Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Not Meeting Bob Dylan

Saturday, May 6th, 2017

‘Mr Dylan is not able to take up your invitation’, said the email from Bob’s manager on Thursday evening. I confess to feeling less disappointment than relief. Yesterday was Bob Dylan’s first visit to a UNESCO City of Literature since he became a Nobel laureate. NUCOL’s director, Sandeep Mahal, knew what a huge Dylan fan I was, and what a coup it would be to have his Bobness visit our headquarters, so, a month ago, she wrote to  his manager to offer Bob a private tour of Bromley House Library. His manager said it was unlikely, but possible, so she’d written to remind him of the invitation that morning.

I collect signed first editions of books by my favourite authors. Not signed albums, which have never interested me. But it would be great to have something from my large Dylan collection signed by Bob (only, which of his two books – Tarantula or Chronicles to take? The latter is better, the former rarer.).

More pressingly, what do you say when you meet your heroes? It’s OK to have a conversation with them, I’ve found, in the context of a promotional interview, as I have with Kevin Coyne, Richard Thompson, Aimee Mann and a few others over the years. Or socially, if – say – introduced by a mutual friend. But I’ve never been tempted by meet and greet type events for fans. I haven’t chased an autograph since meeting Leonard Cohen when I was seventeen. The safest thing would be to talk about the historic building, answer his questions about Bromley House, ask him to sign a book or two, and wish him well for that night’s gig. But that would feel like a wasted opportunity. Was it safe to ask Bob what he thought of Eddie Marsan playing him in that silly play on Sky last year? Or wonder aloud whether he’s considered reviving It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding in the age of Donald Trump? I’m pretty good at making conversation with people I’ve not met before but Dylan is Dylan, and there’s nobody who would daunt me more. There was a pretty good chance of my saying something that would embarrass me for the rest of my life. Happily, as I warned Sandy from the outset, there was virtually no chance that Mr Dylan would take up the invitation, and so it transpired.

Which leaves me at the gig where, due to luck as much as superb planning, I found myself in the middle of the third row, the best seats I’ve ever had at a Dylan show. This is my 40th year of going to see Dylan. The first time, in ’78, I queued overnight outside Leicester De Montfort Hall to get tickets for the first night at Earls Court. The last time, in 2015, was only the second time in a concert hall, Manchester Apollo. It was bittersweet, as it was only a few days after the death of my oldest and closest friend, Mike Russell, who I had seen so many Dylan gigs with over the years. This time, I was with my friend Terry, veteran of more than fifty Dylan gigs since the Isle of Wight Festival, and playwright Michael Eaton, who had only seen Dylan once in recent years, from a great distance, at his first Nottingham appearance, a notoriously dull concert, lifted only by a rare rendition of ‘Blind Willie McTell’.

This was my fourth time seeing Bob really close up, which is always a thrill. The sound was tremendous, the band in great form and the setlist a terrific blend of new songs, old songs, and standards. We got a jaunty ‘To Ramona’, which I’ve never heard him play live before. Yet again, he changed the words of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’, my favourite song of the night (doubless someone will transcribe his improvised ruminations along the days of ‘today might as well be the future’). Terry and Michael loved it. He played for an hour and fifty minutes, concluding with a fantastic ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’. The standards were nicely peppered through the set (Sean at the Post has the setlist with his review). My favourite was the first, an entirely appropriate ‘Why Try and Change Me Now?’

The setlist has stayed the same for a while, by the way, but there was one unusual thing about the show, which I’ve never seen at a Dylan gig before. Bob kept smiling. He was really enjoying himself. And so were we.

I obeyed the instruction not to take photos during the set but did snatch a slightly blurred one at the end, just before the stagehand removed two props that were illuminated throughout the performance, even when the stage was black. One was the Oscar that Bob won for the song ‘Things Have Changed’, with which he’d opened the show. The other was the small statuette that came with his Nobel Prize for Literature. A few seconds after I took the shot above, it was put into a bright green plastic bag, which was then put into a large hatbox and taken off stage, ready for the next show, and the next. My twelfth Dylan show, and, if it turns out to be the last, a brilliant one to finish on.

Mind you, I’ll be pissed off if, when I go to Bromley House next week, the librarian says to me: ‘guess who showed up at our door on Saturday morning?’

