Old Man with a Stick

One of the outcomes of my previously reported fall, resulting in multiple fractures, now mostly healed, is that, even on the shortest of journeys – round the block, say, to Cinnamon Village for my morning coffee and croissant – I can be seen walking with a stick. This, in part, is at the recommendation of the Fracture Clinic at the Royal London Hospital, reinforced by my GP, the reason being that it will help my balance and ward off any such future falls. And it’s true: without the stick as my companion I would have come a cropper on at least two recent occasions; the result, as much as anything, of inattention together with wonky paving stones.

So far then, so good.

The side-results are interesting. Once you start using a stick regularly, applying a certain amount of downward pressure with every other step – and the smooth and carefully designed handle of the stick encourages this – it affects your posture. You’re leaning just a little to one side and bearing down, no longer as straight-backed as before. Slower, too – no bad thing in itself.

Something else happens. Other people – passers-by, passengers on public transport, even friends – see you differently. While it’s true that for the past decade or more, it hasn’t been unknown for thoughtful folk on the Tube to stand and wave me into their seat, nowadays, and on buses especially, fellow travellers who’ve settled themselves into those downstairs seats marked for pregnant women and, yes, men with sticks, jump almost guiltily to their feet, leaving me no alternative, even if I’m only travelling a few stops, to nod my thanks and take their seat. It’s much the same, if less obvious, in shops and on even slightly crowded pavements. People notice and give way, for which I’m grateful.

Grateful, too, for the occasional conversations one strikes up with fellow stick-users when sharing the designated seats on the 134, say, the 390 or the 88. The latter, stopping as it does, outside Tate Britain, can be an interesting source of such conversation, most recently a discussion of the overall gloominess of Walter Sickert’s canvases currently on display in the gallery. Frequently, of course, things don’t get far beyond a brief exchange of ailments, their cause, symptoms and treatment, though I was treated recently to an interesting if overly detailed – we kept getting stuck in traffic – account of a recently undertaken and troubled – it’s the infrastructure that’s buggered – train journey from Wilmslow to Euston via Crewe. Perhaps most surprising of all, an informed discussion of Seamus Heaney’s poetry while travelling on the 134 between Camden and Tufnell Park. As my friend, Graham, who lives in a village outside Lincoln, might say,’ It’s another world’.

Overall, the stick business, how do I feel? Safer, certainly. Slower, for sure. My partner says, and I’m sure she’s right, it changes not only the way I appear to others, but the way in which I see myself. An old man. An old man with a stick. Going forward, as we both hope I am, not altogether a good thing

New York, New York …

Sometime back in the early ’80s, and by then well into my 40s, I took my first ever trip in a plane: Transatlantic, London to New York. The reason, to link up again with my friend, Kevin – Kevin McDermott – whom I’d met when we were both studying for an MA in American Studies at the University of Nottingham.

At that time Kevin had a small – just how small, I was to discover – apartment in Midtown Manhattan. East 49th Street. Home at various times, the street not the apartment, to Frank O’Hara, Stephen Sondheim and Katherine Hepburn. Rumour had it – more than rumour – that Kate, if you’ll excuse the familiarity, still lived there and could be seen, by patient onlookers, entering or exiting her front door.

“Are you sure it’s okay for me to stay?” I must have said.
Kevin, then as now – he and his wife, Mish, recently hosted our daughter, Molly Ernestine, on her first visit to the city – was generously welcoming.

My bed on those early visits – a decade later Kevin moved to a larger apartment on the upper East Side – was perched narrowly high above what I think must have been some kind of closet; comfortable enough once I’d recovered from the fear of turning over and crashing to the ground. Pigeons congregated noisily outside the small window opposite. Warm evenings we went up and sat on the roof. It was like living inside a Drifters’ hit record from 1964.

