Early Summer: Reading John Ashbery while walking on Hampstead Heath

Out on Hampstead Heath earlier this morning, the first time this week; bright, strong sunshine – a tad too strong for my personal taste, too warm – and clear skies. When I first enter the Heath from Millfield Lane – a good vantage point close by the men’s swimming pond – I can see less than a dozen people, all walking, mostly with dogs, save for one man sitting on the wooden parapet overlooking the pond itself.

At the next pond over – historically called the Boating Pond – my dad and I once proudly sailed our yacht there, only for it to be marooned close to the centre, waiting for a wind – I sit a while and watch the occasional ripples caused by fish rising close to the otherwise calm surface. Some walkers, making a circuit of the pond, nod their head or mumble a greeting, others stride on in steady concentration.

When I move on, it is up a well-trodden incline, thankfully none too steep, that takes me onto the meadow opposite, rich with buttercups. A hundred yards or so and the land has levelled out and I’m within sight of the tumulus, pleased then to find that one of the benches that surround it is free. The view south-east is towards the Olympic Park and beyond; due south and hidden by the trees, the centre of the city will be silhouetted against the sky. After some moments I take from my pocket a new book, purchased just yesterday: Something Close to Music – a selection of John Ashbery’s writing about artists such as Joan Mitchell and Jane Freilicher, together with some of his own poems and several playlists the editor has made from the two thousand records, CDs and cassette tapes that were in Ashbery’s collection.

The music is mostly what would have been classified, I think, as Contemporary Classical – John Cage, Elliott Carter, Morton Feldman, Arvo Part, John Adams – maybe it still is – with a few outriders thrown in – Bernard Herman’s soundtrack for Hitchcock’s Vertigo; Brian Eno’s Music for Airports; John Zorn; Bill Frisell and Evan Parker playing Gavin Bryars. The writing about artists’ work is detailed and generous – a good number, such as Freilicher, were close friends and an integral part of the New York Poetry & Painting scene held together (loosely, but held nevertheless) by Frank O’Hara.

The book, as a whole, is a small delight; one of a growing number of well-designed, easily pocketable collections of writing about visual art published by David Zwirner Books, and available, as far as I can see, wherever good books are sold. I bought mine at the London Review Bookshop, though had I been in Nottingham I would have bought it, doubtless at Five Leaves Bookshop.

Sometime in the next few days, I’ll post a listing of the music I was listening via my MP3 player during the final third of my walk …

Angus Wells : 1943 – 2006

My friend and fellow writer, Angus Wells, died sixteen years ago on the 11th April. He would have been 79. 

I first met Angus through Laurence James, with whom I’d shared a student house in New Cross, S .E. London when we were students at Goldsmiths College. While I went into teaching, Laurence began a career that revolved around books and writing: initially a book seller, he moved into publishing, becoming a commissioning editor at New English Library, where he built up a notable list of science fiction and fantasy titles, before opiting to stay home and write – a highly successful decision, with more than a hundred and fifty mostly paperback titles to his credit before ill health forced him to retire.

It was Laurence who, aware that I was becoming restless with my role as teacher, talked me into trying my hand as a paperback writer, and who, several years later, persuaded Angus to follow the same course – although not, thankfully, before he had commissioned me to write for Sphere Books the first of four crime novels featuring Scott Mitchell – the toughest private eye – and the best. Simpler times.

It was clear from my first meetings with Angus that we shared a number of things in common – the most prominent being a love of western movies, ranging from early John Ford to Sam Peckinpah, as well as the European ‘classics;, and of music with an American country feel by the likes of Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker and John Stewart. We worked together on several series of paperback westerns – two of which, Peacemaker and Gringos, are now in the process of being reissued as e-books by Piccadilly Publishing.

When we were both living in London, Angus and I frequented the original Mean Fiddler in Harlesden, seeing, amongst others, Van Morrison, Maria Muldaur, John Hiatt and the aforementioned Jerry Jeff; a habit that, after we found ourselves in Nottingham, would continue at the sadly departed Old Vic – on one memorable occasion finding ourselves just about the only two males in the packed audience for visiting Americans Tret Fure and Chris Williamson, who were clearly bemused but not unpleased to hear us singing along heartedly to the chorus of Tret’s “Tight Black Jeans”.

