Any review of a book promoted with a tagline of “was this the inspiration for Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’?” is of course beholden to address that very question, so let’s get that thorny issue out of the way by confidently stating hmmm, Well It Depends…
Curtis Evans certainly lays out a seductive argument for the prosecution (or is it the defence?) in his introduction to the new Dean Street Press reissue of the 1930 novel ‘The Invisible Host’ by American wife and husband team of Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning. In it Evans argues that whilst it may be a stretch to say that Christie could have read the book itself, there is a strong possibility she would have seen the successful 1934 Hollywood film before embarking on her own novel that would be first published half a decade later in 1939. Indeed, so successful was the film that its title of ‘The Ninth Guest’ was adopted for subsequent editions of the American novel. It is certainly true that at first glance the similarities between the two books are striking, at least in their basic premise: A group of individuals gathered by an unknown host to a location where they are cut off from the outside world and, one by one, summarily ‘knocked off’. Yet beyond those foundations I would have to say that the case for the defence (or is it the prosecution) is distinctly less coherent, despite Evans’ best efforts to convince us otherwise, and despite ‘The Invisible Host’ being a highly entertaining and recommended little read.
Certainly anyone coming to Manning and Bristow’s book being familiar with ‘And Then There Were None’ will almost immediately begin to doubt the evidence presented by the prosecution/defence, as the bespoke invitations to Christie’s cast are instead replaced by a single default telegram to those of ‘The Invisible Host’. And whilst none of Christie’s ‘victims’ are previously known to each other, Bristow and Manning on the other hand create distinct connections between their characters which in turn lend potential motives to certain killings, even if they may not conclusively turn out to be true.
Indeed, that rather vile version of the rhyme that Christie uses to title her book (and the fictional island on which it is set) also suggests her methods of murder. And if at times this involves rather a stretch of the imagination, it’s also rather an amusing conceit. Bristow and Manning on the other hand design their executions more around the particular personality traits of the party guests, and whilst Christie allows an element of this into her own macabre methods, she at least has the decency not to have one character die simply as punishment for having bad taste!
This different configuration of the cast of characters/victims also means significant differences between the reasons for each being assembled in their place of incarceration and/or execution in the first place. Christie makes a point of giving each of hers a backstory involving deaths that may, or may not to varying degrees, be interpreted as cases of pre-meditated murder. A sense of Justice Will Be Done prevails, even if it is at times deliciously warped and perverted around slinky notions of the supernatural and psychological. Bristow and Manning, on the other hand, make no bones about the fact that their victims are collected solely for their rather selfish and self-serving personalities. There are suggestions of social rather than criminal justice being at work here, with the occasional reference to communism hinting perhaps at where Bristow and Mannings’ sensibilities lie. Certainly as journalists covering stories in New Orleans and Louisiana in the early 20th Century they must have been acutely aware of social injustice, which in itself throws in the rather distasteful irony of the notoriously unpleasant nursery rhyme that gave Christie’s book its original title…
Bristow and Manning have no such compunction, and indeed its this rather dark gleeful quality that raises ‘The Invisible Host’ somewhat above the ranks of innumerable other novels hastily penned and published in the pre-Pulp Fiction fashion for crime stories in the 1920s and ’30s. Crisply-paced, its thrills are brief and well executed (if you’ll excuse the pun), but it does rather run out of breath a little early, with the denouement feeling somewhat abruptly arrived at. The challenge of wrapping things up neatly is of course a not insignificant part of the challenge presented by such a conceit and is, one might argue, always doomed to disappoint at least in some small way. Bristow, Manning and Christie all fall foul of this challenge to a greater or lesser extent and it probably comes as no surprise that the American duo’s solution is the more pedestrian and slightly less convoluted (though perhaps more believable) of the two. Such writerly complications are not a million miles away from the those concocted for themselves by authors of Locked Room mysteries, of course, for whom the biggest motivation too often appears to be showing off how clever they are. Christie, Bristow and Manning should be congratulated for avoiding the worst excesses of those temptations at least.
Suggestions then that with ‘The Invisible Host’ Manning and Bristow might have invented the particular fictional trope of unknown murderer with guests as helpless (and occasionally hapless) victims will no doubt be argued over at innumerable dinner parties and gatherings from here unto eternity. And whilst one rather hopes such parties will be somewhat less dangerous than the ones captured in their novels, one would also expect there to be little argument about why Christie’s became the best selling mystery of all time and ‘The Invisible Host’ an admittedly entertaining footnote.
A new edition of ‘The Invisible Host’ with an introduction by Curtis Evans is published in paperback and eBook formats on October 4th 2021 by Dean Street Press.
“Nobody can live in a seaside town without becoming more or less slack-minded.”
Or so says Henrietta, lead character in a couple of marvellous short books by Joyce Dennys, who spent the majority of her working life as an artist and writer in the Devon seaside town of Budleigh Salterton. The town and its inhabitants provide the subject matter for both her later paintings and the words and illustrations in ‘Henrietta’s War’ and ‘Henrietta Sees It Through’, both of which are tremendous fun and highly recommended. Initially written and published as an on-going series in ‘The Sketch’ magazine during WW2, selections were collected, edited and published by Andre Deutsch in the mid ’80s and are currently available in ebook format. As evocations of The Home Front in a sleepy West Country coastal village/town during WW2, the tales woven by the lightly fictionalised Dennys masquerading as doctor’s wife Henrietta are richly observed with numerous deliciously sketched characters. Written in epistolary form, the style is not a million miles from that of the wonderful E.M. Delafield and her ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’, including an Austen-esque Use Of Capital Letters and mention of Bulbs. There is even a Lady B in evidence. ‘Provincial Lady’ was of course a barnstorming success story of the 1930s so it is hardly a stretch of the imagination to suggest at least a degree of cross-fertilisation at play here, the more so since at the time Dellafield and Dennys would have been living barely twenty miles apart.
