Schooldays

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English Class, Heanor Aldercar Secondary School, Mid-1960s

I had an email recently from someone asking me if I would sign one of my books and dedicate it to his wife on the occasion of her 65th birthday; she had been a young student in one of my classes at Heanor Aldercar Secondary School in the mid-60s, and had since gone on, I discovered, to study Mathematics at Imperial College, followed by an MSc and PhD in Computing at Nottingham University – for not one scrap of which I can lay claim to have been any kind of influence. What she remembered me most for was my love of contemporary poetry and my handwriting [a sort of Italic with the occasional added flourish] which she spent hours, apparently, trying to copy. A good job she can’t see it now! She and her husband had read a number of the Resnick novels without realising that the John Harvey who had written them was the same as the one who had talked her whole class into buying their own copies of Penguin Modern Poets 10: The Mersey Sound, thus risking the wrath of any parents who might object to the raciness of their contents.

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So mild they must seem now, those poems, innocent even … Roger McGough’s “At Lunchtime … A Story of Love”; Brian Patten’s “Song for Last Year’s Wife” and “Little Johnny’s Confession”; even Adrian Henri’s schoolgirl obsession. Another time, another age, another set of values: other lives.

Twelve years I spent teaching English & Drama: Heanor first, a small mining town, as it was then, between Derby and Nottingham; then Andover in Hampshire and, finally, Stevenage, Hertfordshire.

All a long time ago, though it doesn’t take much to remind me: a chance meeting, an email out of the blue. But names and faces blur and, looking back, you can only hope you did some little good; taught students successfully how to write a coherent sentence and instilled some enjoyment, in one form or another, in words. Anything more, surely, would be presumptuous – too Goodbye, Mr Chips. 

This message came via Friends United some ten years ago …

Dear John
You turned my life around learning about the War Poets (Seigfried Sassoon – “Oh German Mother”) and introducing me to Folk Music (“Blackleg Miner”).
At the time we met I was off the rails – you put me back on them.
I often refer to you as my saviour from the factories and coal mines of Derbyshire.
Tom Cooke had me down as a loser which I was before you.
I am now retired from the Fire Brigade after 34 years reaching the post of Divisional Officer and I live in Spain with my wife Angela.|
As well as teaching me English you believed in me and taught me about social history ands much more. I have a lot to thank you for. Hope you are OK.
Ian Shaw  1965-1967

Weigh that alongside whatever else I might have achieved, whatever honours and good reviews, and make me choose and I would have to say it means more. Goodbye, Mr Chips, indeed.

 

 

In a True Light

 

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I spent an interesting hour yesterday in the offices of the Royal National Institute of Blind  People, talking ‘down the line’ to half a dozen or so members of a group of blind or partially sighted people about my work as a writer. Most had some awareness of my books through various audio or large print versions, others from radio and – going back a little – from television. Fay, now in her early 80s and a retired probation officer, had read only one – In a True Light – and found it compulsive. She liked the way the different parts of the story commented on one another [it moves between New York and London in the late-50s and the present] and she liked the style. Laconic, that was how she described it. Laconic. Well, I can live with that.

They let Sloane out of prison three days short of his sixtieth birthday.

That’s how it begins.

First published in 2001, and a break from the sequence of 10 Resnick novels that began with Lonely Hearts in 1989 and finished [for good and all, I thought at the time] with Last Rites in 1998, In a True Light sought to move away from Nottingham and the police procedural [though it does feature two New York cops – Catherine Vargas & John Cherry – of whom I’m very fond] to new locations and a broader range of subject matter. I’d been interested for some little time in the abstract expressionist paintings of such artists as Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler, who first came to prominence in the 50s, and this, I thought, would give me the opportunity to explore that interest further. The list of works consulted was far longer than previously; longer than it would be until, years later, I researched the Miners’ Strike for the 12th and final Resnick novel, Darkness, Darkness.

