Long Live The King (Hot Dog)

So what did you do on September 19th 2022? Like many in the UK I am no royalist, yet I have no problem with many who are and have no issue with anyone who chose to spend the day on the streets of London or in front of television sets. For royalist or not, this has surely been a significant punctuation point in the history of the UK, for better or for worse, and everyone has their reasons. Me, I spent much of the day at the beach, skimming on a paddle-board over the barely concealed rocks of Branscombe Ebb at high tide and swimming in the sea at Littlecombe Shoot. Overhead the blue skies gave way to the growing threat of glowering grey clouds building above Coxe’s cliff. If one were given to looking for symbolism and metaphor in nature then there was much to take pleasure in. And then, in the afternoon, I read about The King.

Naturally there is only one King. Elvis Presley. The King of Rock and Roll. Hot dog. But did you know that he was also the King of private investigators? It is perhaps hard to fathom, but in the early part of the 21st Century, American author Daniel Klein made this astonishing discovery whilst engaged in some academic research into Presley’s life and career in the early 1960s*. How this escaped Peter Guralnick’s forensic two part biography of Elvis is anyone’s guess, but there you are. Yet rather than challenge Guralnick’s surely peerless work, Klein decided to position these new revelations into works of fiction, meticulously placing them next to clues and references to people, places, events and artefacts that one would find in the pages of ‘Last Train To Memphis’. Originally published in the early noughties, Klein’s four novels are about to be republished by the fine folks at Dean Street Press and are well worth seeking out.

The books in the short series all take their title from familiar Elvis numbers, hence ‘Kill Me Tender’, ‘Blue Suede Clues’, ‘Viva Las Vengeance’ and (my personal favourite) ‘Such Vicious Minds’. One might well cringe and suggest that the pun is the lowest form of wit, or bristle in anger at the mere thought of poking fun at anything related to The King, but there might be an argument there that one might have no sense of fun and what, after all, is Pop culture without a hefty dose of fun and frenzy? Both those elements are certainly gleefully threaded all the way through ‘Blue Suede Clues’, a book that I have, to my surprise, thoroughly enjoyed racing through in the past few days. To say that I was initially sceptical about the idea of Elvis as PI would be an understatement, yet the surreal qualities of the situation really are hugely entertaining. Relax into it and suddenly it feels like watching Nicholas Cage playing Philip Marlowe in a film scripted by Ross MacDonald and directed by The Marx Brothers. One rather wonders what Greil Marcus would make of it all.

Naturally there is a lot of Elvis mythology in ‘Blue Suede Clues’ and I suspect that the entire quartet of books provides a pretty fine whistle-stop tour of the crucial ingredients of The King’s story. In ‘Blue Suede Clues’ then we delve into themes of sexual repression and confusion (there’s a lot of reference to Freud, which MacDonald would have surely enjoyed playing with in that imaginary script I mentioned); the tension of Presley’s tug-of-love between Ann-Margret and Priscilla; the connectedness of twins and the attendant feelings of loss and betrayal (Jesse Garon gets a lot of mentions, though disappointingly there is no sneaky reference to any Desperadoes); the importance of junk food, and hamburgers in particular (White Tower gets some excellent product placement, although at the time of the book’s original 2002 publication the franchise was in near terminal decline, so I doubt they benefited much from any publicity); and the incipient dependence on prescription painkillers (Klein traces this to an incident involving a stunt harness whilst Presley was making ‘Kissin’ Cousins’, the filming of which provides the contextual roots for the entire book). If one were being overly critical it would be easy to suggest that many of these historical references feel forced, yet in truth they are no more so than other such details dropped hamfistedly into period fiction. Indeed, Klein seems to positively revel in weaving his surreal fictional Elvis amongst these ‘real’ situations and people. There is an implicit understanding that with Fame comes the surrendering of ownership of one’s personality. That, indeed, personality is by default splintered, with the self necessarily becoming multiple (hence the appropriateness of the whole ruptured twin symbolism in Presley’s life). Except not so clumsily pseudo-psychological. Instead, hammy winks are thrown. We are all in on the joke. Hot dog.

If there is one disappointment about Daniel Klein’s Elvis quartet it is that is just that: a quartet. Perhaps, given the series’ surreal premise, this is as well, but there is certainly something comforting in knowing that there are a good number of books in any particular series to keep one going through dark days ahead. In this, at least, Brian Flynn’s series of detective novels featuring Anthony Bathurst does not disappoint, with some 53 or so titles stretching from 1927 to 1958. Dean Street Press reissued a hefty number back in 2020, although I admit that I was disappointed with Flynn and Bathurst at that time. Different strokes, horses for courses and all that. Yet with DSP about to reissue a further batch of books from the series I could not resist dipping into 1947’s ‘The Sharp Quillet’ to see if things might have changed.

Now I have noted before, notably with the detective books of Josephine Tey, how there can be a remarkable difference between an author’s work pre and post-WW2. Indeed, as time goes on I find myself drawn more and more to this immediate post-war period and its (largely detective) fiction where a certain maturity and sense of social awareness appears to settle over much of the work. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case with Flynn and Bathurst, who, on this evidence at least, do not seem to have noticed the enormous cleft in history that has happened around them. Of course I accept that for many this would have been (and indeed will be) a positive, as ‘The Sharp Quillet’ appears to (re)create a social universe that is deeply invested in the class-structural mores of England in the 1920s and 30s. Deference to ‘betters’ is expected. True, there is a subtext where the pillars of a legal system suspected of cronyism and miscarriages of justice are systematically ‘popped off’, whilst God’s Will appears to be well and truly on the side of the mistreated (its no spoiler to point out that an entire jury responsible for bringing in a guilty charge are wiped out in a V2 flying bomb strike in the opening pages). Yet there remains the sense that whilst this is All Very Good, nevertheless Order Must Prevail. And so it does, as Bathurst and his by now regular ‘sidekick’ Inspector Andrew McMorran unpick a sizeable cast of suspects to arrive at a typically Flynn denouement. Typically, in that the ultimate solution feels vaguely unfulfilling and overly reliant on facts that Bathurst has discovered to which we, as readers, have not been privy. Or perhaps we have been and I’m just too dim (or disinterested) to have noticed. Either way, the book leaves me with the same feeling of a character/writer trying too hard to show how clever they are that I got from the earlier books. It reminds me too that Bathurst is simply, for me, a somewhat unpleasant character that I cannot for the life of me warm to. He reeks of privilege and entitled arrogance. A throwback, perhaps, but one that keeps returning like an unpleasant smell. Perhaps this is part of Flynn’s brilliance, for all of his characters feel like caricatures to some extent. Working folks are hale and hearty or bluff and taciturn. The ruling classes are aloof and pompous, treated always with exaggerated deference (it’s always “my lord” this and “my lord” that). There is not much in between.

Sadly, then, ‘The Sharp Quillet’ does nothing to shake my previous feelings of ambivalence towards the novels of Brian Flynn. For sure there will be lots of readers who will thoroughly enjoy his many, many adventures with Anthony Bathurst. As for me, when I find myself in need of some light, undemanding and fun entertainment in the coming weeks, I think I shall reach for The King.

Hot dog.

*this assertion may not be entirely accurate.

God Bless Margaret Kennedy

In a recent article I outlined just how much I enjoyed Margaret Kennedy’s 1950 novel ‘The Feast’. It is a book that continues to haunt my thoughts, not least for its Cornish setting in the fictional village of Porthmerryn. The lovely cover illustration for Faber and Faber’s recent reissue shows St Ives, from a 1930s poster design by Robert Borlase Smart. You wouldn’t know that from the cover though, as the picture credit is only to The Mary Evans Picture Library. One assumes the designers simply searched the archive for ‘St Ives’ and dug through the myriad results to find one that most appealed. I dare say I might have done exactly the same.

The Mary Evans Picture Library is a marvellous time machine and easy to get lost in. Amongst the St Ives images are some real treasures, such as photographs of John Martyn playing there in 1980; various artists captured in their studios, amongst them Barbara Hepworth, Bryan Winter and Sir Terry Frost; a 1956 photograph of Patrick Heron and his daughter Katherine in the garden at Eagle’s Nest; Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and David Lewis caught smiling on Porthmeor Beach in 1953 and a delightful picture made by Gilbert Adams from just after WW2 of two young women chatting outside what must be one of many little buildings in Downalong called ‘The Cabin’. Adams’ photograph captures figures basking in the light from the beacon of peace, with the welfare state hovering over the horizon poised to bring equality and prosperity for all. Twenty years ahead of Donovan and his merry troupe arriving to ‘discover’ the town it is clear from Adams’ picture that the bohemians are already well and truly ensconced, living cheek by jowl with the fisherfolk and part of the very fabric of the place. With all the cottages in Downalong now owned by wealthy property developers and used as holiday lets to avoid paying local taxes, one cannot help but quietly despair at how badly the UK seems to have lost its way in the 70 or so years since ‘The Feast’ was first published and Adams made his photograph. And with a recent poll showing a disturbingly high percentage of young (18-34) people favouring a “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament/elections”, one suspects that Margaret Kennedy would find the future as much a foreign country as we might find the past.

