I do not often read books about music and musicians, but something about Robert Dean Lurie’s ‘Begin The Begin: The story of R.E.M.’s early years’ caught my interest. Certainly of the music I listened to during the period from, say, 1983 to 1985, those first three r.e.m. albums are the records that I would say still hold some kind of strange beguilement; are the ones that conjure strong personal memories and yet simultaneously manage to slip through the grasp of understanding and remain both elusive and illusive. Perhaps only the contemporaneous albums by The Go-Betweens are a match in this regard, personally speaking. In his book Lurie certainly does a good job of drawing together the threads of narrative that combined to mould the group and in so doing widely acknowledges the broader context of Athens and its artistic mythology. At the very least it had me scurrying back to play those old Pylon records, which still sound magnificent, and of course tangentially out to the Let’s Active records too and that is always a treat. It’s ‘Fables of the Reconstruction’, ‘Reckoning’ and ‘Murmur’ though that remain the ones that soothe and confuse in equal measure, and it’s to Lurie’s credit that he has made me want to immerse myself once more in the pleasures and pains held within their grooves.
Naturally I understand why Lurie’s book also takes in the ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’ and ‘Document’ albums (they are the necessarily ‘bigger’ records that bridge to the ‘major label’ breakthrough to mainstream recognition), but I admit that whilst both those records hold some treasure (the gorgeous Pop tingle of ‘Fall On Me’ would be the prime example) they leave me mostly cold now. I’m sure I have said it before, but I am certain this is largely because on those records you can actually hear what Michael Stipe is singing about and, for the most part, stripped of the shivering uncertainty of meaning held in the previous records, it all feels somewhat flat and worthy. It’s probably why I found those later chapters in Lurie’s book to be increasingly less engaging, as r.e.m. grew into R.E.M. and, increasingly shorn of art-rock local folkloric roots, became more another example of rock orthodoxy.
I should point out that I have no problem with R.E.M. and their subsequent global success, just that personally I have no interest in the records that followed. I’ve not got a huge amount of interest in the artistic life of Stipe post ‘Fables’ either, and I admit that what I have seen of his own photography work has left me balancing on a point between vaguely interested and distinctly underwhelmed. Certainly I have found them less interesting than, say, Dennis Hopper’s (to pick another artist from another medium whose photography might otherwise never have seen the light of day if not for their ‘celebrity’). Much of the interest in Hopper’s photographs now is as documentary evidence of history and culture (his shots of Hell’s Angels and of Sunset Boulevard riots in 1967 are particularly fascinating) but there are certainly threads of creative exploration evident throughout those images collected in ‘The Lost Album’ that bear out what Hopper said about the camera being, in the years between 1961 and 1967, the only creative outlet he had and that making those photographs “kept [him] alive”. There is certainly something of the obsessive amateur in the work, and as a tangential jumping off point I admit I keep getting drawn back to a particular 1962 shot of Brooke Hayward with a doll’s head.
This shot of Hayward and the doll’s head is a tangential point of reference because it reminds me of the celebrated work of another ‘amateur’ photographer, Ralph Eugene Meatyard. And whilst I say celebrated of course I admit that I have personally only stumbled (if you will excuse the pun) on Meatyard’s work thanks to Lurie’s compelling theory about the origins of the r.e.m. band name. In brief the theory goes thus: Michael Stipe, as an art student with an interest in photography and folkloric/outsider art, would undoubtably have come across the work of Meatyard in his studies/explorations (there are strong connections between the aesthetic of Meatyard’s work and, say, Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden or R.A. Miller’s garden of whirligigs that feature in the early R.E.M. promotional videos); Meatyard signed his correspondence with his initials, in lower case (r.e.m.); in their early years the group’s name on flyers, posters etc was similarly often written in lower case… So is the connection between Meatyard and the origins of the r.e.m. band name real/true? In hindsight it feels like a pleasant detour in meaning if nothing else, yet also entirely in keeping with a group who, in those early years certainly, seemed keen to keep the mysteries caged.
Meatyard too kept the mystery caged, being famously mute when sharing his work with fellow members of the Lexington Camera Club and rarely if ever giving interviews or talking about his photographs. What he did say about his work however is intriguing, particularly in reference to any connection into the music of early r.e.m. Certainly the notion of his work as being “romantic-surrealist” dovetails neatly with many of the songs from those first three r.e.m. albums which are so often suffused with a haunting Otherness with Stipe’s lyrics out of focus and lacking much meaning beyond abstracted associations of sound. Meatyard said about his famous images of his family members dressed in Halloween masks that the masks and the doll’s heads were there to function as ways into the photographs but that the more lasting interest would be in the backgrounds. Certainly they are photographs that reward repeated viewing. Those first three r.e.m. albums work in a not dissimilar way, where melodies and the occasional clarity of a lyric pulls you into a song that rewards with textures and shifts of light and dark that reward repeated listening.
