Films, Books, Music of 2022

FILMS OF 2022

FAVOURITES IN ORDER OF VIEWING

The Lost Daughter : Maggie Gyllenhaal
Belfast : Kenneth Branagh
Parallel Mothers : Pedro Almodovar
The Quiet Girl : Colm Bairéad
Hit the Road : Panah Panahi
Emily : Frances O’Connor
Decision to Leave : Park Chan-wook
She Said : Maria Schrader

MOST OVERRATED

Aftersun : Charlotte Wells

BOOKS OF 2022

For whatever reasons, I’ve done a lot of re-reading this year – Liz Moore, Jamie Harrison, Maile Meloy, Joan Didion – but the one big find for me, spurred on by an interview in the Summer 2022 issue of The Paris Review, was the American writer, Sigrid Nunez. I’ve read and greatly enjoyed four books so far …

What Are You Going Through
The Last of Her Kind
The Friend
A Feather on the Breath of God

And am eagerly awaiting delivery of Sempre Susan, her book about Susan Sontag.

Also outstanding were two novels by Claire Keegan …

Foster
Small Things Like These

and Ruth and Pen by Emilie Pine

POETRY

As I get back into writing poetry, I find – surprise, surprise – that I’m reading it more. (Works both ways).

Collections I’ve especially enjoyed include …

Wasn’t That a Time? : Jim Burns
A Reader’s Guide to Time : Rebecca Cullen
Notes on Water : Amanda Dalton
American Sonnets for My Past & Future Assassins : Terrance Hayes
Larder : Rhona McAdam

and, the one I’ve returned to most …

Lanyard : Peter Sansom

MUSIC

Randall Goosby playing the Bruch Violin Concerto with the LPO under Alpesh Chauhan – and encoring with a Louisiana Blues Strut. Royal Festival Hall.

Celebrating Mingus: Guy Barker Big Band & the BBC Concert Orchestra : Queen Elizabeth Hall.

LPO/Jurowski : Mahler 9th Symphony – Final Rehearsal, Royal Festival Hall.

LSO/Noseda : Shostakovich 11th Symphony, the Barbican.

Joanna MacGregor: Jazz Inflections : LSO St. Luke’s

Two Pianos, Eight Hands : Fitkin, Hammond, Stott, Wall : Queen Elizabeth Hall

Jo Harrop singing Fine & Mellow with the Paul Edis Trio : Peggy’s Skylight, Nottingham.

Paul Edis Trio : Jazz at the Oxford, Kentish Town

Perville Bévort & Bévort 3 : Pizza Express, Soho

London Jazz Orchestra : The Vortex

A Few Days in Nottingham – Part 1

Some weeks back, my partner Sarah and I went with our friend Duncan to the Oxford Tavern – a short walk away in Kentish Town – to hear the Paul Edis Trio. Paul at the piano, Adam King on double bass and Joel Barford on drums. The missing link between Bill Evans, Brad Mehldau and Debussy suggested the Oxford, while being rooted in the straight-ahead swinging tradition. Not sure about the Debussy, but otherwise accurate as far as it goes. Clearly a busy and active composer, a good number of the pieces they played were Paul’s compositions – a refreshing change to the more usual diet of standards and 12 bar blues, though neither were ignored.

It was a good evening, good enough for me to look up his list of forthcoming gigs the next day, and there, to my pleasant surprise, was Peggy’s Skylight, Nottingham, Friday December 9th. Perfect. I had never been to said venue, though my son, Tom, who lives in Nottingham, had been there, I know, a number of times. And any excuse to spend time in Nottingham is a good one, even though it would mean being there on a weekend when Notts County were not playing at home.

One can’t have everything.

Despite some small confusion over seat reservations, our train journey from St. Pancras to Nottingham was straightforward; as was the tram (God! I do love a good tram!) that took us from the station to the Premier Inn in the midst of the many buildings that make up Nottingham Trent University.

Time to rest and unpack before setting out on foot, up the slow hill towards the back of the Royal Concert Hall and the Theatre Royal, then down towards the crowds in the Old Market Square, which, at first sight, seemed to have been turned into a giant building site. But no, it’s a large, temporary, skating rink – by the shrieks of panic or laughter, used to capacity – and sharing the square with a giant ferris wheel, the obligatory Christmas tree and the overflow of stalls from the Christmas market, the Council House a distinguished purple in the background.

