Van Gogh At Last!

In a recent post dealing with school drama productions I’d been involved in while teaching in Stevenage, I made passing reference to an earlier piece about the life of Vincent Van Gogh from my time at Harrow Way County Secondary School in Andover. Like the Stevenage work, this was a co-operative effort involving as many students and staff as possible, although, as the production evolved, one student in particular, Stephen Lewis, had a fuller involvement as actor, writer and composer. As was the case with Van Gogh himself, no matter the circumstances, you can’t keep good man down!

Knowing a little of Steve’s later involvement with drama, I thought it would be interesting to ask him for his memories of the production and its significance. This is what he wrote …

Drama was my favourite subject at Harrow Way School and thanks to our enthusiastic and inventive teacher, John Harvey, it became a core part of my life. For the first twenty-five years of my career, I was involved in drama teaching, culminating in running the MA in Drama in Education course at what is now Birmingham City University. The strongest memory I have of the work John did at Harrow Way was the collaborative nature of it and the way that it engaged pupils and staff from right across the school.

As a 14 year old I was cast as Vincent in a show called At Last the Vincent van Gogh Show. The “At Last” was added because opening night was delayed owing to an industrial dispute and teachers having to work to rule; this meant that out of school hours rehearsals were postponed for a term. Because John wanted to involve as many pupils as possible, the only way of getting the whole cast together was after school and at the weekends. This was probably why I had a go at writing some of the script and enjoyed researching the life of Van Gogh in such detail.

The set for the show consisted of two 16 x 8 feet screens made by the woodwork department that were fixed at the front stage-right half of the traditional school platform stage and used to back-project images of Van Gogh’s paintings put together by the art department. The performance took place in front of the screens on the hall floor and a raised, tiered area built out from the stage-left half of the stage. This early practice of getting as much of a performance off the stage and thrust out into the audience space must have had a real impact on me, since very few of the hundred or so productions I directed subsequently were set on a proscenium arch with curtains.

I am sure that my attempt at scripting the show was very conventional and limited by an experience of plays that did not extend beyond what we had studied at school or I had seen on television. John had an overall concept for the show that included dance-drama numbers so that more people could be involved beyond the smaller group of characters surrounding Van Gogh’s life. Looking back, I can see now that this was a creative device to make scenes where Van Gogh was painting at his easel more theatrical and of interest to the audience. 

While Van Gogh was painting sunflowers, for example, George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun was playing and a group of dancers performed around the artist at work in one of his more happier moments. In contrast to this I remember the scene in the cornfield where I was surrounded by staccato-moving dancers dressed all in black enacting the movement of crows to the music of Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain. It was an expressive way of representing Van Gogh’s deep-seated depression and made the moment where he shoots himself in the groin seem more plausible. There was also a dance to a piece called Urizen from a jazz album by David Axelrod which is a fusion of orchestral sound and rock band. It has these rising glissandi on strings and listening to it again after all these years I can visualise the dancers rising up dressed in yellow and swirling ribbons of fabric around me. 

John has written about the infamous ear-cutting scene which was portrayed by my holding up a 2 x 1 foot piece of ear-shaped polystyrene to the side of my head. I had to cut across the top of the polystyrene with a handsaw and I can still recall the squeaking sound it made as I sawed a lump of it away. The fragment of polystyrene ear fell to the floor and then a character dressed as a policeman walked up to me, picked it up and said to the audience, “’ello, ‘ello, ‘ello: what’s this ‘ear then?”. It got a laugh every night.

The fact that I can still recall this so vividly fifty years later shows what a lasting impression this production made on me. That the structure of the show was an example of Total Theatre or that using an oversized prop and a music hall gag at a serious moment was a Brechtian technique were unknowns to me at the time. But thank you Mr Harvey for creating the circumstances and providing the experience that helped me find my element in life

Stevenage Days, Stevenage Plays

Circumstances have got me thinking again about the years I spent teaching in Stevenage – four years in the English Department at Stevenage Girls’ School, 1971 – 75; the same four years that I was studying, part time, for a BA in English at Hatfield Polytechnic, now the University of Hertfordshire. A course of study made easier by the generosity of Hertfordshire County Council, who allowed me one afternoon off a week, with pay, to attend lectures, together with four weeks – four whole weeks – off to revise for my finals. Outstanding.

Stevenage Town Centre

Stevenage was the first of the New Towns to arrive in the wake of the Second World War, a brutalist cousin of two nearby towns that were products of the earlier Garden City movement – Welwyn to the south and Letchworth to the north. Up until 1969, there were two grammar schools, the long-established Alleyne’s School for boys in Stevenage Old Town, and the rather peripatetic Stevenage Girls’ Grammar School, which dropped the word ‘grammar’ from its title when it arrived at new buildings on Valley Way in 1968, in readiness for joining the comprehensive revolution.