When the market for westerns faded, Angus had considerable success in the worlds of epic fantasy – notably the Raven series, which he co-wrote with Rob Holdstock and his own Books of the Kingdoms. When this market, too, began to fade, his writing lost direction and, accordingly, he lost confidence, and, although we would meet for the occasional meal or to see a movie at the Broadway Cinema, he become something of a recluse. On the occasion of his death I was pleased to dedicate a seat to him in the cinema’s main auditorium – adjacent to that of a certain Charlie Resnick. There they are – Screen One, C5 & C6.

From school yard to Junkyard: early days in pulp fiction

Over the last month or so, a small flurry of people (more than two, less that five) have asked about the influences, if any, of my early reading – that’s somewhere between Alison Uttley’s Hare Joins the Home Guard and the cadet edition of The Cruel Sea – on my early writing. Always supposing there to have been some early writing, essays on the pessimism of Thomas Hardy and humour in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers aside.

Well, yes, there were all those westerns, of course, their inspiration – aside from various volumes of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Annual – coming from the cinema – everything from Saturday Morning Pictures to a John Ford Season at the National Film Theatre. And there is a brief series of four crime novels featuring Scott Mitchell, the toughest private eye – and the best – originally published by Sphere Books between 1976 and 77, and republished in print and as Ebooks by Mysterious Press/Open Road Media in 2016.

Here follows an extract from the introduction written for these new editions, providing, in part, an answer to those questions about early influences …

Growing up in England in the immediate postwar years and into the 1950s was, in some respects, a drab experience. Conformity ruled. It was an atmosphere of “be polite and know your place.” To a restless teenager, anything American seemed automatically exciting. Movies, music—everything. We didn’t even know enough to tell the real thing from the fake. 

The first hard-boiled crime novels I read were written by an Englishman pretending to be American: Stephen Daniel Frances, using the pseudonym Hank Janson, which was also the name of his hero. With titles like Smart Girls Don’t Talk and Sweetheart, Here’s Your Grave, the Janson books, dolled up in suitably tantalizing covers, made their way, hand to hand, around the school playground, falling open at any passage that, to our young minds, seemed sexy and daring. This was a Catholic boys’ grammar school, after all, and any reference to parts of the body below the waist, other than foot or knee, was thought to merit, if not excommunication, at least three Our Fathers and a dozen Hail Marys.

From those heady beginnings, I moved on, via the public library, to another English writer, Peter Cheyney, and books like Dames Don’t Care and Dangerous Curves—which, whether featuring FBI agent Lemmy Caution or British private eye Slim Callaghan, were written in the same borrowed faux American pulp style. But it was Cheyney who prepared me for the real deal. 

I can’t remember exactly when I read my first Raymond Chandler, but it would have been in my late teens, still at the same school. Immediately, almost instinctively, I knew it was something special. Starting with The Big Sleep—we’d seen the movie with Bogart and Bacall—I read them all, found time to regret the fact there were no more, then started again. My friends did the same. When we weren’t kicking a ball around, listening to jazz, or hopelessly chasing girls, we’d do our best to come up with first lines for the Philip Marlowe sequel we would someday write. The only one I can remember now is “He was thirty-five and needed a shave.”

I would have to do better. The Scott Mitchell series was my attempt to do exactly that.

After the Fall

When I mentioned it to my friend, Jennifer, as a reason for postponing our meeting – coffee and catch-up in the upper floor café at Foyles bookshop – she was briskly solicitous. “A fall, was it, or a FALL?”

I knew what she meant.

When my father first fell, really fell, he was getting off the bus outside where he and my mother lived, a small council block where the road levels out across from the reservoir on Dartmouth Park Hill. Bag of shopping in one hand, the other touching the railing of the bus briefly before stepping clear, he could as well, in that moment, have been stepping into space. Nothing until he landed heavily on one side, the few bits and pieces from his bag spilling out – sugar, tea, a small Hovis, frozen peas – his hip broken.

The ambulance took him to the Whittington, a little higher up the hill, and though he was treated and in time discharged – discharged too soon with a walking frame he rarely used – it was the slow beginning of the end. Within those moments he had begun the journey from being a physically confident elderly man in his 70s – he still talked about getting back on his bike – to someone whose movement and memory were increasingly uncertain, who was never the same again.

