Walking London 5 : Fitzrovia & Bloomsbury

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(Annotated) iPod Shuffle, Feb. 2018

  1. Somewhere Over the Rainbow : Buffy Ford *
  2. 44 Vicksburg : Little Brother Montgomery
  3. Lady Day : Rod Stewart **
  4. Joanne : Michael Nesmith***
  5. Arkansas (Part 1) : Bill Frisell
  6. Lights of Laramie : Ian Tyson
  7. If I could be With You (One Hour Tonight) : James P. Johnson
  8. Rosetta : The New York All Stars
  9. Parchman Farm : Mose Allison ****
  10. My Girl : Otis Redding
  11. Now’s the Time : Charlie Parker*****
  12. Me & Paul : Willie Nelson
  13. Going Home : Leonard Cohen ******
  14. Pancho & Lefty : Willie Nelson
  15. Evening Shuffle : Johnny Shines
  16. Gimme An Inch Girl : Ian Matthews
  17. Duke of Earl : Gene Chandler
  18. Billie’s Bounce : Charlie Parker
  19. Time on My Hands : Billie Holiday *******
  20. Cold Hearts/Closed Minds : Nanci Griffith ********
  • * This solo version was recorded by John Stewart’s wife, Buffy Ford, as part of a short-lived project called Darwin’s Army, a four-piece group in which John & Buffy were joined by John Hoke & Dave Crossland sing a mixture of traditional American folk songs, mixed with compositions by the likes of Tim Hardin, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan … and Yip Harburg & Howard Arlen’s all-time classic. Not, in truth, a great album [Appleseed APR 1025] but this, I think, is a lovely version of the song.
  • ** My only other experience of Rod Stewart having been seeing him at the Richmond Jazz and Blues Festival in the mid-60s, when, introduced as Rod the Mod, he was a less-than-convincing second vocalist to Long John Baldry in Steampacket, a relatively short lived blues band [the nucleus of which – Brian Auger on organ, Julie Driscoll on vocals – went on to form the more successful Brian Auger & The Trinity] I was almost totally unprepared for Stewart’s first solo album, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down, (1970) on which, supported by Ronnie Wood & Ian McLagan from the Small Faces amongst others, he uses his rusty voice to great effect on a range of songs, from Jagger & Richards’ “Street Fighting Man” to a rearranged “Maid of Constant Sorrow” (“Man” in this version) and – quite superb this – Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town”. Four of the songs, including the title track, were written by Stewart himself, as was this one, “Lady Day”, which comes from the equally fine follow-up album in the same vein, Gasoline Alley41NA4mNgHdL
  • *** Probably the most musically literate of The Monkees, Nesmith [whose mother made a fortune from Liquid Paper – Tippex to you and me] released some good country albums with the First and Second National Bands in the 1970s, the majority of them featuring Red Rhodes on pedal steel guitar. “Joanne” is perhaps the best known of the songs he composed, along with “Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun to Care)” and “Some of Shelley’s Blues”, both of which are on the album, Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash. I saw him perform a couple of times during this period, once at the Roundhouse in Camden, the other time at a theatre in Victoria, at the end of which evening, in the spirit of something I didn’t quite understand, he told us the evening had been as much about  the way we were communicating with him as he was with us and bade us, therefore, not to applaud after his final number, but to leave in a mood of quiet contemplation. Which, mostly, we did.
  • **** I first heard this in the late 50s/early 60s, and almost certainly bought the album, Local Colour, from Chris Willard’s jazz record shop in New Cross, because it was one of the tracks. Allison was a better-than-average post-bop pianist – he made early recordings with Al Cohn/Zoot Sims and with Stan Getz – and a distinctive singer with a soft and insinuating southern blues-tinged voice that was a clear inspiration to Georgie Fame. When I saw him performing at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho some dozen years ago, it was good to see Georgie sitting in the audience. R-4576302-1368876126-1817.jpeg
  • ***** There are two quintessential sets of early Charlie Parker recordings; those he made for the Savoy label in the mid-40s and those on Dial, mostly slightly later. Both “Now’s the Time” and “Billie’s Bounce”, also included in this shuffle, were recorded in New York City on November 26th, 1945 by a group known as Charlie Parker’s Reboppers, in which Parker’s alto was joined by Miles Davis on trumpet and a rhythm section of Curley Russell on bass, Max Roach on drums and (possibly – there’s some discographical argument, I understand, about this) Dizzy Gillespie at the piano. And talking of the piano, my favourite version of “Now’s the Time”, Parker’s aside, is by John Lewis on his 1960 album, Improvised Meditations and Excursions. Love it! Play it all the time!
  • ****** It’s difficult to listen to any of Cohen’s albums in the last decade of his life – Old Ideas, 2012, Popular Problems, 2014 and You Want It Darker, 2016 – without realising that he had a keen and growing awareness of his own mortality. You Want It Darker, which he was only able to finish with help from his son, Adam, was released just a few weeks before his death and is, to my ageing ears at least, easeful and disturbing to varying degrees. Comfort listening for those about to enter their final decade.Cohen
  • ******* There’s an affecting scene in David Hare’s film for television, Page Eight [the first of what later became The Worricker Trilogy] in which Bill Nighy shows Rachel Weisz a segment  from the 1957 American television programme The Sound of Jazz from 1957, in which Lester Young on tenor sax is among Billie Holiday’s accompanists as she sings “Fine and Mellow”. In the clip Nighy chooses, we see Young, far from well, soloing, then a close up of Billie Holiday listening intently, love, regret and admiration mingling on her face. As Nighy points out, however, the moment the solo is over, she is sharp to the mike to continue singing. For Nighy, it’s both a way, I think, of persuading Weisz into loving him, at the same time as saying that when push comes to shove, as inevitably it must, it’s work that wins. The critic, Nat Hentoff, was in the studio during the filming of The Sound of Jazz, and had this to say about that part of the session: Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard, and [he and Holiday] were looking at each other, their eyes were sort of interlocked, and she was sort of nodding and half–smiling. It was as if they were both remembering what had been—whatever that was. And in the control room we were all crying. When the show was over, they went their separate ways.
  • ******* “Time on My Hands” was one of the many songs Billie Holiday recorded with various Teddy Wilson aggregations during the late 30s and early 40s, many of them featuring Lester Young. Here, the tune is played almost painfully slowly, Billie’s voice weary yet knowing; the only solo is from Wilson on piano, and all we hear of Lester is his saxophone behind Billie’s voice more or less throughout, the sound distant and subdued.
  • ******** This begins with two of the best opening lines from a Dear John song that I know … “Bags are waiting in a cab downstairs, Got a ticket in my  pocket says I’ll make it out of here”. Only rivalled, perhaps, by these from “Bittersweet” on the Everything But the Girl 1985 album, Eden. “Don’t talk to me in that familiar way/When the keys are in my hand.”
  • Nanci

