his right, our friend Jim Galvin

 

West Cornwall 2: Newlyn, Penzance, St. Ives

Known pleasures aside – Tate St. Ives and the Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Garden, plus exhibitions at Penlee House [Stanhope Forbes, some very fine paintings indeed] and The Exchange in Penzance; excellent food at Mackerel Sky in Newlyn and the Porthmeor Café in St. Ives – our recent brief trip to the south-west yielded up newer delights, from a blowy ride on the open top deck of the A17 bus from Penzance to St. Ives to the deliciously straightforward and tip-top food at the small café at Penzance’s refurbished Jubilee Pool. Just three days but worth it.

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Jubilee Pool, Penzance

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Jubilee Pool, Penzance

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Newlyn Harbour

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Newlyn Harbour, St. Michael’s Mount in background

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Exterior, Tate St. Ives

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Rocks off The Island, St.Ives

 

Jazz Matters: David Murray

It was my friend, the late David Kresh, who first attuned me to the controlled fury that is David Murray. A one person compendium of the tenor saxophone, a Murray solo can stretch from the honk and rasp of the R & B bands in which he learned his trade, to the keening stratospheric upper-register yelps of an Albert Ayler and the avant-garde, without straying far from the rich and muscular mainstem of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. In print, Murray has vouchsafed Paul Gonsalves as a major influence, and if that isn’t always tonally evident, it is present in the way he muscles rhythmically from phrase to phrase, line to line – evident also in that the length of most Murray solos seems  inspired by Gonsalves’ famous 27 chorus solo on Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue in front of the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival.

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I first saw David Murray play at a smallish club in Nottingham, after that in the brutal splendour of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank, and then again, last week, at another small venue, the Vortex in Dalston, east London. The first of two nights and to say it was packed would have been an understatement; jazz & crime fiction aficionado, Bob Cornwell and I had snagged the last pair of seats going, close up against the stage with our backs to the window facing out onto Gillett Square – any closer and I would have on top of the drummer’s kit rather than alongside it.

Humourously bemused by the weather – it was a day of unending torrential rain and he had flown in that morning without as much as a coat – Murray was in a relaxed mood (he even sang, pleasingly, on a couple of numbers)  and played, I thought, well within himself, eschewing much of the ferocity of which he’s capable. Which is not to say that he didn’t play with great virtuosity and rhythmic brilliance.

Sharing the front line with trombonist Paul Zauner, with whom he’s played, off and on, since the 80s, Murray was backed by bassist Wolfram Derschmidt and drummer Dusan Novakov, with Carlton Holmes at the piano. It may have been a relatively new rhythm section– he had to refer to a scrap of paper before announcing their names – but they had no problems following the shifts and changes, and soloed well. Sitting as close to Novakov as I was, I was able to follow his playing closely, my admiration soured only by the regret that I’d swopped my drum kit for a pair of DJ turntables somewhere back in the 70s and never pushed my own playing beyond the merely passable when I’d had the chance. I can dream, can’t I?

Here’s something I wrote after seeing Murray on that first occasion …

Grace Notes

Let’s say it’s one of those
insubstantial inner-city days,
from the flower beds in the park
to the slim-hipped cellist
playing the inevitable Bach.

And say, strolling home, I chance to pass
this bar just hours after David Murray
has jet-lagged in from New York.
It’s light enough still for the doors
to be open out onto the street;
the sound and the small crowd
draw me inside, and there on stage
before bass and drums he stands:
back arched, chest pigeoned forward,
horn angled outwards as he rocks
lightly back from heel to toe,
toeing the line of a calypso so true,
the crowd, as one, leans back and smiles,
relaxed, not noticing those heels
have lifted with an extra bounce
and before anyone can blink
his left leg kicks out in the curve
of a high hurdler; his tenor twists
and soars and lifts us, holds us to him,
wrapped in curlicues of sound,
blessed by the effortless grace
of his playing.

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

 

 

 

Old Coppers Never Die …

… with any luck, they live on into an easeful retirement … Look at Charlie Resnick, for instance, in the final scene of my dramatisation of Darkness, Darkness, which was produced at Nottingham Playhouse last October … The scene is the chapel garden following the funeral of a young woman who went missing during the Miners’ Strike: after a conversation with another officer who is leaving the force and moving away, Resnick moves downstage and addresses the audience.

RESNICK : Difficult things, endings. Goodbyes. Trying to find the right thing to say, the right thing to do.

Barry Hardwick earlier, in the chapel, stumbling over his last few words, tears blinding his eyes. Any anger, resentment there’d been between himself and Jenny, set aside. Maybe some day them as stood either side of the picket line’ll feel the same … and maybe not. Some things too big, happen, to ever forget.

For me now, it’s going to be a matter of going on from day to day. Taking small pleasures while I can. A decent cup of coffee. Saturdays at Meadow Lane. A glass of Scotch. Charlie Parker. Lester Young. (BEAT) There’s this CD I saw in the window of Music Inn. Thelonious Monk in Amsterdam. I might stroll up there later and take a listen.

