“Blue Watch” my father & the Blitz

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My father served joined the London Auxiliary Fire Service just before or not long after the declaration of war in September, 1939 and served until a little after the war’s end in 1945. For most of that time, he was stationed at Chester Road fire station, opposite Highgate Cemetery in north London. You can see him clearly below, third from the left.

John's Dad AFS

The AFS was a reserve firefighting force set up as part of the Air Raid Precautions Act in 1937 and with the outbreak of war all 23,000 of its firemen and women joined the 2,700 regulars of the London Fire Brigade to form the London Fire Service. For a long time I’d wanted to find a way of writing about what it must have been like for him, during the years of the Blitz especially, 1940-41. Trying to get him to talk about it in any detail proved nigh on impossible. Oh, he’d talk about the companionship, easily enough, the camaraderie, but the danger, the experience of climbing a swaying ladder towards the top of a blazing building … He’d shrug his shoulders, light another John Player’s and see if there wasn’t another cup of tea in the pot.

So, over the years, I picked up books on the subject – personal accounts, histories – and it was reading one of those that I first came across fire service messengers – boys in their teens, too young to be called up, who, when the phone lines were down, which was often, carried messages by bike from headquarters in different parts of London to officers in the field. Well, I thought, there has to be a story there, and when my French publisher asked for a book for young adult readers as a follow-up to my earlier Nick’s Blues, there was my chance. The story of a young cycle messenger and his fireman father during the worst of the London Blitz. Blue Watch.

Blue Watch

Writer, translator and journalist, Seba Pezzani, had translated Nick’s Blues into Italian and since I knew he had read Blue Watch I asked him to let me know his thoughts. Here is his response …

I have had the honour of translating three novels by John Harvey,  including Nick’s Blues, a riveting story of an adolescent who struggles with the memory of a long dead father. So, when I found out that his new young adult novel Blue Watch had been published, I purchased it immediately. Now, I fancy myself to be a writer, with one novel and four non-fiction books in print, as well as hundreds of articles published in a couple of Italian national newspapers, but, to my mind, John Harvey is THE writer and with Blue Watch he nails it once again.

Harvey’s narrative style flows easily, the mark of a true master. His young hero, Jack, the son of a Fire Brigade officer, finds himself answering a higher calling when his country is under siege by the forces of evil, the German bombers. In a credible, burning London, Jack will come to understand the power of loyalty and belonging and will discover the natural pull of life called love along the way. Set at one of London’s most difficult times in history, this novel is a page turner, a book that can be read by adolescents and adults alike. I dare anybody who tries reading it to refrain from shedding the odd tear or summoning up a smile and not feel for Jack and his mission.

John Harvey makes the difficult task of writing so simple that I feel like banging my head against the edge of my desk because not in a million years will I be able to match his ease. If you are a fan of Harvey’s, you cannot miss this book. If you are not, it will be a good starting point and from there you will go back and start reading all of his previous novels. But, whatever the case, read it. If will be worth the few quid it costs. Mind you, though, you may get hooked and there will be plenty more spending to come.

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Me, wearing my dad’s Fire Service Cap

You can read an excerpt from Chapter One here …

Blue Watch is available from Five Leaves Bookshop, Nottingham
Owl Bookshop, Kentish Town, north London
Waterstones 
Amazon

Family Tree

As much by luck as judgement, I’ve ended up, these last dozen years or so, living just three short streets away from where my grandparents lived – my father’s parents – and where, when I was little, I went every day after school, staying there until either my mum or dad was likely to be home from work. It wasn’t until I was 10 or 11 that I was given a key of my own.

Mostly, I sat at the table in my grandparents’ small kitchen, doing homework or reading comics – Beano and Dandy, Film Fun – but once in a while – a bit of an adventure – two buses – I’d go with my nan to Chapel Market, tagging along as she searched for bargains amongst the crowded stalls. The treat of treats, however, was when she took me to see a cowboy film at the little Gaisford cinema in Kentish Town  – Gene Autry it might be, Allan ‘Rocky’ Lane or Roy Rogers with Trigger and the Sons of the Pioneers. Red River too much to hope for.