Making our way through the crowds, we soon arrived in the café-bar at Broadway (Nottingham’s excellent independent cinema), where we were to meet Tom and his partner, Karen, and our friends Graham and Helen, tempted for the occasion to venture forth from the by-ways of Lincolnshire. Suitably fortified, we walked the short distance to the club, where we had booked a table close to the band.

Jazz Club – Bar – Kitchen reads the strap line on the Skylight’s web site – live Jazz with a Middle Eastern inspired menu. All true. The club has an excellent sound system, the food was very good indeed, but – and there’s a big but coming – it suffers from the curse of venues that must, to a significant extent, rely on takings from the bar. Why one would choose to spend the evening drinking copiously and therefore talking loudly somewhere that the majority of people had gone primarily to listen to music, is, to me, a mystery. Mostly, but not always, and thanks to the aforementioned sound system, the music won out, but the overloud conversations and laughter from the back of the room left me feeling increasingly uncomfortable.

Thankfully, as I say, the music won out. On this occasion Paul Edis was accompanied by Jihad Darwish on bass and Andrew Wood – a Nottingham local – on drums. Both excellent. And the trio was fronted for most of the evening by the vocalist Jo Harrop, another name new to me – I obviously haven’t been getting out much – possessed of a strong and flexible voice, particularly effective in its lower register. Most of the material – if I was listening correctly – came from Jo’s solo album and a recent album she and Paul have made together – many of the songs written by Paul and his wife, Kate. A fine set, crowned, for me, by the encore, a storming version of Billie Holiday’s Fine and Mellow.

One sad note to finish on. I learned from Andrew Wood that the bass player Geoff Pearson, with whom I’d read in a number of Notts jazz ensembles over several decades, and who I knew had been unwell, had died. A fine musician and a lovely, generous man.

December Playlist …

Here there are, December’s Accidental Top Twelve, just marginally rearranged from whatever shuffled out while preparing and eating porridge, washing up and clearing away … and not a Santa or snowflake in sight.

THE BYRDS
Goin’ Back

WARREN ZEVON
Accidentally Like a Martyr

ROBERT WYATT
Shipbuilding

NANCI GRIFFITH
Drive-in Movies & Dashboard Lights

COWBOY JUNKIES
A Horse in the Country

SHELBY LYNNE
Leavin’

JOHN STEWART
All the Dangerous Men

PATTY GRIFFIN
Mary

JOHN STEWART
Broken Roses

RUMER
Aretha

ELVIS COSTELLO & ALLEN TOUSSAINT
Freedom for the Stallion

ARLO GUTHRIE
Last Train

REMEMBERING MONK’S BIRTHDAY …

October 10th, 1917; Rocky Mount, North Carolina, USA

MONK AT THE FIVE SPOT 

They’ve all been here to see him: Ginsburg,
Mailer; poets, painters, other musicians;
Larry Rivers and his crowd
jammed into a table at the back,
Frank O’Hara in earnest conversation,
oblivious of the fact that Monk,
dark glasses shielding his eyes,
is starting to rock back and forth
at the piano, feeling for a rhythm 
in the bottom hand, while the right 
finds angles of its own …

Blue Monk, ‘Round Midnight,
Epistrophy; Ruby, My Dear.

And all this time, head down, horn hooked
over his shoulder, John Coltrane waits,
biding his time, as Monk launches himself
into a jinking solo, which skips and leaps
and builds into an angular arpeggio
that calls to mind a man stumbling headlong 
down a flight of stairs, never quite losing his balance, 
not falling but saving himself with an upward swoop 
and 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.

I Mean You. The 5 Spot, New York City,
September, 1957

  • from ‘Aslant‘, Shoestring Press, 2019 (Revised)

Lost & Found …

Some little while ago, pre-Covid, I posted a piece outlining what was, for me then, a normal morning, one which began reading the newspaper over coffee at the small café attached to the Parliament Hill Lido, on the edge of Hampstead Heath, before walking some three to five miles around the Heath itself then returning home.

Events have changed that, primarily the pandemic, during the worst of which I scarcely went out at all, and, more recently the quite dramatic fall that resulted in fractures to various parts of the body, mostly now healed save for one that still necessitates me wearing a cumbersome neck brace and which seems, somehow, to have taken the wind out of me in a possibly permanent way.

So, instead of walking fifteen minutes to the Lido Café, I simply pick up the paper from where it was delivered and walk, a tad warily, around the corner to Cinnamon Village, a friendly neighbourhood café, where the Turkish staff greet me as “Uncle” and are fulfilling my unspoken order as I walk through the door.

