Short Stories 2: “Blue & Sentimental”

A blog post or so back I wrote about the business of writing short stories and the first – my first – “Now’s the Time” – in particular. Well, the arrival from the States of the US edition of Ten Year Stretch, published by Poisoned Pen Press, brings me to my most recent published story, “Blue & Sentimental”. Title courtesy of Count Basie this time, rather than Charlie Parker. And in place of Charlie Resnick, the central character is my London-based private detective, Jack Kiley.

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Ten Year Stretch brings together twenty stories commissioned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of CrimeFest, the Bristol-based festival of crime writing and writers. Edited by Martin Edwards and Adrian Muller and published in the UK by No Exit Press, it features a broad range of contributors, from Ian Rankin to Sophie Hannah, Lee Child to Simon Brett, Ann Cleeves to Mick Herron and James Sallis to Zoe Sharp.

My story had its beginnings in a lunchtime meeting in Dalston, East London, with a long-time friend, now living in Ireland, and her daughter Lucy, and is dedicated to Lucy and her partner, Anna. Just around the corner from our lunch spot is the Vortex, a jazz club I’ve been patronising in its different guises for some little while. Aside from the good music upstairs,  Nicki Heinen runs a monthly poetry and jazz session in their downstairs bar where I’ve read on a couple of occasions. All of which set the story in motion. This is how it begins …

Kiley hadn’t been to the Vortex in years. A celebration of Stan Tracey’s 75th birthday, December, 2001. Bobby Wellins joining the pianist on tenor sax, the two of them twisting and turning through In Walked Bud before surprising everyone with a latin version of My Way which, for the duration of its playing and some time after, erased all thoughts of Frank Sinatra from memory. Now both Tracey and Wellins were dead and the Vortex had moved across east London, from Stoke Newington to Dalston. A corner building with a bar downstairs and the club room above, which was where Kiley was sitting now, staring out across Gillett Square, waiting for the music to begin.

The call had come around noon the previous day, just as he was leaving the flat, his mind set on a crispy pork bahn mi sandwich from the Vietnamese place across the street from the Forum. The 02 Forum, as it was now less fortunately called, Kiley old enough to wish for things to be left, mostly, as they were.

“Am I speaking to Jack Kiley?”

He’d assured her that she was.

“You find people who’ve gone missing?”

“Once in a while.”

“That doesn’t sound too encouraging.”

“I’m sorry.”

There was a silence in which he guessed she was making up her mind. If he moved the phone closer he could hear the faint rasp of her breathing.

“Can you meet me?” she said eventually.

“That depends.”

“Tomorrow? Tomorrow afternoon? Somewhere around four? Four thirty?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“You know the Vortex? It’s just off … “

“… Kingsland High Street. Yes, I know.”

“I’ll see you there.”

She rang off before he could ask her name.

Out in the square a group of elderly black men were sitting quietly playing dominoes, oblivious to the cries of small children and the bump and clatter of skate boarders negotiating a succession of mostly successful pirouettes and arabesques.

Behind Kiley, the musicians who had been arriving, haphazardly, for the past ten minutes or so, stood chatting, shrugging off their coats, freeing instruments from their cases, starting to tune up. On stage, the drummer finished angling the last of his cymbals correctly and played an exploratory paradiddle on the snare. With the concentration of someone threading a needle, one of the saxophone players fitted a new reed into place.

Gradually, the composition of the ensemble took shape: rhythm section at the back, piano off to one side; three trumpets; two, no, three trombones; the saxophones, five strong, down at the front of the stage, one – the bartitone player – leaning back against the side wall.

The leader stepped forward, called a number from the band’s book, signalled with his hand: four bars from the piano then four more and the sound of fifteen musicians filled the room.

Smiling, Kiley eased back in his chair.

The repertoire mixed original compositions with new arrangements of the tried and tested; after an extended work out on Take the A Train, Kiley got up and made his way to the bar.

Only one woman sat alone amongst a scattering of couples and a dozen or more single men; smartly yet casually dressed, dark hair swept back, Kiley wondered if she might be the person he was meeting, but when he passed close by her table she gave no sign, and by the time he’d paid for his beer she’d been joined by a stylishly bearded thirty-something energetically apologising for being late.

Back at his seat by the window, Kiley saw that a woman wearing a bottle green apron over a brightly patterned floor-length dress had stationed herself behind the domino players and was busily cutting hair, a short but steadily lengthening line of clients waiting their turn. A quartet of youths criss-crossed the square on scooters, revving noisily, while on stage the band strolled its way into the interval number, a slow rolling blues that climaxed all of ten minutes later, electric guitar ringing out over a volley of brass.

