Lost & Found …

Some little while ago, pre-Covid, I posted a piece outlining what was, for me then, a normal morning, one which began reading the newspaper over coffee at the small café attached to the Parliament Hill Lido, on the edge of Hampstead Heath, before walking some three to five miles around the Heath itself then returning home.

Events have changed that, primarily the pandemic, during the worst of which I scarcely went out at all, and, more recently the quite dramatic fall that resulted in fractures to various parts of the body, mostly now healed save for one that still necessitates me wearing a cumbersome neck brace and which seems, somehow, to have taken the wind out of me in a possibly permanent way.

So, instead of walking fifteen minutes to the Lido Café, I simply pick up the paper from where it was delivered and walk, a tad warily, around the corner to Cinnamon Village, a friendly neighbourhood café, where the Turkish staff greet me as “Uncle” and are fulfilling my unspoken order as I walk through the door.

After that, I might progress to the Heath, depending on the weather – rain, other than torrential is fine, but no temperatures over 21 or 22 – with this collar tight to my neck it quickly becomes less than comfortable, and my walk can be deferred until the relative coolness of late afternoon – as it will be today.

Indoors, then, and wishing to do something useful, I figured it was time to do a little reorganising of the library shelves, particularly those given over to art books and catalogues in the main, but holding also roughly half of mine and Sarah’s vinyl albums and the stereo on which they get played. An exercise which inevitably turns up one or two items you’d forgotten you owned. In this instance a volume of McSweeney’s Quarterly, no. 39, and two lps by Doc Watson and his son, Merle.

I’m immediately engaged by the reference to Elmore Leonard and Karen Cisco, a character who appeared in his novel, Out of Sight, and who was later played – to great effect – by Jennifer Lopez in the Steven Soderbergh movie of the same name. I must, I think, have read this story – “Chick Killer” – before, whenever I first took it home, but when I turn to the appropriate page my eye is taken by the insert of eight postcard size colour photographs set within the pages (and repeated further along). They’re the work of Tabitha Soren, someone I’ve not come across before, but quickly use the internet to track down. She’s been a professional photographer for over 25 years, her work displayed widely in the United States, but only once, as far as I can see, in the UK – at The Photographers’ Gallery in Central London, a show I must somehow have missed.

Photo: Tabitha Soren

The Leonard story is slight – a mere six pages long – and consists of a conversation between Karen and her dad, in which she recounts a face-to-face encounter with a dangerous criminal. Six pages but worth however many pennies they cost. Leonard is often at his best, I think when he is at his most relaxed, as he is here. Without forcing it, he makes the relationship between father and daughter real and does this without losing the danger of the confrontation. This is how it begins …

Karen Sisco was telling her dad, “This guy wearing cowboy boots walks into the bar … “
Her dad said, “I’ve heard it.”
‘I’m serious,” Karen said. “Yesterday afternoon, my last day as a federal marshal after six and a half years. In less than an hour I’ll hand in my star.” She paused, watching her dad. “And Bob Ray Harris, high, on the Five Most Wanted list, walks into the bar. O’Shea’s on Clematis, on the street from the courthouse …. “

While I’m reading this I’m half-listening to the first of the Doc & Merle Watson albums, Then & Now, which I note I bought in February, 1974 – the other, Lonesome Road, in December, ’77. When I put the story down, I listen more attentively. It’s bluegrass, basically – Doc Watson on guitar and harmonica, son, Merle, on guitar and banjo. There are other, supporting, musicians playing, variously, dobro, fiddle, steel guitar, bass and “drums & leg”. The standard of playing is high – a bunch of guys enjoying themselves but in a highly professional way – and the vocals – mostly Doc’s, I think – are relaxed and easy. I was lucky enough to see Doc Watson live on a visit to the States, driving out with my good friends, Patrick and Sarah, from Washington D.C. to the Birchmere, in Alexandria. That may have been the occasion it was snowing quite heavily when setting out and still snowing as we returned, I’m not sure. His son wasn’t there: he had died in a tractor accident in 1985.

Doc Watson’s hands
Merle Watson’s hands

Captured Online …

Probably an age thing, but I’ve never been one to rummage around online, searching for references to myself or my work; I’ve never, for instance, looked up any reviews of my books on Amazon or similar, and when my publicist sent one of my novels out on a Blog Tour a couple of years back, I had to exert severe self-discipline before I could bring myself to read what the various and worthy bloggers had to say. No disrespect to them, the fault – if such it is – lies with me. [Pauses to consult Guardian Style and emerges still uncertain, except that now I think it should be ‘lays’, ‘lays with me’. More advice welcome.]

Anyway, what I was getting around to saying, was that until I was put in the know by one of my more dedicated readers [hi, Andrew], I had no idea that a goodly number of interviews and the like in which I’d taken part can be viewed online. Without too much searching, I found a dozen or so, dating back to the Bouchercon Mystery Convention which was held in Baltimore in 2008.

Here they are …

Book Talk with librarian Chris Jones, 2020
Inspire Culture/Nottingham Libraries
32m40

In Conversation with Alison Joseph at CrimeFest, Bristol, 2019
4m31

In Conversation with Daniel Pembrey at Bromley House Library, Nottingham, 2016
12m

In Conversation with Mark Billingham, Deptford, 2014
Cornerstone Publishing
5m46

[The above comes from a video recording session which took place in the cells of a disused police station in South London; the other sections from the same session follow.]

