An Actor Speaks Out …

The actor Martin Miller, who plays Keith Haines in the Nottingham Playhouse/New Perspectives production of Darkness, Darkness, wrote this piece for the New Perspectives blog, and gave his permission for it to be reproduced here …

And so it’s all over bar the shouting. After 4 weeks of intensive work on John Harvey’s excellent stage adaptation of his final Charlie Resnick novel, Darkness, Darkness, we now leave the relative safety of the New Perspectives rehearsal room in Basford and move into the Nottingham Playhouse from next week to start the technical and dress rehearsals for what will be the next show of the Sweet Vengeance season. If anything, this is where all the hard work needs to come together. The actors need to adjust their performances from the intimacy of the rehearsal room to the theatrical space without losing any of the subtleties and truth of their characterisations that have been developed through the rehearsal process (so rule one: don’t panic, rule two: don’t start shouting). Our hardworking technical crew including Kathryn Wilson (Deputy Stage Manager), Drew Baumhol (Sound Designer), Azusa Ono (Lighting Designer), Ruth Sutcliffe (Set Designer) amongst many others will be collaborating with our director Jack McNamara to bring the world of the 1984/5 Miners’ Strike and Harvey’s CWA Dagger award – winning Detective Charlie Resnick seamlessly to life, and from Friday 30th September audiences will see the finished product.

I have been impressed throughout this process by the collaboration between Jack McNamara and John Harvey. It is rare for directors and writers to cooperate so effectively. I worked with Jack on a previous New Perspectives play about Alfred Hitchcock and he has a strong sense of how to engage with a piece visually, almost filmically, and in collaboration with our Video Designer, Will Simpson, audiences will find themselves transported to the heart of a mining community bitterly divided by the strike, and of a murder investigation 30 years later which threatens to open these divisions once more. Harvey’s skill has been in not only placing Resnick front and centre of this action in the theatrical space, but also in bringing the world of this torn mining community to life. One could argue that the work is even more politically charged and relevant today with the recent announcement of an inquiry into the events at ‘The Battle of Orgreave’ . Harvey’s play explicitly references Orgreave and its aftermath, indeed Resnick finds himself conflicted by the police conduct on that day, and we see the casual brutality of the Met. The recent inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster laid bare the failings of South Yorkshire police and the Hillsborough families had to fight courageously and persistently for years to get any semblance of justice. The Orgreave families have had an even longer wait. Indeed, post-Brexit result, it appeared the issue could conceivably be dropped from the government agenda altogether. How can one even begin to disentangle the bloody events at Orgreave, of systematic and systemic state and police collusion, the very worst example and excess of what Tristram Hunt MP called ‘legalised state violence’?

Over thirty years on, the events of the Miners’ Strike still divide communities and we see in the play how these divisions are just as raw today. All of this plus at the heart of the play we see the dogged determination of Charlie Resnick to solve one last murder case before his impending retirement. John Harvey first created his famous Nottingham Detective back in 1988 and I am confident that with the team Jack McNamara has put together and the strong collaboration between cast, production team, director and author that we can do it justice. As we head into our final rehearsal week, John Harvey’s beloved Notts County have just beaten Leyton Orient 3 – 1. Surely a good omen? Hope to see all you Resnick afficionados in the theatre bar afterwards for a drop of Highland Park. “No sense arguing, Resnick raised his glass and drank…”.

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Here’s Martin, during rehearsals, with Emma Thornett, who plays his wife, Jill.

Photo © Robert Day

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Darkness, Darkness in Rehearsal

Here they are, the cast and director of the Nottingham Playhouse – New Perspectives production of Darkness, Darkness, busy in rehearsal at New Perspectives HQ in Basford, Nottingham. All photos ©Robert Day.

