The Wirral Line: 1973

April 19th, 2018

I wrote the following for my MA students’ annual anthology, ‘Bystanders’, last year, inspired by its title, but got the ending wrong. I only remembered what I’d forgotten to include, which told me how it needed to end, the one time I read out the piece, at the anthology launch. Good example of why I always tell students the best way to work out what’s wrong with a piece is to read it aloud.

THE WIRRAL LINE: 1973

Aged fifteen, I spend a lot of my Saturdays in Liverpool, mostly in record shops. Usually Probe, on Clarence Street. I sometimes stop by the store that used to be Brian Epstein’s NEMS, on Great Charlotte Street. Often Hairy Records on Bold Street. Always Virgin Records, also on Bold Street: a big, friendly space that smells of joss sticks and has bean bags for customers spread across the floor.

This Saturday I’m wearing a new, blue denim bomber jacket with a patch my mum has sewn onto the left arm. Have a nice day! it reads, accompanied by an image of a cannabis leaf. I know what kind of leaf it was. Don’t think Mum does.

I’m heading home with a white Virgin plastic bag under my arm. The bag has a black and white drawing depicting a pair of conjoined naked girls, each with Pre-Raphaelite hair. The record in the bag is Rockin’ The Filmore by Humble Pie, a double album for the price of a single. ‘I Don’t Need No Doctor’ takes up a whole side. The two LPs turn out not to be such a bargain, as there are only two tracks I like a lot, and one of those is a Stones cover. Before the year’s out, I’ll swap it for something better. For a while, though, I’ll be able to convince myself that it’s great.

Leaving Lime Street, the train is busy. I’m going to the end of the line, West Kirby, which is on the tip of the Wirral Peninsula, just below Liverpool. A half hour journey. Most passengers get out at Birkenhead North. That’s where the youths get on. A year or two older than me. One wears braces. All three have drainpipe jeans and metal-capped boots. I’m wearing 28-inch flares, also known as loon pants. My fair hair is not quite shoulder length, but it’s the longest I’m able to get away with at Grammar School, where I’m sometimes referred to as Hippy Dave.

The seats around me have emptied. The three skinheads take them: one next to me, the others opposite. If I’d been thinking quickly, I would have moved. I once saw a bunch of skins give a kicking to a lad I knew on our way to board the Mersey ferry.  I know they’re dangerous to be around. Yet I think of trains as safe places. The worst thing that ever happened to me on one was when I lost a new glove.

The skins talk to each other for a minute then take the piss out of my bag. They aren’t interested in the contents, only the design. In 1973, Virgin isn’t yet a name brand. The shops are few and far between, while the record label only launched last year. Does the bag mean I’m a virgin, the skins want to know.

I ignore them. At fifteen, I’m a wimpy, bespectacled teenager, tall but slight, with a chronic daydreaming habit. I’m used to being bullied by my peers. I’ve learnt to deal with the situation by using wit or running away. Neither is an option here.

One youth is the ringleader. He does most of the talking, showing off to his pals. Forty-odd years later, he’s the only one I remember. I can’t help but picture him as a leaner version of Tim Roth in Alan Clarke’s Made In Britain, though that was on TV a few years later. He’s nasty, yes, but not without a sense of humour.

Have I ever been to Leasowe Dock, Tim Roth asks. I know nothing about Leasowe, except that it’s one of the stops on the Wirral line. Presumably it’s a coastal town. Like West Kirby, then, but nearer Birkenhead, so probably more industrial. Have I ever been to Leasowe Dock, he repeats. I shake my head. Tim Roth gets out a big metal comb and starts to wave it near my face. I flinch, then lean back, try to avoid being cut. His mates start to kick me with their metal-tipped boots.

Tim Roth doesn’t join in the kicking. He asks me about my patch. Did I  sew it on myself? He begins to unpick the stitching with the sharp teeth of his comb. The train stops and starts. The kicking becomes more urgent. The skins raise the volume of their taunts. All three join in. Why don’t we show you Leasowe Dock? Want to take a walk with us down Leasowe Dock? I know better than to reply. The youths’ laughter fills the carriage. Later, I will find that my face is wet.

