Walking London 5 : Fitzrovia & Bloomsbury

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More Wasted Years …

Wasted Years was the first of five radio adaptations based on the Resnick novels and short stories. First broadcast in 1995, it has been repeated several times since, and is about to be broadcast again, in two parts, on BBC Radio 4 Extra on Monday, February 5th and Tuesday, 6th, each episode playing three times – 10.00am, 3.00pm and (for the insomniacs out there) 3.00am the following morning.

Like all of the other dramatisations, Wasted Years was produced by David Hunter [with whom I’m currently working on the Inspector Chen series for Radio 4] and, unlike the others, featured Tom Wilkinson as Resnick. Tom, of course, had played the role in the televised versions of the first two novels, Lonely Hearts and Rough Treatment, which were shown on BBC One in  1992 & 1993. Two other actors also reprised their roles: Kate Eaton as Lynn Kellogg and Daniel Ryan as Kevin Naylor.

The radio version of Wasted Years is also notable for the performance of Gillian Bevan, who plays the singer, Ruth Strange, and sings the title song over the credits. The song was written by singer/songwriter Liz Simcock [recently on tour in a duo with Clive Gregson], the lyrics based on those I came up with for the original novel. Gillian sings it so well that every time the programme is broadcast there are enquiries as to whether it is more generally available – which, sadly, is not the case. Maybe Liz can be persuaded to include it on her next CD.

Every night I spend waiting
All those dreams and wasted tear,
Every minute, eery second, babe,
The worst of all my fears.
When you walk back through the door again,
All you’ll have for me is empty arms,
And empty promises,
And ten more, ten more, oh baby,
Ten more wasted years.

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People sometimes ask me which of the Resnick novels is my favourite, and, over the years, my answers have varied; but somewhere around the middle of Wasted Years occurs one of my favourite chapters, not least because [like the final speech in the Nottingham Playhouse/New Perspectives production of Darkness, Darkness] it contrives to yoke together Thelonious Monk and Nottingham’s Old Market Square.

In the square, a fifty-year-old man, trousers rolled past his knees, was paddling in one of the fountains, splashing handfuls of water up under the arms of his fraying coat. A young woman with a tattooed face was singing an old English melody to a scattering of grimy pigeons. Resnick stood by one of the benches, listening: a girl in denim shorts and overlapping T-shirts, razored hair, leather waistcoat with a death’s head on the back, standing there, oblivious of everything else, singing, in a voice strangely thin and pure, “She Moved Through the Fair”.

When she had finished and Resnick, wishing to say thanks, tell her how it had sounded, give her, perhaps, money, walked purposefully towards her, she turned her back on him and walked away.

On the steps, in the shadow of the lions, couples were kissing. Young men in short sleeves, leaning from the windows of their cars, slowly circled the square. Across from where Resnick was standing was the bland brick and glass of the store that twenty years before had been the Black Boy, the pub where he and Ben Riley would meet for an early evening pint. The glass that ten years ago was smashed and smashed again as rioters swaggered and roared through the city’s streets.

No way to hold it all back now.

Inside the house, he showered, turning the water as hot as he dared and lifting his face towards it, eyes closed; soaping his body over and over, the way he did after being called out to examine some poor victim, murdered often or not for small change or jealousy, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Steam clouded the bathroom, clogged the air, and still Resnick stood there, back bent now beneath the spray, content to let it wash over him.

In the kitchen, he felt the smoothness of the coffee beans in the small of his hand. He knew already which album he would pull from the shelves, slide on to the turntable from its sleeve.

The purple postage stamp on the cover, Monk’s face in profile at its centre, trilby had sloping forward, angled away, the thrust of the goatee beard rhyming the curve of the hat’s brim. Riverside 12-209: The Unique Thelonious Monk. “If only they’d take away the blindfold and the handcuffs,” Elaine used to say of Monk’s playing, “it might make all the difference.” Resnick would smile. Why play the right notes when the wrong ones will do?

Resnick set his coffee on the table by the chair and cued in the second track.

Monk picks the notes from the piano tentatively, as if it were a tune he once heard long ago and then, indistinctly, through an open window from an apartment down the street. There is more than uncertainty in the way his fingers falter, sliding between half-remembered chords, surprising themselves with fragments of melody, with things he would have preferred to have remained forgotten. “Memories of You”.

