“Fedora”

SLOW cover

As I’ve been telling anyone and everyone who’ll bend an ear, Five Leaves are publishing Going Down Slow, a collection of seven of my previously uncollected short stories, on November 14th and marking the event with a launch evening at their grand little bookstore in Nottingham. On Monday of the week following, November 20th, I shall be joining forces with Woody Haut at the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town, north London, to celebrate the publication of both Going Down Slow and Woody’s new novel, Days of Smoke. And that Friday, I shall be at Foyles Bookshop in Charing Cross Road, doing my poetry & jazz thing with the John Lake Band and sneaking in a smattering of short fiction when the band’s back is turned.

I might even read the beginning of “Fedora”, which goes like this …

When they had first met, amused by his occupation, Kate had sent him copies of Hammett and Chandler, two neat piles of paperbacks, bubble-wrapped, courier-delivered. A note: If you’re going to do, do it right. Fedora follows. He hadn’t been certain exactly what a fedora was.

Jack Kiley, private investigator. Security work of all kinds undertaken. Ex-Metropolitan Police.

Most of his assignments came from bigger security firms, PR agencies with clients in need of baby sitting, steering clear of trouble; solicitors after witness confirmation, a little dirt. If it didn’t make him rich, most months it paid the rent: a second-floor flat above a charity shop in north London, Tufnell Park. He still didn’t have a hat.

Till now.

One of the volunteers in the shop had taken it in. ‘An admirer, Jack, is that what it is?’

There was a card attached to the outside of the box: Chris Ruocco of London, Bespoke Tailoring. It hadn’t come far. A quarter mile, at most. Kiley had paused often enough outside the shop, coveting suits in the window he could ill afford.

But this was a broad-brimmed felt hat, not quite black. Midnight blue? He tried it on for size. More or less a perfect fit.

There was a note sticking up from the band: on one side, a quote from Chandler; on the other a message: Ozone, tomorrow. 11am? Both in Kate Keenan’s hand.

He took the hat back off and placed it on the table alongside his mobile phone. Had half a mind to call her and decline. Thanks, but no thanks. Make some excuse. Drop the fedora back at Ruocco’s next time he caught the overground from Kentish Town.

It had been six months now since he and Kate had last met, the premiere of a new Turkish-Albanian film to which she’d been invited, Kiley leaving halfway through and consoling himself with several large whiskies in the cinema bar. When Kate had finally emerged, preoccupied by the piece she was going to write for her column in the Independent, something praising the film’s mysterious grandeur, it’s uncompromising pessimism – the phrases already forming inside her head – Kiley’s sarcastic ‘Got better, did it?’ precipitated a row which ended on the street outside with her calling him a hopeless philistine and Kiley suggesting she take whatever pretentious arty crap she was going to write for her bloody newspaper and shove it.

Since then, silence.

Now what was this? A peace offering? Something more?

Kiley shook his head. Was he really going to put himself through all that again? Kate’s companion. Cramped evenings in some tiny theatre upstairs, less room for his knees than the North End at Leyton Orient; standing for what seemed like hours, watching others genuflect before the banality of some Turner Prize winner; another mind-numbing lecture at the British Library; brilliant meals at Moro or the River Café on Kate’s expense account; great sex.

Well, thought Kiley, nothing was perfect.

Advertisements

“Going Down Slow”

Once upon a time – 2009, to be exact – there was Minor Key, a nicely put together limited edition hardback published by Five Leaves of Nottingham and containing five short stories, half a dozen poems and an introductory essay, “Resnick, Nottingham and All That  Jazz”.

 

SLOW cover

Well, now the good folk at Five Leaves are set to publish something in the way of a sequel: Going Down Slow & Other Stories – seven previously uncollected short stories in a limited edition hardback with a run of 1000 copies, the first 100 of which will be numbered and signed. Publication date is Tuesday, 14th November and there will be a launch event at Five Leaves Bookshop between 7.00 & 8.30pm that evening. Admission is free, but, as anyone who’s been to the shop will know, space is limited, so if you’re thinking of going along, best to RSVP to events@fiveleaves.co.uk or risk being shut outside, looking in, with only the occasional punter heading for the betting shop next door for company.