The Have A Nice Day patch is only a thread or two from coming off when the train stops again. Suddenly, the youths get up. They run out, still laughing. I look outside. This station is Leasowe. They were only traveling two stops.

That night, I’m babysitting for friends of my parents when the doorbell rings. After seeing the state of me, my dad called the Transport Police. Three hours later, they turned up at our house and were directed here, one street away. A pair of thirty-something guys in plain clothes tell me there are no docks at Leasowe. When I’ve failed to give them anything that might identify my attackers, they ask if there were other passengers in the carriage. I tell them that there were. Five or six, at least.

I recall the passengers’ faces. After the skins had gone, each of them avoided looking at me. People much like my parents. One or two probably had kids my age. I don’t blame them for not intervening. The boys were scary. Possibly they thought that I was somehow to blame and deserved what was happening to me. Part of me thought so. Only as an adult does it occur to me that one of them could easily have got off, called a guard. Or, at least, comforted me when the boys had gone.

The police aren’t surprised when I tell them what didn’t happen. Their job has taught them all about collective cowardice. Only one thing arouses their curiosity.

‘Are you sure they said Leasowe docks?’ they ask.

‘Definitely. They kept offering to take me to Leasowe docks.’

‘But there are no docks at Leasowe.’

 

Nicholas Hytner’s Julius Caesar at The Bridge

March 6th, 2018

I have a confession to make. Even though, after Hamlet, it’s probably my favourite Shakespeare play, I’d never seen Julius Caesar on the stage before last weekend. I studied it for A level. Large parts of it have stuck with me, not least because A levels coincided with my political awakening (I briefly joined the Young Liberals, who, in my neck of the woods, were a small cabal of anarchists. I also got involved in the referendum to join the EU). So why did I miss it? Well, I went to a working class comprehensive that never organised theatre trips (though we did have one daytrip to London, where I bought my first Nick Drake LP, and they put on a Gilbert and Sullivan every year). But that’s little excuse. My partner’s seen it five times, the same number of times I’ve seen Hamlet. I suppose it’s because it hasn’t been done in Nottingham in the forty years I’ve lived here and I’ve never seen a production that I fancied enough to travel. Until now.

The available seats at the matinee of Nick Hytners first production at the flashy new Bridge Theatre (by London Bridge) were in the £95 range, more than I’ve ever paid for theatre tickets (I’ve only exceeded it twice for gig tickets). Otherwise I might not have considered the promenade tickets. Then I saw that they were only £25 each and realised that the play had been cut for two hours and played without an interval, so you’d only be standing for the length of an average gig. I later discovered that a few of my other theatre-addict friends had made the same calculation. Wisely.

The play’s staged in the round with plenty of room to walk around. We got there twenty minutes early, as requested, and, as we wandered in and got out bearings, a band began to play punky anthems to warm up the mob. I stood back a bit, having been warned that there could be a fair bit of pushing and shoving from stage hands clearing the way for actors. This turned out to be nonsense. The only time I got jostled was a couple of minutes later, when someone pushed past me to get to the stage. I looked to see who it was and it was some bloke in a tracksuit top that read Mark Antony on the back. A moment later, David Morrissey jumped on stage and joined in with the band, establishing himself as a rabble rouser. After he left, the play proper began.

I don’t intend to write a review full of production spoilers (here‘s The Stage’s round-up of reviews, with links to the full versions), rather to interest you in going to see the play, the most visceral, exciting production I’ve seen in 50 years of Shakespeares (since a Primary School friend took me to see Macbeth in Birkenhead for his birthday treat and I learned you weren’t allowed to eat boiled sweets with crinkly wrappers in proper theatres – it was a long while before I went again). From the arrival of David Calder, in red baseball cap, to the explosive battle scenes in the final act, the play was gripping and utterly contemporary. The outstanding Calder didn’t portray Caesar as Trump (As a recent New York production mistakenly did – Caesar is far too intelligent to be Trump) but a charismatic demagogue. While Brutus’s naive, idealistic, intellectual approach to politics has elements of Corbyn, this isn’t stuff you think about while you’re watching him make the fatal mistake of not having Mark Antony killed alongside Caesar. In the weekend of the Italian elections, it’s a play that speaks to every country’s politics yet remains utterly of itself. The gender neutral casting – with Michelle Fairley a taut Cassius and Adjoa Andoh a striking Casca – works fine.

