‘Aslant’ in review …

ASLANT COVER10

Aslant by John Harvey (poetry) and Molly E. Boiling (photography). £10. Shoestring Press. ISBN: 978-1912524099

Review from THE HIGH WINDOW by Robin Thomas https://thehighwindowpress.com

John Harvey’s poetry is spacious, unhurried, measured, taking its time to unfurl its effect but keeping its hooks in the reader by careful control of pace and by making every word count.   Here’s a sample from ‘Christmas Day’:

soon they will shuffle on their coats and shoes
and make their way through the quiet streets
to early morning mass

It is descriptive, patient and redolent of the slowness of the aged.  It has an elegiac quality, both to do with the approaching end of the couple’s lives and the felt out-of-date-ness of church-going.  Elsewhere in this poem this mood is enacted in memories of the daughter before she flew the nest, of the mother when she was well, of the lost certainties of life, a time when prayers might mean something. This poem takes its place against other elegiac poems, poems about love, loss, belief, truth and death along with a couple of ekphrastic poems and several finding their origin in jazz.

Another fine poem is ‘Monk at the 5 Spot’.  There are two separate threads to this poem: one involving legendary jazz musicians in performance, the other some famous listeners.  Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane leap off the page in Harvey’s enactment, their closely observed behaviour culminating in a marvellous image for Monk:

… an angular arpeggio
which calls to mind a man stumbling headlong
down a flight of stairs, never quite losing his balance

Meanwhile poet Frank O’Hara is at a table with his friends, talking, laughing, drinking, apparently unstoppable.  The poem ends with the two threads brought together:

[a] final double handed chord, so sudden,
so emphatic, that the crowd, almost as one,
catches its breath and even Frank O’Hara
is stunned into silence.

The music and O’Hara stop, the poem ends.

To my mind ‘The Curve’, which makes reference to Bridget Riley’s sequence of that name, does exactly what an ekphrastic poem should do – responds rather than describes – you don’t need the painting to enjoy the poem.  In this poem Riley’s abstract sequence brings to the narrator’s mind a suburban street evoked as a canyon, an absent daughter ‘dreaming of becoming seventeen’, a train journey in which a painting is briefly returned to and brought in as metaphor:

the light oscillating
on the water’s surface
patterning across the painter’s canvas

There are memories of the beginning and continuation of love and another strong ending:

then you turn and come back to where I’m waiting
small shells like keepsakes tight
in the palm of your hand.

It’s a stream of consciousness, just the kind of thing that might go through your mind when you look at abstract art.

There are many good things in these poems:  memories as ghosts in ‘Voyage’, the slow build up of the extended metaphor in ‘Bailey’s Mistake (Again)’, the discussion of epitaphs in the eponymous poem, the way Harvey can condense meaning, for example, in ‘The US Botanical Gardens’:

… I break small leaves
into the palm of my hand;
yarrow, for internal bleeding,
foxglove for the muscles of the heart’.

These are real plants to be found in the Botanical Gardens, with a historic symbolic meaning but they stand also directly for the narrator’s own emotional situation (and perhaps for the bodily state of the loved one).

I began with a reference to Harvey’s measured style.  Occasionally the close control wavers and the poetry meanders into something prose-like, where too much is said, as in ‘Lester Young’, but this is a minor complaint.

The photos by Molly E.Boiling are abstract conceptions, many based on buildings seen from unusual angles and reflect the poet’s interest in abstract art.  They certainly contribute to what is a very attractive book-object.

 

Advertisements

“Blue Watch”

ionAFS 1

Exactly why my father opted to join the Auxiliary Fire Service [that’s him, the handsome one, third from the left] was never clear. To me, at least. The National Service (Armed Forces) Act was passed into law in September, 1939, at the outbreak of the war, making all men between the ages of 18 to 41 liable for conscription. [My father would have been 32.] Exemptions could be made for medical reasons or for those engaged in ‘reserved’, or vital, occupations, such as prison warders, police officers, lighthouse keepers – and those serving in the Fire Service. It could be that, while still doing something important for the war effort, he wanted to avoid being sent overseas; I had been born some nine months beforehand and perhaps he didn’t like the idea of leaving my mother and me alone if it could be avoided. He might even have thought the Fire Service less potentially dangerous than the armed forces; there was no one, presumably, to warn him about the terrors of the Blitz.