My first serious fall (or FALL) occured ten years or so ago, when I was in my early 70s. My partner, Sarah, and I were amongst the crowd hurrying away from White Hart Lane, a bustling thicket of mostly Spurs supporters spreading across Tottenham High Road on their way home. We were hurrying more than was safe, more than was necessary, stepping off and on the kerb into the road and back again. I saw the coil of orange wire before I could react to it, before my foot snagged inside it and the force of my movement sent me crashing to the ground. Some people stepped around me; others stopped to help. Somehow Sarah manoevred me towards the nearest shop – a women’s hairdressers – and asked if I could sit down while I recovered. One of the customers was a nurse, who, after a cursory examination, said we should phone for an ambulance: she thought I had dislocated my shoulder. 

Not so many minutes later, or so it seemed – I think I might have been moving in and out of consciousness – I was strapped in the body of the ambulance, Sarah holding my hand while I gulped down gas and air and the driver used his siren to get us through the crowd and on our way to Whipps Cross Hospital.

An ex-ray proved the off-duty nurse to have been correct in her diagnosis; the doctor on duty gave me a choice of local or general anaesthetic while my shoulder was reset; without hesitation I chose the latter and around an hour later I woke up in the recovery ward with my shoulder back in place and an appointment with the physio department at the Whittington Hospital. Yes, that Whittington Hospital.

Since then, a minor fall some five years back when I failed to negotiate a kerb correctly, resulting in a minor fracture in my right hand – more trips to the Whittington, more physio – the occasional stumble out walking on Hampstead Heath – nothing serious, and then, two weeks ago, two weeks ago today, as Sarah and I were walking at a perfectly resonable pace along Goodge Street in Central London, on our way to see an exhibition of Caroline Walker’s paintings at the Fitzrovia Chapel, Sarah inadvertantly trod on one of my laces which had come undone, and I was pitched forward onto the pavement, face first. 

Blood was gushing – yes, really – gushing from my nose and the back of my neck hurt like hell. People came running out of the adjacent restaurant with tissues, ice & offers of help; a passing London cabbie stopped and offered to take me to the nearest A&E, which he did, refusing a fare.

After due examination, I was admitted to the Acute Medical Unit at UCLH with a nasal bone fracture, a fractured wrist, two fractured ribs, and, most worrying, a spinal fracture at C1 (the top of the spinal column). After six days, various ex-rays and an MRI, I was discharged. My nose and ribs have been designated “self healing”, my wrist and lower arm are in plaster, and for the spinal fracture I have a neck collar – the fancifully named  Miami J – to be worn 24/7 for twelve weeks. Fortunately pain is minimal, though sleep doesn’t come easy, and friends have stepped up to help Sarah remove and re-fit the collar every couple of days, for neck cleaning and general maintenance.

I’m wary about walking without assistance and it’s only the last couple of days that I’ve made it to the coffee shop around the corner without hanging onto Sarah’s arm. We both understand the importance of getting beyond that as soon as possible.

So … a fall or a FALL?

Time will tell.

Balance at our age is everything:

Like a perfect sentence depending
on that all-important semi-colon;
that comma,

Everything up to and including
the final full stop.

from Summer Notebook, John Harvey 2021

Art Chronicles: Bice Lazzari at the Estorick

As I mentioned in an earlier post, back in October, the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in north London, is one of my favourite galleries to visit. Located in a restored and expanded Grade II Georgian town house in Canonbury, it has six small galleries on three floors, a neat, well-stocked shop and an excellent little café that opens out onto a courtyard in the right seasons. And I can get there easily and reasonably safely in these Covid times on London Overground, just half a dozen or so stops, thus avoiding the Tube; or, should I choose to sign up for a lengthy tour of Finsbury Park and Holloway, by the number 4 bus.

The heart of the permanent collection is from the first half of the last century: de Chirico, Morandi, Modigliani and a host of Italian Futurists. The two ground floor spaces are currently given over to a fascinating exhibition devoted to the work of the Italian artist Bice Lazzari – Bice Lazzari Modernist Pioneer – following her development as she progressed through various modes of abstraction that finally took her, via the Movimento Arte Concreta and the influence of Piet Mondrian, towards a minimalist abstraction that calls to mind Agnes Martin – though, perhaps, with a stronger use of colour.

