Twins

Tom and Leanne, my children from an earlier relationship, are 50 tomorrow and we’ll be celebrating together, along with family and friends, at a hostelry in Norwich …

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Meanwhile, here are a few early memories …

T & L Scooters

Tom Pointing

Leanne Red Dress

Tom Cowboy

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Leanne & Tom on Step

The Jazz Steps Story

Jazz Steps is the name under which jazz has been promoted in Nottingham – city and county – for some 20 years, and now there’s a book, nicely produced and copiously illustrated – The Jazz Steps Story – which tells of the development of the organisation and the people behind it, as well as chronicling the many and varied gigs that have taken place under its guidance.

More than that, it also tells the story of live jazz in Nottingham from the Nottingham Rhythm Club, founded in the early 40s, and the Dancing Slipper – which featured a goodly number visiting American jazz players with top British bands throughout the 60s & 70s – to Limelight Club evenings in the Nottingham Playhouse bar, which was where I first read in a poetry & jazz session with the fine little band that were then called, rather cheekily, the MJQ, or Midlands Jazz Quartet. With just a few changes of personnel and several changes of name – from the MJQ to Second Nature to Blue Territory – that was the same group I would be happy to read with on occasion for another 20-plus years.

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The book costs £15 and is available at Jazz Steps gigs and Notts libraries, or from the Jazz Steps web site

Here’s a little taster from my Foreword …

Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the Charlie Resnick novels or, for that matter, the short stories, will know that the connection between Resnick, jazz and Nottingham is a strong one. Following, more or less, in my footsteps, Charlie would have had his first taste of local jazz Sunday lunchtimes in The Bell, closely followed by evenings at the Dancing Slipper in West Bridgford or at Bill Kinnell’s short-lived Gallery club in Mapperley.

Then there was the Old Vic and, on one night I particularly remember, Charlie Parker’s old sparring partner Red Rodney was up on stage with Pete King, the two of them, alto and trumpet, sailing through the fast and intricate lines of Bird’s bebop tunes as if they had been playing together half their lives.

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Best of 2019

Here they are, not necessarily the best, more my favourite books, films and art exhibitions of the year; the ones that gave me the most pleasure, the ones I remember most positively and fondly.

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BOOKS

Fiction
Bernardine Evaristo : Girl, Woman, Other
Mary Gaitskill : This is Pleasure
Lavinia Greenlaw : In the City of Love’s Sleep
Tayari Jones : An American Marriage
Liz Moore : Long Bright River
Rosie Price : What Red Was

Singers/musicians autobiography/memoir
Lily Allen : My Thoughts Exactly
Liz Moore : The Words of Every Song
Amy Rigby : Girl to City
Tracey Thorn : Another Planet

Poetry
Rebecca Goss : Girl
Lavinia Greenlaw : The Built Moment
Tony Roberts : The Noir American & Other Poems

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FILMS

Dirty God : Sacha Polak
For Sama : Waad al-Khateab
Foxtrot : Samuel Maoz
Hale County This Morning This Evening : RaMell Ross

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second string  …
Last Black Man in San Francisco : Joe Talbot
Marriage Story : Noah Baumbach
Peanut Butter Falcon : Tyler Nilson & Michael Shwartz
The Shoplifters : Hirokazu Koreeda

ART

Harold Gilman – Beyond Camden Town : Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham
Mona Hatoum – Remains To Be Seen : White Cube, Bermondsey
Albert Irvin & Abstract Expressionism : GWA, Bristol
Lee Krasner – Living Colour : Barbican
Joan Mitchell : Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris

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Helene Schjerfbeck : Royal Academy
George Shaw – A Corner of a Foreign Field : Holbourne Gallery, Bath
Felix Vallotton – Painter of Disquiet : Royal Academy

Photography
Luigi Ghirri – Cartes & Territoires : Jeu de Paume, Paris
Dave Heath – Dialogues with Solitude : Photographers’ Gallery
Chris Killip – The Last Ships : Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle
Don McCullin : Tate Britain

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Hoping to be back next year …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Far Cry

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It’s not often I go back and look at my own work – there’s so much good writing out there just waiting to be read, why would you? – but a positive tweet from writer Nikki Copleston had me pulling a copy of Far Cry from the shelf and thumbing through the pages. Partly set in Cornwall, partly in and around Cambridge, the starting point of the story is the disappearance of a young girl and her best friend when on a camping holiday with her friend’s parents. The girls in the last year of primary school. Eleven.

