Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Danny Baker, Good Time Charlie’s Back, Nottingham Theatre Royal 12.5.19

Tuesday, May 14th, 2019
Baker being doorstepped after the deleted tweet.

This is my review from today’s Nottingham Post.

‘Somebody said to me this week, “Dan, you’ve broke the internet.” I said, “I wish somebody fucking would.’

There have been better weeks to be Danny Baker. On Wednesday night, he tweeted a photo that, however intended, came over as a vile racist gag. He deleted the tweet as soon as he realised what he’d so casually done, later describing it as a ‘crass and regrettable blunder’. The worst day of his life followed.

No apology could save his BBC job. Tonight, at his first show since being sacked, the question is whether he can save his reputation. He’s had a few nights to think about it. Will he address the elephant in the room right off the bat?

He must have been tempted to cancel, but, at twenty-five to eight, he comes on and, for five minutes, apologises unreservedly for the ‘horrible’ tweet.

‘Here’s the thing. It’s all my own fault…  I’m sorry and thanks for coming.’

Then he goes off and comes back out wearing his fez.

‘It’s great to get back to one of the few jobs I still have.’

There’ll be references to his sacking throughout the show but they lessen when he hits his stride. The first hour is a recap of his previous show and first autobiography (basis of hit TV series, Cradle to the Grave). He paces the stage occasionally using a snooker cue as a pointer to photos on a screen above him.

It’s with the Sniffin’ Glue and NME years that he hits his stride. We find Danny simultaneously courting his wife, Wend, a secretary there, while going round the world with rock stars. Things fall apart, but the on-off courtship reaches a moving conclusion.

There are just two Michael Jackson stories. ‘This section used to be twenty minutes long, but…’.

He’s more than moved by his reception, saying he’d been worried about being heckled. After the interval, he tells us he’s just phoned Wend and ‘for what it’s worth you reduced her to a pile of tears.’

The Gazza and Twizzle story with which he closes is a corker. The show takes us up to 1988 and the start of his radio years. At over three hours, it’s too long, but Baker runs off our goodwill. He finishes by calling this ‘one of the greatest gigs of my career. Nottingham, I love you.’ A full standing ovation shows that the feeling is mutual.

Young Laureate: an essay on Simon Armitage

Sunday, May 12th, 2019

With this weekend’s announcement of Simon Armitage’s appointment as poet laureate, many of us have been reminiscing about when we first came across him in the late 80’s. My partner, Sue Dymoke, did her first public reading with him in 1987 and our friend John Harvey published him early on in the fine Nottingham-based poetry magazine Slow Dancer (celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year – Sue was the UK poetry editor for many years). 29 years ago, enthused by Simon’s early work, I wrote an essay about him for Slow Dancer. I wanted to give him a boost, but his career was moving so quickly, he’d already taken flight.

Over on Facebook, Andrew Moorhouse asked me to dig out this first ever essay on Armitage and copy it for him. While I was it, I decided that I might as well OCR the text and put it online. I haven’t changed a word. The cover for the issue is above – a field mouse has chewed away the top corner (it was in our allotment garage and the mice like the taste of small press glue). Here’s my biog note from the back of the issue, which also featured an up and coming name, Billy Collins, and the late, great Tina Fulker.

And here’s the essay. Congratulation, Simon. I’m sure you’ll do a good job.

THE POETRY OF SIMON ARMITAGE

And to think that we once wrote poetry

about the distance between stars, and how

for small things the skin on a surface

of water is almost impregnable.

‘A Place to Love.’

The second half of the eighties has seen a new generation of small press magazines invent itself: The Wide Skirt, The Echo Room , The North and (the late) Harry’s Hand, presenting a distinctly new group of poets. They’re 25-35, mostly male, and mostly live within ten miles of Huddersfield. They go to Peter Sansom’s poetry workshops and none vote Tory,  or get  published in magazines run by the London Litcrit mafia. Instead, they’ve set up their own alternative version (with, of course, the generous assistance of Yorkshire Arts).