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David Fleeshman as Charlie Resnick, Simone Saunders as Catherine Njoroge

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Director, Jack McNamara, with Kathryn Wilson in the background

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Elizabeth Twells as Jenny Hardwick

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John Askew as Danny Ireland

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Jonathan Woolf as Adam Uttley

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Chris Donnelly as Peter Waites & Barry Hardwick

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Emma Thornett & Martin Miller as Jill & Keith Haines

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Emma/ Jill Haines talks it over with David/Charlie

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The author gets into the spirit as the cast record the voices for a miners’ picket

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Simone/Catherine & David/Charlie mutually supportive towards the end of another gruelling day

 

Light in the Darkness

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Here we are, meeting and greeting at Nottingham Playhouse this Tuesday just past, the cast of Darkness, Darkness – most of them – along with the director, Jack McNamara – that’s him far left in the snazzy shirt– and the designer, Ruth Sutcliffe, looking suitably designery in black at the centre. Otherwise, left to right, you’ve got Martin Miller, who plays Keith Haines; David Fleeshman, who is Charlie Resnick; Chris Donnelly, who wears, as it were, two hats, those of Peter Waites and Barry Hardwick; Emma Thornett, who plays Jill Haines; Elizabeth Twells, playing  Jenny  Hardwick and John Askew playing Danny Ireland. And that’s me, nicely squeezed in between Emma and Elizabeth.

That afternoon, we all headed up to the  New Perspectives’ home in sunny Basford, north of the city centre, to begin rehearsals. And here we are – having been joined by Simone Saunders who plays Catherine Njoroge – reading through the script.

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That looks suspiciously like the stage manager about to make her escape through the window and into the waiting bus!

Rehearsals continue through the month, with me in attendance on occasion, but certainly not all the time. The actors have got to be able to rubbish the lines without worrying I might be in earshot.

Tickets are selling well and if you’re thinking of coming along and haven’t already booked, you might be well-advised to do so. Details here …

We’ve got a great cast, the set design is really exciting, and I’m excited, also, about the other elements such as visuals and sound that will add immeasurably to the final work and help to bind it together.

I would say more, but it looks like another email has just arrived from the director asking about a few more rewrites …

 

Walking the Resnick Walk

Yesterday, August 9th, I spent the day in Nottingham with David Fleeshman, the actor who will play Charlie Resnick in this autumn’s production of Darkness, Darkness at Nottingham Playhouse. Though David is no stranger to Nottingham – nor to the Playhouse – it was interesting for us both to trace some of Charlie’s footsteps around the city centre, even though a number of the places he would visited in the novels, the earlier ones especially, are either no longer there or have changed almost beyond recognition.

Here’s a pictorial record of our day …

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David at the Indoor Market in the Victoria Centre, where, in days (long) gone Resnick would have an espresso at Aldo’s Italian coffee stall before making his purchases from one or other of the two Polish food stalls, one of which, thankfully, remains.

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The sign outside The Peacock, at the foot of the Mansfield Road (and round the corner from the old Central Police Station) commemorates the fact that the pub has featured in the lives and work of both D H Lawrence and that bloke who wrote the Resnick books.

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Next stop, Music Inn on West End Arcade, source of a large proportion of Resnick’s music collection, Monk and Billie Holiday especially. Here’s David with the owner, David Rose.

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It seemed right to end the day at the Playhouse – where we were delighted to bump into another Nottingham writer (and Notts County fan) William Ivory. No time for David and I to get down to Meadow Lane this time, but he’s keen to take a break from rehearsals in September and join me in the stands.

Resnick & All That Jazz

 

Jazz Radio

Not so long ago, my daughter and I spent a fascinating hour listening to a programme on the Danish internet radio station, Radio Jazz, enjoying the music but otherwise barely understanding a word, save for the occasional name in English – Chet Baker, Charlie Parker, Charlie Resnick, John Harvey. The broadcast was based around an article by Age Hedley Petersen, Jazz i crime literature – Resnick, and All That Jazz, which was published in the April/May/June issue of the Danish magazine, Jazz Special. In the article, Petersen, a retired music librarian from Fredensborg Bibliotek, traces in some detail the influence and importance of jazz in the Resnick novels and on Resnick’s character, drawing links also with other crime writers, such as Michael Connelly and Bill Moody, for whom jazz is important, even vital.

What follows is a slightly shortened version of the original article in a translation largely by Petersen himself.