I can still remember when the basic idea came to me: I was walking along a narrow, winding path on the cliff edge leading away from Cape Cornwall when a sea mist descended suddenly and for several moments I was completely lost. Unable to see where I was going. So easy to step off the path and stumble down towards one of those old mine shafts.

Suppose, I thought … suppose …

Suppose the girl – let’s call her Heather – had gone off with her friend –  Kelly, that sounds right – gone off on their own with the usual warnings. ‘Take care now, the pair of you.”  “Look where you’re walking.” “And whatever you do, make sure you don’t get lost.”

When they don’t come back after several hours – hours in which Kelly’s parents, increasingly desperate, have gone out searching – Kelly’s father, Alan, calls the police.

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Far Cry 2

I’ve always liked that first sentence – They came in two four-by-fours, slow across the field, wheels sending up small plumes of muddied earth. Something about the matter-of-factness of it, They came – who are they? And the rhythm in slow across the field where the word order throws the emphasis on the word slow – so much more effective, I think, than had I used slowly – and then the way – or is this just my imagination? – the sound of the word plumes seems to rise up in the middle of the last part of the sentence when spoken.

Holiday over, I had something, the beginnings of a story. But not yet the beginning of a novel. Too simple, perhaps? Too straightforward? What if one of the girls is found, but not the other: Kelly, but not Heather. Who, then, is going to be the novel’s central character, who am I likely to be most interested in?Heather’s mother, it has to be, shaken by loss, riven by guilt at having given in to her daughter’s pleas and allowed her to go away with someone else. Ruth, that sounds right, it has to be Ruth.

Ruth – and this is my story developing, doubling – Ruth who, having managed against the odds to build a new life for herself – a second marriage, another child – is brought face to face with the cruel possibility that that daughter, too, might have disappeared. And so it is with Ruth that the novel begins. This is Chapter One.

Ruth 1

Ruth 2The scenes I remember liking in the novel, the ones I enjoyed writing – and reading, afterwards – are those when, just for a moment or two, Heather appears to Ruth, as real as if she were still alive. There than gone. Her presence sending a shiver along my spine. 

Ruth 3

Ruth 4

Ruth 5

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Growing up with Soccer

“Give me a child till the age of seven,” as the Jesuits were wont to say, ‘and I’ll show you the man.” Something similar pertains when it comes to taking kids to watch soccer. I couldn’t have been more than six or seven when my dad first took me to White Hart Lane to see Spurs – young enough to sit on his shoulders in order to follow the action. If you lived in our part of north London, it had to be either Spurs or Arsenal, and even though Highbury was geographically closer, my dad, for whatever reason, was a Spurs man through and through. Hence the early indoctrination. As I remember it, the first few games I attended I was more likely to show my support for the opposition, this based on the simple fact that Spurs played in white and white was boring. It didn’t take me long to see the error of my ways and I became an earnest supporter, so that by the time I’d reached secondary school, I’d be playing for one of the school teams in the morning, before rushing home and then cycling to Tottenham with my dad in the afternoon and paying a small amount, a quid or two, to leave our bikes in the safety of someone’s front garden.

Going back to that first season and my first game, future England manager, Alf Ramsey, would have been at full back, and future Spurs manager, Bill Nicholson, at what was then called wing half. Nicholson went on to be Spurs’ most successful manager in the period when they won the Double – FA Cup and League – in 1961, the Cup again in 62 and the European Cup Winner’s Cup in ’63, beating Atletico Madrid 5-1 in the final. The Glory Days indeed. And a strange time for my enthusiastic support to start to wane. But by then I’d moved up to the East Midlands, to Nottingham, and, after a brief flirtation with Notts Forest, I became the avid supporter of Notts County that I am today. Which is not to say I don’t still follow Spurs’ fate closely, go to games occasionally, and listen to the commentary of their European fixtures on the good old-fashioned radio.

Perhaps the truest test of allegiances came in 1986 when Notts were drawn at home to Spurs in the Fourth Round of the Cup. Spurs went ahead early on through Clive Allen, who was having one of those rare periods in a striker’s life when they can’t seem to stop scoring, and Ian McParland equalised for Notts around midway through the first half. Both teams came close to scoring in the last ten minutes, but it was not to be.The replay was at White Hart Lane, Wednesday, January 29th and Spurs won 5 – 0.