The story of In a True Light is straightforward enough. When Sloane, a painter, is released from prison in London, where he has been serving time for forgery, he goes to New York in search of the daughter, Connie, a jazz singer, from whom he has become estranged [sound familiar?] and who is involved with a violent man – Delaney – whom the police suspect of murder. One back in New York, he remembers being there as a struggling young artist and the brief but fiery affair he had with an established painter, Jane Graham, who he learns is slowly dying.

To be honest, I’ve never been totally convinced how well the book ‘works’, how effectively (believably?) those sections dealing with Delaney, his violence and his connections with the Mob, merge with the rest. But some readers don’t seem to have that problem; like Fay they like it a lot.

As did Michael Connelly …

In In a True Light he is at his very best. It’s a crime story, sure, but it’s also a larger story about redemption and consequences set to the beat of the human heart.

And this comes from the reviewer (Marcel Berlins?) in The Times

At one level this is the story of Sloane’s attempt to save his daughter from the criminal world in which she has become trapped. It is also a sensitive and moving study of ambivalent fatherhood, an unsparing portrait of an artist, and an atmospheric look at the bohemian New York of the late Fifties.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be some hard on myself, hard on the book?

One of my favourite passages is a description of Thelonious Monk playing piano at the Five Spot, which I refashioned as a poem and was recently published in Aslant, so I won’t repeat it here.

Instead, here’s the young Sloane calling, unannounced, at Jane Graham’s studio, and being allowed to watch her work …

“OK,’ she said, stepping back. ‘Come in. Come in and sit over there.’ Pointing to the far side of the room. ‘Sit there and don’t say a word,’

So Sloane sat for almost two hours, shifting his weight from side to side, from one buttock to the other, slowly stretching his legs. then drawing them up to his chest, as Jane, blanking him out, worked on her painting, moving, moving, rarely still, pacing, walking back and forth, in then out, close and away. The wide canvas stretched across its heavy wooden frame and stapled fast, covered then with white paint applied in broad strokes, a white, stippled ground upon which she was adding blocks of colour, gradations of alternating blue and yellow shading down to mauve and orange, their edges blurred and softened with a swab of cloth soaked in turpentine, each balanced in relation to what was immediately above and below, and to the painting as a whole.

Jane darting quickly forward now, a fast sweep of brush from right to left, a slash of darkling, curving red; and then another, finer, ending in a filigree of scarlet flecks like tracks in snow.

And Sloane, watching, in thrall, as the painting grew, took on a life, each element held in tension with the rest but all, somehow, and this the real art, the artistry, in harmony. Something he would rarely, if ever, himself achieve. Not like this. Beautiful. Thrilling. The act, the thing, the thing itself.

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Art Chronicles: Lee Krasner

From several interviews in the later years of her life it seems clear that Lee Krasner was – in terminology she would almost certainly have appreciated and understood – a tough old broad. And just as well. A female painter in what was predominantly – we’re talking New York in the years following WW2  – a man’s world, she had to push and struggle to be acknowledged and for her work to be seen. As she said when comparing her situation with that of the Abstract Expressionist women painters who came to prominence in her wake …

… the next generation, [Grace] Hartigan, [Joan] Mitchell, [Helen] Frankenthaler had an easier time of it. Galleries existed, dealers. We didn’t have that. We had to create all this. The next generation had an open door. This has all happened in a short passage of time.

Krasner wasn’t given her first retrospective until 1965, and then in London – at the Whitechapel Gallery – and not New York – and she would have to wait another ten years for a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The current Barbican exhibition, curated by Eleanor Nairne and designed by David Chipperfield Architects, brings together some 100 pieces, sufficient to give full rein to the range of Krasner’s work and, hopefully, help to ensure that she can no longer be dismissed as the wife of Jackson Pollock and a footnote in the history of Abstract Expressionism.

Born in 1908, the youngest of the six children of Jewish Russian parents who had left Europe for the United States and settled in Brooklyn, Krasner had decided at the age of 14 that she wanted to be an artist and, until her death in 1984 at the age of 76, that’s what she was. Beginning as an orthodox figure painter – and there are some well-executed examples here – she was introduced to cubism by her teacher at the time, Hans Hofmann.