If one were being unduly harsh one might dismiss Henrietta’s missives as not much more than propaganda intended to Raise The Spirits, yet there are nevertheless enough suggestions of disquiet and frustration in the descriptions of day to day life to argue that whilst they may be far from the harsher realities described in, say, Frances Faviell’s excellent ‘A Chelsea Concerto’, they are hardly sugar coated Toe The Party Line mimsy. As Henrietta asks in a typically astute and subtly throwaway manner: “Had you ever thought what problems this beastly war must cause to teachers of History who love both their country and the Truth?” As true today as it has ever been, and doubtless ever will be. Ouch.
Indeed, Dennys displays a barbed and wicked sense of humour throughout, as well as a feisty feminist stance, best displayed when Henrietta rails at The County Gentlemen about Attitudes To Women:
“‘They ought to be proud to come at their Country’s Need,’ said Colonel Simpkins, looking at me very sternly. ‘They are,’ I said. ‘Only they must get rather sick of being mucked about.’ ‘What a disgusting expression,’ said Mrs Savernack. ‘What Henrietta means,’ said Lady B, ‘is that one day women are being told that their place is the Home, and the next minute they have to man the guns.’ ‘And if they get their legs blown off, it’s supposed to matter less to them than it does to a man,’ I said. ‘And as soon as they’ve got used to manning the guns, the war will end, and they’ll be told their place is the Home again,’ said Lady B. ‘Bad luck, of course,’ said the Admiral, ‘but War is War.’”
All of which is followed by some marvellously biting commentary about babies, pram-pushing, members of parliament and the Future Promise Of Peace. This is Dennys at her charmingly steely best and although it may be stretching things too far, one wonders if there is something here of her confronting patriarchal and martial views expressed by her own father who died as a relatively undistinguished former professional soldier in the Indian Army around 1928. The family military connection continued, as it did for so many of these particular generations, with Joyce’s brother, Major General Lance Dennys who was to die in a plane crash in China in 1942, his name carved on the Budleigh war memorial that overlooks Lyme Bay from the top of Coastguard Hill.
Another name on the same memorial is one D. Ackland, a Budleigh resident who perished whilst visiting Guildford on 25th August 1944 when a V1 flying bomb fell on Aldersey Road. I mention this because some three years earlier, Henrietta had mused in ‘The Sketch’ ahead of a planned trip Up To Town: “Suppose a bomb were to drop on me in London? Charles and I hold strong views about being blown up together if we have to be blown up at all, and I had a vivid mental picture of Charles and the children in deep mourning, and Charles saying: ‘She would go. I couldn’t stop her. Your poor mother always had a craving for pleasure and excitement’” Truth, fiction, strangeness and sadness.
As previously mentioned, the books are written in epistolary form, made up of letters from Henrietta to a childhood friend named Robert who, we are led to assume from the outset, is soldiering in some un-known and un-named place of secrecy. However some later references, and a little bit of arithmetic in working out probable ages, build the distinct sense that there is a more sorrowful root to this stream of letters. A suggestion indeed that Robert may in fact be a childhood sweetheart lost in the trenches of The Great War raises its head quite early, so it’s hardly a spoiler to point to some of the closing lines of the second book where Henrietta writes: “So we’ve beaten the Germans at last, and I don’t suppose I shall have to write you many more letters. All the same, writing to you has become such a habit I shall probably go on penning you long, chatty letters and dropping them over our garden wall onto your asparagus bed.” It is these occasional lapses into reverie that do much to pull the collection back from the edge of ‘Dad’s Army’ comedic parody (not that there is much, if anything, wrong with that). It is difficult to read a line like “When I was at Waterloo yesterday, Robert, I looked for you under the clock, and almost thought I could see you standing there. Where, like the Pale Hands somebody loved, are you now?” without an eye involuntarily watering and a thought for the vastness of emotion conjured by Jeremy Deller’s ‘we’re here because we’re here’.
It’s true, however, that the dominant and lasting flavour of these books is one of delicious humour and warmth; that thoroughly English tradition of Not Taking Oneself Too Seriously In Spite Of It All. The prolific illustrations are glorious too of course, with her characters as perfectly captured in pen and ink as they are in words. And to anyone familiar with the Devon coastline, immediately recognisable as Budleigh from just the few fluid lines that sketch out headlands and the roofs of beach huts. There is certainly something of Beryl Cook in Dennys’ illustrations, although it may be more accurate to suggest influences going the other way, for Dennys’ first, and perhaps most famous design work in the ‘Our Hospital ABC’ books from 1916-17 were published a whole decade prior to Cook’s birth. That said, it’s also true that by the time Dennys took up painting in her 70s, Cook was firmly in the public eye and so, perhaps as with a possible cross-pollination with Delafield in the wartime words, there is something of the same filtering into Dennys’ charming paintings of Budleigh life. Indeed All Of Life is in these paintings, from the view of characters struggling up Fore Street Hill (Dennys’ own charming house just out frame, now quite rightly sporting a blue plaque of appreciation) to the rather wonderful ‘On The Parade’ which depicts the startled and stoically blinkered reaction of some elderly inhabitants to an influx of barely dressed tourists. Painted in the 1980s, visually the picture is a charming echo of Henrietta’s observation some 40 years earlier that “Our Summer Visitors are with us once more. We are resigned to them coming down every year and cluttering up the place, putting up the prices in the shops, parking their cars in front of our garden-gates, keeping us awake at nights with moonlight picnics on the beach, and wearing trousers when nature designed them for skirts.” And aside perhaps from that line about skirts, some forty years on from the painting one could visit the Budleigh Parade, stand outside the same shelter and witness much the same scene. Plus ça change.