More Wasted Years …

Wasted Years was the first of five radio adaptations based on the Resnick novels and short stories. First broadcast in 1995, it has been repeated several times since, and is about to be broadcast again, in two parts, on BBC Radio 4 Extra on Monday, February 5th and Tuesday, 6th, each episode playing three times – 10.00am, 3.00pm and (for the insomniacs out there) 3.00am the following morning.

Like all of the other dramatisations, Wasted Years was produced by David Hunter [with whom I’m currently working on the Inspector Chen series for Radio 4] and, unlike the others, featured Tom Wilkinson as Resnick. Tom, of course, had played the role in the televised versions of the first two novels, Lonely Hearts and Rough Treatment, which were shown on BBC One in  1992 & 1993. Two other actors also reprised their roles: Kate Eaton as Lynn Kellogg and Daniel Ryan as Kevin Naylor.

The radio version of Wasted Years is also notable for the performance of Gillian Bevan, who plays the singer, Ruth Strange, and sings the title song over the credits. The song was written by singer/songwriter Liz Simcock [recently on tour in a duo with Clive Gregson], the lyrics based on those I came up with for the original novel. Gillian sings it so well that every time the programme is broadcast there are enquiries as to whether it is more generally available – which, sadly, is not the case. Maybe Liz can be persuaded to include it on her next CD.