Despite a lot of hard work and rather more poetic talent than Faber and Faber have dug out in the last decade or two, none of the Huddersfield Mafia have managed to make any kind of national impact. Until now. Simon Armitage, at 26, the youngest of these new Northern poets, has just published his first collection (Zoom! Bloodaxe. £4.95). Despite not being feted in any of the publications that Blake Morrison’s friends get reviewed in, Zoom! was the PBS Autumn choice and even got shortlisted for the Whitbread. This kind of success is not so much rare as unheard of. Simon also won a major Gregory award in 1988, appeared last year on radios 3 and 4. If he keeps going at this rate, he should get a South Bank Show special while the 90s are still young.

What makes Simon’s evident success surprising isn’t his age or origins (born in Huddersfield, returned there after university), but that his style is so uncompromisingly original (unlike, say, Wendy Cope, the best-selling new poet of the 80’s). Which doesn’t mean inaccessible:

I can half hear you, John, half see you fumble

with a car battery, a two two air rifle

two wires and a headlamp. You and that shivering dog

going as two silhouettes above Warrington.

His style is conversational. Cars appear in a lot of the poems. There’s always a sense of humour somewhere near the surface, but it’s hard to pin down: equal measures  of irony and compassion are directed at his quirky subjects.

None of the poetry in ‘Zoom!’ could have been written by anyone else. What makes the voice so distinct is best summed up in his own words:

It’s often a narrative or yarn, a build up of images and links pebbledashed with a mix of idiom, slang and cliche… although real life is the main ingredient of these poems, they are seasoned with a generous pinch of verisimilitude.

PBS Bulletin, Autumn 1989

Some influences are apparent: like many of the new Northern poets he’s more in tune with the relaxed rhythms and wide ranging subject matter of post-war U.S. poets than their drier, more formal English counterparts. Frank O’Hara gets a namecheck and William Carlos Williams is hanging around somewhere. [an McMillan’s quirky surrealism might be a more local inspiration. Like MacMillan, Armitage’s poems work as well, or better, when read aloud. They share a love for the memorable punchline: ‘no fish: no birds: no shit.’ (‘The Peruvian Anchovy Industry’.) Or ‘My cock’s a kipper’ (‘Bus Talk’).

Armitage also acknowledges influences from rock: it’s easy to identify the tone of David Byrne’s (Talking Heads) deadpan lyrics about Urban American life in aspects of Simon’s style. Don’t Sing’ uses the title of Paddy McAloon’s meditation on Graham Greene (recorded by Prefab Sprout) to tell an absurd yet poignant war story.

Smith Doorstop published ‘Human Geography’ in 1986. It includes ‘Lamping’, quoted above, amongst other equally distinctive poems and several with a rawer approach. By the time it was reprinted two years later, the false starts had been cut — only seven of the original seventeen remain. Some of the cut poems are good, but one gets the sense that Armitage is prolific and has plenty to choose from. Youth isn’t far behind in these poems. ‘Dykes’, despite its predictable puns, somehow links dams with maybe lesbians in wry, revealing couplets:

Later I discovered

She was only pointing to an overflow culvert.

Although we were close, she knew a closer, deeper circle

Which, at seventeen, I found undetectable

And many of her stories held no water

Especially those involving Susan, Gill or Sandra

‘The Distance Between Stars’, which Wide Skirt published the following year, is the best of Simon’s three pamphlets. His style has fully arrived. Bookended with poems on astronomical themes, ‘The Distance…’ moves from the mysterious to the mundane, leaving you never quite sure which is which. Many poems take the form of monologues. These are closer to Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads than to Carol Ann Duffy’s Thrown Voices and range from the bleak, bitter Antarctic narrative “Bylot Island’ to the jokey, condescending mechanic in ‘Very Simply Topping Up the Brake Fluid’. The latter poem manages to convey the broken rhythms of a continuously interrupted monologue, while reading with verve and a rhythmic swing which may be as difficult to write as It is easy to read:

…gently does it, that’s it. Try not to spill it, it’s

corrosive: rusts, you know, and fill it till it’s

level with the notch on the clutch reservoir.

