Art Chronicles: Amy Sillman

If you’re in North London and looking for something to do of an artistic nature – looking rather than making, though making happens there as well – Camden Arts Centre on the corner of Arkwright and Finchley Roads is a good bet.  Even if whatever’s showing doesn’t do it for you, there’s always the good little café with an adjacent two-tier garden. And, more often than not, the work in display is, at the very least, interesting. Sometimes, a lot more than that, with the bonus of discovering artists whose work you weren’t previously aware of, even if you should have been.

Such was the case when I came along with my daughter, Molly, last year and we were introduced to the work of the 90-year-old Romanian artist, Geta Bratescu – 90 and still working. And so it was this week, when my partner, Sarah, and I went to see Landline, an exhibition by the American artist, Amy Sillman. Enthralled. Delighted. Excited. “Wow!” from one room to another.”Wow!’ Just, I mean, “Wow! Look at that!”.

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Amy Sillman : Back of a Horse Costume, 2015-16

The Lie Down

Amy Sillman : Back of a Horse Costume [detail] 2015-16

With the help of a zine [The OG. Fall-Winter 2018-19] put together by Sillman especially for this show [she’s into zines in a big way] and an Arts Centre File Note, edited by Gina Buenfeld & Martin Clark, our responses did become a little more articulate.

Aside from a large and rather beautiful animation based on Ovid’s Metamorphosis, showing on video in the central space between the galleries, Sillman’s work here divides into two main categories: paintings, oil and/or acrylic on canvas, and acrylic, ink and silkscreen works on paper. The former, mostly quite large – 190.5 x 167.5 cm, around there – seem more considered and while individual, wear their abstract expressionist legacy with ease. There’s Guston there, clearly – those heavy lines – [Guston in the works on paper, too] – a notion of de Kooning, perhaps – and in one piece, Avec, the greens and rectangular shapes have a hint of Diebenkorn. One of the articles we browsed in the Reading Room suggested Joan Mitchell as an influence, but I didn’t see it myself. [I’d have plumped for Grace Hartigan.] And besides – what does it matter, all this naming? Hints of this person, that person. [It’s the curse of once having done a History of Art course at Birkbeck.] Sillman is who she is.

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Amy Sillman : What the Axe Knows, 2018

What the Axe Knows 2

Amy Sillman : What the Axe Knows [detail) 2018

The paintings are striking – and the hang gives them room to be so – striking in their immediate overall impression, and then again when you give them time, standing with them, moving close, standing still, moving away, interesting in a more complex way. It’s useful what the File Note has to say …

All of her paintings are long and often arduous exercises in accumulation and excavation, aggregation and erasure, coalescence and collapse. Over many weeks and months, surfaces are work and reworked, abandoned and returned to, scraped back and covered over.

So that what we see in the final painting is a sum of all the images, the marks that have been there before and partly obscured, painted over, nudged, shifted, changed. Change, that seems to be the key word for Sillman. As if, even though she has had, finally, to accept that a work is finished, it’s only finished against her wishes. Against her aesthetic.

We’re committed to something scrappy but good, earnest but smart, ironic and not cynical, a strange FORM! … We haven’t figured it out but we love art that offers change above all: insistent, unremitting change that won’t resolve into finality or finesse. We want to know what happened before and after. We can’t stand the knowingness, the smugness, of a goddamn good painting.

Amy Sillman. The OG#11. Metamorphoses. 2017

In an slightly earlier sequence of drawings shown here – the Pink Drawings from 2015-16, using acrylic, charcoal and ink on paper – a large display of them spread along one wall – the pleasure comes from the vitality of the colour, the vigour of movement, the swiftness of the marks, the solidity of the black.

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Amy Sillman : Pink Drawings, 2015-16

Pink Drawings 1

Amy Sillman : Pink Drawings, 2015-16

The most recent of the works on paper are more instant, direct and disturbing – one series was started in response to Trump’s election. In some there is a single figure on his or her knees, vomiting, shouting, screaming …

Rebus for Camden

Amy Sillman : Dub Stamp, 2018 

… in others there is a swift overworking of line and colour not dissimilar to the technique used in the paintings.

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Amy Sillman, Dub Stamp, 2018

The powerful double-sided pieces that comprise Dub Stamp in its entirety  hang in a line across Gallery 3, the more immediate, predominantly black and white figures along one side – the one that presents itself first – shifting on the reverse to a mixture of brightly coloured abstraction and strongly inked irregular shapes and lines.