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Lee Krasner at Hans Hofmann’s school of art, 1939

Hofmann aside, Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian were her early influences and, to a greater or lesser extent, remained so for the rest of her life. And – a bonus – when Mondrian came to New York and she got to know him, they discovered a mutual love of jazz …

We were both mad for jazz and we used to go to jazz spots together … We used to go to a Café Uptown or Café Downtown and dance. … I was a fairly good dancer, that is to say I can follow easily, but the complexity of Mondrian’s rhythm was not simple in any sense … I nearly went mad trying to follow this man’s rhythm.

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Lee Krasner : Milkweed, 1955

But soon there was another set of influences to respond to, and – in a quite different, more intimately physical sense – another man. She first met Jackson Pollock in the early 40s, when they were working on a project for the WPA.

I resisted at first, but I must admit, I didn’t resist very long. I was terribly drawn to Jackson, and I fell in love with him – physically, mentally – in every sense of the word. I had a conviction when I met Jackson that he had something important to say.  When we began going together, my own work became irrelevant. He was the important thing. I couldn’t do enough for him.

Convinced, as she was, of Pollock’s ‘genius’, Krasner readily took on the task of promoting  his work – not least, as she thought it had a better chance of selling than her own and money was always a problem. But accepting a secondary role in the relationship did not mean she was willing to step away altogether from her own work as an artist.

For me, it was quite enough to continue working, and his success, once he began to sell, gave us an income of sorts and made me ever so grateful because, unlike wives of other artists who had to go out and support them, I could continue painting myself.

I couldn’t run out and do a one-woman job on the sexist aspect of the art world, continue my painting and stay in the role I was in as Mrs. Pollock. I just couldn’t do that much. What I considered important was that I was able to work and other things would have to make their turn. Now rightly or wrongly, I made my decisions.

The relationship with Pollock became less and less easy,  threatened as it was by his increasing dependence on alcohol, his womanising, and his occasionally violent temper. It was against this background that Krasner began working on the painting later called Prophecy, which is placed in a central position in the Barbican show, and represents a turning away (or moving on) from collage and the lingering influence of Mondrian to something looser and fleshier – pink limbs and body parts outlined in heavy black – abstraction now with more than a hint of figuration. Echoes of Picasso, perhaps, and Matisse, as well as Pollock himself. Hints of de Kooning.

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Lee Krasner : Prophecy, 1956

The canvas took Krasner herself by surprise. “The painting disturbed me enormously and I called Jackson to look at it. He assured me it was a good painting, and said not to think about it, just continue … do another … ” In time, she would do three more, all on display here, but right then it was left on the easel when Krasner, hoping to clear some ground perhaps between Pollock and herself, took a trip to Paris alone. It was when she was there that she received the news that Pollock was dead: drunk, he had crashed the car he had insisted on driving into a tree, killing himself and the friend of the woman with whom he had been having an affair, who was herself the only one to survive.

Krasner could have fallen apart: instead she continued to work. She moved from her smaller studio to the barn where Pollock had done his vast ‘drip’ paintings, and, with that extra space, her own paintings became bigger, more akin in some respects to Pollock’s own work, its movement and patterning, its repetitions. The first group of paintings she made were dark, tortured exercises in umber, swirling circles and slashing lines; reflections, it’s reasonable to assume, of her state of mind. But this passed and soon she was luxuriating in colour, a bright crimson that suggested life much as umber had suggested death. And when she fell and broke her right arm, she simply learned to paint with her left. Tough old broad, indeed!

Lee Krasner: Living Colour is at the Barbican Art Gallery until September 1st, after which it tours to Frankfurt, Switzerland and Spain.

 

 

Getting to Grips with “Aslant”

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Photo : Molly E. Boiling

I’ve written before on this blog about Aslant, the small but beautifully formed collection of my poems and Molly Boiling’s photographs published by Shoestring Press earlier in the year, but the arrival of an interesting, quite detailed review by Thomas Ovans in the online magazine London Grip gives me the opportunity to do so again.

