Those Not Busy Being Born …

What a terrible week it has been. A week that began with 149 people being flown to their deaths against a mountainside and ended with the deaths of three men who, in their various ways, have brought a great deal, not just to my life, which they each illuminated in a number of ways, but the lives of many others – guitarist John Renbourn, born 1944, poet and Nobel Prize winner Tomas Transtromer, born 1931 and artist Albert Irvin, born 1922.

John Renbourn
John Renbourn
John Renbourn
John Renbourn

http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/mar/27/john-renbourn-ceaseless-explorer-of-song-pentangle-folk-appreciation

Tomas Transtromer
Tomas Transtromer

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/28/books/tomas-transtromer-crystalline-swedish-poet-dies-at-83.html?_r=0

Albert Irvin
Albert Irvin

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/mar/27/albert-irvin

I shall attempt to write more about each of these three men later …

Tom Drury & The End of Vandalism

I’d not heard of the American writer Tom Drury until his name popped up a New Yorker fiction podcast, on which Antonya Nelson chose to read the short story, “Accident at the Sugar Beet”. At first, I didn’t seem to be enjoying it very much and then I was. Oddly anecdotal, sort of comic without being laugh out loud, a bunch of folk somewhere in the middle of rural Iowa living lives that never quite seemed to connect. Hmm …

But the name stuck. Touring the fiction floor of Charing Cross Foyles, it jumped out. Tom Drury: The End of Vandalism, with an introduction by Jon McGregor. The last time I read a book recommended by McGregor it was John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun. ‘Nuff said.

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His introduction begins with a warning …

If you read The End of Vandalism you will become one of those people who try and foist it upon other people, your eyes shining with the unsettling delight of having lived through it. You will become one of those people who quote the best sentences, flicking through the pages to where you have them underlined.

Well, maybe … and maybe McGregor’s favourite sentences aren’t the same as mine, so I’m not sure if I’m as keen to get out and proselytise on behalf of the book quite so wholeheartedly. But … but …

But there was this problem I had to shake off, something along the lines of – this is all very well, diverting enough, entertaining on a fairly superficial level – small town folk leading small town lives, forever engaging in conversations which seem to be made up almost entirely of non sequiturs – but is it any more than that, and if it’s not … ?

If you live in the real world (McGregor argues), where life stalls and lurches forward with little real pattern and where the textures of our relationships accumulate moment by moment, then this is a novel you will recognise as being crammed with narrative. These are not just quirky rural anecdotes Drury is spinning out for us. These are intricate, interconnected stories of the big things that happen in people’s lives; the failures and successes of relationships, businesses and families, the making and thwarting of plans.

From the myriad of characters, two stand out –Louise Darling, a photographer’s assistant, and Dan Norman, the county sheriff – their relationship, at first tenuous, almost accidental, taking on an admirable resilience as it assumes a central position in the novel’s – and our  – concerns. Drury has pulled off a brilliant trick: somehow, between all of the rigamarole of the novel’s seemingly casual unfolding, Drury has given us a relationship we both believe in and care about, so that when, a little over three-quarters of the way through the novel, the tone stiffens, shrugs off its humour, and places the now pregnant Louise in mortal jeopardy, each turning of the page becomes an act of will, an act of wishing.

So, McGregor wins. Drury wins. I’ve already started reading the novel, parts of it, again. It was Drury’s first, originally published in 1994, and Old Street Publishing, who brought out this handsome reissue, are set to publish the second, Hunts in Dreams, in July.

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Not soon enough.

 

Art Is Where You Find It

I’ve got a bit of a thing about provincial art galleries at the moment, The New Art Gallery in Walsall today and, a couple of weeks, back MIMA – the Middlesborough Institute of Modern Art in, well, Middlesborough. Both newish contemporary buildings in places where you would’t necessarily expect to find them.