There was a time back in the late 1980s when people (me included) railed rather vociferously about a new-fangled format called the Compact Disc. This was a format (so the argument went) that record labels and Big Artists were leveraging to, ahem, ‘encourage’ consumers to buy their record collections all over again, somewhat spuriously (so the argument continued) under the promise of Better Sound Quality. The result was lots of, hm, older individuals offloading their vinyl collections in charity shops and filling the coffers of the labels and artists who, frankly, had already grown fat on the excesses of the 1970s and certainly didn’t need their coffers (or anything else for that matter) being filled any further, thankyouverymuch. There were of course positives in all of this. It allowed some amongst the vaguely ‘younger’ generations to feel antagonistically smug towards both older generations and those of their peers who (in hindsight quite rightly) could not have cared less about ‘format wars’ and just wanted to buy music they enjoyed listening to. Plussing as which it allowed those on limited incomes (the dole, student grants – remember those?) to pick up discarded treasure for (the price of) peanuts. They were truly the best and the worst of times.
Fast forward some thirty-five years or so and one could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps things have either barely changed or somehow come full circle, for the fashion these days appears to be for consumers to once again re-purchase music they already own, this time on ‘limited edition’ vinyl reissue collectables at ludicrously high prices. Still, it also means it is possible to pick up CD versions of the same recordings for (the price of) peanuts. Once again, these truly are the best and the worst of times.
Whilst the fashion for The Vinyls (as I believe some of the Young People call records, and who am I to say they are wrong to piss off the older generations who profess to Know Better) may or may not be fleeting, I would not personally be so dim as to not admit to a degree of hypocrisy. Do I still have a functioning record player (‘turntable’ is, I believe, the term preferred by The Audiophiles)? No. Do I still buy some new releases on vinyl? Yes I do. Partly this is as a means of supporting artists and small labels whose music I like and who I want to support financially (having run a tiny label for a few short years I appreciate how effective they are as a means of haemorrhaging money) and partly, I will freely admit, as a vague form of ‘investment’ (my new music purchases are funded almost entirely by old music sales). And yes, of course my younger self has just written a fanzine filled with disgust and is filing for divorce from this poor old soul. It’s a fair cop. I wouldn’t much want to still be hanging out with that insufferably angsty young man either.
All of which rather circuitously (one might even say tortuously) leads us to the rather magnificent Unadulterated vinyl boxset by Paul Quinn and The Independent Group (one purchase that has most definitely not been made as vague ‘investment’). Collecting releases from the early 1990s, it is, one has to say, a beautifully curated artefact filled with some of the most soulful sounds of world-weary ennui and bleak cinematic romance one could ever hope to hear.
Now much has been written, rightly, about the brilliance and lasting influence of Postcard Records. Most, if not all, of this focuses exclusively on the first flush of youth when the dashing young pretenders to the throne of Pop cast a disparaging eye on the cut of your jib and released a flurry of sensational singles in a riotously brief few years. Infected by a (post) Punk, effervescently furious youthful energy, more than a hint of ADHD and the overwhelming need to escape the suffocating environs of Ayrshire coastal towns, Postcard burned as an incandescent beacon of light, movement and magic. Standing still was never an option. In extremis, this perpetual nervousness came to a head in the form of the label’s only LP, Josef K’s The Only Fun In Town, being pressed up and released in a form everyone seemed to have already agreed was Not As It Should Be. Still, it resulted in a subsequent cottage industry of re-issues and re-imaginings of The Perfect Mix and the Perfect Sequence. What was that we were saying about collectibles?*
As brilliant as the first incarnation of Postcard was, however, I’d be willing to go to battle** in defence of Postcards’ Second Coming being the finer instalment in the whole magnificent story. Where Postcard part one was unapologetically singles based, part two was all about the albums. Whilst this might, symbolically, reflect the, hm, maturation of everyone involved (from Postcard’s Presidente Alan Horne through to the fans) it also quite simply reflected the fact that the artists involved had naturally developed to the point where the long form was of more interest than the short. Certainly some former Postcard artistes had been showing the way since flying the nest at West Princes Street, with Roddy Frame and Aztec Camera perhaps most obviously moving onto Bigger Things.
Almost immediately irked by an ’80s Indie Schmindie kitsch he no doubt saw as a myopic misreading of The Postcard Aesthetic, Frame had already jumped ship from Rough Trade to WEA in 1983, worked with Mark Knopfler and gone stratospheric (well, top three in the singles charts at least) with sophistipop classic Love. By 1993 he was in a delicious Dreamland with Ryuichi Sakamoto but probably already with an eye on the kingdom of Frestonia and the eventual dissolution of Aztec Camera as an entity, a band, a concept. Apparently not one for giving up on gripes and grudges, he would still spit spite in the Indie eyes even as he headlined the 2006 C86 ‘celebration’ nights at the ICA. The September 2021 release of all the WEA Aztec Camera albums plus a generous assortment of live performances and B-sides will perhaps remind us afresh of what a gift Frame left us with.