Days, I would wander sometimes on my own, drawn, perhaps inevitably, to Greenwich Village and the astonishment of finding myself following in Frank O’Hara’s footsteps …

The rain is falling,
lightly
the way it did for Frank
when he stepped out onto the sidewalk
that would take him to St. Mark’s Place;
Camels, two packs, in his pockets,
a notebook; nothing more on his mind
than a quick espresso on Bleecker or MacDougal,
meeting maybe Grace or Jane …
*

Together, Kevin and I watched old black and white movies in repertory cinemas, walked around Chinatown and Little Italy – I still have a card from Osteria Romana on Grand Street – listened to live music at the Lone Star Café. Kevin remembers seeing Asleep at the Wheel; I recall a splinter group from The Band. And, perhaps most memorable for both of us, a memorial evening for Gram Parsons, from which Kevin, he told me recently, vividly remembers an unaccompanied performance by Tracy Nelson of ‘Down So Low’, that still gives him chills.

It seems, in retrospect, that almost wherever we went, the evening ended with a long, slow walk back to Midtown, the city still busy around us. Perhaps some of that is captured in the title poem from The Old Postcard Trick, a Slow Dancer pamphlet subtitled Poems & Photographs, New York, 1984.

  • from Poem (In Imitation of Frank O’Hara) in Out of Silence, New & Selected Poems, Smith/Doorstop, 2014.

Angus Wells : 1943 – 2006

My friend and fellow writer, Angus Wells, died sixteen years ago on the 11th April. He would have been 79. 

I first met Angus through Laurence James, with whom I’d shared a student house in New Cross, S .E. London when we were students at Goldsmiths College. While I went into teaching, Laurence began a career that revolved around books and writing: initially a book seller, he moved into publishing, becoming a commissioning editor at New English Library, where he built up a notable list of science fiction and fantasy titles, before opiting to stay home and write – a highly successful decision, with more than a hundred and fifty mostly paperback titles to his credit before ill health forced him to retire.

It was Laurence who, aware that I was becoming restless with my role as teacher, talked me into trying my hand as a paperback writer, and who, several years later, persuaded Angus to follow the same course – although not, thankfully, before he had commissioned me to write for Sphere Books the first of four crime novels featuring Scott Mitchell – the toughest private eye – and the best. Simpler times.

It was clear from my first meetings with Angus that we shared a number of things in common – the most prominent being a love of western movies, ranging from early John Ford to Sam Peckinpah, as well as the European ‘classics;, and of music with an American country feel by the likes of Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker and John Stewart. We worked together on several series of paperback westerns – two of which, Peacemaker and Gringos, are now in the process of being reissued as e-books by Piccadilly Publishing.

When we were both living in London, Angus and I frequented the original Mean Fiddler in Harlesden, seeing, amongst others, Van Morrison, Maria Muldaur, John Hiatt and the aforementioned Jerry Jeff; a habit that, after we found ourselves in Nottingham, would continue at the sadly departed Old Vic – on one memorable occasion finding ourselves just about the only two males in the packed audience for visiting Americans Tret Fure and Chris Williamson, who were clearly bemused but not unpleased to hear us singing along heartedly to the chorus of Tret’s “Tight Black Jeans”.

When the market for westerns faded, Angus had considerable success in the worlds of epic fantasy – notably the Raven series, which he co-wrote with Rob Holdstock and his own Books of the Kingdoms. When this market, too, began to fade, his writing lost direction and, accordingly, he lost confidence, and, although we would meet for the occasional meal or to see a movie at the Broadway Cinema, he become something of a recluse. On the occasion of his death I was pleased to dedicate a seat to him in the cinema’s main auditorium – adjacent to that of a certain Charlie Resnick. There they are – Screen One, C5 & C6.

From school yard to Junkyard: early days in pulp fiction

Over the last month or so, a small flurry of people (more than two, less that five) have asked about the influences, if any, of my early reading – that’s somewhere between Alison Uttley’s Hare Joins the Home Guard and the cadet edition of The Cruel Sea – on my early writing. Always supposing there to have been some early writing, essays on the pessimism of Thomas Hardy and humour in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers aside.