This is how it begins …

As I begin to write this review it strikes me that one’s reading of a book can initially be influenced by what one had previously been reading. I came to this collection having just enjoyed another book that  robustly and self-confidently expressed irreverent and sceptical attitudes that I broadly agreed with. Aslant, by contrast, is a much more provisional, reflective and tender work and represented a refreshing change of tone that I hadn’t known I was more than ready for.

Aslant places John Harvey’s poems alongside evocative photographs by Molly Boiling which provide sharp-edged images of steps, shadows, girders and corners of high buildings. These pictures often suggest entrances and exits or incidental glimpses alongside the telling of a story. Hence they combine well with Harvey’s poems which usually have a strong narrative and reminiscent thread.

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Photo : Molly E. Boiling

“A sense of mortality seems to hover over much of this collection,” Ovans writes; “a recurring sense of wistful consolation after loss.”

Of the pieces in the central section which take jazz and jazz musicians as their subject – Lester Young, Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk – Ovans writes, “This is wonderfully evocative writing which, I would maintain, conveys something authentic even to a reader who is not a jazz aficionado.”

And he concludes his review thus …

… this is no ordinary book: the well-chosen images and the way they complement some consistently satisfying high-quality poems make it, in my view, well worth a tenner of anybody’s money.

You can read Thomas Ovan’s review in full here …

And if you don’t already have a copy and feel like following this advice and splashing out said tenner, Aslant can be ordered directly from contacts@centralbooks.com.    or  from any bookstore – including those worthy souls at Nottingham’s Five Leaves Bookshop – bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk. You can even buy it on Amazon.

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Photo : Molly E. Boiling

Favourite Fiction, Post-1960

Open up the questions to the audience at almost any literary  event, and someone, sooner or later, will ask you to name a favourite author – one who has influenced you, perhaps – or a favourite book. A question which throws my already wavering memory into shut down or something close to it. But no more. The following list of the novels and short story collections published since 1960 and that I’ve enjoyed and admired most will supply the answer. Several answers. As long as I remembered to take it with me. And please take into consideration this list is current as of July, 2019, and there are gaps I can see already. Where, for goodness sake, is the Don DeLillo? The Willy Vlautin? But don’t let’s get started – this will do for now.

John Updike
The Rabbit Quartet (1960/1971/1981/1990)

Thomas McGuane
Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973)
Nothing But Blue Skies (1992)

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A. S. Byatt
The Virgin in the Garden (1978)
Still Life (1981)

William Maxwell
So Long, See You Tomorrow (1979)

 

Larry McMurtry
The Last Picture Show (1966)

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Donald Barthelme
Sixty Stories (1981)

Toni Morrison
Beloved (1987)

Carol Shields
Mary Swann (1990)

Tim O’Brien
The Things They Carried (1990)

Denis Johnson
Jesus’ Son (1992)

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Michael Cunningham
The Hours (1998)

John McGahern
That They May Face the Rising Son (2002)

Alice Munro
Runaway (2004)

Kent Haruf
Eventide (2004)
Benediction (2013)
Our Souls at Night (2015)

Marilynne Robinson
Gilead (2004)
Home (2008)
Lila (2014)

Colm Toibin
The Master (2004)
The Testament of Mary (2012)

Raymond Carver
Where I’m Calling From (1989)

Richard Ford
The Lay of the Land (2006)

Jon McGregor
So Many Ways to Begin (2007)
Even the Dogs (2010)

Maile Meloy
Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It (2009)

Kevin Powers
The Yellow Birds (2012)

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Zadie Smith
N-W (2012)

Tom Drury
The End of Vandalism (2014)

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Maggie Nelson
The Arganauts (2015)

Anne Enright
The Green Road (2015)

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Claire-Louise Bennett
Pond (2016)

[A separate list covering crime fiction can be found elsewhere on this blog]

 

 

Six Months of Good Stuff …

Here’s a list, for those who like lists, of the movies, music, books and exhibitions that have given me the most pleasure in the first half of the year; given me pleasure and, more often than not, stopped me in my tracks.

