This is the first of two very busy weekends of literature. When we launched Nottingham’s UNESCO City of Literature bid, a year ago this month, it was impossible to imagine the amount of literary activity that the bid would help generate. Indeed, when we submitted the bid, in July, none of the things I’m going to this week were even mentioned in the vast array of activities we featured: this afternoon’s Asian Poetry Festival, with Kavya Rang, the first Nottingham Poetry Festival, Book Off at Rough Trade and yesterday’s fantastic event, organised by Andy Barrett’s Excavate company for the Being Human 15 festival, But I Know This City. All were organised after the bid went in.
I have a big article about BS Johnson in the current issue of Leftlion and wrote a long post about him and Barry Cole here in 2009. Been trying to help playwright Andy Barrett set this up since he had the idea a couple of years ago. Last year, he couldn’t get enough people interested, but Andy is an indefatigable, inventive bod and managed to raise the funding and enthusiasm to set up the reading across 26 venues in the city this weekend. (It was preceded by a visit from Johnson’s biographer, Jonathan Coe, whose new novel Number 11, I highly recommend).
BSJ’s Nottingham-set book-in-a-box, The Unfortunates, has 27 sections, of which only the start and end are fixed, so the readings started and ended in the lounge at Broadway, with the other 25 venues chosen to be within walkable distance and, in many cases, to have some connection with the story, which is a memoir about Johnson’s friendship with Tony Tillinghast, his friend who died of cancer in 1965. The title, which I’m pleased to have helped Andy come up with, is taken from the opening section, where Johnson gets off a train to report on a football match and realises that he has come to the city where his friend lived. The book is bound in sections of varying length to be read in a random order to replicate the random flow of recollection. So the ability to navigate the story in any order of the visitor’s choosing fits perfectly with the nature of the book. You can see a map of where the readers were here.
We got to be in the magnificent Yates’s Wine Lodge, haunt of our student days, where BSJ set a memorable poem and a section of The Unfortunates which is a vivid description of the place in 1969. It hasn’t changed that much and a few of our visitors, like us, remembered the trio who used to play ‘Old Time’ music a few feet from the booth we occupied in the Balcony Bar. The staff at Yates’s were very friendly and helpful. The first two hours (the event ran from 10AM until 10PM) were very slow. Indeed, Simon, our first visitor, didn’t arrive until nearly 11.
Simon apart, our early visitors were alternate readers from other spots, like The Bell Inn, The Malt Cross and Five Leaves Bookshop. And, from then on, things built up steadily, until, by lunchtime, we had a constant stream of visitors, too many to keep count of. Some single, some in pairs, others in bigger groups. We fitted them all in. Mostly, we were able to alternate, but we each had one long period when we were on our own, repeatedly reading a 7 minute section, which was surprisingly tiring.
We met loads of nice, cool people, and also, over the day, managed to see several other readers. Bitter-sweet for me, this, as, less than a month ago, I lost my oldest and closest friend to cancer, in circumstances that closely mimicked Tony Tillinghast’s early death. So I avoided some of the more graphic sections. There were lovely readings at Nottingham Playhouse and in The Bell Inn, almost opposite us. A particularly memorable one (the bit just before he goes to Yates’s) took place in one of the Mayor’s rooms at the Council House, pictured here. That’s the Queen looking down on BSJ, watched by a group including my friend, neighbour and Dawn of the Unread originator, James Walker (with hood).
Yates’s got a little loud as the evening went on, with each of us having to lean in further and further to make ourselves heard. At around half eight, the DJ turned up the music and we decided to quit. One last couple found us as we were taking down the posters, so I read to them in an alcove full of glasses waiting to be cleared. I’m wearing my black mac, just like BSJ in the book.
From there, we went to three more readings. A lovely, memorised one in a corner of the snug in The Bell, then a couple of failed attempts. Gareth, freezing his nuts off in an Alfa Romeo in a Sneinton car park, had just given up when we got there, while Jez and Shona were just packing up at City Arts when we arrived, but we were able to accompany Tony Challis back to Bookwise for his last reading there (and I picked up some graphic novels). Finally, back to Broadway for the penultimate reading of the last section, in a beautifully dressed lounge. Here’s Tony Challis, and, in the circular chair, my friends Rory and Libby, at that reading.