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Amy Sillman : Dub Stamp, 2018

Dub Stamp 3

Amy Sillman : Dub Stamp, 2018

As you walk round, the images cluster against one another, coalesce for a moment and then divide. There’s an ugliness here and a hint of beauty: faced with the horror that underlies much of modern life, how might an artist respond? You can’t pin the answer down, it’s always shifting, changing. Try covering up the ugliness, the truth, and it will still show through.

Let me say again, this is a terrific show and it continues until January, 2019.

 

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On the Cutting Edge …

The recent arrival of two new editions of the third Resnick novel, Cutting Edge, one from Taiwan, the other from Italy, got me thinking about just how many different editions – some in English, some in translation – there have been since the book’s original publication, by Viking, in 1991, close to thirty years ago. A thought which got me scurrying to the shelves in search of an answer, and which turned out, eventually, to be 21. And that’s not including audio versions, abridged and unabridged, and at least two versions I’m aware of when it was included in an omnibus edition with other Resnick titles; one in this country from Arrow,  the other a Knizni Klub volume from Czechoslovakia.

It is of course what most writers want, a book that outlasts its initial display on the tables at Waterstones and elsewhere [what elsewhere?] to exist, not just on library shelves or in charity shops, but still, somewhere, on sale. Being – hopefully – bought; being read. And what the writer of a series hopes for, beyond that, is that anyone for whom Cutting Edge is their first encounter with Charlie Resnick, will begin to track down the other eleven books available.

That the novel has been published in ten countries is testimony to both Charlie’s universality – and the universal appeal of crime fiction – and perhaps even more so to the diligence and persuasiveness of my agents over the years – initially Carole Blake at Blake Friedmann, then Sarah Lutyens at Lutyens & Rubinstein, along with their networks of sub-agents across the globe. And looking at the jacket design, gives an interesting  indication of changes in graphic fashion, both from year to year and country to country.

 

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Viking (UK) 1991

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Henry Holt (US) 1991

Henry Holt were my American hardcover publishers for the first 10 Resnick novels and my editor there, Marion Wood, was, happily for me, more hands-on than many who buy the publishing rights from elsewhere, and, as such, she was very instrumental in framing the way the series would develop. The best-selling author Sue Grafton was one of her writers at Holt and she always said that as long as she had Sue – for whom she had a great fondness and admiration – in her corner, she could ‘get away’ with publishing slightly left-field writers like Daniel Woodrell and myself, whose sales were, shall we say, less than astronomical.

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Bzztoh (Netherlands) 1991

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Penguin (UK) 1992

This cover, seeking to tie the paperback edition of the novel in with the BBC television series which featured Tom Wilkinson in the role of Resnick, was commissioned under the assumption that Cutting Edge would follow Lonely Hearts & Rough Treatment, which were broadcast in 1992/93. Unfortunately, although the script for Cutting Edge had been accepted and, thankfully, paid for, the BBC made a decision – based, to an extent, upon what they deemed to be disappointing viewing figures – not to go ahead with the filming. Which didn’t help sales of the paperback and was one of the issues that led to an estrangement between Viking/Penguin and myself and my decision to buy myself out of my contract – I owed them one more book – and move, in 1994, to William Heinemann/Arrow, where, despite changes in ownership, I’ve been ever since, happy under Susan Sandon’s watchful editorial eye.

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Avon (US) 1992

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Rye Field Publishing (Taiwan) 1993

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Mystery Box (Japan) 1993

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Forlaget Modtryk (Denmark) 1994

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Rivages/Noir (France) 1995

Although Cutting Edge and a number of the other Resnick titles have been published in a number of countries, only Rivages, in France, have – up to the present – followed a consistent policy of publishing all of my crime fiction – not just the Resnick series, but the first three Elder novels and all the various stand-alones that have come along the way. I first met François Guerif, long the director of Rivages’ magnificent Noir series, at the Shots in the Dark festival in Nottingham, which led to him publishing Lonely HeartsCoeurs Solitaires – in 1993, and I’m proud to say we have remained firm friends ever since.