As you’ll see from the cover, there’s a bit of a retro thing going on: retro-noir; retro-hard boiled detective; retro-fedora. Which is the title of one of the stories – “Fedora” – the story that was awarded the CWA Short Story Dagger in 2014. It’s a Jack Kiley story – as are “Second Chance” and “Dead Dames Don’t Sing”, the latter a tale of rare books, rarer manuscripts and pulp fiction that first appeared in the Bibliomysteries series published by Otto Penzler’s New York-based Mysterious Bookshop.

Kiley, for those who haven’t previously made his acquaintance, was formerly an officer in the Met, as well as, briefly, a professional footballer, and is currently eking out a living as a private detective in North London – hence the fedora, given to him by his friend Kate as a kind of joke. Joke or not, he wears it well.

Along the three Kileys, there are two Nottingham-based stories featuring Charlie Resnick – “Not Tommy Johnson” and the title story, “Going Down Slow” – and a third Nottingham story, “Ask Me Now”, a companion piece to “Sack O’Woe”, which first appeared in a Mystery Writers of America anthology, The Blue Religion, edited by Michael Connelly.  And if you’ve been counting you’ll know that leaves one more: “Handy Man”, a rare, for me, exercise in writing in the first person, female first person at that, which takes off from the excellent Amy Rigby song, “Keep It To Yourself”.

If you can’t get along to the launch in Nottingham, but live down south, on the Monday of the week following, the 20th, I shall be at the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town with the writer Woody Haut, to celebrate the publication of his novel, Days of Smoke, and to talk about both that book and Going Down Slow. And just to round things off, on Friday 24th, 6.30 – 7.30pm, I’m reading with the John Lake Band at a Ray’s Jazz event at Foyles Bookshop in Charing Cross Road. Mostly poetry on this occasion, but I’m sure the short stories will sneak in there somewhere.

And should you want to pre-order a copy [there are only 1,000, remember] you can do so from the Five Leaves Bookshop bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk / 0115 837 3097. Price £12.99 post free in the UK.

Art Chronicles: Rachel Whiteread

2170160528_20a215e20b

Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, Vienna : Rachel Whiteread

411754189_ccd937e080

Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, Vienna : Rachel Whiteread

I’ve seen images of Rachel Whiteread’s sculpture that stands in Judenplatz in the first district of Vienna as a memorial to the Austrian victims of the Holocaust, but never the thing itself. Nevertheless, I’ve talked about it, written essays about it; praised, admired and been awestruck by it. Constructed from concrete and steel, it stands, squat, solid and unflourished, at the centre of a square overlooked by ‘fine’ houses, formerly homes to many of the Jews who were transported to those concentration camps whose names are engraved at the foot of the sculpture.

It is a library: a library to which the doors remain resolutely closed. No one can enter: and if they could, once inside, they could never escape. The walls are made from casts of library shelves lined with books, but the books – which all look like the same book – stand inside out, their titles and authors hidden. Anonymous and unread. Lives unaccounted for. Unacknowledged. It’s a statement about the loss of identity, the loss of life, the denial of memory. Uncompromising and uncompromised.

A powerful work, whose strength of form signifies its strength of meaning and discourages the ease of tears.

To have expected something similar, work which would have the same power or elicit a similar response, from the retrospective of Whiteread’s work currently at Tate Britain would have been unfair and not a little foolish. What I hadn’t been prepared for was being just a little bit bored.

Part of the problem [a problem for me, but not, from speaking briefly to others at the gallery, for many] is that Whiteread’s most significant work – which can mean having a significance beyond itself –  is public work on a large scale and so can only be shown here in a photograph, a diagram, a plan. What the gallery gives us is a generously large space with several larger pieces – the interior, stairs and floors, of the former warehouse in which she and her family once lived; the room in Broadcasting House which might have been the inspiration for Orwell’s Room101 – at the centre and smaller works – windows and doors cast in plaster and coloured resins – arranged around the perimeter.

Walking round, it’s not difficult to think, okay, this is very clever, but why? Why in the case of the doors and windows, the Tate handout tells us, because “Such a re-imagining of this range of forms in their cast versions, as sculpture, emphasises their details and our relationship with the structures that surround us.”

