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

Exploring Nottinghamshire Writers

December 8th, 2017

 

Hearty congratulations to Rowena Edlin-White, whose five years working on this splendid anthology (originally intended to come out before our UNESCO bid went in) was time well spent. Over 200 writers are discussed in this book, from David Herbert Lawrence to David Lawrence Belbin (no relation), with the living writers doing their own entry (some from beyond the grave, like Derrick Buttress, who sadly died this year). It’s a bargain, at £12.99 (or £25 for the signed, limited edition hardback pictured) and also includes several essays, on comics, the Forest Folk, Dickens in Nottingham (by Derrick) and Graham Greene in Nottingham (one of mine). I wish I had time to say more, and maybe I will, once I’ve read it all. Meantime, read this on our City of Lit site. So far, I’ve only got through the living writers, all but one of whom I know, to some extent. It’s also a delight that Sue and I are one of two living literary couples in the book, the others being our friends Stephen Lowe and Tanya Myers. I was in Five Leaves Bookshop (the publishers) yesterday, and Ross told me that they plan to publish an online appendix to include the writers who have emerged (and continue to emerge) since the book’s contents were finalised. I hope to see Mansfield playwrights James Graham and Beth Steel, both of whom have great work (I know, I’ve already seen both plays) in Nottingham next year, amongst many others, like Mukaro Makubika, whose Fagon award winning Shebeen opens next year, Anyway, that’s my book recommendation for Christmas this year. Music recommendations above.

Billy Bragg, Rock City, November 18th, 2017

November 19th, 2017

Billy Bragg wants us to know he hasn’t joined the ‘Christmas Kitsch’ market. ‘I see Bananarama have got in early’. But he’s here to do his big numbers. A mass singalong of Sexuality starts the show, and a packed Rock City doesn’t just do the chorus, it knows every word and fills in the back harmonies. Billy is visibly impressed, gushing about Rock City Saturday nights and the best singing on the tour.

He’s brought ‘the green monster’ on which he wrote many of the songs, reminding us of his first Nottingham visit, 33 years ago, to a packed basement club called The Garage, especially when he plays ‘The Milkman of Human Kindness’.  The guitar’s doing his back in but it’s worth it.

It’s a nearly solo show. CJ Hillman provides sweet pedal steel on several songs and impersonates Johnny Marr on Accident Waiting to Happen. Greetings to the New Brunette (Shirley), St Swithin’s Day, The Warmest Room and Levi Stubbs’ Tears are given great, faithful renditions.

Bragg’s between song repartee remains half stand-up/half sermon. He has plenty to say about Brexit and Trump. The buckets are out for Notts homeless charity Framework. Woody Guthrie’s Ain’t Got No Home is dedicated to the campaigners sleeping overnight on the Forest, who were in for a cold one.

He plays most of new EP, Bridges Not Walls, including Why We Build The Wall (which I wrote about last time he played Nottingham), explaining how he came back to writing political songs like Saffiyah Smiles. Keep Faith (dedicated to the audience) and Power in a Union close the set in resolute manner.

The first encores, Full English Brexit and The Times They Are A-Changin’ (Back) demonstrate that, when it comes to mixing irony and empathy, Billy’s no Randy Newman. The old person voting for Brexit deserved better than the song’s awkward mix of empathy, cynicism and condescension. Fine, of course, to update your own songs (btw ‘Must I Paint You a Picture’ would be much improved by removing that naff ‘if we lived by the sea’ line), but please don’t try it on Bob Dylan.

All that’s forgiven with the last two numbers. He leaves us with a terrific, rewritten Waiting For the Great Leap Forwards, funny and uplifting as ever, and a belting singalong of New England. Stirring stuff and probably the best Billy Bragg gig Nottingham’s seen since his classic election eve show at Rock City in 1997. What we wouldn’t give to live to see another one of those, eh?

This is an extended version of my review for the Nottingham Post, with a few more personal opinions. Last time I reviewed Billy at Rock City, I got some stick for pointing out that he was in less than great form (he’d had a bereavement, but punters weren’t to know that). Good to see him make up for it with a full, satisfying two hour show this time.

Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards

Sexuality

Andy Partridge – History Of Rock ‘n’ Roll

ABC/KID CREOLE & THE COCONUTS – NOTTINGHAM ROYAL CENTRE, 12/11/17

November 13th, 2017

 

‘It’s been a while since we passed through these parts,’ Kid Creole points out. ‘How many of you were here in 82? Your age is showing.’

Two of the Coconuts weren’t born when he played Rock City. August Darnell, 67, looks ten years younger, and still sports a natty purple zoot suit, with frequent change of hat.

The band take the stage at full throttle, pumping through a strong Stoolpigeon, a terrific I’m A Wonderful Thing, Baby (‘this is from my egotistical years’) among others. The brilliant Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy (which does a bit of crucial foreshadowing in my most recent novel) is the highlight.

The Coconuts, in their Hawaiian skirts, are as flirtatiously entertaining as the 82 incarnation. The six piece band are great. No wonder virtually the whole audience is there for the 7.30 start and quite a few dance in the aisles. Support act of the year.

ABC were also at their peak in 82 but never played Rock City. They’ve made up for that with three visits in recent years. It’s only a year since their exhilarating Lexicon of Love orchestral show.  This final gig of their greatest hits tour was added late. It’s a more relaxed affair than the orchestral event. That said, there’s plenty for fans to enjoy.

The set is carefully structured. Four numbers from Lexicon of Love Two are mixed with smaller hits and one new song during the first hour. There’s a great rendition of the rarely performed Be Near Me, their biggest US hit.

The video for 1987’s King Without a Crown (it got to number 44 – no, I didn’t remember it either) plays on the screen, intercut with the present show. It’s one of several video reminders that 80s fashion hasn’t lasted well. Great to hear Beauty Stab’s That Was Then But This is Now powerfully performed. Obviously, there isn’t room for all of their more minor hits, and S.O.S. is sadly absent.

The big Lexicon songs are saved for last. The set closes with Tears are Not Enough and All of My Heart. Poison Arrow and The Look of Love bring the whole crowd to their feet. Splendid, although as a commentator on the Post website (where a shorter version of this review appeared) said, anyone following Kid Creole is bound to feel a little flat. Kudos to Martin Fry, however, for treating us to such a great double bill. We had great seats, and Sue took the photos above. We were both at the 1982 Rock City gig, though we didn’t know each other then.

Kid Creole & the Cocounts – Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy

ABC – That Was Then But This Is Now

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2017: the sleeve notes
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