Jazz in Crime Literature – Resnick and All That Jazz.

It is always exciting when more than one of your interests are treated simultaneously in what you are reading! I am an incarnate crime reader – not so much of “who-done-its”, but more the ramifications of the American school, Chandler, McBain and others. The authors should also have some opinions on society; and personal portrayal must outweigh the normal stereotypes. Such persons could also often be interested in music, which immediately gives reading a new dimension.

Colin Dexter’s Morse worships opera – and that does not interest me so much. Ian Rankin’s John Rebus listens to a wide variety of rock – and that sounds a lot better to my ears; but when the protagonists wholeheartedly worship jazz and even use themes from the history of jazz in the intrigues, it becomes really exciting.

Six months ago I started to read Michael Connelly’s The Drop from 2014 in which Harry Bosch is investigating the death of a man who has fallen (jumped? pushed?) from a high balcony. This made me think of the late Chet Baker and his tragic death in Amsterdam in 1988. And indeed, home from a long day at the job Bosch is greeted by his daughter who asks him about a poem that sits, framed, in the hallway of his apartment. The poem, titled Chet Baker, was written, he tells her, by the English poet, John Harvey, whom he heard read it in a restaurant in Venice Beach.

Chet Baker

looks out from his hotel room
across the Amstel to the girl
cycling by the canal who lifts
her hand and waves and when
she smiles he is back in times
when every Hollywood producer
wanted to turn his life
into that bitter-sweet story
where he falls badly, but only
in love with Pier Angeli,
Carol Lynley, Natalie Wood;
that day he strolled into the studio,
fall of fifty-two, and played
those perfect lines across
the chords of My Funny Valentine,
and now, when he looks up from
his window and her passing smile
into the blue of a perfect sky,
he knows this is one of those
rare days when he can truly fly.

John Harvey! I was startled at Connelly using one of my other favorite authors, John Harvey, as a person in a novel; was it the same John Harvey, whose protagonist through 12 novels, Charlie Resnick, is an out-and-out jazz aficionado? I decided to email Harvey to satisfy my curiosity, and less than an hour later I received the following response:

Hello! And thanks for getting in touch with your query. The incident in the book is based on an actual occasion; Mike came to hear me reading at a bookshop on Venice Beach, LA – oh, it must be a good 15 years ago now – heard me read the poem, which at that time had not been published, asked how / where he could get a copy, and I happily gave him the sheet of paper I’d been reading from. I doubt if he actually kept the paper, though, or has it framed on his wall!

Of course, Mike contacted me before the book went to press and asked my permission, which I was only too happy to give.

Incidentally, the poem appears in another crime novel by Bill Moody, Looking for Chet Baker, where it is used as a forward to the story. You might like to track down the novel, as it does provide a fictional answer to the riddle surrounding Baker’s death.

The Chet Baker poem is published in Out of Silence, my New & Selected Poems, published by Smith / Doorstop last year. [ Poems also on Roland Kirk, Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk Parker and Lester Young!]”

 I immediately wrote back that I was pretty interested in acquiring the collection, and a few days later I received the following message:

—Book, signed, on its way in the next couple of days. For payment, would you be happy to send a donation the equivalent of £10 sterling to Médecins Sans Frontières? It’s easily done via their web site.

Best wishes, John

This story gave me the urge to reread the novels about the jazz-loving cop Charlie Resnick from Nottingham, and I have “borrowed” a few quotes to prove my points:

The first time the jazz theme is used is in Lonely Hearts (p. 17, Arrow), when Resnick is inspecting a crime scene and …

There were several posters on the walls, clip-framed; from one Monroe looked out, slump-backed on a stool, black clothes, white face. Resnick glanced into her empty eyes and turned away. Words from a song of Billie Holiday nudged away at his mind, images of winter through the slight distortion of glass.

Then, at the beginning of the next chapter (p. 24, Arrow) Resnick is sitting with one of the cats on his lap and listening to music while he eats … (After his wife left him, Resnick acquired four cats and gave them the names Bud, Miles, Pepper and Dizzy; the cats appear in all volumes, except the last where there is only Dizzy)

Billie Holiday and Lester Young were doing it through the headphones, making love to music without ever holding hands.

