In the beginning … Thom Ryder, pulp writer

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I had reason this morning to track back through several fat files of contracts and found, buckled and torn along the upper edge and beginning to fade, the first of such documents I ever received and duly signed …

An agreement made the eighteenth day of April, one thousand nine hundred and seventy four BETWEEN John Harvey of 233, Webb Rise, Stevenage, Herts (hereinafter called “the Grantor) of the one part and THE NEW ENGLISH LIBRARY LIMITED of Barnard’s Inn in the City of London (hereinafter called “the Publishers”, which expression shall where the context admits include its successors in title) of the other part, WHEREBY IT IS MUTUALLY AGREED concerning the following work entitled:

AVENGING ANGEL
by Thom Ryder
(hereinafter called “the Work”)

  • The Grantor HEREBY GRANTS unto the Publishers and unto their successors in title licensees and assigns the right and licence to print publish and sell the Work in soft cover volume form in the English language throughout the world (hereinafter referred to as “the Open Market)

Did somebody mention ‘English language’? The whole thing, all 18 clauses, of which the above is the first, smacks of Dickens and Bleak House. Obfuscation and legal jargon. But, hey, they were buying my book. Thom Ryder, for a brief period of time – 1974, 75 – that was me. Chronicler of the lives and misadventures of a gang of Hell’s Angels, intent on terrifying the Home Counties. They were buying my first ever book, on the basis of an outline and a couple of sample chapters, for an advance of £200, to be paid half of signature of the agreement and half on delivery of an acceptable manuscript, in addition to which I would be paid a 4% royalty on copies sold.

That any of this happened at all was due to my friend and mentor, the late Laurence James, who had himself written a series of pulp novels about Hells Angels under the name of Mick Norman. We’d met when we were students on a teacher training course at Goldsmiths College; I went into teaching, Laurence diverted into book selling, then publishing, finally writing. If it hadn’t been for his help, encouragement and example, I would never have hacked out – I choose the verb advisably – 50,000 words on the subject of motorbikes, blood and mayhem at the kitchen table of my Stevenage flat during what turned out to be my last year of teaching, the last of twelve. If it hadn’t been for him, it’s doubtful that New English Library would have looked on my endeavours so positively; I think he must have promised them that if my efforts fell apart, he would be around to pick up the pieces.

As it happened, they liked what they read enough to offer me a contract to write a sequel – Angel Alone – for which I would be paid the improved advance of £250, with an increased royalty of 5%. Encouragement enough for me to hand in my resignation at the end of the school year and set out on being a full-time writer of pulp fiction. Well, I thought, I can always go back to teaching if this doesn’t work out – and Laurence and I had been talking about an idea for a series of Westerns he thought a publisher he knew might be interested in …

There followed a period – 1976 to 1983 – in which I wrote just short of 50 Westerns: 10 under my own name, the others in partnership with either Laurence James or Angus Wells, writing alternate books in a series under a joint pseudonym. I was learning to write; I was paying the rent: I was having fun.

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Twins

Tom and Leanne, my children from an earlier relationship, are 50 tomorrow and we’ll be celebrating together, along with family and friends, at a hostelry in Norwich …

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Meanwhile, here are a few early memories …

T & L Scooters

Tom Pointing

Leanne Red Dress

Tom Cowboy

Leanne dress

Leanne & Tom on Step

Growing up with Soccer

“Give me a child till the age of seven,” as the Jesuits were wont to say, ‘and I’ll show you the man.” Something similar pertains when it comes to taking kids to watch soccer. I couldn’t have been more than six or seven when my dad first took me to White Hart Lane to see Spurs – young enough to sit on his shoulders in order to follow the action. If you lived in our part of north London, it had to be either Spurs or Arsenal, and even though Highbury was geographically closer, my dad, for whatever reason, was a Spurs man through and through. Hence the early indoctrination. As I remember it, the first few games I attended I was more likely to show my support for the opposition, this based on the simple fact that Spurs played in white and white was boring. It didn’t take me long to see the error of my ways and I became an earnest supporter, so that by the time I’d reached secondary school, I’d be playing for one of the school teams in the morning, before rushing home and then cycling to Tottenham with my dad in the afternoon and paying a small amount, a quid or two, to leave our bikes in the safety of someone’s front garden.