In his essay that opens the ‘Kentucky Renaissance’ book about the Lexington Camera Club, John Jeremiah Sullivan writes that “[In the South], perhaps, we imbue our artists with a unique luminosity. We need them. And when a community does manage to form, however loosely, there’s a glow. You’re huddling together inside something, inside a culture, but against something too.” and it strikes me that this could just as easily have been Lurie writing about the Athens musical community in the late 70s and early 80s. Indeed, it is the threads and connections Lurie traces between people from that period that are the most intriguing and engaging elements of ‘Begin The Begin’ and I admit that reading the book had me digging out that ‘Athens Inside/Out’ DVD again. And just as Lurie has me scurrying back to listen again to groups like Love Tractor, Flat Duo Jets and (especially) Pylon, so ‘Kentucky Renaissance’ has me eagerly seeking out Charles Traub’s ‘Edge to Edge’ landscape photographs and Cranston Ritchie’s wonderful experimental work involving panning and tracking. Then too there is the work of Robert C. May and particularly his shots of Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s son Chris (sans Halloween mask) from the early 70s which could easily be taken as blueprints for the Michael Stipe aesthetic from a decade later. Indeed, the shot of Chris Meatyard reclining on an old mattress illuminated from behind by a window apparently shorn of glazing but with a wrapped fragment of sheer curtain tied in its lower frame, might be of Stipe in the old church on Oconee St in Athens and maybe, if the shot was in colour, the light might be green just as it is in what is perhaps my favourite of all R.E.M. songs, the gorgeous ‘Camera’.
Not ever having been what one might call an obsessive about the group it was only on reading Lurie’s book that I came aware that ‘Camera’ is ‘about’ fellow Athens community member Carol Levy, a photographer who shot the band for the rear sleeve of their Hib-Tone debut single and who tragically died in a traffic collision just a day after the US release of the ‘Murmur’ album. Lurie suggests that “Carol Levy’s spirit hangs palpably over the origins of the Athens music scene virtually everywhere you turn”. It is tempting to suggest such a reading is informed at least in part by a knowledge of the tragic circumstances of her death (it is always easier to read significance into the lives of those who leave us young than in those who lead longer lives and -perhaps- fade from narratives) but then again, there is a photo much earlier in the book that shows Lynda and Cyndy Stipe dancing in a club whilst behind them, only just visible, is Carol Levy. There is an immediately energising vitality about this fragment of image that is inescapable, so perhaps there is something in what Lurie says after all. Certainly there is a significant sense of loss, love and presence in ‘Camera’ and it is to R.E.M.’s credit that it is a presence you sense without any knowledge of the song’s origins or meaning. Stipe has said that this pretty much ended his period of ‘autobiographical’ song writing, though the threads of personal meaning are always obtuse and broadly suggestive rather than explicit. To draw another parallel into the world of the Lexington Camera club, where Charles Traub talks about how “photography is about seeing what the world looks like as a picture” then perhaps these early r.e.m. recordings are about seeing what the world looks like as a song. Indeed, in her essay that accompanies the Radius Books publication of Meatyard’s ‘Dolls and Masks’ photographs, Eugenia Parry writes that “the photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard are mystery plays”. One need only change “photographs” to “songs” and insert Meatyard’s initials to see the sentence as an accurate description of ‘Murmur’, ‘Reckoning’ or ‘Fables’.
Maybe there is something in Lurie’s theory after all.
‘Begin The Begin. R.E.M.’s Early Years’ by Robert Dean Lurie is published by Verse Chorus Press ‘Kentucky Renaissance. The Lexington Camera Club and Its Community 1954-1974’ is published by Yale University Press in association with the Cincinnati Art Museum ‘Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Dolls and Masks’ is published by Radius Books ‘Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album’ is published by Prestel books
We are not really Festival People, The Duchess and I. Just seeing glimpses of the scenes at Glastonbury is enough to turn us into shivering balls of terror. There has always been something about the Port Eliot Festival however that has held something of a vague appeal, perhaps due to its relatively close proximity to home, and perhaps due to the fact that its setting always seems so bucolic. In a fit of mid-life-crisis-let’s-try-it-I-bet-we-hate-it hysteria then we spend our Christmas money on two adult weekend tickets (oo-er missus) and spend the following six months in various states of anxiety about What Will It Be Like and How Will We Possibly Cope. Then weeks before the off we learn this will be the last Port Eliot for the foreseeable and consider that Fate has played its hand. We spend the final week anxiously refreshing the Met Office website/app and entering a provisional itinerary in iCal. This is either A Sign Of The Times or a damning condemnation of the State We Are In. I cannot quite decide which.
