Poem for My Father

My father died thirty five years ago this week – June 17th, 1984. He was 78, two years younger than I am now: somehow it doesn’t seem right.

Here he is …

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And here’s a poem from Out of Silence that I wrote about him …

Sunsets

“Grandad looks like John Wayne,”
my daughter said, pirouetting away.

In the westerns I wrote he filled in corners –
the stage coach driver, the friendly sheriff
with spreading paunch and bowed back,
his holstered gun never drawn in anger,
yet stubborn as a mule when the chips were down.

In photographs he holds me high above
his head like a talisman: pride bright
in his blue eyes I could never fulfil.

Writing, he stands between my sentences:
bits of a life that catch like grit in the mouth.
Once I ran, sobbing, after him until, reaching
down, he swung me, safe, in his arms.

He stands in all the doorways of my childhood.
Stands for my meanness, my grudging thanks,
those shifts of direction which push him
further and further behind.

Driving home to visit I‘d passed him
on the road before I realised, stooped
and suddenly slow, one leg turned sideways,
an old man I’d failed to recognise.

Laughter and meaning clogged thick in his lungs:
they moved him to a private room and fitted
a green mask fast over his face; each breath
rattled dry stones along the bed of his throat,
his mouth peeled back and back until it disappeared.

Yet a week or so before he died,
the old smile alive for a moment in his eyes,
he beckoned the prettiest nurse and as
she bent to catch his words,
nuzzled the hard plastic of his mask
against her face to steal a kiss:
an act of imagination great
as any John Wayne ever made.

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Mornings of a Recently Retired Writer

What on earth d’you do now you’ve packed it in, people ask? Won’t know what to do with yourself. All those hours stretching out before the Six O’Clock News; a life measured in cups of tea and ginger biscuits and just popping round to the shops, shan’t be a minute; the game shows and stair lift commercials that clutter up afternoon TV. You must get bored silly.

Well, if you’ve any sense, the one thing you don’t do – as a friend of mine in a similar situation heartily agreed when the subject came up recently – is switch off the alarm clock and lay around in bed for hours, surrounded by half-read books and yesterday’s paper, the radio not quite tuned to the station and getting up to set it right too much of an effort. That way lies …. well, I don’t want to stop and consider exactly what.

So … the answer? Get up, early; within reason the earlier the better and with a sense of purpose. For my friend, it’s the allotment and taking the grandkids to school; for me, well, five mornings a week it’s this …

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Coming up to a quarter past seven, my partner’s just back from her morning run and I’ve been up for half an hour or so (the sound of the front door closing as she leaves, the click of the front gate, my signals to rise). Walking shoes on, pockets suitably filled, it’s time for me to leave, heading for Parliament Hill Fields and the edge of Hampstead Heath. Passing round the back of Acland Burghley school – where they recently filmed scenes for the second series of Killing Eve, and which, my father attended many years before, when it was plain Burghley Road School – the arse, as he used to say, hanging out of his trousers – till he left to start work at the age of fifteen – I cut through the housing estate and onto Highgate Road. Most mornings, the newsagent is behind his counter, always with a smile; sometimes standing waiting in the doorway, Guardian in hand.

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I head for the Lido and the small café that has been operating there for several years. With any luck, Alessio will be the barista on duty. If you’re limiting yourself to one coffee a day, then it had better be a good one and that’s what he provides without fail. Morning, Alessio!

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I’m almost the only customer this early and so I’ll sit for fifteen minutes or so, reading the paper and enjoying the coffee, until the swimmers start to come in from the pool and it’s time for me to start walking.

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The path that rises directly up from the Lido opens out to give views back across the centre of the city …

 

 

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… and up towards the summit of the Hill …

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… turning then between the trees …

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… and down towards a line of ponds. Highgate No. 1 Pond; the Men’s Bathing Pond; the Model Boating Pond and the Bird Sanctuary Pond – the Ladies’ Bathing Pond secure behind the trees.  At this time of the morning, at least one of the benches alongside the Boating Pond will be free so I take the chance to sit for five minutes or so and catch my breath,  gazing back across to the other side. I remember when my father and I launched my model yacht here and the wind dropped suddenly, leaving it becalmed and the two of us waiting for what seemed hours for the wind to get up again and propel it back to shore. This walk, like so many others, a walk into my past.

