Holiday Reading

September 10th, 2014



As ever at this time of year, a bit of a reading blog. Quiz for you: look at the pile above and guess which one I didn’t finish and which one I dumped in Croatia, or, to be more precise, left in the small select library in our apartment on the island of Hvar. I left the first book I read, a chunky ex-library copy of Sue Grafton’s last but one novel, at our hotel in Split (fantastic city, visit highly recommended). Having enjoyed its predecessor so much, earlier this year, I was really looking forward to this one so – you guessed it – I was a bit disappointed. It was up to her usual standard and thoroughly readable, but not as intricately plotted or interesting as U is for Undertow. W is just out. You’d think it would be called W is for Wanted, wouldn’t you. But it isn’t. Think I’ll hold off on that one for a while.

The novel I was most looking forward to, The Land Agent, is the final novel in J. David Simon’s Glasgow To Galilee series, and did not disappoint. The cover compares Simon to Sebastian Faulks, but he’s much better than that. Think Bernard Malamud meets Hilary Mantel. You can read these novels in any order, though it might be an idea to read the wonderful The Liberation of Celia Kahn before this one if you’re going to. Otherwise, you may find Celia’s letters the one weak spot of the novel. Not that it matters much. This is succinct, thoroughly absorbing, satisfying storytelling, which casts a far stronger light on the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the much acclaimed TV series  The Honourable Woman, which was enjoyable tosh. A timely, terrific novel by a writer at the very top of his game. It’s published next month, and if it isn’t shortlisted for next year’s Booker Prize then it will be a gross injustice.

Next was David Almond’s The Tightrope Walkers, a somewhat autobiographical novel that fits into the new adult category (i.e. it follows the narrator from childhood to twenty or so) but has been published as an adult paperback original, and this may prevent it from reaching some readers, which would be a shame. It’s full of powerful, bold, at times almost overwhelming writing. This coming of age novel that features many themes that readers will recognise from David’s YA work, like Clay and the recent The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean. Terrific stuff. David has a new YA novel, A Song For Ella Grey out next month, this time with Hachette, who I’m pleased to see are publishing it in hardback first.

Nicholson Baker’s Travelling Sprinkler, which I read on my Kindle, was a disappointing follow up to The Anthologist. Less stuff about poetry in this one, more about writing songs (seriously, 55 year old guy tries writing a few songs – who cares?). The narrator is pretty much like the guy who appears in Baker’s essays, and those early sort-of novels. It was sort of OK. The other book I read electronically was Michael Faber’s Under The Skin. I thought it was a short novel but it turned out to be full length (eBooks can confuse you that way) and not to have very much to do with the film of the same name, apart from the main premise. Plus – put it this way – the central character could not have been more miscast than by using Scarlet Johanssen. This is a chilling read that just about sustains itself, with a feel closer to allegory than sci-fi. By half way through, you might want to think about becoming a vegetarian. 7/10

The book I left behind was a prize winning biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, which left me cold. Fermor was obviously a charmer to know and there’s a breathless boy’s own adventure quality to his life, but I quit after 40 pages, a quick skip further forward convincing me that matters wouldn’t improve. Perhaps one of the apartment’s future guests will appreciate it.

The book I didn’t read was Loren D. Estleman’s Little Black Dress, even though it’s handily pocket sized, so will doubtless accompany me on another holiday. My last couple of days were occupied by Roth’s I Married A Communist, the only major novel by one of my favourite writers that I hadn’t read. At least, hadn’t read most of. The New Yorker, as it is prone to do, published a lengthy extract just before the novel came out 18 years ago and I read it as a complete short story. I wasn’t too impressed, then, and needed to forget it, so didn’t get the novel, even though it’s narrated by Nathan Zuckerman and comes between two of Roth’s best novels, American Pastoral and The Human Stain. Recently, though, a couple of people have recommended it to me and I figured the whole novel had to be worth a try. Plus by now I’d forgotten nearly everything about it.

There’s some terrific writing in the novel, and I don’t regret reading it, but most of the story is told at third hand and, structurally, it’s a bit of a mess. The novel deals with an important period in the USA’s social history, the McCarthy era, and holds lots of interest. However, a writer less brilliant than Roth might have been told to go back and do another draft. There’s a particularly annoying revelation towards the end. The central character, Ira, never really comes to life. It’s as though Roth knows he’s unconvincing and tells his story at a distance so that we don’t notice. But we do.