During their Friday night performance on the Caught By The River stage, Geoff Barrow of the hugely entertaining Beak> makes barbed quips about Port Eliot being the most expensive festival in Britain (it’s true, food and drink prices are eye-watering) and about how everyone in the audience is from That London. Yet whilst there is certainly some truth in what he says, there are clearly many locals in attendance, both those genuinely from Cornwall and those ‘incomers’ from what my friend Rupert likes to call Kornawall. Our good friend Lizzie, who is kind enough to offer us a real bed in a real house (in the St Germans station) for the weekend (and in hindsight we willingly concede that without this luxury it is highly unlikely we could have lasted one night) grew up in the village and with her band Wurlitza takes us a through a nostalgic slideshow of the Elephant Fayre (precursor to the current festival) in the 1980s – as much a document of her childhood and teen years as a poignant full-stop on this particular festival chapter. It’s a lovely opener to the whole festival experience, and as the images slip past, and as I watch the people milling through the beautiful grounds of the Eliot estate over the coming days it occurs to me that whilst we can just about glimpse the ghostly presences of the transient travelling culture that Richard King writes about so well in his book ‘The Lark Ascending’ and that can be seen in Lizzie’s photographs, there is a much greater sense of this being one of the social meeting points that punctuate the year of the wealthy. It reminds me of something I read recently in one of Maigret’s cases (‘The Nahour Case’) in which he considers “people who were equally at home in London, New York and Rome, who took planes the way others took the Metro, who stayed in grand hotels, where they fell in with friends and established routines, whatever the country, and who formed a sort of international freemasonry”. At one point, as we stroll along one of the many paths through woods spotted with pop-up discos behind a trail of wagons festooned with fairy lights cradling bundles of babies, I spot a former Formula 1 team owner, sweater draped casually around his neck. Ah right, I think to myself, it’s THAT kind of festival. And of course it is, and it isn’t. Half an hour later we come across our friend Lizzie and her mate Frederick dressed as a boat, parading through the grounds complete with wind-up gramophone on deck. So, you know, it’s THAT kind of festival too.
Beak> then are certainly the most vocally cynical act of the weekend and perhaps it is no coincidence that they are also one of the best, delivering an incendiary, pummelling set of motorik rhythms and noises that howl and squeal like prowling rabid wolves. Self-deprecating and sharply abusive of their audience in the same breath, they could easily fall foul of their mouths if they didn’t sound so monumental. At times they make me think of Loop locked on a funky groove or Spiritualized with some anime. At times too they remind me of what Appliance might have grown into, had they been more open to freeform explorations or indeed had the time and opportunity that fate tragically took away. In any case, Beak> are a fluid maelstrom of noise and groove that locks onto our souls and swings us into the stratosphere. For a moment we believe in magic.
At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum but just as wonderful performance wise is Owen Ashworth, performing as Advance Base. I have loved Owen’s records since the days of Casiotone For The Painfully Alone (I quip to The Duchess before the show that knowing the name of that previous act should give a pretty clear idea of what to expect) but this is the first time I have seen him play. He is everything I could have expected. Charming, quiet and with that necessary intensity that comes from what one assumes to be an acutely introverted personality standing on stage performing. It’s that tension that invests Advance Base with the rare quality of mesmerising charm; a sound and structure so faint and simple you could so easily miss it. This is simplicity of song and performance that is so deceptively complex and difficult. Making something so close to nothing is the greatest challenge and Advance Base is as accomplished at this as any.
Not being entirely familiar with the structure of festivals I can only assume that elements of dissonance are somewhat fundamental to the whole experience. Certainly it is obvious when wandering the site, bombarded from all sides by seeping sounds of pumping beats, each ebbing and flowing with the passing of footsteps. And certainly that sense of disconnect is firmly cemented when Advance Base is followed on the same Walled Garden stage by The Loose Salute. We have been told they are tremendous and whilst the singer (draped in white silk) is perhaps just a touch overly vivacious and eager to please for my tastes I have to concede that they certainly are very good indeed. The programme has them touted as something akin to West Coast harmonic Pop but really they are closer to a country-tinged good-time bar band, and there is nothing wrong with that as far as it goes. Best moments by far for me are when the drummer takes the lead vocal role and only later, when I do some more digging do I realise it is Ian McCutcheon, formerly of the excellent Mojave 3. As we are wont to say, ‘it all fits’.