The past might, then, be a foreign country, but almost anywhere foreign is surely better than the present reality. Perhaps this explains my willingness to immerse myself in old detective novels and pictures made before I was born. How dearly I would like to step into that 1905 watercolour of St Ives by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, grey and melancholy as it is, or to walk amongst Camilla Blackett’s sunlit Porthmeaor Beach attractions. But only if I was wealthy, of course. In truth, Blackett’s picture may well have been painted after I was born, for she appears to have worked in the 1960s and 1970s. Some rather basic research shows that she was living and working in Kirkcudbright in the 1960s, which makes for an interesting parallel to St Ives, for Kirkcudbright was for a time perhaps a Dumfries and Galloway precursor to the Cornish town. It is years since I last visited Kirkcudbright but I suspect that even if it has also managed to create a tourist trade built on its artistic and fishing foundations it must be immeasurably more enjoyable in the summer months than fighting through the crowds in Downalong.

Downalong, for those still looking on confusedly, is the term historically given by locals to St Ives’ centre of closely clustered cottages and shops. Kennedy does not use the term in ‘The Feast’, but it crops up several times in her evocative WW2 memoirs ‘Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry’ when describing the town to which she evacuated herself and her children from London at the start of the Blitz. In the memoirs the place is also called Porthmerryn but in her descriptions of the town and its landscape as well as the use of the terms ‘Downalong’ and ‘Upalong’, it is much more clearly St Ives. It is clear too that much of ‘The Feast’ draws from the experiences Kennedy puts down in ‘Wingèd Sentry’. The roots of the various classes of characters are all here, from the wealthy ‘Gluebottoms’ “sitting on the sands until it is time for them to go back to their comfortable lives” to the idealistic Communists and the impoverished, near feral children that must have inspired the Cove’s. It’s notable too that whilst ‘The Feast’ refuses to celebrate any ideological extreme in its optimism for a more equitable society in the UK, Kennedy’s stance in the middle ground is absolutely made clear in her memoirs. Continuing on her riff on ‘the Gluebottoms’ Kennedy suggests that “It’s well that there is such a strong feeling in this country for tolerance and common sense. England (sic) after the war is going to belong to the shelterers. And it won’t be the England that [the Communists] want, or the Gluebottoms’ England either. It will be a land fit for human beings.”

That particular outpouring is stirring and optimistic, yet in truth such stoicism is mixed with a hefty degree of pessimism throughout ‘Wingèd Sentry’. Written mostly in 1941, the memoirs see the author reflecting on the events of Chamberlain in Munich and these early years of the war with what often borders precariously on a defeatist attitude. Such thoughts illustrate the stress and depression of the times that many must have felt, and there is a sense that Kennedy’s writing in itself is the process through which she regains both stability and optimism. There is something too in the way her balancing of despair and resolute belief in salvation might have been artfully drafted with an eye to the American market, for the memoirs were published at the time in that country (UK publication had to wait another 80 years until this 2021 edition from Handheld Books). It is a marvellous slim little book and highly recommended.

Delving even further back into the past, it is now nearly a century since Kennedy’s ‘breakthrough’ novel, 1924’s ‘The Constant Nymph’, was published. It’s a curious artefact viewed through a 21st Century lens and I have to say that the novel leaves me for the most part cold. There are some intriguing eyebrow raising elements, most particularly the whole premise of the book being ‘about’ a fourteen year old girl being in love with an older man. In some respects then it reads like an inverted ‘Lolita’ some thirty years ahead of its time, although judging from what I can gather about the book’s original reception, this particular theme of seduction/love between a child and an older man seems hardly to have ruffled a feather. Instead, the novel’s depiction of romanticised bohemianism is what seems to have captured audiences’ attention, and it is this that, to me, seems to have lasted least well. To this particular 21st Century eye the book feels laboured and painfully tortured, which perhaps is intentional as some kind of sardonic commentary on the mediation of ‘the artistic temperament’ but whatever… I admit that it was all I could do to skim and Skip To The End to see if anyone might Live Happily Ever After. I won’t drop any spoilers as to whether they do or don’t, but given that the book is clearly fired through with that whole Doomed Romantic flavour, you can probably guess which outcome Kennedy favours. Given too that the book was written when Kennedy was in her mid to late twenties, this preoccupation with the mythology of Artistic Genius and the incendiary appeal of individualism is entirely understandable, as is that aforementioned anguish of fevered Romantic love and obsession. With a purely objective hat on my head I can see why the book might have proved to be such a best seller in 1924. Yet that hat of objectivity can be so crushingly uncomfortable and hideously unattractive and so, with a head once more open to the elements, I would recommend leaving ‘The Constant Nymph’ on the shelf for a while yet.

Better by far for me is ‘Troy Chimneys’. Originally published in 1953, this sees Kennedy playing with form and time by positioning the book as a series of Regency era correspondences and diaries discovered by a Victorian gentleman. The correspondences and diaries purport to belong to one Miles Lufton, a Member of Parliament who exists in a kind of existential duality alongside his alter-ego, the populist pleasing ‘Pronto’. The play between the two sides of his character are deftly treated by Kennedy who treads the line between humour, tragedy and philosophical observance in a measured and mature manner. As in ‘The Feast’ there is much in ‘Troy Chimneys’ that allows Kennedy to illustrate her faith in an equitable society, even whilst that faith might be questioned by some of the traits of humanity that she sees around her, and I spent much of my time gleefully scribbling notes and jotting down lines from the book. One that leapt out at me was this, relating to the unpleasant character of ‘Mrs Ned’: “for [her] this principle [of looking after the poor] does not exist. If there is an ought for her, it is that she ought to drive the hardest bargain that she can. To give anything is impossible to her. She feels no duty whatever towards the poor people here, will not allow that they have any rights, and the result is that they starve.” That it is far too easy to substitute ‘Liz Truss’ or ‘Margaret Thatcher’ for ‘Mrs Ned’ surely says as much for the brilliance of Kennedy’s insight as it does the nature of history and our human frailties.

There’s a nagging sense however that a bare four years after ‘The Feast’ Kennedy’s optimism for the future may already be fading. The use of the Victorian gentleman ‘discovering’ these Regency texts is a neat way of making the point about history being coloured by the media through which we view it, as well as by our own particular contexts. He observes that the Regency period “was a melancholy age” and that “to survive it one had to be thick-skinned, or a fanatic, like Wilberforce, able to hammer away at one point and overlook the rest.” Kennedy then allows this Victorian documentarian to note that “Reforms of every kind were overdue” but that “it was the less sensitive, the men who did not suffer from too much imagination, who took the first steps.” When he concludes that “The poets secluded themselves, or got out of the country, and the humanitarians blew out their brains” it is easy to transpose the Victorian character to the middle of the Twentieth Century. Indeed, in one final move, Kennedy has the character pronounce: “thank heaven that I was born in 1850! So much has been accomplished, that we may be sure the rest will follow. We have got rid of oppression, injustice and tyranny. Another fifty years may see the whole Continent as far advanced as we, and then we may hope to ‘Ring out the thousand wars of old, – Ring in the thousand years of peace!’” The sardonic irony drips from the page like congealing blood.

There are many more of Margaret Kennedy’s books out there to explore, and I am intrigued to see if further reading cements my suspicion that her post WW2 work to be vastly superior to the pre-war. Yet even if that proves to be correct I suspect too that ‘The Feast’ will continue to haunt me; that it will be the Kennedy novel to which I shall often return.