And that, apart from a  bunch of short stories, and several lovely issues of the New Yorker, is that. I got back on Sunday. Yesterday, I’d planned to ring my colleague Graham Joyce to discuss the Fiction class I’d just agreed to take over from him until he was able to recover from a recent operation. I also wanted to congratulate him on his brilliant Radio Four programme Talking About Cancer, which discussed the language people use around cancer. In it, he explains why the disease should never be described as a battle or a struggle (it’s still available as a podcast here). I’d rung him just after it was on, but he’d just gone into hospital for a serious operation. Graham had been diagnosed with lymphoma 18 months ago but been able to return to teaching briefly this summer and was optimistic about a new treatment he could begin, just as soon as he got his white blood cell count up. But before I could call, I saw – on Twitter, news always breaks on Twitter these days – that he had died. Yesterday afternoon. It’s very hard to take in. He was such an irrepressible presence, even while facing death. Just read his final blog posts. Or his beautiful, mesmerising recent novel, The Silent Land, which is also about death. As Stephen King wrote yesterday: ‘he was a truly great writer. Too soon. Far too soon.’

The university asked me to write something about him for press enquiries. Here it is:

Graham taught at NTU for 18 years. He was a much loved, inspirational teacher, several of whose students went on to publish novels. NTU staff and students felt lucky to work with such a world-class, original writer. While with us, in addition to his many fantasy writing awards, Graham gained a PhD by publication and was appointed a Reader in Creative Writing. He loved his university teaching, even returning to give his fortnightly class to the Fiction group on the Creative Writing MA during a brief period of remission this last summer term. Social network sites have been flooded with messages from former students saying what a great deal they learned from him and how much they were inspired by him. We will not see his like again.

My condolences to his wife, Sue, and their two children, for this terrible loss.

Green Man 2014

August 19th, 2014


The line-up convinced me. My younger siblings have been going to Green Man for years, not doing Glastonbury since I last went, in 2009 (full diary here), but I’d never investigated going. Then I saw that the two current bands I most want to see were playing (War On Drugs and their former member, Kurt Vile), not to mention Bill Callahan, Beirut and Sharon Von Etten, none of whom I’ve managed to see, and Mercury Rev, who I haven’t seen for years. I was in. Now I’m back and I can see why, if the above is your kind of music, you’d never bother with Glasto again either.

Shirley Collins with Pete Paphides

For a start, it’s smaller and nearer, set in the one of the most beautiful parts of Wales. We booked late, so got the further out car park and had a long walk to the campsite. But then it was only six minutes walk to the main stage, and you could get anywhere on the festival site in five to ten minutes. I spent a surprising amount of time chilling out in the book tent, Talking Shop, which ran brilliantly, if rather late, meaning that I missed some acts I wanted to see (Michael Chapman, Neko Case, William Tyler) but did see a fascinating interview with long missing folk giant Shirley Collins (above), most of a very good pop quiz (kudos to Pete Paphides for both), a shortened Bob Stanley, the more than interesting Green of Scritti Politti and the frankly, irritating Viv Albertine of The Slits. Oh and Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals, but he started so haltingly that I soon nodded off and only woke for the last few minutes.

The Babbling Tongues and Walled Garden area, with several bookshops (one had a full row of RS Thomas first editions!) and many of the best places to eat, was excellent (the loos were very good, too, regularly cleaned with plenty of paper and liquid soap, surprisingly unsmelly). The Goan Fish Curry and The Pembrokeshire Beach Food Company’s splendid crab wraps are particularly worthy of your custom. Even the welsh bacon (with, if you can risk the yolk, a fried egg) breakfast baps were of particularly high quality.

The first music I watched was Jonathan Wilson, whose last two albums I’ve enjoyed in a retro way. The sound was great and his songs sound splendid but nearly every one involves a steal from something closely related to Crosby, Nash, Stills and Young, so it was more like listening to a top drawer covers band. Sun Kil Moon didn’t do it for me, so I went to eat, then caught some of Toy (OK) in the crowded Far Out tent, and nearly all of Polica, who were good (think 80’s Natalie Merchant 10,000 Maniacs vocals on top of a more electronic, beatier Goldfrapp).

