Monk, Me & the art of Going Down Slow

Some days, over say twenty-four hours or so, you could get to feel your stars have mysteriously fallen into happier than usual alignment.

It began last evening, at the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town, north London, where my friend Woody Haut and I were celebrating the publication of our new books – in Woody’s case a novel, Days of Smoke, set in Los Angeles and San Francisco during the maelstrom of 1968, and in mine, a small but beautifully formed [thanks to Five Leaves Publications] collection of short stories, Going Down Slow.

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There were forty or fifty people present; there was wine; Woody and I read and asked each other questions; the audience asked questions – good ones; at the end of it all books were sold and signed. Several of the questions, one way or another, were about music and its place in our work, its importance to our writing. I talked about not really listening to music when I was writing, but occasionally having it playing in an adjacent room, Thelonious Monk, especially; the ear being pricked, attention gathered, by a note or phrase that headed off into a sharp and unexpected direction: truly, the sound of surprise.

Woody’s favourite of my books, alongside Darkness, Darkness, is In a True Light, which is partly set in Greenwich Village in the late 50s, early 60s, and includes a chapter in which the leading character goes to the Five Spot to hear Monk play.

… Monk launches himself along the keyboard in a clattering arpeggio which calls to mind a man falling headlong down a flight of stairs, never quite losing his balance, not falling, saving himself, miraculously, with an upward swoop, and final, ringing double-handed chord.

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That passage, and that book, are referred to in a recent piece by the American critic and commentator, Bill Ott, published in Booklist Online.

With reference to the centenary  of Monk’s birth, Ott mentions a number of writers who have written about his music in various ways before concentrating, very positively, on my own attempts in both poetry and prose. So positive, in fact, that when I read it my heart gave a little lift and I’ve not yet been able to wipe the smile off my face.

Good things come in pairs?

A matter of a few hours later, the first review of Going Down Slow arrived, this by Jim Burns in the Northern Review of Books. “If anyone should be tempted to think of Harvey as ‘just a crime writer’ they should think again.”

Thanks, Jim; thanks, Bill; thanks, Woody; thanks, Thelonious: thank my lucky stars.

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Looking for Charlie Resnick: Slow Burn

Some nights, Resnick thought, you knew sleep wasn’t destined to come; or that, if it did, it would be haunted by dreams pitched just this side of nightmare, broken by the startled cry of the telephone heralding some new disaster, awful and mundane. So there he was, at close to two a. m., ferrying through the sparsely filled refrigerator for the makings of a snack, during cold milk – yes,milk – into a glass, opening the back door so that Pepper could join Dizzy in a little night-time prowling, hunting down whatever was slower or slower-witted than themselves. Miles and Bud were upstairs on his bed, missing, perhaps, his bulk and warmth while relishing  the extra space.

Carrying his sandwich through into the front room, he pulled an album from the shelf and slipped the record from its tattered sleeve. The Thelonious Monk Trio on Prestige. Through the smeared glass of the front bay, he could see the outlines of houses left and right along the curve of street, roofs bulked against a city sky that was never truly dark. Faint, the hum of occasional cars, one block  away on the Woodborough Road. Monk’s fingers, flat, percussive, treading their way through ‘Bemesha Swing’ like an overgrown child lurching along the pavement, crack by crack. It was no surprise when the phone finally rang, nor that the voice at the other end was his sergeant’s, weary and resigned.

That deep into the early hours it was no more than a five minute drive to the old Lace Market, the corner of Stoney Street and King’s Place and the Victorian conversion that for years had housed Jimmy Nolan’s jazz club and bar. Acrid and pungent, the scent of burning struck Resnick as he climbed out of the car. Smoke eddied on the air. Fire officers, purposeful yet unhurried, damped down smouldering wreckage; making safe. Resnick knew they would already have isolated, as far as possible, the area where the fire began. The building itself was little more than a blackened shell.

Four cats still rather than just the one; vinyl albums instead of CDs, back before vinyl was the trendy thing: Resnick in 1999. A while ago.

