Adam Geoffrey Cole – ‘Sunrise’ from Fallowing Alula Down – ‘Caravan’ from Postcards from Godley Moor, Spring 2021
Adam Geoffrey Cole has been something of a fixture in the Unpopular firmament these past few years through his recordings as Trappist Afterland, each of which has provided an ecstasy of spiralling drone-entranced magic. 2021’s ‘Fallowing’ album however sees Cole detach the Trappist moniker and journey into slightly more traditional folk territory, where ‘traditional’ denotes the darker, earthier, more subterranean landscapes of ancient lore rather than something viewed through the possibly decalcifying lens of, say, a Cecil Sharp revivalism. In Coles’ folk music all the ungainly knots, burrs, welts and wounds stay in place. This is folk as hallucinatory spiritual confessional; folk as much a fervent rumble in the acid loam as a frolic in the sunlit copse. As on the Trappist Afterland records, Cole uses many of his songs to explore the complexities and eternities of religion, nature and spirituality in a 21st Century environment: Not so much a bitter question mark on the realities of daily existence as a beatific acknowledgement of impermanence. ‘Fallowing’ is a record that brings a shimmer of light to the gloom of winter and a shiver of chill to the harsh brightness of summer; is a record that spans hemispheres to bring balance to the soul. Breathe deeply and savour its pleasures.
I have Adam Geoffrey Cole to thank for my introduction to Alula Down, for it was at a Trappist Afterland show in 2019 that I first came across their beguiling improvisory ambient folk. The ‘Homedowns’ set of 2017/18 was a delight, although perhaps a little pretty and lacking in the strange, natural evocations of otherness displayed in live performance. Their ‘Postcards from Godley Moor’ recordings of the past two years, on the other hand, have very much risen to that challenge as they each tease out responses to the four seasons in spookily spectral yet deeply rooted form. Two of these collections appeared in 2021: ‘Winter’ in February and ‘Spring’ in June. As one might suspect given the release dates, each of these ‘Postcards’ sets are reflections on the season; echoes as much as contemporary evocations. Field recordings (“clock ticking, dog snoring”, “evening walk with fencepost banger”) blend with instruments traditional and homespun (nylon strung guitar, harmonium, Danelectro dc59) each conjuring atmosphere redolent of the season’s spirit. Icy chills and gently unfurling warmth permeate shorter traditional folk tunes and extended improvisations alike, Kate Gathercole’s exquisite vocal a unifying factor beamed in from the depths of the earth and the starlit heights of the heavens. Accompanied by a series of physical, printed art cards featuring notes, lyrics, drawings and ruminations, ‘Postcards from Godley Edge’ is both inevitably touched and informed by COVID lockdown isolationism and splendidly isolated in its own spectral space: Recordings that are simultaneously rooted in specifics yet beautifully and naturally out of time.
As the nights grow longer and the air slightly chilled, it is natural that we cast our eye across our shoulder and glance back at the year receding rapidly behind us. Shortly it will be time for me to review my listening patterns, but let’s take a moment first to think about books. Now if there were to be some kind of dominant thread in my reading for 2021 it would likely be one of rather more lighthearted crime and detective fiction than in previous years. As I recall it all started in April when someone asked me if was reading Richard Osman’s ‘Thursday Murder Club’ book. I admit I got rather sniffy about this, before plunging into a thoroughly enjoyable pile of other writers whose books might be described as comedic. I wrote about that here.
There have been numerous thoroughly entertaining little twists on this thread throughout the year, and if on occasion the thread led into a dead end, then that is to be expected. Sadly it has mostly been contemporary books that have left me frustrated, as too often they come across as attempts to mine the mythical ‘cosy’ tropes of ‘Golden Age’ detective fiction that never really existed in such a form originally (I suspect Mr Osman’s book strays into this territory, and whilst I may be doing him/it a great disservice then let us remember again that time is short and the shelves of ‘to-be-read’ extensive). Of course I have said this before, but of contemporary writers dealing with the comedic light-of-touch approach, only Ian Sansom and L.C. Tyler have reliably delivered for me (Stuart David too, but he seems to me to operate in a different sphere which feels quite unique). Others start well but stumble rather too quickly, or read like quick-fire TV show cash-in scripts where characters soil themselves with 21st Century Urban colloquialisms whilst supposedly living in a 1930s Chocolate Box village. I shan’t name names because I’m sure others would find them charmingly diverting, but really. I mean, really.