BOOKS
An American Marriage : Tayari Jones
Long Bright River : Liz Moore (proof copy – pub Jan 2020)

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FILMS
Hale County This Morning This Evening : RaMell Ross
Foxtrot : Samuel Maoz
Dirty God : Sacha Polak [mainly for the extraordinary performance by Vicky Knight]

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MUSIC
Blues & Roots Ensemble w. Alice Zawadzki : Pizza Express Jazz Club
Viktoria Mullova : unaccompanied Bach on violin : Sage, Gateshead

Two CDs by writer Willy Vlautin’s band, The Delines
Colfax (2014)
The Imperial (2019)

Delines

ART
Harold Gilman – Beyond Camden Town : Djanogly Gallery, Nottm.
Albert Irvin & Abstract Expressionism : GWA, Bristol
George Shaw – A Corner of a Foreign Field : Holbourne Gallery, Bath
Joan Mitchell : Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris

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George Shaw
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Joan Mitchell

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

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Dave Heath

 

 

 

Now’s the Time … Again

 

For quite a while after I’d published a batch of novels, I remained wary of the short story. Writing one, I mean. It always seemed a little too difficult: the need to be precise while simultaneously working through inference; the ability to create an atmosphere with a minimum of folderol and faff; and then the ending – clever without seeming tricksy, with an element  of surprise that nevertheless satisfied expectations.

Perhaps I’d been thinking about it a little too much. All that analysis and not enough action. It was Maxim Jakubowski – editor, author, and, at the time, proprietor of the eminent London mystery bookstore, Murder One, who got me to change my mind.

How?

Looking back, I suspect he did it simply by asking. I would have been more than a little flattered, eager to oblige.

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The result, published in London Noir (Serpent’s Tail, London,1994) was “Now’s the Time”, set, somewhat perversely, in Nottingham, and featuring an encounter between my by then well-established series character, Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick, and an alcoholic jazz musician, Ed Silver.

I remember how surprised I was at the pleasure I derived from the process, the actual writing, and the small but real feeling of satisfaction when the final sentence was set down. Since then, I’ve written and had published a further thirty five stories, one of which – “Fedora”  – was awarded the Crime Writers’ Association Short Story Dagger for 2014. And “Now’s the Time” itself has been reprinted in a number of other collections: Das Grosse Lesebuch Des Englischen Krimis, Goldmann, Germany, 1994; Now’s the Time, Slow Dancer, London, 1999 & Heinemann, London, 2002; Opening Shots, edited by Lawrence Block, Cumberland House, Nashville, 2000; First Cases, Vol. 4, edited by Robert J. Randisi, Signet, New York, 2002 and  Great TV & Film Detectives, edited by Maxim Jakubowski, Reader’s Digest/Orion, New York/London, 2005.

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All this is the background to “Yesterdays”, my contribution to Invisible Blood, a new collection of stories that Maxim claims will be his last as compiler and editor. I wanted, in some way, to refer back to that first story and acknowledge Maxim’s role in its creation. Thus, in the opening paragraphs, Resnick recalls a key incident from that earlier story …

“They’re all dying, Charlie.”

Ed Silver’s words echoed across the years, across the near-empty room in which Resnick stood, remembering. He had been about to go off duty when he’d been called to a disturbance at Emmanuel House: a man threatening to take a butcher’s cleaver to his own bare feet – first the left and then the right and heaven help anyone who tried to stop him.

At first Resnick hadn’t recognised him and then he did. Silver. Ed Silver. Up on the bandstand at the Old Vic on Fletcher Gate, shoulders hunched, alto sax angled off to one side, fingers a blur of movement as he blitzed through an uptempo blues with sufficient speed and ferocity to make the eyes water. Now the same hands, purple and swollen, were scarcely able to hold the cleaver steady, never mind a saxophone; Resnick had reached out slowly but firmly and taken the cleaver safely into his own. Taken Silver home and fed him, made coffee strong and black, talked long into the night.

“They’re all dying, Charlie. Every bugger!”

Invisible Blood will be published by Titan Books in July, both here in the UK and in the States, and includes stories by Lee Child, Stella Duffy, Jeffery Deaver, Denise Mina, Cathi Unsworth and others, seventeen in total.