To which I can only say, “Hmm … ”

But all was not lost. Along one wall there is a delightful array of small objects, some brightly coloured – and, oh, how the heart was crying out for colour in the midst of so much grey concrete – casts of everyday objects such as boxes and, nicest of all, the cylindrical tubes from the centre of toilet rolls. Even better, on the wall at the opposite end hang a number of photographs, sketches and drawings made using pen, pencil or paint – for the most part preparatory work leading up to the final sculptures, but satisfying in themselves. And, best of all, a long vitrine in which is displayed a selection made by Whiteread herself of pages from her notebooks, more sketches and photographs, along with a number of objects she has collected and kept. Absolutely fascinating.

Outside the gallery space, in the Duveen Galleries, are a number of pieces Whiteread has selected from the Tate’s permanent collection – sculptures by Richard Deacon, Barry Flanagan, Barbara Hepworth, Rebecca Warren and others. As one of the visitors I spoke to said, the problem with is that, set against range and liveliness of that work, Whiteread’s own can suffer in comparison.

And finally, a literary footnote. For the sales display outside, amongst the catalogues and postcards, is a small selection of books that Whiteread has recommended: and what a selection! Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead; The Safety of Objects by A. M. Homes; short stories by Lydia Davis and Raymond Carver; Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary; Henning Mankel. Enough to form the beginning of a small library of contemporary fiction.

 

 

Two Poems for National Poetry Day

Both of the poems I’ve lighted upon to share on National Poetry Day were written in the States in the mid-90s when I was fortunate enough to be a participant in a couple of poetry writing courses at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference, tutored by Robert Hass, Sharon Olds, Brenda Hillman, Lucille Clifton and Galway Kinnell. If you can’t come up with something half way decent after that, it’s likely time to give the muse a rest.

OUT OF SILENCE
Squaw Valley, 1995

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

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

FAILED SONNET HOME

The window boxes outside the Clocktower Café
are delerious with blood. Cappuccino with
chocolate and cinnamon. Blueberry muffin.
How many more days can the sky sustain
this absurdity of blue? I can taste vanilla
from the pines. You know the other day
Jake drove me to Truckee in his van
and in Safeway I was stalled mid-aisle
by the scent of that hot-buttered toast
we shared before you drove me to the train.
How far are we away? Crimson columbine,
black centre of violet pansy, its yellow eye –
one thing you learn here: how little soil
it takes to nourish the most stubborn root.

I’d always thought the final lines refer to the continuance of love in what seem to be unfulfilling situations, but it occurs to me now they might also refer to the writing of poetry.

And I believe, for a while at least, the second poem was included in a University of Nottingham English course about the sonnet – a self-confessed example, I suppose, of how not to do it.

For anyone wanting to read more, both poems are in included in Out of Silence: New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop, 2014), available from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk or http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/bookshop/books-pamphlets  

A Writer’s Life

I had written a lot, done work of much difficulty; had worked under pressure more or less since my schooldays. Before the writing, there had been the learning; writing had come to me slowly. Before that, there had been Oxford; and  before that, the school in Trinidad where I had worked for the Oxford scholarship. There had been a long preparation for the writing career! And then I discovered that to be a writer was not (as I had imagined) a state – of competence, or achievement, or fame, or content – at which on arrived and where one stayed. There was a special anguish attached to the career; whatever the labour of any piece of writing, whatever its creative challenges and satisfactions, time had always taken me away from it. And, with time passing, I felt mocked by what I had already done; it seemed to belong to a time of vigour, now past for good. Emptiness, restlessness built up again; and it was necessary once more, out of my internal resources alone, to start on another book, to commit myself to that consuming process again.

V. S. Naipaul: The Enigma of Arrival

DJgeUaaXgAEct6k

Rhythm is Our Business

 

Prose

In her, to me, fascinating book, Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose retells the story of the aspiring young writer who told his agent he wasn’t really interested in what he wrote about, what he really concerned him, what he wanted to do most of all, was to write really great sentences. Promise me, the agent replied, you will never, ever say that to an American publisher.

Perhaps the writer in question, apocryphal or not, had been reading Hemingway’s account of his early writing life in A Moveable Feast – also quoted by Prose.

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going … I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.

As Prose points out, that raises the question of what exactly constitutes a ‘true’ sentence. She  thinks it might mean a beautiful sentence, while appreciating that such a concept is equally hard to define. For me I think it would be a combination of sound and meaning: the right rhythm, the most appropriate choice of words, the right sense of balance, all of those combined with the clearest meaning – while acknowledging there are times when that meaning will be purposefully ambiguous.

