Down at the Guitar Bar

I’ve a couple of Poetry & Jazz events coming up this month, the first of them this Wednesday, 11th, at the Guitar Bar in Nottingham.

Dave Belbin has been organising things here for a while now, all evenings featuring the hot little four-piece band led by trumpeter John Lucas – yes, that’s the same John Lucas who runs Shoestring Press and is an estimable poet himself. The usual procedure is to feature two guest poets, the first up on this occasion being the formidable Lydia Towsey.

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That’s Lydia on the right …

Not sure if Lydia’s is going to read with the band – apparently some poets do, others prefer to go it alone – but I’m hoping they will join me for at least half of my set (or should that be, I’ll be joining them?) and after some discussion this weekend, John and I have sorted out the three poems that seem most suitable, all three, not surprisingly, in one way or another about jazz. Oklahoma Territory is a longish piece about  the big bands that criss-crossed the American heartland in the 30s and early 40s, Oklahoma Territory; Ghost of a Chance is a snapshot of tenor player Lester Young towards the end of his career; while Evenings on Seventy-Third Street, a poem I’ve rarely, if ever, read in public, and certainly not with accompaniment, extols the virtues of dill pickles, fried chicken and the wonderfully precise vocals of Lee Wiley. Here it is …

Evenings on Seventy-Third Street

Soft rock of traffic steadying down,
four pieces of chicken, fried potato chips,
dill pickles – ridged and thick as fingers –
coleslaw. Coke. Despite our best efforts
by the time we walk it home, circles
of grease, dark through the paper sack,
have stained your clothes and mine,
a smear across the silk blouse you bought
for best, below the spots where coffee
dribbled from your mug two nights before,
watching the news on tv.

While you snap the lock shut, slide
the bolt across, I am sharing food
onto paper plates; your book open,
face down where you left it,
pad on which I’m writing
is on the floor by my chair.
The radio, which we left playing,
chances its arm at a contemporary
string quartet and I sense you will
rise soon, licking your fingers
free from chicken, wiping them
to be certain, down your skirt,
before lifting Lee Wiley from the record rack –
the Liberty Music Shop recordings 39-49 –
singing songs of love, but not for me.

An hour now since either of us has spoken,
felt the need to speak.

 

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Serving Two Masters

I was back at Goldsmiths College in New Cross on Wednesday evening, there to talk some of the students enrolled on the current Creative Writing MA programme, taught by Maura Dooley and Blake Morrison. Under the banner, My Life as a Jobbing Writer, I glossed through my forty years as a professional author, from my chancy beginnings as Thom Ryder, fictional chronicler of Britain’s Hells Angels, through almost 50 westerns and on, via some classy dramatic adaptations for radio and television, to my latter life as crime writer and sometime poet. It was fun to do – I think, of interest – and I tell you what – doesn’t that old pulp artwork look good blown up on the big screen!

A number of the questions revolved around the twin poles of artistic integrity and commercial imperatives, and I only wish I’d had the following, from Colm Toibin’s essay on Henry James, The Lessons of the Master, on hand to help with my answer.

All of his life as a writer James worried about both the purity of his work and the making of money. It was as though he himself were a married couple. One part of him cared for the fullness of art and the other part for the fullness of the cupboard.

 

February Reading

  • Death of a Red Heroine : Qui Xiaolong
  • A Loyal Character Dancer : Qui Xiaolong
  • When Red is Black : Qui Xiaolong
  • An English Affair: Sex, Class & Power in the Age of Profumo : Richard Davenport-Hines
  • Duane’s Depressed : Larry McMurtry

plus I’m still reading Circular Breathing – The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain : George McKay and, inevitably, yet more of David Kynaston’s Family Britain.

Intimations of Mortality

1.  An email this morning from a reader, saying that learning of Ruth Rendell’s serious illness had made her regret the fact that although she’d always meant to write and tell her how much she had enjoyed reading her work she had never done so and now it was, in all probability, too late. With this in mind, she continued, she wanted to tell me, while it was still possible, how much she had enjoyed my work over the years also.

2.  At last night’s poetry reading at Lauderdale House, I was delighted to remind Jeremy Robson of the Poetry & Jazz concert I’d been to at the Royal Festival Hall in 1969, in which he’d taken part, and to ask him to sign the programme I’d preserved inside the box set of recordings from the event. When we looked at the list of poets who had appeared – Dannie Abse, Thomas Blackburn, Douglas Hill, Laurie  Lee, Spike Milligan, Vernon Scannell and John Smith – we realised that Jeremy was the only one still alive.

 

 

 

I Authorise!