Roy Fisher 1930-2017: a tribute & film of his last reading

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

I came late to the poetry of the great Roy Fisher. Early this century, my friend John Lucas persuaded him over to the Lowdham Poetry Festival, where, on a blustery day, under a tent, Roy read some of his poems and played a little piano (he was a fine Jazz pianist). Roy talked with my partner about their shared experience in teacher training and we were given his new and selected, The Dow Low Drop, the first of many books that Roy signed for us. A few years later, planning the Beeston International Poetry Festival, I suggested we try and get Roy to give a reading, though he didn’t get about much, being wheelchair-bound. His friend, the poet, Ann Atkinson was still alive then, and acted as chauffeur. Roy read with Matt Welton at the Flying Goose Café in Beeston. He began his set by establishing his bona fides, as he put it, with ‘Poetry Promise’. I filmed this poem and ‘Inner Voice’ for a facebook group. Last year, with his permission, I put both of these videos on YouTube. The quality’s not great, as they were taken with a Flip-camera, but this was the last reading that Roy gave and it was a lovely, packed event. I filmed all of the 13 minute second set that closed the evening. Today, in tribute to him, I’ve uploaded the whole thing. You can watch it above. That’s Ann Atkinson, sat to his right, and John Lucas on his left.

We visited Roy at his home near Buxton the summer before last. He didn’t get about much, but had plenty of friends who came to help, and was good company. I gave him a DVD with highlights of the many Jazz and Poetry evenings I’d filmed, which he would have enjoyed being at. He gave us a copy of An Easily Bewildered Child, his collected occasional prose. We would have gone again, but my partner became seriously ill, and now Roy’s gone. He died this week after, I’m told, slowly fading for a couple of weeks. I’d hoped to see him in the summer, and take a copy of the next issue of New Walk magazine. I’ve written a review essay called ‘Poetry and Old Age’, about Prynne, Ashbery and Roy’s final book Slakki: new and neglected poems. He had stopped writing by 2015 and there will be no more. It is to Peter Robinson’s great credit that this book came out.

Here’s a bit from that review:

These may be final poems, but there is no falling off in them, only an inevitably elegiac quality. The last new poem, ‘While There’s Still Time’, from 2014, threatens that the poet will return ‘in the form of a nut-brown silver banded bassoon.’ In its comic, confident conclusion, the great poet imagines himself being played ‘on the tarmac triangle/at the crook of Kentish Road’.

Make no mistake:

My voice will be heard once again,

and as never before.

I was pleased that Ian McMillan (one of Fisher’s biggest fans – Ian chose Roy’s collected poems as his book on Desert Island Discs) chose the same lines to cite in his review for The North. I’ll have to add another paragraph to my piece now. Not of mourning, but of celebration: for a sweet, sweet man, a fine jazz pianist, a true educator and poems that will last for as long as poetry is read. He had a life well lived and we’re lucky to have been around for some of the same time. R.I.P.

Provenance on Kindle

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016

provenance-cover-20160329

Shoestring is a brilliant publisher, but it doesn’t do eBooks and many of my readers prefer them. Therefore, I’ve published the Kindle edition of Provenance, my new and collected stories with East Lane Books, the ePublisher named after the location of the allotment at the back of our house. Many thanks to Nat and Rachael at Narrator typesetters and designers for converting the book, which is exactly the same as the printed edition except for the absence of an author photo (since there’s no back cover) and the addition of several laudatory quotes from reviews at the front of the book. I’m too modest to include them here, but shorter versions can be found by clicking ‘Read More’ on the book’s Amazon page. Or you can read the lot by clicking on ‘look inside’. The print book is still available from Shoestring Press and at all good bookshops: in particular, Nottingham’s Five Leaves. It might make a fine Christmas present. For an introductory period (in the hope of generating sales and, of course, reviews) I’m keeping the price low, a full seven quid below the print price: £5.99 to be precise. It would be a fiver, but digital books attract 20% VAT. If you want to know more about the book, please read my blog post from earlier this year. In brief, it has eighteen stories, 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 it. Oh and, if you’re a Kindle owner and haven’t read my latest Bone and Cane novel, The Great Deception, this five star novel is currently on offer on Kindle at just £2.99. Bargains, both.

The Fifty page rule. My August reading.

Thursday, September 1st, 2016

2016-09-01 12.26.05

I normally do a holiday reading blog around this time of year. We’ve been unable to get away, although a weekend in Whitby beckons. However, I’ve been enjoying the sunshine and my last month running our UNESCO City of Literature, whose first director, Sandeep Mahal, starts today, which is very exciting. I’ve been helping sort out the publication of the Dawn of the Unread book, and I’ve also done plenty of reading, finishing a book I started nearly forty years ago (see the post below), dipping into numerous short story and poetry collections and devouring a few novels. Here they are, in the order in which I read them.