Bice Lazzari: Untitled, 1970. Graphite & Pastel on paper
Bice Lazzari: Acrylic No. 5, 1975. Acrylic on canvas

It’s interesting that the first piece on display here, Abstraction on a Line, No 2, from 1925, created with pencil and pastel on paper, seems, with hindsight, to be marking out, in perhaps a tentative manner, the direction Lazzari’s work will take several decades later.

Bice Lazzari: Abstraction on a Line, No. 2, 1925. Pencil & pastel on paper.

Before that could happen, there was a living to be earned … “when my father died in 1928 I had to face life on a practical level and so, rather than walking around with a painting under my arm, I took a loom and started making applied art (fabrics, scarves, bags, belts, carpets) in order to continue living in the climate I so adored – namely, freedom.”

Bice Lazzari: Handwoven Bag & Belt, 1929
Bice Lazzari: Cushion, Hand-sewn fabric, 1930

In addition to similar woven items, Lazzari worked with architects, making decorative panels and designing mosaics, often working closely with the Ernesto Lapadula studio in Rome; she designed jewellery and the decoration of the renovated Pizzeria Capri. She did what an artist has to do to make a living.

But now, perhaps, one more late piece to finish …

Bice Lazzari: White Sequence – Acrylic No. 4, 1975. Acrylic on canvas

Look, go if you can, if you think you might be interested; it’s on till April 24th. And there’s always the café ….

New Year Playlist

My first solo walk of the New Year on Hampstead Heath today, cold with perfect blue skies, a miserly 8,000 steps that took me, nevertheless, around a couple of ponds and up a couple of slow inclines, careful to watch out for what remained of the treacherous iced-over water that had run down onto the concrete paths.

Whichever route I take – and there are several – I usually aim to take a rest on one of the benches that surround the Tumulus, knowing that I’m now some 30/40 minutes from home.

View through the trees on the Tumulus

If I’ve remembered to slip a book into my pocket, I’ll spend a little time there reading – today it was The Letters of James Schuyler to Frank O’Hara – and before setting off on that last leg, take my little MP3 player from another pocket, set ear buds in place and press shuffle …

From which comes this first playlist of the year …

Leonard Cohen
Chelsea Hotel

Louis Armstrong
Chantez Les Bas
from Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy

Bill Morissey
Inside

Bonnie Raitt
Not ‘Cause I Wanted To

Joni Mitchell
Blue

Jimmy LeVave
For Everyman
from Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Brown

Billie Holiday
On the Sentimental Side
with Lester Young and the Teddy Wilson Orchestra

Gretchen Peters
When All You Got is a Hammer

Rosemary Clooney

As Long As I Live
with (I think) Scott Hamilton (tenor) & Warren Vaché (tpt/c’net)

Frank Sinatra
Nice Work If You Can Get It

John Prine
Morning Train

Best of 2021

FILMS

After Love : Aleem Khan
Copilot : Anne Zohra Berrached
Limbo : Ben Sharrock
Never Gonna Snow Again : Małgorzata Szumowska
Nomadland : Chloe Zhao
Petite Maman : Celine Sciamma
Power of the Dog : Jane Campion

BOOKS :

A Ghost in the Throat : Doireann Ni Ghriofa
Fidelity : Susan Glaspell (First published, 1915)
Jack : Marilynne Robinson
Lean. Fall. Stand. : Jon McGregor
That Old Country Music : Kevin Barry
The Night Always Comes : Willy Vlautin
The Night Watchman : Louise Erdrich
Real Estate : Deborah Levy
Scratched – A Memoir of Perfectionism : Elizabeth Tallent
The Vanishing Half : Brit Bennett

POETRY :

Magnetic Field – The Marsden Poems : Simon Armitage
Country Music : Will Burns
Learning to Sleep : John Burnside
New Hunger : Ella Duffy
If You Want Thunder : Ruth Valentine
The Last Dinosaur in Doncaster : Sarah Wimbush

ART :