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Circling the pond, I head back towards Highgate Road and the area known as Dartmouth Park, the pavements busy by now with students on their way to one of three schools that are clustered close together: William Ellis, La Sainte Union and Parliament Hill. If I turn my head to the left before crossing the railway bridge to where we live (literally, on the wrong side of the tracks), I can see what was my father’s parents’ house – the last in the row – where I used to go after school and do my homework – unless my Nan fancied a trip to Chapel Street Market, or, if I’d somehow earned a treat, down to the little fleapit of a cinema, the Gaisford in Kentish Town, to see Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers.

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Once over the bridge, I’m almost home. My feet are starting to ache a little. My pedometer says 3.2 miles; the kitchen clock tells me it’s time to get on with the rest of the day.

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American Writers: George Pelecanos / Willy Vlautin

When I first started reading George Pelecanos – the Nick Stefanos Mysteries – and later when we met and I had the opportunity to interview him, it was clear that his chosen form, the crime novel, was going to be, for him, much more than an entertainment – though his books are certainly that. As became even more evident with some of the later, more substantial titles – Right as Rain, say, Hard Revolution or The Night Gardener – Pelecanos sees himself very much in the role of social chronicler, as well as – sounds a little pretentious, but I can’t help it – a chronicler of the lives of men. Men and women inseparable from the society into which they are born and in which they live. Cause and effect.

Going back over Pelecanos’ work I’m reminded of a statement by the Australian writer, Peter Temple. ” … those are the issues [questions of morality, of behaviour and of simple human decency] you should write about (and) if you are a crime writer you have more licence to write about them than anybody else.”

From the time Pelecanos became involved, as writer and producer, in the television series, The Wire, and later, Treme and The Deuce, novels have been relatively few and far between. So news of The Man Who Came Uptown was greeted with pleasurable anticipation.

Uptown

It is, in some respects, a simple morality tale. Will Michael, on release from prison, go back to the life that put him there, responding to the pressures of those around him, or have the courage and strength of will to step aside and make an honest life of his own? That he is even considering the latter is in no small part due to the prison librarian, who has successfully introduced him to books and reading and, through them, an alternative set of choices.

One book that affects Michael strongly is Northline by Willy Vlautin, which tells the story of a young woman who gradually finds the strength to have hope and trust in the possibility of a new life, despite years of serious abuse. A role model, for Michael, of sorts. If she can do it, if she can even try …

Pelecanos’ opinion of the novel is clear from the rear jacket of the Faber edition of the book …

Northline shines with naked honesty and unsentimental humanity. The character of Allison Johnson, and the wounded-but-still-walking people she encounters on her journey, will stay with me for a long while. Vlautin has written the American novel that I’ve been hoping to find.

Northline

Vlautin, author of five novels so far, is also a song writer and musician, initially with the band Richmond Fontaine and, more recently, The Delines, for whom he plays guitar and sings as well as writing most of their material. I was aware of Richmond Fontaine, liking some of their songs without going overboard [the exception being the marvellous Inventory from the 2011 album, The High Country] but The Delines are, as they say – or used to – something else. A friend – actually, my agent – the two are far from inseparable – gave me a copy of their 2014 album, Colfax, for a recent birthday and it’s scarcely been off the stereo since.

Not surprisingly, the songs are stories; moments, often, taken from the centre of broken down lives; their protagonists drawn from an itinerant American underclass . No surprise that amongst his favourite writers Vlautin cites John Steinbeck and Raymond Carver.

But what makes the songs on Colfax and the more recent  The Imperial really work is the voice of singer Amy Boone, sometimes barely rising above the level of everyday speech, which conveys the experience and pain of the characters she inhabits with weary fidelity. Aware of this, when Boone had a serious accident after making Colfax, Vlautin waited several years until she had recovered and could sing again before making another record.

 

Delines

 

Simon Armitage: Poet Laureate

Somewhere in the mid-80s it would have been and I’d been invited up from Nottingham, where I was then living, to take part in a series of readings at the Central Library in Huddersfield that were being organised by Peter Sansom, he of The Poetry Business, Smith/Doorstop and The North. This during that brief envelope of time when the Today Programme was seriously asking if it was true Huddersfield was the poetry capital of Great Britain. Being the visitor, I got to read last, with two young poets I had yet to meet – Simon Armitage and Craig Smith – forming the undercard. And let’s take a moment here to realise I’m relying on a somewhat faulty memory, but the basic facts are as they are.