Alison Moore – Death and the Seaside

The third novel from one our UNESCO patrons is allusive and multi-layered. Moore keeps you alert and uses plenty of post-modern tricks, but in a unique, very personal way which always keeps the reader on board. I discussed it last week with the Arts Council’s new literature director, Sarah Crown. I liked it a lot, but not as much as the review in The Guardian, I told her. Oh yes, she said, I wrote that. Oops.

David Mitchell – Slade House

I normally rush to read Mitchell’s novels, but I read part of as a short story that he published it over a few days on Twitter and was – how to put this? – less than impressed. Yet, when I got round to this shortish novel, which I polished off on a long train journey, I soon discovered that it’s a very good kind-of-ghost story, one that gets increasingly satisfying as it develops. Isn’t that the problem with long ghost stories, that they frequently fizzle out long before the end? There is one problem with the book, which, like all of Mitchell’s novels, turns out to have references to other novels, especially his last one, the uneven The Bone Clocks, and you really need to have read that for part of the new novel to work. But fair enough. Alison Moore’s novel also expects us to have read and thought about other novels. This is, surely, a reasonable expectation.

Sjón – Moonstone: the boy who never was

Another from a UNESCO city of literature, this time Reykjavik, where the Spanish flu epidemic sweeps the city at the end of the First World War. A young gay man survives it, while coming under threat because of his sexuality. A short, satisfying afternoon’s read, beautifully written.

Elizabeth Strout – I am Lucy Barton

After the rave reviews, and seeing the terrific TV adaptation of Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, I had high hopes of this. While it’s very well written, I came away slightly disappointed. I was expecting interconnected short stories but found a thin, fictional memoir about a sick woman’s relationship with her mother, with a little about a failed marriage and quite a lot about her relationship with a woman writer who may or may not be based on a real figure. It’s good, but, for me, didn’t add up to more than the sum of its parts, as a good novel should.

AD Miller – The Faithful Couple

This, on the other hand, got better as it went along. I picked it up cheap on Oxfam, having enjoyed Miller’s Russia-set debut, Snowdrops. The new one’s subject, male friendship, is typical first novel terrain and I wasn’t impressed at first. Reading on the lounger in the lawn, one hot day this week, I was annoyed to find that I’d got past page fifty. That’s my rule, you see. If I get past page fifty of a novel, I have to finish it. But, in this case, I’m glad I did. The writing is strong and the relationship (charting the fortunes of two very different friends who meet on a USA holiday, and are implicated in something bad that they did there) credible. Miller chronicles the messiness of life, with its built-up resentments and broken ambitions, very well. This would be a good novel to read for a take on metropolitan life over 18 years, from 1993. That said, there isn’t much call for novels like this these days, so, unless someone’s enthusiastic enough to turn it into a TV mini-series (hard since so much of it happens in the characters’ heads, it probably won’t get noticed a lot, which is a shame. Anyway, I’ve got thirty pages left, and I want to know how it end, so I shall be finishing it over lunch before going into town for this evening’s City of Literature board meeting.

What to read next? I’m rather spoiled for choice, as the photo above demonstrates. The bookcase used to belong to Stanley Middleton. Nice to see Alison Moore give him a nod in her top ten books about the seaside for The Guardian. Click on the picture for a closer look. The bottom shelf needs a little explanation. The novel on display is one that took me ages to track down, written under a pseudonym by my favourite novelist, Brian Moore, at around the time of the publication of his first novel under his own name, Judith Hearne. All of the books to the right of it are poetry collections. I’ve built up rather a backlog in the three years that I ran Jazz and Poetry Nottingham (now, sadly, in hiatus). I should probably start that fat Elvis Costello autobiography and read it before Bruce Springsteen’s memoirs come out. I’ve heard mixed reports of David Szalay, which is on the Booker longlist. Maybe I should try that. And I’ve been saving up Graham Joyce’s final novel. Also, the new Ian McEwan is published today, and Robert Harris has a promising looking one out in a couple of weeks… so many books, so little time, as the badge I bought at City Lights says. One of these days, I might even start writing another one myself.

 

Elvis Costello – When I Write the Book (by Nick Lowe) & Everyday I Write the Book (Medley)

 

 

The Longest Read: James Clavell

Friday, August 19th, 2016

Clavell

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 Fiery Furnaces – Japanese Slippers