Every night I spend waiting
All those dreams and wasted tear,
Every minute, eery second, babe,
The worst of all my fears.
When you walk back through the door again,
All you’ll have for me is empty arms,
And empty promises,
And ten more, ten more, oh baby,
Ten more wasted years.

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People sometimes ask me which of the Resnick novels is my favourite, and, over the years, my answers have varied; but somewhere around the middle of Wasted Years occurs one of my favourite chapters, not least because [like the final speech in the Nottingham Playhouse/New Perspectives production of Darkness, Darkness] it contrives to yoke together Thelonious Monk and Nottingham’s Old Market Square.

In the square, a fifty-year-old man, trousers rolled past his knees, was paddling in one of the fountains, splashing handfuls of water up under the arms of his fraying coat. A young woman with a tattooed face was singing an old English melody to a scattering of grimy pigeons. Resnick stood by one of the benches, listening: a girl in denim shorts and overlapping T-shirts, razored hair, leather waistcoat with a death’s head on the back, standing there, oblivious of everything else, singing, in a voice strangely thin and pure, “She Moved Through the Fair”.

When she had finished and Resnick, wishing to say thanks, tell her how it had sounded, give her, perhaps, money, walked purposefully towards her, she turned her back on him and walked away.

On the steps, in the shadow of the lions, couples were kissing. Young men in short sleeves, leaning from the windows of their cars, slowly circled the square. Across from where Resnick was standing was the bland brick and glass of the store that twenty years before had been the Black Boy, the pub where he and Ben Riley would meet for an early evening pint. The glass that ten years ago was smashed and smashed again as rioters swaggered and roared through the city’s streets.

No way to hold it all back now.

Inside the house, he showered, turning the water as hot as he dared and lifting his face towards it, eyes closed; soaping his body over and over, the way he did after being called out to examine some poor victim, murdered often or not for small change or jealousy, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Steam clouded the bathroom, clogged the air, and still Resnick stood there, back bent now beneath the spray, content to let it wash over him.

In the kitchen, he felt the smoothness of the coffee beans in the small of his hand. He knew already which album he would pull from the shelves, slide on to the turntable from its sleeve.

The purple postage stamp on the cover, Monk’s face in profile at its centre, trilby had sloping forward, angled away, the thrust of the goatee beard rhyming the curve of the hat’s brim. Riverside 12-209: The Unique Thelonious Monk. “If only they’d take away the blindfold and the handcuffs,” Elaine used to say of Monk’s playing, “it might make all the difference.” Resnick would smile. Why play the right notes when the wrong ones will do?

Resnick set his coffee on the table by the chair and cued in the second track.

Monk picks the notes from the piano tentatively, as if it were a tune he once heard long ago and then, indistinctly, through an open window from an apartment down the street. There is more than uncertainty in the way his fingers falter, sliding between half-remembered chords, surprising themselves with fragments of melody, with things he would have preferred to have remained forgotten. “Memories of You”.

Moments when it is easy to imagine he might get up from the piano and walk away – except you know he cannot, any more than when the solo is finally over he can let it go. When you’re sure it’s over, probing with another pair of notes, a jinking run, a fading chord.

At the track’s end, he seems to hear her feet walk across the floor above: door to dressing table to wardrobe, wardrobe to dressing table to bed. If he went now and pushed open the door into the hallway, would he hear her voice?

“Charlie, aren’t you coming up?”

The final weeks when they lay beneath the same sheets, not speaking, not touching, catching at their breath, fearful that in sleep they might be turned inward by some old habit or need.

“Christ, Charlie!” Ben Riley had exclaimed. “What the heck’s the matter with you? You got a face like bloody death!”

And in truth he had – because in truth that’s what it had been like: dying.

A long death and slow, eked out, a little each day.

Fragments.

“Don’t you see, Charlie?”