‘Slow Burn’, the short story of which this is the beginning, actually began life a year earlier, as a 60 minute radio script written for BBC 4 producer, David Hunter, which was originally broadcast in 1998 and has been repeated on several occasions, most recently  this week on Radio 4 Extra. You can still catch it on the BBC Radio iPlayer, where it’s available, from today, for another 27 days.

David Hunter was the producer who marshalled my dramatisations of two Resnick novels onto the airwaves, Wasted Years in 1995 and Cutting Edge in 1996, each in several parts. Slow Burn followed these in 1998 and my original radio script became a short story, which was first published a year later in the collection, Now’s the Time, by my own small press, Slow Dancer, that collection being reprinted, in an enlarged edition, by William Heinemann in 2002 and in 2013 the Arrow paperback below.

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There has only been one representation of Resnick on screen [so far – hope springs eternal et cetera] that by Tom Wilkinson in two television adaptations – Lonely Hearts & Rough Treatment, produced by Colin Rogers for Deco Films and TV and the BBC, and shown in 1992 and 1993 respectively. Tom reprised the role in the first of the radio versions mentioned above [Wasted Years in ’95], after which Hollywood beckoned and Resnick was personified first by Tom Georgson in Cutting Edge, then Philip Jackson in Slow Burn, and, finally, Keith Barron, in two other dramatised short stories, Cheryl (2001) and Bird of Paradise (2002).

Keith Barron, who sadly died just yesterday, November 15th, was the reader of two abridged versions of the novels Cold Light and Living  Proof, released by Reed Audio in 1995, and Philip Jackson the reader in the excellent ten-part version of Wasted Years, adroitly abridged and directed by Gordon House for BBC Radio 4 and since repeated on a number of occasions.

Most recently, Resnick was brought to the stage by David Fleeshman in the Nottingham Playhouse/New Perspectives production of Darkness, Darkness, directed by Jack McNamara. That’s David, outside the Playhouse, immediately below, and, with Simone Saunders as Catherine Njoroge, in a scene from the play.

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And here’s Tom Wilkinson in Resnick guise, first in a BBC publicity shot and below on the jacket of the French edition of Lonely Hearts, Coeurs Solitaires.

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Henning Mankel: “After the Fire”

Henning Mankel’s After the Fire, which has just been published here by Harvill Secker in a translation by Marline Delargy, was first published in his native Sweden in 2015, the year that he died. It’s a strange book, strange but compelling – not a crime novel, not a mystery – though there is a mystery smouldering deep at its centre – a story told in the first person by a seventy-year-old former doctor, Fredrik Welin, who has chosen to live alone on one of the remote islands of an equally remote Swedish archipelago. The house he has been living in has belonged to his family for generations and it is his intention to pass it on to his daughter Louise – the daughter he never knew existed until ten years previously, when she was already thirty. But as the book begins, Fredrik is woken by a blaze of light which signals that the house is in flames and he just escapes with his life, the house burning to the ground. It is this event that forces Fredrik out of the carapace into which he has retreated and makes him engage again with the world.

After the Fire is a novel about loneliness, about need; about the fears that come with old age, that of dying most of all. It is a book soaked in mortality. And anger. Frederic is angry with himself – angry at the loss of balance that comes with ageing, at the feelings of lust that still rise up, unbidden and unrequited – angry at the world. He is truculent, standoffish; loses his temper frequently and for little reason, shouts at strangers and at what few friends he has; pursues in embarrassing fashion a woman journalist some thirty years younger.

As the story develops there are other fires, accusations of arson, sudden deaths, and circumstances shake Fredric away from his surly loneliness; his daughter and her partner have a child; the journalist, while still resisting Frederic as a sexual partner, finds in him a salve to ease a loneliness of her own. And gradually, almost against his own inclinations, Fredric comes to a state of equilibrium, of acceptance …

It was already late August.

Soon the autumn would come.

But the darkness no longer frightened me.

Like the winter, death will come.