The absolute highlight of my comedic crime spree, as noted at some length here, were the series of novels that Sarah Caudwell wrote between 1981 and 2000. This surprised me enormously, partly because many of the characters and settings of the books were exactly those I spent my own 1980s and ’90s abhorring, and partly because, well, I had rather fallen into a habit of considering anything written after 1970 as being Not Really My Thing. Anne Morice has helped prove this wrong too of course, and yes, yes, Colin Dexter’s Morse novels are marvellous and oh, there was all that American Neo-Noir I rather enjoyed back at the start of this Century, but that’s by the by. Reality always has a frightfully irritating habit of getting in the way of how we want to view the world, doesn’t it?
In recent months then it has been the novels of Colin Watson that have most enjoyably impinged on this flimsy theory of 1970 as hinge point of interest, as his series of twelve novels that make up ‘The Flaxborough Chronicles’ have provided an almost continuous stream of delight. With the first of the series (‘Coffin, Scarcely Used’) being published in 1958 and the last (‘Whatever’s Been Going on at Mumblesby?’) in 1982, The Flaxborough Chronicles neatly bestride my notional punctuation point in time and poke fun at both its arbitrary position and, more pertinently, at the fashions and tropes of English society during the intervening quarter century.
Set in a fictional County town somewhere north of London, Flaxborough and its surrounding villages exist in something of a generic physical landscape. Having worked as a journalist in Lincolnshire, it is thought that Watson modelled the town on Boston, though he really does little to paint it in any detail and the sense of place is certainly not as richly observed as, say, Lorac’s Lunesdale or Bellairs’ beloved Isle of Man. Instead, what Watson does sketch out very adroitly are the characters and extraordinary ‘everyday’ narratives that exist in such places, allegedly drawn very closely from those encountered in his experiences as a local journalist. From dynamited statues of local dignitaries through the seedy night-time shenanigans of the nouveau-riche to the gin-soaked antique trading of the County set and their forthright farming neighbours, The Flaxborough Chronicles rampage deliciously through two and a half decades of Very English Concerns. Leap ahead a few decades more and one would easily recognise similar themes and characters in ‘Hot Fuzz’, to the extent that it would be no surprise if Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg were to admit to being Flaxborough fans.
It is of course common practice amongst novelists to build series around detectives, be they amateur or professional, and Watson conforms to this expectation to an extent with his Inspector Purbright being a central figure throughout. Purbright is not a character who shows a particular degree of development in the twelve books, however, and what little we learn about him we do so more through the reactions of others, notably his Chief Constable (Chubb, a terrific character who breeds Yorkshire Terriers and who is frequently distressed by Purbright’s apparent refusal to actively engage with the Upper Echelons Of Society other than to investigate them). Purbright’s colleague, the ever-youthful looking Sergeant Sid Love is a little more clearly drawn, but even he exists as barely more than a few lines. Indeed, I rather wonder if the regular reminders of his eternally cherubic appearance are not an amusing remark on the nature of fictional detectives appearing never to age across decades of endeavours. Indeed there are some knowing asides dotted in the books that break the fourth wall, as it were, but Watson is never as gleefully ironic as, say, Edmund Crispin, and on the whole he strikes a fine balance between the traditional fair play mystery, the comedic novel (‘Private Eye’ once described his books as “very Wodehouse but without the jokes” which is exceedingly harsh, Watson indeed successfully suing for libel) and the post-modern.
Another character who is an almost regular inhabitant of the series (first introduced in book 4, ‘Lonelyheart 4122’) is Miss Lucy Teatime (or Lucille Edith Cavell Teatime to give her full fictional name). Now I must admit that Miss Teatime was initially a disappointment to me, as over the next few books she takes rather too central a position that feels too fussily dominant. I do wonder if Watson sensed this too, since after these few performances in Centre Stage, Miss Teatime thereafter resumes a more peripheral role where she is, frankly, much more effective. The, ah, ‘professional’ relationship between Purbright and Miss Teatime develops pleasurably throughout the remainder of the series, and there is clearly a point being made here about Purbright’s (and Watson’s?) perspective on the differences between the ‘real’ criminality (lawfully speaking) of the grifter and that of the businessman that society condones and indeed encourages and eagerly rewards. One suspects that Purbright (and Watson) would find the sleazy shenanigans of 2021 politicians both utterly reprehensible and enormously rich pickings for characters and plots. One can equally easily imagine Sarah Caudwell’s band of lawyers immersed in this slime, picking the bones clean and giving Hilary Tamar ample opportunity for unravelling webs of deceit. Plus ça change.