The New Art Gallery benefits from housing the extensive Garman Ryan collection of paintings, sculptures, prints and etchings which is displayed on its first two floors; the collection was put together by two women, Kathleen Garman, who had three children by the sculptor Jacob Epstein (some time after which, dear reader, she married him) and the sculptor and painter Sally Ryan. Epstein’s and Ryan’s own work aside, there are serious names featured here – Picasso, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Constable – alongside many others lesser known. Displayed thematically – and with some stirring interventions by former resident artist Bob & Roberta Smith – the collection is fascinating and well worth making the excursion to the West Midlands.

Lacking a permanent collection, MIMA depends upon a succession of visiting exhibitions, by far the most rewarding of which when I visited was Derek Eland’s Diary Rooms, based upon the time he spent as an official war artist in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Seeking to bring a new perspective to the ways in which the conflict had been shown, Eland set up a series of ‘Diary Rooms’ in areas where the fighting was at its most intense and asked soldiers to write their thoughts about the conflict and their involvement in it on coloured cards; it is a selection of these cards which form the heart of the display at MIMA, together with a short video and a number of large-format colour photographs.

Derek-Eland

Not surprisingly, given the directness and honesty – and humour – of the soldiers who agreed to take part, this is a raw and effective exhibition that reaches beneath the superficiality of much war reporting to find something that smells of truth.

Unknown

 

Originally intended to close at the end of February, the exhibition has been extended to the 30th April.

http://www.visitmima.com/whats-on/single/derek-eland-diary-rooms/

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Both cards and photographs are collected in a nicely produced book published by The Big Ideas Library, and costing £12.99, £1.00 of which goes to the Veterans Mental Health charity, Combat Stress.

http://www.combatstress.org.uk

Problems of the Prostate

The phone rang, as it often did, around one in the afternoon. Another cold call, I thought, from someone in the Indian sub-continent offering to sort out the problems on my computer.
“Mr Harvey?”
“Yes.”
“Mr John Harvey?”
“Yes.”
Usually, by this time I’d have said something moderately abusive and set down the phone.
“This is Doctor B…..’s surgery.” I recognise the voice. “The results of your blood test have come back and your PSA is above the acceptable level for men in your age group.”
So … not a computer problem.
“Are you likely,” she asks, “to have been sexually active in the 48 hours before taking the test?”
Momentarily, I’m thrown. How long ago did I take the test? Five days? Six? “Erm, it’s possible,” I stumble.
“Is there any way of being certain?”
I could call my partner at work, I think. And then, almost immediately, I could not call my partner at work. And besides, who am I kidding? I’m a 76 year old male. Wouldn’t I remember if I’d been sexually active five or six days ago?
“I’d like to refer you,” the doctor says, “to the Uro-oncology department at XXX hospital.”
Oh, God, I think. It’s cancer. When my hands have stopped shaking, I log onto the internet to learn the worst.

Less than two weeks later I’m sitting across from S……, a Clinical Nurse Specialist in Prostate Care. He is calm, articulate and clear. Reassuring. My PSA, he says, is only slightly elevated above the normal level for my age. He asks about other symptoms, difficulties peeing at night – too little, too often, too much – suggests a rectal examination in a way that makes it seem no more out of the way than drinking a cup of tea.

I lie on my side with my knees pulled up towards my chest; guarded by a thin glove coated in gel, S….. does the deed. It’s over quite quickly and a lot less painfully than I’d thought; not painful at all, actually, merely strange and only vaguely uncomfortable. S…. asks would I mind if the female medical student observing takes the opportunity to perform the same operation. As she gels up, I realise I’m hardly in a position to refuse.

The results of the examination are positive; my prostate is hard and firm, which is as it should be. S…. suggests another blood test to see if my high PSA was an aberration; outlines the other means of diagnosis, biopsies, ultrasound, the possibility of taking part in research study. He is so good at this, so practiced, that I believe everything he says completely. I am actually enjoying sitting there, being the focus of his attention. If there is anything seriously amiss, it’s S….. I want to be looking after me. Is this, I wonder, the start of some kind of Munchausen syndrome?

Buoyed up, I treat myself to a flat white at Tap Coffee before catching the bus home. S…. phones just a few days later. My PSA has dropped several points. He would like to schedule another test, hopefully to confirm a downward trend. An appointment is fixed for six weeks time.