I was particularly struck by one of Armitage’s poems called ‘Greenhouse’ and, at the end of the evening, thinking, I suppose that he might be quite pleased, asked him if I could publish it in the next issue of Slow Dancer magazine. Sorry, he said, but it’s just been taken by the Times Literary Supplement. That’s great, I said, trying to make it sound enthusiastic rather than  grudging – here was someone who was going somewhere and without my help.

We did publish him later, of course, with poems in Slow Dancer 19/20 (1987) and 22 (1989), as well as a pamphlet, The Walking Horses (1988) – his third – which included ‘Greenhouse’, so I sort of got my way in the end. And it’s now clear I was right about him being a poet who was going somewhere … as did David Belbin, whose perceptive appreciation of Armitage’s work was published in Slow Dancer 23 (1990) and I’m grateful to him for permission to reproduce it here …

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THE POETRY OF SIMON ARMITAGE
David Belbin

And to think that we once wrote poetry
about the distance between stars, and how
for small things the skin on a surface
of water is almost impregnable.

‘A Place to Love.’

The second half of the eighties has seen a new generation of small press magazines invent itself: The Wide Skirt, The Echo Room , The North and (the late) Harry’s Hand, presenting a distinctly new group of poets. They’re 25-35, mostly male, and mostly live within ten miles of Huddersfield. They go to Peter Sansom’s poetry workshops and none vote Tory,  or get  published in magazines run by the London Litcrit mafia. Instead, they’ve set up their own alternative version (with, of course, the generous assistance of Yorkshire Arts).

Despite a lot of hard work and rather more poetic talent than Faber and Faber have dug out in the last decade or two, none of the Huddersfield Mafia have managed to make any kind of national impact. Until now. Simon Armitage, at 26, the youngest of these new Northern poets, has just published his first collection (Zoom! Bloodaxe. £4.95). Despite not being feted in any of the publications that Blake Morrison’s friends get reviewed in, Zoom! was the PBS Autumn choice and even got shortlisted for the Whitbread. This kind of success is not so much rare as unheard of. Simon also won a major Gregory award in 1988, appeared last year on radios 3 and 4. If he keeps going at this rate, he should get a South Bank Show special while the 90s are still young.

What makes Simon’s evident success surprising isn’t his age or origins (born in Huddersfield, returned there after university), but that his style is so uncompromisingly original (unlike, say, Wendy Cope, the best-selling new poet of the 80’s). Which doesn’t mean inaccessible:

I can half hear you, John, half see you fumble
with a car battery, a two two air rifle
two wires and a headlamp. You and that shivering dog
going as two silhouettes above Warrington.

His style is conversational. Cars appear in a lot of the poems. There’s always a sense of humour somewhere near the surface, but it’s hard to pin down: equal measures  of irony and compassion are directed at his quirky subjects.

None of the poetry in ‘Zoom!’ could have been written by anyone else. What makes the voice so distinct is best summed up in his own words:

It’s often a narrative or yarn, a build up of images and links pebbledashed with a mix of idiom, slang and cliche… although real life is the main ingredient of these poems, they are seasoned with a generous pinch of verisimilitude.

PBS Bulletin, Autumn 1989

Some influences are apparent: like many of the new Northern poets he’s more in tune with the relaxed rhythms and wide ranging subject matter of post-war U.S. poets than their drier, more formal English counterparts. Frank O’Hara gets a namecheck and William Carlos Williams is hanging around somewhere. Ian McMillan’s quirky surrealism might be a more local inspiration. Like McMillan, Armitage’s poems work as well, or better, when read aloud. They share a love for the memorable punchline: ‘no fish: no birds: no shit.’ (‘The Peruvian Anchovy Industry’.) Or ‘My cock’s a kipper’ (‘Bus Talk’).

Armitage also acknowledges influences from rock: it’s easy to identify the tone of David Byrne’s (Talking Heads) deadpan lyrics about Urban American life in aspects of Simon’s style. ‘Don’t Sing’ uses the title of Paddy McAloon’s meditation on Graham Greene (recorded by Prefab Sprout) to tell an absurd yet poignant war story.