Where my nan was easy to get along with and even seemed to enjoy my company, my grandfather was the opposite. A long distance train driver who often spent nights away from home, in the small low-ceilinged house he was a silent, almost frightening presence.

My father’s father was the opposite, silent, unspeaking,
small pan of Camp coffee, black as pitch,
forever simmering on the stove.
Later, when I came to Dickens, he was the perfect Magwitch,
escaped from the prison ships on the estuary
to haunt my dreams. *

My other grandparents – my mother’s parents – I never knew – both had died before I was born – and my mother mentioned them rarely. Of my grandmother, Louise, I learned little other than that, like her three sisters, Katie, Ruby and Marie Pearl, she had been on the stage, and that she was beautiful. My grandfather, John Barton White, wrote plays as well as acting. It was how they met. About their lives together, the few facts I gleaned were sketchy, and eeked out over the years.

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Louise

My mother had a book she treasured, presented to her as a school prize. The only school, she would say, she went to for as much as a whole term. The reason for this – again, this only came out in dribs and drabs – was that she was living with her father and travelled with him from one set of theatrical digs to another, the ones she mentioned mostly in London  – Clapham, Kennington, Brixton, Stockwell – but there were others – Reigate, Worthing, Bognor – some further afield, Nottingham, Sunderland, South Shields.

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Louise, portrait painted by John Barton White

Why her father? How had that happened? The answer seemed to be that her parents, had either separated or divorced, and my grandfather had left the family home, somewhere around 1903 or 04, leaving Louise with four children to look after: Reuben, born 1892, Katie, born 1895, Marjorie, born 1899 and Helen – my mother – born 1901. Some little time later, for whatever reason – possibly Louise was finding looking after four children difficult and asked John Barton to take one, the youngest, off her hands – my mother went to live with her father, an arrangement that seems to have continued for a number of years. The manner in which she was handed over seems to have been particularly thoughtless, even cruel. Apparently, she was taken to a railway station (by her mother?) and left on the platform until her father arrived to take her away. She would have been no more than nine years old.

She explains it another way:

When my mother was nine years old
she got off the train at Colchester station
a hand at her back
moving her across the platform
to where a man was waiting

A man steps through steam
(I suppose there was steam)
smoking a cigarette

“You’re going to live with your father now”

He stepped hesitant towards her

(I hope he was hesitant)

He is a fair man
you will see … **

Fair, possibly. A womaniser, certainly. His estranged wife – according to my mother – living in the dread expectation of at least one young woman turning up on her doorstep with a babe in arms, demanding to see its father. In the end, my mother said, with more than a hint of distaste, he took up with a “bit of a girl” – Mary Alice James – who, when she was seventeen, had been my grandmother’s maid, and together they had no less than sixteen children. Yes, sixteen. A son, John, in 1906, and then fifteen more. It seems barely credible, especially when you consider that during a great deal of this time he was travelling around the country with his daughter – my mother – in tow. If my mother ever met any of these children, or even knew of them at the time, she never said.

But in the end, true to his memory, she gave me his name. John Barton White. John Barton Harvey.

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John Barton White

*from Winter Notebook, in Out of Silence, New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop, 2014)

**from She Explains It Another Way, in Out of Silence, New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop, 2014)

The Clapping Song … *

My friend and Italian translator, Seba Pezzani, whom I first met when I was invited to take part in dal Mississippi al Po, the festival of blues and (crime) writing which he organised annually in Piacenza, Northern Italy, asked me if, for an article he’s writing, I would contribute a short piece about the current Coronavirus situation, in addition to recommending a book to read in these anxious times.

Here’s the former, written in response to last night’s clapping in support of the NHS workers …

At first it was a dull, persistent clanking we were slow to recognise, someone in the street outside striking the base of a saucepan with a metal spoon. Inside the house, we stopped what we were doing and checked the time: sure enough, eight o’clock, and the front door opened to hear, haphazardly at first, then more and more in unison, people at their windows, on their balconies, clapping, clapping – older folk, younger, children – and from more distant houses and busier streets, bells ringing, car horns hooting, all coming together in a raucous, joyous cacophony of sound, of noise, of celebration at still being alive and giving thanks to those who were working full out to make that possible. And, as the sounds finally faltered and faded, I thought about those people trapped, as we are, in lockdown in other countries – Italy, Spain – where this nightly ceremony started – realising, in a way, how this has brought us together, while recognising that applause aside, there’s little most of us can do safe this: hope, wait, perhaps pray; wash our hands.