Vic Godard certainly seems to enjoy The Loose Salute, toe-tapping along in his deckchair, and we see Vic again the next day in what must be the most marvellously comic moment of the weekend when he wanders into the Caught By The River tent just as Jon Savage is talking about soft boys like The Subway Sect as part of a highly entertaining talk about his recent Joy Division book. It’s so well timed it just has to have been planned, yet it comes across as marvellously natural. The genuine warmth towards Vic from everyone in the tent is almost palpable, and even if many of us don’t actually make it along to see him play later that night we all wish him well.
Savage is, as mentioned, extremely engaging when talking about his recent Joy Division: An Oral History book. It may not be a book I have any great interest in picking up (I can’t help but feel I have learned all I really need/want to about Joy Division – a group I have always enjoyed but never been obsessively connected to) but Savage talks with confidence and obvious pleasure. For me the most intriguing points in the talk are when Savage talks explicitly about the presence of Curtis and of his connection/disconnection from the audience. At one point he describes hosting a session with a group of 16 year olds (presumably dragged along by their school as an attempt to invest them with some cultural capital) and how for the most part they listened and watched with an air of passive boredom (a look the Duchess and I both know so well from decades spent in classrooms). Only when they saw a film clip of Curtis performing did they all instinctively become animated, as though recognising some kind of Other energy that even through the medium of film and across the decades could throw out tendrils of power to tap into the very essence of being young, bold, anxious, invulnerable and fragile. Elsewhere Savage talks almost hesitantly about how he now believes Curtis to have been ‘channeling’ in his performance and writing, as in being a conduit to a spiritual realm. His hesitancy in saying this is understandable in this kind of broadly secular context, and goodness knows Savage must be keen to avoid being seen as some mad-cap loon who, like Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle believes not only in the spiritual realm but also in the reality of fairies at the bottom of the garden (in fairness, evidence suggest there are many in the wider Port Eliot audience who believe in the latter). Yet there is certainly too something about our age where a fascination with Otherness is quite compelling, however you might want to frame it, and there are surely threads from these notions of Spiritualism out into the realms of psychedelia and gnostic naturalism.
Sharing the stage with Savage is Lavinia Greenlaw, who proffers some eloquent memories of the late seventies ‘scene’ as a fan and participant. If her point about the lack of strong female voices in the received narrative of the Manchester scene is perhaps too quickly skimmed over, her quiet, carefully considered inputs are poised in perfect counterpoint to Savage’s more flamboyant and extrovert deliveries (at one point he hollers at some carousing, beer swilling lads outside the tent to “SHUT UP!” – and to their credit they do shuffle off rather sheepishly). I have to say I find her far more interesting in this context than when she reads some of her poetry earlier in the Caught By The River Poetry Hour. There is certainly something in the themes of her most recent work, “a meditation on the metaphysics of memory and loss”, that I want to engage with, but the reality is that I find my mind wandering, frustrated by the traditional sing-song-seriousness spoken word delivery that appears the default setting for any poet. It’s the same with Rachael Allen, although with Allen the content of the work completely passes by with barely a flicker of connection or interest. Of the three poets performing it is Will Burns who leaves the best impression, although this may simply because he is on first and because his work is succinct and short, giving less opportunity for the Poet’s Voice to grate. Admittedly the frustration with all of this surely says more about us than it does about the work but I cannot help think that it can’t just be the Duchess and I who feel this way. How many others are put off the very idea of poetry by stumbling on someone peddling those tiresome cadences in what feels like terminal repetition?