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Mandarin (UK) 1996

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Henry Holt/Owl (US) 1998

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Otava/Crime Club (Finland) 2001

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Arrow (UK) 2002

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Blood Brits Press (US) 2007

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DTV (Germany) 2009

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DTV (Germany) 2010

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Mysterious Press (US) 2011

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Arrow (UK) 2013

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Donmay Publishing (Taiwan) 2018

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Oltre Edizioni (Italy) 2018

Rambling … the Chess Valley

Lovely little walk this: Metropolitan line north to Chalfont & Latimer and the edge of the Chilterns, pass a few suburban rows of Tudorbethan houses and you’re out in open country, soon making a small detour to the village of Latimer, where we take advantage of the bench on the village green to sample the coffee from our Thermos and share a KitKat, then we’re back on track, following the river past the watercress beds until, with a short climb, we reach Holy Cross Church close to Sarratt, where the cemetery benches provide the perfect lunch spot [cheese, banana & mango chutney on wholemeal seeded, since you ask] after which we cross the road to the garden of the Cock Inn to quench our thirst and use the facilities. In the past, we’ve made a circular walk of it, past the village of Chenies and through woodland, but this time, on the principle that things look different when approached from another direction, we go back the way we came.

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Saturdays … soccer to poetry …

Funny day, Saturday. Used to be football, most of the year anyway; playing it, watching it: cycling with my dad to White Hart Lane, where we’d pay a couple of bob to someone near the ground so as to leave our bikes in the safety of his front garden. Then, more recently, Meadow Lane: gloriously in the heydays of Don Masson and John Chiedozie, Tommy Johnson and Rachid Harkouk; more recently, the doldrums of … well, best perhaps not to name them. Though, after losing the first umpteen games of the season, it seems, at last, as if we’re on the way up.

Could have gone to watch Spurs play Cardiff today, but, shy of Wembley and its transport problems, I’m waiting for the new ground finally to open in Tottenham; if I were in Nottingham I’d be at the County ground, braving the rain and plummeting temperatures to watch the England Lionesses play Brazil in a friendly.

As it is I’m at home, watching the rain through the windows; happily there when the postman calls with three packets; one, an unsolicited proof copy of a soon to be published novel I might like to read and comment on [well, I might … ], the others, poetry: a copy of Amy Key’s Poetry Book Society Wild Card Choice, Isn’t Forever, which I’d ordered from Nottingham’s Five Leaves Bookshop on the strength of one of the poems on one of the little poetry cards they publish to coincide with National Poetry Day; the other – also unsolicited, but more than welcome – a copy, sent by Maura Dooley, of Negative of a Group Photograph, the book of poems by the Persian writer Azita Ghahreman, that she has translated with Elhum Shakerifar.

Key

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Maura’s book comes with a picture postcard – a carving from Southwell Minster – the message on the reverse remembering a freezing November long ago when she came to Nottingham to do a reading and on the way back wrote “a little poem, All Hallows, that I still quite like”. Here it is …

ALL HALLOWS

This is a day for souls.
Morning doused with air
that has rinsed itself,
wrung itself out over
cropped lands, picked lands, dug lands.
Autumn’s over. Winter comes
in the first stiffening of grasses,
frost seasoning the land like salt,
a chill biting to the core of day.

The town’s horizon blurs with
steam, smoke, mist, never resolving
quite the mesh of silver and heat,
like looking at the world through tears.
Hot, salty tears can’t melt the ice,
nor sluice his heart: but it’s a comfort,
this light and water mixing,
on the day her soul walks out
over the fields to him.

from Explaining Magnetism: Maura Dooley. Bloodaxe, 1991.

Negative of a Group Photograph: Azita Ghahreman, translated by Maura Dooley with Elhum Shakerifar. Bloodaxe, 2018

Isn’t Forever: Amy Key. Bloodaxe, 2018

And with just a few minutes to go before half time at Meadow Lane, England are one goal up against Brazil.

James Schuyler’s “Last Poems” … free for National Poetry Day … and after

Okay, here’s the thing. Back in 1999, when Slow Dancer Press was both still in its prime yet about to fold, we published, for the first time in this country, James Schuyler’s Last Poems. Schuyler, along with John Ashbury, Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch, was one of the New York Poets – perhaps the least well known but far from the least. As Ashbery himself said, “Schuyler is simply the best we have.”

I won’t pretend that Last Poems contains his absolutely best work – that, I think, would be found in The Morning of the Poem from 1980. But what there is here is enough to give a strong sense of the keenness of his observation, the delicacy and precision of his style and the breadth of his interests, ranging from the jazz singer Mildred Bailey to the lives of birds, the glories of roses, the shifts and sorrows of the seasons.