I know from the internet and the material provided by the hospital that problems of the prostate are not necessarily cancerous; the most common – BPH or Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia – is, well, benign. Most men aged 70 and over are likely to have cancerous cells in their prostate that will never pose a life-threatening risk. But I also know that prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men, and, after lung cancer, the most fatal. 10,000 men die from it every year.  And the various diagnostic tests available are less than reliable.

Oh, boy!

Six weeks roll around. Imagine my disappointment when I discover I am not scheduled to see S…. at all, but a Senior Clinical Researcher and Hon. Consultant Urological Surgeon called R…… Is this good or bad? As it turns out, good. My most recent PSA score has continued the downward trend and is now safely (but what’s safe?) back inside lower limits. R…. sees no need for further investigation or treatment and dictates a letter to my GP accordingly. “This pleasant gentleman …”

Time for another flat white …

 

 

Out of Silence

OUT OF SILENCE, my book of New & Selected Poems, published last year by Smith/Doorstop, is now available as an ebook for £5.95.

I wouldn’t be mentioning this, except it’s a book I’m especially proud of, and although only six of the poems are actually new, I like to think they’re pretty good – one in fact, “Winter Notebook”, just might be the best I’ve written so far.

There are reviews by Rosie Johnston & Norbert Hirschhorn on London Grip here …

There is also a review by John Lucas in PN Review No. 22, which is only available on line to subscribers, but which I can give you a taste of here …

“Harvey’s voice is very much his own, rueful, comic, engagingly informal … how good a poet he is of the passing moment, its unexpected pleasures …”

So, if you’ve been meaning to get hold of a copy but have never quite got around to it (or want a second copy for your Kindle!), you can buy the ebook from Amazon … or from the publisher …

The print version, of course, is still available, and I notice Foyles have it on sale for £7.76 if you order on line from Foyles …

Alternatively, if you’d like a signed copy, with or without dedication, at the cover price of £9.95, send me an email at john@mellotone.co.uk

Harvey-Out of Silence

Anthony Doerr

Until quite recently I hadn’t heard of the writer Anthony Doerr (and still don’t know how to pronounce his name). But there was a short story of his in Granta, the American Wild issue, and despite it having the kind of title that most days would send me running quite fast in the opposite direction – it’s called “Thing With Feathers That Perches in the Soul”– I sat down to give it a read. It was only 11 pages, after all.

The upshot was I liked it; liked it a lot. Looked up the author, who, it turns out to be around 40 and to hail from Cleveland, Ohio. Went in search of other things and found a novel called About Grace.This is how it’s described in Doerr’s own website …

Doerr’s second book, a novel entitled About Grace, is about a hydrologist named David Winkler who occasionally dreams events that later come true. The book tries to ask questions about snowflakes, predetermination, the nature of family, and the intersections of the human and natural worlds.

… which didn’t exactly seem my natural cup of tea and turned out to be – and excuse me for this – somewhat over-brewed. To be a tad more specific, I found it overlong, with a central section that sat uneasy between the rest, and in places over-written – Doerr writes with elegiac beauty about human frailty and the power of nature, weaving complex metaphors into a literary carpet of dazzling numinosity and with a long middle section that sat uneasily between the rest, said the Evening Standard, that well-known arbiter of literary taste.

But because I did like some of the book a good deal, I went back to the stacks and came up with a collection of stories under the title, Memory Wall. Just six stories (with a extra one added for the UK paperback edition: seven stories, then, of which four are, I think, quite brilliant, and the other three merely very good indeed.

Memory_Wall_screen-12667085821

 

The writing is quite matter-of-fact, straightforward even, but with lyrical touches; the characterisation clear and distinctive; the settings range from middle America to South Africa via Lithuania. The title story, and at 85 pages by far the longest in the book, centres around the wavering mind of an elderly white South African woman in a country radically divided by race, money and class; in “Afterworld” another ageing woman is increasingly swamped by memories of her childhood friends who perished in the Holocaust while she survived; in the additional story, “The Deep”, the main character is a boy who has been told that, because of a heart defect, he will not live beyond his middle teens.