After that, I might progress to the Heath, depending on the weather – rain, other than torrential is fine, but no temperatures over 21 or 22 – with this collar tight to my neck it quickly becomes less than comfortable, and my walk can be deferred until the relative coolness of late afternoon – as it will be today.

Indoors, then, and wishing to do something useful, I figured it was time to do a little reorganising of the library shelves, particularly those given over to art books and catalogues in the main, but holding also roughly half of mine and Sarah’s vinyl albums and the stereo on which they get played. An exercise which inevitably turns up one or two items you’d forgotten you owned. In this instance a volume of McSweeney’s Quarterly, no. 39, and two lps by Doc Watson and his son, Merle.

I’m immediately engaged by the reference to Elmore Leonard and Karen Cisco, a character who appeared in his novel, Out of Sight, and who was later played – to great effect – by Jennifer Lopez in the Steven Soderbergh movie of the same name. I must, I think, have read this story – “Chick Killer” – before, whenever I first took it home, but when I turn to the appropriate page my eye is taken by the insert of eight postcard size colour photographs set within the pages (and repeated further along). They’re the work of Tabitha Soren, someone I’ve not come across before, but quickly use the internet to track down. She’s been a professional photographer for over 25 years, her work displayed widely in the United States, but only once, as far as I can see, in the UK – at The Photographers’ Gallery in Central London, a show I must somehow have missed.

Photo: Tabitha Soren

The Leonard story is slight – a mere six pages long – and consists of a conversation between Karen and her dad, in which she recounts a face-to-face encounter with a dangerous criminal. Six pages but worth however many pennies they cost. Leonard is often at his best, I think when he is at his most relaxed, as he is here. Without forcing it, he makes the relationship between father and daughter real and does this without losing the danger of the confrontation. This is how it begins …

Karen Sisco was telling her dad, “This guy wearing cowboy boots walks into the bar … “
Her dad said, “I’ve heard it.”
‘I’m serious,” Karen said. “Yesterday afternoon, my last day as a federal marshal after six and a half years. In less than an hour I’ll hand in my star.” She paused, watching her dad. “And Bob Ray Harris, high, on the Five Most Wanted list, walks into the bar. O’Shea’s on Clematis, on the street from the courthouse …. “

While I’m reading this I’m half-listening to the first of the Doc & Merle Watson albums, Then & Now, which I note I bought in February, 1974 – the other, Lonesome Road, in December, ’77. When I put the story down, I listen more attentively. It’s bluegrass, basically – Doc Watson on guitar and harmonica, son, Merle, on guitar and banjo. There are other, supporting, musicians playing, variously, dobro, fiddle, steel guitar, bass and “drums & leg”. The standard of playing is high – a bunch of guys enjoying themselves but in a highly professional way – and the vocals – mostly Doc’s, I think – are relaxed and easy. I was lucky enough to see Doc Watson live on a visit to the States, driving out with my good friends, Patrick and Sarah, from Washington D.C. to the Birchmere, in Alexandria. That may have been the occasion it was snowing quite heavily when setting out and still snowing as we returned, I’m not sure. His son wasn’t there: he had died in a tractor accident in 1985.

Doc Watson’s hands
Merle Watson’s hands

Early Summer Playlist : from Guy Clark to Neil Young

Guy Clark
L.A. Freeway

Eric Anderson
Is it Really Love At All?

Ella Fitzgerald
Everything I’ve Got Belongs To You

Thelonious Monk
(I Don’t Stand) A Ghost of a Chance With You

Emmylou Harris
To Daddy

Laura Marling
Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)

Johnny Shines
Sweet Home Chicago

Eddie Cochrane
Cut Across Shorty

Tom Waits
Hold On

Merle Haggard
Workingman’s Blues

Bob Dylan
Knocking on Heaven’s Door

Jennifer Warnes
Ain’t No Cure For Love

Tish Hinojosa
Every Word

The Delines
I Won’t Slip Up

Rumer
We Will

Paul Simon
Slip Sliding Away

Billie Holiday
This Year’s Kisses

Kris McKay
Any Single Solitary Heart

Neil Young
Unknown Legend


Early Summer: Reading John Ashbery while walking on Hampstead Heath

Out on Hampstead Heath earlier this morning, the first time this week; bright, strong sunshine – a tad too strong for my personal taste, too warm – and clear skies. When I first enter the Heath from Millfield Lane – a good vantage point close by the men’s swimming pond – I can see less than a dozen people, all walking, mostly with dogs, save for one man sitting on the wooden parapet overlooking the pond itself.

