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.

Two Takes on Lester Young … 1. Lester, Resnick & the cats …

Listening to a selection of recordings by Lester Young the other day reminded me of several occasions on which he crops up in my writing – quite frequently, in fact, in the Charlie Resnick novels – if not as frequently as Thelonius Monk.

Here’s one occasion, from the second Resnick novel, Rough Treatment

Lester Young photographed by Herman Leonard

September Playlist

Another set of tracks thrown up by my excellent little Victure MP3 player on my morning walk on Hampstead Heath – warm this morning, without being overwhelming, and not an ominous cloud in the sky, unlike Friday, when they darkened, circled and finally unleashed a downpour that half-drowned me.

  1. Stars Fell On Alabama : Billie Holiday
  2. (If They Asked Me) I Could Write a Book : Ella Fitzgerald
  3. P. F. Sloane : Rumer
  4. My Next Thirty Years : Tim McGraw
  5. Never No Lament (Don’t Get Around Much Anymore) Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
  6. Late For the Sky : Joan Osborne
  7. Guitar : Tracey Thorne
  8. Hard Promises to Keep : Kimmie Rhodes & Willie Nelson
  9. She’s Got You : Rosanne Cash
  10. Parchman Farm : Mose Allison
  11. Old Time Feeling : Guy Clark
  12. Alison : Elvis Costello
  13. Boulder to Birmingham : Emmylou Harris
  14. So Cold in Vietnam : Johnny Shines
  15. What’s New : Louis Armstrong w. Oscar Peterson
  16. As Long As I Live : Rosemary Clooney w. Scott Hamilton & Warren Vaché
  17. For Everyman : Jimmy LaVave
  18. Central Reservation : Beth Orton
  19. Runaway : Bonnie Raitt
  20. Talkin’ at the Texaco : James McMurtry

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 … ?

July Playlist

Setting off on my Hampstead Heath walk this morning, the rain was falling quite strongly – but not strongly enough to prevent me calling in at the Lido Café for one of Allesio’s excellent flat whites – and by the time I was close to half way round my usual Sunday route – three miles or so in total – and passing Kenwood House, it had more or less ceased.

I don’t know what it is with these algorithms, but the third song that shuffled its way into my headphones and out of my MP3 player was Creedence Clearwater’s Who’ll Stop the Rain ? … Spooky.

  1. Body & Soul : Lester Young w. Oscar Peterson Trio
  2. Across the Border : Linda Rondstadt & Emmylou Harris
  3. Who’ll Stop the Rain? : Creedence Clearwater Revival
  4. St. Olav’s Gate : Tom Russell w. Shawn Colvin
  5. In the Ghetto : Elvis Presley
  6. Old Chunk of Coal : Billy Joe Shaver
  7. You Win Again : Mary Chapin Carpenter
  8. Daniel : Elton John
  9. Hard Livin’ : Martha Redbone
  10. L. A. Freeway : Guy Clark
  11. I’ve Got It Bad & That Ain’t Good : Thelonious Monk
  12. American Tune : Allen Toussaint
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