Mankel has written, of course, about ageing before. In the early Wallander books there is a memorable portrait of Kurt’s father, an obsessive painter driven to put the same scene on canvas after canvas, and, like Fredrik, a man who is quick to anger, slow to reason. Unlike Fredrik (though we may detect, perhaps, early signs) Wallander’s father is suffering from a form of dementia, an illness from which Wallander will suffer himself, the implacable onset of Alzheimer’s Disease chronicled with merciless compassion and understanding in the final novel of the sequence, The Troubled Man.

And, away from the novels themselves, though dependent upon them, there are two, I think, wonderful portrayals on film of ageing men shaking an unsteady fist against the dying of the light: David Warner as Wallander’s father in the British-made series featuring Kenneth Branagh, and the incomparable Krister Henriksson in the final episodes of the Swedish Wallander series.

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Here’s another Whitby poem from Bluer Than This that didn’t make its way into the more recent New & Selected …

The Wrong Wind

The wrong wind
marshals its forces along the channel
and that range of hills we can quite clearly see
against the northern horizon
will within minutes be lost to sight.

Down in the town
a woman bustles across the bridge
with lowered head, plastic shopping bags
bumping and banging against her legs.

Outside the Jolly Sailors
two dogs pause in their robust examination
of each other’s genitalia to sniff the air,
and along the street at number 54, the children’s
crossing guard, once assistant harbour master,
taps his barometer and scowls;
the parrot in its cage is one hundred and five
or one hundred and ten, depending
what you believe.

High on the West Cliff
we squat in the lea of blackened gravestones
and count our blessings: peppermints, lip salve,
four squares of dark chocolate, the return
halves of two supersaver tickets
to Pudset via Leeds and a compass
neither of us can read. A ladybird,
startled, stops its scuttling run along your arm
and braces its wings for flight. Too late now,
too foolish to make a dash across
open ground, we wait, and if our luck holds
the worst of the storm will pass us by.

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Monk at the Five Spot

 

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Thelonious Sphere Monk : October 10th, 1917 – February 17th, 1982

One of the regrets of my life [I’ve had a few] is that I never took the opportunity to see Thelonious Monk live; but in my novel, In a True Light, Sloane got to see him in my stead. Closest I got.

Sloane, skinny in Levis and a plaid short, has stood in line at the 5 Spot for the best part of an hour and missed most of the first set. Inside, the only seat he’s able to find squashes him close to several others right up against the stage.

Monk is wearing a pale jacket, loose across his shoulders – pale green – silver and grey striped tie knotted snug against the collar of his white shirt; dark hair neatly, recently trimmed; no hat tonight, no hat – this man who always wears a hat; goatee beard and moustache, dark glasses shielding his eyes. Fingers rolling a little, feeling for a rhythm in the bottom hand; rocking back upon the piano stool, then thrusting forward, elbows angled out, playing with his whole body. And the drummer, seated at Monk’s back, following each movement, listening to each new shift and shuffle, quick and careful as a hawk. Monk’s foot, his right foot, skewing wide and stomping down, punctuating the broken line as, stationed in the piano’s curve, the bassist, eyes closed, feels for an underlying pulse. And alongside him, head down, horn hooked over his shoulder, Coltrane, John Coltrane, focussed, biding his time.

Each night, the same riffs, the same themes torn this way and that – “Ruby, My Dear”, “Round Midnight”, “Blue Monk”. And that evening, Sloane rising awkwardly to let someone squeeze past, and hearing a shout from a table near the side wall – “Jane! Hey, Jane!” – turns his head in time to see a woman near the entrance, dark-haired and smiling at the sound of her name, time enough – just – to see she is beautiful, just how beautiful she is, before Monk launches himself along the keyboard in a clattering arpeggio which calls to mind a man stumbling headlong down a flight of stairs, never quite losing his balance, not falling but saving himself, miraculously, with an upward swoop and a final, ringing double-handed chord.
“I Mean You”. The 5 Spot, September, 1957: the first time Sloan laid eyes on Jane Graham.