Meta-Detective-Fiction

Have I seen Sidney Gilliat’s 1947 film ‘Green For Danger’? Perhaps in the 1980s during my Dole Years, on BBC2 as part of their afternoon schedules, the rarest of times in my younger years when I had access to a television alone. Certainly reading the British Library Classics’ recent reissue of Christianna Brand’s novel makes me think I must have watched it, for there is a vague familiarity about the plot and the characters, even though the film apparently took some liberties. I ought to track down a second hand copy of a DVD and check it out, for I would like to see Alasdair Sim as Inspector Cockrill. Brand’s novel, first published in 1944, is certainly a marvellous period piece in itself and, as Martin Edwards points out in his excellent introduction, is certainly one of the finest detective stories written and set during WW2. One of the things that lends the book success in this respect is Brand’s skill in making extraordinary situations and events feel like the everyday. There are no great emotional outbursts, and no terror shown in the face of falling Nazi bombs. In a short preface to a later edition of the book (included in this reissue) Brand defends herself against criticism that this stoicism might have been nothing short of propaganda by pointing out that much of her war had been spent in a heavily bombed part of London, largely amongst V.A.D.s (members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment) and that she saw “not a shadow of panic or failure or endurance-at-an-end.” There is much reflection on this kind of emotional barricading in Margaret Kennedy’s excellent WW2 memoir ‘Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry’ and whilst there is no doubt that fear and desperation were more widespread amongst the populace than is often portrayed, there is little doubt too that English/British obstinacy and a peculiar emotionless state of existence also persisted.

It’s that peculiarly English character trait of emotional detachment that allows much Golden Age (and beyond) detective fiction to exist, particularly in the realms of the intricately plotted ‘fair play’ whodunnit’s, where murder is seen in many cases as little more than a puzzle to be solved. It takes its roots, perhaps, in Sherlock Holmes’ idiosyncratic pragmatism and scientific processes of deduction, but there is surely an argument that also says Holmes is merely a blueprint drawn from English Character Traits and is therefore as much a cartoon Englishman as he is cartoon detective. That stereotypical absence of emotion filters through ‘Green For Danger’ as the irascible Inspector Cockrill navigates his way through a narrative pathway strewn with red herrings and tricky tortuous hairpin bends. It’s not quite as ridiculously convoluted and frustratingly ‘clever’ as a John Dickson Carr, but it’s hardly plain sailing, with Brand pulling things back from the precipice with a delicious sprinkling of gloomy humour. Setting the book in a hospital certainly helps create this mood of blunted emotions, for there are surely no better places to find efficiency and pragmatic responses in the face of traumatic events, particularly during wartime. The location is artfully drawn in necessarily spare lines. Like a Hockney drawing, Brand confidently lays things down with precision, space suggesting form much more effectively than convoluted explanation. It’s the small corners of exquisitely executed detail that work wonders in giving the whole its life. So many contemporary authors writing ‘period’ pieces seem to miss this. Less is more. More or less.

Not that ‘Green For Danger’ is not crammed with a multitude of elements, for it sometimes feels like a whirlpool of possible murderers fuelled by a disparate array of motives. Ultimately Cockie (as Inspector Cockrill is invariably called) is astute enough to work things out but not enough to prevent the murderer escaping ‘justice’ in the courtroom. This is hardly a spoiler, incidentally, since the opening chapter concludes by telling us that one of the seven characters introduced by means of letters carried by the postman “would die, self-confessed a murderer.” It’s the same detective fiction trope that the aforementioned Margaret Kennedy used just a few years later in her classic 1950 novel ‘The Feast’ and it works a treat here too.

Also recently reissued in the British Library Crime Classics series is Brand’s 1949 novel ‘Death of Jezebel’. Again utilising the trusted ingredients of the ‘closed room’ mystery, Brand lifts the book clear of the mire of weary ‘cleverness’ by adding even more lashes of deliciously dark humour. There is an almost hysterical degree of exuberant playfulness in the book, and the immediate post-war sense of freedom and relief is almost palpable. Characters are again lightly drawn, but this time almost to the point of caricature (Francis Carruthers Gould rather than David Hockney). Brand also uses the book as an opportunity to reintroduce Inspector Charlesworth of Scotland Yard, the detective of choice in her first novel, 1941’s ‘Death in High Heels’. I was disappointed when I read ‘Death In High Heels’ a few years back, but Charlesworth works far better here as a foil to prickly country policeman Cockrill. There’s a nice youth versus age and rural versus urban tension set up between the two, with Cockie’s droll restraint inevitably proving more effective that Charlesworth’s puppy-like enthusiasm. Brand also uses the two in an amusing meta-fictional breaking of the fourth wall: “if this were a detective novel,’ said Charlesworth, buoyantly, ‘[we would] probably confront the criminal at the moment critique!’ ‘This is not a detective novel,’ said Cockrill. ‘In real life the police don’t “reconstruct the crime” so as to confront the criminal. These writer people never get their police procedure right.’”

Humour is there too in 1953’s ‘London Particular’ (or ‘Fog Of Doubt’ if you prefer) but it is certainly more muted and the meta references to Cockrill’s previous cases are restricted to, I think, one throwaway line. The humour here is more in the way the plot takes almost ridiculous turns as different characters attempt to take on the blame in order to protect their friends and family members. It’s a kind of painful dark amusement derived from misunderstandings and mistaken identities that lead to murder and tragedy. As such, it’s not Brand’s best outing, and for me suffers somewhat by placing a lot of the focus on events at the trial. I’m not a big fan of using trials as the method of unpacking clues and arriving at the Big Reveal, and whilst Brand does it as well as the next writer, it still causes me to skim pages and Skip To The End. ‘Green For Danger’ and ‘Death of Jezebel’ are both more successful by allowing the whole crazy messes to work themselves out ‘in situ’ as it were, thereby keeping the thrills going almost until the final page. Perhaps people who find courtroom dramas to be thrilling will feel differently, but it seems to me that it is not Brand’s strength. She is certainly better when creating atmosphere through a sense of place and one can’t help wish that more had been made of the pea soup fog that gives the book its title. My mum tells great stories of the monumental London fogs of the early 1950s and they must have been a perfect prop for crime and detective novelists. Yet perhaps that very obviousness is why Brand does not make more of it. Indeed the ultimate denouement makes it unclear if it has been an essential element at all, so perhaps that is just another little bit of Brand’s humour showing through.

There is humour and meta-fictional self-reference too in Clifford Witting’s ‘Midsummer Murder’. First published in 1937, this is the second book in a series featuring Inspector Charlton. Like Brand’s Cockie, Charlton is a country policeman, keen to solve the cases on his doorstep ahead of any involvement by The Yard, and Goodreads suggests there are sixteen books in the series. I do hope that the Galileo publishing house have plans to reissue more of them in the coming months for I have thoroughly enjoyed ‘Murder In Blue’, ‘Measure for Murder’, ‘Dead on Time’ and ‘Midsummer Murder’ this year (I’m saving the seasonal ‘Catt Out Of The Bag’ for December).

‘Midsummer Murder’ takes place in the fictional market town of Paulsfield (a fictional version of Petersfield in Hampshire) and, as the second instalment of the series, makes several passing references to characters that crop up in ‘Murder In Blue’. In fact, published earlier in the same year, ‘Murder In Blue’ itself plays the meta card by alluding to the events that play out in the town square in this second book, so there is a dizzying amount of self-referential playfulness at work here that feels remarkably (Post) Modern. Like Brand and many other detective fiction writers, Witting is keen to play the game by puncturing the facade of the fourth wall, having his police surgeon character profess, early in the book, that “it is only your fictional medical man who can announce with certainty, after a swift glance at the wound, that the deed was done with a Mannlicher 7.63 mm. or a Webley .455 self-loader”. There are some further pronouncements later in the story about the differences between ‘revolver’, ‘automatic’ and ‘self-loading’ weapons that similarly poke fun at the devilment of detail used and abused by novelists, all of which position Witting quite clearly as a writer both fully conscious of the essential ingredients of the genre he is working within and at the same time keen to, if not exactly subvert those expectations, at least make us aware that he is not taking himself too seriously. And is it a spoiler to point out that the book concludes by admitting that “We know that the Detection Club, under the presidency of Mr. E. C. Bentley, do not like mad murderers, but there it is.”? Perhaps, but perhaps not, because certainly the entire book really does lead us towards that conclusion from the off and, anyway, it is too sweet a piece of light hearted self-awareness to pass up.