Well, yes, there were all those westerns, of course, their inspiration – aside from various volumes of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Annual – coming from the cinema – everything from Saturday Morning Pictures to a John Ford Season at the National Film Theatre. And there is a brief series of four crime novels featuring Scott Mitchell, the toughest private eye – and the best – originally published by Sphere Books between 1976 and 77, and republished in print and as Ebooks by Mysterious Press/Open Road Media in 2016.

Here follows an extract from the introduction written for these new editions, providing, in part, an answer to those questions about early influences …

Growing up in England in the immediate postwar years and into the 1950s was, in some respects, a drab experience. Conformity ruled. It was an atmosphere of “be polite and know your place.” To a restless teenager, anything American seemed automatically exciting. Movies, music—everything. We didn’t even know enough to tell the real thing from the fake. 

The first hard-boiled crime novels I read were written by an Englishman pretending to be American: Stephen Daniel Frances, using the pseudonym Hank Janson, which was also the name of his hero. With titles like Smart Girls Don’t Talk and Sweetheart, Here’s Your Grave, the Janson books, dolled up in suitably tantalizing covers, made their way, hand to hand, around the school playground, falling open at any passage that, to our young minds, seemed sexy and daring. This was a Catholic boys’ grammar school, after all, and any reference to parts of the body below the waist, other than foot or knee, was thought to merit, if not excommunication, at least three Our Fathers and a dozen Hail Marys.

From those heady beginnings, I moved on, via the public library, to another English writer, Peter Cheyney, and books like Dames Don’t Care and Dangerous Curves—which, whether featuring FBI agent Lemmy Caution or British private eye Slim Callaghan, were written in the same borrowed faux American pulp style. But it was Cheyney who prepared me for the real deal. 

I can’t remember exactly when I read my first Raymond Chandler, but it would have been in my late teens, still at the same school. Immediately, almost instinctively, I knew it was something special. Starting with The Big Sleep—we’d seen the movie with Bogart and Bacall—I read them all, found time to regret the fact there were no more, then started again. My friends did the same. When we weren’t kicking a ball around, listening to jazz, or hopelessly chasing girls, we’d do our best to come up with first lines for the Philip Marlowe sequel we would someday write. The only one I can remember now is “He was thirty-five and needed a shave.”

I would have to do better. The Scott Mitchell series was my attempt to do exactly that.

After the Fall

When I mentioned it to my friend, Jennifer, as a reason for postponing our meeting – coffee and catch-up in the upper floor café at Foyles bookshop – she was briskly solicitous. “A fall, was it, or a FALL?”

I knew what she meant.

When my father first fell, really fell, he was getting off the bus outside where he and my mother lived, a small council block where the road levels out across from the reservoir on Dartmouth Park Hill. Bag of shopping in one hand, the other touching the railing of the bus briefly before stepping clear, he could as well, in that moment, have been stepping into space. Nothing until he landed heavily on one side, the few bits and pieces from his bag spilling out – sugar, tea, a small Hovis, frozen peas – his hip broken.

The ambulance took him to the Whittington, a little higher up the hill, and though he was treated and in time discharged – discharged too soon with a walking frame he rarely used – it was the slow beginning of the end. Within those moments he had begun the journey from being a physically confident elderly man in his 70s – he still talked about getting back on his bike – to someone whose movement and memory were increasingly uncertain, who was never the same again.

My first serious fall (or FALL) occured ten years or so ago, when I was in my early 70s. My partner, Sarah, and I were amongst the crowd hurrying away from White Hart Lane, a bustling thicket of mostly Spurs supporters spreading across Tottenham High Road on their way home. We were hurrying more than was safe, more than was necessary, stepping off and on the kerb into the road and back again. I saw the coil of orange wire before I could react to it, before my foot snagged inside it and the force of my movement sent me crashing to the ground. Some people stepped around me; others stopped to help. Somehow Sarah manoevred me towards the nearest shop – a women’s hairdressers – and asked if I could sit down while I recovered. One of the customers was a nurse, who, after a cursory examination, said we should phone for an ambulance: she thought I had dislocated my shoulder. 

