Thirty-nine years ago this month, I set off to hitch-hike around Europe. I took, as I recall, only three books with me. The Hitch-Hikers Guide To Europe, of course. Jack Kerouac’s Lonesome Traveler (I’d already read On The Road and Dharma Bums) and a notebook to write in. Back then, I wrote a lot of poetry. I’d been working for seven months after dropping out of university so had saved up enough to last for up to a month, depending on how well I eked it out, before returning to Nottingham, where I would study English Literature and American Studies.
I’d long finished Lonesome Traveller by the time I got to Genoa, by way of stops in Boulogne, Paris, Digne and Nice. It was in Genoa that I succumbed to joining the Youth Hostel Association so that I could stay in a hostel just outside the Italian city. I bought the required sleep sheet, a thin cotton sleeping bag thing that saved on their laundering bed linen. Bit of an expensive investment, as I didn’t stay in a hostel again for the rest of the trip. Tried to get into the one in Athens, but it was full, and I slept on a roof instead. It was in the Genoa hostel that I met the Australian, a few years my senior, who was also travelling alone, and we agreed to hitch together for a while.
The Australian and I got up early to hitch to Rome, hoping to get to St Peters Square in time for the Pope’s midday mass. Instead, we landed at a campsite just outside the city after four, the Australian sharing my tent. He lent me the book that he’d brought with him to read on his trip: James Clavell’s Shogun, which I hadn’t heard of, while he ripped through Lonesome Traveler. In Rome, we wasted precious travel money on black market Rolex watches while we queued to get into the Sistine Chapel. An Italian spiv displayed them from the inside of his jacket, like in the comic books, and offered a discount for two. The Australian talked me into buying one. Then we hitched to Naples and, from there, to Pompeii. I loved Pompeii, and was to return there seven years later on my first foreign holiday with Sue. But I got food poisoning and the Australian didn’t want to hang around waiting for me to get better. Also, we’d been travelling together for a week, and were probably a bit tired of each other.
I was OK with that, and it only took me another day or so to feel up to moving on (I ended up getting as far as the Greek island of Naxos) but the Australian hadn’t finished Shogun and took it away with him. I was only about 500 pages through the 1000+ page novel. So I never found out how it ended. There was, I recently learned, a very successful TV adaptation in 1980, but I didn’t notice: probably too busy writing a dissertation and preparing for my final exams. It starred Richard Chamberlain, who I find hard to imagine playing Anjin-san, the English samurai, so was probably best avoided. In 1990, there was a musical, which took great liberties with the plot. Why didn’t I buy or borrow a copy? Probably some innate distaste for best-sellers. I assumed that my holiday reading standards were lower and I would be disappointed. Also, it was so long and I didn’t want to have to read the first three books all over again, not when I had all that great literature to get through for my course.
At the beginning of this year, Shogun showed up as an Amazon Daily Deal (once a big boost – Bone and Cane went back to the top of their charts when it was in the deal). I was about to go to New Zealand and stocking up my Kindle for the four flights. So I paid my 99p and, in February, on the endless flight back to the UK, began to read it. And, you know what, it was really good. A terrific plane read. Easy to follow, crisply written, with good characterisation, lots of exciting events and some insight into Japanese culture. The depiction of seventeenth century Japan reminded me of David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2011) which is set a century or two later. However Shogun is essentially six novels in one, and I was taken ill two days after I got home, so didn’t start the third book for a few weeks. Eventually, though, I made the novel my bedtime read. I would aim to read 1% before I fell asleep (that’s around 6000 words, at a guess) and often managed it.
Last night, I finished the novel. It goes off a little bit towards the end. There are a few sentimental passages and overlong sentences that suggest the author was getting tired. He holds back information. This is partly to create suspense as to why characters are behaving as they are but, nevertheless, it gets clunky. There’s a long passage towards the end when the principal Japanese character, Toranaga, thinks about his motivation and plans for Blackthorne, the novel’s hero, that no self respecting writer would be happy with. But these are minor caveats. It was one of those books that you look forward to reading in bed, with a style that was easy to follow but content complex enough to tire the brain and send me to sleep. It’s one of six Clavell Asia saga novels and, while I wouldn’t rush to read the others, I wouldn’t rule it out, either.
This morning, I read up on Clavell, surprised to find that this Australian-born Englishman wrote The Fly, The Great Escape and was writer/director of To Sir With Love, amongst other movies, on top of the big Asian books. He translated Sun Tzu’s still hugely influential The Art of War. He was also a Japanese prisoner of war, which inspired his first novel, King Rat. He sounds like an interesting guy and I’ve downloaded his Desert Island Discs to listen to on my morning exercise bike ride (the photo above is from their site). The Anjin-san in Shogun is based on a real English sailor, William Adams, who had a fascinating life. Several other novels have been written about him.