I saw Daughter soundcheck on the Mountain Stage at eleven in the morning, and was impressed enough to return in the evening, when they were good and went down very well. But Beirut were the surprise for me. I enjoy their albums, but live they were a perfect festival band: joyous, varied, with a full rich sound involving fantastic brass, Zach Condon a charismatic presence. Great way to end the evening.


Before the book stuff on Saturday I ran into friend Jon whd got a ticket at the last minute and, impressively, cycled from Abergavenny railway station, so caught up with him then watched the first half of Angel Olson together before he moved to the front. She was pretty good (my brother and sister said she got steadily better and was their favourite act of the day) but I left to watch Scritti Politti’s Green in the Talking Shop. He turned out to be on half an hour late so I could have seen the whole of Angel. Oh well. Green had lots of interesting stuff to say about the music business. The first act I saw all of was Sharon Von Etten (above), whose last two albums I like and who was enjoyable if not thoroughly absorbing until she finished with the glorious ‘Every Time The Sun Comes Up’ from the new album. Fran, Rich and the young girls then went off to see Jeffrey Lewis and the Jrams in the Walled Garden, which they raved about, while I made my way to the front for The War On Drugs.

Here’s the thing I particularly loved about this festival. First, it was entirely possible to get to the front, especially if you got there a little early (twenty minutes in my case, of watching the band soundcheck). Plus, when you were there, there was considerably more room than further back in the middle. Not only that, but the atmosphere was fantastic. WOD began with ‘Under The Pressure’, the best song on their new album and followed it with ‘Baby Rockets’, the catchiest song on their previous one. It was ecstatic, arms in the air, throw yourself around stuff. I suspected that WOD were the best rock band in the world at the moment. Now I’m sure they are. Talking to strangers (20’s t0 50’s) between numbers, we were all saying the same thing: ‘I thought they’d be great, but I didn’t know they’d be this great’. Adam Granduciel is a warm, modest and hugely likeable frontman, too. ‘Lost In The Dream’ (MP3 below if you want to soundtrack your reading) was epic. Guitar rock can still be fantastic. This was my best hour of the festival. It was probably my best hour of the year.

I’ve seen Mercury Rev several times, including the original Deserters Songs tour, and am a little ambivalent about shows where bands play their whole, historic album, but they were great. The songs all hold up fine and, after the main set, Jonathan made a cool speech about what kind of festival this was and why it was so important to bands like his, then talked briefly about depression being in the news and played a Sparklehorse song before finishing with a song each from their other two classic albums, concluding with the unfollowable epic ‘The Dark Is Rising’, which would have sent me back to the tent happy, but there was still time to catch twenty minutes of Slint, so I did. They were good.


My brother Rich and I went to see Joanna Gruesome on Sunday afternoon, but they’d cancelled due to illness, so we went to the front to see Anna Calvi (you can tell how close we were from the photo above), who I’ve seen twice before, once in Nottingham’s tiny Bodega Social, once in the Arctic Monkey’s Sheffield tent. She’s come on enormously as a performer and was thoroughly enjoyable. An hour later, I got to see Bill Callahan from the same spot, alongside my friends Rory and Libby, who are huge fans. ‘This has all the makings of a classic set’, he said, a cool dude in a sharp suit who never goes near the front of the stage and whose recent music is equally laid back, which hardly lends itself to the live experience. He was good, but not, it has to be said, great. Maybe I wasn’t in quite the right mood to be mesmerised. The closing ‘Drover’ was the highlight.

I’ve played The First Aid Kit album a bit and found it pretty but bland. Young Swedish sisters who play refined country pop, they were the perfect band for Sunday early evening. The young girls with us liked them and so did everyone else. We were at the back where we had lots of space, but it never got chatty. Nice cover of ‘America’. One for all the family.

The other band who I most wanted to see this weekend were Kurt Vile and the Violators. Another guitar band, a bit less mainstream than WOD, with great guitar and a bit more of a Jesus and Mary Chain meets Dinosaur Junior thing going on. Up front in the Far Out stage, they did not disappoint. Kurt yelps gutturally between songs, throwing in a surprising number of sweet acoustic songs. An absorbing, at times electrifying set and the perfect way to close the festival. Afterwards, we all met up and went to watch the Green Man (photo at top) set alight and a firework display.