Once the blindfold had been taken away, it made all the difference.

from Wasted Years, first published, Viking, 1993

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Out of the Archive: a Slow Dancer Reading

A few days ago I was reminded a piece by the poet Anthony Wilson called “Life Saving Poems”, describing his visit to a Slow Dancer poetry reading at the Voice Box at the Royal Festival Hall. It was reprinted, with Anthony’s permission, on the old Mellotone blog in 2013 and seemed so evocative, so well-written, that I’m reproducing it again here …

Sometime in the early Nineties I did a very brave thing. I took myself to a poetry reading. I went on my own. I knew nobody there and none of the poets who were reading. The reading took place in the Voice Box on the top floor of the Festival Hall, at London’s South Bank. I was terrified. For a start, everyone seemed to know everyone else. There seemed to be a lot of kissing. It was a bit like showing up at church.

Next, I saw immediately I had woefully misjudged the dress code. The crumpled writer look (grandad shirts and jackets; cursory and floating dresses) was very much de rigueur. Retro ice cream salesman shirtsleeve stripes and baggy shorts were very much not.

For safety, I sat somewhere near the back, praying no one would speak to me.

The evening was hosted by a very impressive and confident looking man wearing the most crumpled suit in the room. He introduced himself as John Harvey, editor-in-chief of Slow Dancer Press, the reading’s sponsors. He told us a few jokes, and explained in a manner that was both light-hearted and somehow menacing that Slow Dancer really did need our money and we should all subscribe to its poetry magazine.

He pulled from his suit pocket a pale looking book of poems, which turned out to be his. With great seriousness and tenderness he read us a poem. The room went very quiet. At the end of the poem we clapped and John introduced us to the evening’s first poet, Lee Harwood.

Lee also seemed very sure of himself. He shuffled papers and old copies of his books and gave the appearance of not knowing what he was going to do next. At the same time he seemed ruthlessly calm and in control of everything he said. His poems seemed carved out of a different language to me, especially those about the natural world and climbing, of which he read several. For twenty-five minutes I did not hear myself breathing.

When Lee had finished reading we clapped and John got up and read another poem and again I seemed to stop breathing. The poem was about Chet Baker, I think. Then he introduced the next poet, Libby Houston.

I wasn’t sure then, and am still not sure now, what to make of Libby Houston’s reading. (I mean this as the strongest praise I can offer). By turns hilarious, unflinchingly honest, deadpan, slapstick and wildly lyrical the words of Libby’s poems seemed to pour out of her at a variety of speeds. Sometimes they came in a torrent, and sometimes in a whisper, almost like a child. But they all seemed to contain vital energy and truth, including the knowledge that Libby herself did not fully understand where some of them seemed to be coming from. In the twenty or so years of going to poetry readings since, I have still not heard anything like it.

When Libby had finished John stood up and said we would need to recharge our glasses during the interval, which was now, and while we were about it please could we buy some Slow Dancer books and magazines.

At this point of the evening I became aware again of my lack of knowledge of poetry reading protocol. People walked purposefully around the room in the direction of the poets who had read, including John and the evening’s final poet, Peter Sansom. I noticed that many of them were holding open the books and magazines they had bought from the table at the back. This seemed to me the best way of engineering a conversation with one of them without appearing strange. I bought myself a couple of back issues of Slow Dancer, and waited in what looked like the most busy queue, which was the one for Peter.

I had been sending Peter Sansom my poems to The North, and had even bought one of his books. In truth, he was probably the reason I went to the reading in the first place. For reasons I had not stopped to analyse I thought of him as a bit of a hero. So as I edged nearer to him in the queue I began to grow very nervous. I realised I had no idea what to say to him. If I said my name that would appear boastful, as though I was expecting him to know it. If I mentioned that I’d been sending him poems that would also look self-promoting, as though my poems were somehow more memorable than the thousands of others he received each week in his mailbag. On the other hand I could hardly resort to what I was overhearing others saying to him further down the queue, most of which sounded like offers of a place to crash for the night.
When it came to my turn l blurted to Peter everything I promised I wouldn’t in the queue. Amazingly, he seemed to know exactly who I was. He appraised me for a moment, shook my hand, and taking from my other a Slow Dancer to sign said: ‘You’re looking very cool, Anthony.’ His reading, from his soon-to-be-published January, was similarly generous: full of anecdote, good natured red-herrings and warmly lyrical.