At the next pond over – historically called the Boating Pond – my dad and I once proudly sailed our yacht there, only for it to be marooned close to the centre, waiting for a wind – I sit a while and watch the occasional ripples caused by fish rising close to the otherwise calm surface. Some walkers, making a circuit of the pond, nod their head or mumble a greeting, others stride on in steady concentration.

When I move on, it is up a well-trodden incline, thankfully none too steep, that takes me onto the meadow opposite, rich with buttercups. A hundred yards or so and the land has levelled out and I’m within sight of the tumulus, pleased then to find that one of the benches that surround it is free. The view south-east is towards the Olympic Park and beyond; due south and hidden by the trees, the centre of the city will be silhouetted against the sky. After some moments I take from my pocket a new book, purchased just yesterday: Something Close to Music – a selection of John Ashbery’s writing about artists such as Joan Mitchell and Jane Freilicher, together with some of his own poems and several playlists the editor has made from the two thousand records, CDs and cassette tapes that were in Ashbery’s collection.

The music is mostly what would have been classified, I think, as Contemporary Classical – John Cage, Elliott Carter, Morton Feldman, Arvo Part, John Adams – maybe it still is – with a few outriders thrown in – Bernard Herman’s soundtrack for Hitchcock’s Vertigo; Brian Eno’s Music for Airports; John Zorn; Bill Frisell and Evan Parker playing Gavin Bryars. The writing about artists’ work is detailed and generous – a good number, such as Freilicher, were close friends and an integral part of the New York Poetry & Painting scene held together (loosely, but held nevertheless) by Frank O’Hara.

The book, as a whole, is a small delight; one of a growing number of well-designed, easily pocketable collections of writing about visual art published by David Zwirner Books, and available, as far as I can see, wherever good books are sold. I bought mine at the London Review Bookshop, though had I been in Nottingham I would have bought it, doubtless at Five Leaves Bookshop.

Sometime in the next few days, I’ll post a listing of the music I was listening via my MP3 player during the final third of my walk …

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.

New Year Playlist

My first solo walk of the New Year on Hampstead Heath today, cold with perfect blue skies, a miserly 8,000 steps that took me, nevertheless, around a couple of ponds and up a couple of slow inclines, careful to watch out for what remained of the treacherous iced-over water that had run down onto the concrete paths.

Whichever route I take – and there are several – I usually aim to take a rest on one of the benches that surround the Tumulus, knowing that I’m now some 30/40 minutes from home.

View through the trees on the Tumulus

If I’ve remembered to slip a book into my pocket, I’ll spend a little time there reading – today it was The Letters of James Schuyler to Frank O’Hara – and before setting off on that last leg, take my little MP3 player from another pocket, set ear buds in place and press shuffle …

From which comes this first playlist of the year …

Leonard Cohen
Chelsea Hotel

Louis Armstrong
Chantez Les Bas
from Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy

Bill Morissey
Inside

Bonnie Raitt
Not ‘Cause I Wanted To

Joni Mitchell
Blue

Jimmy LeVave
For Everyman
from Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Brown

Billie Holiday
On the Sentimental Side
with Lester Young and the Teddy Wilson Orchestra

Gretchen Peters
When All You Got is a Hammer

Rosemary Clooney

As Long As I Live
with (I think) Scott Hamilton (tenor) & Warren Vaché (tpt/c’net)

Frank Sinatra
Nice Work If You Can Get It

John Prine
Morning Train

Two Takes on Lester Young … 2. Lester in Paris

It used to be there under Birthdays, some years at least. The daily listing in the paper, the Guardian, occasionally the Times. September 18th. Valentine Collins, jazz musician. And then his age: 27, 35, 39. Not 40. Val never reached 40.

So begins one of my short stories, Minor Key, concerning a British saxophonist hoping to keep his life – and his playing – together by accepting a residency in a Paris jazz club, at the same time that one his idols, Lester Young, is in Paris trying to do the self-same thing. Though to an outsider – or to anyone who cares, such as Val’s long-time friend Anna – it might not seem as if either man is trying very hard. Rather, the opposite.

Here’s a taste, involving both men …

“Minor Key”: First published in Paris Noir, edited by Maxim Jakubowski, Serpent’s Tail, London, 2007. Reprinted in Minor Key, Five Leaves, Nottingham, 2009. Reprinted in A Darker Shade of Blue, William Heinemann, London, 2010.

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Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life