Going back to that first season and my first game, future England manager, Alf Ramsey, would have been at full back, and future Spurs manager, Bill Nicholson, at what was then called wing half. Nicholson went on to be Spurs’ most successful manager in the period when they won the Double – FA Cup and League – in 1961, the Cup again in 62 and the European Cup Winner’s Cup in ’63, beating Atletico Madrid 5-1 in the final. The Glory Days indeed. And a strange time for my enthusiastic support to start to wane. But by then I’d moved up to the East Midlands, to Nottingham, and, after a brief flirtation with Notts Forest, I became the avid supporter of Notts County that I am today. Which is not to say I don’t still follow Spurs’ fate closely, go to games occasionally, and listen to the commentary of their European fixtures on the good old-fashioned radio.

Perhaps the truest test of allegiances came in 1986 when Notts were drawn at home to Spurs in the Fourth Round of the Cup. Spurs went ahead early on through Clive Allen, who was having one of those rare periods in a striker’s life when they can’t seem to stop scoring, and Ian McParland equalised for Notts around midway through the first half. Both teams came close to scoring in the last ten minutes, but it was not to be.The replay was at White Hart Lane, Wednesday, January 29th and Spurs won 5 – 0.

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But back to the Jesuits. When my son Tom was of an impressionable age and I was still a stalwart Spurs supporter, all of my attempts at persuading him to follow in my footsteps resulted in abject failure. I went as far as buying him a Spurs shirt, which he wore a few times before it became lodged at the bottom of the washing basket and forgotten. Liverpool, he’d decided – they were going through a purple patch – were the team for him and he’s still a Liverpool supporter today and, as you can imagine, loving it. With my younger daughter, Molly, I had more luck, though not immediately. She was quite young when she first came with me to Meadow Lane, making sure, that first season or two, that she brought a book with her, which she proceeded to read throughout the game, occasionally looking up in response to some excitement in the crowd. Only gradually did the time she spent bent over her book become replaced by her interest in what was happening on the pitch – until now, as anyone who sits close to her will know, she’s amongst the most fervent of fans.

This is us at Ebbsfleet last Saturday, smiling through the wind and occasional rain, almost as if we knew in advance that a headed goal in the second minute of extra time would see us home 3 – 2 winners.

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“Blue Watch”

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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.

 

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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

 

 

Schooldays

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English Class, Heanor Aldercar Secondary School, Mid-1960s

I had an email recently from someone asking me if I would sign one of my books and dedicate it to his wife on the occasion of her 65th birthday; she had been a young student in one of my classes at Heanor Aldercar Secondary School in the mid-60s, and had since gone on, I discovered, to study Mathematics at Imperial College, followed by an MSc and PhD in Computing at Nottingham University – for not one scrap of which I can lay claim to have been any kind of influence. What she remembered me most for was my love of contemporary poetry and my handwriting [a sort of Italic with the occasional added flourish] which she spent hours, apparently, trying to copy. A good job she can’t see it now! She and her husband had read a number of the Resnick novels without realising that the John Harvey who had written them was the same as the one who had talked her whole class into buying their own copies of Penguin Modern Poets 10: The Mersey Sound, thus risking the wrath of any parents who might object to the raciness of their contents.

Mersey

So mild they must seem now, those poems, innocent even … Roger McGough’s “At Lunchtime … A Story of Love”; Brian Patten’s “Song for Last Year’s Wife” and “Little Johnny’s Confession”; even Adrian Henri’s schoolgirl obsession. Another time, another age, another set of values: other lives.

Twelve years I spent teaching English & Drama: Heanor first, a small mining town, as it was then, between Derby and Nottingham; then Andover in Hampshire and, finally, Stevenage, Hertfordshire.

All a long time ago, though it doesn’t take much to remind me: a chance meeting, an email out of the blue. But names and faces blur and, looking back, you can only hope you did some little good; taught students successfully how to write a coherent sentence and instilled some enjoyment, in one form or another, in words. Anything more, surely, would be presumptuous – too Goodbye, Mr Chips. 

This message came via Friends United some ten years ago …

Dear John
You turned my life around learning about the War Poets (Seigfried Sassoon – “Oh German Mother”) and introducing me to Folk Music (“Blackleg Miner”).
At the time we met I was off the rails – you put me back on them.
I often refer to you as my saviour from the factories and coal mines of Derbyshire.
Tom Cooke had me down as a loser which I was before you.
I am now retired from the Fire Brigade after 34 years reaching the post of Divisional Officer and I live in Spain with my wife Angela.|
As well as teaching me English you believed in me and taught me about social history ands much more. I have a lot to thank you for. Hope you are OK.
Ian Shaw  1965-1967

Weigh that alongside whatever else I might have achieved, whatever honours and good reviews, and make me choose and I would have to say it means more. Goodbye, Mr Chips, indeed.