A dozen people managed to do all 27 readings. There was one who’d missed us at Yates’s, and Sue read to him in the foyer at Broadway. Then, much drinking was done until, by eleven, I was as shattered as I’ve been for a long time, and we got the bus home. I met loads of great people and had a very interesting, convivial day. Observing Nottingham through an entire Saturday was fascinating in itself and Yates’s remains one of our most significant and entertaining watering holes, just as it was when BSJ knew it. What a tribute to Johnson. What a wonderful piece of Psychogeography. And what another amazing example of what makes Nottingham – regardless of the result of our UNESCO cultural cities bid – a true city of literature. Well done, Andy!
This is a slightly reworked version of my Nottingham Post review. Photo by my brother Rich, who came with me. We enjoyed it so much that we immediately booked for his Sheffield show in February, which will make three times I’ve seen him in eight months.
Ezra Furman is exhausted. He’s been touring so long he can no longer remember who he was at the start of the tour, never mind before. He might get confessional, he tells us. That comes later. His first Nottingham appearance, a 42 minute in-store at Rough Trade in July this year, was a riveting, unforgettable gig. No surprise then, that tonight’s show has long been sold out.
Perpetual Motion People is his sixth and best album, the second with excellent four piece the Boyfriends, who accompany him tonight. Furman is 29, but looks younger, and plays raucous rock’n’roll with exciting hooks that recall doo wop, Lou Reed and early soul. He has slow songs, too, like opener Day of the Dog, title track of the first Boyfriends album. It’s introduced with a dramatic, almost martial drumbeat, then keyboards, before he takes the stage.
He’s dressed to kill, in pin stripe skirt, black vest and a long string of pearls. The show is intense as Ezra tries to settle in. An enthusiastic crowd wills him on through songs from his back catalogue and most of the new album. ‘Now we’re getting into gear,’ he says after a strong Haunted Head. And Maybe God is a Train is emotional. He talks about depression before At the Bottom of the Ocean. The insanely catchy Lousy Connection lifts things back up.
The set climaxes with the wonderful Body Was Made and an even catchier Restless Year. It’s curfew time, but also the end of the tour and the crowd insist on him coming back for a fifteen minute encore. During it, he gets us all to crouch on the floor and rise slowly (oh, my aching knees, but it’s kind of cathartic). For me, the show’s highlight is a cover of the Velvet Underground’s Rock’n’Roll, last played in this city by Lou Reed, on his Berlin tour. Tonight, Ezra proved himself worthy to bear Lou’s torch.
Earlier, Glee’s insistence that punters arrive before start time paid dividends. All woman band The Big Moon were the most exciting, original support I’ve seen this year, playing varied, quirky songs that at times recalled Belly and Sleater Kinney. Watch out for them.
The Big Moon – The Road
Ezra Furman – Restless Year
A belated thanks to everybody who came to my book launch at Rough Trade last week. Great to see so many old (and new) friends, but it was a very sad night for me, as my oldest, dearest friend, Mike Russell, had died earlier in the day, after a long illness. I’ll write about Mike in due course. We shared a passion – some would say obsession – with popular music and went to many, many gigs together. We were meant to be a two in the week before he died: this one and this one. Two days before the onset of his final decline, he stood throughout a raucous Libertines show at Rock City, which he enjoyed enormously. That was our last show together.
The Saturday before last, at the Northern General in Sheffield, I showed Mike the playlist for the launch party, for his approval. The first half is songs generally connected with or featured in the Bone and Cane sequence, while the second half is of songs played at a party in the book, as 1998 becomes 1999. The evening before he died, Mike was taken home with round the clock nursing care, thanks to the NHS and Macmillan Cancer Support. It meant a lot to Mike and his mum, Jean, that he could die at home. Many people at the launch made a donation to Macmillan at Rough Trade, for which, heartfelt thanks. We’ll be remembering Mike, and playing some of his favourite music, at a service in St Mary’s Church, where he was christened, in Handsworth, Sheffield, where I was born, and we met, as babies, in 1958. 2pm, November 9th.
Here’s the playlist, for those who couldn’t be there. And the Van Morrison song that I named the book after. Thanks to Rough Trade – a great venue – for hosting the launch, especially Sam for managing the music as well as the bar.