My Australian wrote to me that December, with a cheque for the twenty dollars he’d borrowed in Rome. The gold had quickly begun to rub off the fake watch, he told me. He’d told a sob story and sold his to some Americans in Italy. I still had mine, which had stopped working within a week. When my mum took it to be mended the first thing the jeweller said was, ‘you didn’t think this was real, did you?’ The Australian had a temporary job lecturing in Engineering at a university in Arizona. For all I know, he’s still there. And I have to find a new book to read at night. I’m halfway through David Gates’ Preston Falls, which is a cracking read if you like novels about fifty-something blokes whose lives are falling apart, but isn’t conducive to a good night’s sleep. I’ll turn on my Kindle and see what takes my fancy. By the way, if you like novels about Japan, as I do (hoping to go back there next year), my favourite two are Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World and J David Simons’ terrific, too little known, An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful, which I wrote about three years ago.
The second night of Ryley Walker’s UK tour comes two weeks ahead of third album Golden Sings That Have Been Sung (no, that second word isn’t a typo) which only the illegal downloaders in the crowd will know. Walker was meant to appear in a duo with legendary former Pentangle double bassist Danny Thompson, fifty years his senior (Ryley is 27). But Danny is ill – at least that’s the official story – so we get his regular trio, featuring two musicians from Oslo. It’s hard to imagine how this show would work without terrific drummer Stale Liavick Solberg, whose flamboyant jazz chops propel the evening’s tight, spacey improvisations. Walker’s intricate guitar work soars, while understated bassist Julius Lovid holds it all together. They create a wide, absorbing soundscape, more exciting and absorbing than on the impressive album (which I have heard a few times).
The 70 minute, eight song set is dominated by material from Golden Sings. I’ve had my doubts about Walker before. Those early John Martyn and Tim Buckley influences seemed too obvious and it was the appearance of Danny Thompson (who I’ve seen many times, with John M and Richard Thompson) that persuaded me to check him out tonight. But live, Ryley’s his own thing, an absorbing showman with terrible hair and engaging humour. If the vocals remind me of anyone, I realise as the evening progresses, it’s Tim Hardin’s late 60’s jazz slur. Walker namechecks the Miles Davis of that era, especially praising the On The Corner LP. These are the things he loves, he tells us. Well, them and chips with mayo.
Two thirds of the audience is my age or older, well placed to have seen Walker’s influences in their heyday, but there’s a healthy sprinkling of young hipster types too and the the evening goes down a storm with everyone. 76 minutes rush by, concluding with the opening tracks from his breakthrough album Primrose Green, with its imitation Van Morrison sleeve. Watching him yelp and swagger through encore Summer Dress, you can be sure he’ll be back, bigger. What his next stage will sound like is anybody’s guess.
Lawrence Block is best known for the Matt Scudder novels and Burglar series, although these form a relatively small part of his output over the last fifty years. I used to have a triumvirate of favourite crime writers: him, Ed McBain and Elmore Leonard. The other two are gone now, which makes Larry the King of Crime, as far as I’m concerned. We’ve met a couple of times and correspond occasionally. Back in the day he did a guest blog on this site about one of his many pseudonyms (pseudonyms, and why writers use them, always interest me). He’s an accomplished, original short story writer, too, going back to before most of us were alive, when a writer could make serious money out of the things. And the Kindle single format (10-30,000 words) works a treat for him. His latest, Resume Speed, is an interesting one-off.
Is Resume Speed a Crime story? Not exactly. It is a mystery, but in the sense that most fiction is a mystery, exploring the mysterious human condition, than Block’s best known work. Describing the plot, without spoilers, is bound to make it sound humdrum. Bill, a guy of indeterminate age, arrives in a small town, gets a mundane job and meets a woman. The subject matter is more Munro than McBain but it is, nevertheless, a page turner and the writing – as ever with Block – is top notch. There are repeated hints that one of Block’s most frequent (and personal) themes is at the heart of the back story. But I won’t say what it is. What I will say is that I read this in bed over three nights and it was ninety minutes well spent: a story I relished going back to. As always with Block, I look forward to finding out what he does next.
‘City of Words’, I titled a recent article about Nottingham for The Author, but I’ve since discovered that, when it comes to UNESCO City of Literature status, Dublin coined this phrase some years ago! We’ve just been to the first conference for the Cities of Literature network, with seventeen of the twenty cities represented. This couldn’t have come at a better time for Nottingham, as we find our feet as a City of Literature and prepare to hire our first director (applications are open until June 13th). I’ll be reporting back to the board on a load of strategic areas and future possibilities when we meet this Thursday, but here are a few observations.