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Poem for My Father

My father died thirty five years ago this week – June 17th, 1984. He was 78, two years younger than I am now: somehow it doesn’t seem right.

Here he is …

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And here’s a poem from Out of Silence that I wrote about him …

Sunsets

“Grandad looks like John Wayne,”
my daughter said, pirouetting away.

In the westerns I wrote he filled in corners –
the stage coach driver, the friendly sheriff
with spreading paunch and bowed back,
his holstered gun never drawn in anger,
yet stubborn as a mule when the chips were down.

In photographs he holds me high above
his head like a talisman: pride bright
in his blue eyes I could never fulfil.

Writing, he stands between my sentences:
bits of a life that catch like grit in the mouth.
Once I ran, sobbing, after him until, reaching
down, he swung me, safe, in his arms.

He stands in all the doorways of my childhood.
Stands for my meanness, my grudging thanks,
those shifts of direction which push him
further and further behind.

Driving home to visit I‘d passed him
on the road before I realised, stooped
and suddenly slow, one leg turned sideways,
an old man I’d failed to recognise.

Laughter and meaning clogged thick in his lungs:
they moved him to a private room and fitted
a green mask fast over his face; each breath
rattled dry stones along the bed of his throat,
his mouth peeled back and back until it disappeared.

Yet a week or so before he died,
the old smile alive for a moment in his eyes,
he beckoned the prettiest nurse and as
she bent to catch his words,
nuzzled the hard plastic of his mask
against her face to steal a kiss:
an act of imagination great
as any John Wayne ever made.

Mornings of a Recently Retired Writer

What on earth d’you do now you’ve packed it in, people ask? Won’t know what to do with yourself. All those hours stretching out before the Six O’Clock News; a life measured in cups of tea and ginger biscuits and just popping round to the shops, shan’t be a minute; the game shows and stair lift commercials that clutter up afternoon TV. You must get bored silly.

Well, if you’ve any sense, the one thing you don’t do – as a friend of mine in a similar situation heartily agreed when the subject came up recently – is switch off the alarm clock and lay around in bed for hours, surrounded by half-read books and yesterday’s paper, the radio not quite tuned to the station and getting up to set it right too much of an effort. That way lies …. well, I don’t want to stop and consider exactly what.

So … the answer? Get up, early; within reason the earlier the better and with a sense of purpose. For my friend, it’s the allotment and taking the grandkids to school; for me, well, five mornings a week it’s this …

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Coming up to a quarter past seven, my partner’s just back from her morning run and I’ve been up for half an hour or so (the sound of the front door closing as she leaves, the click of the front gate, my signals to rise). Walking shoes on, pockets suitably filled, it’s time for me to leave, heading for Parliament Hill Fields and the edge of Hampstead Heath. Passing round the back of Acland Burghley school – where they recently filmed scenes for the second series of Killing Eve, and which, my father attended many years before, when it was plain Burghley Road School – the arse, as he used to say, hanging out of his trousers – till he left to start work at the age of fifteen – I cut through the housing estate and onto Highgate Road. Most mornings, the newsagent is behind his counter, always with a smile; sometimes standing waiting in the doorway, Guardian in hand.

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I head for the Lido and the small café that has been operating there for several years. With any luck, Alessio will be the barista on duty. If you’re limiting yourself to one coffee a day, then it had better be a good one and that’s what he provides without fail. Morning, Alessio!

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I’m almost the only customer this early and so I’ll sit for fifteen minutes or so, reading the paper and enjoying the coffee, until the swimmers start to come in from the pool and it’s time for me to start walking.

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The path that rises directly up from the Lido opens out to give views back across the centre of the city …

 

 

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… and up towards the summit of the Hill …

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… turning then between the trees …

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… and down towards a line of ponds. Highgate No. 1 Pond; the Men’s Bathing Pond; the Model Boating Pond and the Bird Sanctuary Pond – the Ladies’ Bathing Pond secure behind the trees.  At this time of the morning, at least one of the benches alongside the Boating Pond will be free so I take the chance to sit for five minutes or so and catch my breath,  gazing back across to the other side. I remember when my father and I launched my model yacht here and the wind dropped suddenly, leaving it becalmed and the two of us waiting for what seemed hours for the wind to get up again and propel it back to shore. This walk, like so many others, a walk into my past.