Along with Schuyler’s poems [and yet another of Jamie Keenan’s wonderful cover designs] the book includes a six page Afterword by another fine poet, Lee Harwood, in which he writes about Schuyler’s work with affectionate understanding, and which would be worth the price of the book itself. If you were paying for it, which, in this instance, you’re not.

I’ve got a half dozen (or so) copies to give away in celebration of National Poetry Day – and because they should be being read, not gathering dust on my shelf. Just email me at john@mellotone.co.uk with your mailing address and I’ll send you one by return. Can’t say fairer than that.

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More Mablethorpe …

… Not that much, just a couple of things hanging over from my recent blog about summer jobs, hot dogs, broad expanses of sand and distant seas.

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First off, there’s the music. I’ve already mentioned the local Shadows-sound-and-look-alikes, Trek Faron and the Unknowns [whatever became of … ] but not the sounds of that summer in general, in particular. There seemed to be music everywhere: not through headphones, as it would be now, but from the dodgems, the amusement park, booming out from the juke box in the restaurant below the dormitory where we slept. It was – the summer of 1962 – a pretty good year for music; pop music; the charts; music on the edge of changing, tilting [see the Beatles sneaking in there] from a mixture of fairly basic rock ‘n’ roll, novelty numbers and sentimental ballads, towards something  potentially more interesting.

A Top  30 [or so] assembled from the Mablethorpe juke box might have looked, alphabetically, like this …

  • A Picture of You : Joe Brown
  • Bobby’s Girl : Susan Maughan
  • Break It To Me Gently : Brenda Lee
  • Breaking Up Is Hard To Do : Neil Sedaka
  • Can’t Help Falling in Love : Elvis Presley
  • Crying in the Rain : The Everly Brothers
  • Desafinado : Stan Getz & Charlie Byrd
  • Do You Wanna Dance : Cliff Richard
  • Don’t Ever Change : The Crickets
  • Dream Baby : Roy Orbison
  • Duke of Earl : Gene Chandler
  • Hey Baby : Bruce Channel
  • I Can’t Stop Loving You : Ray Charles
  • It Might As Well Rain Until September : Carole King
  • Let There Be Love : Nat King Cole
  • Love Me Do : The Beatles
  • Love Letters : Ketty Lester
  • Return to Sender : Elvis Presley
  • Sealed With a Kiss : Brian Hyland
  • Sherry : The Four Seasons
  • She’s Got You : Patsy Cline
  • Softly As I Leave You : Matt Monro
  • Speak To Me Pretty : Brenda Lee
  • Speedy Gonzales : Pat Boone
  • Sweet Little Sixteen : Jerry Lee Lewis
  • Teenage Idol : Ricky Nelson
  • The Locomotion : Little Eva
  • The Wanderer : Dion
  • Twistin’ the Night Away : Sam Cooke
  • Walk on By : Leroy Van Dyke
  • What a Crazy World We’re Living In : Joe Brown & the Bruvvers
  • Ya Ya Twist : Petula Clark
  • Your Cheating Heart : Ray Charles

As I say, not a bad list at all, but there are three songs that I remember most from that summer and which seemed to be playing on the juke box more than most: one, the Nat King Cole, was pleasant if little more, but lifted by a deft arrangement featuring George Shearing’s piano; the other, a true monstrosity, was Pat Boone’s Speedy Gonzales, with its high-pitched intrusions in cod-Mexican falsetto. An abomination.

The third was Brian Hyland’s Sealed With a Kiss. Well, it was summer and even in Mablethorpe the evenings could feel romantic, the sun sinking slowly down over the wide horizon. I remembered it, some of it, some twenty five years later, when writing Last Summer, First Love, the second of my books in the Pan Heartlines series of teenage romances. [Look, a guy has to eat!]

Set, yes, in Mablethorpe, it’s the touching story of true love between Lauri, whose last summer it is, helping out in her mum’s café before heading off to be a nurse, and Mike, a student working on the hot dog stall. The names [and a whole lot more] were changed to protect the innocent.