Onwards! Upwards! (interlude for gin and tonic and/or snooze in the shade of a tree looking down on the river Tiddy and/or a session in a hot tub with a glass of overpriced champagne because it’s THAT kind of festival interlude abruptly interrupted by roving pop-up disco Land Rover blaring ‘Hot In The City’ and accompanied by Young People tossing a large dildo in the air because it’s THAT kind of festival too)
In describing his favourite Punk groups Jon Savage talks about how he always valued those who seemed to have an ambition that outstripped ability. Watching Stealing Sheep perform it occurs to me that this might be something that could be applied here, but in a less positive way. For Stealing Sheep have always left me somewhat confused, and always ever so slightly disappointed. On record they often seem to be on the verge of something terrific. The puzzle pieces are all the right ones, but somehow when they are all slotted together the picture is unremarkable and disappointingly underwhelming. In their latest incarnation Stealing Sheep invest their melodic psychedelia with a heftier sprinkling of Disco and the decaying half-life radiation of late ‘80s Rave. Presumably there is also a significant amount of reference to Contemporary Pop Sounds but I wouldn’t know about that, and anyway, whenever I click on a video clip posted by friends frothing on The Social Media about How Great (insert name of Young Person Making Pop Music) is I barely last more than half a minute before blankly switching off and thinking ‘is that all there is?’ and before diving headlong into the pleasurable depths of knowing That Time Has Come when I no longer understand, let alone remotely care about what The Young People Like and thank goodness for that, pass the Calvados and another Maigret novel and here’s to the End Of The World. Sometimes watching Stealing Sheep I do think this is like Pipettes when they Went Disco but without the tunes and my mind wanders and wonders what Bobby is up to these days and yeah, wouldn’t it have been cool to have had Gwenno perform something here (I’m pretty sure she’s been at Port Eliot in the past, probably in the Caught By The River tent). My feet do tap and my hips do swing however, so I’m clearly not immune to everything on offer and my soul is perhaps not yet entirely shrivelled and dead. Yet.
The Duchess tells me afterwards that she realises she has heard Stealing Sheep on the radio in her motor car (I do not listen to The Radio except on my visits to Mr Fred the barber who has ‘6 Music’ on in the background as he clips on the #1 guard and asks me about the cycling) and that they always initially catch her interest but ultimately lose it. Later still she describes their stage performance as being like a 6th Form Leavers party, which I tell her is quite harsh but pretty much on the mark. In other words it’s full of Big Gestures, Hugs, Squeals and Sparkly Outfits but ultimately it’s all A Bit Obvious and (I can’t quite believe I’m going to say this in the context of The Most Expensive Festival In Britain) a bit cheap and vulgar. We agree that the blue laser beam lights are quite cool though.
So as we mentioned previously, Jon Savage made mention of soft boys in his talk about Joy Division and so by probably not-so-strange coincidence we rock up to witness another highly entertaining set by Robyn Hitchcock. The venue this time is the beautiful St Germans church, which, being at one time known as the Cathedral of Cornwall, is a step up from the little church in Newton Abbott where we watched him play last summer (supported of course by the beguiling and brilliant Left Outsides). There has always been a singular strain of English eccentric humour in Hitchcock’s work, but he seems to up the ante for the Cathedral/festival crowd, slotting extended surrealist/psychedelic tales of his wonderful cat Tubby’s adventures as the keeper of Bryan Ferry’s quiff gel between songs, much to everyone’s great enjoyment. In some respects though it’s a shame because it deflects from the dark charm that also inhabits many of Hitchcock’s songs and threatens to consign him (in some people’s minds perhaps) to the Siberian outposts of comic/gimmick popstarts. And that’s not a place I would recommend to anyone. At least though it’s always a little cloaked and treading on uncertain ground (at one point during the terrific ‘My Wife and My Dead Wife’ from 1985’s ‘Fegmania!’ set an admittedly hammered posh bird in the row behind us gasps to her friend and asks awkwardly “is it meant to be funny?” To which the answer of course is No. Yes. Yes and no. No and yes. Of course. Have another gin and tonic dahling). It seems to me rather that there is something charming in seeing Hitchcock playing the part of the ‘could have been bigger than…’ troubadour, carefully balancing on the tipping point between unsightly self-pity and self-aggrandising arrogance (I admit it was only on recently reading Robin Dean Lurie’s excellent ‘Begin The Begin’ book about the early years of r.e.m. that I was reminded how, in that period around the mid to late ‘80s Hitchcock was being positioned as strong contender for being The Next Big Thing in the US ‘alternative’ market). Transitioning between guitar and electric piano (provided, it later transpires, by our friend Lizzie – you remember, the one dressed as half of a boat) Hitchcock wraps us in a warming cloak courtesy of songs that are filled with wit, wisdom and surreal whimsy. He closes with a couple of older songs: the always-and-forever classic Pop sunshine sparkle of The Soft Boys’ ‘Queen of Eyes’ and a take on ‘Brenda’s Iron Sledge’ that shows the song can still pack a punch stripped of it’s full-band rock backing (although Hitchcock invites us to imagine this in his introduction to the number).