It was my experience teaching young people in secondary modern schools – those who, in pre-comprehensive days, would have taken and failed their 11 Plus – that made me an attractive proposition for the head teacher, Miss Osborne – though to what extent Mrs Crewe, the Head of English, agreed, I was never certain. And it wasn’t just English I was teaching; I was also teaching drama. Lots of small group improvisation, probably rather too much wafting around to the likes of Britten’s Sea Interludes – and, on a couple of occasions, a full-scale production. The school play.

In my earlier post at Harrow Way County Secondary School in Andover I’d warmed up with an abridged version of Shaw’s St. Joan [called, of course, St. Jo – what else?] followed by the (almost) all-dancing, all singing At Last, The Vincent Van Gogh Show! – the highpoint of which was the actor playing Van Gogh coming out wearing a huge polystyrene ear and proceeding, slowly, and squeakily, to saw it off with a fretsaw. Well, it was the 60s! And something I might well return to in more detail in a later blog – but for now, back to Stevenage.

At the Girls’ School, the first production was Alice, based, of course, on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and very much under the influence of the Jefferson Airplane song, White Rabbit.

One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small, and the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all, go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall.

You can imagine the scene: Alice, red hair, blue dress, and the first of several white pills and, pretty soon, the first sighting of the white rabbit itself.

Half-buried amongst a pile of miscellaneous papers, I found a copy of the programme …

It’s noticeable how strictly I was sticking to the protocols laid down by the Drama Department at Goldsmiths, where I’d done my teacher training, and followed through by my great friend and mentor, Tom Wild, whose productions of Brecht and Shakespeare with ‘secondary modern kids’ in Yorkshire were an inspiration. So, rule one, involve as many of the school as you can, and two, list them all equally and alphabetically . Everyone counts.

Having suggested ideas of madness in Alice – see the Cheshire Cat’s riposte to Alice above – the following year’s production, Split, was based on a case-study of a girl suffering from schizophrenia that was written about in R. D. Laing’s The Divided Self. [The 60s continued to loom large.]

The majority of the scenes were built up through improvisation during many rehearsals, improvisation that continued in performance, save for opening and closing lines, which acted as cues for the people doing music and lighting.

It was a recent exchange of emails with Moya Cove, one of the musicians listed above, that got me harking back to Stevenage days – and plays – and I was very interested to read Moya’s thoughts about growing up and going to school in Stevenage – thoughts she is happy for me to share …

The more I look back and think about it the more I realise what a unique ‘brave new world’ social and economic project we were all involved in. Personally, I feel we had the very best of Stevenage new town in those forward looking post-war days before the shine wore off. And it was successful – for an all too brief moment in time – in facilitating real social mobility, along with optimism, hope and a feeling for social justice. As a group of girls I would say we all came out of Stevenage -in those days of rising feminism – and were utterly determined to have careers and be economically independent. Our generation were incredibly fortunate to experience Stevenage at that time. 

For proof of what Moya says about social mobility, a feeling for social justice, and the rise of feminism amongst Stevenage’s young women, I would point to the life of Sherma Batson (whose name appears in the Alice programme).

A community activist with a wide variety of interests, Sherma was one of the founders of the Stevenage World Forum for Ethnic Communities, and largely responsible for setting up Celebrate!!!, a multi-cultural showcase held annually at the Gordon Craig Theatre during Black History Month. A stalwart member of the Labour Party, Sherma was elected to Hertfordshire County Council in 2001 and in 2008 she was made an MBE for services to the county. In 2014/15, she was elected by the Stevenage Borough Council to be Mayor of Stevenage, the first black woman to hold that role. All too sadly, with so much more work to do, so much more life to live, Sherma died suddenly in January 2017, following a subarachnoid haemorrhage, at the age of only 59. In February of that year, Stevenage Borough Council posthumously conferred on Sherma the title of Honorary Freeman.

Sherma Batson

Art Chronicles: George Shaw

There I was in Stevenage this Saturday just past, walking up Monkswood Way towards the Lamex Stadium, home of Stevenage Football Club  – hosts that afternoon to Notts County – when I noticed both sides of the busy road were bordered by woodland. Thinnish, it’s true, but woodland nonetheless: on the near side shielding the bizarrely named Roaring Meg Retail and Leisure Park; on the other, the edges of the Monkswood Estate and the fringes of Fairlands Valley Park, through which, in the early 70s, I would walk most mornings to the secondary school where I was teaching.

