Remembering Tony Burns: Blues in Time

One of the ideas informing my dramatisation of the Resnick novel Darkness, Darkness for Nottingham Playhouse was that while we ourselves are alive, the dead – the dead that we know – never quite die. The plot is set in motion by the discovery of the body of a young woman who disappeared during the Miners’ Strike, some thirty years before; what the story then does is revisit the significant moments in that young woman’s – Jenny’s – life, showing them in juxtaposition to the present. To Resnick, who knew her only slightly and is now investigating the circumstances of her death, she was little more than the memory of a bright, lively and outspoken young woman, a firebrand, and during the course of the play he gets to know her more clearly, more roundly, so that, in the scene towards the end [possibly my favourite scene of all], when she visits him in his house where he is getting dressed ready to go to her funeral, it is – bar a quick and instant frisson – no real surprise. She talks to him and he answers, much as he would if she were still alive, much as we hold conversations (inside our heads, more usually, rather than out loud) with those we knew and maybe loved long after they are gone. Much as Resnick, in the play, holds sometimes grudging conversations with the strike leader whose funeral he has attended just before the action opens and who, like a somewhat guilty conscience, comes to haunt him – haunt, the word is correct here, I think – as the play progresses.

That I’ve been thinking about this at all was not sparked directly by the Playhouse/New Perspectives production of Darkness, Darkness [though it does tend to haunt me, both by what was and, perhaps even more strongly, what later might have been] but by the gift of a CD, a remastering of a session by the Gerry Mulligan/Paul Desmond, originally recorded and released in 1957 and sometimes titled simply Quartet, sometimes Blues in Time.

Mulligan 2

Listening to it now I am back in the home of my friend Tony Burns, the back bedroom of a house in Finchley, north London, both of us in our late teens; Tony is learning the saxophone – the alto, initially – and I am, less methodically, less seriously, learning to play the drums. Desmond, who plays alto, most usually in the Dave Brubeck Quartet, is probably Tony’s favourite player at this time, though he likes Mulligan too, and, like Mulligan, will play baritone – only finally settling for tenor some good few years later.

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Tony Burns

By profession a tailor, Tony continued to play jazz semi-professionally, only stopping a relatively short time before his death in 2013. By some quirk of circumstance, I was lucky enough, using a borrowed set of drums – my daughter’s – to play with him on a number of occasions in those later years, evening sessions in a pub near the Archway, each one for me a joy. Tony had a way of making you sound better than you really were.

Here, in the final section of a longer poem from Out of Silence called Winter Notebook, are the lines I wrote shortly after Tony died …

My friend, Tony, with whom I first listened,
really listened to jazz, the two of us practising
in his parents’ bedroom, he on saxophone,
me drums, rustling brushes in four-four time
across the top of an old suitcase –
my friend Tony is in a hospice:
the volunteers at the desk welcoming and polite,
all chemo stopped, the carpet deep, the furnishings
not too bright; visiting, we keep our voices low,
talk around you, and just when we think
you’ve drifted off to sleep, you rebuke us
for some mistaken reference to a recording
you know well, Brubeck, perhaps, Mulligan or Getz;
and when Jim retells a joke you first told him
many years before – its punchline too crude
to be repeated here – how marvellous to see
you throw your head back and laugh out loud.

For now I sit alone with you and watch you sleep,
breath like brittle plastic breaking inside your chest,
and, for a moment, without feeling I have the right,
reach out and hold your hand.

One day soon I will push through the doors,
present myself at the desk, only to hear the news
we know must come. It happens, no matter
what expectations we have, fulfilled or not.
And not dramatically, like some monster
rising from the marsh to seize us, drag us down,
but deftly, quietly, like someone switching out the light.

There … you’re gone.

… but not forgotten.

Version 2

Tony with, to his right, our friend Jim Galvin

 

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Darkness, Darkness in Review

So, one week in and one to go, and personal comments, tweets, emails and audience reaction aside, there have been reviews a-plenty, ranging from a miserly two stars out of a possible five in The Times to a resounding thumbs up The British Theatre Guide – “one of the best pieces of theatre I have seen in years.” The truth, to my mind veering strongly towards the latter, lies somewhere between the two.