There have been one or two interesting reactions to my previous blog about the whys and wherefores of killing off Lynn Kellogg in Cold in Hand, bringing into question the nature of the writer’s relationship with his or her long-running characters.

It was somewhat serendipitous, therefore, that, walking on the Heath the other day and catching up, via my iPod, with various accumulated podcasts, I chanced upon a Radio 3 Arts & Ideas programme in which Matthew Sweet talked to a trio of American novelists, Jane Smiley, Marilynne Robinson and Richard Ford.

One of the subjects Sweet returned to, with Robinson and Ford especially, was that of the relationship between writers and those characters who recurred in their work, in Robinson’s case the Ames and Boughton families from the small Iowa town of Gilead, and in Ford’s, Frank Bascombe, who has been the principal character in three novels and, most recently, a quartet of inter-connected short stories.

Given my own connection with Charlie Resnick, about whom I’ve written 12 novels, a clutch of stories, two television screenplays, a number of radio plays, and about whom I’m about to write a stage play, I was interested to hear what each had to say. This exchange, in particular, struck a chord  …

SWEET: How present does he (Frank Bascombe) seem to you? Does he make demands?

FORD: Oh, that’s very romantic!

SWEET: It’s a romanticism, I would suggest, quite a few authors feel.

FORD: It’s baloney! Maybe they are gullible victims of that kind of romanticism. I’m not, actually. I’m the author and what that means is, I authorise everything. So, if I could say Frank made a demand on me, it’s just a way of saying I make a demand on myself. I mean I certainly carry around with me a notebook and I write in that notebook all the time, and I put things that he says and feels – that I would like to assign to him to say and feel – and then I haul them out of my notebook in the way of Ruskin who said composition is the arrangement of unequal things. I take these unequal things and make something out of them. But otherwise he does not have any existence for me.

This almost gleefully debunking of the more romantic version of the author-character relationship comes closest, I think, to my own. Sorry to have to tell you this, gentle reader, but they ain’t real, they don’t have lives of their own – other than the lives we agree to give them. Or not.

 

Poetry & Jazz, Then & Now

Daughter’s earnest foraging amongst our vinyl collection yesterday morning (yes, the sound is richer and deeper) brought to light an item I had almost forgotten …

4187444… an Argo box set containing two LPs, in what was proudly announced as stereophonic sound, recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall in 1969 and featuring the eight poets listed below, some, not all, reading with the Michael Garrick Sextet, which, as can be seen, featured a formidable front line of Don Rendell and Art Themen on saxes and Ian Carr on trumpet. It was a concert I well remember attending and there inside the box, to my delight, was the original programme …

P & Jazz

P & Jazz 2

 [Click on the above to see it more clearly]

The occasion was the 250th in a series of Poetry & Jazz events organised by Jeremy Robson, which had its beginnings in a reading at Hampstead Town Hall as early as 1961 and the first collaboration with Michael Garrick, at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry a year later.

Now Jeremy Robson, as it happens, will be reading at Lauderdale House in Highgate, North London, this Wednesday evening, along with four other poets – Chris Beckett, Simon Jenner, Stephen Watts and myself. If you’re anywhere in the area, do come along, it should be a fine evening. As far as I know, however, no jazz on this occasion, but I might point anyone interested towards two readings I’m doing in which jazz will be very much involved.

On Wednesday 11th February, Lydia Towsey and myself are guests of John Lucas and his Four in the Bar band at The Guitar Bar in Nottingham, and on Friday 27th February, Nancy Mattson and I are reading with the excellent four-piece Special Edition at the Dugdale Centre in Enfield.

Details of these events (and others) can be found here …

 

 

Killing Them Softly …

“I’ve a bone to pick with you,” S. said. We hadn’t had time even to settle in our seats, shuck off our coats, never mind order the first glasses of prosecco. “Lynn Kellogg,” she said, “killing her off like that. How could you?”

She was not the first and quite possibly, as long as there’s an appetite for the Resnick books, of which Cold in Hand, in which I perform that unspeakable, inexplicable act, is the eleventh, she will not be the last.