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“Fedora”

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As I’ve been telling anyone and everyone who’ll bend an ear, Five Leaves are publishing Going Down Slow, a collection of seven of my previously uncollected short stories, on November 14th and marking the event with a launch evening at their grand little bookstore in Nottingham. On Monday of the week following, November 20th, I shall be joining forces with Woody Haut at the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town, north London, to celebrate the publication of both Going Down Slow and Woody’s new novel, Days of Smoke. And that Friday, I shall be at Foyles Bookshop in Charing Cross Road, doing my poetry & jazz thing with the John Lake Band and sneaking in a smattering of short fiction when the band’s back is turned.

I might even read the beginning of “Fedora”, which goes like this …

When they had first met, amused by his occupation, Kate had sent him copies of Hammett and Chandler, two neat piles of paperbacks, bubble-wrapped, courier-delivered. A note: If you’re going to do, do it right. Fedora follows. He hadn’t been certain exactly what a fedora was.

Jack Kiley, private investigator. Security work of all kinds undertaken. Ex-Metropolitan Police.

Most of his assignments came from bigger security firms, PR agencies with clients in need of baby sitting, steering clear of trouble; solicitors after witness confirmation, a little dirt. If it didn’t make him rich, most months it paid the rent: a second-floor flat above a charity shop in north London, Tufnell Park. He still didn’t have a hat.

Till now.

One of the volunteers in the shop had taken it in. ‘An admirer, Jack, is that what it is?’

There was a card attached to the outside of the box: Chris Ruocco of London, Bespoke Tailoring. It hadn’t come far. A quarter mile, at most. Kiley had paused often enough outside the shop, coveting suits in the window he could ill afford.

But this was a broad-brimmed felt hat, not quite black. Midnight blue? He tried it on for size. More or less a perfect fit.

There was a note sticking up from the band: on one side, a quote from Chandler; on the other a message: Ozone, tomorrow. 11am? Both in Kate Keenan’s hand.

He took the hat back off and placed it on the table alongside his mobile phone. Had half a mind to call her and decline. Thanks, but no thanks. Make some excuse. Drop the fedora back at Ruocco’s next time he caught the overground from Kentish Town.

It had been six months now since he and Kate had last met, the premiere of a new Turkish-Albanian film to which she’d been invited, Kiley leaving halfway through and consoling himself with several large whiskies in the cinema bar. When Kate had finally emerged, preoccupied by the piece she was going to write for her column in the Independent, something praising the film’s mysterious grandeur, it’s uncompromising pessimism – the phrases already forming inside her head – Kiley’s sarcastic ‘Got better, did it?’ precipitated a row which ended on the street outside with her calling him a hopeless philistine and Kiley suggesting she take whatever pretentious arty crap she was going to write for her bloody newspaper and shove it.

Since then, silence.

Now what was this? A peace offering? Something more?

Kiley shook his head. Was he really going to put himself through all that again? Kate’s companion. Cramped evenings in some tiny theatre upstairs, less room for his knees than the North End at Leyton Orient; standing for what seemed like hours, watching others genuflect before the banality of some Turner Prize winner; another mind-numbing lecture at the British Library; brilliant meals at Moro or the River Café on Kate’s expense account; great sex.

Well, thought Kiley, nothing was perfect.

“Going Down Slow”

Once upon a time – 2009, to be exact – there was Minor Key, a nicely put together limited edition hardback published by Five Leaves of Nottingham and containing five short stories, half a dozen poems and an introductory essay, “Resnick, Nottingham and All That  Jazz”.

 

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Well, now the good folk at Five Leaves are set to publish something in the way of a sequel: Going Down Slow & Other Stories – seven previously uncollected short stories in a limited edition hardback with a run of 1000 copies, the first 100 of which will be numbered and signed. Publication date is Tuesday, 14th November and there will be a launch event at Five Leaves Bookshop between 7.00 & 8.30pm that evening. Admission is free, but, as anyone who’s been to the shop will know, space is limited, so if you’re thinking of going along, best to RSVP to events@fiveleaves.co.uk or risk being shut outside, looking in, with only the occasional punter heading for the betting shop next door for company.