Mohamed Bourouissa : Goldsmiths CCA
Helen FrankenthalerImagining Landscapes : Gagosian Grosvenor Hill
Helen FrankenthalerRadical Beauty : Dulwich Picture Gallery
Margaret Mellis Modernist Constructs : Towner Eastbourne
John Nash : The Landscape of Love & Solace : Towner Eastbourne
Ben NicholsonFrom the Studio : Pallant House
Wim WendersPhotographing Ground Zero : IWM
Breaking the MouldSculpture by Women since 1945 : Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham


Poetry progress : from Sheepwash to the Sierra Nevada

The hot summer of ’76, the one everyone remembers; the summer, in the short life of my fictional private eye, Scott Mitchell, between Amphetamines and Pearls and The Geranium Kiss; the summer I drove my green Citroen 2CV down to the south west, to Totleigh Barton, a sixteenth century manor house close to the village of Sheepwash and the River Torridge that was the Arvon Foundation’s first residential writing centre; a week in which to get to know one’s fellow students, share the cooking, lean on the tutors for advice and swop pulp fiction for poetry.

I arrived before most students on the first day and combing the house for the best of the shared bedrooms still available, I came across one in which the occupant, having claimed his space, had set out the small library of books he’d brought with him in a neat line. I can’t remember now what they were, but one quick glance was enough to suggest their owner might be an interesting person with whom to share.

Alan Brooks turned out to be an American temporarily living in London, a rural conservationist and a fine poet, someone who has remained a good and close friend. It was with Alan that the idea for Slow Dancer magazine was formed; Alan, after his return to Downest Maine, who became the magazine’s US Editor through its thirty issues.

The covers of the first few – designed by Nadia Stern – will give an idea of the range of poets we were publishing in these early years.

Just as it’s easy to look back on that meeting with Alan Brooks as being of singular importance in that part of my life concerned with the writing and publishing of poetry, so I can point to my attendance in 1993 and again in 1995 at the Community of Writers poetry programme at Olympic Valley – Squaw Valley as it was then called – in Northern California’s Sierra Nevada, as being of great significance on both counts. In terms of my writing, through example and through suggestion and discussion, I was encouraged to vary the style in which I’d been writing, experiment a little, enjoy the feel of language, rhythm, find subjects in the natural world. In the afternoons we would listen to the staff poets such as Robert Hass, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Brenda Hillman reading and talking about their poetry, and it was Robert Hass’s work which affected me most strongly. I can still remember the first occasion on which I heard him read – poems which moved seamlessly between the abstract and the deeply personal, which incorporated philosophical ideas alongside close observations of the natural world, while taking in references to the films of Kurosawa and the blues of Mississippi John Hurt. All of this without missing a beat or losing for a moment the listener’s attention.

The mornings were spent in small workshop sessions headed by those same poets, during which we would read and discuss the poems we had somehow found space and time to write the previous day. Every day. Poems that you left outside the door to be collected in the early hours and photocopied in time for the morning seminar. I doubt I’ve been much happier.

The Community of Writers has recently published Why to These Rocks, an anthology of poems written over a period of 50 years by staff and participant poets and edited by Lisa Alvarez, in which I’m proud to have a short poem – just five lines – Out of Silence – which I think, short as it is, captures something of the essence of the time I spent so happily far from home.

Out of Silence

How the light diffuses round house corners;
redwood walls, the breaking colour of packed earth,
ochre in the mouth.

The red woodpecker testily chiselling sap from a small ash
the only sound in the valley.

Two Takes on Lester Young … 2. Lester in Paris

It used to be there under Birthdays, some years at least. The daily listing in the paper, the Guardian, occasionally the Times. September 18th. Valentine Collins, jazz musician. And then his age: 27, 35, 39. Not 40. Val never reached 40.

So begins one of my short stories, Minor Key, concerning a British saxophonist hoping to keep his life – and his playing – together by accepting a residency in a Paris jazz club, at the same time that one his idols, Lester Young, is in Paris trying to do the self-same thing. Though to an outsider – or to anyone who cares, such as Val’s long-time friend Anna – it might not seem as if either man is trying very hard. Rather, the opposite.

Here’s a taste, involving both men …

“Minor Key”: First published in Paris Noir, edited by Maxim Jakubowski, Serpent’s Tail, London, 2007. Reprinted in Minor Key, Five Leaves, Nottingham, 2009. Reprinted in A Darker Shade of Blue, William Heinemann, London, 2010.

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