In the morning,  I took the above photo as a memento after buying milk and hired a trolley to make our return to the car easier. It took an hour to get out of the field we were parked in (but that was four hours less than Glasto 2000 (diary link), the one where I researched Festivalaccompanied, incidentally, by three of the ten people with me this time). We were directed out a different, slightly longer way, which took us through a ravishingly beautiful section of the Brecon Beacons. Result. Thanks to Fran for driving and hello again to everyone I saw there. We’ll be back.

The War On Drugs – Lost In the Dream

De La Soul, Rock City, Nottingham, August 7th 2014

August 8th, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-08-08 at 13.55.27

When I got to Rock City last night, I realised I’d dropped my pen, so had to write the review from memory, hence lack of detailed setlist or report on the artiste’s mid-set quips. Maybe the review’s the better for it. What follows is as it appears in The Nottingham Post, whose photographer was ill, so didn’t make it. But @sheldonmiller on Twitter happened to bump into the band in Wagamama, round the corner from Rock City, just before the show, so I’ve nicked his shot. That’s him in the middle. Dunno who the guy on the left is.

De La Soul’s hip-hop masterpiece Three Feet High And Rising is, astonishingly, 25 years old, and still sounds fresher than most new releases. Subsequent albums sold progressively less but their first three albums retain their status as influential classics. Earlier this year, they gave away their entire back catalogue on MP3. A new album, You’re Welcome, has been announced, but not scheduled. However a free mix tape, Smell The DA.I.S.Y. was available digitally this year, and showed them in strong form.

Tonight’s show is a rare treat for Nottingham hip-hop fans, following on from Public Enemy’s recent return. The group still have their original, well preserved line-up, Posdnuos, Dave and Maseo, and they still have some of their original fans. A larger number of the very mixed, mostly young crowed were doubtless drawn in by their legendary status, boosted by 2006’s big hit, in collaboration with Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, Feel Good Inc.

This is their second UK visit of the year and follows headliner at Y Not and Kendal Calling. De La Soul were never a political band. There’s plenty of psychedelic imagery associated with them, but their lyrics don’t rely on drug references or other stuff that’s liable to date. They’re more about character, beats and humour. Lots of good humour.

Maseo takes the stage just after eight and performs a lively soundcheck to Otis Redding’s Try A Little Tenderness. He then introduces his protege, the endlessly namechecked rapper, Bill Ray, who knows how to work a crowd and doesn’t outstay his welcome. Fifteen minutes in, Dave (baseball cap askew, whereas Maseo wears his back to front) and Posdnuos (shaved head ‘Real New Yorker’ T-shirt) join him on stage. They remind us that it’s 25 years since Three Feet High and Rising, then the party starts.

Potholes In My Lawn is an early highlight. They’re consummate performers, generating a great vibe from the start, playing the exuberant crowd with ease. The stuff where they divide the crowd into two halves and get them to compete with each other is a soul cliche that long predates hip-hop, but they get away with it. When Maseo leaves his deck and laptop at the rear of the stage, the vibe goes up a notch. They play the title track of Stakes are High and numbers from Buhloone Mind State, De La Soul Is Dead and one from Smell The DA.I.S.Y. Then, 45 minutes in, things go to another level with Me, Myself and I.

The set is surprisingly light on samples. No snatches of Hall and Oates. The big test of hip-hop shows is if a listener who doesn’t know the lyrics by heart can make out the words. As usual, about half of the time, it’s very hard to do that. But the crowd are happy to wave their arms whenever asked. The hugely likeable group save Ring, Ring, Ring and Three Is The Magic Number for the encore, ensuring that their 75 minute set ends on a mighty high.

De La Soul – Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)


Barry Cole 1926-2014

July 30th, 2014

Barry at desk

My friend, the poet and novelist, Barry Cole, died at the end of last month and I wrote an obituary for The Independent. It was only in the paper this week or I’d have posted earlier. Those of you with long memories may recall that I spent a day with Barry five years ago, culminating in a visit to the BFI where there was a showing of rare films by BS Johnson, Barry’s close friend, including one that Barry appeared in. The photo above is of Barry at home, signing a first edition of his finest novel, Joseph Winter’s Patronage, which he gave to me that day (I’d just read the new Shoestring edition, which is still available). Although he was very ill for the last few years of his life, Barry retained his sharpness, acerbic wit and acute editing skills. Indeed, after I gave him a copy of my last Bone and Cane novel, What You Don’t Know, he sent me back a handful of corrections and even pointed out a messy paragraph that I was able to correct in the Kindle edition.