Smith Doorstop published ‘Human Geography’ in 1986. It includes ‘Lamping’, quoted above, amongst other equally distinctive poems and several with a rawer approach. By the time it was reprinted two years later, the false starts had been cut — only seven of the original seventeen remain. Some of the cut poems are good, but one gets the sense that Armitage is prolific and has plenty to choose from. Youth isn’t far behind in these poems. ‘Dykes’, despite its predictable puns, somehow links dams with maybe lesbians in wry, revealing couplets:

Later I discovered
She was only pointing to an overflow culvert.
Although we were close, she knew a closer, deeper circle
Which, at seventeen, I found undetectable
And many of her stories held no water
Especially those involving Susan, Gill or Sandra

‘The Distance Between Stars’, which Wide Skirt published the following year, is the best of Simon’s three pamphlets. His style has fully arrived. Bookended with poems on astronomical themes, ‘The Distance…’ moves from the mysterious to the mundane, leaving you never quite sure which is which. Many poems take the form of monologues. These are closer to Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads than to Carol Ann Duffy’s Thrown Voices and range from the bleak, bitter Antarctic narrative “Bylot Island’ to the jokey, condescending mechanic in ‘Very Simply Topping Up the Brake Fluid’. The latter poem manages to convey the broken rhythms of a continuously interrupted monologue, while reading with verve and a rhythmic swing which may be as difficult to write as It is easy to read:

…gently does it, that’s it. Try not to spill it, it’s
corrosive: rusts, you know, and fill it till it’s
level with the notch on the clutch reservoir.
Lovely.

Yet the fact that these poems are accessible doesn’t mean that they’re light. Armitage carries emotion confidently, unafraid to confront sentiment. ‘Gone’ reminds me of Larkin’s ‘Home is so sad’,

Not the bed, empty, that’s
one thing. But her watch, still ticking
and the loop of one, blonde hair
caught in her hairbrush. Ihat’s another.

This ability to let a detail stand starkly in representation of death; the stern laconic phrase which conveys intense emotion: these are the work of a mature, and possibly major poet.

Armitage’s last pamphlet was ‘The Walking Horses (Slow Dancer 1988) which is a consistent, but more varied set than ‘..Stars’. Its major poems are his longest monologue so far, “All Beer and Skittles’ , a cynically comic account of the sacking of a sometime plumber, and ‘Screenplay’, a more speculative, tender, visual poem that could not have been written by many of his peers.

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That said, there are qualities that he shares with other new Northern poets: humour, arrogance, awkward sensitivity laced with a generous measure of self doubt, also, a sometimes fussy referential habit (whether to places or people} – Armitage takes all these, but transcends them, making something more original. This was overwhelming apparent later in 1988, when a revised, extended edition of his first book introduced many of the remaining poems to be found in ‘Zoom!’

                        The bears in Yosemite Park
are swaggering home, legged up with fishing line
 and polythene and above the grind of his skidoo
a ranger curses the politics of skinny dipping.

This is life.

Armitage avoids fixed rhythms, attaining a conversational shamble of deceptive pace: walking a kind of metrical highwire. His poems can be read many times and retain their freshness. I recall the excitement of reading ‘Zoom’ for the first time, in issue four of ‘The North’: (The exclamation mark, incidentally, was added later, evidently at Bloodaxe’s insistence) the boldness of the metaphor could have been overbearingly arrogant in almost anyone else’s hands, yet it works as a magical, comic, surreal, and finally quite humble account of the creative process.

The book ‘Zoom!’ (Bloodaxe, 4.95) is a fat first volume which is worth buying even if you’ve got all the pamphlets discussed above, and indispensable if you haven’t. Many of the newest poems seem grittier, more compassionate than his earlier work. His probation worker job may partly account for this, emerging as subject matter in poems like ‘Social Inquiry Report’, ‘Eighties, Nineties’ and ‘The Stuff’. But then some of the final poems in the collection are even harder to classify than any of those I’ve tried to discuss earlier: more wilfully obscure and cynical, yet wistful in tone. And among them, reminding us of his background in Oceanography, is one of the most striking poems about ecology that I’ve read, ‘Remembering the East Coast’.

At conference
how they roared at the chairman’s address,
his much told fable
of the bald patents clerk
who resigned his post circa 1850
explaining ‘Everything we need
is now invented.’
But alone I am with him; dipping the quill,
crossing the t of his signature,
blotting the I’s
of his oddball opinion.

‘Zoom!’ is only a beginning, but a dazzling one, from a poet who’s already past words like ‘promise’ and ‘potential . Finally, it leaves you with the same impulses as all good art: it leaves you wanting more and it keeps you guessing. Give Simon Armitage a test drive.