As the applause faded, the musicians began to set their instruments aside, the taller of the two tenor players unclipping her saxophone from its sling before crossing the room.

“Jack Kiley? I’m Leah Temple.”

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Art Chronicles: Rana Begum & Mark Dion

I wouldn’t have known about the art installation by Mark Dion at St. Ives’ Porthmeor Studios, if my partner, Sarah, and I hadn’t fallen into conversation with the invigilator in the small gallery at Tate St.Ives currently housing work by Rana Begum under the title, A Conversation with Light and Form – and which in itself we’d only stumbled on by chance, moving between the rooms showing work from the Tate’s permanent collection and the current exhibition devoted to Patrick Heron.

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Begum is interested in the interplay of colour and light and the effects of repetition; in taking the everyday and presenting it in such as way as to encourage us to look at it afresh. Here, acknowledging that St. Ives was a fishing village long before it became primarily a holiday destination [the story of Cornwall writ small] she has taken two of the staples of the fishing industry – nets and floats – and ‘remade’ them. Nets, painted in a variety of colours – red, green and blue – hang, overlapping, from one wall; plaster moulds in different shapes and sizes, the size and shape of floats, are arrayed together on  a stand. The ordinary made art for us to take pleasure in and enjoy, while pointing up its original form and function. From artefact to art and back again.

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Having talked very interestingly about Begum’s work and how it was made, the invigilator mentioned, almost as an afterthought, an installation by Mark Dion just a short walk away that we might be interested in. Only open to the public one day a week, he thought. Maybe Wednesdays? So it proved. Wednesdays from 10.00am.

Dion is an American artist who is also interested in the everyday; in his case, specifically, the way knowledge – history – is collected and presented; interested in the process as well as the finished presentation or display. In 1999, for instance, to coincide with the opening of Tate Modern, he used volunteers to comb the shores of the Thames outside Tate Modern and Tate Britain for whatever objects and fragments of objects they could find; these were then cleaned, as far as possible identified, and finally placed on display, together with flow charts and photographs, in a large glass-fronted mahogany cabinet.

During his time in St, Ives, Dion, like Begum, found his inspiration, to a large degree, in the artefacts and livelihood of fishing; more specifically, with relation to Porthmeor Studios, in the harmonious ways in which the working fishermen and working artists have come to occupy the same space. Originally built for the pilchard industry, fishermen still use part of the building for storing gear and setting nets, while much of the rest was converted into artists’ studios which have been home to the likes of Ben Nicholson, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and Patrick Heron.

Commissioned to make a work which would mark the completion of the restoration of the Studios, Dion followed his normal practice, using a group of students from Falmouth University, to source as many artefacts from the local fishing industry as possible; these Dion carefully arranged on one side of one of the cellars below the building, with artists’ tools and paraphernalia on the other.  The resulting work, The Maritime Artist, remains on display and is well worth seeing – but remember, on Wednesdays only, after 10.00am.

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NB There’s a fascinating exhibition of Rana Begum’s work in the Djanogly Gallery at Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham, until the end of September.

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Short Stories 1: “Now’s the Time”

It’s always a good day when an envelope falls onto the mat, the telephone rings (both of those events increasingly rare) or an email pings into my Inbox, asking me if I would like to contribute a short story to a forthcoming collection. This especially if it means my work will be published alongside that of other writers whose work I admire and if the person doing the asking as an editor or publisher who ranks high in my estimation. Oh, and mention of a small fee is always a bonus.

One such message arrived earlier this year from the esteemed Maxim Jakubowski – a man, who by his own admission, has been responsible for over a hundred anthologies over the years. But in the world of writing and publishing, all good things (as I well know) approach an end, and, according to Maxim, the volume of all-new crime stories he is currently putting together – provisionally titled Invisible Blood – will be his last. Could he, he asks, convince me to contribute a story? Could he stop me?

It was Maxim who first persuaded me to write a short story – a form I had spent a good many years avoiding – the result being “Now’s the Time”, which, title borrowed from  Charlie Parker, first appeared in the collection, London Noir, in 1994.

London Noir

This is how it begins …

“They’re all dying, Charlie.”

They had been in the kitchen, burnished tones of Clifford Brown’s trumpet, soft like smoke from down the hall. Dark rye bread sliced and ready, coffee bubbling, Resnick had tilted the omelette pan and let the whisked eggs swirl around before forking the green beans and chopped red pepper into their midst. The smell of garlic and butter permeated the room.