Certainly all of the Inspector Charlton series books that I have read have been spirited and light hearted but ‘Midsummer Murder’ perhaps most of all. There is no evidence to suggest that the book is in any way an inspiration for Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby books or the ‘Midsomer Murders’ television series, but it has to be admitted that a more accurate title would be ‘Midsummer Murders’ because the killings do keep coming in the best spirit of such things. It is another sign that here we have a writer both celebrating the genre they are working inside whilst simultaneously acknowledging a punctuation point in the history of its development. One can’t help wonder too if Witting was writing with an eye on contemporaneous political and social changes in England and beyond, for the book both celebrates existing country ways of life whilst anticipating their decline and disappearance. With a few strokes he paints a picture as delightful as Flora Twort’s painting of Petersfield Market Square that adorns the cover of this edition: “Those who live in the never-ceasing bustle of London will hardly credit the hush that falls on a country town between the hours of one and two in the afternoon. The shops close and the whole population sits down to dinner. Some of them call it lunch, some of them even call it luncheon, but as the same butcher serves them all, that is mere pedantry.”

That aforementioned thread of mental health issues and insecurities that permeates the book also suggests a fracturing world; a world where previous certainties are dissolving to be replaced with uncertainty and the threat of death from above. It may be a stretch to suggest that Witting is anticipating bombs falling from Heinkels, but in the light of the Spanish Civil War and Guernica’s bombing early in the same year of his book’s publication, it is perhaps not so fanciful as all that. In the face of the gathering storm (literally, as a thunder storm provides the backdrop for the book’s denouement) however, Witting remains ultimately upbeat and fires his writing with a kind of grim humour that is similar to that of Christianna Brand. It is certainly fitting that both writers should be benefitting from a degree of rediscovery in our own challenging times.

Unpop 219

Download disc 1

Polynesian Suite – Buddy Collette (from ‘Dark Exotica: As Dug By Lux & Ivy‘ LP)
Earthsings (Featuring Brenda Fassie) – A Man Called Adam (from ‘All My Favourite…’ LP)
The Kaleidoscope Affair – Swing Out Sister (from ‘Blue Mood, Breakout And Beyond – The Early Years Part 1‘ 8CD Box Set)
City Girl – Rachel Love (from ‘Stories From Another Time‘ EP)
I Never Thought I Was Clever – The Orchids (from ‘Dreaming Kind‘ LP)
Sisters – Northern Portrait (from ‘The Swiss Army‘ LP)
Getting Stranger – The Martial Arts (from lathe cut 10″)
Aerodrome Motel – Nick Frater (from ‘Aerodrome Motel‘ LP)
Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time) – Mitch Easter (from ‘We All Shine On: Celebrating The Music Of 1970‘ LP)
This Too Shall Pass Away – The Honeycombs (single)
Kick Out The Jams (Live) – World Of Twist (from ‘Quality Street’ expanded edition)
ariel vendor – Sweet Juice (from ‘Sweet Juice‘ LP)
Dude Electric Cell – The Clouds (single)
Super Star (Edit) – Quatermass III (digital single)
Urban Guerrilla – Hawkwind (from ‘High In The Morning – British Progressive Pop Sounds of 1973‘ 3CD Box Set)
Revolt into Style – Bill Nelson’s Red Noise (from ‘Art/Empire/Industry – The Complete Red Noise‘ 6CD Remastered Box Set)
Casement – Organised Scum (digital single)
Welsh Words – The Fashion Weak ft. Gruff Rhys (digital single)
September Hills – Eyeless In Gaza (from ‘Skeletal Framework – The Cherry Red Recordings 1981-1986‘ 5CD Box Set)
Mémento (Homage to Lorca) – Morgan Szymanski and Tommy Perman (from ‘Music for the Moon and the Trees‘ LP)

Download disc 2

Working Against Time – Bobby Would (from ‘Styx‘ LP)
Spectroscopic Binary – The Soulless Party (from ‘Macrocosmic Thinking‘ LP)
Railway Tracks – The Hardy Tree (from ‘Common Grounds‘ LP)
Statique Électrique – Delphine (from ‘Participation – Volume One‘ LP)
Can’t Get You Out of My Head – Feral Five (from ‘Come Into My World: A collection of Kylie Minogue Covers‘ LP)
6 Or 7 More – Cool Sounds (from ‘Like That‘ LP)
In Between Days (feat. Jane Inc.) – Ducks Ltd. (digital single)
First Blood – The Mountain Goats (from ‘Bleed Out‘ LP)
High Ole Time – Vic Godard (digital single)
Give Us Some Space – Rusty’s Yard (digital single)
Propellers – The Frowning Clouds (from ‘Gospel Sounds & More from the Church of Scientology‘ LP)
Thin Blue Line – Old Town Crier (from ‘You‘ EP)
Revelation Blues – Triptides (from ‘So Many Days‘ LP)
High In The Morning – Rare Bird (from ‘High In The Morning – British Progressive Pop Sounds of 1973‘ 3CD Box Set)
The Burnet Rose – David Lance Callahan (from ‘English Primitive II‘ LP)
Messenger Birds – Mellow Candle (from ‘Swaddling Songs’ LP)
Time Has Grown A Raspberry (feat Annie Williamson) – Sean Thompson’s Weird Ears (digital EP)
When We Believed – Alela Diane (digital single)
Word on a Wing – Dana Gavanski (from ‘Bouncing Ball‘ EP)
Feeling Bad Forsyth Street – Sofie Royer (from ‘Harlequin‘ LP)
Sweet Connection – Elizabeth (digital single)
Ride My Bike – Alex the Astronaut (from ‘How To Grow A Sunflower Underwater‘ LP)

Progress

At the end of July this year we spent a day in Bath. More than thirty years have passed since I’d last been in the city and, no-doubt thanks to its status as A Very Picturesque Place, it looked much as I remembered it. The gorgeous Bath stone glowed magnificently in the late evening sun and the ghosts of Regency elegance glinted in the side streets. Lovely. One thing that had noticeably changed, however, were the contents of so many of those classically proportioned buildings. Where once there were shops selling Things, now there seems to be an endless stream of cafes, wine-bars, restaurants and bistros; the Service industries fully in command of the High Street (and the alleyways). In Paris some fifteen years ago we overheard a young Australian woman complaining to her partner that “you can’t just go from eating place to eating place.” In the cities of the 2020’s, it seems, that’s largely all you can do. Progress, eh?

One shop that was still in the same place was Waterstones book shop. Thirty years ago I would have been hovering around the poetry section, picking out collections of Rilke, Baudelaire and Rimbaud (sometimes I want to slap my younger self around the head for being so insufferably earnest) but this time I didn’t wander far from Crime Fiction. Progress, eh? The contents of those shelves looked comfortingly familiar, but although there was nothing ‘new’ that grabbed my attention it did take me past a table displaying some ‘recommended’ titles. In prime position amongst these was a paperback sporting a faux-Regency period news sheet with a headline of ‘Belle Nash and The Bath Soufflé’. Perfectly pitched and positioned to appeal to the passing tourist trade, I’m almost ashamed to admit that the ruse worked, although I admit too that Jeanette Winterson’s cover quote suggesting the book to be “Funny, clever, silly in the right kind of way” also helped tip the book into my Summer Shopping Bag.

Winterson is certainly not wrong in her views on the book, although I’m not convinced that the ending is particularly “strangely moving” nor entirely as “unexpected” as she suggests. The book does, however, rattle along at a decent pace and is certainly deliciously funny, even if it is also a little eye-rollingly obvious in its ambition to transpose 21st Century liberal obsessions with sexual identity politics onto the early 19th Century. I’m sure that Daily Mail readers would detest it for its ‘wokeness’, which is likely as strong a recommendation as one really needs, I suppose. As a piece of historical fiction the novel is naturally fired through with delicious period flavour, although thankfully does not fall into the trap of peppering the prose liberally with specific references. Instead, author William Keeling (Esq) saves most of the historical contextualisation for a series of footnotes filled with historical trivia that punctuate each chapter. It’s the kind of non-fiction technique that one might expect from a former (Financial Times) journalist and it works particularly well given that the fictional narrator is himself allegedly re-telling stories written by his uncle, “The Late Dr. W.B. Keeling of Gay Street.” Covering such topics as English Folk songs; Mary Wollstonecraft; the decriminalisation (or otherwise) of same-sex relations; the height of Queen Victoria; “The worst Poet Laureate in history” (James Pye); Regency politics; The Vedas (as also mentioned liberally in Sara Gran’s terrific ‘Claire DeWitt’ trilogy which I also, finally, read recently); Slavery; the misogyny of Church and State and the fate of King Adolf Frederick of Sweden (a prototype for the Pythons’ Mr Creosote, that fate involved cream buns), these wittily condensed notes could easily make an enormously entertaining book by themselves.