Shoestring is run by our mutual friend, John Lucas, who I mention in my obituary and who effectively conducted Barry’s funeral service, talking about Barry, then reading a selection of his poems. John has written about Barry in The Guardian.

Here’s the song that was played at the end of the funeral. An appropriate choice, for reasons you’ll see if you read my obituary. Condolences to Barry’s widow, Rita, three daughters and four grandchildren. RIP.



Hall and Oates, Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham, July 6

July 8th, 2014



The following review adds a few extra ruminations to the one in today’s Nottingham Post.

‘It’s been a very long time but it’s good to be back,’ says Daryl Hall. He and John Oates last played the RCH back in 1990, at the end of a decade in which they’d were the quintessential AOR band in the US.

But which band is back? There have been at least five Hall and Oates. A blue-eyed soul band whose second album featured a soul classic, She’s Gone (though it only become a US hit when rereleased in 1976). I bought Abandoned Luncheonette from a cut-out bin at Burnley Boots in 1974, for 69p, and was hooked.

They flirted with rock in the Todd Rundgren produced War Babies, which is great but more a Rundgren album than a Hall and Oates’ one. It did nothing, but then they went gold with their fourth, the eponymous ‘silver’ album, Hall and Oates. Superb follow-up, Bigger Than Both Of Us, gave them their first US number one, Rich Girl, which was memorably covered by Nina Simone. They then went back to rock for a couple of unsuccessful albums, Beauty On A Backstreet and the more mixed Along The Red Ledge before finding the blatantly commercial formula that made them into superstars.

In the 1980’s they released five consecutive platinum albums. 70’s fans weren’t as keen on this disco/pop direction, but you can’t argue with success like that. Later, they also had a soul revue. Eleven years have passed since their last album of new material. A 2009 box set showcased their strengths.

The duo haven’t troubled the UK top 20 since 1982. Daryl Hall devotes much of his time to monthly webcast Live From Daryl’s House. This might explain why they’re selling out concert halls rather than arenas. Our gain. Anticipation for this opening night of a short tour (leading up to the Latitude festival) is high, the concert hall packed.

The band come on and tear into Maneater, the duo’s biggest UK hit. It’s followed by their strongest 80’s cut, the storming Out of Touch. This shows that Hall, 67, can hit all the notes as well as ever. The less distinguished Say It Isn’t So turns out to be the newest song of the evening. It came out in 1983.

They tease us about losing the setlist and play a number only rabid fans will know, Uncanny, a flop single from a ragbag collection. Then they draw out the heavy guns. Back Together Again, from their best album Bigger Than Both Of Us, hasn’t been played live since the 70’s. It still sounds sensational.

Abandoned Luncheonette‘s Las Vegas Turnaround is another sweet, deep cut that shows John Oates, 65, in fine vocal form. The evening really takes light. She’s Gone is as good as it ever was, with great saxophone from long time accompanist Charlie DeChant, star of their six piece band.

Their first big hit, Sara Smile, is about ‘the way things should be as opposed to the way they are,’ Daryl tells us from behind his shades and black leather bike jacket. Then Daryl’s at his keyboard for signature ballad Do What You Want, Be What You Are. This segues into I Can’t Do That (No Can Do). Their second biggest UK hit gets the crowd to their feet. However, half of its nine minutes is a saxophone solo, spoiling the momentum of the show closer.

Never mind. Encores of Rich Girl, You Make My Dreams, Kiss On My List and Private Eyes bring the 95 minutes to a more than satisfying close. A class act. Just a pity the brittle sound, lacking in range, didn’t do them full justice. We were behind the soundboard, where it wasn’t great but I’ve heard worse at the RCH, which can be hard to get right. However, according to an email sent to the Post, the sound was much worse in some areas, with many people walking out of the stalls and at least fifty complaints from the top tier. If you were there and didn’t stay for the encores, this is the best song you missed.



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Green Man 2014
The line-up convinced me. My younger siblings have been going to Green Man for years, not doing Glastonbury since I last went, in 2009 (full diary here), bu...

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