Ed Silver stood watching, trying to ignore the cats that nudged, variously, around his feet. Through wisps of grey hair, a fresh scab showed clearly among the lattice-work of scars. The hand which held the glass was swollen at the knuckles and it shook.

“S’pose you think I owe you one, Charlie? That it?”

Earlier that evening, Resnick had talked Silver out of swinging a butcher’s cleaver through his own bare foot. “What I thought, Charlie, start at the bottom and work your way up, eh?” Resnick had bundled him into a cab and brought him home, stuck a beer in his hand and set to making them both something to eat. He hadn’t seen Ed Silver in ten years or more, a drinking club in Carlton whose owner liked his jazz; Silver had set out his stall early, two choruses of “I’ve Got Rhythm” solo, breakneck tempo, bass and drums both dropping our and the pianist grinning, open-mouthed. The speed of thought: those fingers then.

Resnick divided the omelette on to two plates. “You want to bring that bread,” he said. “We’ll eat in the other room.”

The boldest of the cats, Dizzy, followed them hopefully through. The Clifford Brown Memorial album was still playing. “Theme of No Repeat”.

“They’re all dying, Charlie.”

“Who?”

“Every bugger!”

And now it was true.

The story I’m going to write for Maxim’s last anthology, it had better be a Resnick story, I think. One that involves him in some significant way, at least. Resnick in retirement, kicking his heels a bit. Harking back. Thinking of Ed Silver, perhaps …

SILVER Edward Victor. Suddenly at home, on February 16, 1993. Acclaimed jazz musician of the be-bop era. Funeral service and memorial meeting, Friday, February 19 at Golders Green Crematorium at 11.45 am.

A story that begins, perhaps, with the line …

“They’re all dying, Charlie.”

Get to Resnick’s age and they’re starting to fall like ninepins.

If anyone wants to read (or re-read) “Now’s the Time”, it’s included in the Arrow paperback of the same name, along with ten other Resnick short stories.

Now's the Time

 

Art Chroncicles: Killed Negatives & the F.S.A.

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Much as, for many people, Dorothea Lange’s portrait of Florence Owens Thompson, known as Migrant Mother, epitomises the suffering and endurance of the American heartland during the Great Depression, so this and other photographs that Lange took when she was employed by the Farm Security Administration in the 30s have come to be more or less fully representative of her career. This despite the fact that half a lifetime and more than half of that career were ahead of her.

After working for the FSA, she was hired by the War Location Authority to document the internment of Japanese American citizens following Pearl Harbour and then collaborated with Ansel Adams in documenting the lives of shipyard workers, men and, increasingly, women, who had moved to California to work in the booming wartime shipping industry in the final years of WW2. In the 1950s. together with her writer-son, Daniel Dixon, she produced an in-depth portrait of rural life in Ireland, before returning to America and working on photo essays dealing with inequalities in the justice system and the effects of large-scale government land projects on local communities.

Lange died in 1965 at the age of seventy, just a few months before a retrospective exhibition of her work opened at MOMA in New York. She wrote the following as a postscript to the show …

I would like to add a line to encourage persons interested in using a camera to concern themselves with making photographs of the life which surrounds them, to raise his [or her] sights to include what’s going on about us, to the camera to show this awareness.

Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing [in conjunction with Vanessa Winchip: And Time Folds] is at the Barbican until September 2nd. And, running until August 26, there is a very  interesting exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, Killed Negatives: Unseen Images of 1930s America, which gives considerable insight into how Lange and the other photographers employed by the F.S.A. – Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, Gordon Parks, Marion Post Wolcott et al – were directed, encouraged and generally managed by Roy E. Stryker, who worked for the Farm Security Administration as Chief of the Historical Section of the Division of Information.

As Stryker later described himself …

I’m the guy who sat in the middle … I kept the store … My goal was to write the history of the Farm Security Administration. We didn’t collect many documents. We collected pictures. Many think I went down to Washington with a plan. I didn’t. There was no such plan … I was one-half editor, one-half papa, one-half hell-raiser, one-half publishing agent, and occasionally psychoanalyst without portfolio.

He may not have had a plan when he arrived in Washington at the beginning of his tenure, but, if indeed that were the case, one soon became clear. Arthur Rothstein, the first of Stryker’s hirings, was left in little doubt …

It was our job to document the problems of the depression so that we could justify the New Deal legislation that was designed to alleviate them.

Here’s an extract from a letter Stryker sent to another photographer, Jack Delano …

Please watch out for autumn pictures, as calls are beginning to come in for them and we are short. These should be rather the symbol of Autumn … cornfields, pumpkins … Emphasize the idea of abundance – the ‘horn of plenty’ – and pour maple syrup over it – you know, mix well with white clouds and put on a sky-blue platter. I know your damned photographer’s soul writhes, but to hell with it. Do you think I give a damn about a photographer’s soul with Hitler on our doorstep? You are nothing but camera fodder to me.