The reviewer for The Times, opts to judge the play primarily as a police procedural and as such finds “little to distinguish it from any number of mediocre TV cop shows”, and although she recognises that other elements exist – the Miners’ Strike, issues around gender and social inequality – chooses not to allow these the significance I believe the play accords them. As anyone who’s read my novels, or, indeed, seen this production, might attest, the nuts and bolts of the plot – the who did what to whom – are not what interest me most. [Perhaps I should have taken up another line of employment.] I want the mechanics of plot to work, surely, but what I’m more interested in is the why – motivation and characterisation – and, perhaps just as importantly, what the telling of the story allows me to say about the society and values of the world in which its taking place. So it is exactly the Miners’ Strike and its legacy that I’m interested in here, as well as, yes, gender and social inequality, and, running through everything, the persistence of memory. And if those elements don’t come through for the majority of the audience more strongly than they did for The Times then, as a writer, I’ve failed.

What clearly hasn’t failed – even for The Times – is the production itself …

The good news is that Jack McNamara’s production, for Nottingham Playhouse and New Perspectives, is supremely stylish.

Ruth Sutcliffe’s design of gliding black panels and Azusa Ono’s arresting lighting conjure up a murky unease as the plot stops across decades. Figures lurk in shadows or in the sickly yellow glow of streetlights, jazz music curls like smoke around scenes of tense domesticity or police interrogation. Monochrome video imagery flickers – fingerprints, X-ray images, miners on the picket line hemmed in by battalions of uniforms.

Sounds good to me.

And what doesn’t fail – even at those moments – a few, but they’re there – when the script falters – are the actors, whose work has been universally praised and who can, night after night,  even knowing the piece as well as I do, make the back of my neck tingle, my heart beat faster, reduce me to tears.

You have to be a subscriber to read The Times review on line, but for anyone wanting to track it down it was in the Friday, 7th October issue. Links to other reviews follow.

I was grateful, of course, for Steve Orme’s wholehearted response in The British Theatre Guide and particularly enjoyed reading the piece by Emma Pallen in Impact, the University of Nottingham’s Official Student Magazine. And I was especially delighted – nay, thrilled – to have the play’s authenticity attested to in the Traffic Light Theatregoer blog by Francis Beckett, who, together with David Heneke, wrote a history of the Miners’ Strike, Marching to the Fault Line, published by Constable.

http://www.britishtheatreguide.info/reviews/darkness-darkn-nottingham-play-13546

https://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/2016/darkness-darkness-review-at-nottingham-playhouse/

http://www.thereviewshub.com/darkness-darkness-nottingham-playhouse/

http://exeuntmagazine.com/reviews/review-darkness-darkness-nottingham-playhouse/

http://www.nottinghampost.com/murder-and-miners-darkness-darkness-at-nottingham-playhouse/story-29779840-detail/story.html?gvc

http://trafficlighttheatregoer.blogspot.co.uk/

Photo Books 2: Kerstgens

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Michael Kerstgens was born in Wales, with family connections to the mining industry, but moved to Germany when a young boy; later, as a photography student – and spurred on by meeting representatives from the National Union of Mineworkers at a benefit event for the workers of a German colliery that was closing – he made the decision to come to Britain and photograph the then ongoing Miners’ Strike in this country.

He was lucky enough, more or less on arrival, to meet a fourth generation miner, Stuart ‘Spud’ Marshall, who had been working at the Darfield Main Colliery in South Yorkshire before the strike. Marshall not only befriended Kerstgens and made introductions on his behalf, he invited him to stay at his home in Wombwell, near Barnsley.