As already mentioned, the story itself skips along at a rollicking pace, taking in such delights as disreputable merchants cutting corners to maximise profits and personal gain, corrupt city officials turning blind eyes in favour of similar personal gains, the dark underbelly of the working classes and the exploited poor turning sexual tricks to, ahem, service the aforementioned disreputable and corrupt ‘Gentlemen’ and the wanton hypocrisy of a society that celebrates systemic sexism and racism even whilst denying their existence. Sound familiar yet?

One could certainly argue that we don’t need a piece of comedic historical fiction/social political satire to alert us to the fact that such practices and attitudes are not only depressingly prevalent in the present day, but that neither are they particularly New. One could equally argue, however, that in such desperately depressing times as we seem to be inhabiting, we might as well have a bitter, cruel laugh at our own expense whilst Society curdles and crumbles around us. Progress, eh?

Now if William Keeling (Esq)’s amusing Regency romp has been a delicious sweet treat, then the other book I picked up from that table in the Bath book shop has been a veritable, ah, ‘Feast’. Yes, the most recent reissue of Margaret Kennedy’s magnificent novel from 1950 really is an astonishing treasure. Set in the summer of 1947, ‘The Feast’ is a marvellous evocation of the immediate post-war period in England, filled as it is with tremendous character portraits and spare but perfectly observed period detail. Some of my very favourite reading of recent years has been from this immediate post-WW2 period, notably the crime/detective novels from the likes of E.C.R. Lorac, George Bellairs, Christianna Brand, Francis Vivian and Josephine Tey, and indeed Kennedy plays with some of the tropes of that genre in ‘The Feast’. We immediately discover, for example, that one of the characters we are about to be introduced to dies, as do several others, in a hideous, catastrophic cliff collapse that envelops a small Cornish hotel. We are told also, however, that there will be survivors, and so for the remainder of the book we are encouraged to work out who will fall into which category. Kennedy openly plays on the theme of the seven deadly sins in the book, and in many ways it’s not particularly difficult to work out which of her characters are guilty of each, and therefore will end up on the right (or wrong) side of the Act of God that we know is coming. Despite this, ‘The Feast’ remains a riveting and thoroughly engaging read, cleverly utilising a day by day structure to build towards the denouement that we have known since page one is coming.

The characters are well drawn, with Kennedy being particularly adept at sketching out the two groups of children. These are suggested in necessarily broad and quick strokes: The Cove children feel like street urchins from a Joan Eardley painting whilst the Giffords might be descendants of some of Laura Knight’s girls in sun hats and green parasols enjoying the ‘Wind and Sun’ of the Cornish cliffs some forty years earlier. Indeed, there is a sense that the Gifford children, having been sequestered in the United States for the duration of the war, are to an extent marooned in the 1930s, cut-off from the new realities. Or that at least their mother would wish this to be so. Yet Kennedy is very good at suggesting that whilst children are clearly formed in some part by their parents’ (or indeed foster-parents) actions, they need not necessarily share the same particular character traits and outlook on life. This pulling away from the familial/parental hold is boldly portrayed by Kennedy and oddly feels extraordinarily powerful when read in a 21st Century context where it often feels that children are simultaneously cosseted and objectified to extreme degrees.

No surprise then to learn that it is through Lady Gifford that much of the lamentation about The New Order comes. She pours scorn on the Nationalisation and Welfare State policies of Atlee’s Labour government, even whilst confronted by the obvious needs of those less fortunate. Her continual pestering of her husband to move to Guernsey to avoid paying income tax feels depressingly familiar and if it makes for grim reading, it is balanced by the fact that the husband in question is determined to do no such thing. It’s a reminder that one key idea in the book is that the war has been a massive hinge point in history and that an understanding of the scale of the changes necessarily ushered in hinges too on one’s immediate experience of the hardships. Sometimes this comes uncomfortably close to drawing out the urban versus rural conflict that I touched on recently in a piece about books by Vron Ware and E.C.R. Lorac. The idea sometimes suggested here is that you only really suffered if you were in London, or at the very least in a city. Rural existence must have been a breeze by comparison. Kennedy of course isn’t so dim as to allow this rupture to go un-balanced, but it’s fascinating nevertheless to see it creeping in.

So ‘The Feast’ is in many ways a tremendous spotlight illuminating the social, cultural and political sea changes occurring in post-war England but Kennedy also seems to enjoy making a point about human-kind’s ultimate ignorance in the face of nature and/or God. As the final, much anticipated catastrophe approaches, it is notable that the humans are almost entirely blind to the signs of impending doom. Animals, birds and insects flee but the humans carry on regardless, foolishly confident in their ultimate strength and security. Progress, eh?

I (still) miss The World Of Twist

I miss The World Of Twist. I’ve got the t-shirt, picked up along with the expanded reissue of the group’s single LP ‘Quality Street’ a few years back. I hadn’t known that the artist Jeremy Deller was a fan though. I’d always had a lot of time for Deller and his love for The World Of Twist merely cemented that opinion. He opened the sleeve notes for that reissue with a few lines saying how he hated writing so that all he could say were that The World Of Twist were the Roxy Music of his generation. Which I suppose (since he was born a couple of weeks before me) means my generation. Or even My Generation. Whatever.

The line about Roxy Music opens up ‘When Does The Mind Bending Start?‘, the newly published biography of the band from guitarist Gordon King. Since the demise of WOT King went on to be a key element in Earl Brutus and The Pre New, both groups who, you know, if you know you know. Both made brilliant records and both were deliciously wild and weird. But still, they weren’t The World Of Twist, and King’s book, which is effortlessly engaging and remarkably evocative of the times, almost acknowledges this fact. He knows what we all lost.

The times, in case you need getting up to speed, would be the (mostly post) Madchester era of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and whilst the book is certainly peppered with references to the likes of Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and their ilk, it’s clear that for King and his gang of like-minded truth seekers, World Of Twist were always travelling a path apart. Outside of time and space, The World Of Twist were all about creating their own universe and mythologies. It’s clear, reading King’s tremendous book, that the ley line leading to the temple of Twist passed through the likes of Roxy, Eno, Hawkwind, Genesis, Yes and all points Prog before racing through key punctuation marks of the Punk and post-Punk deviants such as Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, The Fall, Magazine, Clock DVA etc. It’s a lineage that makes a lot of sense to me now, although at the time I would have sneered naively at the Prog references, locked as I was in the myopic, mediated falsity of a Punk Year Zero. No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones… blah blah blah. Being some years younger than King and perhaps immeasurably more naive, I had no concept of much music prior to 1977 when my mates started buying funny coloured 7″ singles at Speed and talking in riddles. So when The World Of Twist covered The Rolling Stones’ ‘She’s A Rainbow’ on the flip side of ‘The Storm’ 7” I could see by the writing credits on the label that it was a Jagger/Richards number and that by rights I should hate it, but… man, it sounded divine. Assuming that this was some groovy take that sounded nothing like the original, it was a bit of a shock some years later to discover that it was in fact a very faithful facsimile pulled off with love and affection. Similarly, it took me years to realise that ‘This Too Shall Pass Away’ was a cover of a number by The Honeycombs, they of the magnificent ‘Have I The Right’ that for years I knew of only from the Dead End Kids, of all places. Says it all, and which I’m sure makes it obvious too that I was never hip enough to catch The World Of Twist playing one of their psychedelic extravaganza live shows. Hence, it wasn’t until that expanded reissue that I picked up on the fact that they played The MC5’s ‘Kick Out The Jams’. I mean, of course they did. It made perfect sense. How could they not?

King makes it clear in his book just how important theatrical elements such as Brother J.C. Crawford’s evangelical on stage introductions to the MC5 were to the formation of The World Of Twist (and indeed, to Earl Brutus and The Pre New). In an early chapter entitled ‘Bill Nelson’s in His Tube’ (and incidentally, there is a massive 6CD reissue of Nelson’s Red Noise ‘Art/Empire/Industry’ set coming later this month on Cherry Red) King outlines his nine-point plan for forming a band. Point eight is: “Conceptualise. This is essential. Amazingly, it’s the most neglected, overlooked part of forming a band, but you skip this step and you are doomed.” I suspect there is more than a touch of irony in there, as World Of Twist, Earl Brutus and The Pre New were conceptualised to the point of Fine (Pop) Art and were all, for the most part, doomed to the peripheries of ‘success’. Which, perhaps, is why there were all so interesting, ‘success’ being entirely defined by the criteria one chooses to apply after all. Certainly in terms of Chart Success, it was World Of Twist that came closest, with singles hovering tantalisingly close to breaking into the top 40 before falling away, deflated and sad like wrinkled balloons at a birthday party. They did the TV circuit to an extent too, with their performance of ‘The Storm’ on The Word being a particular triumph, enjoyed enormously by Holly Johnson at the time, as one would rather hope and expect. But if World Of Twist were, commercially speaking, not as successful as they (or their label, Circa) would have liked, conceptually they were worlds apart from the run of the mill humdrum of the rest of the charts. Conceptually they were way ahead. Conceptually they were the best band, the greatest gang on the planet.