Elsewhere, OJ’s James Kirk had released one classic single on Horne’s Swamplands label in the form of the unutterably beautiful ‘You Supply The Roses’ and promptly disappeared from view, whilst Paul Haig had created a string of glamorous Pop delights for Postcard’s Belgian penpal label Les Disques Du Crépuscule. Sir Edywn, meanwhile, was not so very far away from his super smash single ‘A Girl Like You’ and the glorious Gorgeous George set. Eyes were firmly on the future. No looking back.
All that said, the first album that Postcard part two released was a blast from the past, a statement of intent to rewrite history. A chance to Put Things Right, Put The Record Straight, Put Things To Bed or whatever. It’s said that Ostrich Churchyard is what the first Orange Juice album should have been and perhaps would have been if Polydor hadn’t grubbed their hands all over things, but in the hindsight of history I’m not so sure it matters if that’s the case. Or rather, if it does then it does, and if it doesn’t it doesn’t. You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever remains sublime and so does Ostrich Churchyard. Play one when you feel punky, the other when funky. Or vice-versa. Or something else entirely. Certainly though Ostrich Churchyard and the Heather’s On Fire compilation of 1993 reminded us of what we already missed and of what the world could have had. Postcard was always inherently self-referential and implicitly understood that notions of authenticity were, and remain, nonsensical in such a context. Postcard understood that Pop is about massaging reality to create new fantasies. That and spoiling parties with punky sneers. Those posthumous Orange Juice releases were about all that and more.
Fire Engines never made it to Postcard part one, but there are those who believe that spiritually they certainly did. In that parallel universe ‘Candyskin’ joined Josef K’s ‘Chance Meeting’ as a double Postcard 7″ release that stormed the charts and took no prisoners. Horne certainly corralled former Fiery Red Davey Henderson and his WIN incarnation for the short-lived Swamplands project, though Postcard part two twisted the fantasy into stranger shape yet with the Nectarine No. 9. The first release was A Sea With Three Stars, an album of funky noise and melody strung out on rusted barbed wire. Songs like ‘Pop’s Love Thing’, ‘The Holes Of Corpus Christi’, ‘Don’t Worry Babe, You’re Not The Only One Awake’ and ‘Chocolate Swastika’ showcased Henderson’s skills for dissembling rock, pop, disco, noise, whatever into new forms that glittered with peculiar charm and decadent decay.
It’s been said many times in the past that Vic Godard was the Patron Saint of Postcard. If one were in doubt of this then one could do worse than check out the wonderful package that New York based Text Und Töne have assembled around Godard’s latest Subway Sect record. In the beautifully risographed booklet Kevin Pearce’s peerless chapter on Godard from his Something Beginning With ‘O’ book rubs shoulders with new texts from Steven Daly and Stephen Pastel, all of them in some form or another nodding to the connections with West Princes Street and the Sound of Young Scotland. As an added treat the package also includes a flexi pressing of Alan Horne’s audience recording of ‘Holiday Hymn’, at the altar of which the young Orange Juice worshipped whilst whipping up their own storm. As Kevin taught us to note: It all fits.
Speaking of which, of course Godard made a record for Postcard part Two, and The End Of The Surrey People from 1993 certainly remains one of my very favourite albums by Vic or anyone. Meanwhile, in the realm of singles, the same could be said of ‘Won’t Turn Back’ as a 45 that shakes the rafters and shoots from the hip. A pure Pop Art KaPPPPOW!
It’s these Paul Quinn and The Independent Group records that I keep coming back to, however, with Quinn the crooner exploring the shadows cast by nightclub spotlights, cigarette smoke drifting upwards and onwards as in some hardboiled Noir novella by Horace McCoy or David Goodis. Like Godard, Quinn here slips into Sinatra 1am nightclub singer persona and curls us around his finger. For me, these Independent Group recordings take the promise shown in the early Jazzateers and Bourgie Bourgie records and raise everything to an entirely new level. Unafraid to extend songs that envelop us in seductively stained velvet, these records are immersions, soundtracks to films (un)seen in minds’ eyes and utterly theatrical. Method acted operettas, even. The luxurious box set collects 1992’s The Phantoms And The Archetypes, 1994s Will I Ever Be Inside Of You and a confection of other oddities alongside a lavish hardback book that more than fills in the detail lacking here. Predictably, the box sold out within hours on pre-order, but all the recordings are available on Bandcamp.
Something that is not in the vinyl box set is the tremendous mix that Alan Horne and Paul Quinn assembled for the intermission at the Independent Group show at Glasgow’s Atheneum Theatre in 1993. It is, thankfully, also available for download on Bandcamp and it is perhaps the perfect Postcard artefact. Weaving extracts of Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western themes with Mahler and early pre-Rock Pop tunes with Lou Reed classics, the effect would be entirely cinematic even without the extracts from Midnight Cowboy that weave and tease within. It’s a tremendous, mesmerising way to spend a half hour.
More than anything though the reference points laid bare in the mix give lie to any lingering ideas of Postcard as some raggedy underground Indie underachievement. Eyes were always set firmly on the stars/Stars, just not at any cost. Delusions/illusions of grandeur are infinitely more appealing than grubby surrenders to ‘reality’, after all.
*Full disclosure: I probably have at least five different vinyl and CD versions of The Josef K Album and no, I could not tell you which one I prefer. ** I would not Go To Battle because that would be daft. I would, however, go to a marble bar and argue the toss over a gin sling.