“All the elements of good writing,” Prose says, “depend upon the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another.” And further, “Rhythm is nearly as important in prose as it is in poetry. I have heard a number of writers say that they would rather choose the slightly wrong word that made their sentence more musical than the precisely right one that made it more awkward and clunky.”

Sometimes people ask me if also writing poetry has affected my writing of fiction; others ask, to what extent has your love of jazz – and the fact that you used to play the drums – influenced your writing? The answer to both is the same: hopefully both have helped me to develop a sense of rhythm. The Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, pre-eminent in the States in the 30s, had as their virtual theme tune a piece called “Rhythm is Our Business”; perhaps we writers could adopt it for ourselves.

The story Prose tells about the writer and his agent reminded me of an occasion a couple of years back when I was being interviewed by fellow-writer Mark Billingham on stage at the Harrogate Crime Festival. I can’t remember Mark’s exact question – we were discussing my then latest novel, Darkness, Darkness –  but my answer was something to the effect that whatever the strengths (and weaknesses) of the book might be, the greatest sense of achievement for me came from writing one single sentence that seemed to me to be just right. My publisher was in the audience and she said afterwards she’d wanted to ask what exactly the sentence was, but had refrained. Maybe just as well – few sequences of words, taken out of context – because the context within which they occur, is, of course, intrinsic to their meaning – would live up to such expectation.

This past week, labouring over the proofs of both a new novel and a new collection of short stories, I’ve had the fairly unusual experience of reading quite a lot of my own writing, some time, as it were, after the event. In part, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, this can be a fairly chastening experience, one which was occasionally redeemed for me by coming across a sentence or two which brought me up short with a sense of yes, okay, I just might be getting the hang of it after all. The three that follow are from the stories in Going Down Slow, to be published in November.

Melanie Lessing stood in the hallway, the ghost of prettiness hovering about her, anxiety startling her eyes.

Slowly, she uncurled, face turning towards the light.

She left the room and he heard the fridge door open and close; the glasses were tissue-thin, tinged with green; the wine grassy, cold.

All right, nothing to set the world on fire. But they gave me a little chill of pleasure when I wrote them and they still do. The way, in the last one for instance, both parts of the sentence, either side of the semi-colon, balance and match; the repetition in ‘green’ and ‘grassy’; the near-echo in ‘thin’ and ‘tinged’; the final emphasis of ‘cold’. That lovely bloody semi-colon.

iPod Shuffle, September 2017

On what is, apparently, the first official day of Autumn, this is what my iPod came up with this morning, as I was walking to the Royal Free Hospital for a routine blood test …

Jarrett

Meshell

  1. A Song For You : Dusty Springfield, from Something Special
  2. When Your Lover Has Gone : Ray Charles, from The Genius of Ray Charles
  3. What You Came Here to Do : Girlboy, from Late Bloomers
  4. Keep it to Yourself : Amy Rigby, from 18 Again
  5. A Bitter Mule : Me’Shell Ndegeocello, from Weather
  6. Prelude & Fugue No. 10 in C Minor : Keith Jarrett, from Shostakovich 24 Preludes & Fugues
  7. My Romance : Warne Marsh, from A Ballad Album
  8. Teachers : Leonard Cohen, from The Songs of Leonard Cohen
  9. Baby Took a Limo to Memphis : Guy Clarke, from Dublin Blues
  10. The Last Campaign Trilogy : John Stewart, from The Complete Phoenix Concerts
  11. Two Pianos : John Tilbury & Phillip Thomas, from Morton Feldman, Two Pianos & Other Pieces, 1953-1969
  12. Ad Lib Blues : Lester Young, from The President Plays