The perils of responding to nightly bombing raids – in common with most men of his generation – was something he would never discuss. But what did become clear was that in many ways the years my father spent in the Fire Service were the best years of his life – for the camaraderie, the good humour, the excitement and, I dare say, the sharing of danger.

Blue Watch is, in some ways, an exploration of what those experiences, that time, might have been like for him, filtered through the adventures of a fifteen-year old Fire Brigade messenger – father and son. Initially published, in translation, by Editions Syros in France as part of their teenage fiction series, this English edition, published by Troika, and aimed, primarily, but not, I hope, exclusively, at 12-16 year old readers, has been quite considerably rewritten, extended, and, I like to think, improved.

 

03_BLUE_WATCH_AW PRINT READY

Here’s a taster from the opening chapter …

It was one of those nights when it seemed as if the whole of London was on fire.

What little cloud cover there’d been earlier had cleared and over two hundred enemy bombers had made their way across the Channel by moonlight, with close to a hundred fighters in support. At first it had seemed as if, yet again, their main target would be the docks either side of the Thames, but tonight the devastation spread far and wide.

In the north of the city, three or so miles from the centre, the streets were dark, the air thick with smoke and the smell of burning. Head down, Jack Riley swung his Fire Brigade messenger’s bike hard left and right, avoiding the smouldering debris that lay scattered across the street. His objective was still some way off: a group of warehouses by the canal close to Kings Cross station, where units from B District were fighting to bring a fierce blaze under control.

Like most nights since the Blitz had started, the phone lines were down and the only way of conveying messages securely from the Brigade control rooms to units in the field was by messenger.

On his first day the section leader at Kentish Town fire station, where Jack was based, had gripped his wrist and turned his arm sharply, pointing at the vein clearly visible beneath the skin.

‘See this, Jack? This vein? That’s you. Our lifeline. You and the other messengers, you’re the ones who keep it flowing. Lose that and the whole service fails to function. We die. People die. You understand?’

Jack nodded. ‘Yes, sir.’

People die. The words burned into his brain.

The officer’s grip tightened. ‘You won’t let me down?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Good lad.’

Jack was shaking as he turned away.

That was two months ago. A lifetime, or so it seemed.

As Jack reached the crown of the road, pedalling fast, the loud roar of an explosion shook the air around him, lifting his bike off the ground and hurling him sideways, a flash of light outlining the skeletons of two towering iron gas holders, stark against the sky.

Shaken, he pushed himself up onto his hands and knees.

His regulation issue trousers were torn and there would be bruises, he knew, along with the grazes to his hands – but cuts and bruises were a given, a nuisance to be shrugged off and forgotten, along with the pain – what Jack was most concerned about was the state of his bike.

Fortunately, the damage was slight: the chain had come loose and the front wheel showed some faint sign of buckling, but nothing more. Chain quickly back in place, Jack pushed off and was away, head down into a hail of flying embers.

More than a dozen fire appliances – heavy units and trailer pumps for the most part – were ranged along the cobbled street that ran behind the threatened buildings. Jack lay his bike down and hurried between the maze of hosepipes criss-crossing the ground.

‘Senior fire officer,’ he called to the fireman on the nearest pump. ‘Where’ll I find him?’

The man pointed aloft, towards the turntable ladder that was reaching up towards the heart of the fire.

Jack swallowed hard and began to climb.

Syros

 

 

Autumn Newsletter

EVENTS/READINGS

Inspire Poetry Festival
Monday, 23rd September, 7pm
Beeston Library
ASLANT BUT STILL STANDING … JOHN HARVEY AT 80

Tuesday, 24th September, 6.30pm
Worksop Library
POETRY CAFE WITH JOHN HARVEY AT 80: A CELEBRATION

Tickets for both events … www.inspireculture.org.uk/poetry-festival

Inspire

Lumen Poetry
Tuesday, 15th October, 7pm
Lumen, 88 Tavistock Place, London WC1H 9RT
Shoestring Press Poets: John Harvey, Paul McLoughlin, Merryn Williams

Slow Dancer Press Anniversary Celebration
Thursday, 17th October, 7pm
The Wheatsheaf, Rathbone Place, London W1T 1JB
To mark 20 years since Slow Dancer Press ceased publication, an evening of readings by a selection of Slow Dancer poets – from Matthew Caley to Tamar Yoseloff with plenty more in between.