Rob Pursey and David Herd discuss the process of songwriting and poetry
As a long-time fan of the work of Rob Pursey and Amelia Fletcher in bands like Heavenly and Marine Research, I was delighted to hear that their most recent project Catenary Wires had a new album out. Birling Gap has quickly become one of my favourite records of 2021, with its 21st Century Folk-Pop songs’ broadly connected theme of England in a post-BREXIT landscape resonating strongly as voices from the edge. Of landscape, of life and of perception, perhaps.
Every song on the record is a tremendous treat, but the first song that connected most strongly with me, and that was subsequently dropped onto the Unpopular mix for May, was the mesmerising ‘Cinematic’. Musically reminiscent of Moose circa their criminally undervalued 1993 album Honeybee, the song shimmers like a sea mirage, sonically and lyrically nuanced; mysterious and suggestive rather than explicit.
On closer inspection it turns out that lyrically ‘Cinematic’ is in fact an adaptation of a poem called ‘As A Last Resort’ by David Herd (from his chapbook Songs from the Language of a Declaration), so rather than write a straightforward review of the record, I thought it would be interesting to explore something of the various processes involved and where the realms of poetry and song composition might connect and/or diverge.
AF: What do you see as being the key, essential differences between poetry and lyrics? Do those differences change when thinking about poetry that is written to be read and poetry that is written to be performed?
Rob Pursey: For me, poetry comes with its own music. The rhythms are there, already embedded in the structure of the poem. Poetry is more complete. Lyrics, on the other hand, have to accept the rhythm that the music proposes. They can play against that rhythm, and they can disruptive when you want them to be, but for the most part they have to comply. Maybe the difference is a bit like that between a painting and a book illustration. The former stands alone and contains its own reference points. An illustration in a book complements and illuminates a piece of writing but doesn’t really have an independent life.
The physical sound of a lyric becomes very important when you’re singing it. If you want a line to end with a long note – one that might have a harmony on top – you need the last syllable to contain a nice long vowel so that there’s no problem stretching it out. The words you choose are very much influenced by this: they may be lucid and accurate and moving, but if you can’t sing them easily they aren’t going to be much good. A lot of songs get by without worrying too much about the sense at all. As pieces of writing they are poor, but as long as they sound OK, it doesn’t really matter!
I think the ambivalent status of lyrics is why a lot of bands aren’t keen on printing them alongside their recordings. These words weren’t designed to be read on their own, and sometimes they do look a bit naked when they can be scrutinised as pure ‘writing’. Having said that, people do like to sing along with records, and having a lyric sheet does make that a lot easier!
David Herd: Good question! So, the key difference between poetry and lyrics would seem to be that whereas poetry is stand-alone, lyrics are written in relation to music. That seems clear enough. The next question, I guess, is what difference does this difference make? In the case of the poem – at least from the point of view of the poem! – the words have to carry all the interest. If the lyric can lean on the music that is going on around it, the poem has to make all the music by itself. At the same time, if the lyric can lean on the music that is taking shape around it, it must also play its part in carrying the tune. One way or another, in other words, the lyric is a more collaborative mode.
But then the minute I write this, I know there is more to say. Any poem, for instance, is a collaboration in some way, perhaps with other poems or with other voices, or with the situation it wants to articulate. It’s not the same, for sure, as having a walking bass to answer to, but it does mean that the poem is, at some level, a collaborative act. So maybe the real difference is in the kind of listening that is involved. When you read a poem as opposed to when you hear a lyric, I think what you are listening with is the inner ear. It’s on that invisible element of the ear that the poem forms, where its play of sound and meaning emerge and take shape.
As for whether these differences change when the poem is written to be performed rather than read, the answer is: yes! Many poems, (though definitely not all) are written with both the act of reading and the act of performing in mind. But performing brings out a very different quality in the poem’s sense of voice. For example, one contemporary poet I love is Peter Gizzi, not least for the way his writing is at the intersection between poetry and lyric – he was deeply influenced by the New York punk scene of the late 70s and early 80s. When you hear Gizzi read you are hearing a poem in which the voicing is really important, where the poem itself is written in part to be said or spoken. But when you read the poem on the page you are constantly aware of the way the poem is making its voice out of its different elements, that voice itself is a constant performance. I guess the difference here might be the difference between hearing the poem in the time of performance and reading the poem in the space of the page.
AF: What poets and lyricists do you get most pleasure from reading/listening to? Do you recognise common threads between them? Stylistically as well as thematic, perhaps?
RP: Mark E Smith has been my favourite lyricist for years. When The Fall first started, he’d already written prototype lyrics in the form of poems. I don’t know whether he saw them as poems or as lyrics waiting for a song to turn up in those early days. But either way, the words had a primacy from the very beginnings of The Fall, and that was something the band never lost. And yet – the band, in its various incarnations, never lost its energy or its sense of spontaneity. There are various cliched tales of Mark E Smith disciplining the band, preventing them from improvising, and his on-stage antics, messing about with their amplifier settings, made for good theatre. But when you listen to the recordings you can hear Smith bending his words to celebrate the rhythm of the music. He wasn’t just ‘reading the words out’. He was performing them. He was too smart to try to neuter the band completely.
In terms of poetry, I like Milton (marrying epic, political tales to a very disciplined structure) and I like Geoffrey Hill. Hill I like in the same way that I like The Fall. There are shards of language that are clearer and sharper than anything you’ve heard. And then there is the density and complexity, which means there is always more decoding to be done. There is always something new to be got out of a re-reading (or in The Fall’s case a re-listen).
In terms of pop music, I think the Kinks are the band whose lyrics I love the most. The melodies are beautiful, and the words are perfectly chosen to convey those tunes. But at the same time, perfect and very precise vignettes of real life are conveyed. The Kinks knew how the music could make those portraits even more amusing, or moving or angry. I say ‘they’ because it feels like the whole band were tuned into this enterprise, even though Ray Davies is the songwriter.