But then, instead of thinking about how Notts were going to fare that afternoon [They won 3-0, extraordinary!] I found myself thinking instead of the woods in the paintings of George Shaw, whose exhibition, A Corner of a Foreign Field, I’d visited at Bath’s Holbourne Museum the day before. Shaw’s paintings, executed in the Humbrol enamel paint beloved of boys who spent hours making Airfix models in their rooms [back in the days when boys used to make Airfix models in their rooms] take as their subject the Tile Hill area of Coventry, where he was born and brought up. An area of new housing built on the edge of the city, on the edge of woodland. A bit like Stevenage, really; Stevenage New Town. Brave New World.

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Some people stay; some move on. Part of Shaw has stayed where he lived out his childhood and adolescence. So he goes back, makes drawings, takes photographs. Paints the rows of similar houses, tatty now; the abandoned garages and sheds; those woods …

When I was not yet grown up the woods at the back of our house was that other world It was a world of our own making outside the usual time and the usual cartography and far from the governance of mums and dads and nosy neighbours and teachers. You never saw a copper in the woods. When the time would come no one would save you.

Taking my own life in my own hands I’d climb trees, make dens, bridge dishes and ponds, dig holes, break things, burn things and take things. Most of all I’d watch and keep out of the way of the others. In particular I’d keep out of the way those older, bigger and louder. They would never come on their own and were very easy to spot shouting, smoking, drinking, spitting, snogging, fingering. They would leave behind them circles of paper and porn, cans and fag-ends, initials carved into a tree or a burnt-out motorbike.

 

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These paintings are haunted by absence. Memory. Doors which are never opened; paths along which no one walks; bus shelters; shops permanently closed. Borders, fences, gates, railings. Signs of a life that has been lived and is being steadily left behind, with Shaw chronicling its demise.

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Sherma Batson 1957 – 2017

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My friend Sherma Batson died suddenly on Sunday, 8th January, at the age of 59.

Active for all of her adult life in the community life and local politics of Stevenage, the town where she lived from an early age, Sherma served as Borough Councillor for 12 years  and was awarded an MBE for her services to the community in 2008, being appointed a Deputy Lieutenant for Hertfordshire the following year. In 2014/15, she became the town’s first black, female mayor.

I first got to know Sherma when she was a student in one of my English classes in Stevenage in the 1970s, self-confident and aware and, when she deemed it necessary, outspoken. A younger version of the powerhouse she was to become. I remember her dragging me on to the dance floor at a school disco, waving away any faint protests with the assertion that Stevie Wonder was too good to be allowed to go to waste.

We became friends and met regularly if infrequently over the years – when I asked her advice about my characterisation of a black policewoman in a novel I was writing, she informed me in no uncertain terms of my failings – and I could only stand back and admire from a distance the drive and single-mindedness she brought to those issues of equality, health and diversity that were, to her, so important.

It was a real pleasure and an honour to have known her and to have been counted among her friends. It is no platitude to say that she will deeply missed – by her husband, Howard, and her daughter, Ahisha – and by the many people who worked alongside her and came to know her.

sherma_1957-2017

 

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.

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The Year Ahead

Belated Happy New Year! Here’s what it has in store for me so far …

EVENTS

Thursday, 21st January. 8.00 – 11.00pm
WORDS & JAZZ
Vortex Jazz Club / Vortex Downstairs
11 Gillett Square, London, N16 8AZ
This is a lively and well-attended Poetry & Jazz event, hosted each month by Nicki Heinen. I shall be reading along with three other poets: Richard Scott, Ann Macaulay & Will Roychowdhuri, & music will come from Rachael Cohen (sax) with Mark Lewandowski (bass).
Details & Info: http://www.vortexjazz.co.uk/event/words-jazz/

Thursday, 25th February, evening.
PIGHOG POETRY
Redroaster Coffee House, St. James Street, Brighton BN2 1RE.
Another regular and lively Poetry venue where I shall be reading with Chrissy Williams and poets from the floor.
Details & Info: www.facebook.com/Pighog

Saturday, 19th March. 10.30am – 12.30pm
BROMLEY HOUSE LIBRARY
Angel Row, Nottingham, NG1 6HL
As part of the Library’s 200th Anniversary Celebrations, crime author and Nottingham native Daniel Pembrey will be interviewing me about my writing, the Resnick books and their Nottingham connections, notably Darkness, Darkness (2014) the final book in the Resnick series.
Details & Info: enquiries@bromleyhouse.org

