Shelfie: books for prisoners

March 31st, 2014

Shelfie

 

If Jenny Diski has got it right (and she usually does), the ban on UK prisoners being sent books in the post actually happened back in November 13, but has only gone viral this month. That was because of an article by Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League For Penal Reform, to which I belong. Good for her. The Howard League are taking legal action (donate), with Geoffrey Robertson QC, to challenge the government’s perverse decision to treat books as some kind of luxury to be denied to prisoners as part of their ongoing commitment to retribution rather than rehabilitation. There were a bunch of very good letters about this in last Thursday’s Guardian (including an excellent one at the top by Beverley Naidoo, who has just sent me details of her new book about an anti-apartheid campaigner, Neil Aggett, who died in prison in shocking circumstances) so I’m not going to bang on about its obvious idiocy in this blog (this is the latest news). Here’s my Shelfie, to complete a trio of postings, the others being on facebook and Twitter. Above is most of the Fiction (except the First Editions bookcase and the… um, overflow that covers a wall in the garage and another to the right of this wall). I managed to get most of the bookshelves in, apart from the top left. You can also see a record player, family photos, some pots (including two rather fine Antonia Salmons) and pictures by friends. What you can’t see are the two long rows of 7″ singles that cover the length of the floor, about 2000 of them.

Tim Hardin – You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover

 

Band out of time: the return of Gaffa – redux

February 27th, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 12.31.34 This is the full version of my Wayne Evans interview, most of which appeared in last Friday’s Post.

Last time I interviewed Wayne Evans, Gaffa’s songwriter, singer and bass player, was for my student newspaper in 1978. That was at The Imperial in James St, where Gaffa had a residency that pulled in hundreds of punters from every part of Nottingham, every Tuesday night. They deserved to be huge. We thought they would be.

Gaffa have been going for 40 years, if you ignore a 30 year hiatus between 1981 and 2011, when they reformed for a storming gig at Nottingham Contemporary, where they return on March 1st. The next gig marks the launch of the first CD appearance of their only LP and a fine, four song EP featuring their first new material since 1980.

The teenage Wayne met drummer Mick Barrett at the 360 club in Bulwell. Their friendship gave him confidence to write. ‘We didn’t want to be a covers band. Mick and I were very firm about that from the start….’ They went through a number of guitarists before recent graduate John Maslen was persuaded to join them: ‘We saw him peering out at us from under a straw cowboy hat at The Embankment at a Radio Nottingham gig.’ Clive “Myph” Smith came soon after and ‘it really started to gel’.

Gaffa got going during the mid-70′s pub-rock era. At one point they were lined up to support Roxy Music on a tour. ‘Then Roxy had a bit hit and they got Blackfoot Sue instead’. They played quite a few London gigs but not enough to build a following there. ‘London, in those days, it just seemed so far away. Especially in the vans we had.’

I ask Wayne about the importance of Nottingham to their songs.

‘What I was trying to do was sing in my own voice, which these days – Arctic Monkeys, Sleaford Mods – is quite commonplace. Then, everybody was going down the highway… it was a good few years before Punk, which gave us a great impetus. We played loads of gigs the week after The Jam and the week before The Boomtown Rats.

The Imperial residency began around 75 and built to a crescendo between 77-79. ‘We had a very fast turnover of songs, as we’re finding now in the continuation of Gaffa. We did a lot of work in five years, writing wise. Several new songs most weeks.’

Their anthem ‘Parish’ still sums up his feelings about Nottingham. ‘This city is where my friends are, this city is where I want to stay.’

You were the only person – still are – singing in a Nottingham accent, about Nottingham.

 People really thought that I was singing to them, and for them, and responded to that.

The album’s called ‘Neither Use Nor Ornament’. It’s a very Nottingham phrase.

People say you should never use negative things but I thought it was a good title.

It does speak to the fact that you weren’t willing to make big compromises for success.

 Nobody ever asked us to make any compromises! It must have been really evident. We wanted to be presented as a complete entity, as The Smiths were a few years later.

The album contains many of your best songs, but the LP didn’t capture your live sound.

‘It sounded too clean. People were used to hearing a buzzy sound through our sellotaped amps, but the remaster sounds great: there’s a lot more space in it.’

It certainly does. The album has warmth and presence, too, making it a more enjoyable and representative listen. Listening to it, I’m reminded of how wide the band’s canvas is and how much humour the songs have.

Yet, despite the album, the TV and radio, the tours, the NME record of the week, Gaffa failed to lift off.

‘We were out there playing, but we had no management. Nobody was doing the follow-up business we should have been doing. We went to the end of the diving board, but pools weren’t being made. Nowadays there’s a great infrastructure for young bands in Nottingham, but we were doing it all ourselves.’