The gang element was played out most perfectly on the photograph that graced the inner gatefold of ‘Quality Street’. Composed and shot by James Fry (younger brother of Martin Fry, he of New Pop Pioneers ABC) but conceptualised largely by King, it is a photograph that contrasts magically with the Georgian period-drama costume extravaganza of his main cover shot. From the Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells (I always thought it might have been Bath) Fry moves the group into some backwater back alley and captures the group looking like something from ‘Bronco Bullfrog’. ‘Iconic’ was made for images like this and King rightly proclaims it as “the greatest rock band photo ever shot”. The photo shoot appears in the background of the video for ‘Sweets’, where an impossibly young (and incredibly cool) looking Bob Stanley wanders past, Bob being the central character in the video playing the group’s biggest fan. It was hardly acting, for Bob was certainly a long-standing fan. His CAFF label would release a World Of Twist 7″ and his Icerink imprint would give Earl Brutus their first outings. Later, Bob’s group Saint Etienne would write and record ‘Train Drivers in Eyeliner’ for their 2017 album ‘Home Counties’ in tribute to Nick Sanderson. Indeed, Saint Etienne were one of the few groups contemporary with The World Of Twist that one might have mentioned in the same breath. The mighty Intastella, with whom World Of Twist were almost inextricably linked at the time, and Denim also spring to mind. Maybe Luke Haines’ Baader Meinhoff and Black Box Recorder, although they were much later of course but imbued with the same spirit for sure.

Hardly the typical Rock Biog, ‘When Does The Mind Bending Start’ is nevertheless peppered with Amusing Anecdotes, but these are often delivered with a self-deprecating air of almost apologetic bemusement which makes it very easy to warm to King and the group. My favourite is one where King misses out by a few hours on joining the rest of the group as cameos in the background of a Rolling Stones video, although his tale of meeting a drunk Kris Novoselic runs it close and is typically good natured and measured. There’s a typical lovely warmth to his conclusion to this anecdote: “I never really got Nirvana, it all sounded a bit like The Police to me, but Kurt Cobain, for the few seconds I spent in his company, seemed like a nice lad. What happened to him was really sad.”

There’s no bitterness in the book towards the record label or to managers or ‘suits’ who tend to come off badly in these kinds of stories. There is even little irritation shown to The Media who, inevitably, turned on the group that they had previously championed. Indeed, King proudly includes scathing reviews of their final single, that cover of The Stones’ ‘She’s A Rainbow’ that initially appeared on the flip of first single ‘The Storm’. King even professes to the Melody Maker piece, which concludes that this is “A song for swinging-losers” being his favourite piece of WOT press. By this point in the story of course King appreciates that it’s all but over for band, the brief window of opportunity closing before their eyes. It might be the benefit of age or the calming balm of distance, but the book is imbued with a lovely sense of peace that is often missing in such things. A recognition that It Wasn’t To Be. That life moves on and that we take what treasures and pleasures from it that we can. Making things precious, or whatever.

It’s abundantly clear too just how much love King has for the characters who accompanied him on the journey with The World Of Twist, several of whom are tragically no longer with us. David Hardy, the band’s manager and, as King points out in the initial outline of characters, “the only adult in this story”; Martin Wright of Intastella and the incomparable Laugh; Nick Sanderson, who drummed with World Of Twist, Clock DVA, Jesus and Mary Chain and The Gun Club amongst others, fronted Earl Brutus and was the inspiration for the aforementioned ‘Train Drivers in Eyeliner’. And of course, there is Tony Ogden, front man extraordinaire with his leather shirt tucked into white jeans, massive belt buckles shimmering under the mirror ball and fighting his way out of a tinfoil underworld, like Lou Reed boxing his way out of Warhol’s Factory. If there is a regret in ‘When Does The Mind Bending Start’ it is perhaps that King and Ogden grew apart towards the end of The World Of Twist and that, in some ways, robbed us of some particularly special possibilities.

So I’ve got the t-shirt and now I’ve read the book. And I still miss The World Of Twist.

What To Read Whilst The World Burns

Hall’s Farm sits on the lower slopes of Higher Metcombe, a stone’s throw from the Western edge of the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I pass it regularly on my bicycle, in a blur going down and rather more sedately going up. It’s home to The Metcombe Herd, which perhaps sounds like a rural 1960s Peter Frampton tribute band, but is actually a gang of pedigree Holstein Friesian cows. There’s a nice little sign on the end of one of the outbuildings proclaiming this, although lately it’s obscured by a larger one announcing that the farmhouse, its outbuildings and 18 acres are up for sale. I dread to think what will become of the place. Will it continue as a small working farm or will it fall foul of the drive to turn every available piece of rural architecture into second homes and holiday lets? Will the fields be dotted with Yurts and will signs for Glamping replace the one for The Metcombe Herd? Sadly, it feels inevitable. West Hill, with its exclusive gated properties, is a stone’s throw away, after all, and one imagines the inhabitants there would rather have more Chelsea Tractors in the lanes rather than mucky Masseys towing trailers of slurry.

There was a time when I was profoundly mistrustful of the countryside. I remember Lawrence of Felt/Denim/Mozart telling me the same thing. About how he was terrified of rural sounds. Animals, birds, whatever. That and the silence. He said he needed the reassuring constant thrum of the city to feel safe and alive. At the time I was living in the centre of Exeter which was hardly a metropolis (a visiting musician from LA described it at the time as being ‘pastoral’) but I kind of knew what Lawrence meant. During this time I also lumped farmers in with every other type of rural dweller as being ignorant blood-thirsty Tories to be despised and ridiculed. Foolish and naive, of course, particularly since my own ancestry is firmly rooted in the soil of tenant farmers and Ayrshire fields. My great-great grandfather bred champion chickens, and the High Park farm at which various ancestors worked still sits above Cairn Hill in New Cumnock, a stone’s throw from the council house I was born in and the now empty site of the school I once attended.

It is only in more recent years that my (at best) ambivalence towards the countryside and farmers has shifted. Sixteen years of living in a village in the Exe valley have been the primary driver for this, I’m sure, although there is some symbiosis too with my reading an increasing amount of what I guess folks refer to as ‘nature writing’. Any previous urban arrogance/ignorance about the countryside then has dissipated, more youthful perceptions of the rural/urban divides replaced by developing understanding of the complexities and inter-connectedness of what we see around us. There is certainly something of this in Vron Ware’s excellent ‘Return Of A Native’. I first read some extracts of the book on Caught By The River and was immediately taken by the imagery of the fingerpost sign defaced at a crossroads in the depths of Hampshire. Ware’s writing around this sign and its significance is captivating. She weaves elliptical stories around it, ruminates on meaning and impermanence. This kind of personal rumination is common in so many non-fiction books these days, but as I have mentioned previously, it is a welcome strategy for it allows the reader to understand the inevitable interplay between the global and the personal. Ware does this as well, if not better than most, and the passages about moving to and fro between London and the Hampshire cottage of the/her past to visit her mother are poignant and tender. That space between the rural and the urban is played out in sensitive, understated ways. There is anger and frustration here too, however, aimed mostly at those who have made excessive financial gain out of exploitation of resources/the land/the rural population. There is some excellent historical exploration of the shift from essentially horse-powered ‘human’ scale farming to mechanised agriculture on an industrial scale, particularly around the development of the factory farmed chicken, and throughout the book there are fascinating excavations that explore the relationships between land ‘ownership’, exploitation, slavery, hunting, class, betrayal, rock and pop culture and all points in between. Ware is always engagingly informative about these issues (as one would expect given her decades of writing about racism, gender, history and national identity) but is clearly keen not to fall into the trap of being overly judgemental or to be tempted by the simple stance of ideology. Instead her overviews strike a fine balance between righteous indignation and the pragmatic awareness that Things Are Complicated. Except when they aren’t, of course, which means that any kind of obnoxious apologist attitudes towards racism, sexism and exploitation of the working classes are given short shrift. There is not much love lost either for City Bankers (yes, the rhyming slang is very definitely implicit) who used the Banking crisis of 2008/9 as an opportunity to syphon money into the purchase of cheap agricultural land, thereby protecting their capital and not coincidentally benefiting from tax breaks. Ware additionally shines a light on how these new ‘hobby farmers’ were/are quite happy for these farms to operate at losses, deductible for tax purposes from their obscene City bonuses. All of which doesn’t exactly fill me with hope for the future of Hall’s Farm.

