Helen Harvey 1901 – 1986

My mum died thirty years ago today, the latter part of her life beset by illnesses too stubborn for even someone as stubborn and resilient as she to resist. For now, I’d prefer to remember her as I never knew her, the promise of life ahead.

The first of these is clearly a studio portrait, taken, I would guess, when my mum was around 20; the others were taken, I believe, on holiday in Ostend a year or so before the outbreak of World War Two, a year or so before I was born.

Mum Studio

Mum

Parents Cafe

That was before we were married, before the war, the year before you were born; I wore my new polka dot dress and your father his white shoes. Nothing could touch us, except each other. We just sat there, staring out, waiting for it all to begin.

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They  put this photo on display, close to the seafront: the perfect couple. And for as long as the magic lasted, it was true. “Smile!” the photographer said and knowing no reason not to, we did. Inside twelve months those beaches would be mined and our sad, slow journey would have begun.

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Thomas Harvey 1906 – 1984

I was flicking though some photographs the other day when one taken at a Crime Writers’ Association dinner stopped me in my tracks – Surely my dad wasn’t there, was he? Well, no, he’d died a good few years before and, of course, it was me, looking at little different for the occasion, a little more formal, suit jacket, collar and tie, a little more like him. The likeness I see now every morning in the mirror.

He died thirty two years ago today, my dad, at 78 years of age: the same age I myself will be before the year’s end.

Makes you think …

Stwekley

On holiday in Bucks around 1948 or so, I’m 10 or thereabouts, my dad’s a little over 40.

Dad & I, Lenton – Version 2

This is in Nottingham, Lenton to be precise; I’m 40-ish, the same age as my dad in the first photo, and he’s 73 0r 74 and has shrunk a couple of inches.

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And just to bring things up to date, this is me with my son, also Tom, in Nottingham earlier this year – Tom just a year or so older than I was in the middle photo and my dad in the first.

Nancy Nielsen 1930 – 2016

Nancy Nielsen, who has died at the age of 85 after a long illness, was one of the most formidable women it has ever been my pleasure – honour – to have met. Accomplished, clear-headed, rarely one to waste time or words unnecessarily, if you had the good fortune to be accepted as a friend, you felt it was something you had earned. Something to be cherished.

Nancy was a dedicated and hard-working conservationist – with a particular interest in the coastal area of Downeast Maine where she lived – a botanist, educator and – far from least  – a poet. I got to know Nancy through her partner and fellow poet, Alan Brooks, initially when Alan was living in England, and then, later, on a number of happy and memorable visits to Stone Man Farm, their secluded home on Straight Bay outside Lubec.

It was with Alan’s help, advice and encouragement that, in 1977, I began editing and publishing Slow Dancer magazine, which was to feature both his own and Nancy’s work, and in 1984, in conjunction with Stone Man Press, we published a book of Nancy’s poems, East of the Light.

This poem comes from that collection …

Sometimes In The Summer

Sometimes in the summer
dusk, dark
all the hidden, sought, found
children quiet
screen doors
slapped
closed
cicadas
my grandmother said come
and we carried the linen
cutwork
roses, fine rolled hems
stitched, laid by in chests
used, darned
into the garden,
where for years linens were spread
to whiten
in dew
in moonlight
we laid them on the grass
the paths
between pale shapes
of nightblooming flowers
sometimes
my grandmother smiled
on her knees
her rough hands smoothing
linens
breathing the flowers

And this, from the poetry blog, Salt and Stone Poetry, on which she and Alan published and shared their work, is I believe, the last poem that Nancy wrote …

Oh, Who’d Leave This World

When the wind
that wind
wind from the sea
salt and wrack
lifting the meadow grass
ghosting with fog

or where
racket of crows
caw and caw
dipping
into the wind

Who’d set aside the book
this book any book
so filled with life
book on the table

Side by side
we talk of the stories
wind from the south

The wind outside
salt marsh wind
wind from the sea

who?