Space is limited and advanced booking strongly advised – all tickets are free.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/slow-dancer-press-20th-anniversary-celebration-tickets-70624312219

Murder Under the Mistletoe 2019
Thursday, 5th December, 6.30 – 8.00pm
Heffers, Cambridge
Festive drinks, readings by “a selection of hand-picked crime authors”, plus a quiz from Richard, Heffers’ crime fiction expert in residence.

https://heffersbookshop.business.site/posts/6168421664518806733?hl=en

PUBLICATIONS

BLUE WATCH
Troika Books, October 2019

An adventure story for 12-16 year olds (and others!) set during the London Blitz and dedicated to the memory of my father, who served in the Fire Brigade throughout WW2.

03_BLUE_WATCH_AW PRINT READY copy.jpg

In a True Light

 

Light 2

I spent an interesting hour yesterday in the offices of the Royal National Institute of Blind  People, talking ‘down the line’ to half a dozen or so members of a group of blind or partially sighted people about my work as a writer. Most had some awareness of my books through various audio or large print versions, others from radio and – going back a little – from television. Fay, now in her early 80s and a retired probation officer, had read only one – In a True Light – and found it compulsive. She liked the way the different parts of the story commented on one another [it moves between New York and London in the late-50s and the present] and she liked the style. Laconic, that was how she described it. Laconic. Well, I can live with that.

They let Sloane out of prison three days short of his sixtieth birthday.

That’s how it begins.

First published in 2001, and a break from the sequence of 10 Resnick novels that began with Lonely Hearts in 1989 and finished [for good and all, I thought at the time] with Last Rites in 1998, In a True Light sought to move away from Nottingham and the police procedural [though it does feature two New York cops – Catherine Vargas & John Cherry – of whom I’m very fond] to new locations and a broader range of subject matter. I’d been interested for some little time in the abstract expressionist paintings of such artists as Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler, who first came to prominence in the 50s, and this, I thought, would give me the opportunity to explore that interest further. The list of works consulted was far longer than previously; longer than it would be until, years later, I researched the Miners’ Strike for the 12th and final Resnick novel, Darkness, Darkness.

The story of In a True Light is straightforward enough. When Sloane, a painter, is released from prison in London, where he has been serving time for forgery, he goes to New York in search of the daughter, Connie, a jazz singer, from whom he has become estranged [sound familiar?] and who is involved with a violent man – Delaney – whom the police suspect of murder. One back in New York, he remembers being there as a struggling young artist and the brief but fiery affair he had with an established painter, Jane Graham, who he learns is slowly dying.

To be honest, I’ve never been totally convinced how well the book ‘works’, how effectively (believably?) those sections dealing with Delaney, his violence and his connections with the Mob, merge with the rest. But some readers don’t seem to have that problem; like Fay they like it a lot.

As did Michael Connelly …

In In a True Light he is at his very best. It’s a crime story, sure, but it’s also a larger story about redemption and consequences set to the beat of the human heart.

And this comes from the reviewer (Marcel Berlins?) in The Times

At one level this is the story of Sloane’s attempt to save his daughter from the criminal world in which she has become trapped. It is also a sensitive and moving study of ambivalent fatherhood, an unsparing portrait of an artist, and an atmospheric look at the bohemian New York of the late Fifties.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be some hard on myself, hard on the book?

One of my favourite passages is a description of Thelonious Monk playing piano at the Five Spot, which I refashioned as a poem and was recently published in Aslant, so I won’t repeat it here.