Wandering out of the church into the approaching sunset we pass an impressively large queue waiting to see/hear Simon Armitage read some poems in the Big House and we begin again to hear the clashing thumps and hums of attractions competing for our attention and it occurs to me that what I would really like to do is to take each of these experiences and isolate them into singular moments. Take them apart and spread them over a series of weeks, months, years perhaps. Give them space to breathe. But that wouldn’t be The Festival Experience would it?
We are not really Festival People, The Duchess and I, and as we drift off back to our Devon garden and our own cats (like Tubby and any other feline you care to mention they do love a good box to sit in) we nurse our numerous insect bites and agree that whilst it’s probably not something we would want to do again (just as well then that it was the last Port Eliot for the foreseeable) We Are Glad We Did It. In capitals.
It is rare for me to leave books incomplete once I have started them but twice in the past fortnight I have found myself disinclined to continue. In both cases the novels were what I would call contemporary: One first published in 2015, the other in 2013. The first I stuck with for perhaps a quarter of its length, at which point I realised I cared not one jot for the characters, plot or substance (which sought to connect with contemporary fears around terrorist attacks and the manner in which the ‘intelligence’ services might be meeting that threat) whilst the other I’m afraid I put down after an opening prologue filled with a graphic and heartily sickening description of an individual’s torture. Perhaps it is the time of year, when End of Term tensions run high and emotions are raw (three times this week I have found myself reduced to a sobbing fountain of tears on reading the most innocuous and disparate texts about faith, meditation, song-writing and collecting promotional items from sporting events) or perhaps it is the fact that I may have reached A Certain Age when all these kinds of things just feel rather unnecessary and vulgar. A younger version of myself would certainly have had no problem with the description of torture and violence (step forward the person who adored David Peace’s ‘Red Riding’ quartet, Gordon Burn’s books on Sutcliffe and the West’s and frankly anything by Derek Raymond) although I can’t quite think of a time when I particularly enjoyed reading novels that hooked into a thread of contemporary news narrative so maybe putting that one into the charity shop pile has nothing to do with me Getting Old at all. Let’s say that anyway.
So what did I pick up and read instead? Well, I admit that I fell back on the comfortable pleasures of a George Bellairs novel featuring his fine Scotland Yard detective Chief Inspector Littlejohn. Although first published in 1964, ‘Surfeit Of Suspects’ (recently re-published as part of the British Library Crime Classics series) is very comfortably of that old English school of detective story writing where upper lips are stiff and folks still drink sherry before dining (a thoroughly civilised approach to living, it must be said). The narrative revolves around the multiple murder of a struggling small company’s directors in an explosion, with (in this case Superintendent) Littlejohn tracing the lines of enquiry throughout the surrounding community. The web of interconnected small town dalliances, betrayals and desperate clinging to old class distinctions wouldn’t be out of place in one of Shena Mackay’s novels of (bitter)sweet suburbia and Bellairs navigates them all with a deftness of touch that is to be applauded. The climax of the investigation may be one we see coming from a ways off, but (assuming one enjoys corrupt officials getting their just desserts) is nonetheless immensely gratifying. The British Library Crime series has published several of Bellair’s titles whilst many more of the 57 Littlejohn novels are available in paperback and eBook format from the Bellairs website (you can get a free eBook each month by signing up to the mailing list). I understand many of his later Littlejohn novels are set in Provence and the Alpes-Maritime areas and I very much look forward to reading those.