Alan will continue to post Nancy’s unpublished poems, along with his own work, on the Salt and Stone Poetry blog …

A full obituary can be found here, from the Bangor Daily News

 

Bits of a Writer’s Life …

On Friday evening, April 22nd, I was at the Poetry Society’s Poetry Café in Covent Garden as one of the guest readers in this month’s Fourth Friday, a long running evening of poetry and music organised by Dix Schofield and the indefatigable Hylda Sims. I’ve read there before and it’s always been enjoyable, but for some reason – the range and quality of the readers from the floor, perhaps? – this seemed an especially rewarding evening. The other guest reader, Danielle Hope, whom I knew from the days when I published her work in Slow Dancer magazine, was sharp and funny, and Liz Simcock – now back solo after several years of working with a small band – was in fine form.

4th Friday

My daughter, Molly Ernestine, had come along and we took the opportunity to air what has become our poetry party piece, a shared reading of the poem, “Hollywood Canteen”, which I wrote some good few years back when my older daughter, Leanne, was living and working as a dancer in Paris – the central section of the poem, the section Molly read, and which Leanne herself used to read – being more or less a transcription of Leanne’s words on the occasion in question, when we’d just come away from watching Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams.

Here’s the poem …

HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN

It seems too much of a cliché
almost, to tell it, but there,
up on the counter
of the Hollywood Canteen,
there among the images
of Marilyn, James Dean,
she pushes back her plate,
lights her cigarette
and right over the juke box
she says, nineteen:

I hate films that end like that,
stuck out on the porch
in the middle of nowhere
watching the sun go down –
as though it could ever happen,
Jesus! It’s like your parents
bringing you up to believe
it’s possible to tell the truth
out there, when one minute
after they let you out into the world,
you can see everyone else is lying.
I mean, you just try being nice out there,
just try it! You won’t last five minutes
and I’ll tell you this, I haven’t met
a single person since I was sixteen
who wasn’t a bitch underneath
and I haven’t got the strength
to stand up to them, not on my own,
and that’s what I am.
And happiness, that’s a laugh
and one thing I am sure of,
it isn’t sitting out on a dumb porch
in the middle of Iowa, staring
into some technicolour sunset.

She turned her head aside
and closed her eyes
and when she did that
she was as beautiful
as I had ever seen her.

What do you think, she said,
the pancakes with the maple syrup?
You think we should have the ice cream
as well? Maybe the chocolate sauce?

Seeing my face, she smiled.

The following day Molly and I took the train up to Stevenage for an afternoon event at the library, as part of Hertfordshire Libraries Litfest 16. Aside from a  few occasions when Notts County were the visitors to the Stevenage F.C. ground on Woodhall Way, this was, I think, the first time I’d been back in the town since I spent several years teaching in the English department of Stevenage Girls’ School in early 1970s.

The plan was to give an overview of how I managed to kick start a writing career and then keep it on track from its starting point in 1975, when my first book – Avenging Angel, written at the kitchen table at my flat on Webb Rise during my last year of teaching – was published; then, after some Q&A, to concentrate on the Resnick books, in particular Darkness, Darkness, and the challenges  in adapting that novel for the stage, which is one of projects I’m currently working on.

While Molly ran through the slides before we started, there was just time for me to completely, and embarrassingly, fail to recognise one of my former fell0w teachers, as well as a former next-door neighbour and three former pupils, two from my A level English class, one of whom had passed, and one failed – even at this remove I felt responsible, though it hadn’t stopped her from becoming a teacher herself in due course.

A slight hiccup in the technical department at the beginning – the computer froze and slides we’d checked previously refused to appear – gave me the opportunity to begin the session with an unplanned reading of my Chet Baker poem, which I was pleased to do as it allowed me to dedicate it to one of the long-time stalwarts of the British jazz scene, sadly no longer playing, bassist Pete Blannin, who was with his wife in the audience. I remember seeing Pete with the great Humphrey Lyttelton Band in the early 1960s, as well as with groups led by the likes of Tubby Hayes and Tony Kinsey. It’s a bonus for me that he likes crime fiction.