 

“Aslant”

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This beautiful little book – and believe me, it is beautiful – published by John Lucas’ Shoestring Press, makes its first appearance this week, with a launch evening at Nottingham’s Five Leaves Bookshop to set it on its way. That’s this Thursday, 25th April at 7.00pm. Molly Boiling’s photographs will be projected [she also designed the cover] and I’ll read some of the poems. Another Shoestring poet, Stuart Henson, will be reading too. Come along if you’re around. [People have been known to come as far as Derby or Kirkby-in-Ashfield.] Details …

If not, and you’re closer to London, on the following evening, Friday 26th, I shall be reading at The Poetry  Café in Covent Garden as part of Hylda Sim’s long-running Fourth Friday series of poetry & music evenings. Tony Roberts will also be reading and there will be music from very fine singer/songwriter. Liz Simcock. Details here …

If you can’t get along to either of those events, copies are available, price £10.00, from Five Leaves Bookshop, Nottingham – 0115 8373097 – bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk or from Central Books – 0208 525 8800 – contacts@centralbooks.com or can be ordered from your local bookstore.

To give you a small idea of what your money will get you, here’s one of the poems and an extract from another, with one of Molly’s photographs to finish things off.

HONEYMOON

The swimsuit he’d been wearing earlier,
my father, a single strap draped,
Johnny Weissmuller style, over one shoulder,
set aside now in favour of pale slacks,
white shirt, collar splayed open
across the lapels of his blazer;
sitting a little self-consciously
alongside my mother, smart
in her polka-dot dress, white shoes;
the two of them staring back at the camera,
that picture the beach photographer
will display proudly later in his window.

The first time he’d set eyes on my mother,
she’d been standing close against the piano,
perfectly still, her voice small and clear
yet somehow distant, disarming;
the way, as the last notes faded,
silence seemed to fold about her …

Now she sits with her arm resting
on the check tablecloth, her hand
close to his but not quite touching;
the café doors behind them open,
waiter hovering, a tune somewhere playing.
the world waiting,

Those carefree days before the war:
Ostend, Spring 1939

I REMEMBER

I remember the first time I heard a big band
or any kind of jazz at all –sitting across from my mother and aunt
in the splendour of Lyons Corner House
at Marble Arch, feasting on cakes and petit fours
from a glass cake stand tiered like a chandelier
and listening in muted amazement
to Ivy Benson & Her All-Girl Orchestra
swinging their way gloriously
through the fusty afternon.

And then, a little older,
parties at my friend Michael’s house,
where his Uncle Mac, six foot and sixteen stone,
would get himself up in women’s clothes –
skirt, rouched blouse with false boobs,
stockings, suspenders, bright red lipstick and rouge,
and, between jokes I didn’t always understand,
impersonate Sophie Tucker singing Some of These Days
and, a family favourite, Nobody Loves a Fat Girl,
But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love.

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Bob Cornwell’s Shuffle

It gives me great pleasure to hand this post over to the illustrious Bob Cornwell – film buff, crime fiction expert and music aficionado – to discus the music that popped up recently via his iPod shuffle. [Just as it is with books, other people’s music libraries are often far more  diverse and interesting than one’s own.]

Ysabel’s Table Dance (Charles Mingus)
Aftermath (Kevin Eubanks)
Third Rate Romance (Amazing Rhythm Aces)
Here Comes the Honeyman (Norma Winstone with the NDR Bigband under Mike Gibbs)
This Girl’s in Love with You (Dionne Warwick)
Donna Lee (Charlie Parker)
Rustat’s Gravesong (Michael Garrick Orchestra)
I Want You (Jewels and Binoculars)
Downtown Train (Tom Waits)
O Deserto (Mariza)
Dance You Monster to My Soft Song (Maria Schneider Orchestra)
Moon Mist (Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra)

No day that starts with this passionate, mercurial music from Tijuana Moods (1957), my favourite Mingus album and one of only three (all for Mingus)) that feature the wistfully lyrical trumpet of Clarence Shaw, here in teasing fragments.

The ‘day’ job for some years for under-rated guitarist Kevin Eubanks, was with the house band on Jay Leno’s Tonight US TV show in the 1990s. This is from Turning Point, his first album (1992) for Blue Note, bristling with excellent Eubanks originals and supported, amongst others by Britain’s own Dave Holland and Mark Mondesir.