As becomes clear from the photographs and letters on display at the Whitechapel, Stryker was quick to dismiss a photo that, to his mind, didn’t reinforce the impression of America in the Depression that he was after, just as he would discard an image he considered to be inadequately  focussed or badly framed. These – and this is reflected in the name of the show – he ‘killed’ by punching holes through the negative – an act which Dorothea Lange considered an act of vandalism, but that didn’t stop him. Any more than it stopped him sending strongly-worded letters to his men and women in the field, criticising them for what he perceived as their lack of technical skill. And one of the pleasures of the exhibition is deciding on which grounds – poetical, artistic or technical – Styrker had decided to make his cull.

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NB . The Stryker and Rothstein quotes come from Paul Hendrickson’s excellent book, Looking for the Light: The Hidden Life and Art of Marion Post Wolcott [Knopf, 1992] Currently out of print but ready available and, as is the case with all of Hendrickson’s  books, well worth reading.

 

CrimeMag on “Body & Soul”

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Alf Mayer’s review of Body & Soul appeared online in the June 2018 edition of CrimeMag.
Anyone wishing to read it in the original German, can do so here, otherwise you must contend with my faltering, but, I hope, basically accurate translation …

Here goes …

Often you sit there and all you can think is: Masterly!

On April 19, William Heinemann published John Harvey’s novel Body & Soul, the fourth and last book featuring former police detective Frank Elder. It is a swan song – in several ways. Harvey confirmed on his blog that this would be his last book. “Jump of your own accord,” he said, “before being pushed.”

Harvey will be 80 on December 21st of this year – something to be clearly stated and celebrated. In March, he made public that he is being treated for aggressive prostate cancer, and does not want to hide the fact that he receiving chemotherapy. “It’s important,” he wrote to me, “that you’re not ashamed of that. We need a different way of dealing with illness in our society, that is my clear opinion.”

Before Elder there was his detective Charlie Resnick, whom Harvey followed through twelve novels, one of which, Darkness, Darkness [Unter Tage, 2017], he adapted for the stage in Nottingham – see my CrimeMag interview from 2016.

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But having set Elder aside, as he had thought for good, Harvey mentioned that he had a new idea for him which he wanted to develop in order to see what happened. And now that idea has become a farewell that has everything.

A hammer of a book!
Had John Harvey only written this one, we would remember him forever.
Jump before being pushed indeed!
Old and tattered but still full of juice.
Not a gram of fat too much.
Poetic and brutal.
An ending that freezes the blood.
Chords that reverberate for a long time. Like a masterly piece of jazz that will not be forgotten and which one knows on first encountering will always return.
Body & Soul.

John Harvey, like Elmore Leonard, began his career with Westerns. It’s been over 40 years now. He talked about it In his first column on CrimeMag. He was one of the “Piccadilly Cowboys”, with, amongst others, a series called Hart the Regulator, ten volumes published by Pan in paperback between 1980 and 1983. “In those days we wrote ‘em fast!” Hard, short, fast stuff. Pulp.

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But not only that. Not many crime writers, like him, have published three volumes of poetry. Not many people know and understand as much jazz and can write about it. [Recently here at CrimeMag: “Looking at Lester”] And not all of them have such slender-beautiful language. Pulp. Poetry. And jazz.

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Whooosh, the brushes dabbed across the drum skin. Broiing, the deepest string on the double bass. And then the tenor saxophone. All this is Body & Soul. Harvey knows how to pluck strings, when to use which instrument. When and how the resonance chamber of his novel fills with strength-grief-pain-beauty-hardness-heart. Often you sit there and all you can think is: Masterly!

“Oh Frank, it’s just a song.”

Frank Elder is the dark side of Charlie Resnick. His somewhat short-tempered patience tears easily. After a police career in London, a demoralizing divorce and a fierce family tragedy, he has retreated to far-off Cornwall, where he occasionally helps the local police. When his alienated 23-year-old daughter Katherine comes to visit – “No questions, Daddy! Otherwise I’ll be gone,” – he has to control himself so as not to stare at the bandages on her wrists. Even more, not to ask. He goes to a pub with her, maybe there’s music there. What kind? Jazz, probably, he says. But you don’t even like jazz, says the daughter.