IT problem solved, things moved along smoothly; there was a good, attentive crowd – I’d guess around 50 – and no shortage of interesting, even challenging questions. My good friend, Sherma Batson – another former pupil, now county councillor and recently Mayor of Stevenage – taking me to task for killing off one of my running characters, Lynn Kellogg, thus giving away the plot of Cold in Hand in a single swoop. But never mind. Friends still.

Just before the end, Molly left her spot at the desk, where she’d been working the laptop, top join me in a reading of one of the scenes from the Darkness, Darkness play script – its first public airing. As I pointed out, despite working in various other forms, I had never, up to the present, written anything for the theatre, my only experience in that area having been putting on plays when I was still teaching, something that gave me a great deal of pleasure at the time, not least for the large numbers of students it was possible involve, and still gave pleasure in retrospect. At Stevenage, I remember with particular fondness a version of Alice in Wonderland, with a soundtrack ranging from Bach and Vivaldi to Miles Davis and Jefferson Airplane, and Split, a play about a teenage girl with schizophrenia that was built up almost entirely from improvisation. Those were the days!

That I could even begin to venture into such areas was almost entirely due to my great friend, the late Tom Wild, a wonderful and talented man who died far too young; seeing the work that Tom did with secondary modern children in Yorkshire, often using improvisation as a way into Brecht and Shakespeare was an inspiration for me and, I’m sure, for the pupils involved – I doubt if they will ever f0rget it.

Here, finally, is a little Stevenage Girls’ School memorabilia [no flash programmes in those days!]

Alice 1

4th Friday 1

Split 1

Split 2

 

All the News that’s Fit …

Following up on my previous post outlining the next few events I’m set to take part in, here’s a really nice piece from The Comet which touches on the Resnick series as a whole and Darkness, Darkness in particular, and which, being a local paper, concentrates upon the years I spent teaching English & Drama in Stevenage.

What you see below is quite small print, so please click on the link above for easier reading. And if you’re considering joining me for tea & cake this coming Saturday afternoon, the details are below The Comet feature.

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Jim Harrison 1937 – 2016

Back in 1992, I was pleased to be invited by Geoff Sadler to contribute a couple of entries to the encyclopaedia of Twentieth-Century Western Writers he was compiling and editing for  St. James Press. One of these was Thomas McGuane, the other, his friend Jim Harrison.

Here are the first five paragraphs of my piece, along with the last (the middle section mostly deals with another of Harrison’s fine novels, Dalva).

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I first became aware of Jim Harrison’s writing during a visit to California in 1981. A friend, thinking, no doubt, that my own efforts would benefit from some stiffening of style and elevation of purpose, presented me with the Delta paperback edition of Harrison’s Legends of the Fall and having, as it were, lit the touch paper, tactfully withdrew. I read the three novellas in the books with greed and widening amazement, part on a Greyhound bound from Sacramento to San Francisco, more in a cabin in PointLobos, within earshot of Big Sur. When I’d finished them through once and my companion had done the same, I read them again. When the British hardcover edition was, sadly, remaindered in conscpicuous quantities, I bought enough to give to most of my friends and not a few of my enemies.

Rereading Legends of the Fall before writing this piece, my reactions to the first story, “Revenge”, and the last, the title story, were scarcely less effusive. What is audacious is Harrison’s ambition – there is no getting around either the narrative scope here, nor its extreme seriousness and emotional intensity – and the control of material and style, which never seems to desert him. Apparently, Harrison was told by a regretful publisher that if only he’d written Legends of the Fall to around 600 pages instead of a mere 80, the New York Times Best Sellers List would have been theirs for the taking. He was right, of course – it’s all there: generation, war, unforgetting love and unforgiveable lust, insanity, individuality, honour and betrayal. But at that length it would have been another fat epic, better than most. As it stands it’s as close to perfect as you can get without falling off the edge.