Now if Bellairs very much mined the vein of Golden Age detective stories it should be remembered that much of what coloured that particular era/genre/style is not necessarily what more modern, 21st Century, imitators have taken from it. So where some have plundered a (largely imagined) sense of cutesy whimsy, full of rose-covered cottages in sleepy villages inhabited by sweet old spinsters, what actually shines out strongly from many writers and stories from that era/genre/style is instead a pleasurable lack of the extraneous. As mentioned earlier, there is nothing unnecessary in their pages. Often it is dialogues that drives these books (Bellair’s ‘The Case Of The Fanished Parson’ is almost entirely exchanges of dialogue) and it would not be outside the realms of reason to suggest a strong connection here to the likes of George Pelecanos, a writer who, on the face of it, may have nothing in common with 1930s English detective fiction. And yet… and yet…
Valerio Varesi may, on the face of it, have little in common with 1930s English detective fiction, but on the evidence of his terrific ‘River Of Shadows’ novel, there are certainly connections to be made. For Varesi is similarly spare in his writing. Nothing superfluous imposes itself into the pages of this slim novel, whilst the pieces of the puzzle drop into place with a satisfying click. ‘River Of Shadows’ is also strongly suggestive of Simenon, with Varesi’s depictions of the Po river valley being as rich in texture and atmosphere as those of the French and Dutch canals into which Maigret’s investigations occasionally lead. And lo! There are even glorious map illustrations in the frontispiece! Varesi’s novels featuring Commissario Soneri may not be quite so slim as Simenon’s Maigret’s (you could probably fit at least two Maigret novels into each Soneri) but from the taste of River Of Shadows they are set to be every bit as delicious and I have the next four instalments lined up on the shelf to enjoy alongside my now-traditional gorging of six Maigrets at the start of the school holidays. One week to go…
A Raven – The Diamond Family Archive (from ‘Would I Were A Swift (Or A Skylark Be)’ LP. Bandcamp) Shadows In The Water – sproatly smith (from ‘Thomas Traherne’ LP. Bandcamp) Hymn Fifth – Alula Down (from ‘Homespun’ LP. Bandcamp) God’s Food – trappist afterland (from ‘Insects In Amber’ LP. Bandcamp) Wanderer – Sharron Kraus (from ‘Chanctonbury Rings‘ LP) Sweet Lemany – Burd Ellen (from ‘Silver Came’ LP. Bandcamp) Terminal Paradise – Big Thief (from ‘U.F.O.F.’ LP) Maeve (JFDR Rework) – Penelope Trappes (from ‘Penelope Redeux’ LP. Bandcamp) The Owl Service – Pram (from ‘The Museum Of Imaginary Animals’ LP. Bandcamp) Tea Rooms – Gazelle Twin (from ‘Pastoral’ LP. Bandcamp) She Moves Through the Fair – Fairport Convention (from ‘What We Did on Our Holidays’ LP) Great Houdini – Meic Stevens (from ‘Outlander’ LP) Billy Don’t You Weep for Me – Nic Jones (from ‘An Introduction to Nic Jones‘ LP) I’ve Loved Her For So Long – Unicorn (on ‘Strangers In The Room‘ compilation) Evening – Nick Garrie (from ‘The Nightmare Of J.B. Stanislas’ LP. Bandcamp) Underwater – Stanley Brinks and The Wave Pictures (from ‘Tequila Island’ LP. Bandcamp) Noon Rendezvous – Prince (from ‘Originals’ LP) He Sails Tonight – Ian Broudie (from ‘Tales Told‘ LP) In Walks a Ghost – The Montgolfier Brothers (from ‘Seventeen Stars‘ LP) Violins – Lloyd Cole (from ‘Guesswork‘ LP)
When writing about Mark Brend’s excellent Undercliff a few weeks ago I made reference to a predilection for maps in crime/thriller novels and suggested there is a piece to be written about this. This isn’t it, but I should say that when it ever does get written there will be a reference to Allan Mackinninon’s 1947 novel ‘House Of Darkness’. The map in its frontispiece shows an area around the west coast of Scotland, taking in Loch Linnhe, Glen Coe and the hills of Morvern, for it is in this landscape that much of the action in the novel takes place. I believe Mackinnon wrote several thrillers set in the Highlands but this is the first I have read and it is rather fine and well worth tracking down. Early in the novel Mackinnon’s Colin Ogilvy character makes humorous reference to feeling as though he is in a story by Ambler or Buchan and of course these are entirely appropriate references for as the novel unfolds Ogilvy finds himself in an extended chase scene through the Highlands that could be straight out of The Thirty Nine Steps, and, like Ambler, Mackinnon himself spent time screenwriting for cinema.
Mackinnon conjures the misty grey dampness of the Highland landscape pretty finely, though this is never at the expense of driving the narrative onwards with a pace that, whilst never frenetic, is nevertheless speedy enough to keep us eagerly turning the pages. You might realistically argue that the denouement is pretty obviously signposted through the book and so hardly comes as a surprise, but I don’t think Mackinnon ever set out to make this a complicated fair-play mystery so its a moot point.
Interestingly, from a contemporary perspective, the underlying ‘plot’ is one which sounds remarkably familiar. It is painted deftly in a few paragraphs wherein Ogilvie and another character have a conversation in which references are made to politicians, government ministers, financial ‘players’, foreign powers manipulating National Interests, collapse of British economic prospects, nationalism and a minority plotting to make significant financial profit at the expense of drastically reduced standards of living for the majority. It’s like reading a précis of the past three years of UK politics in two pages and just goes to show that there is nothing new under the sun.