The evening’s final act, a late night solo, it occurs to me now, was a reading by John. From the same pale book he chose its title poem, ‘Ghost of a Chance’. To the now familiar pin-drop quiet and lack of oxygen I now became aware of moisture gathering in the corners of my eyes. As one of John Ash‘s poems puts it, the surprise was ‘like a snowball in the back’. I’ll never forget it.

Ghost of a Chance
He plays the tune lazily,
pretty much the way he must
have heard Billie sing it,
but slower, thick-toned,
leaning back upon the beat,
his mind half on the melody,
half on the gin.
 

Between takes he stands,
head down, shrunken inside
a suit already overlarge,
cheeks sunken in.
He thinks of her, Billie:
already it is possible
he has started to bleed within.
 

From the control room, laughter,
but that’s not the sound he hears;
tenor close to his mouth,
he turns towards the doors:
unseen, not quite unbidden,
someone has just slipped in.
 

At the end of eight bars
he closes his eyes and blows.
After two choruses he will cover
his mouthpiece with its shield:
not play again.

John Harvey, from Ghosts of a Chance (Smith/Doorstop) 1992. Reprinted in Out of Silence (Smith/Doorstop) 2014

Art Chronicles: Tate St.Ives

After being closed for rebuilding, renovation and refurbishment for what seems like a very long time, it was a surprise to walk into a building that seemed almost overwhelmingly familiar. The gallery spaces, the shop, the cafe … but wait … what is new  and what is pretty wonderful is the new permanent display – Modern Art and St. Ives – which does what, I think, many visitors come to gallery looking for – an in depth survey of the principle British Artists associated with Western Cornwall and St.Ives – Nicholson, Hepworth, Patrick Heron, Naum Gabo, Peter Lanyon, Sandra Blow –  together with examples of the European and North American artist who inspired them and with whom their work is associated – Nicholson and Marlow Moss, for instance, alongside Mondrian.

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A conscious attempt seems to have been made to include a higher percentage of work by female artists than is all too often the case, including here Margaret Mellish, Marlow Moss and, particularly, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, who is represented with three pieces which illustrate the development of her practice, from naively representational through differing kinds of abstraction and an almost fierce use of colour.

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Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: “Island Sheds, St. Ives, No. 1” 1940

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Wilhelmina Barns-Graham : “Rock Theme (St. Just)” 1953 [detail]

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Wilhelmina Barns-Graham : “Red Form” 1954 [detail]

What has been added to the gallery – after lengthy negotiations with residents, the town council et cetera – is a single, large high-ceilinged room, which can be used, as in its initial display, to show the work of a single artist – in this case, Rebecca Warren – or, where necessary, divided by a series of removable walls.

For the exhibition of Warren’s witty and provocative work,  she has chosen the title All That Heaven Allows, taken from the 1955 Douglas Sirk film, which uses both melodramatic narrative form and heightened use of colour to dramatise the situation of a middle-class widow trapped within rigid expectations of class, gender and sexuality. Tall, angular sculptures of human figures are placed at irregular intervals across the room’s wide space; collages in neon vitrines placed here and there on the walls. Once visitors start walking around and between them, the sculptures begin to take on an exaggerated life of their own, commenting on the viewers and on themselves as works of art.

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The roughly worked, one might almost say deliberately ham-fisted, construction of the figures with their clumpy surfaces and irregular colour, make a marked and deliberate contrast to the smooth surfaces and satisfying curves of the Barbara Hepworth sculptures in the permanent exhibition, just as the wall pieces, with their apparently random, yet personal, selection of objects and use of neon, offer an alternative to the more austere and geometrical work of Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo.