Lovely.

Yet the fact that these poems are accessible doesn’t mean that they’re light. Armitage carries emotion confidently, unafraid to confront sentiment. ‘Gone’ reminds me of Larkin’s ‘Home is so sad’,

Not the bed, empty, that’s

one thing. But her watch, still ticking

and the loop of one, blonde hair

caught in her hairbrush. Ihat’s another.

This ability to let a detail stand starkly in representation of death; the stern laconic phrase which conveys intense emotion: these are the work of a mature, and possibly major poet.

Armitage’s last pamphlet was ‘The Walking Horses (Slow Dancer 1988) which is a consistent, but more varied set than ‘..Stars’. Its major poems are his longest monologue so far, “All Beer and Skittles’ , a cynically comic account of the sacking of a sometime plumber, and ‘Screenplay’, a more speculative, tender, visual poem that could not have been written by many of his peers.

That said, there are qualities that he shares with other new Northern poets: humour, arrogance, awkward sensitivity laced with a generous measure of self doubt, also, a sometimes fussy referential habit (whether to places or people} – Armitage takes all these, but transcends them, making something more original. This was overwhelming apparent later in 1988, when a revised, extended edition of his first book introduced many of the remaining poems to be found in ‘Zoom!’

                        The bears in Yosemite Park

are swaggering home, legged up with fishing line

 and polythene and above the grind of his skidoo

a ranger curses the politics of skinny dipping.

This is life.

Armitage avoids fixed rhythms, attaining a conversational shamble of deceptive pace: walking a kind of metrical highwire. His poems can be read many times and retain their freshness. I recall the excitement of reading ‘Zoom’ for the first time, in issue four of ‘The North’: (The exclamation mark, incidentally, was added later, evidently at Bloodaxe’s insistence) the boldness of the metaphor could have been overbearingly arrogant in almost anyone else’s hands, yet it works as a magical, comic, surreal, and finally quite humble account of the creative process.

The book ‘Zoom!’ (Bloodaxe, 4.95) is a fat first volume which is worth buying even if you’ve got all the pamphlets discussed above, and indispensable if you haven’t. Many of the newest poems seem grittier, more compassionate than his earlier work. His probation worker job may partly account for this, emerging as subject matter in poems like ‘Social Inquiry Report’, ‘Eighties, Nineties’ and ‘The Stuff’. But then some of the final poems in the collection are even harder to classify than any of those I’ve tried to discuss earlier: more wilfully obscure and cynical, yet wistful in tone. And among them, reminding us of his background in Oceanography, is one of the most striking poems about ecology that I’ve read, ‘Remembering the East Coast’.

At conference

how they roared at the chairman’s address,

his much told fable

of the bald patents clerk

who resigned his post circa 1850

explaining ‘Everything we need

is now invented.’

But alone I am with him; dipping the quill,

crossing the t of his signature,

blotting the I’s

of his oddball opinion.

‘Zoom!’ is only a beginning, but a dazzling one, from a poet who’s already past words like ‘promise’ and ‘potential . Finally, it leaves you with the same impulses as all good art: it leaves you wanting more and it keeps you guessing. Give Simon Armitage a test drive.

From Slow Dancer issue 23, 1990. Copyright David Belbin.

Marc Almond, Nottingham Royal Centre, 6.5.19

Wednesday, May 8th, 2019

My review from today’s Nottingham Post. Photo below by their Kevin Cooper.

At 61, Marc Almond is entitled to take it easy. He has no album to promote, he tells a packed house, but wants to keep tonight ‘populist’, singing lots of favourite songs, most of them by old stars: ‘who tend to be dead stars, so they’re never going to let you down.’