I guess one thing these all have in common is that they were writing about the country we live in. They are capable of being emotive but are never sentimental. They all keep their brains in gear, all the time.
DH: Well, there are poets and lyricists I keep coming back to – obsessively re-reading and listening to again – and I am also always discovering new writers I love. So, for example, a book I encountered recently but one I know I will be coming back to for a long time is Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalia Diaz. Diaz is a native American poet who writes brilliantly from the politics of her position and for whom the poem is a constant negotiation between the intimacies of the body and violence of state-imposed architectures of space. As for lyricists, one example would be Portishead, who as far as I understand it write as a collective and who are never so far down the playlist when the night gets late. And are there common threads? Well, there are many uncommon threads, but I know that that something I almost always want in a poem and a lyric – and basically in all cultural forms – is a play of voices. I like work that samples, collages, opens itself to interruption. I was lucky enough to be in conversation with Diaz recently and she spoke with great power about the play of languages in her writing – Mojave, Spanish and English – how they challenge, unsettle, dislocate and locate one another.
AF: I’ve spent the best part of 30 years as an educator in a High School setting. In that time I’ve been interested in exploring and reflecting on the meta-cognitive processes involved in learning, particularly in the realm of visual arts. So, I wonder, is there an underlying structure to your working practice that you recognise as a/the/your creative process? Is this even something that you give thought to?
RP: I’m not able to read music, so I’ve always done things by ear. I think a lot of people write pop songs like this. I do sometimes wonder if a bit of learning would help me, but then worry that the magic of stumbling across combinations of chords and melody would be lost. Anyway, it’s too late now!
I always come up with the tune first. Partly because I find that a lot easier – it feels like there’s no work involved in coming up with a melody. Lyrics, though, I definitely have to work at. Because we are writing pop music (of a kind) there would be no point having a song with fantastic lyrics and an indifferent tune. I wouldn’t want to hear that, and I wouldn’t want anyone else to have to endure it. The honest truth is that there are loads of songs that I love, sometimes songs I’ve known for years and will sing along to, where I still can’t make the lyrics out. It hasn’t spoiled my enjoyment (and maybe has even enhanced it!)
DH: This is hard, and I guess the answer is yes and no. I mean, I have ways of working for sure, yes, but whether I want to write them down is another matter. For the most part, I guess, I’d rather catch myself in the act, where the act is the desire to open spaces of possibility. I like poetic sequences because of the relationalities they open up. The poem Rob and Amelia worked with to make ‘Cinematic’ came from a sequence called ‘Songs from the Language of a Declaration’. I l love the fact that the words of the poem now stand in the space of their song.
AF: David, that’s interesting what you say about poetic sequences and the relationalities they open up. I’m reminded of William Eggleston talking about his photographs. He said that he likes to think of his works flowing like music. He says it is one of the reasons he works in large groups rather than one picture of one thing. “It’s the flow of the whole series that counts.” Also, Martin Parr who says he “never thinks of photographs as being individual. Always as a group.” Rob, is that perhaps similar to the way an album takes form as opposed to individual songs? Not that I mean to get into the realm of ‘Concept Albums’, but…
Also, David, I’m interested in how you see Rob’s adaptation of your words to fit the structure of song, how some lines become repeated or moved around (I’m thinking that line ‘Lilac / Held in hand’) and a chorus (‘automatic, cinematic’) inserted. (Not sure if you’ve seen Rob’s photo of his editing process!) I’m assuming you are okay with all of that, but at what point do you think you would say ‘hold up there, that’s going a bit far…’. I’m guessing you are fairly relaxed about it, given your comments about liking work that “samples, collages, opens itself to interruption”.
RP: Once songs start to look like candidates for inclusion on an album, they do change. You start to notice the themes they have in common, and those elements tend to come to the fore – it’s like they’ve been remixed, as if a ’thematic similarity’ control on the mixing desk has been pushed up. The songs retain their individuality, and sonically they haven’t changed at all. But as their kinship becomes apparent you start to hear them differently. At this point you have a decision to make – whether to emphasise those thematic similarities, or whether to ignore them. With Birling Gap, we chose the former. We were very conscious of the risks associated with the ‘concept album’: to us it feels like a pompous idea, where the songwriting is subjugated to a message, or to a narrative that binds everything up too neatly. Luckily, we didn’t make the decision until most of the songs had been written, so they were ‘innocent’ of contrivance. But by now it was clear what linked them. While we were writing them, we, like most people, had talked a lot about England in the period dominated by Brexit, and we had allowed the songs to become platforms for little dramas set in this turbulent, anxious, argumentative country. Because most of our songs are duets, they do lend themselves to drama – the voices don’t always sing directly to each other, but with two characters ‘on the stage’ there is inevitably a dramatic relationship between them. A couple of the songs are very directly about the crisis in English identity: Three Wheeled Car is about a nationalistic couple heading to the seaside to celebrate the splendid isolation of living on a sealed-off island; Alpine is about a middle-class Remainer couple whose political imagination (and relationship) hasn’t moved on from a skiing holiday when they first fell in love, and when travel to Europe was a badge of their wealth, success and apparent sophistication. In other songs the theme was less discernible: Liminal, for example, is about looking after someone who is very close to death: but the characters in that song inhabit the same time and space as all the others. Anyway, we decided to cast a net over the whole thing by calling the album Birling Gap. The real location, on the Sussex coast, combines a lot of elements that the album touches on: there are the fabled white cliffs beloved of patriots, the sheer drops into the sea that mean the spectre of self-destruction is never far away – and there’s that constant nagging anxiety that derives from a landscape where climate change is making a very obvious impact.