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Rebecca Warren : “All That Heaven Allows”

Sue Grafton, 1940 – 2017

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I first met Sue Grafton in 1991. I was in the States for the publication of the third Charlie Resnick novel, Cutting Edge, and my US publisher, Henry Holt, had brought me over for a small tour which, best as I recall, began in Minneapolis-St.Paul and continued from there down to California – specifically the annual Bouchercon mystery and detective convention, which was being held that year in Pasadena. The convention is a huge affair, crowded with fans, readers and collectors and just about, or so it seemed then, every English-speaking crime writer alive and kicking. To say I felt a little out of my league would be no exaggeration. I still hadn’t quite recovered from my first book reading & signing on the road just a week or so before, at an independent bookstore in St. Paul where the proprietor had laid on crackers and specially purchased cheddar cheese in my honour, and to which nobody – nobody – came.

Sue Grafton to the rescue. As chance would have it, we shared not just the same publisher  but the same publicist, Lottchen Shivers. Lottchen had been the driving force behind the successful campaigns to promote Sue’s books and had promised to do the same for me. [The fact that she never really made it was not through lack of trying.] Once Lottchen had brought us together at Pasadena, Sue became my number one supporter, going out of her way not merely to introduce me to the audience at one of her crowded solo sessions, but to tell everyone how good the Resnick books were and that they should read them forthwith. She even managed to keep my spirits up later, when I sat stranded between her and Walter Mosely in the signing room, my grand tally of four or five customers dwarfed by Sue’s and Walter’s lines which snaked around the room and back out through the door.

She continued to be gracious and funny – and supportive – each time our paths crossed: once, memorably, in the States when she invited me to join Julie Smith, Linda Barnes and herself for dinner – I made the mistake, near fatal for my bank account, of offering to pay for the wine – and in London in 2008 when she was here to accept the CWA Diamond Dagger for Sustained Excellence in the Genre, and my  partner, Sarah, and I had dinner with Sue and her husband, Steve Humphrey.

I’m sure there must have been times when she cursed herself for setting out on the millstone of a writing journey that would take her and her protagonist, Kinsey Millhone, from A is for Alibi and B is for Burglar, on through the alphabet towards X, Y and Z. As we now know, all too sadly she was not to reach Z. Y is for Yesterday will be the last. But for every curse, every moment of regret, I’m sure there were far more cherished moments of accomplishment and delight. Sue, I think, was one of those authors who genuinely welcomed and enjoyed the relationship she had with her readers, to whom she felt a sense of responsibility – just as she did, I’m sure, towards her editor through all those books, all those years, Marian Wood.

It was my very good fortune to have Marian as my editor too, in the US, at least; fortunate both for the unstinting way in which she promoted my work within the publishing house, and for the very hands-on way in which she helped to guide the Resnick books – and me with them – towards a greater maturity. She was only too aware of the power that having Sue as one of her authors gave her; as she said to me on more than one occasion, and I’m paraphrasing slightly, it’s because of Sue that I can continue to publish writers I admire like you and Daniel Woodrell, even though your sales are sadly unlikely to trouble the Best Seller lists overmuch. When Marian left Henry Holt for Putnam and took Sue with her, it wasn’t long before both Dan and myself were cut loose and, as they used to say of big band musicians, pursuing our freelance connections until another offer came our way.

Sue’s success was grounded in years of hard work in the television industry, writing scripts for series such as Rhoda, learning the art and craft of shaping and telling a story, the skill of earning the viewer’s, the reader’s, attention and sympathy. The Kinsey Millhone novels managed to straddle the wide and, for some, uncrossable lines of the comfortable and cosy crime novel and the more hard-hitting and contemporary urban thriller. And in Kinsey, Sue had created a character readers liked, felt close to, were only too happy to welcome back into their lives.