Instead, here’s the young Sloane calling, unannounced, at Jane Graham’s studio, and being allowed to watch her work …

“OK,’ she said, stepping back. ‘Come in. Come in and sit over there.’ Pointing to the far side of the room. ‘Sit there and don’t say a word,’

So Sloane sat for almost two hours, shifting his weight from side to side, from one buttock to the other, slowly stretching his legs. then drawing them up to his chest, as Jane, blanking him out, worked on her painting, moving, moving, rarely still, pacing, walking back and forth, in then out, close and away. The wide canvas stretched across its heavy wooden frame and stapled fast, covered then with white paint applied in broad strokes, a white, stippled ground upon which she was adding blocks of colour, gradations of alternating blue and yellow shading down to mauve and orange, their edges blurred and softened with a swab of cloth soaked in turpentine, each balanced in relation to what was immediately above and below, and to the painting as a whole.

Jane darting quickly forward now, a fast sweep of brush from right to left, a slash of darkling, curving red; and then another, finer, ending in a filigree of scarlet flecks like tracks in snow.

And Sloane, watching, in thrall, as the painting grew, took on a life, each element held in tension with the rest but all, somehow, and this the real art, the artistry, in harmony. Something he would rarely, if ever, himself achieve. Not like this. Beautiful. Thrilling. The act, the thing, the thing itself.

Light 1

 

 

 

 

 

Getting to Grips with “Aslant”

P1120135
Photo : Molly E. Boiling

I’ve written before on this blog about Aslant, the small but beautifully formed collection of my poems and Molly Boiling’s photographs published by Shoestring Press earlier in the year, but the arrival of an interesting, quite detailed review by Thomas Ovans in the online magazine London Grip gives me the opportunity to do so again.

This is how it begins …

As I begin to write this review it strikes me that one’s reading of a book can initially be influenced by what one had previously been reading. I came to this collection having just enjoyed another book that  robustly and self-confidently expressed irreverent and sceptical attitudes that I broadly agreed with. Aslant, by contrast, is a much more provisional, reflective and tender work and represented a refreshing change of tone that I hadn’t known I was more than ready for.

Aslant places John Harvey’s poems alongside evocative photographs by Molly Boiling which provide sharp-edged images of steps, shadows, girders and corners of high buildings. These pictures often suggest entrances and exits or incidental glimpses alongside the telling of a story. Hence they combine well with Harvey’s poems which usually have a strong narrative and reminiscent thread.

P1170689
Photo : Molly E. Boiling

“A sense of mortality seems to hover over much of this collection,” Ovans writes; “a recurring sense of wistful consolation after loss.”

Of the pieces in the central section which take jazz and jazz musicians as their subject – Lester Young, Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk – Ovans writes, “This is wonderfully evocative writing which, I would maintain, conveys something authentic even to a reader who is not a jazz aficionado.”

And he concludes his review thus …

… this is no ordinary book: the well-chosen images and the way they complement some consistently satisfying high-quality poems make it, in my view, well worth a tenner of anybody’s money.

You can read Thomas Ovan’s review in full here …

And if you don’t already have a copy and feel like following this advice and splashing out said tenner, Aslant can be ordered directly from contacts@centralbooks.com.    or  from any bookstore – including those worthy souls at Nottingham’s Five Leaves Bookshop – bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk. You can even buy it on Amazon.

P1170817
Photo : Molly E. Boiling

Favourite Fiction, Post-1960

Open up the questions to the audience at almost any literary  event, and someone, sooner or later, will ask you to name a favourite author – one who has influenced you, perhaps – or a favourite book. A question which throws my already wavering memory into shut down or something close to it. But no more. The following list of the novels and short story collections published since 1960 and that I’ve enjoyed and admired most will supply the answer. Several answers. As long as I remembered to take it with me. And please take into consideration this list is current as of July, 2019, and there are gaps I can see already. Where, for goodness sake, is the Don DeLillo? The Willy Vlautin? But don’t let’s get started – this will do for now.

John Updike
The Rabbit Quartet (1960/1971/1981/1990)

Thomas McGuane
Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973)
Nothing But Blue Skies (1992)

McGuane.jpeg

A. S. Byatt
The Virgin in the Garden (1978)
Still Life (1981)

William Maxwell
So Long, See You Tomorrow (1979)

 

Larry McMurtry
The Last Picture Show (1966)

McMurtry.jpeg

Donald Barthelme
Sixty Stories (1981)

Toni Morrison
Beloved (1987)

Carol Shields
Mary Swann (1990)

Tim O’Brien
The Things They Carried (1990)

Denis Johnson
Jesus’ Son (1992)