‘Cinematic’ was the last song to go onto the album, and, by the time we got round to recording it, we had decided what the album was about. So there was a risk that this song would become self-conscious – trying too hard to fit in. I think this is one of the reasons I reached for David’s poem! I knew the song wanted to be about the disengagement and callousness people adopt as a response to the sight of migrants attempting to reach the South Coast of this country, across the English Channel. That yielded the chorus – cinematic / automatic / it’s what we do – I was imagining people impassively watching news images of migrants in little boats from the safety of their living rooms, but that’s as far as I got!
DH: So I guess I think there is a big difference – a world of difference in way – between a concept album and a poetic sequence or series. Rob’s description of a concept album seems completely right to me: that everything is wrapped up all too neatly by the central idea or narrative. A sequence, or series – I’m going to go with series now, though there are subtle differences to be sure – is pretty much the opposite. A really good series of poems, say by Wallace Stevens or Lorine Niedecker, knows that it is unfinished and that its not being finished is completely the point. So what I like in a series of poems is the play of similarity and difference, the ongoing variation across a thematic and all the openness to change that implies. James Schuyler was great at that, in a work like ‘The Morning of the Poem’ for instance, as is Susan Howe. Having a poem reframed and resituated the way Rob and Amelia do with ‘As a Last Resort’ seems to me to be continuous with this play of change across a series and I think, as you say Alistair, that it’s all closely connected with collaging and sampling. All the poets I like most start from the basis that the words they are using come from somewhere else, whether from another poem, or from conversation, or from some other kind of text or document. Making is re-making where the point is not to allude or reference, but just to acknowledge that the language is a material that other people are always using and have used. But I’m really interested to know how this relates to what Rob calls the ‘thematic similarity’ control that underscores the writing of an album. I really like the fact, by the way, that Rob connects Milton and Mark E. Smith. I love Milton too (for all the reasons you say, Rob, and more) but sometimes I’m not sure if he was more concept artist than maker of poetic series. The way you talk about MES, on the other hand, reminds me of John Cooper Clarke, but I’m not sure who came first. And as I write I guess the question that is occurring to me is how the idea of the ‘song’ relates to this question of lyric and poem? Birling Gap is a collection of wonderful songs. Is there some guiding sense, underpinning of that, of what makes a song?
RP: I can maybe answer that best in relation to a specific song. As it’s the subject of our discussions, I’ll use ‘Cinematic’ as my example. It’s not a process I’ve ever thought about properly before, so apologies if this is long-winded or incoherent.
First of all, there’s a set of chords that come to me when messing about with the guitar. It’s definitely not a song yet – just an unnamed but pleasing set of chords. Playing it over and over to myself it seems to conjure something – it seems to have potential. Then I think of the vocal melody. Now there are two musical elements – the melody and the guitar line – and it’s starting to take on a life of its own. It’s not a song yet, though. Then, a new vocal tune suggests itself and leaps ahead of the verse chords: a chorus is starting to form. I have to work quite quickly at this point because if I don’t figure out the accompanying chords, that tune will be forgotten! I establish what the chords are – A, F, G, A, F, C, G – and the melody has been nailed down. That’s quite a relief. It’s captured now and can’t escape.
I like it, this almost-song, the way the verse and chorus play against each other, and there’s already an implication of relentlessness, and even cruelty, when the chorus gives way and the verse resumes. I can’t describe why it feels like that – I wonder if I am hearing echoes of other songs? If so, I can’t identify them. Anyway, that hard-to-define ‘feeling’ will determine what the song will become ‘about’. But now, there is an important test. This song, if it is indeed to become a song, has to be played by the group, and they have to be enthusiastic about it. I play it to Amelia, improvising nonsense lyrics just so I can convey the melody to her. She likes it well enough, so I feel confident enough to pursue it. It’s still not a song yet, though.
Now I record the bass and guitar as a rough demo. The lyrics for the chorus start to crystallise from those ‘nonsense words’ I sang to Amelia (I sang them without thinking about them, and that’s probably why they sound right). Now I start wondering what they mean! ‘Cinematic, automatic…’ The themes of callousness, emotional distance and inhumanity are all still there, and are getting louder. Now, I have to work on the words for the verse, but my ‘nonsense lyrics’ really are just that: nonsense. They bear no relation to the theme of the song. I need to write them from scratch. But at this point I remember David’s poem ‘As A Last Resort’. I’d first read it a couple of weeks before, and it’s stayed with me. I’m also thinking about David work with Refugee Tales – an organisation that campaigns for the rights of asylum seekers, and asserts the humanity of the people caught up in the UK’s immigration system. That’s what this song wants to be about. So, rather than try to write new words I have a go at singing the words of the poem. Fortunately they fit the melody with remarkably little manipulation. I can’t imagine writing better words than these. ‘Cinematic’ is complete – it’s definitely a song now. But with ‘Cinematic’, there is one more thing I have to do. I need to make sure David is happy for me to take advantage of his poem in this way. I am very relieved when he says ‘yes’.