Frank Elder is not Charlie Resnick, sitting on a park bench at the end of Darkness, Darkness, pondering on Thelonious Monk and how well he can paint pictures on the piano. Instead, Harvey gives Elder a scene in which he walks away from a bar singer called Vicki, who has taken an interest in him, and who sings, as if just to him, the Billie Holiday version of the book’s title, Body & Soul.

My days have grown so lonely
For you I cry, for you dear only
Why haven’t you seen it
I’m all for you, body and soul …

I spend my days in longing 
I’m wondering why it’s me you’re wronging …

My life a hell you’re making
You know I’m yours for just the taking
I’d gladly surrender
Myself to you body and soul.

A piece about perseverance, about spurned love in defiance. Charlie Resnick would ponder whether the instrumental version by Coleman Hawkings of October 11th, 1939, or the later version by Ben Webster would be better. Elder leaves as Vicki sings the lyrics, goes down to the water, his hands and thoughts numb until Vicki comes and stands beside him. Here is the beautiful passage …

A blues next, then an up-tempo chase through, ‘What a Little Moonlight Can Do’, and then … 
 “This is a song I learned from a recording by Billie Holiday that she made way back in nineteen forty and which I first heard when I was eighteen or nineteen and I’ve been plucking up the courage to sing it ever since. So fingers crossed and here goes. ‘Body and Soul.’”
A few bars of sparse piano and the lyric … My days have grown so lonely … Nailing Elder from the first line, a threnody of helplessness, love and despair. Vicki’s voice by the final verse, the final chorus, beaten, defeated, little more than a whisper. Silence. And then the applause. Elder walked out in the night.
Walked towards the harbour, lights on the water.

Oh Frank, Vicki says to him, as she stands beside him and looks for his hand, it’s just a song, it does not have to be true love, at our age. When he puts an arm around her waist, he does not have to look at her to know she is smiling. Shall we go in your car, she says, or mine?

On another occasion, these two life-worn adults talk about how movies, books, and songs tell us about our own broken hearts, how they teach us what we should feel – Ernest fucking Hemingway, as Elder calls him, and all the others who have shaped our ideas of love and pain. And how, in the end, we are alone.

And all the more painfully, we experience through Harvey’s art a young woman being sacrificed again: Frank Elder’s daughter, kidnapped and tortured and raped at sixteen, barely escaping from death, saved by the father, though ultimately that was of little help; now she is twenty three and strangely ambivalent; sometimes seeking help yet dismissing closeness; rugged, leaping, vulnerable. And most importantly: just mute.

“That’s my daughter, you sick fuck!”

From Chapter 5, Harvey changes the narrative more often. We no longer follow only the ex-cop Frank Elder, but also his daughter, and then an increasing number of police officers, men and women, as the narrative strands increase, setting the heart racing. At first, the adrenaline rushes are isolated and controlled until, in Harvey’s hands, this tremendously taut book leaps alive like a wild animal. It is a long time since I have felt my heart beating as strongly when reading as here.

Frank’s daughter, Katherine, has been having an affair with a painter twice her age for whom she has been modelling and this has opened up old psychic wounds, throwing her off balance. Frank Elder travels from Cornwall, five and a half hours by train to London, wanting to be closer to Katherine. He visits an exhibition by this painter, Anthony Winter, and recognizes his daughter. Painted on large format canvasses. Exposed. Spread. Tied up. Like a prisoner. In front of one of these pictures his nausea rises as he stares at a thread of blood running from the young woman’s vagina.

“That’s my daughter, you sick fuck!” He roars, knocking down the painter. A few days later he is under suspicion of murder, the artist having been killed in his own studio. A father who sees his daughter naked like that in a painting – of course, he gets angry, says Elder at his interrogation. “It was the paintings. His. Winter’s. There on display. ”

Then there are new developments. Surveillance cameras show a female figure near the studio; it could be Elder’s daughter, suspicion weighs heavily upon her. The conflicts are piling up. But just half way through the book, when everything is already violent enough, once again there’s a strong drum roll. Adam Keach, the 30-year-old convicted murderer, kidnapper and rapist who previously assualted Katherine, has escaped in an accident involving his transport between prisons. And immediately he is on a mission. He wants to take revenge on Elder, who put him in prison seven years before, and he wants to grab his daughter again. Finish what he did with her then.

“No last minute rescue this time, Frank …”

So the past returns with lightning and thunder. The emotional mutilations of that time overlap with acute lines of conflict; Kate’s rude relationship with the despotic and now dead painter is but one of the unequal power relations in the book. Harvey, however, does not paint everything black and white, he varies his themes within the orchestration of his novel. There are other readings of unequal and uneven relationships, be it the ex-girlfriend of the murdered painter who has returned from Cyprus, be it Elder’s relationship with his own ex-wife or with former colleagues. In many shades the shadows and wounds of the past push into the present, reflecting the psychological costs of crime and the smaller malignancies that one experiences in everyday life. “How do you cope with this, how can you forget what this girl has experienced?” – “You cannot do it.”