For a start, there are signs or window stickers that use Dublin’s UNESCO logo in every appropriate venue, reminding residents and announcing to visitors that they are in a Creative Literary city. It’s not expensive and we ought to do the same soon. Secondly, it was great to be in a big room (in the Pearse St library where the Dublin City of Literature offices are) with such a group of dedicated, creative, interesting people – mostly directors or employees of cities of lit, with one councillor (from the smallest city of lit, Óbidos) and two other chairs – Margaret from Dublin and Abigail who, like me, was covering for an unavailable director (congratulations to Edinburgh’s Ali Bowden, who has just had a baby daughter). I learnt a lot from them. That’s Celeste and Julita from Óbidos standing as JJ from Krakow, who coordinates the network, gives Dublin’s Jane Alger a thank-you present in the photo below.
And I’d like to add my thanks to Jane and her team here, too. Irish hospitality is, of course, legion and we were looked after magnificently, put up in a great hotel opposite Trinity College, taken to a reception at the Mayor’s mansion (see photo above) and a meal afterwards, given a private tour of the Book of Kells and Trinity’s library, given a bus tour of Dublin’s literary sites, including the James Joyce Museum and tower and the huge house where Samuel Beckett grew up, which was a stark contrast to the modest terrace that Seamus Heaney bought when he got a job as a Head of English and stayed in for the rest of his life. We also passed rather bigger piles belonging to Enya, Bono and Van Morrison. This is the door that Joyce climbed a ladder to get to when he went to stay with Oliver St John Gogarty in an episode that formed the first chapter of Ulysses (follow the link for a drawing of the top of the tower, where we went next, and took numerous photos, one of which is now my profile pic on facebook (this links to a photo album if you’re on there) and Twitter. That photo and the one below by Sue.
On the last night we forsook the literary pub crawl for a visit to the packed Trinity theatre for the first appearance in Western Europe of Nobel Laureate, Svetlana Alexievich,
which was fascinating, then found our way to Keogh’s pub, where there was a traditional music session in an upstairs room and the Guinness was top notch. Thanks again to Jane and everybody in Dublin for hosting this very useful conference, that is bound to lead to new collaborations and which I hope will become an annual event, one that we can host one day. Two final points. Several people expressed concern about the state of UK libraries, which used to be seen as a beacon but are becoming regarded as a disaster zone (I repeatedly explained how Nottingham has protected ours, as befits our new status). And, finally, it wasn’t discussed formally, but in a group of talented people, primarily from Western Europe, all committed to creating international cooperation, there was general disbelief and much trepidation about the possibility that the UK might leave the EC and what the consequences might be for each individual’s own country. Just saying.
In June 2016, Shoestring Press publish ‘Provenance’, my new & collected short stories. There are eighteen, ranging from my first published piece, ‘Witchcraft’ (which appeared in Ambit in 1989) through to four previously unpublished stories (of which one – ‘The Way It Works’ – is a substantial, five-part story), written last year. The pieces cover the full range of my work, with subjects from music to middle-age and friendship to art fraud. I’m very proud of this work and I’d be delighted if you wanted to pre-order it a discount. (£10 post-free, as compared to £12.99). Furthermore, if you order by May 9th, you will have your name listed as a subscriber in the back of the book.
The subscription idea, which helps decide the print run and guarantee sales, is something Shoestring has occasionally done before. This time, I’ve persuaded publisher John Lucas (a man who refuses to use email!) to accept electronic payment, by using this PayPal link (put your name as you’d like it to appear in the book by clicking the plus sign on the ‘special instructions to seller’ link that appears after you sign in). Or you can send a cheque to the address on the attached flyer, which tells you more about the book. If you prefer to pay by post or would like to see the subscription flyer for the collection, you can download a flyer by clicking here.
Before you ask me about the cover, it’s explained by the title story, ‘Provenance’, and if you want to know more than that, you’ll have to buy the book. There will be an eBook at some point, but Shoestring don’t do them, and persuading John to take electronic payments is enough of a revolution for one year. Until then, I’d much rather you bought the print book and support one of our best small presses. I’m thrilled to be published by Shoestring, which doesn’t do a lot of prose (when we were doing the UNESCO City of Literature bid, we worked out that it’s the UK’s third biggest poetry publisher) but the prose it does do is brilliant – like Derek Buttress’s fiction and Philip Callow’s superb memoir, Passage From Home. I’m proud to be in such company. It’s important to support small presses and the work they do. I’d like to thank Shoestring and the editors of every small magazine and anthology that has published my work since the very beginning of my writing career, now in its 27th year. These days, when big publishers tend to concentrate on potential best-sellers, we need them more than ever.