A short but striking interpretation of what it is all about between those two. In a later book, Cold Light (p. 60, Arrow) it’s again about Billie:

For Christmas, Resnick bought himself [whoever buy Christmas presents for themselves !?] The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve, a new edition of Dizzy Gillespie’s autobiography and The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, LP and Cassette. What he still had to acquire was a CD player.

It takes a while before he purchases the player! Not until two volumes later in Easy Meat (p. 59, Arrow) do we read:

As he ate it he stared across the room at his new acquisition, a brand-new CD player to complement his stereo; his nightly project, working through the tracks of the ten-disc Billie Holiday set he bought himself the Christmas before last.

All through the 12 volumes, jazz is deliberately used to describe the mood Resnick is in. For example, in Cold Light (p. 118, Arrow) …

 There were times, Resnick knew, what you didn’t do was play Billie Holiday singing “Our Love is Here to Stay”; when it was self-pitying, not to say foolish, to listen to her jaunty meander through “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” because it felt as if they already had. What was okay was listening to Ben Webster wailing through “Cottontail”, the version with Oscar Peterson kicking out on the piano; Jimmy Witherspoon reassuring the audience at the Monterey Jazz Festival “Tain’t Nobody’s Business What I Do”. Or what he set to play now, Barney Kessell’s “to swing or not to swing’ with its lower case title and definitions on the cover. The tracks he liked best were uptempo, carefree, Georgie Auld sitting in on tenor, “Moten Swing”, “Indiana”.

 By the way, Resnick is already listening to Webster’s solo on Cottontail – this time from Ellington album Jack the Bear – in Cutting Edge (p. 59, Arrow):

 Ben Webster was just beginning his solo on “Cottontail”, rolling that phrase over the rhythm section, springy and strong from Blanton’s bass, round and round and rich, like rolling it round a barrel of treacle. Just when it seemed to have become stuck, sharp little phrases from the brass digging it out, and then the saxophone lifting itself with more and more urgency, up, up and into the next chorus.

Lester Young is obviously one of his great heroes. In Still Water (p.136, Arrow) Resnick has returned home again after a long day “at the office” and…

 … the room was overlarge, heavy, almost unwelcoming. When he sat, his eyes were drawn to the Herman Leonard photograph of Lester Young framed on the wall; Lester looking tired, older than his forty-something years, either he had grown out of his suit, or his suit had grown out of him.

When, not so very much later, Resnick went up to bed, he left the stereo playing, Lester in his youth and glory, the sound of his saxophone , light and sinuously rhythmic, tracing him up the stairs” “I Never Knew”, “If Dreams Came True”, “I’ve Found a New Baby”, “The World is Mad” parts one and two.

 In the first books, with a few exceptions, it is thus mostly the big swing names Resnick listens to; but later he expands the repertoire with bebop and Thelonious Monk becomes the big favorite: Easy Meat (p. 124, Arrow) …

It was a bad sign, Resnick knew, when he played Monk last thing at night, the pianist’s fractured attempts at melody obeying no logic but their own. A big man, as Resnick was big, Monk’s fingers stabbed down at single notes, crushed chords into the beauty of an abstract painting, twisted scaffolding seen in a certain light.

It is so precise a description of Monk’s playing, that it is enough to listen with one’s inner ear to understand!

In the “swan song”, Darkness, Darkness – according to the author the final novel about Charlie Resnick and unfortunately not yet translated into Danish – Resnick comes home deeply affected by a personal tragedy that should not be divulged here (p. 77, Heinemann):

—Inside, he shrugged off his coat, walked the house from room to room. Made coffee and left it untouched. Finally, in the living room, he burrowed through the shelves of albums and CDs, searching, not for something calming, consoling, nothing that might trigger a memory, happy or sad, but this: the Eric Dolphy / Booker Little Quintet: Live at the Five Spot, New York, 16. July 1961. Track three: “Aggression”. 16 minutes and 40 seconds.