The 1970s generally get a bad rap, for its politics of course but also for its music. Not in my book, notable as the period was for great British big bands. Think Neil Ardley’s New Jazz Orchestra, Chris McGregor’s anarchic but always exhilarating Brotherhood of Breath, the Mikes Westbrook, Gibbs and Garrick, and then on into the 80s with the various Graham Collier aggregations. Here Comes the Honeyman is later Gibbs. from his wonderful 2011 album, Here’s A Song for You, featuring Norma Winstone with the NDR Bigband (Mark Mondesir guesting on drums). This includes some very individual interpretations of material from Nick Drake, Sting and Joni Mitchell as well as a few classics from Fats Waller, Duke and Billy Strayhorn. And in the closing moments of this track, can I hear a brief homage to the sinuous horns and woodwind that accompany Miles on the fragmentary (1m 18sec) version of this tune on Porgy and Bess (1958), arranged by Gil Evans.

Rustat’s Gravesong meanwhile originates from Michel Garrick in 1968, the innovative Jazz Praises suite (Garrick on the organ of St.Paul’s Cathedral for instance). This version comes from an undated but much later (early 200s?) now with a young band that included two of his sons.

No Dusty (or Lester) this time round. Instead the Apple logarithm glides mysteriously from a sublime Dionne Warwick in 1969 to an intense Charlie Parker in 1947 with an ‘all-star’ group that includes Miles Davis, Bud Powell and Max Roach, in Parker’s first ‘illicit’ session for Savoy (he was contracted to Dial at the time).

A Bob Dylan inspired jazz album? Three in fact, all from woodwind specialist Michael Moore (no relation) and his band called Jewels and Binoculars, completed by bassist Linsdey Horner and percussionist Michael Vatcher. Ths jaunty version of I Want You comes from Floater, the second album (2003), one of many jewels on this record.

Fado singer Mariza’s O Deserto (The Desert) comes from her international breakthrough album Fado Curvo, the latter obligingly translated on the CD as “inclined forward”, as she strove to incorporate new influences both poetically and musically. Here’s a nod to jazz, her glorious voice accompanied here on Portuguese guitar by Mario Pacheco, a giant of that instrument and, on trumpet Quiné (a role taken by Guy Barker on a later appearance in London’s Festival Hall).

The great big band of our day, in my opinion, is that of Maria Schneider. Here’s an altogether more extrovert version of a track from 2014 that first showed up on Evanescence (1994) her first album, Gil Evans a clear influence – and perhaps too, Paul Klee? NB If you can get down to Ronnies in early July when Schneider appears at the club as guest conductor, not to mention composer-in-residence, with the Ronnie Scott Jazz Orchestra.

Finally, another perennial, Duke Ellington. Most of the seminal collection Never No Lament (the Blanton/Webster-Band, 1940-1942) has ended up on my iPod. This is a lesser known item, led by Ray Nance on violin, from January 1942 that you’d swear came from the pen of Billy Strayhorn. But no, it’s a gentle original from a young Mercer Ellington, that let’s you down gently after the fire of Maria Schneider. And reminds you that it’s about that time – coffee time.

Art Chronicles: George Shaw

There I was in Stevenage this Saturday just past, walking up Monkswood Way towards the Lamex Stadium, home of Stevenage Football Club  – hosts that afternoon to Notts County – when I noticed both sides of the busy road were bordered by woodland. Thinnish, it’s true, but woodland nonetheless: on the near side shielding the bizarrely named Roaring Meg Retail and Leisure Park; on the other, the edges of the Monkswood Estate and the fringes of Fairlands Valley Park, through which, in the early 70s, I would walk most mornings to the secondary school where I was teaching.

But then, instead of thinking about how Notts were going to fare that afternoon [They won 3-0, extraordinary!] I found myself thinking instead of the woods in the paintings of George Shaw, whose exhibition, A Corner of a Foreign Field, I’d visited at Bath’s Holbourne Museum the day before. Shaw’s paintings, executed in the Humbrol enamel paint beloved of boys who spent hours making Airfix models in their rooms [back in the days when boys used to make Airfix models in their rooms] take as their subject the Tile Hill area of Coventry, where he was born and brought up. An area of new housing built on the edge of the city, on the edge of woodland. A bit like Stevenage, really; Stevenage New Town. Brave New World.

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Some people stay; some move on. Part of Shaw has stayed where he lived out his childhood and adolescence. So he goes back, makes drawings, takes photographs. Paints the rows of similar houses, tatty now; the abandoned garages and sheds; those woods …

When I was not yet grown up the woods at the back of our house was that other world It was a world of our own making outside the usual time and the usual cartography and far from the governance of mums and dads and nosy neighbours and teachers. You never saw a copper in the woods. When the time would come no one would save you.