Heartlines

 

 

 

iPod Shuffle, October 2018

Sam Stone : Swamp Dog from A Soldier’s Sad Story – Vietnam Through the Eyes of Black America, 1963-73

Too Close for Comfort : Art Pepper from Intensity

I Sing Um the Way I Feel : J B Lenoir & His African Hunch Rhythm from The Sound of the City: Chicago assembled by Charlie Gillett *

Blue Turning Grey Over You : The Chris Barber Band from Remembering Pat Halcox

Ruby, My Dear : Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane from The Complete Riverside Recordings

Into My Arms : Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer from Not Dark Yet

Single Girl, Married Girl : Charlie Haden from Rambling Boy **

It’s Not the Liquor I Miss : Luke Doucet from Broken

Panama : Luis Russell & His Orchestra from Saratoga Shout

I Left My Baby : Count Basie & His Orchestra with Jimmy Rushing (voc) from Classic Columbia, Okeh & Vocalion Lester Young with Count Basie

Love of Mine : Tish Hinojosa from Destiny’s Gate

The Books, Departures & Ben’s Photo : Lee Harwood reading, on a CD included with the publication, three of his own poems from The Books, Longbarrow Press, 2011. ***

*Living and teaching in Stevenage in the early to mid-70s, whenever possible I used to set aside all other engagements in order to listen to Honky Tonk, the programme Charlie Gillett presented on Radio London between 1972 and 1978, and which included about as broad a range of music that could be loosely categorised as rock ‘n’ roll as possible – from J J Cale and The Coasters, via Graham Parker and Dion, to Manu Dibango and the original demo version of Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing.

Charlie

**Okay proud moment coming up. It took place outside a bookstore in Venice Beach, Los Angeles, where I was due to give a reading as part of a West Coast book tour [those were the days!]; I was waiting outside beforehand,  chatting to some of the people who’d arrived early, when a man came over and introduced himself as Charlie Haden. He couldn’t stay for the reading, he explained, as he had a gig later, but he just wanted to tell me how much he’d been enjoying my books – his son worked in the store and had recommended them – and he wanted me to have something in return, a copy of his latest CD with Quartet West. Oh, and let me go on record here – much as I enjoy the Quartet West CDs and Haden’s other work as both sideman and leader, my all-time favourite, and one of my favourite recordings ever, is Steal Away, with just himself on bass and Hank Jones at the piano, playing a selection of Spirituals, Hymns & Folk Songs. Perfection.

Haden

***Lee Harwood was perhaps the first poet – the first living poet – whose work I responded to strongly both on a personal level and as an aspiring writer – it took me many years to steer my poetry away from sounding like pale imitations of his and it’s a spell I fall under still. There are worse faults, I’m sure. I was fortunate enough to get to know Lee as a friend and to publish some of his work through Slow Dancer Press. [Dream Quilt, 1985; In the Mists, 1993; Morning Light, 1998] On the last occasion I saw him, before his sad death in 2015, we were both reading with the John Lake Band on the South Coast, not far from where he lived in Hove, and his voice was a soft and inimitable as ever. A lovely, lovely man and a wonderful poet.

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Summer Jobs 2 … Mablethorpe

Towards the end of my second year at Goldsmiths’ College, where I was following a teacher training course specialising in English and History, I saw the ad amongst others pinned to the student notice board. Students wanted for Summer Work in Mablethorpe: thirteen weeks, all lodging and other expenses paid. Mablethorpe? I didn’t have a clue. The library had a map.

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With no other plans, thirteen weeks by the sea seemed appealing; and, having made enquiries, the pay was decent – with food and lodging thrown in, especially so. With any luck, I’d be able to save some money for the coming year. I signed on.

There were around twenty of us from all over the country, some returning for their second or third spell. We slept, most of us, in a vast dormitory room above a self-service café and restaurant facing out towards the concrete promenade, the beach and the sea, although most days you had to take the sea on trust. Our meals we collected from the café along with the customers, or, if it was after hours, cooked ourselves, with access allowed to all supplies other than the steaks.

 

We were part of a small empire that seemed to control much of the town’s entertainment and other facilities: dodgem cars, slot machines, hot dogs, ice creams. In particularly busy times, we would be deployed as necessary; otherwise, we each had a particular job and mine was working on the hot dog stand. Which meant helping to serve and take the cash in the afternoons and evenings and peeling a large sack of onions each and every morning. It took until Christmas for me to get rid of the smell of onions from my fingers.

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Despite working long hours, we did have a reasonable amount of time off, some of which I spent strolling on the sand dunes or along the beach. I can’t remember ever walking as far as the sea for as much as a paddle, never mind a swim.