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Circling the pond, I head back towards Highgate Road and the area known as Dartmouth Park, the pavements busy by now with students on their way to one of three schools that are clustered close together: William Ellis, La Sainte Union and Parliament Hill. If I turn my head to the left before crossing the railway bridge to where we live (literally, on the wrong side of the tracks), I can see what was my father’s parents’ house – the last in the row – where I used to go after school and do my homework – unless my Nan fancied a trip to Chapel Street Market, or, if I’d somehow earned a treat, down to the little fleapit of a cinema, the Gaisford in Kentish Town, to see Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers.

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Once over the bridge, I’m almost home. My feet are starting to ache a little. My pedometer says 3.2 miles; the kitchen clock tells me it’s time to get on with the rest of the day.

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American Writers: George Pelecanos / Willy Vlautin

When I first started reading George Pelecanos – the Nick Stefanos Mysteries – and later when we met and I had the opportunity to interview him, it was clear that his chosen form, the crime novel, was going to be, for him, much more than an entertainment – though his books are certainly that. As became even more evident with some of the later, more substantial titles – Right as Rain, say, Hard Revolution or The Night Gardener – Pelecanos sees himself very much in the role of social chronicler, as well as – sounds a little pretentious, but I can’t help it – a chronicler of the lives of men. Men and women inseparable from the society into which they are born and in which they live. Cause and effect.

Going back over Pelecanos’ work I’m reminded of a statement by the Australian writer, Peter Temple. ” … those are the issues [questions of morality, of behaviour and of simple human decency] you should write about (and) if you are a crime writer you have more licence to write about them than anybody else.”

From the time Pelecanos became involved, as writer and producer, in the television series, The Wire, and later, Treme and The Deuce, novels have been relatively few and far between. So news of The Man Who Came Uptown was greeted with pleasurable anticipation.

Uptown

It is, in some respects, a simple morality tale. Will Michael, on release from prison, go back to the life that put him there, responding to the pressures of those around him, or have the courage and strength of will to step aside and make an honest life of his own? That he is even considering the latter is in no small part due to the prison librarian, who has successfully introduced him to books and reading and, through them, an alternative set of choices.

One book that affects Michael strongly is Northline by Willy Vlautin, which tells the story of a young woman who gradually finds the strength to have hope and trust in the possibility of a new life, despite years of serious abuse. A role model, for Michael, of sorts. If she can do it, if she can even try …

Pelecanos’ opinion of the novel is clear from the rear jacket of the Faber edition of the book …

Northline shines with naked honesty and unsentimental humanity. The character of Allison Johnson, and the wounded-but-still-walking people she encounters on her journey, will stay with me for a long while. Vlautin has written the American novel that I’ve been hoping to find.

Northline

Vlautin, author of five novels so far, is also a song writer and musician, initially with the band Richmond Fontaine and, more recently, The Delines, for whom he plays guitar and sings as well as writing most of their material. I was aware of Richmond Fontaine, liking some of their songs without going overboard [the exception being the marvellous Inventory from the 2011 album, The High Country] but The Delines are, as they say – or used to – something else. A friend – actually, my agent – the two are far from inseparable – gave me a copy of their 2014 album, Colfax, for a recent birthday and it’s scarcely been off the stereo since.

Not surprisingly, the songs are stories; moments, often, taken from the centre of broken down lives; their protagonists drawn from an itinerant American underclass . No surprise that amongst his favourite writers Vlautin cites John Steinbeck and Raymond Carver.

But what makes the songs on Colfax and the more recent  The Imperial really work is the voice of singer Amy Boone, sometimes barely rising above the level of everyday speech, which conveys the experience and pain of the characters she inhabits with weary fidelity. Aware of this, when Boone had a serious accident after making Colfax, Vlautin waited several years until she had recovered and could sing again before making another record.

 

Delines