Resnick even attends concerts on rare occasions. In Darkness, Darkness, for instance, he mentions a trip he made in his youth, in 1969, from Nottingham to Manchester’s Free Trade Hall to listen to Duke Ellington’s orchestra, and he can still accurately remember the orchestra’s personnel. And the novel Still Water (pp.1 & 2, Arrow) begins with the following:

It was the night Milt Jackson came to town: Milt Jackson, who for more than twenty years had been a member of one of the most famous jazz groups in the world, the Modern Jazz Quartet; who had gone into the studio, Christmas Eve, 1954, and along with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, recorded one of Resnick’s all-time favourite pieces, “Bag’s Groove”.

Milt Jackson had formed a new quartet and Resnick has cleared his calendar. But unfortunately Resnick’s pager starts bleeping as soon as Milt Jackson raises his felt mallet to start playing:

And there is a moment, Resnick bulkily rising from his seat near the centre of rwo four and fumbling inside his coat as he excuses himself, embrarrassed, past people’s knees, in which Jackson, expression shifting between annoyance and amusement, catches Resnick’s eye and grins.

In Living Proof (pp. 270-271, Arrow) Resnick plans to go to the Old Vic in Nottingham to listen to the new Stan Tracey Duo, but after dinner decides he does not want to go anywhere. Later in the evening he regrets his decision, however, and changes his mind.

He arrived at the pub in time for the last two numbers, Stan Tracey, hunched over the keyboard, angularly manoeuvring his way through “Sophisticated Lady”, taking the tune into seemingly impossible blind alleys ad then escaping through a mixture of finesse and sheer power. Finally, Tracey and an absurdly young-looking Gerard Presencer on trumpet had elided their way along a John Coltrane blues, the audacity of Presencer’s imagination more than matched by his technique.

Yes, “our” Gerard Presencer, who at that time would have been about 20 years old and a star in the making. The two numbers Resnick was in time for – Coltrane’s “Some Other Blues” with piano and trumpet, and Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” for solo piano, can be heard on the truly breathtaking CD: Stan Tracey: Live at the QEH (EMI, 1994)

In Still Water (p. 97, Arrow) Resnick visits London in connection with a case of art fraud; and one evening he visits the jazz club, The Rhythmic, that has a guest from the US – Coltrane-inspired pianist Jessica Williams.

 Tall, red-haired, and wearing a long, loose flowing dress, she sat at the piano and for a moment fidgeted with the height of the stool. Even before she began playing, fingers hesitating above the keys, Resnick had noticed the size of her hands. Then, without introduction, she launched into “I Should Care”. Almost deferentially at first, brushing the tune around the edges, feeling her way freshly into a melody she must have played – and Resnick heard – a hundred times. Ten minutes later, when she had exhausted every variation, left hand rocking through a stride pattern that would have made James P. Johnson or Fats Waller beam with pleasure, she finished to a roar of disbelieving applause.

By the time he walked back out into the London night some hours later, he knew he had been in the presence of something – someone – special.

Finally, to return to Bill Moody, whom Harvey mentioned in his original answer to my inquiry, and who is mentioned in Harvey’s 2006 novel, Cold in Hand (p. 70, Arrow).

Resnick listened to some more music, reading for the second time a book by Bill Moody about Chet Baker, while Lynn took a bath.

Later, in the same novel, when a colleague visits Resnick’s house and studies his bookshelves, she finds Moody’s novel there in the company of another Moody novel, The Sound of the Trumpet, Art Pepper’s autobiography, co-written with his wife, Laurie, Straight Life, and a biography of Thelonious Monk.

Bill Moody is a writer and jazz drummer residing in California, who has played with, among others, Maynard Ferguson and Lou Rawls. His novel Looking for Chet Baker, released in 2002, is the fifth of six novels about jazz pianist and amateur detective Evan Horne (none of them, sadly, translated into Danish). In the novel, Horne goes to Amsterdam to play a concert with tenor saxophonist Fletcher Paige and while he is there he is asked by a friend to do some research into Chet Baker’s death. The novel is definitely worth reading. Here in Moody’s novels, jazz is actually the main theme!