Moments when it is easy to imagine he might get up from the piano and walk away – except you know he cannot, any more than when the solo is finally over he can let it go. When you’re sure it’s over, probing with another pair of notes, a jinking run, a fading chord.

At the track’s end, he seems to hear her feet walk across the floor above: door to dressing table to wardrobe, wardrobe to dressing table to bed. If he went now and pushed open the door into the hallway, would he hear her voice?

“Charlie, aren’t you coming up?”

The final weeks when they lay beneath the same sheets, not speaking, not touching, catching at their breath, fearful that in sleep they might be turned inward by some old habit or need.

“Christ, Charlie!” Ben Riley had exclaimed. “What the heck’s the matter with you? You got a face like bloody death!”

And in truth he had – because in truth that’s what it had been like: dying.

A long death and slow, eked out, a little each day.

Fragments.

“Don’t you see, Charlie?”

Once the blindfold had been taken away, it made all the difference.

from Wasted Years, first published, Viking, 1993

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Out of the Archive: a Slow Dancer Reading

A few days ago I was reminded a piece by the poet Anthony Wilson called “Life Saving Poems”, describing his visit to a Slow Dancer poetry reading at the Voice Box at the Royal Festival Hall. It was reprinted, with Anthony’s permission, on the old Mellotone blog in 2013 and seemed so evocative, so well-written, that I’m reproducing it again here …

Sometime in the early Nineties I did a very brave thing. I took myself to a poetry reading. I went on my own. I knew nobody there and none of the poets who were reading. The reading took place in the Voice Box on the top floor of the Festival Hall, at London’s South Bank. I was terrified. For a start, everyone seemed to know everyone else. There seemed to be a lot of kissing. It was a bit like showing up at church.

Next, I saw immediately I had woefully misjudged the dress code. The crumpled writer look (grandad shirts and jackets; cursory and floating dresses) was very much de rigueur. Retro ice cream salesman shirtsleeve stripes and baggy shorts were very much not.

For safety, I sat somewhere near the back, praying no one would speak to me.

The evening was hosted by a very impressive and confident looking man wearing the most crumpled suit in the room. He introduced himself as John Harvey, editor-in-chief of Slow Dancer Press, the reading’s sponsors. He told us a few jokes, and explained in a manner that was both light-hearted and somehow menacing that Slow Dancer really did need our money and we should all subscribe to its poetry magazine.

He pulled from his suit pocket a pale looking book of poems, which turned out to be his. With great seriousness and tenderness he read us a poem. The room went very quiet. At the end of the poem we clapped and John introduced us to the evening’s first poet, Lee Harwood.

Lee also seemed very sure of himself. He shuffled papers and old copies of his books and gave the appearance of not knowing what he was going to do next. At the same time he seemed ruthlessly calm and in control of everything he said. His poems seemed carved out of a different language to me, especially those about the natural world and climbing, of which he read several. For twenty-five minutes I did not hear myself breathing.

When Lee had finished reading we clapped and John got up and read another poem and again I seemed to stop breathing. The poem was about Chet Baker, I think. Then he introduced the next poet, Libby Houston.

I wasn’t sure then, and am still not sure now, what to make of Libby Houston’s reading. (I mean this as the strongest praise I can offer). By turns hilarious, unflinchingly honest, deadpan, slapstick and wildly lyrical the words of Libby’s poems seemed to pour out of her at a variety of speeds. Sometimes they came in a torrent, and sometimes in a whisper, almost like a child. But they all seemed to contain vital energy and truth, including the knowledge that Libby herself did not fully understand where some of them seemed to be coming from. In the twenty or so years of going to poetry readings since, I have still not heard anything like it.

When Libby had finished John stood up and said we would need to recharge our glasses during the interval, which was now, and while we were about it please could we buy some Slow Dancer books and magazines.

At this point of the evening I became aware again of my lack of knowledge of poetry reading protocol. People walked purposefully around the room in the direction of the poets who had read, including John and the evening’s final poet, Peter Sansom. I noticed that many of them were holding open the books and magazines they had bought from the table at the back. This seemed to me the best way of engineering a conversation with one of them without appearing strange. I bought myself a couple of back issues of Slow Dancer, and waited in what looked like the most busy queue, which was the one for Peter.