If you can, up close is the way to see it. You have to move out about a bit because the set erupts at different points in front of you and you may need to change positions to see the actors (better than being in a seat, where you don’t have the option), but so what? At one point, I leant against the stage only for Ben Whishaw to sit on the sofa two feet from me. He delivered a monologue so powerfully that I was barely conscious that most of the theatre could see my every reaction. Then I had to step back quickly. He’d moved a guitar to let a co-conspirator join him on the sofa and was putting it down where my hands were resting. Later, David Morrissey came over with a cheeky grin, pushing me and others aside to make way for his army to come through, then gestured us forward to him as he mounted his final attack on Brutus’s forces. The war scenes, less than vital on the page, here worked brilliantly. Two hours shot by.

There’s a National Theatre cinecast of the production later this month (not, sadly, on the Ides of March, but a week later, on the 22nd) which is decidely worth going to if you can’t get to London before April 15th. There are 250 promenade tickets for every performance. After hearing us talking about it, my nephew and his girlfriend (who’ve never seen any Shakespeare on stage) decided to go, and we discovered that if you’re under 26 you can join The Bridge for free and promenade for a mere £15 each. Tickets still available. Friends, students, countrymen, go!

Bangers on Valentine’s Day. Franz Ferdinand’s return to Rock City.

February 15th, 2018

Franz Ferdinand visited Nottingham seven times in their first three years, building up to a 2005 show at the arena. Since then, two albums, but no gigs. A fine joint album with Sparks recently rejuvenated both bands. Sparks were magnificent here last summer and hopes are high for tonight’s FF return.

Fifth album Always Ascending takes the familiar template (influenced by XTC, Wire and even a little Talking Heads) with less of the pop/disco elements which left some of their audience behind. It only came out on Friday, so the busy crowd don’t know opener Paper Cages, which singer Alex Kapranos introduces with a balloon heart. In the old days, Kapranos was a cool front man and the band exuded angular, sardonic wit. These days, dyed blonde, he’s gone full festival, using vigorous arm waves and multiple call and response rather than Guardian reader pleasing banter.

Cheesy, yes, but boy, does it work. From second number, The Dark of the Matinee on, the mosh pit is reminiscent of a Libertines crowd and populated by youth who hadn’t started school when the first album came out: a sure sign that it has become a classic. The moshing only intensifies for a terrific No, You Girls.

Original guitarist Nick McCarthy has been replaced with Dino Bardot on guitar and Julian Corrie on keyboards. The new, fuller sound goes into full throttle with Do You Want To. The songs get a much bigger reaction than they did when new. Maybe that’s partly down to their being sole headliners. I seem to recall them as second on the bill with The Libertines first time I saw them, and the second time they followed the Fiery Furnaces, who had just released their best album, Blueberry Boat, and were in unfollowable form. Alex dated their Eleanor Friedburger for a while. Sadly, there’s no Eleanor, Put Your Boots On (from the second album) tonight.

New songs are mixed in throughout. Lois Lane, Huck and Jim and the title track stand out. The penultimate Take Me Out is awesome. Hard to follow that but Ulysses, Darts of Pleasure and the closing This Fire do the job nicely. Ninety minutes packed with bangers. Franz Ferdinand are back.

Support was from Albert Hammond Jr, filling time between Strokes albums. His band, weedy vocals aside, sounded rather like them, fuller than when I last saw them, at the Social, but you wish he’d go back to playing rhythm guitar and add a singer. The odd Strokes number would be nice, too.

This is a slightly extended version of my Nottingham Post review. Their Kevin Cooper took the photo above. Here’s ‘Lois Lane’.