Thus, we see that the mystery surrounding Chet Baker’s death traces through the works of at least three authors – Connelly, Harvey and Moody; and the comparison with the Danish poet Michael Strunge’s death two years earlier is obvious. At the memorial plaque at the entrance to Webersgade 17 in Copenhagen his last words are inculcated: “Now I can fly”.

Bibliographical notes:

At the end of the 10th volume in the Resnick series, Last Rites (p.355, Arrow) , which, at the time, was thought to be the last Resnick novel, there is a coda in which Harvey clarifies his sources of inspiration, and it ends with:

The odd sandwich aside, I think it was jazz that kept Charlie sane, that provided him with both release and inspiration. Me, too. In the writing of these books I have relied, again and again, on the music of Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Spike Robinson, Ben Webster with Art Tatum, and Lester Young. Let it live on.

In 2009 Harvey published the collection Minor Key (Five Leaves Press, Nottingham) – in 500 copies, numbered and signed, the royalties going to charity. The book opens with the essay, Resnick, Nottingham, and All That Jazz, a greatly extended coda in which Harvey sets out his approach to jazz, which began with a schoolmate’s uncle’s collection of 78’s by names like Ellington, Earl Bostic, Louis Jordan and Billie Holiday.It also contains five short stories including four with Resnick as the protagonist, and six poems-among others, “Chet Baker” and “Art Pepper”.

Harvey’s and Connelly’s novels in Danish are best found at the website: bibliografi.dk and can be borrowed via the danish public libraries. This also applies to the non-translated 12th volume of the Resnick series: Darkness, Darkness (London, Heinemann, 2014). John Harvey can be followed on the website http://www.mellotone.co.uk and his blog “Some days you do …” which has a link to his “Ten records for a Desert Island”, number one of which is Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington.

John Harvey: Minor Key, Nottingham, Five Leaves, 2009.
John Harvey: Out of Silence, New & Selected Poems, Sheffield, Smith / Doorstop Books, 2014.
Bill Moody: Looking for Chet Baker, New York, Walker & Company, 2002.

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Needless to say, I’m extremely grateful to Age Hedley Petersen for all of the research and enthusiasm that went into his essay, just as I am to Jazz Special for publishing it so beautifully, with wonderful illustrations by Agnete Morell, and to Radio Jazz for affording Charlie an hour of air time.

Thank you, Denmark! I can’t see – or hear – it happening here.

Resnick Takes to the Stage

Ck2Po-TWsAAWpZlWell, after last night’s Season Launch at Nottingham Playhouse, the not very well kept secret is out; this coming autumn sees the redoubtable Charlie Resnick step on stage for the first time in what the Playhouse like to call – well, it’s true – the World Premiere of my dramatisation of the 12th and final Resnick novel, Darkness, Darkness.

This is something I’ve been working on for some eighteen months now [writing for the stage, as I’m discovering, is a long and arduous – if, one hopes, ultimately rewarding –process] during most of which time I’ve been greatly assisted, prodded, cajoled – I’m tempted to say, occasionally goaded – by the play’s director, Jack McNamara, Artistic Director of New Perspectives. And despite the occasional less than polite thing I’ve said about him under my breath during this process, I know full well that without Jack’s input the script would be but a pale shadow of what it is now. Which is, I’m emboldened to say, pretty damn good. And still with room to get better.

At the Playhouse it sits at the centre of three-part Sweet Vengeance season, beginning with Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth and finishing with Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy.

To say I’m excited and not a little terrified would be an understatement.

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Bits of a Writer’s Life …

On Friday evening, April 22nd, I was at the Poetry Society’s Poetry Café in Covent Garden as one of the guest readers in this month’s Fourth Friday, a long running evening of poetry and music organised by Dix Schofield and the indefatigable Hylda Sims. I’ve read there before and it’s always been enjoyable, but for some reason – the range and quality of the readers from the floor, perhaps? – this seemed an especially rewarding evening. The other guest reader, Danielle Hope, whom I knew from the days when I published her work in Slow Dancer magazine, was sharp and funny, and Liz Simcock – now back solo after several years of working with a small band – was in fine form.