1. Elvis Costello & the Attractions – Beyond Belief
2. The Auteurs – After Murder Park
3. The Young Fathers – Shame
4. Madonna – Cherish
5. The Beat – The Limits We Set
6. Nils Lofgren – It’s Not A Crime
7. The Lemonheads – My Drug Buddy
8. Sleaford Mods – Tied Up In Notts
9. Captain Beefheart & his Magic Band – Moonlight in Vermont
10. John Martyn – I’d Rather Be The Devil
11. Van Morrison – The Great Deception
12. Madonna – Like A Virgin
13. Curtis Mayfield – Move On Up
14. Junior Murvin – Police and Thieves
15. The Clash – London Calling
16. The Jam – A Town Called Malice
17. Pulp – Common People
18. Kid Creole & the Coconuts – Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy
19. Michael Jackson – Smooth Criminal
20. Dexy’s Midnight Runners – There, There, My Dear
21. Prince – 1999
Just listened to a wonderful Desert Island Discs with Lemn Sissay, who, at one point, talks about people deciding to ‘knit me a novel’. It got me thinking. Today, I want to tell you about the new Bone & Cane novel, published this year. I don’t want to dwell on why it’s a year or two late, largely due to the collapse of my old publisher and the need to find the right new one. Glasgow’s Freight Books have done an excellent job with it. Look at the great cover above.
Instead, let me tell you about the different threads I knitted together to create this story, my most ambitious to date. It has three main time periods (and three smaller ones): the late ‘60s, the early ‘80s and the late ‘90s. The stories in each bounce off the other, demonstrating the way that secrets kept can resonate through the years. Or, to quote Faulkner, in Requiem For A Nun: ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’
When you start writing a sequence of novels, you don’t know that there’s going to be another one. This was the case with Avenging Angel, the story that led to The Beat series. It was also the case with Getting Your Betrayal In First, the novel that then became Previous Convictions and, finally, Bone and Cane. So, when I made my protagonist, Sarah Bone’s, grandfather a cabinet minister in the Wilson years, I didn’t know I was going to write about him. Ditto her father, whose ‘80s death from AIDS motivates Sarah’s campaign to halt the spread of HIV in prisons.
But, by the third book in the sequence, I wanted to explore both characters. I’d also long wanted to write about PM Harold Wilson, and worried that David Peace would beat me to it. Wilson was the defining political figure of my childhood and early immersion in politics. I was doing Politics A level when he resigned suddenly in 1976. I’ve long been fascinated by the reasons behind that, which are part of this book. Then there’s the Spycatcher scandal, which is tied up with the attempted establishment coup against Wilson (which partly inspired Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup, where the PM is more of a Corbyn figure). Peter Wright, and that putative coup, are part of my story.
Sir Hugh Bone’s relationship with his son, Sarah’s father, are also at the heart of the novel, much of which takes place when Sarah is a child, and before her dad has left the UK for Majorca, where he died. The second storyline is, if you like, the origin story for the whole sequence (and it’s fine, by the way, to read the novels in any order, although What You Don’t Know is out of print for now and currently costs a fortune, but is available on Kindle). It shows what Sarah and Nick were like as a new couple, visiting her grandad in Derbyshire and her father with his lover in Majorca.
The present day part of the story is to do with Sarah’s complicated relationship with her mother, who is dangerously ill, forcing Sarah to take a sabbatical from parliament. Nick, meanwhile, is trying to ‘rescue’ Nancy, a former girlfriend, who is now a crack addicted prostitute. His old friend Andrew Saint gets involved. But he has problems of his own. The three stories are carefully interweaved (a humongously complicated job) to keep the reader in suspense and, to paraphrase the master, present the problem in the best possible way.
I think that’s enough about the story, which you can order now (eBook available shortly). If you’re in Nottingham, and would like to hear more, do join me at the launch on October 21st (7pm, free, no need to book) upstairs at Rough Trade, on Broad St, Hockley.
But back to the epigram. In fifty or so novels to date, I’ve not used an epigram, but this novel seemed to require one. At one point, it had three, the Faulkner one cited above and a second that, in the end, I also decided was too well known and on the nose: Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.’ For that’s the point about secrets, that once you share them with anybody, they’re no longer a secret.
But my first choice of epigram is the one that remains. My old friend Mahendra Solanki wrote it out for me after I heard him read it as a new poem a few years ago. It went on to become the title poem of his fine Shoestring collection The Lies We Tell, published last year. It goes like this:
After a while, you believe the lies you tell
I think the line does what an epigram ought to do: intrigue the reader and introduce a theme, adding an extra angle to my story without illustrating it. I took Mahendra a copy of the novel yesterday and I hope, after he’s read it, he’ll be pleased by the use I’ve made of his words.