 

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Things picked up when I got to know Shirley, who worked in a little cabin in a corner of the car park, dispensing cups of tea to travellers exhausted by the drive over from Nottingham or Doncaster. On my evenings off we went bopping to Trek Faron [Farron?] and the Unknowns – Trek a potato picker by day and singer & guitarist by night, his band a pale imitation of The Shadows – or to the local cinema, which had very desirable double seats in the balcony, though rain on the corrugated iron roof had a tendency to render the dialogue inaudible. And one day we caught the bus to Lincoln to see the Cathedral – I’d been reading Lawrence – The Rainbow & Women in Love – and been taken by his description of first seeing the spire from a great distance. Which we did.

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My friend, Shirley, on our day trip to Lincoln

Somehow, I managed to wangle a weekend off and arranged to meet a friend from Goldsmiths at the East Coast Jazz Festival, which was taking place a short distance up the coast at Cleethorpes. This was prime Trad Jazz time, and we ended up staying in the same B&B as Bob Wallis and His Storyville Jazzmen, who had a couple of Top 50 hits featuring Bob singing old music hall type songs in a gruff Yorkshire-inflected Cockney – “I’m Shy, Mary Ellen, I’m Shy” and “Come Along Please” – this even though their stage outfit made them out to be Mississippi riverboat gamblers.

The festival was not all traditional jazz: Tubby Hayes was on the bill, along with Bruce Turner and Johnny Dankworth, but my especial favourites were the Alex Welsh Band, joined on this occasion by the irrepressible George Melly.

Jazz Fest

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George Melly w. Roy Crimmins (tbn) Alex Welsh (Tpt) Bill Reid (bs) Archie Semple (clt)

There is, believe it or not, more to say about Mablethorpe, but, like the sea, that will have to wait for another day.

 

Summer Jobs 1 …

A piece in The Guardian a while back, in which various (well-known) people talked about the summer jobs they had done while they were students, got me thinking about my own ventures into similar areas of casual labour. Like many of my generation, my first ever paid job, when I was fifteen, getting on sixteen – GCEs, I remember, the old ‘O’ levels, were on the horizon – was as a newspaper delivery boy for the paper shop just across the road from where we lived in Camden, North London. Bernard Shaw Court, to be precise. After that, still at school, I had a short-lived job behind the scenes at a small Sainsbury’s in Somers Town, close to King’s Cross Station. One summer – I think I must have been in the sixth form by now – I worked as a porter in the Covent Garden Fruit & Vegetable Market, before it moved from the area around Drury Lane several miles west to Nine Elms; the summer after that was spent sweeping out the cages in the Lesser Mammal House at London Zoo. And through much of this time, summer holidays excepted, and beginning, I think, in the second year of sixth form, I worked in various capacities for J. Lyons & Co Ltd.

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J.Lyons’ first tea shop: 213 Piccadilly 

In the first half of the last century, Lyons was the largest catering company in the world.  Beginning in 1894 with one tea shop on Piccadilly – basically a café selling teas, coffees et cetera and hot or cold  food at reasonable prices – by the turn of the century there were 37 tea shops in London and 14 in major cities outside; at the beginning of the Second World War, the number had risen to 253. Nor was it just tea shops. In 1909, the first Lyons Corner House opened on Coventry Street; larger, grander and appealing to a more upmarket clientele, it could seat an amazing 2,000 people at any one time. The Corner House restaurants often featured live music, and it was at the Marble Arch branch, in my early teens and in the company of my mother and my aunt, having trailed after them around Selfridges, that I heard Ivy Benson and her All-Girls Band, my first experience of listening to live big band jazz.

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Ivy Benson & Her All-Girls Band

But back to the work. My years in the sixth form coincided with a rise in the popularity of jazz, the traditional variety in particular, and a corresponding  increase in the number of clubs where bands might play. Even if you were prepared to walk home at the end of the evening, rather than take the bus, clubs cost money. And, on average, I suppose I would go two or three times a week. The 100 Club on Oxford Street, the Fishmongers’ Arms in Wood Green, small clubs scattered across North London – Finchley, Barnet, Golders Green. Pocket money not really being a thing, the only way to get the necessary was to go out and earn it. 