Stewart

Feldman

Remembering Tony Burns: Blues in Time

One of the ideas informing my dramatisation of the Resnick novel Darkness, Darkness for Nottingham Playhouse was that while we ourselves are alive, the dead – the dead that we know – never quite die. The plot is set in motion by the discovery of the body of a young woman who disappeared during the Miners’ Strike, some thirty years before; what the story then does is revisit the significant moments in that young woman’s – Jenny’s – life, showing them in juxtaposition to the present. To Resnick, who knew her only slightly and is now investigating the circumstances of her death, she was little more than the memory of a bright, lively and outspoken young woman, a firebrand, and during the course of the play he gets to know her more clearly, more roundly, so that, in the scene towards the end [possibly my favourite scene of all], when she visits him in his house where he is getting dressed ready to go to her funeral, it is – bar a quick and instant frisson – no real surprise. She talks to him and he answers, much as he would if she were still alive, much as we hold conversations (inside our heads, more usually, rather than out loud) with those we knew and maybe loved long after they are gone. Much as Resnick, in the play, holds sometimes grudging conversations with the strike leader whose funeral he has attended just before the action opens and who, like a somewhat guilty conscience, comes to haunt him – haunt, the word is correct here, I think – as the play progresses.

That I’ve been thinking about this at all was not sparked directly by the Playhouse/New Perspectives production of Darkness, Darkness [though it does tend to haunt me, both by what was and, perhaps even more strongly, what later might have been] but by the gift of a CD, a remastering of a session by the Gerry Mulligan/Paul Desmond, originally recorded and released in 1957 and sometimes titled simply Quartet, sometimes Blues in Time.

Mulligan 2

Listening to it now I am back in the home of my friend Tony Burns, the back bedroom of a house in Finchley, north London, both of us in our late teens; Tony is learning the saxophone – the alto, initially – and I am, less methodically, less seriously, learning to play the drums. Desmond, who plays alto, most usually in the Dave Brubeck Quartet, is probably Tony’s favourite player at this time, though he likes Mulligan too, and, like Mulligan, will play baritone – only finally settling for tenor some good few years later.

burns-2-4-img

Tony Burns

By profession a tailor, Tony continued to play jazz semi-professionally, only stopping a relatively short time before his death in 2013. By some quirk of circumstance, I was lucky enough, using a borrowed set of drums – my daughter’s – to play with him on a number of occasions in those later years, evening sessions in a pub near the Archway, each one for me a joy. Tony had a way of making you sound better than you really were.

Here, in the final section of a longer poem from Out of Silence called Winter Notebook, are the lines I wrote shortly after Tony died …

My friend, Tony, with whom I first listened,
really listened to jazz, the two of us practising
in his parents’ bedroom, he on saxophone,
me drums, rustling brushes in four-four time
across the top of an old suitcase –
my friend Tony is in a hospice:
the volunteers at the desk welcoming and polite,
all chemo stopped, the carpet deep, the furnishings
not too bright; visiting, we keep our voices low,
talk around you, and just when we think
you’ve drifted off to sleep, you rebuke us
for some mistaken reference to a recording
you know well, Brubeck, perhaps, Mulligan or Getz;
and when Jim retells a joke you first told him
many years before – its punchline too crude
to be repeated here – how marvellous to see
you throw your head back and laugh out loud.

For now I sit alone with you and watch you sleep,
breath like brittle plastic breaking inside your chest,
and, for a moment, without feeling I have the right,
reach out and hold your hand.

One day soon I will push through the doors,
present myself at the desk, only to hear the news
we know must come. It happens, no matter
what expectations we have, fulfilled or not.
And not dramatically, like some monster
rising from the marsh to seize us, drag us down,
but deftly, quietly, like someone switching out the light.

There … you’re gone.

… but not forgotten.

Version 2

Tony with, to his right, our friend Jim Galvin

 

West Cornwall 2: Newlyn, Penzance, St. Ives

Known pleasures aside – Tate St. Ives and the Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Garden, plus exhibitions at Penlee House [Stanhope Forbes, some very fine paintings indeed] and The Exchange in Penzance; excellent food at Mackerel Sky in Newlyn and the Porthmeor Café in St. Ives – our recent brief trip to the south-west yielded up newer delights, from a blowy ride on the open top deck of the A17 bus from Penzance to St. Ives to the deliciously straightforward and tip-top food at the small café at Penzance’s refurbished Jubilee Pool. Just three days but worth it.

DSC00157JPG

Jubilee Pool, Penzance

DSC00158JPG

Jubilee Pool, Penzance

DSC00173JPG

Newlyn Harbour

DSC00175JPG

Newlyn Harbour, St. Michael’s Mount in background

DSC00177JPG

Exterior, Tate St. Ives

DSC00176JPG

Rocks off The Island, St.Ives