Not so many minutes later, or so it seemed – I think I might have been moving in and out of consciousness – I was strapped in the body of the ambulance, Sarah holding my hand while I gulped down gas and air and the driver used his siren to get us through the crowd and on our way to Whipps Cross Hospital.

An ex-ray proved the off-duty nurse to have been correct in her diagnosis; the doctor on duty gave me a choice of local or general anaesthetic while my shoulder was reset; without hesitation I chose the latter and around an hour later I woke up in the recovery ward with my shoulder back in place and an appointment with the physio department at the Whittington Hospital. Yes, that Whittington Hospital.

Since then, a minor fall some five years back when I failed to negotiate a kerb correctly, resulting in a minor fracture in my right hand – more trips to the Whittington, more physio – the occasional stumble out walking on Hampstead Heath – nothing serious, and then, two weeks ago, two weeks ago today, as Sarah and I were walking at a perfectly resonable pace along Goodge Street in Central London, on our way to see an exhibition of Caroline Walker’s paintings at the Fitzrovia Chapel, Sarah inadvertantly trod on one of my laces which had come undone, and I was pitched forward onto the pavement, face first. 

Blood was gushing – yes, really – gushing from my nose and the back of my neck hurt like hell. People came running out of the adjacent restaurant with tissues, ice & offers of help; a passing London cabbie stopped and offered to take me to the nearest A&E, which he did, refusing a fare.

After due examination, I was admitted to the Acute Medical Unit at UCLH with a nasal bone fracture, a fractured wrist, two fractured ribs, and, most worrying, a spinal fracture at C1 (the top of the spinal column). After six days, various ex-rays and an MRI, I was discharged. My nose and ribs have been designated “self healing”, my wrist and lower arm are in plaster, and for the spinal fracture I have a neck collar – the fancifully named  Miami J – to be worn 24/7 for twelve weeks. Fortunately pain is minimal, though sleep doesn’t come easy, and friends have stepped up to help Sarah remove and re-fit the collar every couple of days, for neck cleaning and general maintenance.

I’m wary about walking without assistance and it’s only the last couple of days that I’ve made it to the coffee shop around the corner without hanging onto Sarah’s arm. We both understand the importance of getting beyond that as soon as possible.

So … a fall or a FALL?

Time will tell.

Balance at our age is everything:

Like a perfect sentence depending
on that all-important semi-colon;
that comma,

Everything up to and including
the final full stop.

from Summer Notebook, John Harvey 2021

Nanci Griffith, 1953 – 2021

There used to be a record store at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street, across the street from Selfridges, and if I were down in London from where I was then living in Nottingham, I’d make a point of calling in. Good and varied stock; friendly and knowlegeable staff. Can’t remember what it was called. But there I was – autumn of ’86? early ’87? – leafing through the racks of albums when one of the guys who worked there came over and asked if I was looking for anything special.

‘John Stewart?’

‘You’ve got the Kennedy one?’

The Last Campaign. Yes, I had.

‘Nothing newer than that, I’m afraid. But look …’ Reaching in amongst the albums. ‘If you like John Stewart, you might like this. Give it a listen.’

This was The Last of the True Believers by someone called Nanci Griffith. Presumably that was her on the front cover in a polka dot dress standing outside Woolworth’s, a fat hardback cradled in both hands. [On later investigation it turns out to be Donald Spoto’s biogrpahy of Tennessee Williams, The Kindness of Strangers.] And over to her right there’s a couple who might be just holding hands or maybe even dancing and the man is Lyle Lovett, surely?

I turn the cover over. Yes, Lovett’s on the record, singing harmony. And there are a couple of other names I know, Bela Fleck on banjo, Phil Donnelly, guitar. Plus another picture of Nanci Griffith with yet another book and this time it’s clearly Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, a novel I’d only recently read and liked a great deal. 

And as if that weren’t enough in the way of little markers of temptation, there’s a note saying the album is dedicated to Count Basie. Count Basie?