And here, without apology for drawing attention to this book and this writer again, is my recommendation …

One of the books I go back to from time to time, when I’m wanting to read something that rings true; that, in simple, hard-wrought language, is a believable and moving expression of the straightforward but surprising goodness of ordinary people, holding out a hand to those in extreme need, is “Plainsong” by Kent Haruf, the story of two elderly unmarried brothers, small-scale farmers, who, against all the odds, take in and care for a young woman, pregnant and homeless, and not so very long ago a child herself.

Plainsong
I believe the book piece may appear as part of Seba’s article for Il Giornarle and the piece about clapping on Globalist.it
* Apologies to Shirley Ellis, whose 1965 version of this Lincoln Chase song, is surely the best

 

Poem for World Poetry Day

THE U.S. BOTANICAL GARDENS WASHINGTON D.C.

The floor is azure blue tile
slick with the residue
of that morning’s watering,
green hose resting
slack between the leaves.

We would come here, safe,
afternoons, and sit, not touching,
humidity in the 90s
and helicopters hovering
a block beyond the Hill.

Though you are here no longer
I reach out to touch your arm,
trace the sweat, the way it beads
around the curve of your skin

From the display of medicinal
herbs, I break small leaves
into the palm of my hand:
yarrow, for internal bleeding,
foxglove for the muscles of the heart.

And when we meet, a year
from now, by chance, the
departure lounge at Heathrow,
the platform at Gare du Nord,
that harbour front café, and,
uncertain whether or not to kiss me,
you hold out, instead your hand,
I will slip into it these remedies
I have long carried, in the knowledge
that, nurtured, love flowers in the darkest place.

from ASLANT Poetry / John Harvey – Photography / Molly E. Boiling
(Shoestring Press, 2019)

You can see a selection of Molly’s photographs here …

Art Chronicles : We Will Walk …

In We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South, the current exhibition at Turner Contemporary, Margate, curators Hannah Collins and Paul Goodwin have brought together a fascinating collection of assemblages, paintings and quilts made during the 50s & 60s by African American artists from Alabama and surrounding states.

This selection of images gives some sense, I hope, of the vibrancy and invention on display.

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The exhibition runs till May 3rd and is recommended in the strongest possible terms.
See it if you can.

Art Chronicles: Hedda Sterne

There’s a photograph, quite famous in Art circles, known as The Irascibles, or, to give it its full title, the Irascible Group of Advanced Artists, which shows 15 from a group of 28 artists who had signed an open letter to the president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, complaining that the exhibition, American Painting Today – 1950 was unrepresentative of what was currently happening in truly advanced contemporary circles.

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Photo by Nina Leen for Life Magazine

There they are – Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell and Ad Reinhardt prominent amongst them. The guys. As formally dressed as if ready for the office – or a funeral – and looking anything but angry or dangerous, and little resembling the popular image of the bohemian artist. And at the back, the sole woman in the group – imposingly positioned, one assumes, by the photographer – is the artist, Hedda Sterne.

Only two other women had signed the letter, the sculptors Mary Callery and Louise Bourgeois, and one might wonder why so few? Where was Elaine de Kooning when the letter went round? Where, Lee Krasner? Helen Frankenthaler? And how come Hedda Sterne? One explanation is that the gallery owner Betty Parsons, who represented Sterne in addition to a number of the male artists present, had used her influence. What’s certain is that Sterne hadn’t just happened to wander in off the street as the session was in progress – not dressed as smartly as that.

Whatever the reason, from Sterne’s point of view it did her, professionally, little good. As she later said, “In terms of my career (it was) probably the worst thing that happened to me.” … “I am known more for that darn photo than for eighty years of work.” Nor had she felt welcome at the time. The men “were very furious that I was in it because they all were sufficiently macho to think that the presence of a woman took away from the seriousness of it all.”