AF: Yes indeed. And there is something in the way in which the initially unseen ‘collaboration’ taking place in the making of the song is, in itself, a reflection on the many positive interactions between refugees/migrants and the so-called ‘indigenous’ British public. Such interactions may be unseen and certainly un-reported, but nevertheless create bonds forged from shared experiences, thoughts, feelings, ideals or whatever. The energy of connectivity is perhaps more subtle yet more profound than that of division and fear. I certainly hear that sublime positive energy in ‘Cinematic’ and in the entirety of Birling Gap. And now that I’ve been introduced to David’s work I am looking forward to reading more of it in his words.
The last time I picked up a book with a wide-ranging coverage of Architectural history was some 38 years ago. The book was Sir Banister Fletcher’s ‘A History of Architecture’ and I was a first year Architecture student, seventeen years old and hilariously out of my depth. References to the Pantheon and to the Basilica de San Vitale in Ravenna can still make me break out in cold sweats. My nervousness then on undertaking Barnabas Calder’s ‘Architecture: From Prehistory to Climate Emergency’ was not insignificant. Thankfully, if Fletcher’s esteemed work seemed dauntingly epic and read as distant and cold, then it turns out that Calder’s is, though equally grand in scope, eminently accessible and immeasurably warmer in tone.
As the subtitle of the book suggests, Calder takes on the unenviable task of charting the development of human civilisation from the time of the Pharaohs to the present day, using not just the context of the built environment as a guide, but the energy expended by those civilisations in manifesting power and presence through building. In some respect this is a dizzyingly vast challenge, and if Calder necessarily uses broad brush strokes to give form to the timeline, then the focus on energy consumption provides a solid surface on which to pick out details. This somewhat specialist (and particularly, one might say fashionably, contemporary) lens may perhaps also help deflect any criticism of a failure to fully explore notions of East vs West (though Calder does include an intriguing comparison between the Roman Empire and the roughly contemporaneous Song Dynasty in China) or Africa (though he does touch on Mansa Musa and his grand palace in Timbuktu). I’m sure someone, somewhere will take exception to something regarding gender that Calder has or has not said, but this is surely only as inevitable as using the phrase Climate Crisis (tm The Manchester Guardian and it’s Woke Metropolitan Elite Readership) in a review of the book.
If my own Grumpy Old (White) Man persona admits a weary wariness regarding the contemporary obsession with/insistence on viewing everything through the lenses of Gender, Race or The Environment then it admits too that if there IS a subject where the thread of environmental concern naturally (ahem) runs then it is surely that of Architecture in its broadest sense. Calder understands this, but also appreciates that simply brow-beating the reader endlessly with data and explanations of How Humans Got It Wrong is Not The Answer. So whilst there certainly are quantifiable examples of energy use/consumption in the book, these are sensibly limited and strategically placed in order to help contextualise the ongoing narrative, which is a marvellously balanced one of artistic achievement versus implicit self-destructive industrial activity.
Calder’s writing is also finely balanced and inhabits the accessible ground between the stark bastions of the academically rigorous and the bleakly garish arcades of soundbite desperation. The outcome is all the better for it. His tremendous ‘Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism’ from 2016 certainly used the now ubiquitous approach of Personal History as a vehicle for exploring, in that particular case, the history of Britain’s Brutalist landscape. It certainly too gave a sense of where Calder’s aesthetic sensibilities lie. The chatty, anecdotal approach may be dialled back in this new book, but it nevertheless shows traces in the foundations as Calder lightly steps from building to building and epoch to epoch. The pace is necessarily brisk for there is much ground to cover and, even though this is not a short book, there is only a limited amount of time/space (or energy!) available, after all.
Throughout the book are suitably sketchy line drawings of various buildings referenced in the text, all drawn to the same scale in order to more easily draw comparisons. The pyramid at Khufu kicks us off in this series of sketches, and it is remarkable just how long it takes humankind to create anything approaching its immensity again. Grand Medieval churches (the French Gothic being my personal favourites) are dwarfed by its mass and only the late 20th Century industrial structures like Drax power station with its massive concrete cooling towers come close. The most telling use of this visual comparison tool, however, comes in the closing pages of the book. A drawing of the immense New Century Global Centre in Chengdu unfolds across several pages and illustrates the mind-boggling magnitude of material (and therefore energy) expended by China in recent decades. In contrast, the drawing of Cork House in London, which Calder uses as an example of energy-efficient (in design and construction) contemporary architecture, is almost microscopically small. Of course this is, in a sense, de-contextualised smoke and mirrors, for the functions of the two buildings are as different as their scales, yet it does rather bring into focus the overwhelming challenge that architecture in its widest definitions faces in this era of Climate Crisis (tm Liberal Thinkers Of A Certain Persuasion).
Calder’s book makes it clear that throughout history a narrative of Growth Is Good (from which it is easy to extrapolate ‘Greed Is Good’) has driven humankind, and this by default has created a distinct set of criteria from which ‘progress’ is defined. It seems equally clear that in order to avoid the catastrophic end game of the Climate Crisis (tm Any Right Minded Soul With A Modicum Of Concern For Equitable Sharing Of Wealth) then this set of criteria must be fundamentally re-evaluated, and that the role of Architecture in its widest sense MUST, by its very nature as a significant contributor to energy-consumption, be a primary driver in that change.
For just as the necessarily small steps taken by the individual in the creation of the Cork House are as insignificant in Real Terms as buying a bamboo toothbrush, steps must be surely taken SOMEwhere if there is to be any positive impact on an increasingly short-term global future. Whether that shift change is down to a minority of individuals recognising an opportunity to leverage technologies and materials that limit environmental impact into power/wealth for their own greed, or is as a consequence of an awareness that individual power should be shared equitably for the good of all, only time will tell. In the meantime, Barnabas Calder has certainly given us a splendid pause for thought.