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But back to the Jesuits. When my son Tom was of an impressionable age and I was still a stalwart Spurs supporter, all of my attempts at persuading him to follow in my footsteps resulted in abject failure. I went as far as buying him a Spurs shirt, which he wore a few times before it became lodged at the bottom of the washing basket and forgotten. Liverpool, he’d decided – they were going through a purple patch – were the team for him and he’s still a Liverpool supporter today and, as you can imagine, loving it. With my younger daughter, Molly, I had more luck, though not immediately. She was quite young when she first came with me to Meadow Lane, making sure, that first season or two, that she brought a book with her, which she proceeded to read throughout the game, occasionally looking up in response to some excitement in the crowd. Only gradually did the time she spent bent over her book become replaced by her interest in what was happening on the pitch – until now, as anyone who sits close to her will know, she’s amongst the most fervent of fans.

This is us at Ebbsfleet last Saturday, smiling through the wind and occasional rain, almost as if we knew in advance that a headed goal in the second minute of extra time would see us home 3 – 2 winners.

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November iPad Shuffle

  1. Woman’s Hour : Unbroken Sequence *
  2. Boz Scaggs : Sierra **
  3. Allen Toussaint : Freedom for the Stallion
  4. Colin Blunstone : I Don’t Believe in Miracles
  5. Rod Picott : Rust Belt Fields
  6. GirlBoy : 28 Years ***
  7. Boz Scaggs : Just Go
  8. Willie Nelson : Nothing’s Changed, Nothing’s New
  9. P P Arnold : Different Drum
  10. John Stewart : Kansas Rain
  11. Tracey Thorn : Guitar ****
  12. Slaid Cleaves : One Good Year
  13. Judy Collins : My Father

* I first became aware of Woman’s Hour [the band, not the radio programme] when I saw a video using their music as part of a display at London’s Photographers’ Gallery. They released two albums, the first of which, Conversations, contains this track; their second, and last album, Ephyra, was released earlier this year. They played their last ever gig in March at The Dome in Tufnell Park, north London, just a few hundred metres from where I live – something I only discovered after the event.

Conversations

** Like many things in my life, large and small, I owe my early knowledge of Boz Scaggs to my friend from Goldsmiths, the late Tom Wild. Scaggs’ 1974 album, Slow Dancer, gave me the name for Slow Dancer Press, which began publishing three years later

* * * GirlBoy are (is?) a two-piece band made up of a female rapper and a male country singer – shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. First came across them on one of Tom Robinson’s programmes on BBC Radio 6.

Late Bloomers

* * * * Once half of Everything But the Girl, and the pride of Kentish Town, this is one of many excellent songs on Thorn’s 2018 album, Record. Following her first memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen, her second, Another Planet about growing up in the outer suburbs, was published earlier this year. Both good reads.

Record

Art Chronicles: Mona Hatoum

Born into a Palestinian family in Beirut and living in London and Berlin, Mona Hatoum makes work – installations, sculpture – that confronts the world. Directly; indirectly. Sometimes more so, sometimes less.

Remains to be Seen, The first piece in her current show at the White Cube in Bermondsey,  takes up most of the space in which it is displayed. Pieces of concrete attached to steel hawsers: the skeleton of a building. The kind we are used to seeing on news reports from Syria and the Middle East, except that those buildings have been so torn and twisted, damaged to the point where it becomes difficult to imagine them as they once were. Here everything is arranged in perfect formation, so that we are asked to see both the original and the aftermath simultaneously. As Hatoum has said of her work, it is about conflict and contradiction, both evident within the object itself.

I want the work in the first instance to have a strong formal presence and through the physical experience to activate a psychological and emotional response.

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‘Remains to be Seen’ Mona Hatoum

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‘Remains to be Seen’ [detail] Mona Hatoum
The other installation which struck me most forcefully was Remains of the Day, which was originally created for the 10th Hiroshima Art Prize exhibition. Less room for ambivalence here. Charred remnants of a home are arranged around the sides of a room: chairs on which people have sat down to dinner; a child’s cot; a toy truck; a life burned to cinders and ash.

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‘Remains to be Seen’ Mona Hatoum
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‘Remains to be Seen’ Mona Hatoum

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‘Remains to be Seen’ [detail] Mona Hatoum
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‘Remains to be Seen’ [detail] Mona Hatoum
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‘Remains to be Seen’ [detail] Mona Hatoum

It was 20 years ago today …

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Last Thursday, October 17th, a significant posse of poets gathered in the upstairs room of The Wheatsheaf pub in Fitzrovia (once the haunt of Dylan Thomas, Augustus John and other notables) to celebrate the achievements of Slow Dancer Press and mark twenty years since it closed its metaphorical doors. They came, the poets, not just from the metropolis and various parts of the UK, but, in the case of the redoubtable Norbert Hirschhorn, from the further reaches of USA. Well, Minnesota.