Mature, expansive, yet engagingly personal, ‘Return Of A Native’ then is a compelling outline of the state of England’s rural landscape in the 21st Century and how it got there, for better or for worse. 

The 1951 Festival of Britain is rightly referenced by Ware as a key hinge point in the development of post-WW2 rural England, and it crops up too in E.C.R. Lorac’s tremendous ‘Crook O’Lune’. First published in 1953 and now given a new lease of life courtesy of the British Library Crime Classics series, ‘Crook O’Lune’ sees Lorac’s series detective, Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald nearing the end of his career and contemplating retirement to a small dairy farm in Lunesdale. Much like Vron Ware, Lorac seems to take the point made in the Festival about how “in making what they have of the land, the people have become divided… [into] either countrymen or townsmen” as a starting point for her novel. As with Ware’s historical analysis, there is much in this work of fiction that addresses those divisions by ultimately pointing out that they are structural rifts fashioned for greed and gain by the few over the many. Despite this, both Ware and Lorac are largely optimistic about humanity, perhaps in spite of the evidence. Certainly in Lorac’s case there is the over-riding sense of Good triumphing over Bad (the common, though by no means universal, trope of the detective novel), of ‘common’ decency prevailing over petty jealousies, religious pomposity and the insidious creep of personal greed. It’s clearly important that whilst Macdonald might represent a figure of Law and Order, in this particular circumstance he is not officially in such a role, thereby feeding a sense that in these rural environs it is some kind of intrinsic fairness that might eternally prevail. Ultimately too, for both Lorac and Ware, there appears to be an acknowledgement that whilst Humans may intervene with Nature to the extent of managing and changing landscapes to their needs, the long-playing game will always ultimately be in Nature’s favour. Human’s might exploit Nature’s resources to the edges of existence, but its patience will not be endless: the bite back will always be deadly and Humans will always, ultimately, lose.

Not that either ‘Return Of A Native’ nor ‘Crook O’Lune’ are depressing books (well, okay, there are elements of Ware’s that chill to the core and make one despair of humanity), and both writers are adept at writing about the landscapes of their preferred counties. Lorac in particular was clearly drawn to the Lunesdale area in the borderlands between Lancashire and the South Riding of Yorkshire as several of her Macdonald books are set there. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Lorac also felt the divine pull of Devon (if Macdonald could skip forward 70 years and would take Devon instead of Lunesdale, he might have been interested in Hall’s Farm), and passion for place is without doubt one of the lasting treasures of the 46 Inspector Macdonald novels that she produced. There would be another eight after ‘Crook O’Lune’ before the Yard man would bow out for good in 1959’s ‘Dishonour Among Thieves’ (aka ‘The Last Escape’), a book set once again in Lunesdale that shares a significant amount of DNA with this earlier effort.

By my reckoning there are 18 of those Macdonald novels that have been uncovered and reissued in recent years, 10 of them in the British Library series and every one of them worthy of attention. It’s my devout wish that the remaining 28 see the light of day again in affordable form before the Earth, or I, run out of steam. Then, at least, we will have something good to read whilst the world burns.

Unpop 218

Download Disc 1

Meli (II) – Bicep (digital single)
The Hill – Räven Musen (from ‘Peppermint Soldier‘ LP)
West Treding (Clatter Valve mix) – holmes and atten ash (from ‘Peace and Plenty‘ compilation LP)
Ghost of Love (Plukatan) – Schmitz & Niebuhr (from ‘The Greatest Hits‘)
Fig.1c The Third Phase Of House Construction – Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan (from ‘Moonbuilding Summer Special‘ fanzine and CD)
This Earth That You Walk Upon – Simple Minds (from ‘Sons and Fascination’ LP)
Notgonnachange – Classic Club – Swing Out Sister (from ‘Blue Mood, Breakout And Beyond – The Early Years Part 1‘ 8CD Box Set)
Good Times – Jungle (digital single. YouTube)
I Don’t Even Know If I Should Call You Baby (Marhsall Jefferson Symphony Mix) – Soul Family Sensation (from ‘Fell From The Sun‘ LP)
A Man Without A Face – The Chants (from ‘Gotta Get A Good Thing Goin’ – The Music Of Black Britain In The Sixties, 4CD Book Set‘)
Globe – Pale Blue Eyes (from ‘Souvenirs‘ LP)
Pamela – Robert Sekula (digital single)
1994 – Theatre Royal (from ‘Beneath The Floor‘ EP)
Once Upon a Bombshell – Northern Portrait (from ‘The Swiss Army‘ LP)
Wind In My Blood – Young Guv (from ‘Guv IV‘ LP)
The Garden – Dan Weltman (from ‘Rivers In My Mind‘ LP)
Geraldine – Mabel Joy (from ‘Before The Day Is Done – The Story Of Folk Heritage Records 1968-1975‘ 3CD Box Set)
Defences – Emily Fairlight / The Shifting Sands (from ‘Sun Casts a Shadow‘ LP also from Occultation for the UK)

Download Disc 2

Ecce Quadragesimo Tertio – Michael Tanner (from ‘Vespers / The Blackening‘ LP)
Orpheus – North Sea Navigator (from ‘Peace and Plenty‘ compilation LP)
Porth Ia – Gwenno (from ‘Tresor‘ LP)
The Man Who Waved at Trains – Soft Machine (from ‘Bundles‘ Remastered & Expanded 2CD Edition)
Asleep On The Runway – Moonbears (from ‘Four Sides for Red‘ LP)
Linen In The Sun – Lucy Roleff & Lehmann B Smith (from ‘Dark Green‘ LP)
Lazy Day – Peregrine (from ‘Before The Day Is Done – The Story Of Folk Heritage Records 1968-1975‘ 3CD Box Set)
The 1st Person – Bachdenkel (from ‘Rise And Fall – The Anthology‘ 3CD)
Lean Into Me – Gordon McIntyre (from ‘Even With The Support Of Others‘ LP)
A Bird Came Down The Walk – Matthew Bannister (from ‘The Saddest Noise (2022)‘ LP)
Citrus Beach – Tan Cologne (from 7″ and digital single)
Highway Sun – Triptides (from ‘So Many Days‘ LP)
Curse the Conscience – Sean Thompson’s Weird Ears (from ‘Sean Thompson’s Weird Ears‘ LP)
The Sadness In The Air – the boy least likely to (from digital single and 7″)
When the World Stops Ending – Dolour (digital single)
Schweden Espresso – Sofie Royer (from ‘Harlequin‘ LP)
Don’t Stop The Music – New Seekers (from ‘The Albums 1975-1985‘ 4CD Box Set)
Champion The Underdog – Sutherland Brothers (from ‘Miles Out To Sea: The Roots Of British Power Pop 1969-1975‘ 3CD Box Set)
Wage Wars Get Rich Die Handsome – The Mountain Goats (from ‘Bleed Out‘ LP)
Art / Empire / Industry – Bill Nelson’s Red Noise (from ‘Art/Empire/Industry – The Complete Red Noise‘ 6CD Remastered Box Set)
the seeker – Sweet Juice (from ‘Sweet Juice‘ LP)
Kodak Ghosts Run Amok – Eyeless In Gaza (from ‘Skeletal Framework – The Cherry Red Recordings 1981-1986‘ 5CD Box Set)
The Saddest Story Ever Told – Mick Trouble (from ‘Oddities and Sodsities‘ EP)
Sometimes Accidentally – The Goon Sax (from ‘Up To Anything‘ LP)