In many variants, it is always about how to deal with life. Father-daughter relationships are questioned, and also how parents and children move away from each other. As the epigraph of the book, from Grahams Greene’s Our Man in Havana,  states “The separating years approached them both, like a station down the line, all gain for and all loss for him “.

Charlie Resnick had jazz for such moments of nothingness and Harvey offers this kind of music to Frank Elder as well, but in this dark universe it is only of limited help. “No last minute rescue this time, Frank …”

You sit with this book and, as you read, marvel at how John Harvey, master and commander of language that moves between the dust-dry of the everyday and poetic oscillation, achieves his means. There are ultra-tough police interrogations and word battles, the agonizing silence between parents and children, the professional talk of police officers surveying their cases; there is the world of galleries, models and the genius of artists; and there is the sophisticated and soulful police novel – manhunt, thriller. There are discreet and hard sounds. There’s a lot of lacuna. Poetry. There are landscapes, city and provincial. There are many inspiring miniatures. Art galleries, art house cinemas, old colleagues, an investigator who is half of a lesbian  couple: all of these disciplined and economically set in an exciting style.

Glancing at her again, Hadley was struck by an image, a flicker of memory, one of those films from the sixties she and Rachel luxuriated in once in a while – or had before Hadley’s promotion to detective chief inspector cut their leisure time by half. Glistening black-and-white, 35-millimeter prints at the BFI Southbank or the recently refurbished Regent Street cinema, a cocktail in the bar beforehand, supper afterwards. Rachel, a film buff since her university days. Bergman, Bresson, Godard, Kieslowski and Kaurismaki. And Alice, Hadley thought, was almost a dead ringer for Jean Seberg in “À Bout de Souffle” : the wide eyes, the dark eyebrows and off-blonde elfin-cut hair. Alice wearing black as usual, black jumper, black trousers, black shoes. Glancing now at the GPS, two more turns before drawing up outside the Wilton estate.

… Then the two investigators are with Katherine and the tone of the book changes. As it does quite often. Again and again. Like a breathtaking concert with John Harvey as the conductor, guiding our responses.

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The Body & Soul UK hardcover also features the first few chapters of Flesh & Blood, John Harvey’s first Frank Elder novel, which is now back in paperback. One will want to re-read everything immediately after finishing this.

Alf Mayer

John Harvey: Body & Soul. William Heinemann, London 2018. 304 pages, GBP 14.99.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alex Prager at The Photographers’ Gallery

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Crowd #3 (Pelican Beach) 2013 Alex Prager

If one of The Photography Gallery’s ambitions when setting up it’s current pair of shows  (until 14th October, 2018) was to establish the widest possible contrast between two artists’ practice, they could hardly have chosen better than to focus on Tish Murtha [whom I wrote about in my previous blog post] and Alex Prager. Murtha is firmly in the school of documentary realism, black and white, working class, political, small scale in image, universal in reach and meaning. Prager, in contrast, is high colour, glossy, large scale, concerned with politics of gender and deeply indebted to film imagery and technique – not any kind of film, but that exemplified by Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk – technicoloured melodramas that simultaneously present a heightened version of real life at the very same time as they foreground the means they use (colour, lighting, mise-en-scene) to point up its falseness, its fakery. Gendered Hollywood fairy tales. [Like all fairy tales?]

Shots like the one above were made on a sound stage using up to 150 extras.
Images such as the one below, which could almost be a production still from The Birds, make explicit not just Pragers’ obsession with Hitchcock, but her obsession with his obsession – young blonde women under threat, held under the camera’s gaze.

The section in The Photographers’ Gallery regular booklet series, Loose Associations, which deals with Prager’s work, includes extracts from feminist film critic and academic Laura Mulvey’s key 1975 article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, which dissects the ways in which classic Hollywood film positions women at the ultimately passive receiving end of the all-powerful male gaze. And that’s a three-way: male behind the camera; male within the narrative; male in the audience. Hitchcock – for Prager, whose concerns, one suspects, are similar to Mulvey’s  – is, of course, the perfect subject, the perfect example, perfect for them both, in that he is transparent as to both ends and means. After several viewings, it seems to me, it’s difficult not to see Vertigo, for instance, as an object lesson in just how male dominance of the female in terms of image, action and emotional response can be achieved.