Finally, the title. For a long time, I had no idea what to call this one. Then, one Christmas, we were driving back from London, listening to Van Morrison’s Hard Nose The Highway. Not his very best LP, perhaps, but it contained the first Van song I ever heard, aged 15, when Bob Harris played it, under some quirky silent film footage, on ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test”. I turned to Sue and said, ‘what about that for a book title?’ Once we got home, I googled the title, fearing that some other bugger would have already used it for a novel, as they usually have. But they hadn’t. And it’s a great, great song. Van at his bitterest and most oblique. Have a listen and, if I’ve succeeded in interesting you, please buy a book!
(PS and, if you like it, I’d really appreciate any reviews you have time to write on Amazon or elsewhere – they really make a difference)
For RT geeks, here’s an extended version of my review in the Nottingham Post, whose Kevin Cooper took the photo above.
He’s our greatest living guitarist and one of our very finest songwriters, yet it’s easy to take Richard Thompson for granted. He tours most years, puts out strong albums as frequently and never charges a fortune for tickets. Last year I travelled to Buxton, where he did a terrific solo show in support of Acoustic Classics at the intimate Opera House – it’s a long while since Nottingham got an acoustic show. Strong new album, Still, has a title that mocks this consistency. The audience arrives never knowing quite what to expect.
The first three snappy songs, All Buttoned Up, Sally B and Broken Doll act as throat clearing, then it’s into a favourite from the Richard and Linda years, the guilt ridden For Shame Of Doing Wrong, with the first solo of the evening. After a tight Hard On Me, an acoustic section begins with two from the Fairport Convention era: a lovely Genesis Hall. Then ‘um, um… oh, why not?’ and it’s a gorgeous Meet On The Ledge, a lament for lost loved ones that only becomes more poignant the older you get. And, of course, he plays the crowd’s favourite, 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. It’s a great song, but I do wish he’d revisit some of the equally good ones from the ’90s, like King of Bohemia or, even better, The Ghost Of You Walks.
A lovely new Beatnik Walking and old chestnut Al Bowlly’s In Heaven bring back his electric trio. They’re augmented by guitar tech Bobby for the playful new Guitar Heroes, where RT shows off the technique of a handful of his ‘fifty or more’ heroes, like Hank Marvin and Les Paul, using just one guitar with occasional effect pedal. A terrific Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed goes into Never Gonna Give It Up. A rousing Wall of Death and an epic version of the recent When Love Whispers Your Name conclude the ninety minute main set.
This band has been together for a few years. Michael Jerome on drums can handle anything Thompson throws at him, while, with Davey Faragher on bass, he shares the same kind of rapport he had with Danny Thompson. Even so, Davey’s a little thrown by the first encore. Richard has to shout the chords. Can it be? Yes, it’s a brilliant Calvary Cross, from the breakthrough I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight. Things conclude, as they used to for many years, with 1986’s Tear Stained Letter and a second standing ovation.
Odd, I was thinking, that he didn’t play the best song on the new album, but I later discover that he has yet to do it on this tour. Anyway, the show isn’t over. Here he is with the live debut of the gorgeous album opener. She Never Could Resist A Winding Road is a companion piece to his classic Beeswing. Then, another new song I’d been hoping for, Fork In The Road, a corking, catchy rocker that only buyers of Still’s bonus Variations EP will know. The two go well together and it’s a great set closer. He’s normally finished by now, yet doesn’t leave the stage. ‘There might be more’ he says, and issues instructions to Michael and Davey. He finishes with a potent, bluesy new song, or maybe it’s an obscure cover. The title may be something like ‘Walking the floor, thinking of you’. It had a soulful, rockabilly feel but it wasn’t the Ernest Tubb song that he covered with Sandy Denny. Whatever it was, it brought a brilliant end to a three-song-encore that transformed a really good show into a great one. Come back soon.
Post script. Last night, at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, RT played the same final encore sequence (the whole show was similar, but shorter & missed both ‘Genesis Hall’ & ‘Calvary Cross). soledriver, who recorded it kindly identified the final encore: The Sorrows’ 1965 hit ‘Take A Heart’. So, below, find MP3s of the original and RT’s cover of it from last night. Great stuff.
She Never Could Resist A Winding Road – Richard Thompson
Fork In The Road – Richard Thompson