Unpop 217

Download Disc 1

The Night – xPropaganda (from ‘The Heart Is Strange’ LP)
Dean’s 7th Dream – My Favorite (from ‘Tender Is The Nightshift: Part 1‘ EP)
Your Silent Face – Velocity Girl (7″ single. YouTube)
Build A Fire – Stars (from ‘From Capleton Hill‘ LP)
The Girl With The Loneliest Eyes – The House Of Love (from ‘Burn Down The World‘ 8CD box set)
Behind Her Lovely Smile – My Raining Stars (from ‘89 Memories‘ LP)
Broken Beauty – Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band (from ‘Dear Scott‘ LP)
English Parish Churches – David Westlake (from ‘My Beautiful England‘ LP)
The Cotswolds – Ernest Moon (from ‘Skipping to Maloo‘ LP)
This Boy Is A Mess – The Orchids (from ‘Dreaming Kind‘ LP)
I Confess – Marine Research (from ‘Peel Session‘ EP)
Parallel World – silver biplanes (from lathe cut and digital single)
The Summer At The Sawmill – Loch Ness Mouse (digital single)
Don’t Hang up on Me – Tchotchke (YouTube)
Stop – Gemma Rogers (from ‘No Place Like Home‘ LP)
Meet The Lovely Jenny Brown – The Bachelor Pad (available on ‘All Hash and Cock‘ LP. R.I.P. the wonderful Tommy Cherry)
Everything’s Going South – Legends Of Country (from ‘Anything But Country‘ LP)
Going Down – Starry Eyed and Laughing (from ‘Miles Out To Sea: The Roots Of British Power Pop 1969-1975‘ 3CD Box Set)
Garden of Life – HEMLOCK (from ‘Hemlock‘ LP)
Light My Fire – Mapache (from ‘Roscoe’s Dream‘ LP)
Get Through This – Emily Fairlight & The Shifting Sands (from ‘Sun Casts a Shadow‘ LP also from Occultation for the UK)

Download Disc 2

Euphoric Clashes – Stick In The Wheel x Jon1st, Nabihah Iqbal, Olugbenga (from ‘Perspectives On Tradition‘ LP)
Pinky – Schmitz & Niebuhr (from ‘The Greatest Hits‘)
Ghost Orchid (Lomond Campbell Remix) – Dot Allison (from ‘The Entangled Remix‘ EP)
Concrete Antenna (Miaoux Miaoux Remix – Radio Edit) – Simon Kirby, Tommy Perman and Rob St John (from ‘Concrete Antenna / Revisited‘ LP)
Garland Queens and Old Straw Bears – Meadowsilver (from ‘Meadowsilver II‘ LP)
Editare Rosie – Räven Musen (from ‘Peppermint Soldier‘ LP)
Sabine Equation – Wealdham (from ‘Complex Systems‘ LP)
Midwich School – Hannah Peel (from ‘The Midwich Cuckoos – Original Score‘ LP)
Men An Toll – Gwenno (from ‘Tresor‘ LP)
I Buried the Candlesticks – Alison Cotton (from ‘The Portrait You Painted Of Me‘ LP)
Ivory – Justin Hopper & Sharron Kraus (from ‘Swift Wings‘ LP)
Waiting – The Unthanks (from ‘Ballads‘ LP)
A Garden After Rain – The Light Music Company (from ‘Housewives Favourites‘ LP)
Everybody Go Home, The Party’s Over – Clodagh Rodgers (from ‘Bubblerock Is Here To Stay Volume 2‘ 3CD set)
You – Lorraine Child (from ‘Gotta Get A Good Thing Goin’ – The Music Of Black Britain In The Sixties, 4CD Book Set‘)
Moves Like Miyagi – Dolour (digital single)
Training Montage – The Mountain Goats (from ‘Bleed Out‘ LP)
Something Pretty – The WAEVE (digital single)
1980 – Organised Scum (digital single – on Soundcloud from July 10th)
The Montrose Air Station Ghost – Kitchen Cynics & Grey Malkin (from lathe cut and digital single)
11 p.m. – Letters From Mouse (from ‘Sleep Tapes‘ cassingle)

Blowing wild and searching for peace

At the start of this month I re-read a selection of Peter Benson novels and re-appraised the music of The Waterboys from 1981 to 1985. It didn’t take long to decide that all were terrific and well-worth revisiting. In the midst of all this I also read Benson’s 2019 novel ‘The Stromness Dinner‘, which struck me as a beautifully judged piece of poetic fiction with a realist backbone. Lots of handsomely worked language about landscape and the pleasures of food. Finely wrought but staying the right side of rococo, delicious filigree and shadow. In summing up ‘The Stromness Dinner’ and Benson’s other novels I noted that nothing ever really happens in his books. Or rather that it does, but it doesn’t really. Even in something like the marvellous 2012 ‘Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke’ where there are drug dealers and murder, car chases and falling in love with hippie girls, it feels as if those cartoon episodes of action are just that: cartoons punctuating an afternoon spent watching Pasolini films on Channel 4. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck infiltrating a Truffaut season on BBC2. What lingers most are the deceptively light observations on the worlds that we pass through, the lives we lead and the loves we love to love. Darkness, sorrow, and loss, too. Inevitably.

Well, just to prove that I’ve likely been talking out of my arse, Peter Benson has only gone and written a new novel where EVERYthing happens. Here the cartoons are the main feature, a psychedelic madcap race into oblivion where the pauses for breath allow the recharging of energies under the guise of philosophical reflections. Fidelity. Loneliness. Boredom. Justice. Mediated obsession with everyone else’s business. Actually not giving a fuck about anyone else’s business. Tuning out the hate and turning onto love. Deep breath and on we go again. Foot to the floor and take to the backroads where no-one will find us.

Now there was a time when Peter Benson might have been seen to be, if not on the M4 of literary ascendency, at least on the A303. This would be back when Benson’s debut novel ‘The Levels’ was winning The Guardian fiction prize and when books like ‘Riptide’ sported quotes from reviews in the Daily Mail. If it’s something of a shame then to suggest that subsequent books such as ‘Two Cows’, ‘The Shape of Clouds’, ‘The Other Occupant’, ‘A Lesser Dependency’ and ‘A Private Moon’ might have dropped him off even the A303 into the backwater lanes of the Blackdowns, perhaps that’s been to the reader’s benefit. It’s certainly true to say that each of these books has been a treasure of intelligent, measured prose untarnished by whatever the literary fashions of the days might have been. Not that such metaphorical travelling around in the backroads, reversing up for tractors and milk tankers, will have helped pay the bills. But perhaps it’s allowed Benson to build a body of work that is impressive in its wealth of intelligent prose. And there is, in all of Benson’s work, an indulgence in the luxury of words that is immensely pleasurable but never cloying and that never outstays its welcome. A certain pragmatism is always ready to curb pretension when it threatens to get above itself. Mind how you go, poet wanker.

If there was a delicate restraint in ‘The Stromness Dinner’ then in ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ Benson really lets it all hang out. There is a spontaneity to the language here that feeds off the narrative and vice versa. At times it feels almost out of control, a wild and wicked stream of consciousness on the road to nowhere, which might be North Wales or might be anywhere else but here today. Running away to get away. Paul Haig doing Sly Stone. Peter Benson doing David Goodis doing William Burroughs reading R.S. Thomas whilst listening to Paul Haig doing Sly Stone. Albert Ayler wailing in the background. And then, and then, and then.

Pause. Breathe. Punctuate with an asterisk like a Big Flame change of pace and direction. Just so.

‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ is a comic thriller, a dystopian modern fairy tale searching for enlightenment in the richness of words and the white light of unexpected love. ‘End of the fucking world’ meets ‘Harold and Maude’, perhaps. It also recalls something of the wickedly funny series of novels featuring Peacock Johnson that Stuart David has been writing these past ten years or so: books that simultaneously remind us that striking the right comedic balance in a novel is a tough act to pull off, yet still make it seem so effortless. Bastards.

It’s not entirely smooth running though. There are some stumbles that might be intentional nods to what’s gone before or might be examples of a writer forgetting that past and losing their place. So there’s the same perfume (the one Marie Antoinette wore) that crops up in ‘The Stromness Dinner’, and there’s a familiar anecdote about a bishop and a diplomat from the south seas discussing the inherent impossibilities of religion and belief. Perhaps an editor said “Benson, have you lost your shit here?” and Benson replied, “can’t you see the signposts of connective narrative that I’m threading through the cosmos?”. Or perhaps not.

As in his previous books, ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ showcases Benson’s gift for the gab. His exchanges between characters are eminently believable, quick fire, barely broken up with ‘he said, she said’ markers. It’s easy to get carried along, sometimes forgetting the place. Who’s this? What’s that? Doesn’t matter. Onwards!

I love this about Peter Benson’s books, and about ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ in particular. They are quick and easy reads, this one more than most. A tabloid headline turned against itself, ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ is about knowing when to say fuck you and fuck off and when to shut up, shut down and lose yourself in love. It raises you up on its shoulders and carries you away. Quick and easy, but not easy easy. Simple not stupid, stupid. It’s so difficult to do that. Stripping things out to leave just what’s required. ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ then is the sound of a Modernist doing improv. Blowing wild and searching for peace.

Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers‘ is published by Seren books.