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The Big Valley: Eve 2008 Alex Prager

It’s no surprise that Prager moved from photography – the kind of large scale, pre-planned and well-resourced still photography that is well displayed on two floors at TPG – to film itself. Short films with large crews and real stars. For Touch of Evil, commissioned by the New York Times, she managed to nab a host of A-listers including Jessica Chastain, George Clooney, Kirsten Dunst and Rooney Mara. The ‘star’ of Face in the Crowd, one of the films showing at TPG, is Elizabeth Banks, playing an attractive blonde woman (what else) forever, seemingly, trapped behind a wall of glass, while around her – the film is shown on three screens, central, left & right – various crowds are shown on the beach, at a ball game, crowds from which individuals are intermittently seen in close up, expressing their doubts and fears to camera.

Is it possible to look at Prager’s work and see only the surface, enjoy the size, the visceral pleasure, the high-gloss slickness of it, and not be concerned with what rides beneath? That, after all, would be the mainstream Hollywood way. But here we’re not submerged in the dark. We’re in a gallery and this is art. As well as responding on an immediate love, we’re expected to think. And we do.

 

Tish Murtha at The Photographers’ Gallery

Circumstances dictate 50/60 minutes of slowly walking back and forth, standing, staring, is about all I can manage right now, which means I’ll be back at The Photographers’ Gallery more than once before it’s recently opened brace of shows closes on October 14th.

On the second floor is a cross-section of the work of Tish Murtha, a too-little-known (until now) and under-represented member of that group of British documentary realist photographers of the 70s & 80s who saw their function as being to show the rancid decay of working class life and community under a Conservative government. Men laid off. Heavy industry in decline. Mass youth unemployment.

Murtha grew up, one of ten children, on a housing estate in the Elswick area of Newcastle, got herself to college, got a camera, got a place on David Hurn’s Documentary Photography course at Newport College of Art in South Wales. Newport – Newcastle : in many ways not so very different. “I want to learn to take photographs of policemen kicking kids,” she allegedly said at her interview.

Looking at the work – kids, mainly kids – youths in unemployed abundance – I was reminded of something I’d quoted in my last piece on this blog about another artist from the north-east, the poet Barry MacSweeney …

After Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government was elected in 1979, MacSweeney’s work became more vicious and despairingly political.

Except that, political as it clearly is, and some pictures do depict a moribund sense of despair, there is little or nothing that I would describe as vicious in Murtha’s depictions of the places and people she knew and whose backgrounds she had shared. What I see is understanding, compassion – two-shots showing love, togetherness, fortitude – a young girl, perhaps eight or nine years old, staring back at the camera as if asking what can my life be, can I be like you?

David Hurn suggests an affinity with the work and ambition of the American photographer, Lewis Hine …

I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected. I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated.

Tish Murtha does both.

Tish Murtha: Works 1976-1991 was curated by Val Williams and Gordon MacDonald, with Karen McQuaid, and with the co-operation of the Tish Murtha Archive, which her daughter, Ella, has managed since Tish’s death in 2013. It is showing, together with Alex Pregar: Silver Lake Drive, at The Photographers’ Gallery, London W1F7LW until October 14th, 2018. 

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Barry MacSweeney : Hellhound on His Tail

Desire

Coming in at a little over 340 pages, Desire Lines,  Barry MacSweeney’s Unselected Poems, edited – scrupulously and caringly – by Luke Roberts, and published by Shearsman Books, pays testimony to a poet who was driven by his own devils; by the need to wrestle his verse into a shape that would allow him best to express his most loving and bitter feelings, his growing anger at the changing state of the nation, and the never-ending quest for an often savage and particular beauty. Even then, as Roberts acknowledges, there is no way in which this volume could hope to bring together all of MacSweeney’s work uncontained in the ‘official’ selected, Wolf Tongue: Selected Poems, 1965-2000, edited by Neil Astley and published by Bloodaxe in 2003. He simply wrote too much.

Wolf Tongue

Robert’s intention then, as he states in his introduction,  is to “give the reader a deeper understanding of MacSweeney’s achievements” and “restore to view the volatility with which MacSweeney composed, read, and handled his poems.” What we might also find here is an answer to the sad conundrum Roberts refers to in his opening paragraph – why it was that having emerged on the crest of “the great poetry renaissance of the 1960s, he died with hardly any of his work in print?”

One of the reasons for this can be found in the fact that much of his work was published – sometimes, it might be argued, too hastily and not very well – by independent presses, while other poets were following a more cautious and orthodox route. But MacSweeney had suffered from the treatment accorded from some quarters to his first collection, The Boy From the Green Cabaret Tells of His Mother, which was overhyped by its mainstream publisher Hutchinson in an attempt to jump onto the Mersey Sound bandwagon, with MacSweeney as some kind of youthful cross between the Beats and Roger McGough. But – no disrespect to either poet – another McGough, MacSweeney was not.