He kicks off with Charles Aznavour’s I Have Lived, then it’s straight into a Scott Walker tribute, with The Big Hurt and, later, a fine Big Louise. There’s Billy Fury’s I’m Lost Without You and T.Rex’s Cosmic Dancer, which leads into a Bowie section featuring Starman, John, I’m Only Dancing and Brel’s Amsterdam. Four numbers are done nearly acapella, with his four backing singers. All great fun, featuring a six piece band and only a couple of first night missed cues.

My highlights are a fantastic rendition of Charles Aznavour’s What Makes A Man A Man and Lou Reed’s Caroline Says, performed with just cello and violin. He falsely accuses Paul McCartney of stealing a Russian folk song before giving us a rousing Those Were The Days (the villain who stole sole credit to his adaptation of the Russian song was one Gene Raskin, Macca only produced the Mary Hopkin hit).

Two hours rush by with his own hits restricted to the final section, including Stories of Johnny, a lovely, slowed down Bedsitter, a great Days of Pearly Spencer, a terrific A Lover Spurned and the closing My Hand Over My Heart, replete with comments about how forty years on high heels have played havoc with his knees.

Time is tight so he doesn’t leave the stage for the encores but launches into Tainted Love. There’s only one song he can finish with. Tonight, it’s dedicated to his Soft Cell bandmate, Dave Ball, who turned 60 this week. Say Hello, Wave Goodbye only becomes more emotionally resonant with the years. We sing, sway and wave along. A triumph.

Nish Kumar at Nottingham Playhouse 16.3.19

Monday, March 18th, 2019

Live comedy’s all about timing. With ‘The Mash Report’, the 33-year-old Kumar has positioned himself as our prime political comedian, the only satirist doing what US audiences take for granted in ‘The Daily Show’. After a somewhat shaky start, it’s established itself as the only UK topical news comedy worth watching, although, at six episodes per season, can’t compare to its US equivalent.

How to deal with an ever-changing political situation? A show written some months back might not cut it, and Kumar has a rep to maintain. The last week has been so tumultuous that I was curious about how Kumar would incorporate these farcical events into his set. I needn’t have been. He doesn’t.

After a well-received warm-up set by Rosie Jones, weaponising her cerebal palsy, Kumar does go straight into Brexit, acknowledging that half the city voted ‘leave’ while pointing out that his audience consists entirely of ‘Guardian munchers’ who didn’t. We are, he points out, a so-called ‘elite’ that consists of brown people and teachers.

But he’s off Brexit quickly. This is not the Daily Mash. The only up-to-the-minute material is about the Christchurch massacre and how the media treats white extremists very differently to Muslim ones. Generally, Kumar, points out, he has it easy, because he has a Hindu name. Which doesn’t stop him from being singled out at North American airports. Cue good anecdote.

This was a sharp, engrossing, fast-paced hour and a half, with plenty about family and a strong take on happens when your comedic heroes turn out to have feet of clay. The Simpsons, obviously. He’s very upset about Louis CK but positively savage about Ricky Gervais’s pathetic lampooning of trans people.

Many highlights include an encounter with Dominic Raab in the Question Time studio where Raab greets the first brown person he sees as ‘Nish’, despite his bearing no resemblance to the comic, and  a history of the word ‘gammon’ in relation to Piers Morgan. The sweary show gets serious towards the end, when Kumar, acutely and economically, sums up how we got the double madness of Brexit and Trump. He should have stopped there, but doubles back to a black Jesus routine for the close, holding up placards of white actors who have played Christ, including, most ironically, Liam Neeson. It falls relatively flat, but that’s live comedy for you: he’s allowed to run out of steam. Outstanding.

This review appears in today’s Nottingham Post.

Two Grey Rooms

Monday, February 11th, 2019

My favourite Joni Mitchell song (though, thankfully, no-one’s forcing me to choose) is from the 80s. ‘Two Grey Rooms’ is about a narrator who rents a flat so that they can watch somebody walking to work, someone who used to be their lover, though he or she looks to be too young.