Serendipitous Reading

December 30th, 2017

Serendipity is, I think, one of the keys to a happy reading life. If you only read in a strict order: books by friends, books that you feel you have* to read, books by authors you always read**, there’s no room for happy accidents, or borrowed books that someone shoves in your hand, or, indeed, rereading.

We had a long trip planned, with multiple flights and train journeys. With that in mind, I had both Tim Shipman’s big Brexit Book*, Country Overboard (or whatever it’s called – too depressing, anyway) and Paul Auster’s** off-puttingly long and trite-sounding 4-3-2-1 on Kindle. Neither got started. On the other hand, the day before we left for Japan, I found two disposable looking third hand books in the charity bin at Wilko. Each looked ideal for reading on the plane and leaving behind. Both were by authors I used to enjoy but haven’t read in well over a decade: Reginald Hill and Ross Macdonald.

Hill’s An April Shroud is an early, and rather silly Dalziel and Pascoe novel, with a slow start that builds into an intricately plotted panto type plot: ideal for plane then hotel reading as I slowly shook off jetlag in Higashi-Hiroshima (home of the world’s best sake, and the university that, so kindly, invited us to work for a week). Before the jetlag set in I also read George Saunders’ Booker winning Lincoln in the Bardo* over two sittings. I’ve read a lot of Saunders, with occasional enjoyment, some admiration but no great love or desire to emulate his bloodlessly show-offy work. I felt the same about this undoubtedly clever story. I’m interested in ghosts. I’d been invited to Hiroshima to talk about my ghost stories, so the genre was on my mind. I don’t think Saunders added a great deal to it. It was occasionally moving, but, overall, the set up felt more Hellazapoppin in the Bardo than MR James. That this OK story won the Booker prize while Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad* didn’t make the shortlist tells you a lot about English literary culture, which admires cleverness more than storytelling. And while we were away the Arts Council announced that sales of literary fiction are in crisis.

We’d taken The Underground Railroad because we both wanted to read it, and weren’t disappointed. Gripping, sharply written, occasionally confusing (we couldn’t entirely agree on whether he tried to cram in too much, nor whether some timelines were deliberately confusing or cleverly patterned). I knew nothing about the underground railroad until a visit to Boston early this century, but this books tells you a great deal about its place in the history of slavery. Occasionally it’s fantastical, at other times gruelling, but the novel’s never boring, and we become deeply engaged with the characters. Superbly structured, it’s mythic, in an uplifting way that – as Saunders proves – is very hard to achieve. Anyway, I don’t want to use Whitehead’s novel (it won the Pulitzer Prize, the one that William Gass said ‘takes dead aim at mediocrity and never misses’) to berate the Booker winner, which I did like, more to draw the novel to your attention, as it’s a cracking, important read.

As was my other Wilco find, Ross Macdonald’s terribly titled The Instant Enemy. I read a load of Macdonald – Chandler’s most direct successor – thirty-odd years ago when John Harvey introduced me to him. Fantastic hard boiled style and intricate plots, often rooted in family secrets, that wind up making much more sense that Chandler’s. That said, I can only have read half the Lew Archer novels, recently collected by the Library of America, and I need to rectify that. This one, from 1968, is notable for its (convincing) use of the then new psychedelic drug, LSD. If you can find a copy, read it.

My other plane read was meant to be the most recent Sue Grafton, but – my Kindle having died, I’ve adopted Sue’s,which she doesn’t use – I happened upon a novel that she’d read a year or two ago, William Boyd’s Sweet Caress, the fictional autobiography of a female photographer who happens to have been around at some of the most interesting points of recent history eg The Vietnam War. It’s not one of the most serious of Boyd’s novels. In some ways it reminded me of J David Simon’s fine 2017 jeu d’esprit A Woman of Integrity** (which I wrote about here). You can tell that the author had fun writing it. Perfect plane read, taking up the first six hours of a nine and a half hour flight from Tokyo to Helsinki.