The initial success of the series was helped by being part of a quite spectacular surge in the early 1980s in America in the popularity of crime fiction written by women, usually with female leading characters. [Absurd as it sounds now, when, at this time, I was looking for a paperback publisher for the Resnick books in the US, I was told by one publisher they weren’t taking on any new male writers but if I’d like to consider using a female pseudonym … ] The first of Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone books had been published in 1977, the second, Ask the Cards a Question, in 1982, the same year as A is for Alibi. That same year saw the publication of Sarah Paretsky’s first VI Warshawski novel, Indemnity Only. And it was more than a passing trend. Linda Barnes’s first Carlotta Carlyle novel, A Trouble of Fools, followed in 1987, and Julie Smith won the Edgar for Best Novel with the first Skip Langdon, New Orleans Mourning, in 1991.

Of those and other women crime writers whose careers began at a similar time, it is probably the more overtly political and feminist Sarah Paretsky and Sue Grafton who have been the most consistent and are the best-known, the best regarded. Sue’s family and her publisher have made it clear that what would have been the final book in the series,  Z is for Zero, will remain unwritten. No ghosts by request.

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Art Chronicles: Best of 2017

Ask who are my favourite artists and the answer comes without hesitation: Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell. Ask who I think is the greatest artist of the last 150 years – great in terms of the overall quality of the work and the pleasures it brings, great in terms of its originality and influence – and I’ll turn slightly pale and tell you such a distinction is not only worthless but impossible. And then, when my arm is metaphorically up my back and the pressure is on, I’ll say, well, of course, it’s Cezanne.

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The current show at the National Portrait Gallery [till February 11th, 2018] concentrates on the portraits (Duh!) which formed a significant part of Cezanne’s work, although he’s not, I think, primarily thought of as a portrait painter. What they illustrate is his growing confidence as an artist, his expanding love of colour, of the richness of paint on canvas, the mark, as he progressed from impressionism towards a burgeoning modernism that held within itself the beginnings of cubism – of Modern Art. And this without losing sight of the sitter, his or her individuality.

Without being (thankfully) of block-busting proportions, it’s a large show, with the works well-displayed and aided rather than, as if too often the case, detracted from, by the wall captions, which are clearly and sensible written, giving just the right amount and kind of information, avoiding the all-too-typical ‘art speak’ that mars far too many exhibitions with over-intellectualised gobbledygook.

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Perhaps the most important single exhibition of the year, however, was Soul of a Nation at Tate Modern. Sub-titled Art in the Age of Black Power, and concentrating on work from the two decades following the struggle for Civil Rights, this gave a first showing in this country to a large number of black artists whose work had previously been overlooked, at the same time as giving a wider platform to painters such as Norman Lewis and David Hammons and the photographer Roy DeCarava.

The Place is Here, at Nottingham Contemporary, was the perfect companion piece to Soul of a Nation, concentrating as it did on the work of Black British artists during the 1980s, including Lubaina Himid’s  “A Fashionable Marriage”, one of the pieces for which she was awarded this year’s Turner Prize.

American Art was generally well represented. America After The Fall at the Royal Academy and American Prints: Pop to the Present at the British Museum were absorbing surveys, in the case of the BM quite splendidly displayed. And both the exhibition of Rauschenberg’s work at Tate Modern at the beginning of the year, and that of Jasper Johns at the Royal Academy towards the end, were testimony to the breadth and seriousness of their practice. [Johns, he’s that bloke that paints flags, yeah? Well, look again.]

Amongst the other shows I visited during the year, these also stood out …

  • Walhalla – Anselm Kiefer : White Cube, Bermondsey
  • Wolfgang Tillmanns 2017 : Tate Modern
  • The Discovery of Mondrian : Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag
  • Revolution – Russian Art 1917-1932 : Royal Academy
  • Alice Neel, Uptown : Victoria Miro
  • States of America : Nottingham Contemporary
  • Instant Stories – Wim Wenders’ Polaroids : Photographers’ Gallery
  • Impulse – Pace Gallery
  • Soutine – Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys : Courtauld Gallery

 

 

 

Music Matters: Best of 2017

It’s been Monk’s year, his centenary duly celebrated far and wide, up to and including a full five day, five hour Composer of the Week slot on BBC Radio 4. Welcome to the establishment! I listen to Monk’s recordings more than those of any other artist and in this year of all years, the re-discovered recordings he made in 1960 as potential soundtrack material for Roger Vadim’s film version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses have seldom been far from the stereo. Monk is someone whose music I’ve written about on a number of occasion, both in poetry and fiction, and I was delighted (under statement!) when the American critic and commentator Bill Ott chose to highlight my attempts to convey the individuality of both Monk and his music in an article which originally appeared in Booklist and has since been republished on the excellent German web site CulturMag.