I first met Barry MacSweeney towards the end of the 1970s when he was one of the tutors on an Arvon Foundation poetry course in which I was a participant, and it was difficult not to be swept up into his overwhelming pursuit of what he saw as the ‘real’, the authentic, his absolute disdain for the fake or the weak. Along with the American poet, Alan Brooks [also met on an Arvon course] I had recently started editing and publishing Slow Dancer magazine and we were keen to include as much of Barry’s work as we could.

The first piece that we published, in Slow Dancer No. 4 [Early 1979], remains one of my personal favourites. “Blackbird : Elegy” dedicated to William Gordon Calvert, was one of three elegies MacSweeney had written at that time for his Northumbrian grandfather, some finding its way later into the poem sequence Blackbird that was published by Pig Press in 1980 – though this itself was pre-empted by, as it states inside its plain maroon cover, “a very limited preprint edition rushed out for a reading by Barry MacSweeney & Elaine Randell, Castle Chare, Durham, 8.00p.m. nov. 9th 1979.”

This is how the version published in Slow Dancer begins …

curlew chatter
crescent beaks
ragged wings swoop
snipe song

we catch a hen
playing lame
long way from Kent
to your rough ash slot
which pours
& fills this skull

schooled in grind
taught with pennies
tall on th’earth
purity strength
not fascist Aryan
dangerous claptrap
wild Allendale rosehip
whose fruit-blood dries
on my stones
lichen is amour
against those sores
moss grows
in cracks
we don’t know

Blackbird dedication

Blackbird

By the time of Slow Dancer No. 7 [late 1980] times – and MacSweeney with them – had changed. As Luke Roberts states …

After Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government was elected in 1979, MacSweeney’s work became more vicious and despairingly political. The three offcuts from Jury Vet printed here marked the first appearance of MacSweeney’s new style in print. Published by John Harvey’s Slow Dancer magazine in 1980, these punk-inflected odes herald the nightmare of the Thatcherite decade. They are violently problematic works. “Blood Money” also appeared in Slow Dancer [No. 12/13, 1983] and looks on with disgust at City Council politics in Newcastle.

In the context of the above it should not be forgotten that MacSweeney’s first job was as a reporter on his local evening paper in Newcastle – “Reporting gave me a sense of what words could be: economy and just get down to the needed things, with no frills.” His training as a reporter and a digger after facts lay close to the root of Black Torch, a major poem sequence about coal mining in the north-east that was published by New London Pride in 1978 and is included in Roberts’ selection. Reviewing it in Slow Dancer No. 7, David Murray, lecturer in the Department of American Studies at the University of Nottingham, had this to say …

Black Torch represents a poet giving rapt attention to his political and physical environment and at the same time facing and solving problems of formal organisation in a long poem. Using primarily written and oral accounts from the mining communities foe Northumbria and Durham, he combines and juxtaposes miners talking, historical documents and his own personal memories. Crucially, though, the personal elements do not subsume the rest.

MacSweeney’s reliance on local speech in the poem works brilliantly, Murray says, quoting the poet himself on his preference for its usage in this context …

… it is longer lasting, it’s durable, it’s harder, it’s springier, it’s more elemental, it comes out of all sorts of historical, geographical and social conflicts.

Or, as he says in the poem, his words …

have come from the north to feed you
iron voice brazen tongue red dust

Black Torch

Slow DancerNo. 14 [Autumn 1984] was, as declared on its cover, a MacSweeney Special,  with some 18 pages [unfortunately printed on purple paper and less than easy to read] given over to his work, preceded by an appraisal by the poet and visual artist Maggie O’Sullivan. Here we have the poem “Wild Knitting”, which begins with an epigraph from Elvis Costello – “Everyday, everyday, everyday, I write the book” and ends “This State of the Nation bulletin for Lesley MacSweeney, April – August 1983, Bradford.” There are extracts from “Jury Vet – Started  September 1979, Abandoned October 1981 – and, importantly, I think, sections from Ranter, a major work in progress which MacSweeney prefaced with …

Undefinitive takes
of Shivering Primrose
and the wind’s dark
beat & Ranter’s Reel
from the version of
the Ranter saga that
was started February
1984 and is soon for
publication in full

A promise fulfilled when it was published by Slow Dancer Press in 1985.

McSw Special

Ranter

Barry MacSweeney died in 2000. With the publication of Desire Lines, his work will further live on.