Saturday, 2nd April
DEAL2NOIR
The Landmark Centre, 129 High Street, Deal, CT14 6BB
I shall be one of a number of writers taking part in this one day festival of crime writing near the Kent Coast, organised by Susan Moody.
Details & Info: https://dealnoir.wordpress.com

Tuesday, 12th April, 7.30 – 9.00pm
NOTTINGHAM CIVIC SOCIETY
St Barnabas Cathedral Hall, Wellington Circus, Nottingham, NG1
Illustrated talk about my 40 plus years as a professional writer, including the various connections between my work and the city of Nottingham and the surrounding area.
Details & Info: http://www.nottinghamcivicsociety.org.uk

Friday, 22nd April, evening.
FOURTH FRIDAY
The Poetry Café, 22 Betterton Street, Covent Garden, London WC2H PBP
This is a monthly poetry & music event hosted by Hylda Sims. I shall be reading alongside one other poet, yet to be named, and music will be from singer-songwriter Liz Simcock. There are also readings from the floor.
Details & Info: https://fourthfriday.wordpress.com

Saturday, 23rd April, 2.30pm
HERTS LITFEST
Stevenage Library, Southgate, Stevenage, SG1 1HD
To celebrate World Book Day I shall be returning to the town where I taught English and Drama in the early 1970s to give an illustrated talk, My Life as a Jobbing Writer – From Blackboard to Best Seller.
Afternoon Tea for all and a free signed book for the first 25 ticket holders arriving that afternoon.
Details & Info: 01992 555947 http://www.hertsdirect.org/libraries

Friday, 3rd June, Evening
DERBY BOOK FESTIVAL
The Cube, Déda, Chapel Street, Cathedral Quarter, Derby, DE1 3GU
Poetry & Jazz with the band Blue Territory
Details & Info: http://www.derbybookfestival.co.uk

In addition to which, the band and I will be playing three Nottinghamshire Libraries poetry & jazz gigs in October, venues and dates to be confirmed.

POETRY

With poetry in mind, I have two new poems in the new issue of The North
http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/north-menu

and one forthcoming – March? – in the online magazine, London Grip New Poetry
http://londongrip.co.uk/category/poetry/

FICTION

As if to prove that old pulp stories never die, the four Scott Mitchell crime novels I wrote for Sphere Books in the mid-1970s – Amphetamines & Pearls, The Geranium Kiss, Junkyard Angel & Neon Madman – are to be republished in the States with a new introduction, in both paperback and Ebook format, by Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press.

Distribution will be through Open Road Media, who have a nice little video on their web site, showing me walking on Hampstead Heath, sitting in the garden, and expounding on the writing of crime fiction from the comfort of my settee.
http://www.openroadmedia.com/contributor/john-harvey/

RADIO

Towards the end of last year, my dramatisations of two Inspector Chen crime novels by Qui Xiaolong – A Loyal Character Dancer & When Red is Black – were broadcast on BBC Radio 4, along with a third – Death of a Red Heroine – adapted by Joy Wilkinson. Three more books have now been commissioned, with Joy this time adapting two and myself the third – A Case of Two Cities – in which the Inspector visits America.

THEATRE

Together with Jack McNamara, Artistic Director of New Perspectives Theatre, I’m working on a dramatisation of Darkness, Darkness, the 12th & final Resnick novel, for Nottingham Playhouse. Details soon!

Whew! …

 

(Return of) The Random Playlist

Here it is again, after absolutely no requests from anyone … [though I’m told, once in a while, the odd individual has been inspired to delve down into his or her collection or go looking for stuff on the internet] … the first dozen tracks to spring out of my iPod set to random shuffle while wandering on the Heath, slightly heat-bedazzled, today Friday 3rd July …

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  • Durango : John Stewart,  from Cannons in the Rain
  • Blues for Alice : Roland Kirk, from We Free Kings
  • I Loves You Porgy : Miles Davis, from Porgy & Bess
  • She : Gram Parsons, from GP
  • Is This What You Wanted : Leonard Cohen, from New Skin for Old Ceremony
  • Central Reservation : Beth Orton, from Central Reservation
  • All of Me : Lester Young, from Lester and Teddy
  • That’s My Home : Humphrey Lyttelton, from Humph Swings Out
  • Cocaine Blues : Rambling Jack Elliott, from South Coast
  • Love Vibration : Josh Rouse, from 1972
  • That Old Feeling : Louis Armstrong, from Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson
  • It’s Getting Better : Mama Cass, from The Best of the Mamas & the Papas

One thing about shuffling music around this way, the sometimes neat, more usually incongruous connections it makes between one piece and another, is the memories it can throw up about where you first heard a certain song or album. [A thought that comes all the more readily to me now, I’m sure, because of the exhibition of George Shaw’s paintings I saw yesterday – more of which, I’m sure, in a day or two.]