When Sterne first emigrated from Romania to New York she was befriended by Peggy Guggenheim, who, in turn, introduced her to Max Ernst, Piet Mondrian, Andre Breton and Marcel Duchamp, and her work was included in the 1942 exhibition First Papers of Surrealism. Exposed to the artistic zeitgeist of the day, her painting became less a product of European surrealism and increasingly influenced by American abstraction, although she never identified herself wholly with the Abstract Expressionist movement and, throughout her working life, would move between abstraction and figuration as her imagination demanded.

I believe … that isms and other classifications are misleading and diminishing. What interests me in art is what cannot be entrapped in words.

This refusal to be pinned down or labelled is perhaps one of the reasons why she is less well known than some of her contemporaries – that together with her dislike of the social scene revolving around such figures as the poet Frank O’Hara, which, to some extent, helped foster the careers of painters like Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler and Grace Hartigan. No O’Hara poems would be written for her with titles like Poem Read at Hedda Sterne’s or For Hedda, After a Party. And there can be no doubting, in retrospect, the low opinion she held of her fellow female artists …

Most women were Uncle Toms and would rather be loved and accepted than admired and feared.

The exhibition of paintings and drawings on display at Victoria Miro, Mayfair until March 21st, represents Hedda Sterne’s first solo show in this country. In addition to seven drawings, there are eight paintings from two series, Horizon and Vertical-Horizontal, all from the early 1960s and the result of eighteen months spent in Venice on a Fulbright fellowship.

 

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Victoria Miro 2

As Eleanor Nairne says in her essay in the catalogue …

Hedda Sterne’s paintings feel quietly alive. The bands of subdued colour – cream, grey, ochre. brown – emerge from and dissolve back into one another, with a glint here and there like the last light thrown up one the sun dips below the horizon.

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Hedda Sterne : Horizon #VII – Detail

Sky, sea, land; sea, sky; shifts and changes of light, of colour. Time and again looking at these paintings, I was reminded of the quiet minimalist abstractions of Agnes Martin, no longer held in place by the architecture of the grid, but rolling down in loose lines even as they spread across. Sky, sea, water, land.

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Hedda Sterne : Horizon #VI – Detail

Let the artist herself have the last words …

“I get enormous pleasure out of very small contrasts. I don’t know to what extent it is an emotional experience or an intellectual pleasure. You know there are knife-edge contrasts in my Vertical-Horizontal pieces. This is what I enjoy – these very, very subtle distinctions in values.”

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Hedda Sterne : Untitled, 1966. Mixed media on paper.
  • Victoria Miro have published a beautifully produced catalogue, designed by Joe Hales, with excellent reproductions of both the paintings and drawings, and an essay by Eleanor Nairne.
  • Exhibition photographs : Molly Ernestine Boiling

 

In the beginning … Thom Ryder, pulp writer

avenging

I had reason this morning to track back through several fat files of contracts and found, buckled and torn along the upper edge and beginning to fade, the first of such documents I ever received and duly signed …

An agreement made the eighteenth day of April, one thousand nine hundred and seventy four BETWEEN John Harvey of 233, Webb Rise, Stevenage, Herts (hereinafter called “the Grantor) of the one part and THE NEW ENGLISH LIBRARY LIMITED of Barnard’s Inn in the City of London (hereinafter called “the Publishers”, which expression shall where the context admits include its successors in title) of the other part, WHEREBY IT IS MUTUALLY AGREED concerning the following work entitled:

AVENGING ANGEL
by Thom Ryder
(hereinafter called “the Work”)

  • The Grantor HEREBY GRANTS unto the Publishers and unto their successors in title licensees and assigns the right and licence to print publish and sell the Work in soft cover volume form in the English language throughout the world (hereinafter referred to as “the Open Market)

Did somebody mention ‘English language’? The whole thing, all 18 clauses, of which the above is the first, smacks of Dickens and Bleak House. Obfuscation and legal jargon. But, hey, they were buying my book. Thom Ryder, for a brief period of time – 1974, 75 – that was me. Chronicler of the lives and misadventures of a gang of Hell’s Angels, intent on terrifying the Home Counties. They were buying my first ever book, on the basis of an outline and a couple of sample chapters, for an advance of £200, to be paid half of signature of the agreement and half on delivery of an acceptable manuscript, in addition to which I would be paid a 4% royalty on copies sold.