Taking my own life in my own hands I’d climb trees, make dens, bridge dishes and ponds, dig holes, break things, burn things and take things. Most of all I’d watch and keep out of the way of the others. In particular I’d keep out of the way those older, bigger and louder. They would never come on their own and were very easy to spot shouting, smoking, drinking, spitting, snogging, fingering. They would leave behind them circles of paper and porn, cans and fag-ends, initials carved into a tree or a burnt-out motorbike.

 

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These paintings are haunted by absence. Memory. Doors which are never opened; paths along which no one walks; bus shelters; shops permanently closed. Borders, fences, gates, railings. Signs of a life that has been lived and is being steadily left behind, with Shaw chronicling its demise.

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Lost in Leicester

Would I like to take part in this year’s States of Independence, the annual celebration of independent publishing and writing, organised and funded by Nottingham’s Five Leaves Bookshop and the Creative Writing Team at Leicester’s De Montfort University? A forty-five minute slot mine for the asking, 11.00am start. The usual thing, a reading followed by Q&A. Never one to turn down the chance of an audience, I was sorely tempted, even if it mean catching a fairly early train up from London. What nailed it, Notts were at home to Exeter that afternoon, time enough after my session to make the short distance up the line to Nottingham and take my seat at Meadow Lane.

The travel instructions from the university seemed to include everything but the way from the station on foot, but how difficult could it be? And I could see that Leicester City Council very helpfully provided local maps at each and every intersection; scale, however, seemed to be a very variable thing, and once I’d found the tiny red arrow denoting You Are Here, the university seemed to have disappeared. On the next map, there it was again, make a right and then a left and then … Gone. I asked friendly passers-by, some of whom – most in fact – thought I meant the other, more established establishment, THE university, while others sent me hopefully off in several different directions.

11.00am, though still a way off, was getting closer, while the university itself seemed to be just as far away, when suddenly … there it was, left, right, and Bingo! Not just the university but the exact building, the entrance hall already buzzing with people who had left the house that morning with books on their minds and a clear idea of where they were heading.

My event was on the second floor, Room 2.35, still plenty of time to get there and get settled. The young man who was to chair the session introduced himself and together we went off to find the room. I didn’t know I was doing this until last night, he said apologetically –  but I did, he added helpfully, look you up on Wikipedia. With due modesty, I assured him that whatever he said by way of introduction would be fine. By 11.00 almost all the seats had been taken. The chairperson rose to his feet, coughed to get the audience’s attention, introduced me in a single sentence which included the words ‘crime fiction’, ‘poetry’ and ‘jazz’, and sat back down.

Right, then. I explained that I was going to read the first two chapters of my most recent novel, Body & Soul, after which I’d be happy to answer questions about that particular book or any of the others people might be familiar with. The reading seemed to go well and clearly there was going to be no shortage of questions. It was when I was attempting what was already becoming a rather convoluted answer to a question about ‘creativity’ [Why is it always questions about creativity that are difficult to answer?] that I came to the frightening realisation that I wasn’t too clear what exactly I was saying. And certainly not what I wanted to say next. I was, for that moment, just as lost as I had been earlier, finding my way blindly through the streets of Leicester.

There’s a sentence that resonates for me in Jim Harrison’s novel, True North, which I’m currently reading, in which he describes  one of the characters thus: He survived on family money and a small pension from the church given for his general mental incontinence. And that was me. Sitting on the corner of the table in Room 2.35 suffering from mental incontinence. My mouth continued to open, my lips to move and words to come out, words that seemed to bear some relationship to one another without my being too clear what that might be. My questioner continued to nod helpfully, however, as if I were making sense to him at least. And then, just as suddenly, I was. Making sense, that is. Or I appeared to be. Are there any more questions, I wondered, looking around?

Notts County lost, by the way. Already sitting at the bottom of the table, and having dominated for the majority of the game without managing to score – this against an Exeter side who were down to ten men from the first twenty minutes  – they conceded when the ball was bundled into their net with almost the last action of the game. Truly lost.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Out & About in 2019

After an enforced quiet year in 2018, I’m doing my best to make up for it in 2019, beginning with two very enjoyable events – one, with Stella Duffy, at Owl Bookshop in north London and another (SRO – almost) at Nottingham Waterstones – which marked the paperback publication of the fourth Frank Elder novel, Body & Soul.