But the John Stewart, released in 1973, I would have first heard at the house of my late friend and co-author, Laurence James whom I mentioned recently, an album – aside from The Phoenix Concerts Live, arguably Stewart’s best – which was rarely off the stereo in the ensuing years. As my older daughter, Leanne, once said of Stewart’s voice, and I paraphrase, it was there as a comforting presence throughout my childhood.

Kirk’s We Free Kings was first released in 1961 and it would have been later that I bought a copy, towards the end of the sixties, and ordered, I’m sure, from the lamented Peter Russell’s Hot Record Store in Plymouth. We were living in Andover at the time, in one of a newly-built row of council houses (you remember those?) on the edge of the town and ours to rent thanks to my new job as Head of English at Harrow Way Secondary Modern. [Kirk I’d been thrilled to see in London, I think at the old Marquee club, an experience that I’ve written about in the poem, “You Did It! You Did It!”, which might well find its way into a blog post soon.]

The Gram Parsons, GP,  was one of the two great albums he made with James Burton on guitar and Emmylou Harris on backing vocals, Return of the Grievous Angel being the other, and I came to it in a slightly bizarre fashion. One of the girls in the school where I was teaching in Stevenage had been to see Gary Glitter at the Locarno the previous evening and in the interval a number of disparate LPs had been given away for free, one of them Return of the Grievous Angel. No fan of country music, she sold it to me for £1.00 next day. I took it home, played it, went up to London that weekend and bought its companion.

Quite a few evenings in the mid-sixties – far too many if my sad A level results are to be believed – were spent at the 100 Cub in Oxford Street, the Humphrey Lyttelton Club as it was in those days. Humph Swings Out was a 10″ LP, one of the first albums I owned, and features the seven piece band I would have listened to – danced to – at the club on many occasions: Bruce Turner on alto, John Picard on trombone, Humph on trumpet, Johnny Parker, piano, Freddy Legon, guitar, Jim Bray, bass and either Eddie Taylor or Stan Greig behind the drums. Little sign here of the more traditional style or repertoire that would have predominated a year or so earlier; this was well into, as we called it back then, the mainstream – based around the ensembles and riffs of the 40s and early 50s, more Kansas City than New Orleans.  “That’s My Home”, the track here, with Humph in clear Armstrong mode, harks back, in fact, more than most.

The most recent track comes from Josh Rouse’s album 1972, which stems, paradoxically, from 2003.
Molly Ernestine and I went to see Rouse earlier this year at Kings Place. He took time to warm up, the sound wasn’t always as clear as it could have been, but the audience were firmly on his side – many of them singing along from the get-go – and by the end Rouse was enjoying himself and we were on our feet with the rest, surrendering, as Brinsley Schwarz would have sung, to the rhythm in earnest. Or in my case,  swayed my arthritic hips as  best I could.

 

My Life as a Jobbing Writer: Beginnings

Somewhere back in 1974, when I was still teaching English & Drama at a secondary school in Stevenage, my friend, the late Laurence James, who, since our days at Goldsmiths College, had forged for himself a successful career as a writer of what we both were happy to call pulp fiction, suggested I might help him out of a bind, and do myself a favour at the same time, by stepping temporarily into his shoes and writing the 50,000 word novel about Hells Angels his publishers were expecting.

Strange, but true.

Laurence had been writing a series of biker books for New English Library under the name of Mick Norman but at that moment in time was too busy with other projects to give NEL another – and, even though I’d never actually written any fiction, he thought I might just be up to the task. I taught English and I read a lot. Surely I could write?

He gave me his Mick Normans to read, explaining they were close to westerns but with bikes instead of horses.[We were to write a good number of westerns together later.] I went out to W H Smith (this is true) and bought a little handbook on Hell’s Angels and their ways. (Oh, and I forgot to mention this, at the time I was the proud owner of a Honda 50.) Laurence helped me put together an outline; read my first few chapters with an editor’s pen in hand, and I was on my way …

The result was a 128 page paperback, Avenging Angel, by one Thom Ryder, published by New English Library in March, 1975.

avenging

 

So how did I get from there to where I am 40 years later, a hundred plus titles under my belt and a proud recipient of a couple of honorary doctorates of my writing. One way to find out, should you be in the vicinity, would be to pop along to Westminster Library on Wednesday next, July 8th, when all – or some – will be revealed.

John Harvey - My life as a jobbing author-page0001