As you’ll see from the cover, there’s a bit of a retro thing going on: retro-noir; retro-hard boiled detective; retro-fedora. Which is the title of one of the stories – “Fedora” – the story that was awarded the CWA Short Story Dagger in 2014. It’s a Jack Kiley story – as are “Second Chance” and “Dead Dames Don’t Sing”, the latter a tale of rare books, rarer manuscripts and pulp fiction that first appeared in the Bibliomysteries series published by Otto Penzler’s New York-based Mysterious Bookshop.

Kiley, for those who haven’t previously made his acquaintance, was formerly an officer in the Met, as well as, briefly, a professional footballer, and is currently eking out a living as a private detective in North London – hence the fedora, given to him by his friend Kate as a kind of joke. Joke or not, he wears it well.

Along the three Kileys, there are two Nottingham-based stories featuring Charlie Resnick – “Not Tommy Johnson” and the title story, “Going Down Slow” – and a third Nottingham story, “Ask Me Now”, a companion piece to “Sack O’Woe”, which first appeared in a Mystery Writers of America anthology, The Blue Religion, edited by Michael Connelly.  And if you’ve been counting you’ll know that leaves one more: “Handy Man”, a rare, for me, exercise in writing in the first person, female first person at that, which takes off from the excellent Amy Rigby song, “Keep It To Yourself”.

If you can’t get along to the launch in Nottingham, but live down south, on the Monday of the week following, the 20th, I shall be at the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town with the writer Woody Haut, to celebrate the publication of his novel, Days of Smoke, and to talk about both that book and Going Down Slow. And just to round things off, on Friday 24th, 6.30 – 7.30pm, I’m reading with the John Lake Band at a Ray’s Jazz event at Foyles Bookshop in Charing Cross Road. Mostly poetry on this occasion, but I’m sure the short stories will sneak in there somewhere.

And should you want to pre-order a copy [there are only 1,000, remember] you can do so from the Five Leaves Bookshop bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk / 0115 837 3097. Price £12.99 post free in the UK.

Two Poems for National Poetry Day

Both of the poems I’ve lighted upon to share on National Poetry Day were written in the States in the mid-90s when I was fortunate enough to be a participant in a couple of poetry writing courses at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference, tutored by Robert Hass, Sharon Olds, Brenda Hillman, Lucille Clifton and Galway Kinnell. If you can’t come up with something half way decent after that, it’s likely time to give the muse a rest.

OUT OF SILENCE
Squaw Valley, 1995

How the light diffuses round house corners;
redwood walls, the breaking colour of packed earth,
ochre in the mouth

The red woodpecker
testilly chiselling sap from a small ash
the only sound in the valley.

FAILED SONNET HOME

The window boxes outside the Clocktower Café
are delerious with blood. Cappuccino with
chocolate and cinnamon. Blueberry muffin.
How many more days can the sky sustain
this absurdity of blue? I can taste vanilla
from the pines. You know the other day
Jake drove me to Truckee in his van
and in Safeway I was stalled mid-aisle
by the scent of that hot-buttered toast
we shared before you drove me to the train.
How far are we away? Crimson columbine,
black centre of violet pansy, its yellow eye –
one thing you learn here: how little soil
it takes to nourish the most stubborn root.

I’d always thought the final lines refer to the continuance of love in what seem to be unfulfilling situations, but it occurs to me now they might also refer to the writing of poetry.

And I believe, for a while at least, the second poem was included in a University of Nottingham English course about the sonnet – a self-confessed example, I suppose, of how not to do it.