Difficult material with a propensity, one might think, for strong emotions and tragic endings. Tick the former, though the writing keeps them well controlled, but nix the latter. The one thing that links these stories, and which, in the current literary climate, renders them unusual, is the almost complete lack of ironic distance, the way in which Doerr endows them with a positive humanism which stays just the right side of sentimentality, while allowing for tears.

I read these stories not just with a sense of joy, but also of awe. I could never write stories like that, I thought, when finally I laid the book aside. I want to write stories like that, I thought, and one day I might try.

Unknown

Picture This !

One of the highlights of the Festival du Polar in Villeneuve Lez Avignon last October was Scènes de Crime, a series of highly atmospheric and suggestive colour photographs by Hermance Triay.

Hermance is also a noted portrait photographer, so when she asked if I would – how does Madonna put it? –  Strike the Pose? – I was only too pleased to comply. (Though my pose, as you’ll see, was scarcely Madonna-like at all.)

Given their subject, pretty damn good photos, though – silk purse, sow’s ear et cetera – and they’re watermarked, so please don’t try nicking them off the web. Any publishers, publicists and the like should apply for permission in the normal way.

Merci, Hermance!

rsz_harveyjohn_018_copyright_hermancetriayrsz_harveyjohn_025_copyright_hermancetriayrsz_harveyjohn_027_copyright_hermancetriayrsz_harveyjohn_045_copyright_hermancetriay

Kisses on a Blue Settee

One of the interesting things, for me, about the recent Poetry & Jazz evening in Enfield was being asked to include two or three poems I’d never read to music before. And one of these – a poem that, although it’s included in the New & Selected, I tend to overlook, is “Blue Settee”.

Here it is …

BLUE SETTEE

This kiss is made of remembering,
of not quite remembering enough;
this lies kiss deep in her pocket,
amongst the cinema tickets and small change;
the movement of his mouth that rarely
seems to mesh with hers – strangely, she likes this –
the way they use their tongues.
This kiss starts at the nape of the neck
and makes a new map of the world;
moves them from the clumsy darkness
of the hall into failing sunlight
where they practise compass movements
on the bed, their way lit by candles
and Chardonnay, his tongue crossing hers
mid-ocean as she turns beneath him
and floats free; their breath sounding
an itinerary of Irish Sea, Atlantic Ocean,
and on down the coast of Maine.
Timetables. Taxis. A blue settee.
The sweep and blur of skin.
She could tell him anything.

 

Enlightened Playing

On face value, the programme on offer from the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment for last night’s Royal Festival Hall concert could hardly have been less inspiring – especially for an orchestra dedicated to shaking up the everyday. I mean, the Brahms Violin Concerto and Dvorak’s New World Symphony! Classic Classic FM stuff. But that was without counting for the brilliance of Viktoria Mullova in the Brahms; without conductor Adam Fischer’s close to boyish enthusiasm on the podium; and without the obvious delight expressed by all and sundry members of the orchestra as they played.

Not even an intruder, who burst into the hall from one of the side doors just before the end of the Dvorak and jumped up on stage, videoing himself prancing about until the officials dragged him away, could deflate the mood nor spoil the performance. And the fact that conductor and orchestra carried on regardless, earned them all the heartier applause at the close.

Mullova, though … matching the relative informality of the orchestra in a simple grey shirt and purple flares – the kind we used to call loon pants – is not only one of the top half-dozen violin soloists currently playing  – the cadenza towards the end of the first movement of the Brahms was breathtaking, thrilling – but she shares with Robin Wright an elegance, self-assuredness and beauty that few possess.

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March Reading

  • Memory Wall : Anthony Doerr
  • When The Light Goes : Larry McMurtry
  • The Illuminations : Andrew O’Hagen
  • The End of Vandalism : Tom Drury
  • Complications : Atul Gawande
  • Clothes Music Boys: A Memoir : Viv Albertine
  • Selected Poems : James Schuyler

9780374530891

Plus, of course, more David Kynaston – currently around 1952.

Oh, and the marvellous portrait of Schuyler reproduced on the cover of his Selected Poems is by Fairfield Porter.