THE SOUND OF JAZZ PIANO, SLIGHTLY DISCORDANT, RISES UP …

What was it Lynn said? That bloke who plays piano as if he had no arms? Anyone who can play like that without hands – got to be worth a listen, eh?

… AS RESNICK WALKS OFF STAGE AND THE LIGHTS SLOWLY FADE.

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Didn’t think about killing him off, then? someone asked, after reading the novel on which  the play was based. Well, yes. But never for more than the odd moment; didn’t have the heart.

And, of course, for Charlie there’s another life, still happily continuing. A life on the internet: e-books. A life in translation. Darkness, Darkness itself was published in French by Rivages as Ténèbres, Ténèbres in 2015 …

Scan 2

…and in German as Unter Tage, in a fine edition from Ars Vivendi in 2016.

Cover_Harvey_Unter Tage

And now Donmay Publishing of Taiwan are to publish all 12 Resnick novels in Chinese, beginning with Lonely Hearts, which first saw the light of day in 1989, and finishing with Cold in Hand and Darkness, Darkness in 2022. I hope I’m around to see them.

The cover design for the first in the series arrived today for my approval and what could I say, other than I think it is beautiful. Original and beautiful.

lonely hearts tw cover

 

Music Matters: Monk, Feldman & That August iPod Shuffle

With the news that Apple are to discontinue manufacturing iPods and their ilk [because nowadays we all have smartphones, right?] who knows how many more months of shuffling through my music collection will be available for blogging? But until my neat little device finally shuffles off its [doubtlessly built-in] mortal coil, this is what my iPod threw at me today …

  1. Tangled Up in Blue : Bob Dylan, from Blood on the Tracks
  2. Jumpin’ at the Woodside : Benny Goodman, from BG in HiFi
  3. Gulf Coast Highway : Nanci Griffith, from Little Love Affairs
  4. Stone for Bessie Smith : Dory Previn, from Mythical Kings & Iguanas
  5. Angel : Aretha Franklin, from Twenty Greatest Hits
  6. Stairway to the Stars : Milt Jackson & John Coltrane, from Bags & Trane
  7. I’d Rather Leave While I’m In Love : Dusty Springfield, from Something Special
  8. Don’t Get Around Much Anymore : Ernestine Anderson, from Live From Concord to London
  9. Winter is Gone : John Renbourn, from John Renbourn
  10. I Should Have Known Better : The Beatles, from A Hard Day’s Night
  11. Sir Charles at Home : Vic Dickenson Septet, from The Essential Vic Dickenson
  12. All Blues : Chet Baker, from The Last Great Concert

The above is what I’m likely to listen to while wandering the streets of Kentish Town or strolling up hill and down dale on Hampstead Heath, a good part of the pleasure coming from the juxtapositions that are thrown up and from encountering something you’d quite forgotten – in this case, Renbourn’s lilting Winter is Gone. As against that, there’s the music I’m currently listening to in a more positive way, stuff – often newly acquired – that sits close to the stereo [yes, the stereo, remember?] and gets played frequently.

Monk 1

First and foremost, then, this double CD of tracks which come from a 1959 session by the Thelonious Monk Quartet [Monk, piano; Charlie Rouse, tenor sax; Sam Jones, bass; Art Taylor, drums] with the addition on some tracks of the French tenor player, Barney Wilen. These recordings were made in New York with the intention of being used on the soundtrack of Roger Vadim’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but never used. The master tapes lay hidden away in the archives of Wilen’s manager, Marcel Ramono, until 2014.

Monk – why would one be surprised by this? – made no attempt to tailor his music to Vadim’s film or its requirements, and it was never used. The tunes are, for the most part, familiar from amongst Monk’s compositions – Rhythm-a-Ning; Well, You Needn’tPannonica; Crepuscule with Nellie – the only ‘outsider’ being Monk’s version of the hymn, We’ll Understand it Better By and By. Familiar or not, this was a terrific session, recorded with beautiful clarity. Whether sparked by the presence of Barney Wilen in the studio or other factors that could only be speculated upon, Monk is in especially fine form and the band, propelled along by the rhythm section of Jones and Taylor, play superbly well. Taylor is magnificent on the opening Rhythm-a-Ning – quite possibly the best version of this much-recorded piece I’ve yet heard. A delight.

Feldman

From one iconoclast to another. I first got to know Feldman’s music through his largely choral piece Rothko Chapel, which was first performed in the non-denominational chapel in Houston, Texas, which has fourteen of Rothko’s canvasses on its octagonal walls. Feldman and Rothko were friends, just as he was friendly with Philip Guston and other New York painters of the 50s and early 60s. Sit patiently in front of Rothko’s work and it begins slowly to move before your eyes, to bleach into your consciousness, and Feldman’s music works in much the same way. For Bunita Marcus is a composition for solo piano and it lasts just short of 73 minutes. It requires patience and repays it plentifully.