4th Friday

My daughter, Molly Ernestine, had come along and we took the opportunity to air what has become our poetry party piece, a shared reading of the poem, “Hollywood Canteen”, which I wrote some good few years back when my older daughter, Leanne, was living and working as a dancer in Paris – the central section of the poem, the section Molly read, and which Leanne herself used to read – being more or less a transcription of Leanne’s words on the occasion in question, when we’d just come away from watching Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams.

Here’s the poem …

HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN

It seems too much of a cliché
almost, to tell it, but there,
up on the counter
of the Hollywood Canteen,
there among the images
of Marilyn, James Dean,
she pushes back her plate,
lights her cigarette
and right over the juke box
she says, nineteen:

I hate films that end like that,
stuck out on the porch
in the middle of nowhere
watching the sun go down –
as though it could ever happen,
Jesus! It’s like your parents
bringing you up to believe
it’s possible to tell the truth
out there, when one minute
after they let you out into the world,
you can see everyone else is lying.
I mean, you just try being nice out there,
just try it! You won’t last five minutes
and I’ll tell you this, I haven’t met
a single person since I was sixteen
who wasn’t a bitch underneath
and I haven’t got the strength
to stand up to them, not on my own,
and that’s what I am.
And happiness, that’s a laugh
and one thing I am sure of,
it isn’t sitting out on a dumb porch
in the middle of Iowa, staring
into some technicolour sunset.

She turned her head aside
and closed her eyes
and when she did that
she was as beautiful
as I had ever seen her.

What do you think, she said,
the pancakes with the maple syrup?
You think we should have the ice cream
as well? Maybe the chocolate sauce?

Seeing my face, she smiled.

The following day Molly and I took the train up to Stevenage for an afternoon event at the library, as part of Hertfordshire Libraries Litfest 16. Aside from a  few occasions when Notts County were the visitors to the Stevenage F.C. ground on Woodhall Way, this was, I think, the first time I’d been back in the town since I spent several years teaching in the English department of Stevenage Girls’ School in early 1970s.

The plan was to give an overview of how I managed to kick start a writing career and then keep it on track from its starting point in 1975, when my first book – Avenging Angel, written at the kitchen table at my flat on Webb Rise during my last year of teaching – was published; then, after some Q&A, to concentrate on the Resnick books, in particular Darkness, Darkness, and the challenges  in adapting that novel for the stage, which is one of projects I’m currently working on.

While Molly ran through the slides before we started, there was just time for me to completely, and embarrassingly, fail to recognise one of my former fell0w teachers, as well as a former next-door neighbour and three former pupils, two from my A level English class, one of whom had passed, and one failed – even at this remove I felt responsible, though it hadn’t stopped her from becoming a teacher herself in due course.

A slight hiccup in the technical department at the beginning – the computer froze and slides we’d checked previously refused to appear – gave me the opportunity to begin the session with an unplanned reading of my Chet Baker poem, which I was pleased to do as it allowed me to dedicate it to one of the long-time stalwarts of the British jazz scene, sadly no longer playing, bassist Pete Blannin, who was with his wife in the audience. I remember seeing Pete with the great Humphrey Lyttelton Band in the early 1960s, as well as with groups led by the likes of Tubby Hayes and Tony Kinsey. It’s a bonus for me that he likes crime fiction.

IT problem solved, things moved along smoothly; there was a good, attentive crowd – I’d guess around 50 – and no shortage of interesting, even challenging questions. My good friend, Sherma Batson – another former pupil, now county councillor and recently Mayor of Stevenage – taking me to task for killing off one of my running characters, Lynn Kellogg, thus giving away the plot of Cold in Hand in a single swoop. But never mind. Friends still.