I had been sending Peter Sansom my poems to The North, and had even bought one of his books. In truth, he was probably the reason I went to the reading in the first place. For reasons I had not stopped to analyse I thought of him as a bit of a hero. So as I edged nearer to him in the queue I began to grow very nervous. I realised I had no idea what to say to him. If I said my name that would appear boastful, as though I was expecting him to know it. If I mentioned that I’d been sending him poems that would also look self-promoting, as though my poems were somehow more memorable than the thousands of others he received each week in his mailbag. On the other hand I could hardly resort to what I was overhearing others saying to him further down the queue, most of which sounded like offers of a place to crash for the night.
When it came to my turn l blurted to Peter everything I promised I wouldn’t in the queue. Amazingly, he seemed to know exactly who I was. He appraised me for a moment, shook my hand, and taking from my other a Slow Dancer to sign said: ‘You’re looking very cool, Anthony.’ His reading, from his soon-to-be-published January, was similarly generous: full of anecdote, good natured red-herrings and warmly lyrical.

The evening’s final act, a late night solo, it occurs to me now, was a reading by John. From the same pale book he chose its title poem, ‘Ghost of a Chance’. To the now familiar pin-drop quiet and lack of oxygen I now became aware of moisture gathering in the corners of my eyes. As one of John Ash‘s poems puts it, the surprise was ‘like a snowball in the back’. I’ll never forget it.

Ghost of a Chance
He plays the tune lazily,
pretty much the way he must
have heard Billie sing it,
but slower, thick-toned,
leaning back upon the beat,
his mind half on the melody,
half on the gin.
 

Between takes he stands,
head down, shrunken inside
a suit already overlarge,
cheeks sunken in.
He thinks of her, Billie:
already it is possible
he has started to bleed within.
 

From the control room, laughter,
but that’s not the sound he hears;
tenor close to his mouth,
he turns towards the doors:
unseen, not quite unbidden,
someone has just slipped in.
 

At the end of eight bars
he closes his eyes and blows.
After two choruses he will cover
his mouthpiece with its shield:
not play again.

John Harvey, from Ghosts of a Chance (Smith/Doorstop) 1992. Reprinted in Out of Silence (Smith/Doorstop) 2014

Sue Grafton, 1940 – 2017

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I first met Sue Grafton in 1991. I was in the States for the publication of the third Charlie Resnick novel, Cutting Edge, and my US publisher, Henry Holt, had brought me over for a small tour which, best as I recall, began in Minneapolis-St.Paul and continued from there down to California – specifically the annual Bouchercon mystery and detective convention, which was being held that year in Pasadena. The convention is a huge affair, crowded with fans, readers and collectors and just about, or so it seemed then, every English-speaking crime writer alive and kicking. To say I felt a little out of my league would be no exaggeration. I still hadn’t quite recovered from my first book reading & signing on the road just a week or so before, at an independent bookstore in St. Paul where the proprietor had laid on crackers and specially purchased cheddar cheese in my honour, and to which nobody – nobody – came.

Sue Grafton to the rescue. As chance would have it, we shared not just the same publisher  but the same publicist, Lottchen Shivers. Lottchen had been the driving force behind the successful campaigns to promote Sue’s books and had promised to do the same for me. [The fact that she never really made it was not through lack of trying.] Once Lottchen had brought us together at Pasadena, Sue became my number one supporter, going out of her way not merely to introduce me to the audience at one of her crowded solo sessions, but to tell everyone how good the Resnick books were and that they should read them forthwith. She even managed to keep my spirits up later, when I sat stranded between her and Walter Mosely in the signing room, my grand tally of four or five customers dwarfed by Sue’s and Walter’s lines which snaked around the room and back out through the door.

She continued to be gracious and funny – and supportive – each time our paths crossed: once, memorably, in the States when she invited me to join Julie Smith, Linda Barnes and herself for dinner – I made the mistake, near fatal for my bank account, of offering to pay for the wine – and in London in 2008 when she was here to accept the CWA Diamond Dagger for Sustained Excellence in the Genre, and my  partner, Sarah, and I had dinner with Sue and her husband, Steve Humphrey.