Last night, I learned that Sue Grafton has died of cancer, aged 77. I didn’t know her, only saw her speak once, alongside John Harvey, who lent me A for Alibi in the mid-80s (John introduced me to a lot of crime writers). I’ve worked my way through the whole alphabet with her. A fine crime writer who never allowed TV or movies to sully the reader’s impression of her convincing, early feminist, intelligent, always entertaining private eye, Kinsey Millhone. Deservedly one of the first winners of the Ross Macdonald literary award, for stories set in California. Her fictional Santa Teresa isn’t a million miles from Macdonald’s fictionalised version of Santa Barbara. I’ll be saving the new Y is for Yesterday to savour at a later date, for her final book, always intended to be called Z is for Zero will now never be written, except in her readers’ heads. RIP.

I got a nice pile of books, pictured above, for Christmas, and these will doubtless form some of my reading for the next few months. Though, let’s be honest, Sue just made me move an eighteen inch pile that included several of last Christmas’s books up to my office. The book I’m about to finish is one that James from across the road lent me on our return from Japan: Jiro Taniguchi’s classic graphic novel A Distant Neighbourhood (pictured above, with Geoff Nicholson, Budd Shulberg et al – the really big book is Chris Ware’s Monograph). Pretty sure I’ve read it before, last century, but it stands up brilliantly and means more when you’ve just traveled extensively in Japan (after working in Hiroshima, we also visited Kobe, Kyoto, Kanazawa and the less alliterative Narita, observing vast amounts of the country from Shinkansen bullet trains). A 48 year old man suddenly find himself back in his fourteen-year-old self, just before his father disappeared. It’s a gripping, beautifully illustrated tale about coming to terms with memories and, fittingly, I can’t remember how it ends. But I’m about to go downstairs and find out.

All the very best for the new year to each of you readers.

2017: the sleeve notes

December 8th, 2017

This year, the pile of CDs I wanted to include a track from but didn’t have room for was higher than the ones included. I had to compile 2017’s CD early, which means no individual sleevenotes or MP3s beyond the final three tracks this year. It also meant that the Neil Young, Morrissey, Sharon Jones and Bjork CDs weren’t out in time (Sue, who has a veto, hates Morrissey, but Bjork is on her Christmas list). One late release, Taylor Swift, edged out The XX (I couldn’t resist following Father John Misty’s TS reference with the best track from her new album). Other artists I would have liked to include are Bedouine, Nadia Reid, Laura Marling, Young Fathers, James Vincent McMorrow, David Rawlings, Feist, Juana Molina, Todd Rundgren with Donald Fagen, Public Service Broadcasting, Sampha, Bob Dylan, Mark Eitzel, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, LCD Soundsystem, Robert Plant, Natalie Merchant, Tinariwen, Lana Del Rey, Alvvays, Songhoy Blues, Kendrick Lamar, Courtney Marie Andrews, Kurt Vile with Courtney Barnett (been a good year for Courtneys) and – especially – Mavis Staples. A CD’s worth, easily. I used to do a part two for home consumption. Indeed, I know of people who do three disc annual compilations, but I’ve always been of the ‘more is less’ persuasion. Editing is the art.

2017 starts with Sparks, whose Hippopotamus is great fun: the first of theirs I’ve listened to extensively. I average a gig a week or more, but these days most of them, inevitably, feature people I’ve seen before. Not Sparks, though, and they were terrific at Rock City. Catchy, beach-pop in the Fleetwood Mac vein from Haim, then one of my albums of the year, by War on Drugs, keeping up the ridiculously high standards of the last two. A welcome return from The Feelies, whose two comeback albums are as good as the records I fell for in the 80s (and check out my non-fiction book of the year, Graham Caveney’s memoir The Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness, named after a Feelies song). Destroyer’s Ken finds them on the same startling form as their last two, while Sleaford Mods’ ‘BHS’ was the highlight of their Rough Trade album launch back in March, one of three times I’ve seen them this year. Still the band that defines our age, they killed it at Rock City on their tour finale, too.