Just before the end, Molly left her spot at the desk, where she’d been working the laptop, top join me in a reading of one of the scenes from the Darkness, Darkness play script – its first public airing. As I pointed out, despite working in various other forms, I had never, up to the present, written anything for the theatre, my only experience in that area having been putting on plays when I was still teaching, something that gave me a great deal of pleasure at the time, not least for the large numbers of students it was possible involve, and still gave pleasure in retrospect. At Stevenage, I remember with particular fondness a version of Alice in Wonderland, with a soundtrack ranging from Bach and Vivaldi to Miles Davis and Jefferson Airplane, and Split, a play about a teenage girl with schizophrenia that was built up almost entirely from improvisation. Those were the days!

That I could even begin to venture into such areas was almost entirely due to my great friend, the late Tom Wild, a wonderful and talented man who died far too young; seeing the work that Tom did with secondary modern children in Yorkshire, often using improvisation as a way into Brecht and Shakespeare was an inspiration for me and, I’m sure, for the pupils involved – I doubt if they will ever f0rget it.

Here, finally, is a little Stevenage Girls’ School memorabilia [no flash programmes in those days!]

Alice 1

4th Friday 1

Split 1

Split 2

 

All the News that’s Fit …

Following up on my previous post outlining the next few events I’m set to take part in, here’s a really nice piece from The Comet which touches on the Resnick series as a whole and Darkness, Darkness in particular, and which, being a local paper, concentrates upon the years I spent teaching English & Drama in Stevenage.

What you see below is quite small print, so please click on the link above for easier reading. And if you’re considering joining me for tea & cake this coming Saturday afternoon, the details are below The Comet feature.

john harvey 14.04.16

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Jessica Williams

In a comment appended to my previous post, listing the music that had shuffled its way to the top of my iPod this month, Åge Hedley Petersen reminded me that I had written about this month’s number one artist, the American pianist Jessica Williams, in the 9th Resnick novel, Still Water.

Resnick is in London, on the trail of Jerzy Grabianski, burglar, art connoisseur, humanitarian and, in many respects, Resnick’s alter ego, and, finding himself with a free evening, makes his way to a jazz club called the Rhythmic in Islington, near Chapel Market, where Jessica Williams is the main attraction.

The street that Resnick walked along was thick with refuse from that day’s market, crates and boxes interlaced with bright blue paper, rotting oranges, grapes, onions oozing pus.

The Rhythmic was on the left-hand side, behind where the market proper ended. The main room was large, larger than Resnick had anticipated, the half immediately facing him set out with tables for dining. He had time to buy a bottle of Budvar and find leaning space along the side wall before the lights dimmed and, after a brief announcement, Jessica Williams came on stage.

Tall, red-haired, and wearing a long, loose flowing dress, she sat at the piano and for a moment fidgeted with the height of the stool. Even before she began playing, fingers hesitating above the keys, Resnick had noticed the size of her hands. Then, without introduction, she launched into “I Should Care”. Almost deferentially at first, brushing the tune around the edges, feeling her way freshly into a melody she must have played – and Resnick heard – a hundred times. Ten minutes later, when she had exhausted every variation, left hand rocking through a stride pattern that would have made James P. Johnson or Fats Waller beam with pleasure, she finished to a roar of disbelieving applause.

And paused, eyes closed, waiting for the silence to resume.This time it was a slow blues, building from the most basic of patterns to a dazzling display of counterpoint that recalled for Resnick an old album he had bought by Lennie Tristano – “C Minor Complex”. “G Minor Complex” – bop meets Bach. After that, she clearly felt relaxed enough to talk, and played her way through two sets of standards and originals that held the crowd’s – and Resnick’s – attention fast.

By the time he walked back out into the London night some hours later, he knew he had been in the presence of something – someone – special.

I should care, the words came to him, I should let it upset me. When he dialled Hannah’s number from the call-box on the corner, the answerphone had been switched off and it rang and rang and tang until he broke the connection with his thumb.

“Call-box on the corner” – that dates it. And the funny thing is, though the Jessica Williams performance I’m describing is one Katy which I was actually present, it was at the more austere Purcell Rooms at the South Bank Centre; the person I saw at the short-lived Rhythmic was Milt Jackson, a wonderful evening of superb musicianship which led to me featuring Jackson in the opening chapter of the novel.

still water 2