Johnson.jpeg

Michael Cunningham
The Hours (1998)

John McGahern
That They May Face the Rising Son (2002)

Alice Munro
Runaway (2004)

Kent Haruf
Eventide (2004)
Benediction (2013)
Our Souls at Night (2015)

Marilynne Robinson
Gilead (2004)
Home (2008)
Lila (2014)

Colm Toibin
The Master (2004)
The Testament of Mary (2012)

Raymond Carver
Where I’m Calling From (1989)

Richard Ford
The Lay of the Land (2006)

Jon McGregor
So Many Ways to Begin (2007)
Even the Dogs (2010)

Maile Meloy
Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It (2009)

Kevin Powers
The Yellow Birds (2012)

Powers.jpeg

Zadie Smith
N-W (2012)

Tom Drury
The End of Vandalism (2014)

Drury.jpeg

Maggie Nelson
The Arganauts (2015)

Anne Enright
The Green Road (2015)

Enright.jpeg

Claire-Louise Bennett
Pond (2016)

[A separate list covering crime fiction can be found elsewhere on this blog]

 

 

Six Months of Good Stuff …

Here’s a list, for those who like lists, of the movies, music, books and exhibitions that have given me the most pleasure in the first half of the year; given me pleasure and, more often than not, stopped me in my tracks.

BOOKS
An American Marriage : Tayari Jones
Long Bright River : Liz Moore (proof copy – pub Jan 2020)

D9f9ligWwAA4I3n.jpg

FILMS
Hale County This Morning This Evening : RaMell Ross
Foxtrot : Samuel Maoz
Dirty God : Sacha Polak [mainly for the extraordinary performance by Vicky Knight]

MV5BNzk2ZDk1YzAtMmFmMC00M2NkLTg2MjktYjNmNmY5MDg3MWJjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjc3Nzc0Ng@@._V1_UY317_CR171,0,214,317_AL_.jpg

MUSIC
Blues & Roots Ensemble w. Alice Zawadzki : Pizza Express Jazz Club
Viktoria Mullova : unaccompanied Bach on violin : Sage, Gateshead

Two CDs by writer Willy Vlautin’s band, The Delines
Colfax (2014)
The Imperial (2019)

Delines

ART
Harold Gilman – Beyond Camden Town : Djanogly Gallery, Nottm.
Albert Irvin & Abstract Expressionism : GWA, Bristol
George Shaw – A Corner of a Foreign Field : Holbourne Gallery, Bath
Joan Mitchell : Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris

D20L7TGWsAAIQlq.jpg
George Shaw
D5VweHfXoAMsMtg.jpg
Joan Mitchell

PHOTOGRAPHY
Don McCullin : Tate Britain
Dave Heath – Dialogues with Solitude : Photographers’ Gallery
Chris Killip – The Last Ships : Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle
Luigi Ghirri – Cartes et Territoires : Jeu de Paume, Paris

D3s0lAYWkAAKhbi.jpg
Dave Heath

 

 

 

Now’s the Time … Again

 

For quite a while after I’d published a batch of novels, I remained wary of the short story. Writing one, I mean. It always seemed a little too difficult: the need to be precise while simultaneously working through inference; the ability to create an atmosphere with a minimum of folderol and faff; and then the ending – clever without seeming tricksy, with an element  of surprise that nevertheless satisfied expectations.

Perhaps I’d been thinking about it a little too much. All that analysis and not enough action. It was Maxim Jakubowski – editor, author, and, at the time, proprietor of the eminent London mystery bookstore, Murder One, who got me to change my mind.

How?

Looking back, I suspect he did it simply by asking. I would have been more than a little flattered, eager to oblige.

london.jpeg

The result, published in London Noir (Serpent’s Tail, London,1994) was “Now’s the Time”, set, somewhat perversely, in Nottingham, and featuring an encounter between my by then well-established series character, Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick, and an alcoholic jazz musician, Ed Silver.