The full line-up was as follows: Matthew Caley, Jill Dawson, Sue Dymoke, Rebecca Goss, Norbert Hirschhorn, Libby Houston, Peter Sansom, Ruth Valentine, Jackie Wills and Tamar Yoseloff. All read and reminisced a little, in a number of cases thanking Slow Dancer for publishing them at a crucial time in their writing lives. Liz Simcock sang and played and both Simon Armitage and Kirsty Gunn, sadly unable to attend, sent recorded messages.

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The assembled company of poets (those who didn’t have early trains to catch) From the left, Matthew Caley, Libby Houston, Ruth Valentine, Tamar Yoseloff, Yours Truly, Sue Dymoke, Norbert Hirschhorn, Rebecca Goss, Jackie Wills

The genesis of the press – which in its twenty years published 45 pamphlet collections, 13 books of poetry and 9 of fiction, in addition to 30 issues of Slow Dancer magazine [details here …. } – lay in the Arvon Foundation centre at Totleigh Barton in Devon, which was where I first met Slow Dancer’s co-founder and American editor, Alan Brooks, and the idea of publishing our own magazine was formed. It was also where I met the inimitable Libby Houston, who, both through her work and in person, was an early and lasting inspiration. How good it was to hear her reading again on Thursday!

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Libby reading; me listening. Photo: Sue Dymoke
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Liz Simcock. Photo: Sue Dymoke

Happy days!

‘Aslant’ in review …

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Aslant by John Harvey (poetry) and Molly E. Boiling (photography). £10. Shoestring Press. ISBN: 978-1912524099

Review from THE HIGH WINDOW by Robin Thomas https://thehighwindowpress.com

John Harvey’s poetry is spacious, unhurried, measured, taking its time to unfurl its effect but keeping its hooks in the reader by careful control of pace and by making every word count.   Here’s a sample from ‘Christmas Day’:

soon they will shuffle on their coats and shoes
and make their way through the quiet streets
to early morning mass

It is descriptive, patient and redolent of the slowness of the aged.  It has an elegiac quality, both to do with the approaching end of the couple’s lives and the felt out-of-date-ness of church-going.  Elsewhere in this poem this mood is enacted in memories of the daughter before she flew the nest, of the mother when she was well, of the lost certainties of life, a time when prayers might mean something. This poem takes its place against other elegiac poems, poems about love, loss, belief, truth and death along with a couple of ekphrastic poems and several finding their origin in jazz.

Another fine poem is ‘Monk at the 5 Spot’.  There are two separate threads to this poem: one involving legendary jazz musicians in performance, the other some famous listeners.  Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane leap off the page in Harvey’s enactment, their closely observed behaviour culminating in a marvellous image for Monk:

… an angular arpeggio
which calls to mind a man stumbling headlong
down a flight of stairs, never quite losing his balance

Meanwhile poet Frank O’Hara is at a table with his friends, talking, laughing, drinking, apparently unstoppable.  The poem ends with the two threads brought together:

[a] final double handed chord, so sudden,
so emphatic, that the crowd, almost as one,
catches its breath and even Frank O’Hara
is stunned into silence.

The music and O’Hara stop, the poem ends.

To my mind ‘The Curve’, which makes reference to Bridget Riley’s sequence of that name, does exactly what an ekphrastic poem should do – responds rather than describes – you don’t need the painting to enjoy the poem.  In this poem Riley’s abstract sequence brings to the narrator’s mind a suburban street evoked as a canyon, an absent daughter ‘dreaming of becoming seventeen’, a train journey in which a painting is briefly returned to and brought in as metaphor:

the light oscillating
on the water’s surface
patterning across the painter’s canvas

There are memories of the beginning and continuation of love and another strong ending:

then you turn and come back to where I’m waiting
small shells like keepsakes tight
in the palm of your hand.

It’s a stream of consciousness, just the kind of thing that might go through your mind when you look at abstract art.

There are many good things in these poems:  memories as ghosts in ‘Voyage’, the slow build up of the extended metaphor in ‘Bailey’s Mistake (Again)’, the discussion of epitaphs in the eponymous poem, the way Harvey can condense meaning, for example, in ‘The US Botanical Gardens’:

… I break small leaves
into the palm of my hand;
yarrow, for internal bleeding,
foxglove for the muscles of the heart’.

These are real plants to be found in the Botanical Gardens, with a historic symbolic meaning but they stand also directly for the narrator’s own emotional situation (and perhaps for the bodily state of the loved one).