At first, I just worked weekends, then, gradually, added a couple of nights a week. Initially, I was at the tea shop opposite Charing Cross station [It’s now a Pizza Express] and after a  year or so, I was transferred to 213 Piccadilly – yes, the site of the first Lyons tea shop ever. Staff were rotated through various tasks when on duty, the two busiest of which were ‘the steam’ – making teas, coffees and other hot drinks – and ‘the grill’ – making sure there was a plentiful supply of hot toast, grilled bacon and sausages and poached eggs, as well as making up sample plates and putting them on display. In especially busy periods, you would often be turning bacon under the grill and removing toast from the toaster with one hand, while cracking eggs with the other hand and lowering them into the simmering water of the poacher, which was long enough to take at least a dozen eggs at any one time.

Though some of the staff were full-time, a good proportion were casual and ever-changing, so those part-time workers who weren’t shy of putting in a good shift were quickly noted by the management and a beneficial two-way relationship evolved. If the duty manager [she would have been called a manageress – senior management aside, all the people I worked under were female] knew you could be trusted to work the early evening shift on the grill several nights running without complaint, you were less likely to be sent out onto the floor to clear tables overflowing with dirty crockery.

Beginning, as I say, when I was still at school, I worked, on and off, for Lyons up to and including my three years at Goldsmiths when I was doing my teacher training: some eight years in total. And [mostly] enjoyed it. During the latter part of that time, I worked alongside a man called Richard, whose day job was at the John Lewis store on Oxford Street. After one especially busy period, a bank holiday weekend as I remember it, in which we’d performed above the call of duty sufficiently to be mentioned in despatches, both Richard and I were summoned to appear before a senior manager and invited to join the management training scheme, with the promise that within twelve months we would be managing shops of our own, with a clear career path upwards and beyond. I decided to stick with the teaching; the last I heard of Richard, he was managing a tea shop in Brighton.

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J. Lyons tea shop, North St., Brighton

iPod Shuffle: September 2018

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1. Small Town Heroes : Hurray for the Riff Raff, from Small Town Heroes *

2. Buckets of Rain : John Renbourne & Wizz Jones, from Joint Control

3. Beyond the Horizon : Bob Dylan, from Modern Times

4. Four or Five Times : Jimmie Noone, from Clarinet Frequency

5. Saturday Jump : Humphrey Lyttelton Band, from The Parlophones 1949-1959 Vol. 4 **

6. Lil’ Darlin’ : Georgie Fame & the Harry South Big Band, from Sound Venture ***

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7. In a Sentimental Mood : Robert Wyatt, from For the Ghosts Within

8. What Can I Say? : Boz Scaggs, from Silk Degrees

9. Monkey Man : The Maytals, from Young, Gifted & Black

10. Short Wet Summer : Rob McMinn, from Avignon****

* The lead singer and leading light in Hurrah for the Riff Raff, is Alynda Segarra, who was born in the Bronx of Puerto Rican heritage and whose mother, Ninfa Segarra, is a former Deputy Mayor of New York City. The band’s most recent album, The Navigator, was released in 2017 and there is a quite superb video, directed by Kristian Mercado Figueroa and photographed by Rudolph Costin, featuring one of the tracks, Pa’lante.

**This was recorded in December, 1958, along with The Bear Steps Out, only the second session by the version of the Lyttelton Band that regularly featured three saxophones in the line up for the first time – Tony Coe on alto, Jimmy Skidmore on tenor and Joe Temperley on bartitone – giving the ensemble a little-big-band sound that confirmed, for good, its move from traditional to mainstream jazz and the style of such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Buck Clayton. As such, I saw and heard them at the 100 Club in Oxford Street many times.

***By 1966 Georgie Fame had enough clout, I guess, to talk the powers-that-be at EMI into letting him live out one of his fantasies and make an album with a big band, a band that would sound as close to that of Count Basie as possible. [And he did get to sing with the actual Basie band just a year later. Lil’ Darlin’, which Georgie knew from the Lambert, Hendricks & Ross album, Sing a Song of Basie, was first up at the first session and as he said, “I was terrified because it was such a challenge. I had to produce these long, clear, straight notes … It was the first track we did, so I do sound very nervous. It’s a hard song to sing if you’re not confident. I get a bit embarrassed when I listen to it now, but I was trying.” Sounds pretty good to me.

****Written by Rob McMinn, who also plays guitar on the track, plus everything else that’s going, this is another of Rob’s hypnotic songs of barely requited love.