Things continue with appearances at two major crime writing festivals, Bristol and Newcastle, as well as the publication by Shoestring Press in April of Aslant, which features my poetry alongside photographs by Molly Ernestine Boiling (who also designed the cover.)

ASLANT COVER10
Here’s the list of events … diaries at the ready …

Saturday, 23rd March
States of Independence: a one day celebration of independent publishing, writing & thinking. http://www.statesofindependence.co.uk
Clephan Building, De Montfort University, Oxford Street, Leicester LE1 5XY.
Between 11.00am and 11.45 I shall be reading from Body & Soul and maybe one or two other pieces as well.

Thursday, 25th April
Shoestring Press launch of Aslant, which features my poems alongside photographs by Molly Ernestine Boiling.
Five Leaves Bookshop, 14a Long Row, Nottingham NG1 2DH. 7.00pm – 8.30pm
This is a relatively small venue, please book in advance.
0115 8373097 bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk

Friday, 26th April
Fourth Friday at The Poetry Café, 22 Betterton Street, Covent Garden, London.
8.00pm onwards. I shall be reading from Aslant, with support from singer/songwriter, Liz Simcock, and one or two other poets from the Shoestring stable.

Saturday, 4th May
Newcastle Noir. Newcastle City Library. https://newcastlenoir.co.uk
Saturday Night Showcase: Going Back to My Roots 7.30pm.
I shall be in conversation with the veteran Norwegian writer, Gunnar Staalesen. Two old guys for the price of one!

Saturday, 11th May
CrimeFest, International Crime Fiction Convention Mercure Bristol Grand Hotel, Bristol. http://www.crimefest.com
Wearing my Special Guest hat (well, cap) I shall be interviewed by Alison Joseph about some 40-plus years of the writing life. Or however much we can fit in between 3.10pm – 4.00pm in the afternoon.

STILL TO COME [Assuming I last that long … ]

Penzance Literary Festival in July

The Inspire Poetry Festival in Nottinghamshire in September
Two Poetry & Jazz sessions, most likely at Beeston & Worksop Libraries.

 

Don Shirley at the Piano

No call to bring down further scorn on the Academy’s choice of Green Book as Best Film; Spike Lee’s already handled that in his own, well, spiky way. And the truth is there’s not too much wrong with Green Book as pleasurable movies go – nice performances and along the way an interesting  insight into what passed for middlebrow entertainment in the early 1960s, in this case the rather flashy neo-classical piano style of Don Shirley. As the jazz pianist Ethan Iverson points out in an article in the current issue of the New Yorker, Shirley was “one among dozens of pianists who were popular at mid-century, a moment when the piano was at its zenith in American life.” In America it would have included Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein on the more traditionally classical side of things and light music specialists such as Carmen Cavallaro, whose best-selling recording was his version of Chopin’s Polonaise, Op. 53., and who, of course, paved the way for Liberace, all simpering smiles and glittering arpeggios.

In England there was the duo, Rawicz and Landauer, dispensing popular versions of the classics to radio audiences through the middle years of the century, and Alberto Semprini, whose radio programme, Semprini Serenade, introduced with the words, “Old ones, new ones, loved ones, neglected ones”, began as a Sunday afternoon feature on the BBC Light Programme in 1957 and continued for another twenty-five years.

Iverson is interesting discussing Don Shirley’s singular piano style, which leaned towards jazz and popular music, but interpreted through the prism of his classical music training. He quotes the saxophonist Branford Marsalis as saying, “Don Shirley’s music is a joy to listen to. It’s not jazz, and his approach is clearly influenced through classical training. Because he is not a jazz soloist, he has to create momentum through color and melodic exploration.”

It could well have been that, instead of carving out a career as a popular attraction, Shirley could have played in more conventional classical surroundings, but it seems that his colour was against him. As the jazz bassist Ron Carter, whose first choice would have been to have played the symphonic repertoire, was told by no less than Leopold Stokowski, the classical world was “not ready for a colored man to be in their orchestra.” In the UK, the Trinidadian pianist Winifred Atwell, though classically trained, found herself held back by similar prejudices, which resulted in her – not, I imagine, totally unhappily – performing a succession of ragtime compositions that topped the charts and propelled her to huge popularity, especially in Australia, where she settled in the 1970s, becoming an Australian citizen two years before her death.