Wayne’s keen to acknowledge that the band did get a lot of support in Nottingham. Malcolm Heyhoe of local music zine, Liquorice, put them in touch with John Barr, who funded the recording of the album. ‘He gave us two grand. That’s the same as The Who got! We went it at in a very professional way and we did get international plays. Later, we went to Sheffield and tried to give him some of the proceeds, but he just laughed, told us to keep it. We used the money to press the last single.’

That was ‘Man With A Motive’, the recording of which was financed by Stiff founder, Jake Riviera (formerly of Stiff Records, who released a single by Nottingham’s Plummet Airlines). ‘But by then we were pretty tired. We’d all been doing it full time. Mick wanted to get a proper job and be able to buy a new shirt… we carried on and kind of mutated.’ They felt the big time could still be round the corner. But their moment had passed.

Even so, ‘everybody in the band has continued playing. I think that’s why we’re able to revisit that material so well. John had his own band, Nth Degree, Myph’s been playing with a rockabilly band and with me, in various bands. I’ve carried on writing. We have started writing again, as Gaffa.’

New EP, XIXIIXIII, opens with the autobiographical ‘Rocking Science’. ‘I’m the man who stood next to the man who held the coats of the also rans,’ Wayne sings, only for the narrator to ‘wind up playing stand-up bass in a party band.’ That’s the Cuban influenced Mas E Mas, whose drummer Simon Bowman and percussionist Richard Kensington complete the current Gaffa line-up, Mick Barrett living too far away (he’s a chef in a Herefordshire gastro pub).

The new band sound as good as ever, with outstanding musicianship and punchy songs. The remastered album takes me back to a sold out Imperial in 1979, when they played the album in full. Halfway through, Wayne mimed turning over the record. No need to do that with a compact disc. Get down to Contemporary’s cafe bar on Saturday night (free, on stage around 9pm) and find out what the fuss was about.

One final question. If the 60 year old Wayne could talk to the 25 year old who made this album, what would he say?

 Don’t take yourself so seriously, but keep going. Have a bit more self confidence. And get a manager!

Gaffa – Parish (live)

Gaffa – Man With A Motive

Bone and Cane are back!

February 14th, 2014

9781909509078-29781909509085

 

If you’ve been waiting for a cheaper, mass market edition of the second Bone & Cane novel, What You Don’t Know, you’ll have had a long wait. Sadly, its publisher, Tindal St Press, went under 15 months ago. If you want a paper copy, I’d get a move on, as the book sold out its print run, but there are still a few around. In the meantime, the ebook edition has remained at an artificially high price, nearly eight quid. And there’s been nothing I could do about it. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that, as of last week, I have the rights back to both Bone & Cane novels and they’re available again at bargain prices – for a limited period – just £2.99 for the second, What You Don’t Know (£10 off full price). So if you’ve read the first but not the second (which most readers seem to think is at least twice as good as the first – it has 10 out of 12 five star reviews on Amazon), now is the time to check it out. And please, please leave a review if you can make time. Reviews make a huge difference to sales.

And yes, the third Bone & Cane novel, The Great Deception, is finished and being sent out to publishers (if you’re a commissioning editor and want putting in touch with my agent, message me using the contact form above). Meanwhile, I’ve made the first in the series, Bone and Cane, available for a mere 99p to get people hooked on the series. It’s already been a bestseller (number one on Amazon’s fiction chart across three weeks, then number one again when it was a Kindle deal of the day). Frustratingly, because of publishing problems, What You Don’t Know hasn’t had the chance to reach the same audience. So please check it out, and spread the word.

By the way, don’t read the above as criticism of Birmingham’s Tindal St Press, who did a brilliant job of promoting adventurous writing from outside London. They were a victim of Waterstones’ near collapse two years ago. I’m still in regular touch with found Alan Mahar, who I had dinner with this week and my terrific editor, Luke Brown, whose first novel My Biggest Lie comes out from Canongate on April 1st. And, while, What You Don’t Know didn’t find its way into many shops, the lovely but expensive trade paperback did its job in terms of getting reviews in the broadsheets. So I’ll conclude this post with extracts from two of them and an Amazon review, to give you a flavour of the story.

‘It’s a story rich in resonance: of how New Labour sold out, leaving the children of cities such as Nottingham easy prey for organised crime; and a perceptive study of how the abuse of girls like Jerry is fuelling one almighty tinderbox.’ Cathi Unsworth – The Guardian.

