Reading at Ray’s Jazz

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The John Lake Band: John (piano) Phil Paton (sax) Matt Casterton (bass) Simon Cambers (drums) Photo: Molly Ernestine Boiling

Continuing what has, in recent posts, become a theme, there was more Thelonious Monk in evidence this Friday just passed when I joined the John Lake Band for an evening session organised by Ray’s Jazz at Foyles flagship bookshop on Charing Cross Road. Though the band didn’t actually play “Evidence”. The first piece I read, a poem called ‘Saturday’ from ‘Out of Silence’ was accompanied by a rocking version of ‘Rhythm-a-ning’ and, towards the end, ‘Blue Monk’ featured both ‘Straight, No Chaser’ and ‘Blue Monk’ itself.

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That’s me paying attention to the words while Simon keeps his eyes on the dots. Photo: Molly Ernestine Boiling

What seemed to be a major incident – possibly, a terrorist attack – fairly close by, resulting in the closing of Oxford Circus and Bond Street tube stations, with customers being locked into stores and armed police deployed in the streets while a helicopter hovered overhead, meant that attendance was not what it might have been, numbers of ticket holders opting – not unreasonably – for the sensible option of sticking indoors. Those that were present, however, seemed to be having a pretty good time – not least the 5/6 year old young lady bopping away down near the front row – and we were, somewhat to our surprise, on the receiving end, not just of applause, but whoops of delight.

You should, as the saying goes, have been there.

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Reading one of the stories from the recently published “Going Down Slow” while John looks anxiously on. Photo: Sonny Marr

And if you’re anywhere in the vicinity of Eastbourne on the South Coast on the final Friday of the year, you can hear us doing it all again – and more. Details here …

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Hand in pocket, not Hand in Glove. Photo: Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk, Me & the art of Going Down Slow

Some days, over say twenty-four hours or so, you could get to feel your stars have mysteriously fallen into happier than usual alignment.

It began last evening, at the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town, north London, where my friend Woody Haut and I were celebrating the publication of our new books – in Woody’s case a novel, Days of Smoke, set in Los Angeles and San Francisco during the maelstrom of 1968, and in mine, a small but beautifully formed [thanks to Five Leaves Publications] collection of short stories, Going Down Slow.

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There were forty or fifty people present; there was wine; Woody and I read and asked each other questions; the audience asked questions – good ones; at the end of it all books were sold and signed. Several of the questions, one way or another, were about music and its place in our work, its importance to our writing. I talked about not really listening to music when I was writing, but occasionally having it playing in an adjacent room, Thelonious Monk, especially; the ear being pricked, attention gathered, by a note or phrase that headed off into a sharp and unexpected direction: truly, the sound of surprise.

Woody’s favourite of my books, alongside Darkness, Darkness, is In a True Light, which is partly set in Greenwich Village in the late 50s, early 60s, and includes a chapter in which the leading character goes to the Five Spot to hear Monk play.

… Monk launches himself along the keyboard in a clattering arpeggio which calls to mind a man falling headlong down a flight of stairs, never quite losing his balance, not falling, saving himself, miraculously, with an upward swoop, and final, ringing double-handed chord.

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That passage, and that book, are referred to in a recent piece by the American critic and commentator, Bill Ott, published in Booklist Online.

With reference to the centenary  of Monk’s birth, Ott mentions a number of writers who have written about his music in various ways before concentrating, very positively, on my own attempts in both poetry and prose. So positive, in fact, that when I read it my heart gave a little lift and I’ve not yet been able to wipe the smile off my face.

Good things come in pairs?

A matter of a few hours later, the first review of Going Down Slow arrived, this by Jim Burns in the Northern Review of Books. “If anyone should be tempted to think of Harvey as ‘just a crime writer’ they should think again.”

Thanks, Jim; thanks, Bill; thanks, Woody; thanks, Thelonious: thank my lucky stars.

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“Fedora”

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As I’ve been telling anyone and everyone who’ll bend an ear, Five Leaves are publishing Going Down Slow, a collection of seven of my previously uncollected short stories, on November 14th and marking the event with a launch evening at their grand little bookstore in Nottingham. On Monday of the week following, November 20th, I shall be joining forces with Woody Haut at the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town, north London, to celebrate the publication of both Going Down Slow and Woody’s new novel, Days of Smoke. And that Friday, I shall be at Foyles Bookshop in Charing Cross Road, doing my poetry & jazz thing with the John Lake Band and sneaking in a smattering of short fiction when the band’s back is turned.

I might even read the beginning of “Fedora”, which goes like this …

When they had first met, amused by his occupation, Kate had sent him copies of Hammett and Chandler, two neat piles of paperbacks, bubble-wrapped, courier-delivered. A note: If you’re going to do, do it right. Fedora follows. He hadn’t been certain exactly what a fedora was.

Jack Kiley, private investigator. Security work of all kinds undertaken. Ex-Metropolitan Police.

Most of his assignments came from bigger security firms, PR agencies with clients in need of baby sitting, steering clear of trouble; solicitors after witness confirmation, a little dirt. If it didn’t make him rich, most months it paid the rent: a second-floor flat above a charity shop in north London, Tufnell Park. He still didn’t have a hat.