As previously mentioned, as well as being thoroughly entertaining mystery novels, Watson uses the Flaxborough Chronicles as a vehicle for critiquing some of the fashions and tropes of English society over the quarter century of the series’ existence. Thus he takes pot shots at the likes of the Intelligence Service and the Spy Thriller genre (1962’s ‘Hopjoy Was Here’), lonely hearts’ columns and ‘introduction services’ (‘Lonely Hearts 4122’ from 1967) and Big Pharma, herbalists and the timeless pursuit of remedies for the, ah, poorly afflicted male of a certain age… (1969’s ‘The Flaxborough Crab’). It’s in 1972’s ‘Broomsticks Over Flaxborough’ though that Watson really hits his stride with a delicious absurdist broadside aimed at the lingering appeal of rural folklore being co-opted by bored leisure classes seeking illicit thrills. One can just picture the Dennis Wheatley novels on the bedside cabinets. It may be a little obvious to set this flirting with the occult alongside an advertising campaign for detergent that washes whiter than white, but it’s a delicious opportunity to poke fun at the marketing and advertising industry. More specifically, it is the absurdist ‘specialist’ language of such industries that Watson seems to find most infuriating and it is evident that he must have derived a great deal of enjoyment inventing his own just-about plausible phrases for each. To the best of my knowledge Watson had no hand in Chrissie Mayer’s founding of the Plain English Campaign in 1979, but it would not be the most startlingly unlikely piece of news to learn that he had. In 1979 however Watson had other priorities, notably turning his attention (as it were) to pornographic films and, more pertinently, the hypocrisy of sensationalist tabloid journalists and their publishers in the terrific ‘Blue Murder’. References to Rupert Murdoch and his publishing group are thinly cloaked, to say the least; the resonance some thirty years on, distinctly depressing.
The final two instalments of the Chronicles (1980’s ‘Plaster Saints’ and ’82’s ‘Whatever’s Been Going On At Mumblesby?’) see Watson turn his attention to the antiques trade, the declinations and dubious pasts of The Gentry and the often uncomfortable tension between established traditional tillers of the land (or ‘farmers’, as Chrissie Mayer would rather us call them) and the incursions into those landscapes of New Wealth. It may be pushing things to suggest that in his final two novels Watson anticipates the relentless march of tasteless consumerism that embodied Thatcher’s England, but not much.
The television series made by the BBC in 1977 is certainly blind to what lies around the corner, portraying as it does an England that is uniformly brown. Gone are the psychedelic paisley patterns and Pop Art brilliance of the 60s, whilst the garish day-glo superficiality of the ’80s is as unimaginable as it is inevitable. Despite (or perhaps because) of this, it’s an entertaining watch in 2021 and the host of familiar names in the cast suggest that Watson’s novels were successful in their day before rather falling between the cracks in the latter part of the 20th and the first decade or so of the 21st Centuries.
In the four filmed novels (‘Hopjoy Was Here’, ‘Lonelyheart 4122’, ‘The Flaxborough Crab’ and ‘Coffin Scarcely Used’) Anton Rodgers plays Purbright with something of the Maigret in overcoat and pipe, whilst Christopher Timothy (a year away from his first appearance as James Herriot in ‘All Creatures Great and Small’) is splendidly cast as the cherubic Sergeant Love. In my head I had always seen Miss Teatime looking somewhat like Geraldine McEwan, but Brenda Bruce is a tremendous alternative. Moray Watson turns in an excellent Chubb, just the right side of overbearingly pompous. Having said that, if someone were to make a new version of the Chronicles, Anton Lesser would be a shoo-in for Chubb, reprising his remarkably sensitive portrayal of Reginald Bright in ‘Endeavour’, and it was Lesser/Bright that I visualised when reading the books. Throw in the likes of John Comer, James Grout, Peter Sallis, Michael Robbins and Gary Watson in supporting roles and you have a remarkably accomplished cast. Everyone plays it with just the right balance between melodramatic farce and straight-faced seriousness (Rodger’s fractionally raised eyebrows and pointed pipe stems are suitably subdued points of expression from Inspector Purbright) and if you can track down the double disc DVD set then it’s highly recommended viewing.
The books, thankfully, are now much easier to come by since Farrago republished the entire twelve book series in 2018 in both paperback and ebook formats. It’s a delight to have them back in circulation.
Kevin Pearce, whose writing has always been and continues to be a source of great inspiration, once had a terrific habit of starting off a piece with the question “so what have you been listening to/reading recently?” Like the typical linguistic magpies that we are, I admit to having utilised the same opener on many occasions. Let’s revisit it one more time.
So what have I been reading? Well, the mention of Kevin Pearce is a neat way to introduce ‘The Edge Of The Object’ by Daniel Williams, for both he and Pearce were co-conspirators with myself in the Tangents website and the Fire Raisers fanzine projects way back in the murky mists of time. ‘The Edge Of The Object’ has its roots in history at least as ancient, since the bulk of the text was written in the blinking of an eye between those two projects, when Williams took himself off to a dilapidated and remote cottage in northern France to write. He’s more recently alluded to this episode in a tremendous piece for Caught By The River on the 30th anniversary of the release of Talk Talk’s ‘Laughing Stock’ LP.