This is how it begins:

Late in October in 1914 three brothers rode from Choteau, Montana, to Calgary in Alberta to enlist in the Great War (the U.S. did not enter until 1917). An old Cheyenne named One Stab rode with them to return with the horses in tow because the horses were blooded and their father did not think it fitting for his sons to ride off to war on nags. One Stab knew all the shortcuts in the northern Rockies so their ride traversed wild country, much of it far from roads and settlements. They left before dawn with their father holding an oil lamp in the stable dressed in his buffalo robe, all of them silent, and the farewell breath he embraced them with rose in a small white cloud to the rafters.

Much of the style and substance of Harrison’s writing is contained in that opening paragraph. The language is direct, the world is primarily a masculine one with its own rituals and codes, and that ritual quality is achieved through the language and structure. The influence, I would guess, is Hemingway, but there’s a weightier, almost a biblical cadence here that is Harrison’s own. The land – specifically the land of the mid- and north-west – and the journeys from that land to take part in foreign wars, are integral to much of his work, as is the relationship between the descendants of white European settlers and the surviving Native Americans. The graceful muscularity of the prose and the normally unsentimental presentations of the natural world enable Harrison (in my contention) to get away with the final description of the father’s farewell breath here, allowing it to take on a metaphoric, almost mythic quality, rather than subsiding towards bathos and sentimentality.

There are links between Harrison and an informal Montana-Key West group that includes fellow-writer Thomas McGuane, the painter Russell Chatham, singer Jimmy Buffet and actors such as Peter Fonda and Harry Dean Stanton. All of the U.S. editions of his books have reproductions on their jackets of Chatham’s work – two of them with the permission of their current owner, Stanton. It was McGuane who gave Harrison an important, early push and the two have collaborated together on at least one original screenplay, Cold Feet. Harrison, it seems, writes screenplays to keep his head above financial water while concentrating most of his creative energies on poetry and fiction …

… Harrison’s work is a world away from the self-regarding ironists so fashionable in New York literary circles. In that sense, he is a regional, a Western writer. As he said in an interview in Publishers Weekly: “I like grit, I like love and death, I’m tired of irony … I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments, and take a chance on being corny, than die a smarts.”

He certainly avoided that.

You might also want to take a look at Michael Carlson’s Irresistible Targets blog , where he writes about Jim Harrison and gives a link to the Harrison obituary he wrote for the Guardianhttp://irresistibletargets.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/jim-harrison-guardian-obituary.html

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Barry Hines: 1939 – 2016

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Barry Hines

In sad retrospect, I’m pleased that, talking about the Resnick novels at Bromley House Library in Nottingham this Saturday just past, and asked about influences on my work, I mentioned, alongside a small number of other social realist writers, the novelist and dramatist, Barry Hines, who, unbeknown to me, had died the previous day.

A teacher of English and Drama, I’d just moved  on after three years at Heanor-Aldercar Secondary School, in a small, principally mining town in South-East Derbyshire, to take on a similar post in less industrial Hampshire, when Hines’ first novel, A Kestrel for A Knave, was published in 1968. Set in South Yorkshire, the novel, and Ken Loach’s well-known and cherished film adaptation, Kes, released a year later, struck me forcefully their ability to render a world entire unto itself without ever being patronising or over-sentimental, but with hard-truth, understanding and compassion.

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As it happens, we’d watched a DVD of Kes at home only a few weeks before – a first time for our daughter – and despite familiarity on my part, it had still engendered tears (and laughter) and, most of all, anger. Exactly, I think, as Hines – and Loach – would have wanted.

kes-rex

What I didn’t spell out at Bromley House, but should have, was the importance of Ken Loach’s two-part television drama from 1977, The Price of Coal, written by Barry Hines, to my preliminary research for Darkness, Darkness, the Resnick novel  partly set during the Miners’ Strike, which I’m in the process of dramatising for Nottingham Playhouse and New Perspectives Theatre.

Both Kes and The Price of Coal were produced by Tony Garnett, and there was a time, some few years ago now, when the Resnick novels were optioned for television by Garnett’s production company. We’ll do what we can to get your books to the screen as well as they deserve, Garnett said when we met. It never happened. (It rarely does.) But what if it had … ?

iPod Shuffle, March 2016

Okay, on this blisteringly cold but sunny morning on Hampstead Heath, this is what my iPod delivered.