Didn’t see all of the Mods’ set at Green Man, as they overlapped with pj harvey, who I hadn’t seen since 2004. The highlight of my favourite festival was the amazing set by Richard Dawson with an array of backing singers and musicians. Peasant is the album on which I fully got what he’s about. ‘Solider’ even more than ‘BHS’, is the marmite track on this year’s cd. Some will hate it, others grow to love it. Arcade Fire’s Everything Now is a patchy album, even more so than the double that preceded it, but the title track is gloriously catchy and has a timely lyric. I would have liked to include one of the longer tracks from the wonderful comeback album by Fleet Foxes, but couldn’t justify an eight minute song. Crack-up is a marvellous, multi-layered thing, which deserved more plaudits.

Aimee Mann’s Mental Illness also finds her on top form, in deliberate 70s MOR mode, with a ridiculously catchy song about the actor Andrew Garfield. Spoon continue to be Spoon, the most Beatlesy band who don’t sound like a Beatles pastiche (a nod here to my other big non-fiction read this year, though it’s a couple of years old, Mark Lewishon’s outstanding, absorbing, authorative, Tune In, which takes the Beatles up to the end of 1962). Randy Newman’s Dark Material doesn’t flow as well as most of his albums but has plenty of strong songs. This is one of two (the other is an old one, Wandering Boy) that doesn’t use irony.

Broken Social Scene are a collective that don’t make albums often but when they do, can blow you away. Hugs of Thunder is, some have said, the album that Arcade Fire ought to have made, if they were braver. In my experience, artists do what they have to do. This is as uplifting and energetic as BSS’s best work. The National’s new album marks a solid return to form after Trouble Will Find Me found them coasting on previous styles. It pushes them into new areas musically and lyrically. This is the song that most got stuck into my head but more keep coming through, just as they did on the album I first fell for, Alligator.

I’ve been following Michael Chapman for more than a decade now, since we got talking after a party to celebrate a Cosmic American Music Club anniversary. Dunno how I missed his stuff before since he’s been a name since the late 60’s (he gave Mick Ronson his break). In the US, he’s a legend, feted by people like Lucinda Williams, Thurston Moore etc. At home, less so, but his fiftieth album, 50, is terrific and has, belatedly, had the reviews and attention it deserves. I’ve seen him twice this year, in terrific form at Green Man and in Nottingham’s The Running Horse this month. This song was a highlight both times.

Father John Misty’s latest was memorably described as like Elton John singing below the line comments on a Guardian blog. Pure Comedy isn’t as memorable as his falling in love album I Love You, Honeybear but is funny and endearing. The song satirises people who fantasise about Taylor Swift, who’s new to me. On the strength of this song, I think she might have a future. Fun fact, she’s named after James Taylor and once duetted on ‘Fire and Rain’ with him.

I could go on and on about John Murry, whose debut, The Graceless Age, was my favourite album of 2013. This year’s A Short History of Decay is terrific, too. This song was a highlight of the instore he played at Rough Trade earlier this year. Only sorry I couldn’t make his tour when it stopped at Leicester in September, but Sue had an operation this year. Lovely guy, too, and, as I discovered, a bit of a bibliomaniac. I can relate to that. We also talked about Warren Zevon, clearly an influence on John’s songs. His songs are equally world weary, but not as cynical.

The title of the compilation links that song and the next one. Future Islands divide people (it’s the singer’s performing style, and his voice) and can feel a little samey on record. But live, at Green Man, they were tremendous and Samuel Herring is an incredible front man, full of passion. A life affirming song and show.

This year, we lost Chuck Berry, at 90. You can argue the ins and outs of who invented rock’n’roll but, for me, Chuck Berry was everything. No Beatles or Stones without Chuck, certainly no Dylan without Chuck’s lyrics. His final album came out a few weeks after he passed, and this is the most characteristic song on it. Hail, hail, rock’n’roll.

John Murry – Countess Lola’s Blues (All in This Together)

Future Islands – Through the Roses

Chuck Berry – Big Boys

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Bangers on Valentine's Day. Franz Ferdinand's return to Rock City.
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