You look so youthful/time has been untruthful/heaven knows, I loved you thirty years ago. Joni once told the LA Times the song was inspired by a story from the youth of the German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It’s a story of obsession… about this German aristocrat who had a lover in his youth that he never got over. He later finds this man working on a dock and notices the path that the man takes every day to and from work. So the aristocrat gives up his fancy digs and moves to these two shabby grey rooms overlooking this street, just to watch this man walk to and from work. That’s a song that shows my songs aren’t all self-portraits.

Two Grey Rooms has a haunting melody (I once bought a CD box set called The Geffen Years solely in order to hear the song’s original demo, Speechless, which finds the music almost complete, can now be found, with an interesting introduction on YouTube). Mitchell first recorded it in ’82 but didn’t come up with the words for another seven years. I’ve often thought that if anyone commissioned me to contribute to an anthology of short stories based on songs, that’s the one I’d choose (I’m open to offers, but the song works so well on its own, is so economical, that I doubt writers much better than me could add anything worthwhile to it).

This morning, I was working on a story idea, and Two Grey Rooms crept into it. Rather than retrieve the LP or CD from downstairs, I typed the title into YouTube and was startled to discover that, at some point, Joni made a video for the song (it first appeared on a video compilation, only ever available on VHS, called Coming In From The Cold in 1991). I’ve just watched it for the second time. The first striking thing about the video is that it looks like a Fassbinder film, which is apt. The monochrome opening shots of the street and rooftops viewed from the flat also remind me a little of Wim Wenders’ movie Kings of the Road.

Then Mitchell appears. I’ve had a crush on Joni Mitchell since I was 15 (tall, blonde, intelligent, arty women who love pinball in general, but her in particular), so the second thing that strikes me is how beautiful she is in it. She’d be in her early forties when it was made, and has never looked more beautiful (at the time, she was with her second husband, who was my age, which would have riled me more at the time had I not just set up home with my own tall, blonde pinball-player). We don’t see her object of desire, can’t make up our mind whether the guy she’s watching could be the love from her youth or is someone who happens to look like him. Which is as it should be, because the song is set on a Sunday, when he would not be at work.

The weekends drive me mad/Holidays are oh too sad/ ‘Cause you don’t go/ Below my window We see Mitchell write some lyrics, lays on her bed, looks out of the window, looking gorgeous in every shot, a precursor, in her way, of the arty peop,e who endlessly publish pretty pictures of themselves on Instagram or wherever, hoping we’ll confuse their looking good with proof that they must be a good artist. I’m not sure the video entirely works, this tantalisingly beautiful women hiding in a two room flat so that she can glimpse some bloke who doesn’t know she’s there on his way to and from work. Mitchell said that the song isn’t a self-portrait. The video, inevitably, turns it into one. Even so, I enjoy looking at Joni looking lovelorn and the short film doesn’t distort the song (which is gender-neutral).

Masterfully, the lyric unfolds backwards, so we only get the back story in the final verse: No one knows I’m here/ One day I just disappeared/ And I took these two grey rooms up here. The song ends with a wistful, repeated chorus of ‘below my window’s. The camera pans away. We’re unsure what happened and have to go back to the start and listen again, see if we can make more sense of it this time. What makes this song so great is how much it leaves out, leaves to the imagination. Knowing the Fassbinder story distracts, but only briefly. In recent years, Two Grey Rooms has had a few cover versions. Perhaps it’s being belatedly recognised as one of Mitchell’s greatest works, much like Cohen’s Hallelujah which also came out in the mid-80s, but wasn’t widely noticed until much later. This morning I watched Joni take a bow at last night’s Grammy awards. She’s relearning to speak after a brain haemorrhage, which is horrible, but at least she’s still with us, and – I hope – able to fully appreciate all of the tributes she’s been receiving in the year of her 75th birthday. At least many of the people who love her words and music are able to tell her how much we’ve been enthralled and inspired by her – in my case, for forty-five years. Thank you, Joni.

PS. A couple of days after I wrote the above, this was taken: two of my favourite artists. Yorkshire meets Saskatchewan. So I had to finish with it.