For anyone wanting to read more, both poems are in included in Out of Silence: New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop, 2014), available from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk or http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/bookshop/books-pamphlets  

A Writer’s Life

I had written a lot, done work of much difficulty; had worked under pressure more or less since my schooldays. Before the writing, there had been the learning; writing had come to me slowly. Before that, there had been Oxford; and  before that, the school in Trinidad where I had worked for the Oxford scholarship. There had been a long preparation for the writing career! And then I discovered that to be a writer was not (as I had imagined) a state – of competence, or achievement, or fame, or content – at which on arrived and where one stayed. There was a special anguish attached to the career; whatever the labour of any piece of writing, whatever its creative challenges and satisfactions, time had always taken me away from it. And, with time passing, I felt mocked by what I had already done; it seemed to belong to a time of vigour, now past for good. Emptiness, restlessness built up again; and it was necessary once more, out of my internal resources alone, to start on another book, to commit myself to that consuming process again.

V. S. Naipaul: The Enigma of Arrival

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Rhythm is Our Business

 

Prose

In her, to me, fascinating book, Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose retells the story of the aspiring young writer who told his agent he wasn’t really interested in what he wrote about, what he really concerned him, what he wanted to do most of all, was to write really great sentences. Promise me, the agent replied, you will never, ever say that to an American publisher.

Perhaps the writer in question, apocryphal or not, had been reading Hemingway’s account of his early writing life in A Moveable Feast – also quoted by Prose.

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going … I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.

As Prose points out, that raises the question of what exactly constitutes a ‘true’ sentence. She  thinks it might mean a beautiful sentence, while appreciating that such a concept is equally hard to define. For me I think it would be a combination of sound and meaning: the right rhythm, the most appropriate choice of words, the right sense of balance, all of those combined with the clearest meaning – while acknowledging there are times when that meaning will be purposefully ambiguous.

“All the elements of good writing,” Prose says, “depend upon the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another.” And further, “Rhythm is nearly as important in prose as it is in poetry. I have heard a number of writers say that they would rather choose the slightly wrong word that made their sentence more musical than the precisely right one that made it more awkward and clunky.”

Sometimes people ask me if also writing poetry has affected my writing of fiction; others ask, to what extent has your love of jazz – and the fact that you used to play the drums – influenced your writing? The answer to both is the same: hopefully both have helped me to develop a sense of rhythm. The Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, pre-eminent in the States in the 30s, had as their virtual theme tune a piece called “Rhythm is Our Business”; perhaps we writers could adopt it for ourselves.

The story Prose tells about the writer and his agent reminded me of an occasion a couple of years back when I was being interviewed by fellow-writer Mark Billingham on stage at the Harrogate Crime Festival. I can’t remember Mark’s exact question – we were discussing my then latest novel, Darkness, Darkness –  but my answer was something to the effect that whatever the strengths (and weaknesses) of the book might be, the greatest sense of achievement for me came from writing one single sentence that seemed to me to be just right. My publisher was in the audience and she said afterwards she’d wanted to ask what exactly the sentence was, but had refrained. Maybe just as well – few sequences of words, taken out of context – because the context within which they occur, is, of course, intrinsic to their meaning – would live up to such expectation.

This past week, labouring over the proofs of both a new novel and a new collection of short stories, I’ve had the fairly unusual experience of reading quite a lot of my own writing, some time, as it were, after the event. In part, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, this can be a fairly chastening experience, one which was occasionally redeemed for me by coming across a sentence or two which brought me up short with a sense of yes, okay, I just might be getting the hang of it after all. The three that follow are from the stories in Going Down Slow, to be published in November.

Melanie Lessing stood in the hallway, the ghost of prettiness hovering about her, anxiety startling her eyes.

Slowly, she uncurled, face turning towards the light.

She left the room and he heard the fridge door open and close; the glasses were tissue-thin, tinged with green; the wine grassy, cold.

All right, nothing to set the world on fire. But they gave me a little chill of pleasure when I wrote them and they still do. The way, in the last one for instance, both parts of the sentence, either side of the semi-colon, balance and match; the repetition in ‘green’ and ‘grassy’; the near-echo in ‘thin’ and ‘tinged’; the final emphasis of ‘cold’. That lovely bloody semi-colon.