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I hadn’t written a novel featuring Charlie Resnick for ten years; had imagined that number ten in the series, Last Rites, would be, well, Charlie’s goodbye. But then circumstances suggested I might write something in which I explored, to some degree, the experience of grief. Three good friends of mine, people with whom I had socialised and worked, to whom, over a period of years, I had become close, had died: Angus Wells, in tandem with whom I had written numerous pulp westerns – the Hawk and Peacemaker series under the pen name of William S. Brady, The Gringos as J. D. Sandon and The Lawmen as J.B. Dancer – and who had latterly come to live in Nottingham; David Kresh, the American poet, who was one of the American editors of Slow Dancer magazine, and who introduced me to areas of jazz – David Murray, The World Saxophone Quartet – I might otherwise have shied away from; and Charles Gregory, whom I first met when he was a visiting lecturer on the American Studies MA course I was following, and with whom I shared many conversations about movies, crime fiction and music – that of John Stewart and Richard Thompson especially – the best of them while sitting up to the bar behind shots of bourbon with water backs. In addition, I had recently read and been strongly affected by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she writes about the sudden death of her husband and the near death of her daughter.

Hence, a return to Resnick, the fictional character I knew best and the best through which to channel and explore those feelings, and, in order to do that, poor Lynn had to die.

“How could you?”

Quite deliberately, constructing the story line for the maximum effect. Centre the opening chapter around Lynn, making it clear her importance as a character, and in that chapter place her in mortal danger, a danger from which she escapes. Whew! That’s all right then.

Maintain that centrality, make the case she’s investigating more important than Resnick’s (This is the beginning, perhaps, of easing Resnick into the background, the role of observer which is largely his in the final novel, Darkness, Darkness.) And then, more or less midway through the novel – and out of the blue – actually the dark of night – throw in a sudden warning. Resnick has been sitting around at home, waiting for Lynn to return from London, passing the time sipping whisky, listening to Bob Brookmeyer – four minutes and twenty seconds of ‘There Will Never Be Another You’.

Through the music he heard the sound of a cab approaching along the narrow, poorly made-up road that led towards the house and a smile came to his face. In his mind’s eye, he saw Lynn leaning forward to pay the driver, exchanging, perhaps, a few words, before getting out and, as the cab drew away again, crossing towards the house. In a moment he would hear the faint clicking of the gate. The cat jumped down from his lap as he rose and moved towards the door.

At first he thought what he heard as he stepped into the hall was the sound of a car backfiring, then knew, in the same breath that it was not.

End of Part One. Title Page: Part Two. Which begins with chapter 22, in which I take us off to a new character, another police officer, Karen Shields, waking, slightly hungover, a hundred or more miles away in North London, close by the Essex Road. It isn’t until chapter 23 that we return to that night in Nottingham, moving backwards in time to find Resnick kneeling beside Lynn Kellogg’s body in the front garden of the house they had shared.

All designed to have the maximum effect on the reader. [What did Henry James call it? The architecture of the novel?] So that when someone says, as did S., still affected by it some six or seven years later, “How could you?”, I know.

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Portraits of a Lady

One way or another, quite a lot of my time last year was spent with Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady – time well, if sometimes frustratingly spent. Why, for instance – and for those of you who don’t know the story, spoiler warning ahead – having sent Isobel, the lady in question, off to Europe in search of a broader, deeper experience of life and landed her in Florence in the machiavellian arms of her suitor, Gilbert Osmond, does he then jump the story forward several years, depriving us of the crucial early days of their marriage, the loss of a child and Isobel’s realisation that she has made a serious misjudgement?

Is it because he feared that to write about those things would draw him, unavoidably, into melodrama and sensationalism?

As a gay and, by all accounts, mostly celibate man, did he find himself lacking the experience and understanding that would enable him to write about such matters with conviction?

Or was it something to do with the architecture of the novel as James conceived it, two halves arranged around a centre that the reader is left to fill in retrospect, using what he tells of Isobel’s feelings about the trap she has walked into, the contrast between before and after being all the more shocking for it being presented to us so suddenly?

But when, as the months elapsed, she followed him further and further and he led her into the mansion of his own habitation, then, then she had seen where she really was. She could live it over again, the incredulous terror with which she had taken the measure of her dwelling. Between those four walls she had lived ever since; they were to surround her for the rest of her life. It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation. Osmond’s beautiful mind gave it neither light nor air…

I thought of this again a week ago, rewatching Jane Campion’s film version of the novel for the first time in a number of years. Like James, she leaves those early married years unseen, the changes in Isobel’s fortunes evident in the manner of Nicole Kidman’s playing, her physical appearance, the suppression of hope or spirit. A life without life or air, indeed.

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Kidman is, I think, excellent, unlike, for my taste, John Malkovich, whose Gilbert Osmond is, in voice and affectation, far too reptilian, too lacking in charm, far too obviously an embodiment of evil for Isobel not to have seen through him sooner.