Till now.

One of the volunteers in the shop had taken it in. ‘An admirer, Jack, is that what it is?’

There was a card attached to the outside of the box: Chris Ruocco of London, Bespoke Tailoring. It hadn’t come far. A quarter mile, at most. Kiley had paused often enough outside the shop, coveting suits in the window he could ill afford.

But this was a broad-brimmed felt hat, not quite black. Midnight blue? He tried it on for size. More or less a perfect fit.

There was a note sticking up from the band: on one side, a quote from Chandler; on the other a message: Ozone, tomorrow. 11am? Both in Kate Keenan’s hand.

He took the hat back off and placed it on the table alongside his mobile phone. Had half a mind to call her and decline. Thanks, but no thanks. Make some excuse. Drop the fedora back at Ruocco’s next time he caught the overground from Kentish Town.

It had been six months now since he and Kate had last met, the premiere of a new Turkish-Albanian film to which she’d been invited, Kiley leaving halfway through and consoling himself with several large whiskies in the cinema bar. When Kate had finally emerged, preoccupied by the piece she was going to write for her column in the Independent, something praising the film’s mysterious grandeur, it’s uncompromising pessimism – the phrases already forming inside her head – Kiley’s sarcastic ‘Got better, did it?’ precipitated a row which ended on the street outside with her calling him a hopeless philistine and Kiley suggesting she take whatever pretentious arty crap she was going to write for her bloody newspaper and shove it.

Since then, silence.

Now what was this? A peace offering? Something more?

Kiley shook his head. Was he really going to put himself through all that again? Kate’s companion. Cramped evenings in some tiny theatre upstairs, less room for his knees than the North End at Leyton Orient; standing for what seemed like hours, watching others genuflect before the banality of some Turner Prize winner; another mind-numbing lecture at the British Library; brilliant meals at Moro or the River Café on Kate’s expense account; great sex.

Well, thought Kiley, nothing was perfect.

Rhythm is Our Business

 

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In her, to me, fascinating book, Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose retells the story of the aspiring young writer who told his agent he wasn’t really interested in what he wrote about, what he really concerned him, what he wanted to do most of all, was to write really great sentences. Promise me, the agent replied, you will never, ever say that to an American publisher.

Perhaps the writer in question, apocryphal or not, had been reading Hemingway’s account of his early writing life in A Moveable Feast – also quoted by Prose.

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going … I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.

As Prose points out, that raises the question of what exactly constitutes a ‘true’ sentence. She  thinks it might mean a beautiful sentence, while appreciating that such a concept is equally hard to define. For me I think it would be a combination of sound and meaning: the right rhythm, the most appropriate choice of words, the right sense of balance, all of those combined with the clearest meaning – while acknowledging there are times when that meaning will be purposefully ambiguous.

“All the elements of good writing,” Prose says, “depend upon the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another.” And further, “Rhythm is nearly as important in prose as it is in poetry. I have heard a number of writers say that they would rather choose the slightly wrong word that made their sentence more musical than the precisely right one that made it more awkward and clunky.”

Sometimes people ask me if also writing poetry has affected my writing of fiction; others ask, to what extent has your love of jazz – and the fact that you used to play the drums – influenced your writing? The answer to both is the same: hopefully both have helped me to develop a sense of rhythm. The Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, pre-eminent in the States in the 30s, had as their virtual theme tune a piece called “Rhythm is Our Business”; perhaps we writers could adopt it for ourselves.

The story Prose tells about the writer and his agent reminded me of an occasion a couple of years back when I was being interviewed by fellow-writer Mark Billingham on stage at the Harrogate Crime Festival. I can’t remember Mark’s exact question – we were discussing my then latest novel, Darkness, Darkness –  but my answer was something to the effect that whatever the strengths (and weaknesses) of the book might be, the greatest sense of achievement for me came from writing one single sentence that seemed to me to be just right. My publisher was in the audience and she said afterwards she’d wanted to ask what exactly the sentence was, but had refrained. Maybe just as well – few sequences of words, taken out of context – because the context within which they occur, is, of course, intrinsic to their meaning – would live up to such expectation.

This past week, labouring over the proofs of both a new novel and a new collection of short stories, I’ve had the fairly unusual experience of reading quite a lot of my own writing, some time, as it were, after the event. In part, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, this can be a fairly chastening experience, one which was occasionally redeemed for me by coming across a sentence or two which brought me up short with a sense of yes, okay, I just might be getting the hang of it after all. The three that follow are from the stories in Going Down Slow, to be published in November.

Melanie Lessing stood in the hallway, the ghost of prettiness hovering about her, anxiety startling her eyes.

Slowly, she uncurled, face turning towards the light.

She left the room and he heard the fridge door open and close; the glasses were tissue-thin, tinged with green; the wine grassy, cold.

All right, nothing to set the world on fire. But they gave me a little chill of pleasure when I wrote them and they still do. The way, in the last one for instance, both parts of the sentence, either side of the semi-colon, balance and match; the repetition in ‘green’ and ‘grassy’; the near-echo in ‘thin’ and ‘tinged’; the final emphasis of ‘cold’. That lovely bloody semi-colon.