I’m sure there must have been times when she cursed herself for setting out on the millstone of a writing journey that would take her and her protagonist, Kinsey Millhone, from A is for Alibi and B is for Burglar, on through the alphabet towards X, Y and Z. As we now know, all too sadly she was not to reach Z. Y is for Yesterday will be the last. But for every curse, every moment of regret, I’m sure there were far more cherished moments of accomplishment and delight. Sue, I think, was one of those authors who genuinely welcomed and enjoyed the relationship she had with her readers, to whom she felt a sense of responsibility – just as she did, I’m sure, towards her editor through all those books, all those years, Marian Wood.

It was my very good fortune to have Marian as my editor too, in the US, at least; fortunate both for the unstinting way in which she promoted my work within the publishing house, and for the very hands-on way in which she helped to guide the Resnick books – and me with them – towards a greater maturity. She was only too aware of the power that having Sue as one of her authors gave her; as she said to me on more than one occasion, and I’m paraphrasing slightly, it’s because of Sue that I can continue to publish writers I admire like you and Daniel Woodrell, even though your sales are sadly unlikely to trouble the Best Seller lists overmuch. When Marian left Henry Holt for Putnam and took Sue with her, it wasn’t long before both Dan and myself were cut loose and, as they used to say of big band musicians, pursuing our freelance connections until another offer came our way.

Sue’s success was grounded in years of hard work in the television industry, writing scripts for series such as Rhoda, learning the art and craft of shaping and telling a story, the skill of earning the viewer’s, the reader’s, attention and sympathy. The Kinsey Millhone novels managed to straddle the wide and, for some, uncrossable lines of the comfortable and cosy crime novel and the more hard-hitting and contemporary urban thriller. And in Kinsey, Sue had created a character readers liked, felt close to, were only too happy to welcome back into their lives.

The initial success of the series was helped by being part of a quite spectacular surge in the early 1980s in America in the popularity of crime fiction written by women, usually with female leading characters. [Absurd as it sounds now, when, at this time, I was looking for a paperback publisher for the Resnick books in the US, I was told by one publisher they weren’t taking on any new male writers but if I’d like to consider using a female pseudonym … ] The first of Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone books had been published in 1977, the second, Ask the Cards a Question, in 1982, the same year as A is for Alibi. That same year saw the publication of Sarah Paretsky’s first VI Warshawski novel, Indemnity Only. And it was more than a passing trend. Linda Barnes’s first Carlotta Carlyle novel, A Trouble of Fools, followed in 1987, and Julie Smith won the Edgar for Best Novel with the first Skip Langdon, New Orleans Mourning, in 1991.

Of those and other women crime writers whose careers began at a similar time, it is probably the more overtly political and feminist Sarah Paretsky and Sue Grafton who have been the most consistent and are the best-known, the best regarded. Sue’s family and her publisher have made it clear that what would have been the final book in the series,  Z is for Zero, will remain unwritten. No ghosts by request.

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Books: My Reading Year

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No reading year that begins with Virginia Woolf (as did 2016) and ends with Katherine Mansfield can be construed as bad. Nor was it, though I found myself – and this, as I’ve suggested before, may be a function of ageing – spending more time with and deriving more pleasure from books from earlier days than those published during the year.

Having started the year with Lawrence and ‘Sons and Lovers’, I moved on to Woolf and, accompanied by the first volume of her diaries and Julia Brigg’s excellent survey of her life and work, reread, with much pleasure and admiration, ‘Mrs Dalloway’, ‘To The Lighthouse’, ‘The Waves’ and ‘The Years’ together with, for the first time, ‘Night and Day’. Looking for something, to my mind, equally good but different, I moved on to Hemingway. Well, I was about to start writing a novel and in need of something bracing that moved to a different set of rhythms, one more suitable for my purposes. So, before setting out, I reread for the umpteenth time a generous selection of the short stories, followed by ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. And as I was hovering over chapter one, and thinking to prosper from his excellent example, I read again Peter Temple’s ‘The Broken Shore’ and ‘Truth’, in order to remind myself of the tautness, tension and sense of purpose that can be found in the very best of crime fiction.