I remember how surprised I was at the pleasure I derived from the process, the actual writing, and the small but real feeling of satisfaction when the final sentence was set down. Since then, I’ve written and had published a further thirty five stories, one of which – “Fedora”  – was awarded the Crime Writers’ Association Short Story Dagger for 2014. And “Now’s the Time” itself has been reprinted in a number of other collections: Das Grosse Lesebuch Des Englischen Krimis, Goldmann, Germany, 1994; Now’s the Time, Slow Dancer, London, 1999 & Heinemann, London, 2002; Opening Shots, edited by Lawrence Block, Cumberland House, Nashville, 2000; First Cases, Vol. 4, edited by Robert J. Randisi, Signet, New York, 2002 and  Great TV & Film Detectives, edited by Maxim Jakubowski, Reader’s Digest/Orion, New York/London, 2005.

shots

 

All this is the background to “Yesterdays”, my contribution to Invisible Blood, a new collection of stories that Maxim claims will be his last as compiler and editor. I wanted, in some way, to refer back to that first story and acknowledge Maxim’s role in its creation. Thus, in the opening paragraphs, Resnick recalls a key incident from that earlier story …

“They’re all dying, Charlie.”

Ed Silver’s words echoed across the years, across the near-empty room in which Resnick stood, remembering. He had been about to go off duty when he’d been called to a disturbance at Emmanuel House: a man threatening to take a butcher’s cleaver to his own bare feet – first the left and then the right and heaven help anyone who tried to stop him.

At first Resnick hadn’t recognised him and then he did. Silver. Ed Silver. Up on the bandstand at the Old Vic on Fletcher Gate, shoulders hunched, alto sax angled off to one side, fingers a blur of movement as he blitzed through an uptempo blues with sufficient speed and ferocity to make the eyes water. Now the same hands, purple and swollen, were scarcely able to hold the cleaver steady, never mind a saxophone; Resnick had reached out slowly but firmly and taken the cleaver safely into his own. Taken Silver home and fed him, made coffee strong and black, talked long into the night.

“They’re all dying, Charlie. Every bugger!”

Invisible Blood will be published by Titan Books in July, both here in the UK and in the States, and includes stories by Lee Child, Stella Duffy, Jeffery Deaver, Denise Mina, Cathi Unsworth and others, seventeen in total.

Blood

 

American Writers: George Pelecanos / Willy Vlautin

When I first started reading George Pelecanos – the Nick Stefanos Mysteries – and later when we met and I had the opportunity to interview him, it was clear that his chosen form, the crime novel, was going to be, for him, much more than an entertainment – though his books are certainly that. As became even more evident with some of the later, more substantial titles – Right as Rain, say, Hard Revolution or The Night Gardener – Pelecanos sees himself very much in the role of social chronicler, as well as – sounds a little pretentious, but I can’t help it – a chronicler of the lives of men. Men and women inseparable from the society into which they are born and in which they live. Cause and effect.

Going back over Pelecanos’ work I’m reminded of a statement by the Australian writer, Peter Temple. ” … those are the issues [questions of morality, of behaviour and of simple human decency] you should write about (and) if you are a crime writer you have more licence to write about them than anybody else.”

From the time Pelecanos became involved, as writer and producer, in the television series, The Wire, and later, Treme and The Deuce, novels have been relatively few and far between. So news of The Man Who Came Uptown was greeted with pleasurable anticipation.

Uptown

It is, in some respects, a simple morality tale. Will Michael, on release from prison, go back to the life that put him there, responding to the pressures of those around him, or have the courage and strength of will to step aside and make an honest life of his own? That he is even considering the latter is in no small part due to the prison librarian, who has successfully introduced him to books and reading and, through them, an alternative set of choices.

One book that affects Michael strongly is Northline by Willy Vlautin, which tells the story of a young woman who gradually finds the strength to have hope and trust in the possibility of a new life, despite years of serious abuse. A role model, for Michael, of sorts. If she can do it, if she can even try …

Pelecanos’ opinion of the novel is clear from the rear jacket of the Faber edition of the book …

Northline shines with naked honesty and unsentimental humanity. The character of Allison Johnson, and the wounded-but-still-walking people she encounters on her journey, will stay with me for a long while. Vlautin has written the American novel that I’ve been hoping to find.