“This album is dedicated to the memory of Count Basie because he once made my clumsy feet dance upon the University of Texas ballroom floor as if on wing …”

Lovett, McMurtry, Basie – something interesting was going on here. Passing up the invitation to listen before buying, I paid up and was on my way. Perhaps I was in a hurry. It wasn’t till several days later, back home in Lenton, that I gave it a listen. 

Side one begins with The Last of the True Believers and Love at the Five & Dime – two tracks still high among my favourites. Maybe all the songs weren’t equally strong and in the higher register her voice took a little getting used to, but with the next album, Lone Star State of Mind, which followed soon after, I was totally hooked. Cold Hearts/Closed Minds; Ford Econoline; Trouble in the Fields. Great songs. She even manages to purge some of the sentimentality from Julie Gold’s From a Distance

It wasn’t so much later – the spring of ’88 and I was in New York, visiting a friend – when I noticed that Nanci Griffith was playing at a small club in Greenwich Village – I like to think it was The Bitter End on Bleecker Street, but can’t be sure – whatever it was called both Griffith and her band were on terrific form and what sounded very good on record was even more so live. 

I didn’t know then that not long after I returned to England she would be appearing at Nottingham’s Rock City. Monday, 2nd May, 1988. Tickets £5.00 in advance. [My friend, David Belbin, saved his ticket, which is how I know.] It was as good as New York had been, if not better. Another friend who was there that evening, the singer/songwriter Liz Simcock, describes it as a key moment in her life. 

Liz was with me again a few years later when Nanci Griffith and her Blue Moon Orchestra played a concert in London – and this is where the wheels of coincidence start turning – because who should she invite to join her on stage but John Stewart – over here on tour himself – to play lead guitar and sing duet vocal on Stewart’s song which closes the Little Love Affairs album, Sweet Dreams Will Come.

Just one more connection. The last time I saw Nanci Griffith was at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall and a change in the personnel of her band had brought in the English guitarist – and singer/songwriter – Clive Gregson. The same Clive Gregson who would record and tour with Liz Simcock not so many years later. 

Small world or what … ?

Adventure Playgrounds

Unsurprisingly, these long lockout days have led to some considerable discussion of the importance of children’s play and the accessibility of outdoor spaces; time that could be spent, largely free from intrusive adult supervision, with others of a similar age.

It was my good fortune in the early 60s, when I was in my final year at Goldsmiths, to join several of my fellow students as a play leader in one of the adventure playgrounds that had been set up by Camden under the influence and leadership of Joe Benjamin, one of the founders of the adventure playground movement in this country.

Just recently, I came across a cache of photographs from that time …

Van Gogh At Last!

In a recent post dealing with school drama productions I’d been involved in while teaching in Stevenage, I made passing reference to an earlier piece about the life of Vincent Van Gogh from my time at Harrow Way County Secondary School in Andover. Like the Stevenage work, this was a co-operative effort involving as many students and staff as possible, although, as the production evolved, one student in particular, Stephen Lewis, had a fuller involvement as actor, writer and composer. As was the case with Van Gogh himself, no matter the circumstances, you can’t keep good man down!

Knowing a little of Steve’s later involvement with drama, I thought it would be interesting to ask him for his memories of the production and its significance. This is what he wrote …

Drama was my favourite subject at Harrow Way School and thanks to our enthusiastic and inventive teacher, John Harvey, it became a core part of my life. For the first twenty-five years of my career, I was involved in drama teaching, culminating in running the MA in Drama in Education course at what is now Birmingham City University. The strongest memory I have of the work John did at Harrow Way was the collaborative nature of it and the way that it engaged pupils and staff from right across the school.

As a 14 year old I was cast as Vincent in a show called At Last the Vincent van Gogh Show. The “At Last” was added because opening night was delayed owing to an industrial dispute and teachers having to work to rule; this meant that out of school hours rehearsals were postponed for a term. Because John wanted to involve as many pupils as possible, the only way of getting the whole cast together was after school and at the weekends. This was probably why I had a go at writing some of the script and enjoyed researching the life of Van Gogh in such detail.