  1. I Want You : Bob Dylan from Blonde on Blonde
  2. Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me : Mose Allison from M0se Allison Sings & Plays
  3. You’re Gonna Quit Me : Bob Dylan from Good As I Been to You
  4. Cold Hearts/Closed Minds : Nanci Griffith from Lone Star State of Mind
  5. Hospital Food : Eels from Electro-Shock Blues
  6. I’m Old Fashioned : Ella Fitzgerald from Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Jerome Kern Songbook
  7. Blues for Humph : Humphrey Lyttelton Band with Pat Halcox from Remembering Pat Halcox
  8. Baby Sister Blues : Johnny Shines from Standing at the Crossroads
  9. Dancing Dave : Henry Allen & His Orchestra from Swing Out
  10. Trinkle Tinkle : Thelonious Monk from Thelonious Monk Trio
  11. Reputation : Dusty Springfield from Goin’ Back
  12. Goodbye : Art Pepper from Unreleased Art Vol. III

The first track here is one of a very few I can remember hearing for the very first time – the place and the occasion, if not the precise date. The late 60s it would have been, several years after the album was first released, and I’d driven a minibus full of secondary school students up to London from Andover, where I was teaching, to the Roundhouse to see Nicol Williamson’s Hamlet, with Marianne Faithful as Ophelia. I’d promised the students that we would stop off, briefly, in Carnaby Street on the way home. And when I stepped into one of the then highly fashionable clothing stores they were playing I Want You at full, glorious volume. Why had I never heard it till then?

What else is especially interesting here? The Lyttelton track is a curiosity, Humph being laid low with some ailment or other and unable to make to trip to Prague and Pat Halcox, long time trumpeter with the Chris Barber Band, stepping in. It’s a longish track, recorded live, and, in addition to Halcox’s strong lead, features Malcolm Everson on baritone sax.

Johnny Shines has been one of my favourite blues singers ever since hearing the recordings he made for J.O.B. in 1953, his voice strongly reminiscent of Howling Wolf, his bottleneck guitar playing recalling his other main influence, Robert Johnson. After these recordings, he more or less gave up music, working in construction until, like many others, he was rediscovered in the blues revival of the mid-sixties, and began recording again, this time in a more contemporary Chicago style, working with musicians like Otis Spann and Big Walter Horton. This particular track comes from 1970 and finds him returning to the solo acoustic rural blues style of his earlier days.

And then, of course, there’s Dusty … sitting, perhaps incongruously, next to Art Pepper –but perhaps not. Two artists, two of many, whose particular demons laid them low too often, too soon.

Just Another Little Blues Song

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One of the most intriguing sequences in Tubby Hayes: Man in a Hurry, Mark Baxter and Lee Cogswell’s documentary about the British jazz musician, Edward ‘Tubby’ Hayes, concerns the time he was drafted, at the last moment, into the saxophone section of the Duke Ellington Orchestra for a concert at the Royal Festival Hall. Duke’s band were in this country on tour and their star tenor player, Paul Gonsalves  – famous for playing a 27 chorus solo during a performance of Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival – was, shall we say, indisposed. Hayes, who was at the concert minus saxophone, was somewhat hastily summoned by the Duke and invited to deputise; a phone call to the Ronnie Scott Club brought the missing saxophone to the Hall by cab and, some little way into the concert, Tubby walked on stage, unannounced, and took his place amongst the section.

Reader, I was there. Sitting alongside my friend, Jock, and, along with many others in the audience, feeling a real frisson of recognition at the Englishman’s appearance – one of the rare occasions a genuine sense of patriotism stirred within me.

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It was a moment I’ve long cherished and which I’ve written about, slightly disguised, on more than one occasion. The first was in the script of my television play, Just Another Little Blues Song, in which Adam Faith played Frank, a jazzman whose gambling habit puts paid to his career. Produced for the BBC in 1983 by Terry Coles and directed by John Bruce, with Duncan Lamont playing Frank’s tenor on the soundtrack, it featured Gwen Taylor as Frank’s former girl friend, Jane. And, borrowing from the Hayes-Ellington moment at the Festival Hall, it was to Jane that I gave a speech describing to her husband Frank’s moment of glory playing with the Count Basie Orchestra.