Once safely ensconced in front of my computer in the mornings, my novel on course and moving along at a not unreasonble rate, I turned to Graham Greene for the sheer pleasure of good stories well told. ‘The Human Factor’ (under-rated), ‘The Heart of the Matter’ (a tad over-rated?), ‘The Comedians’ and, best of all, ‘The Quiet American’. Later in the year, I read, for the first time – what had I been doing? – Elizabeth Bowen (loved ‘The House in Paris’) and some Willa Cather I’d not yet got around to, ‘Alexander’s Bridge’, ‘The Professor’s House’ and ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop’. And yes, okay, in between all of this harking back I was reading newer things, trying and, all too often, finding them lacking. Tired and obvious in some cases, trying too hard in others. I had been knocked sideways by much of Eimar McBride’s first novel, ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’, scenes from which are vivid to me still, but didn’t finish ‘The Lesser Bohemians’, in which she managed to make the sexual dalliances and excessive drinking of a young drama student living in Camden about as repetitive and uninteresting (to others) as, looking back, they probably were at the time. As for George Saunder’s much-touted and prize winning ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ – even for a writer, one of whose fortes is being experimental and clever (and who, especially when he forgets to be both of those things, has written some of the best short stories of the past decade or two) – it was too tricksy and clever by half. Unreadable.

I must have liked something. Well, yes. Woody Haut’s novel, ‘Days of Smoke’, was fascinating in the detailed and knowledgeable way it recreated the cultural and politcial turbulence of San Francisco and L.A. in the late 60s, and Henning Mankel’s ‘After the Fire’ dealt tellingly with issues of ageing and mortality that, to some of us, are becoming increasingly relevant. Jane Harper’s CWA Gold Dagger winning, ‘The Dry’, was compelling and believable until she felt the need to pull a plot twist out of nowhere towards the end, which lost my sympathies but clearly not that of the judges.

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Almost more than any other, I enjoyed and admired Ann Patchett’s ‘Commonwealth’, a skilfully crafted and in some ways old-fashioned novel, which follows the connections and disconnections of two American families from the 60s to the present, and which I found totally absorbing. I also very much liked two of the novels that were short listed for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize: Sarah Baume’s ‘A Line Made By Walking’, which traces a young woman’s deliberate retreat into solitude in prose that is clear and direct yet evocative and moving; and Jon McGregor’s ‘Reservoir 13’, which is set in a Derbyshire village where a teenage girl has gone missing.

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McGregor is one of my favourite contemporary writers and three of his books – ’So Many Ways to Begin’, ‘Even the Dogs’ & ‘This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You’ – are amongst my favourites of the past twenty or so years. I read ‘Reservoir 13’ the moment I got my hands on a copy and then, almost without a break, read it again, the second time to remind myself of what I’d liked, but also because I was hoping to find whatever it was I’d been missing – not the facts about whatever happened to the missing girl, I didn’t need that, nor did I read with an expectation the mystery would be solved; what I’d missed was more about her family, more about the people of the village – in exchange for which I would quite happily have settled for less about the cyclical life of bats, birds and the bloody foxes.

Much of what I wanted is there in the fifteen short stories of ‘The Reservoir Tapes’ that are currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and are available both as a download and, now, a book. If, instead of being issued as a companion piece, all – or most – of that material had been included in the original novel, I think it would have been a more complete and satisfying work. But even as I write this, I know (or think I know) that kind of completeness is not what McGregor is after in ‘Reservoir 13’, what he’s setting out to achieve; this is more a narrative that darts its way in and out, giving us a moment here, a moment there; a voice raised, a sudden sharpened glance; a mosaic from which we build our portrait of these lives. And the writing, the prose is so skillfully handled; like Sarah Baume’s in some regards, it is delicate but strong. Push it and it may bend but not break.