The set for the show consisted of two 16 x 8 feet screens made by the woodwork department that were fixed at the front stage-right half of the traditional school platform stage and used to back-project images of Van Gogh’s paintings put together by the art department. The performance took place in front of the screens on the hall floor and a raised, tiered area built out from the stage-left half of the stage. This early practice of getting as much of a performance off the stage and thrust out into the audience space must have had a real impact on me, since very few of the hundred or so productions I directed subsequently were set on a proscenium arch with curtains.

I am sure that my attempt at scripting the show was very conventional and limited by an experience of plays that did not extend beyond what we had studied at school or I had seen on television. John had an overall concept for the show that included dance-drama numbers so that more people could be involved beyond the smaller group of characters surrounding Van Gogh’s life. Looking back, I can see now that this was a creative device to make scenes where Van Gogh was painting at his easel more theatrical and of interest to the audience. 

While Van Gogh was painting sunflowers, for example, George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun was playing and a group of dancers performed around the artist at work in one of his more happier moments. In contrast to this I remember the scene in the cornfield where I was surrounded by staccato-moving dancers dressed all in black enacting the movement of crows to the music of Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain. It was an expressive way of representing Van Gogh’s deep-seated depression and made the moment where he shoots himself in the groin seem more plausible. There was also a dance to a piece called Urizen from a jazz album by David Axelrod which is a fusion of orchestral sound and rock band. It has these rising glissandi on strings and listening to it again after all these years I can visualise the dancers rising up dressed in yellow and swirling ribbons of fabric around me. 

John has written about the infamous ear-cutting scene which was portrayed by my holding up a 2 x 1 foot piece of ear-shaped polystyrene to the side of my head. I had to cut across the top of the polystyrene with a handsaw and I can still recall the squeaking sound it made as I sawed a lump of it away. The fragment of polystyrene ear fell to the floor and then a character dressed as a policeman walked up to me, picked it up and said to the audience, “’ello, ‘ello, ‘ello: what’s this ‘ear then?”. It got a laugh every night.

The fact that I can still recall this so vividly fifty years later shows what a lasting impression this production made on me. That the structure of the show was an example of Total Theatre or that using an oversized prop and a music hall gag at a serious moment was a Brechtian technique were unknowns to me at the time. But thank you Mr Harvey for creating the circumstances and providing the experience that helped me find my element in life

Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf and the triple-decker egg-and-bacon sandwich.

Funny the ways in which school students remember their teachers, aeons on; funny if they remember them at all. I was buying a pair of jeans in one of those boutiquey men’s clothing stores in the centre of Nottingham, when one of the salesmen said he knew me from school – Heanor-Aldercar Secondary School in Langley Mill.
“One thing I’ve always remembered – you coming into our English lesson with the record player and an LP, saying, ‘Right now. You’ve all got to listen to this.’ And you played Sergeant Pepper all the way through.”
Worst things to be remembered for.

Four or five years ago, quite by chance, I bumped into someone I’d taught at Stevenage Girls’ School when she would have been twelve or thirteen: getting on for 45 years before. I didn’t recognise her, but she knew me right off.
“Triple-decker egg-and-bacon sandwich!” she said and laughed.
I’d used it in some way I can’t exactly recall as a metaphoric way of explaining a complex sentence; I think the middle slice, between the bacon and the egg, might have been a semi-colon.

Following my recent post about teaching at the Girls’ School in Stevenage, Pam Smith, one of the sixth form students taking the Modern paper in A Level English – Beckett, Virginia Woolf and, I think, Eliot – got in touch via a friend. What it seems she remembers most clearly was the lesson in which, reading from Malone Dies, I laughed so helplessly that I slid under the desk and onto the floor. [Whatever it takes … ]

A quick search along the shelves at home soon came up with my teaching copies of both Malone Dies and To The Lighthouse.



Pam went on to take a degree at the University of Nottingham and it was her enthusiasm for the Department of American Studies that led directly to my applying there to do an MA, making many new friends and renewing my acquaintanceship with what is surely the queen of cities.

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