That any of this happened at all was due to my friend and mentor, the late Laurence James, who had himself written a series of pulp novels about Hells Angels under the name of Mick Norman. We’d met when we were students on a teacher training course at Goldsmiths College; I went into teaching, Laurence diverted into book selling, then publishing, finally writing. If it hadn’t been for his help, encouragement and example, I would never have hacked out – I choose the verb advisably – 50,000 words on the subject of motorbikes, blood and mayhem at the kitchen table of my Stevenage flat during what turned out to be my last year of teaching, the last of twelve. If it hadn’t been for him, it’s doubtful that New English Library would have looked on my endeavours so positively; I think he must have promised them that if my efforts fell apart, he would be around to pick up the pieces.

As it happened, they liked what they read enough to offer me a contract to write a sequel – Angel Alone – for which I would be paid the improved advance of £250, with an increased royalty of 5%. Encouragement enough for me to hand in my resignation at the end of the school year and set out on being a full-time writer of pulp fiction. Well, I thought, I can always go back to teaching if this doesn’t work out – and Laurence and I had been talking about an idea for a series of Westerns he thought a publisher he knew might be interested in …

There followed a period – 1976 to 1983 – in which I wrote just short of 50 Westerns: 10 under my own name, the others in partnership with either Laurence James or Angus Wells, writing alternate books in a series under a joint pseudonym. I was learning to write; I was paying the rent: I was having fun.

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Stroll on … Mid-Feb Shuffle

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Keeping me company on those early morning strolls across the Heath …

  1. Jessica Williams : Theme for Lester Young (Goodbye Pork Pie Hat)
  2. Judy Collins : Hard Lovin’ Loser
  3. Ella & Louis : April in Paris
  4. Elton John : Rocket Man
  5. Billie Holiday : When a Woman Loves a Man
  6. Dusty Springfield : A Song For You
  7. Johnny Young’s South Side Blues Band : Tighten Up On It
  8. Ray Charles : When Your Lover Has Gone
  9. Joe Henry : Struck
  10. Joe Turner : You’re Driving Me Crazy
  11. Bonnie Raitt : Not Cause I Wanted To
  12. Lennie Tristano & Lee Konitz : You Go To My Head

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February Poem : “What Would You Say?”

What would you say of a man who could play
three instruments at once – saxophone,
manzello and stritch – but who can neither
tie his shoelace nor button his fly?

Who stumbles through basements,
fumbles open lacquered boxes,
a child’s set of drawers,
strews their contents across bare boards –
seeds, vestments, rabbit paws?

Whose favourite words are vertiginous,
found, dilate? Whose fantasy is snow?
Who can trace in the dirt the articular process
of the spine, the pulmonary action of the heart?

Would you say he was blind?

Would you say he was missing you?

I wrote this, the nucleus of it, in the early 1990s, when I was a participant in the Community of Writers Poetry Week at Squaw Valley in Northern California; a residential seven days in which we were set the task of writing a new poem every day, said poem to be collected in the early hours of the following morning, so as to be workshopped in the group sessions which began around eleven, eleven thirty, under the guidance of one of the tutors – Sharon Olds or Robert Hass, Lucille Clifton, perhaps, or Brenda Hillman. No lightweights at Squaw.

There was some discussion amongst the participants, I remember, about the fact that most of my poems were quite strongly tied to a narrative [not so surprising, given the day job] and why didn’t I take advantage of the situation and try to write something that, instead, centrally, of telling a story, was driven by language, words and the sounds of words?

I tried. Floundered and tried again. Finally managed, on my second visit to Squaw Valley, a five line poem called Out of Silence, which became the title poem in my New & Selected Poems some twenty years later. And before that, the poem above, which succeeds, I think, in being about sounds, about words; but which is also a kind of story. A mystery. A puzzle. A puzzle to which the answer, as anyone who follows jazz will know, is the blind, multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk.

You can hear me reading the poem here, along with the band Second Nature, and with some marvellous flute playing by Mel Thorpe, giving it his best Roland Kirk.

Hopefully, and with a little patience, here goes …