I began with a reference to Harvey’s measured style.  Occasionally the close control wavers and the poetry meanders into something prose-like, where too much is said, as in ‘Lester Young’, but this is a minor complaint.

The photos by Molly E.Boiling are abstract conceptions, many based on buildings seen from unusual angles and reflect the poet’s interest in abstract art.  They certainly contribute to what is a very attractive book-object.

 

“Blue Watch”

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Exactly why my father opted to join the Auxiliary Fire Service [that’s him, the handsome one, third from the left] was never clear. To me, at least. The National Service (Armed Forces) Act was passed into law in September, 1939, at the outbreak of the war, making all men between the ages of 18 to 41 liable for conscription. [My father would have been 32.] Exemptions could be made for medical reasons or for those engaged in ‘reserved’, or vital, occupations, such as prison warders, police officers, lighthouse keepers – and those serving in the Fire Service. It could be that, while still doing something important for the war effort, he wanted to avoid being sent overseas; I had been born some nine months beforehand and perhaps he didn’t like the idea of leaving my mother and me alone if it could be avoided. He might even have thought the Fire Service less potentially dangerous than the armed forces; there was no one, presumably, to warn him about the terrors of the Blitz.

The perils of responding to nightly bombing raids – in common with most men of his generation – was something he would never discuss. But what did become clear was that in many ways the years my father spent in the Fire Service were the best years of his life – for the camaraderie, the good humour, the excitement and, I dare say, the sharing of danger.

Blue Watch is, in some ways, an exploration of what those experiences, that time, might have been like for him, filtered through the adventures of a fifteen-year old Fire Brigade messenger – father and son. Initially published, in translation, by Editions Syros in France as part of their teenage fiction series, this English edition, published by Troika, and aimed, primarily, but not, I hope, exclusively, at 12-16 year old readers, has been quite considerably rewritten, extended, and, I like to think, improved.

 

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Here’s a taster from the opening chapter …

It was one of those nights when it seemed as if the whole of London was on fire.

What little cloud cover there’d been earlier had cleared and over two hundred enemy bombers had made their way across the Channel by moonlight, with close to a hundred fighters in support. At first it had seemed as if, yet again, their main target would be the docks either side of the Thames, but tonight the devastation spread far and wide.

In the north of the city, three or so miles from the centre, the streets were dark, the air thick with smoke and the smell of burning. Head down, Jack Riley swung his Fire Brigade messenger’s bike hard left and right, avoiding the smouldering debris that lay scattered across the street. His objective was still some way off: a group of warehouses by the canal close to Kings Cross station, where units from B District were fighting to bring a fierce blaze under control.

Like most nights since the Blitz had started, the phone lines were down and the only way of conveying messages securely from the Brigade control rooms to units in the field was by messenger.

On his first day the section leader at Kentish Town fire station, where Jack was based, had gripped his wrist and turned his arm sharply, pointing at the vein clearly visible beneath the skin.

‘See this, Jack? This vein? That’s you. Our lifeline. You and the other messengers, you’re the ones who keep it flowing. Lose that and the whole service fails to function. We die. People die. You understand?’

Jack nodded. ‘Yes, sir.’

People die. The words burned into his brain.

The officer’s grip tightened. ‘You won’t let me down?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Good lad.’

Jack was shaking as he turned away.

That was two months ago. A lifetime, or so it seemed.

As Jack reached the crown of the road, pedalling fast, the loud roar of an explosion shook the air around him, lifting his bike off the ground and hurling him sideways, a flash of light outlining the skeletons of two towering iron gas holders, stark against the sky.

Shaken, he pushed himself up onto his hands and knees.

His regulation issue trousers were torn and there would be bruises, he knew, along with the grazes to his hands – but cuts and bruises were a given, a nuisance to be shrugged off and forgotten, along with the pain – what Jack was most concerned about was the state of his bike.

Fortunately, the damage was slight: the chain had come loose and the front wheel showed some faint sign of buckling, but nothing more. Chain quickly back in place, Jack pushed off and was away, head down into a hail of flying embers.

More than a dozen fire appliances – heavy units and trailer pumps for the most part – were ranged along the cobbled street that ran behind the threatened buildings. Jack lay his bike down and hurried between the maze of hosepipes criss-crossing the ground.

‘Senior fire officer,’ he called to the fireman on the nearest pump. ‘Where’ll I find him?’

The man pointed aloft, towards the turntable ladder that was reaching up towards the heart of the fire.

Jack swallowed hard and began to climb.

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