Campion and her screenwriter, Laura Jones, do make changes and additions … none more extreme, or faintly ludicrous, than the early scene in which Isobel fantasises about being groped by three of her suitors and potential lovers at the same time. And Isobel’s sexuality, repressed if not by personal inclination then by the mores and morals of the time, is allowed freer expression throughout. It only takes Osmond’s touch to send poor Isobel to the edges of hysteria way beyond James’ “she felt her heart throb with a kind of delicious pain”. But then this is, or was, 1996 and no longer 1881.

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The end of the novel, like a great deal of James, is ambiguous. Having returned to England on account of her cousin’s fatal illness, Isobel is confronted again by her American suitor, Caspar Goodwood, who has been pursuing her since before page one. Aware of the mistaken tragedy of her marriage, he urges her not to return, but she makes clear that, like it or not, her duty is to go back to her husband and that duty she will fulfil. ‘”As you love me, as you pity me,” she pleads, “leave me alone!”‘ Goodwood does no such thing.

He glared at her a moment through the dusk, and the next instant she felt his arms about her, and his lips on her own lips. His kiss was a flash of lightning; when it was dark again she was free.

If the implications were not sufficiently clear, James himself made these additions in his 1908 revision of the novel …

His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed; and it was extraordinarily as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made one with this act of possession. So had she heard oƒ those wrecked and under water following a train of images before they sink. But when the darkness returned she was free.

Additions which, had it been in existence at the time, might have given James a shot at that year’s Bad Sex Award.

But ‘free’ … what does that mean? Free from her obligations to her husband and thus free to take up with Goodwood? Free from the thrall of sexual passion, which, now experienced, she can turn her back on and resume a life of duty? The darkness, after all, is what she associates with Osmond.

She walks away from Goodwood – they have been in the garden – and back towards the house.

In an extraordinarily short time – for the distance was considerable – she had moved through the darkness (for she saw nothing) and reached the door. Here only she paused. She looked all about her; she listened a little; then she put her hand on the latch. She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path.

In the novel there is one further short scene: Goodwood follows Isobel to her friend Henrietta’s lodgings in London and is told she has started out that morning for Rome; when he turns away in disappointment, Henrietta seizes his arm and urges patience (as if the poor man has not been waiting long enough) a patience that James himself suggests in a 1908 rewrite, has, on the spot, added thirty years to his life.

Campion ends her film at the moment of Isobel’s pausing at the door; she may well know where she is heading, the decision she is making; Campion leaves it for us to decide what that decision will be.

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Writing on the Wall

Grim news for some publishers, some writers in the Nielsen BookScan figures for 2014 – those wishing to keep print books afloat in a growing ebook tide, at least. Sales of printed books are continuing to decline and none worse than adult fiction, which led the way downwards with a fall of 7.8% in numbers and 5.3% in revenue. Hardback adult fiction sales fell by 11.6%, though the Nielsen research director said this was “really more migration to ebooks rather than real decline.”

We’ll see.

What was interesting was the fact that while fantasy, horror, romance, eroticism, crime and all the usually successful genres of adult fiction were floundering, just three areas showed movement in the opposite direction – short stories, graphic novels and westerns.

Westerns!

Perhaps,while continuing to ignore those voices suggesting a return for Charlie Resnick or Frank Elder, I should think seriously about ploughing further back into my writing past and consider reincarnations of Wes Hart …

hart

Jared Hawk …

hawk

or Jedediah Herne?

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Music for Not Writing

What do you listen to, people ask, when you’re writing? And the answer, boringly, is nothing. Nothing at all. The rhythm I’m trying to hear is the one inside my head: the words, their sound, repetition, rise and fall. Stop there before I talk myself into Psueds’ Corner.

But when I’m not writing, there’s almost always music playing somewhere. The iPod in the kitchen, for instance, with several thousand tracks on shuffle, anything from Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra to Eel’s Blinking Lights & Other Revelations. Radio Swiss Classic is fairly constantly playing over the internet in the library when I’m reading (or napping) – 24 hour music with no adverts and only the briefest of announcements (in German, which I don’t speak, so only the occasional word intrudes – “Mozart”, say, or “Hadyn”). When I’m out walking on or around the Heath, more often than not I’m listening to something through headphones, either a BBC Radio Podcast or something new that I’ve downloaded –right now, Girlboy’s cheeky little single, Jennifer Lawrence.

Most of the above is incidental: each month or so there tends to be a small group of CDs that I sit down and listen to more carefully – Music for More Carfeful Listening. This month there are four …

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  • John Tilbury & Philip Thomas: Two Pianos & Other Pieces by Morton Feldman
  • Louis Armstrong at The Crescendo 1955, Complete Edition
  • Jan Lundgren: All By Myself
  • Thelonious Monk: The Complete 1961 Amsterdam Concert

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