Kerstgens repaid this hospitality with a set of black and white photographs that go beyond the more usual depictions of picketing and conflicts with the police, though this are present; what he succeeds in doing is showing us the striking miners and their families in moments both of stress and relaxation, vivid portrayals of union meetings, social clubs and soup kitchens, miners and their wives relaxing at home. And, in a shorter section at the end of the book, Kerstgens brings the picture up to date with a series of colour photographs taken when he returned to the same village, the same people, in 2013, close to thirty years later.

Coal Not Dole, The Miners’s Strike 1984 / 1985 is published by Peperoni Books, Berlin
http://peperoni-books.de/coal_not_dole00.html

 

LA Crime Books of 2014

The Los Angeles Review of Books critic and commentator Woody Haut saw fit to include Darkness, Darkness in his list of favourite crime novels published in 2014.

Here’s the list, as Haut says, in no particular order :

  • A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • The Fever by Megan Abbott (Little Brown/Picador)
  • Perfidia by James Ellroy (Knopf)
  • The Death Instinct by Jacques Mesrine (Tam Tam)
  • Brainquake by Samuel Fuller (Hard Case Crime)
  • Half World by Scott O’Connor (Simon & Schuster)
  • There Ain’t No Justice by James Curtis (Jonathan Cape)
  • A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre (Crown)
  • Of Cops and Robbers by Mike Nicol (Old Street)
  • Darkness, Darkness by John Harvey (Pegasus)
  • Goodis: A Life in Black and White by Philippe Garnier (Black Pool Productions)
  • The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette (NYRB Classics)
  • Futures by John Barker (PM Press)

And here’s what he has to say about Darkness, Darkness

The world-weary, jazz-loving Nottingham copper Charlie Resnick is back, tracking down a case with origins in the UK’s 1980s miners’ strike. This is one of the always-interesting Harvey’s best, mixing, as it does, the personal and the political. If, as advertised, this really is Resnick’s final appearance, he goes out, after some three decades traipsing across the mean streets of Nottingham, in style. Harvey’s Darkness, Darkness, like Nicol’s novel, switches between the present — Thatcher has only recently keeled over at the Ritz — and the past. A heartfelt portrait of the East Midlands then and now, it’s further evidence of not only how the past affects the present, but how the present demands a revision of the past.

I should point out that Woody Haut is a good friend – we often pass one another taking our early morning exercise on Hampstead Heath, he’s the one running, I’m walking, and meet for coffee every so often to talk books and movies and bemoan the latest inconsistencies in the Tottenham Hotspur soccer team – but, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time one of my 20 or so crime novels has made its way onto one of his lists of favourite books. Might just be something to it, then. Other than cronyism, that is.

Book of the Year !

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Always a bit of a lottery, it seems to me, whether your book ends up in one of these end-of-year lists or not; and quite often the columns you had down as stone bankers seem to forget that rave review they gave you back in May and places where you doubted you’d flourish come through with guns blazing. And that’s quite enough mixed metaphors for the present.

So, hats off to Mike Ripley in Shots, to the Mail on Sunday, and to Felicity Gerry, QC – barrister, media commentator and author – in The Times

Finally, if the festive season is a time to remember old friends, this year is a bit tough for me reading “Darkness, Darkness”, as my late father’s friend John Harvey has decided it’s time to say goodbye to Inspector Charlie Resnick. This one is not dedicated to my Dad as “Cold in Hand” was. But it still triggers memories brilliantly capturing the evocative sounds, sights and smells of Nottingham in all its fascinating contradictions, against the background of Miles Davis and Polish food. I’m told John Harvey thought of bumping Resnick off; I’m not giving too much away to say he doesn’t.

There are standard strategies – old copper brought out to help young female fast-track, tertiary-educated detective – but the twists and turns through domestic violence and tortuous relationships, against the background of a cold case – a murder at the time of the miners’ strike – is an impossibly perfect way to capture a city that is hard to know and hard to leave. The detail of strike funding and divided communities means that, if you take the time to read it, you will wish the pits were still open, Resnick was real, Thelonious Monk was still alive and like me you’ll probably make a New Year’s resolution to read something more jolly.

Darkness, Darkness pb 3