As one might expect give the title, it is the object that drives much of the book. If it has taken a quarter of a century for it to be published then in part this has been down to the challenges of Williams’ original concept of having the individual ‘episodes’ that make up part one and three as calligrams with text wrapping around, or within, the two-dimensional representation of objects suggested by, or implicit in the body of the text itself. That this conceit never feels forced nor detracts from the connectivity of the individual elements within their gently meandering narrative is both to Williams’ credit as writer and also to the skills of Tim Hopkins of The Half Pint Press for realising the ideas in physical form.
Hopkins may be familiar from his work on an extraordinary edition of Fernando Pessoa’s ‘The Book of Disquiet’. Typeset and printed by hand using a tabletop letterpress onto a rich variety of objects, including 1960s slide transparencies, pencils, matchbooks and a myriad of other surfaces, the edition of 80 boxes deservedly won the 2017 MCBA International Artist’s Book Award. That project also highlighted Hopkins’ interest in literature that challenges traditional notions of narrative structure, and with Williams being drawn to similar threads (he has previously written a series of lipograms, one of which was published by Half Pint Press in 2017), it feels like a natural punctuation point on a journey of thirty plus years of friendship that the two should come together so perfectly.
If ‘The Edge Of The Object’ hints at an interest in the experiments in literature by the likes of Pessoa and Perec, there are echoes too of Geoff Dyer in Williams’ prose. Of ‘Paris, Trance’ perhaps most explicitly given the settings and the undertow of narrative, but more expansively in that sense of moment, of recording, of observation, of perception. The notion of the camera’s eye being that of the Other. The surrealist detachment and the anarchists’ detournement of the object. Perhaps too like ‘The Book Of Disquiet’, the individual ‘episodes’ of parts one and three of ‘The Edge Of The Object’ can be dipped into and enjoyed on their merits as stand-alone pieces. Each are rich in their excavation of language, evocative of place, moment, person, hope, regret, whatever. They could be photographs piled loose in a drawer, plucked at random and enjoyed for their unique qualities. Being human however, the impulse to connect and create story from distinct elements is strong, and Williams adeptly weaves these notional photographs into a tapestry that balances self-reflective and personal memory with broader strokes of recognisable, translatable themes and experiences. The author both connects to and distances himself from the central narrative character by adopting the second-person perspective throughout these two parts of the book. It’s a striking technique that lends a detached coolness to language that is often earthy and luxuriously poetic, seeking out moments of remembrance like a tongue reaching to a loose tooth, prodding the peculiar ache of memory.
Perhaps then it is inevitable that my favourite of all these shape pieces is one which traces the map of the mainland UK and that documents Williams’ hitchhiking travels from town to town. I see the ghost of my young self in there, living in the town jutting into the sea like a nose and recalling how we “managed to clear the dance floor simply by taking to it, wild and unrestrained, misshapen, round pegs trying to fit into a square hole.” I read this now and wonder if Williams, like me, almost fails to recognise the person who drifts spectrally from the text? Time is a strange creature, after all, warping and bending us into peculiar reflections of ourselves, like simulacrums stuck in a fairground.
I wonder too what the lightly fictionalised figures who inhabit part two of the book might make of it all now. This part discards the notion of shapes and reverts instead to a more traditional narrative, following as it does a collection of musicians from what we might have called the ‘indie-pop’ scene on a tour around France. The narrative voice switching from second to first person also helps secure the differentiation of the three parts of the book. Again, reading this in 2021 has a peculiar resonance of a fictionalised history being fragmented against the concrete barriers of time. Memory dwindles and fades into archaeological traces. ‘Reality’ is, as ever, dislocated and re-joined in altered states. Of course, to what extent that might be apparent to anyone less connected to the ‘reality’ is impossible to say, just as it is to consider how it might have been read had it been published in 1996 rather than 2021. What was it were saying about time being a strange creature?
Straddling the line between book as object, of literature as idea, and the perhaps more traditional landscape of narrative comfort, ‘The Edge Of The Object’ manages to balance these elements into an absorbing and thoroughly enjoyable work. That it looks as well as it reads is testament to thirty odd years of experimentation, crafty tinkering and the hands-on experience of type design. It’s certainly been worth the wait.
‘The Edge Of The Object’ by Daniel Williams is published in an edition on one hundred copies by The Half Pint Press. Full details of the book, including info about a launch event on Dec 1st 2021 can be found at http://theedgeoftheobject.com
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.