 

 

Getting to Grips with “Aslant”

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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.

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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.

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Photo : Molly E. Boiling

Poem for My Father

My father died thirty five years ago this week – June 17th, 1984. He was 78, two years younger than I am now: somehow it doesn’t seem right.

Here he is …

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And here’s a poem from Out of Silence that I wrote about him …

Sunsets

“Grandad looks like John Wayne,”
my daughter said, pirouetting away.

In the westerns I wrote he filled in corners –
the stage coach driver, the friendly sheriff
with spreading paunch and bowed back,
his holstered gun never drawn in anger,
yet stubborn as a mule when the chips were down.

In photographs he holds me high above
his head like a talisman: pride bright
in his blue eyes I could never fulfil.

Writing, he stands between my sentences:
bits of a life that catch like grit in the mouth.
Once I ran, sobbing, after him until, reaching
down, he swung me, safe, in his arms.

He stands in all the doorways of my childhood.
Stands for my meanness, my grudging thanks,
those shifts of direction which push him
further and further behind.

Driving home to visit I‘d passed him
on the road before I realised, stooped
and suddenly slow, one leg turned sideways,
an old man I’d failed to recognise.

Laughter and meaning clogged thick in his lungs:
they moved him to a private room and fitted
a green mask fast over his face; each breath
rattled dry stones along the bed of his throat,
his mouth peeled back and back until it disappeared.

Yet a week or so before he died,
the old smile alive for a moment in his eyes,
he beckoned the prettiest nurse and as
she bent to catch his words,
nuzzled the hard plastic of his mask
against her face to steal a kiss:
an act of imagination great
as any John Wayne ever made.

Mornings of a Recently Retired Writer

What on earth d’you do now you’ve packed it in, people ask? Won’t know what to do with yourself. All those hours stretching out before the Six O’Clock News; a life measured in cups of tea and ginger biscuits and just popping round to the shops, shan’t be a minute; the game shows and stair lift commercials that clutter up afternoon TV. You must get bored silly.

Well, if you’ve any sense, the one thing you don’t do – as a friend of mine in a similar situation heartily agreed when the subject came up recently – is switch off the alarm clock and lay around in bed for hours, surrounded by half-read books and yesterday’s paper, the radio not quite tuned to the station and getting up to set it right too much of an effort. That way lies …. well, I don’t want to stop and consider exactly what.

So … the answer? Get up, early; within reason the earlier the better and with a sense of purpose. For my friend, it’s the allotment and taking the grandkids to school; for me, well, five mornings a week it’s this …

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Coming up to a quarter past seven, my partner’s just back from her morning run and I’ve been up for half an hour or so (the sound of the front door closing as she leaves, the click of the front gate, my signals to rise). Walking shoes on, pockets suitably filled, it’s time for me to leave, heading for Parliament Hill Fields and the edge of Hampstead Heath. Passing round the back of Acland Burghley school – where they recently filmed scenes for the second series of Killing Eve, and which, my father attended many years before, when it was plain Burghley Road School – the arse, as he used to say, hanging out of his trousers – till he left to start work at the age of fifteen – I cut through the housing estate and onto Highgate Road. Most mornings, the newsagent is behind his counter, always with a smile; sometimes standing waiting in the doorway, Guardian in hand.

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I head for the Lido and the small café that has been operating there for several years. With any luck, Alessio will be the barista on duty. If you’re limiting yourself to one coffee a day, then it had better be a good one and that’s what he provides without fail. Morning, Alessio!

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I’m almost the only customer this early and so I’ll sit for fifteen minutes or so, reading the paper and enjoying the coffee, until the swimmers start to come in from the pool and it’s time for me to start walking.

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The path that rises directly up from the Lido opens out to give views back across the centre of the city …

 

 

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… and up towards the summit of the Hill …

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… turning then between the trees …

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… and down towards a line of ponds. Highgate No. 1 Pond; the Men’s Bathing Pond; the Model Boating Pond and the Bird Sanctuary Pond – the Ladies’ Bathing Pond secure behind the trees.  At this time of the morning, at least one of the benches alongside the Boating Pond will be free so I take the chance to sit for five minutes or so and catch my breath,  gazing back across to the other side. I remember when my father and I launched my model yacht here and the wind dropped suddenly, leaving it becalmed and the two of us waiting for what seemed hours for the wind to get up again and propel it back to shore. This walk, like so many others, a walk into my past.