Live tributes I’ve been fortunate enough to see and hear include an evening at the Vortex in East London involving students from the Trinity Laban Conservertoire of Music and Dance; John Beasley’s MONK’estra at Ronnie Scott’s; and, best of all, the triple concert celebration at Cadogan Hall, largely organised by Tony Kofi and culminating in a brilliant recreation of the famous Town Hall Concert for Big Band. I’ve written about that in some detail here …

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Charles Tolliver & Band. Photo Kat Pfeiffer

The other outstanding jazz event for me, also at the Vortex, was a performance by the big band assembled by Hans Koller for the composer and arranger Mike Gibbs to front in his 80th Birthday Tour. Fabulous!

I’ve followed with great interest the burgeoning career of Nottingham-based cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, ever since watching him win the BBC’s contest for Young Musician of the Year, and both the emotional force and warmth of personality that inform his technical ability were very much on show in a recital at Kings Place in which he was accompanied by his equally talented if more restrained sister, Isata, in Shostakovich and Beethoven. Also at Kings Place, the Sacconi Quartet played a selection of Graham Fitkin’s compositions for string quartet, interspersed with several solo pieces by Fitkin himself, Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 2 and Arvo Part’s ‘Summa’. There was more Glass earlier in the year, when the James McVinnie Ensemble played an exciting and absorbing version on his “Music in 12 Parts’, and brilliantly executed minimalism from the Colin Currie Group playing Steve Reich’s ‘Tehillim’ & ‘Drumming’ at the Royal Festival Hall.

Finally, momentously, two more concerts at the Royal Festival Hall – one at the beginning of the year, one towards the end – that, in their different ways, made the skin tingle and and heart sing: the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir under Nathalie Stutzmann performing Mozart’s Requiem and the LPO again, this time with Orozco-Estrada conducting, pulling out all the stops and then some playing Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony.

 

Movies of the Year, 2017

  • Manchester By The Sea : Kenneth Lonergan
  • Twentieth Century Women : Mike Mills
  • Hidden Figures : Theodore Milfi
  • Moonlight : Barry Jenkins
  • Certain Women : Kelly Reichardt
  • Graduation : Cristian Mungiu
  • I Am Not Your Negro : Raoul Peck
  • The Levelling : Hope Dickson Leach
  • In Between : Maysaloun Hamoud
  • On Body & Soul : Ildiko Enyedi
  • Mudbound : Dee Rees

These are the films I enjoyed most this year (some of them first released in 2016) listed in the order I saw them rather than in any hierarchy; with the exception of ‘On Body & Soul’, which was streamed on Mubi and deserves to be shown far more widely, they were all seen in one cinema or another. If I were forced to choose a top three or four – Go on! Make me! – they would be ‘Graduation’, ‘In Between’, ‘On Body and Soul’ and ‘Manchester By The Sea’.

I could make a list of almost equal measure of those movies that, to my eyes, were over-hyped, over-rated or just plain bad.  Top of that list would be Pablo Lorrain’s ‘Jackie’, a wooden study in hagiography almost equalled by the same director’s pompously ‘arty’ ‘Neruda’ – quite a feat to have two lousy efforts released in the same year. Despite some considerable critical acclaim, Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Elle’ was as unpleasant and exploitative as I should have anticipated – can we just see that rape scene from a different angle one more time, please? Both ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘Blade Runner 2049’ were as empty as they were over-long and overwrought and I’m sorry but, in the face of much positivity, I almost totally failed to ‘get’ ‘Toni Erdmann’.

Next year, must try harder.