Now there may be nothing new under the sun, but in his sizeable ‘Underland‘ tome, Robert Macfarlane suggests that there is plenty new under the earth, and he goes to great lengths to share some of those peculiar landscapes and the people who inhabit and explore them with us. It’s certainly an interesting enough premise for a book, although where it falls on your personal continuum of appeal will likely fluctuate somewhat from chapter to chapter. The later chapters in which he seems to spend an inordinate amount of time on and around glaciers in Greenland, for example, leave me (ahem) cold, whereas those in which he explores points in/beneath the landscape that involve explicit human intervention carry much greater appeal.
Throughout the book there is necessarily a lot of crawling through tight underground spaces and lots of heroic walking across expansive icy wastes, and if I struggle, on a personal level, to understand and connect to those physical aspects of Macfarlane’s journeys to (literally) the ends of the earth and its subterranean depths, then I think I can at least grasp that behind these exploits sits some deeply felt need to experience some kind of blissful state. A pursuit of the Other, if you like. It strikes me too that there is a relationship between the physical activities and the act of writing, between the events/places and the reality of the book itself.
For the writing throughout Underlands is undeniably fine, the words and phrases often gorgeous, and it strikes me that the process of writing and of reading can itself be that vehicle through which we encounter the Other. Those moments where our conscious perception slips away and we fleetingly glimpse the essence of bliss. Words no longer forming thoughts and meaning but instead entering the realm of feeling and sub-conscious knowing. A deep connectivity that exists outside of everything.
Nevertheless I cannot help but wonder if some people never discover the thing through which they might encounter the Other. Do they even strive to uncover it, and is the luxury to even think about such things only open to us once our more basic needs have been met? Macfarlane, having journeyed many miles through inhospitable climes in order to witness the ancient handprints of our distant cave dwelling ancestors would doubtless point to this as evidence that this ‘luxury’ is in fact as basic a need as shelter. And if I’m almost certain he would be correct in suggesting this, I cannot shake the feeling that the unfolding movement to disconnect from the networks we have created for ourselves with technologies in order to reconnect with the networks nature weaves around us seems like a luxury of an educated middle class at best, and a hipster’s fashion accessory at worst.
Contact – Big Thief (from ‘U.F.O.F.’ LP) You Let My Tyres Down – Tropical Fuck Storm (from ‘A Laughing Death In Meatspace’ LP. Bandcamp) Midnight Mist – Witch Hazel (from ‘Otherwordly’ LP. Bandcamp) Vacation – Sebadoh (from ‘Act Surprised’ LP. Bandcamp) D.I.S.C.I.P.L.E – Clinic (from ‘Wheeltappers and Shunters’ LP. Bandcamp) How Far – Sacred Paws (from ‘Run Around The Sun‘ LP) Don’t Cry For Me, California – Red Sleeping Beauty (from ‘Stockholm’ LP. Bandcamp) Sun Memory II feat. Rose Berlin – epic45 (from ‘Sun Memory’ EP. Bandcamp) Haiku – Katherine Johnson – Pam Berry (from ‘One Small Step For Global Pop’ LP. Bandcamp) Chronostasis – Deerful (from ‘One Small Step For Global Pop’ LP. Bandcamp) Qui A Su – Gillian Hills (YouTube) In Your Life – Adam Faith (from ‘Three Day Week: When the Lights Went Out 1972-1975‘ LP) Within a Dream – trappist afterland (from ‘Insects In Amber’ LP. Bandcamp) The Dukes of Stratosphear – Ralegh Long (digital single. Bandcamp) The Postcard – Stephen Duffy (from ‘I Love My Friends‘ LP) The Dystopian Days of Yore – Monnone Alone (from ‘Summer Of The Mosquito’ LP. Bandcamp) What Was That Sound? – Theatre Royal (from ‘Singles 2010-2018’ LP. Bandcamp) Light Bending – The Claim (from ‘The New Industrial Ballads’ LP. Bandcamp) Waylon Jennings Live! – The Mountain Goats (from ‘In League With Dragons‘ LP) Technicolor Summer Sunshine – Paul Den Heyer (from ‘Everything So Far’ LP. Bandcamp) There Goes My Miracle – Bruce Springsteen (from ‘Western Stars‘ LP) Devil May Care – Son Volt (from ‘Union‘ LP) After the Sunrise – The Grip Weeds (from ‘Trip Around The Sun‘ LP) Heavenly Day – Peter Perrett (from ‘Humanworld’ LP) If That’s Alright – Uncle Tupelo (from ‘Still Feel Gone’ LP)