Northline

Vlautin, author of five novels so far, is also a song writer and musician, initially with the band Richmond Fontaine and, more recently, The Delines, for whom he plays guitar and sings as well as writing most of their material. I was aware of Richmond Fontaine, liking some of their songs without going overboard [the exception being the marvellous Inventory from the 2011 album, The High Country] but The Delines are, as they say – or used to – something else. A friend – actually, my agent – the two are far from inseparable – gave me a copy of their 2014 album, Colfax, for a recent birthday and it’s scarcely been off the stereo since.

Not surprisingly, the songs are stories; moments, often, taken from the centre of broken down lives; their protagonists drawn from an itinerant American underclass . No surprise that amongst his favourite writers Vlautin cites John Steinbeck and Raymond Carver.

But what makes the songs on Colfax and the more recent  The Imperial really work is the voice of singer Amy Boone, sometimes barely rising above the level of everyday speech, which conveys the experience and pain of the characters she inhabits with weary fidelity. Aware of this, when Boone had a serious accident after making Colfax, Vlautin waited several years until she had recovered and could sing again before making another record.

 

Delines

 

Lost in Leicester

Would I like to take part in this year’s States of Independence, the annual celebration of independent publishing and writing, organised and funded by Nottingham’s Five Leaves Bookshop and the Creative Writing Team at Leicester’s De Montfort University? A forty-five minute slot mine for the asking, 11.00am start. The usual thing, a reading followed by Q&A. Never one to turn down the chance of an audience, I was sorely tempted, even if it mean catching a fairly early train up from London. What nailed it, Notts were at home to Exeter that afternoon, time enough after my session to make the short distance up the line to Nottingham and take my seat at Meadow Lane.

The travel instructions from the university seemed to include everything but the way from the station on foot, but how difficult could it be? And I could see that Leicester City Council very helpfully provided local maps at each and every intersection; scale, however, seemed to be a very variable thing, and once I’d found the tiny red arrow denoting You Are Here, the university seemed to have disappeared. On the next map, there it was again, make a right and then a left and then … Gone. I asked friendly passers-by, some of whom – most in fact – thought I meant the other, more established establishment, THE university, while others sent me hopefully off in several different directions.

11.00am, though still a way off, was getting closer, while the university itself seemed to be just as far away, when suddenly … there it was, left, right, and Bingo! Not just the university but the exact building, the entrance hall already buzzing with people who had left the house that morning with books on their minds and a clear idea of where they were heading.

My event was on the second floor, Room 2.35, still plenty of time to get there and get settled. The young man who was to chair the session introduced himself and together we went off to find the room. I didn’t know I was doing this until last night, he said apologetically –  but I did, he added helpfully, look you up on Wikipedia. With due modesty, I assured him that whatever he said by way of introduction would be fine. By 11.00 almost all the seats had been taken. The chairperson rose to his feet, coughed to get the audience’s attention, introduced me in a single sentence which included the words ‘crime fiction’, ‘poetry’ and ‘jazz’, and sat back down.

Right, then. I explained that I was going to read the first two chapters of my most recent novel, Body & Soul, after which I’d be happy to answer questions about that particular book or any of the others people might be familiar with. The reading seemed to go well and clearly there was going to be no shortage of questions. It was when I was attempting what was already becoming a rather convoluted answer to a question about ‘creativity’ [Why is it always questions about creativity that are difficult to answer?] that I came to the frightening realisation that I wasn’t too clear what exactly I was saying. And certainly not what I wanted to say next. I was, for that moment, just as lost as I had been earlier, finding my way blindly through the streets of Leicester.

There’s a sentence that resonates for me in Jim Harrison’s novel, True North, which I’m currently reading, in which he describes  one of the characters thus: He survived on family money and a small pension from the church given for his general mental incontinence. And that was me. Sitting on the corner of the table in Room 2.35 suffering from mental incontinence. My mouth continued to open, my lips to move and words to come out, words that seemed to bear some relationship to one another without my being too clear what that might be. My questioner continued to nod helpfully, however, as if I were making sense to him at least. And then, just as suddenly, I was. Making sense, that is. Or I appeared to be. Are there any more questions, I wondered, looking around?

Notts County lost, by the way. Already sitting at the bottom of the table, and having dominated for the majority of the game without managing to score – this against an Exeter side who were down to ten men from the first twenty minutes  – they conceded when the ball was bundled into their net with almost the last action of the game. Truly lost.