MATTHEW: Basie? Frank didn’t really play with him?

JANE: Sixty-seven. Basie was at the Festival Hall and Frank Foster was taken sick. Some sort of bug. They called Frankie at the last minute. He’d been doing a gig at the old Scott club.

(LIGHTS A CIGARETTE, EXHALES, BLOWING SMOKE TO THE SIDE)

We were sitting in the front row. Frankie had got us ticket through some connection. Half a dozen of us. There was this five piece sax section with an empty chair. A couple of choruses into the fourth number, who comes walking out on stage but Frankie. Hand round the bell of his horn and a grin on his face wide enough to launch a boat in.

By the time he’s got to his seat half the audience had recognised him and this great cheer went up all round us like … like I don’t know what. Frankie just clips his sax onto the sling, the feller next to him points to the music and he starts blowing as if he knew the book by heart.

Before the interval Basie called him out front for ‘Jumping at the Woodside’. Two tenors. He shut his eyes tight and blew that other poor bastard off the stage. When the shouting died down, Basie has this little grin round the corners of his mouth; he showed Frankie he was to stay where he was and called this thing Eddie Davis used to play.’Whirlybird’. Fast, fast, fast. You couldn’t hear the end of his solo for the noise. I felt so … I was so bleedin’ proud. It was like nothing I ever …

(SHE STOPS, LOOKS AT HER HUSBAND, WHO IS STARING AT HER, EXPRESSIONLESS)

Terry Coles confessed to me afterwards that, aside for the jazz – a big jazz fan, Terry – it was that speech and more or less that speech alone that made him decide to do the play. When Gwen Taylor did it to camera, Terry said, and every time he watched it on tape afterwards, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck start to rise. Well, she’s that good.

Gwen Taylor

Gwen Taylor

 

Walking London 2: Docklands Part 1

Seems a long time since Sarah and I did the first of these walks, taken from Stephen Millar’s London’s Hidden Walks, but the sky yesterday morning, instead of the promised clouds, was bright with winter sunlight, so off we trod. With Tower Bridge at our backs we walked eastwards past St. Katherine’s Dock and along the south bank of the Thames, stopping here and there to take advantage of sets of well-worn stone steps leading, at unsuspected intervals, right down to the water and offering fine views of the old wharves and warehouses on the far side of the river, most of them, of course, now housing, not commodities, but uber-affluent apartment dwellers.

After a refuelling stop at the excellent Turk’s Head Café, once a pub favoured by Irish dockers and now – surprise, surprise – offering veggie breakfasts, flat whites and pancake combinations to the likes of Sarah & I– we turned inland towards the church of St. George in the East, of particular interest as it is near the site of Battle of Cable Street, in which, in 1936, thousands of East Enders held the line against Mosley’s Fascists, preventing them from marching, and commemorated her by a fine, recently restored, mural.

The area is also of considerable personal interest to me because of  St.George in the East school, a tough little secondary school made famous by E. R. Braithwaite’s novel, To Sir, With Love, and its succeeding film. It was to St. George in the East,  most likely as payment for being such a smart-aleck in lectures, that I was sent on my first teaching practice. It was, I think my colleague, Dorothy Dixon, who accompanied me agreed, a memorable experience and a worthwhile one at that.

The school policy was one of no sanctions, the pupils being largely self-governing through a series of class and school meetings at which teachers’ performances were assessed along with other matters of interest. Any teacher responsible for what the pupils considered a particularly  poorly prepared lesson was given a written note accordingly, and this was also the case if a lesson had been particularly enjoyed. During the time I was there – four weeks, I think, though I’m sure it seemed longer –I think I received two of these and, believe me, they were proudly received.

The school buildings, I was pleased to find, are still intact, but house a school no longer; like so much else, they have been converted into flats, the entrance guarded by a gate with coded entry.

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