‘Belbin’s novel is fast-paced, combining Westminster intrigue with local politics in Bone’s Nottingham constituency, where her old flame Nick Cane is trying to get his life back on course. Bone’s own problems multiply when her current lover is found dead in his flat in London, and the two plots entwine in a smart novel that recreates the heady atmosphere of Labour’s first months in power.’ Joan Smith – The Times

This Amazon review that explains how the novel differs from a conventional crime novel and can be read without knowing its predecessor:

Don’t think you need to read Bone and Cane before enjoying its sequel; as a newcomer to Belbin’s series I found it considerably easy to slip into. We arrive on the scene with MP Sarah Bone and her one-time lover Nick Cane, recently out of prison for drug dealing, at polar opposite ends of society. Sarah is busy grappling with her position as Prisons Minister as Nick struggles to reattach to life outside whilst steering clear of drugs. If you feel you’ve missed the boat on the pair’s past, don’t. Heaps have happened, but most of it has actually become a taboo subject between the two, which leaves you to get on and enjoy the novel on its own.

What this sequel offers is an engaging look back at the current affairs surrounding 1997 and the beginning of New Labour’s rule. It’s a gutsy task, but Belbin balances the real politicians with the fictional jerks whilst letting you have a private titter at our nostalgic, ape-like knowledge of mobile phones only possible in the 90s.

If you think the politics might put you off, or you feel you’ll be reading out of your depth with all the hustle and bustle of the government system, don’t worry either. It’s only one thread of the plot that unravels, and is punctuated by the grittier bites of reality from Nottingham’s drug underworld – mainly through snapshots of a teenage girl’s life that teeters toward prostitution and drug addiction thanks to her adult `lover’.

That’s not to say the bottom rungs of society are the only places for drug use and the odd scandalous affair. Plenty are found, and everywhere; it’s a trope that keeps each character so murky.

The underworld you think you’ve come to know springs up new revelations until the very end. As you can expect from an intelligent crime novel, all the dots connect but in a different way from your average `whodunit’ thriller. New to the genre or not, it’s definitely worth your time.

No, I don’t know the author of the above. If I did, I might ask him or her why they only gave it four stars rather than five. Not that I’m complaining, you understand, just curious. A bunch of one star reviews for the first novel have left it languishing at 3.5 stars, by the way. A few better ones to push it back up to four would be much appreciated. And, with that, the self pimping ends. Normal service will be resumed soon, in an interview with a singer/songwriter who I last interviewed 36 years ago. Can you guess who?

‘But I Know This City’ – BS Johnson in Nottingham: Performance Call

January 29th, 2014

BSJ holds The Unfortunates

I’ve been interested in the novels of BS Johnson since I was an undergraduate, living in the city that he wrote about in the classic ‘book-in-a-box’ The Unfortunates. I know three people who knew him, one of whom I wrote about extensively a few years ago. Every year I teach a session about Johnson to my second year creative writing undergrads. I’m not alone in this interest, of course, especially since Jonathan Coe’s fine biography of Johnson, Like A Fiery Elephant, sparked a load of reissues and revivals. Another big fan is my pal, the playwright Andy Barrett. Andy has a project he’s been discussing with me, one that might loosely fit into this years European theatre festival in Nottingham, NEAT, and I offered to tell people about it here. The rest of the words in this post are his.

The Unfortunates is a novel by the experimental English author B.S. Johnson, published in 1969, which is written as an internal monologue by a man who has been sent to an unnamed city to report on a football match. During his time in this city he remembers and reflects on previous visits here to see a friend who has since died of cancer. The city, clearly identified through its detailed description of landmarks, streets, restaurants and pubs, is Nottingham.

The Unfortunates consists of 27 chapters, and is published as a ‘book in a box’. Each chapter is loose and other than ‘First’ and ‘Last’ the chapters can be read in any order. The permutations are colossal.

Excavate Theatre Company (formerly Hanby and Barrett) are looking to work with fifty two local people to present a community reading of this wonderful text on Saturday May 31st as part of NEAT. Working in pairs each reader would be located in one of 26 sites across the city to read their chapter to the visiting listeners who may appear at any time over a ten hour period from 11am to 9.30pm. The venues will be cafes, benches, pubs, the corners of shops, theatres and hotel foyers. Some of these chapters are one page in length; one or two are as long as twelve pages. The average length, in terms of a piece of read material, is around ten minutes.

The idea is that the audience will be given a map and will have the chance to listen to the novel being read to them in any order that they like. Each audience member will therefore experience hearing the novel in a different way. The First and Last chapters will be read every half an hour at the Nottingham Playhouse from 11am through to 10pm, and after that audience members will go off on their journey around the city. We imagine that most readings will therefore be one to one affairs.

For this community reading to take place The Unfortunates needs readers; and a lot of them. Each pair of readers would have one or two hours of rehearsal time, going through their chapter with Andy Barrett; and would then be expected to practice this in their own time. The chapter can be read, it does not have to be learnt; but of course it can be if you would prefer to do that.

As explained, because of the amount of time that readers will be required to stay in each venue there will be two people allocated for each chapter; but only one will read at any given time, (operating on a shift basis), allowing you to break the day up as you see fit.