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Circling the pond, I head back towards Highgate Road and the area known as Dartmouth Park, the pavements busy by now with students on their way to one of three schools that are clustered close together: William Ellis, La Sainte Union and Parliament Hill. If I turn my head to the left before crossing the railway bridge to where we live (literally, on the wrong side of the tracks), I can see what was my father’s parents’ house – the last in the row – where I used to go after school and do my homework – unless my Nan fancied a trip to Chapel Street Market, or, if I’d somehow earned a treat, down to the little fleapit of a cinema, the Gaisford in Kentish Town, to see Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers.

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Once over the bridge, I’m almost home. My feet are starting to ache a little. My pedometer says 3.2 miles; the kitchen clock tells me it’s time to get on with the rest of the day.

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This is Your Life (so far …)

The writer, Jack Trevor Story, used to tell how he looked at the list of Birthdays in The Guardian each year to see if he were alive or dead. In his case that little ritual would have occurred on the 30th of March. Never having existed as far as the compilers of said list are concerned [And just who are they? Grizzled old obituary writers? Or interns let loose on Who’s Who?] whenever December 21st comes round I try to be disciplined and not look at all, thus avoiding the inevitable disappointment. But this year, somewhere between seven and eight in the morning, first coffee of the day at my side, I flicked open the relevant section and there I was. John Harvey, crime writer, 80. It would be lying to say that my initial prick of surprise was not followed by a small surge of pride.

Bday

Pathetic, you might think, but hey … 80. And in what company! Flanked by perhaps my favourite tennis player of all time, and one of my favourite guitarists [last glimpsed, some while back, in the Everly Brothers’ band at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall], and closely guarded by no less than Jane Fonda and Samuel L Jackson. What a pair!

And it was not only The Guardian … Totally unknown to me, Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature had put considerable time and energy into creating an entry on their website called simply John Harvey at 80. A lengthy survey of my life and writing career, together with a broad choice of book jackets and contributions from a number of people I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years, including Giles Croft, former artistic director of Nottingham Playhouse, screenwriter Billy Ivory and, in a brief but welcome video message, crime writer, Ian Rankin, You can check it out here …

Finally, the photographic evidence, birth certificate included. From the angelic lad in the tin bath (things were hard back in those far off days), through heaven knows what strange incarnations to the bald and bespectacled sage of today.

80th Birthday Photos80th Birthday Photos

 

Not so Private Passions …

Four years ago, not so long after the final Resnick novel, Darkness, Darkness, was published, I was invited to be a guest on the BBC Radio 3 programme, Private Passions – a sort of (mainly) classical version of Desert Island Discs, only, since this was to be broadcast alongside the London Jazz Festival, there was to be a somewhat higher jazz content than is often the case.

I was delighted to be asked [understatement!] and thoroughly enjoyed the process, from making the choice of music to be featured to the interview itself, which was conducted with little or no preamble or rehearsal, the presenter, Michael Berkeley, making me feel immediately at my ease. The pair of us sat in a relatively small studio space, listening together to the pieces as they were played on air, which meant that one’s immediate response was, well, immediate.

I wanted to choose music that meant something in particular to me, while being conscious of delivering a broad ranging selection I thought people might respond to, and which might include some pieces with which listeners might be less than familiar with – Jocelyn Pook’s Tango with Corrugated Iron, for instance, or James P. Johnson’s Victory March.

Here’s the full list …

Mean to Me  [Fred E. Ahlert and Roy Turk]
Billie Holiday with Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra inc. Lester Young (tenor sax)

Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave) [Mendelssohn]
Maxim Dmitrievich Shostakovich  & Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra

Victory Stride [James P. Johnson]
Marin Alsop & The Concordia Orchestra

Shipbuilding [Elvis Costello]
Elvis Costello with Chet Baker (trumpet)

Cello Concerto No. 2 [Shostakovich]
Sol Gabetta with Marc Albrecht & Munich Philharmonic Orchestra

Tango with Corrugated Iron [Jocelyn Pook]
Electra Strings & Jocelyn Pook

Rhythm-a-ning [Thelonious Monk]
Thelonious Monk Trio

And, somewhere in there, I was asked to read my poem about Chet Baker, which, of course, I was more than happy to do.

The programme is now available to listen to for 29 days …