Saying goodbye to Charlie Resnick
3m24

Discussing Darkness, Darkness
3m09

Advice to would-be writers
4m16

Reading & inspiration
1m58

Talking about writing crime fiction, 2012
At home, in the garden, walking on Hampstead Heath
Open Road Media for Mysterious Press
2m03

Interviewed by Otto Penzler at the Baltimore Bouchercon, 2008
59m34

… and just for a taste of something different, here I am with the band, Blue Territory, at West Bridgford Library in Nottingham in 2014, reading two pieces about the tenor player, Lester Young; first, unaccompanied, an extract from the short story, ‘Minor Key’, and then a poem, ‘Ghost of a Chance.’
7m27

And now I’ve watched them all – all right, ‘fess up, I might have nodded off once or twice during the 59 minutes plus at Baltimore – I feel in a position to make recommendations. So if I were only going to catch one, and were – shall we say – a little pressed for time, I’d plump for the Open Road video from 2012, which is very professionally shot and edited, with the extra bonus of watching my whiteboard work – a skill that goes right back to my teaching days when I was once awarded a special commendation for my blackboard skills while on teaching practice.

 

Mornings of a Recently Retired Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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… and up towards the summit of the Hill …

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… turning then between the trees …

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

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

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

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iPod Shuffle, September 2015

 

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  • Susie’s Blues, Serge Chaloff : Blue Serge
  • Your Song, Elton John : Tumbleweed Connection
  • Cotton Tail, Duke Ellington : Highlights of the Great 1940-1942 Band
  • Give Us a Great Big Kiss, The Shangri-Las : Leaders of the Pack
  • Meet Mister Rabbit, Bob Wallis Storeyville Jazzmen : The Pye Jazz Anthology
  • Goin’ Home, Ken Colyer : New Orleans to London
  • Perfect Day, Lou Reed : Transformer
  • She Believes In Me, John Stewart : California Bloodlines
  • I’ll See You in My Dreams, Anita O’Day : Anita
  • Ad Lib Blues, Lester Young w. the Oscar Peterson Trio : The President Plays

Aside from the fact that there’s no Monk, this is pretty much a typical mix for my iPod to throw back at me, most usually when I walking mid-morning around Hampstead Heath. The first track is by my favourite baritone sax player (Joe Temperley being a close second) and comes from an album I’ve been playing on and off for years, first in vinyl and then on CD. “Cotton Tail” (or “Cottontail” if you prefer), with Ben Webster sweeping all before him on tenor, is one of those absolutely classic Ellington tunes, along with “Harlem Air Shaft”, “Concerto for Cootie”, “Jack the Bear”, “Ko-ko” and “In a Mellotone”, that are, to my mind, amongst the very greatest big band pieces ever recorded, and have been a staple for me as a fan and as a listener since I first came across them, which would have been somewhere in the mid-50s.

The two British tracks are both oddities in a way, at least as far as my usual listening is concerned. I was never a big fan of the Ken Colyer Band; his approach was too rigid in its fixation with old-fashioned New Orleans sound for my liking (though that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the hospitality of some all-nighters at the old 51 Club by Leicester Square) but there was always something about this tune (adapted from Dvorak, would you believe?) that’s always appealed to me, not least Ken’s vocal. This is the cream of the early cream outfit, by the way, with Chris Barber on trombone, Monty Sunshine on clarinet and Lonnie Donegan on banjo.

I once had breakfast in the same B&B as the Bob Wallis Band, the occasion being the Cleethorpes Jazz Festival of 1961; I was spending the summer working on a hot dog stall in the seaside town of Mablethorpe lower down the east coast and had nipped up there for the weekend. I always considered the Wallis band as second rate compared to other bands who rose to fame on the crest of the just-pre-rock ‘n’ roll Trad Boom, scorning the few minor pop hits they enjoyed courtesy of Wallis’s throaty versions of old music hall songs such as “Knocking ‘Em in the old Kent Road” and “I’m Shy, Mary Ellen, I’m shy”. The anthology of their work from which the track selected here – “Meet Mister Rabbit” – comes, however, suggests both a higher standard of musicianship and a broader repertoire than I would have believed – both due, to a great extent, I’m sure, to the presence of one of the most under-rated of British jazz musicians, Al Gay, who played tenor, clarinet and soprano with a number of bands from the 60s on, most notably several versions of the Alex Welsh Band. As the title suggests, “Meet Mister Rabbit” is a composition by Ellington’s alto player, Johnny Hodges, his nickname being Rabbit, and the Wallis band have a creditable go at recreating an Ellington/Hodges small band sound, with Al Gay outstanding on tenor.

What does that leave? The Anita O’Day track comes from an album simply called “Anita”, the original of which was one of the first few LPs I ever bought – 1956, possibly – I still have it, torn cover and all – with arrangements by Buddy Bregman featuring four trombones, and, as here, the guitar of Barney Kessel.

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John Stewart was an American singer-songwriter who was never quite folk (before his solo career, he was a long-serving member of the Kingston Trio), never quite country, and for a brief period, when he was produced by Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, almost, but never quite a Rock star. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I was introduced to Stewart’s work by the late Lawrence James, with whom I wrote, amongst other ventures, the Herne the Hunter western series. I was lucky enough to get to know Stewart a little during his many visits to this country and have always enjoyed him greatly, both as a writer and a performer. (Along with the television producer Colin Rogers – who produced the TV versions of the first two Resnick novels, back in 1992 – I had several discussions with Stwart about a  play I was writing which would feature, if not the man himself, then his music. Sadly, it came to nothing. My bad, as my younger daughter might say.)

Both the Lou Reed and the Elton John are perfect in their way. As for the Shangri-Las … Shadow Morton’s productions are like Douglas Sirk melodramas in under three minutes.

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