The Unfortunates seeks to bring to life a little known classic text with a strong connection to Nottingham. And it does so by bringing together people of all ages to read to people in a host of different locations.  As the opening five words of the novel declare: ‘But I know this city!’

If you are interested in being involved then please email Andy Barrett at ‘andy at excavate’ adding ‘.org.uk’. If you have problems with this you can use the contact form above and David will pass your details on. If there are enough readers then we will look at starting rehearsals as soon as we can.

 

Bobby Womack at Liverpool Philharmonic

January 27th, 2014

Bobby Womack Performing at Liverpool Phi;harmonic Hall - 26/01/2

 

The legends of my youth are in their sixties or seventies now. Happily, I’ve seen most of them, often more than once. As regular readers of this blog will know, I go to a lot of gigs. But there are still a few soul giants I’ve never had the chance to see. According to our Scouse taxi driver this morning, Al Green’s voice is shot, so I’ve left that too late. I’ll probably never get to see Aretha Franklin either. Marvin Gaye died too young. Did get to see Millie Jackson twice in her hey day. Diana Ross. Tick. Smokey Robinson was an unexpected delight. After his recent bout of cancer and talk of Alzheimers, though, I thought there was no chance of seeing Bobby Womack, whose music I’ve loved for the best part of forty years. When we read that he was doing two nights in the UK, the show at The Philharmonic in Liverpool was already virtually sold out. But we got very lucky (the person responsible for that luck has been profusely thanked) and landed two seats in a box directly in front of the stage.

I grew up near Liverpool. Went to all of my early gigs there, at the Empire Theatre and The Stadium. Odd to get off the train and find myself walking by the side of the Empire. There was the stage door where I used to queue to get autographs (The Pink Floyd! Jeff Beck!) after a show. Never saw a music event at the Phil though, unless you count a tribute to Adrian Henri around the turn of the century, when George Melly and The Scaffold appeared amongst the assembled poets (breakfast at The Adelphi the next morning was a Who’s Who of UK poetry). So I didn’t realise what fantastic acoustics the hall has.

Bobby looked frail when he came on. The red leather jumpsuit he’s sported recently has gone, replaced with the black leather look and cap he favoured in the 70′s, see the photo above, linked from the Liverpool Echo. Indeed, he was more or less carried on stage by his assistant, Arthur, who dresses as a valet. But when he started singing Across 110th Street it was clear that Bobby’s voice was more than intact. It was as good as ever, with a richness and range that no other soul singer can equal. At one point, as if to make the point, he sang a long snatch of pastiche What’s Going On era Marvin Gaye before doing a tribute to Sam Cooke, whose widow he married, an act that briefly derailed his career.

No setlist could cover all the songs you might want to hear and I’d've liked more from The Poet albums and the recent, Damon Albarn produced, The Bravest Man In The Universe (from which he only played the title track). But we did get an awful lot of the songs we’d come to hear, including Harry Hippie, a wonderful Woman’s Got To Have ItI Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much, You’re Welcome, Stop On By and If You Think You’re Lonely Now. Fantastic band, with a killer brass section and bass player, three terrific backing singers, including Altrinna Greyson and his daughter GineRe.

Although the voice was strong throughout, the body was frail. Halfway through, he had to be held up and supported, even while half sitting in a high chair. We bumped into saxophonist Charle Green when we returned to our hotel and he told us that Bobby’s blood sugar levels had dropped dramatically (he’s a diabetic). His obvious discomfort, combined with the power and emotion with which he continued to sing, made the second half of the show incredibly moving. By the end, Altrinna and Arthur were trying to take him off stage early, but he wouldn’t have it, performing a belting finale of No Matter How High I Get (the next line is ‘I’ll still be looking up to you’) that had me in tears.

The audience were starting to leave (the other people in our box had all gone) when Arthur announced Bobby’s return to the stage and, held up on stage right, he performed a lovely, brief gospel encore, (Jesus Be A Fence Around Me,  I think). We had turned to leave, when, suddenly, we heard Bobby’s voice again, urging his musicians to play. They wandered on and picked up a song. There was Bobby, just visible if we stood at the side of our raised box, singing from the wings, a silhouette in the stage door, giving us a final gospel song (probably Deeper Love). We left the show ecstatic but emotionally drained. A minute later, they had to clear the building because there was some kind of an alert. It was that kind of a night. I only have the song posted below on a 7″ single that I can’t convert but this live version, recorded at a Sydney show last year, gives a taste of what we saw. Womack made an album in the 80′s called The Last Soul Man. Last night, a few weeks’ shy of his 70th birthday, it felt like that was what he is. Thanks, Bobby.

Bobby Womack – No Matter How High I Get

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Bobby Womack at Liverpool Philharmonic
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