And next year, once I’ve finished rereading Katherine Mansfield’s excellent short stories for the fourth or fifth time … ? Well, with the gorgeous new Vintage Classics editions to hand, all with beautiful covers created by Aino-Maija Metsola, it may be the third year in succession I turn to Virginia Woolf to begin …

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

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Orphans

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I’ve been reading, and very much enjoying, Ann Patchett’s novel, Commonwealth, which follows, in well-articulated but deliberately haphazard order, the inter-connecting lives of two families based in Los Angeles and Virginia. I reminded me, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, of John Updike’s Rabbit novels, though it manages, I think to be both more sympathetic and, in places, harder-edged; also of the John Irving of Garp and The Cider House Rules. Which, in turn, reminded me of a poem of mine, dating back to the late ’80s, early ’90s, “Goodnight, Fuzzy Stone”. A connection made all the stronger last night, watching part of a Channel 4 programme called Finding Me a Family, in which young children waiting to be adopted meet and interact with prospective parents looking to adopt. Here’s the poem …

GOODNIGHT, FUZZY STONE

“Orphans are notorious for interior games”
John Irving: The Cider House Rules

Inside the folds of his box Fuzzy Stone has a dream:
when he picks up the phone she says she will be home
from work a little late; she arrives and there are
flowers in her arms, so many flowers.
They sit at either end of the sofa while she
tells him about her day; they have not kissed yet –
he has learnt not to claim too much too soon.

He believes in Santa Claus, the power of love,
the tooth fairy, the folk that play happy families
at the end of the rainbow. He believes
if he picks up the phone it will be her:
always.

When he was four his mother packed him off
with his own fork and spoon to find the party.

“Fuzzy is a loveable child who would benefit
from a warm and caring family, preferably one
with brothers and sisters of a similar age.”

Slowly fingering lines
mouth moving to the words,
Fuzzy recognises himself and smiles.

Cars come slowly over the hill,
even in the worst of winter there are cars,
singly or in convoy, and when they leave
another face stares back at Fuzzy
through a blur of moving glass.

When he was sixteen they gave him a new pair
of second-hand shoes, a travel warrant
and a testimonial” “Fuzzy is a pleasant
enough young man, decent and honest,
but when things become too stressful
he likes to climb back inside his boss.”

In the bus station he sleeps with on ear open
close to the bank of telephones.
There are other places: the launderette,
the air ducts out at the bakery,
behind the curtains in the camera booth –
colour photos three for a pound –
he loves to watch them slip into sight,
always when you have given up hoping,
there! Like magic. Like dreams.

The phone rings and he picks it up:
he climbs back inside his box.

What he really wants to do is drive
the wet miles till she holds him tight
in her arms (as he is certain she would).
“Turn over and let me snuggle you up.”
Isn’t that the kind of thing lovers say?

Say good night, Fuzzy Stone.

This poem first appeared in Ghosts of a Chance, Smith/Doorstop, 1992

 

 

Reading at Ray’s Jazz

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The John Lake Band: John (piano) Phil Paton (sax) Matt Casterton (bass) Simon Cambers (drums) Photo: Molly Ernestine Boiling

Continuing what has, in recent posts, become a theme, there was more Thelonious Monk in evidence this Friday just passed when I joined the John Lake Band for an evening session organised by Ray’s Jazz at Foyles flagship bookshop on Charing Cross Road. Though the band didn’t actually play “Evidence”. The first piece I read, a poem called ‘Saturday’ from ‘Out of Silence’ was accompanied by a rocking version of ‘Rhythm-a-ning’ and, towards the end, ‘Blue Monk’ featured both ‘Straight, No Chaser’ and ‘Blue Monk’ itself.

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That’s me paying attention to the words while Simon keeps his eyes on the dots. Photo: Molly Ernestine Boiling

What seemed to be a major incident – possibly, a terrorist attack – fairly close by, resulting in the closing of Oxford Circus and Bond Street tube stations, with customers being locked into stores and armed police deployed in the streets while a helicopter hovered overhead, meant that attendance was not what it might have been, numbers of ticket holders opting – not unreasonably – for the sensible option of sticking indoors. Those that were present, however, seemed to be having a pretty good time – not least the 5/6 year old young lady bopping away down near the front row – and we were, somewhat to our surprise, on the receiving end, not just of applause, but whoops of delight.

You should, as the saying goes, have been there.

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Reading one of the stories from the recently published “Going Down Slow” while John looks anxiously on. Photo: Sonny Marr

And if you’re anywhere in the vicinity of Eastbourne on the South Coast on the final Friday of the year, you can hear us doing it all again – and more. Details here …

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Hand in pocket, not Hand in Glove. Photo: Molly Ernestine Boiling

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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Tom W

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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