The Power of Connection

Rob Pursey and David Herd discuss the process of songwriting and poetry

As a long-time fan of the work of Rob Pursey and Amelia Fletcher in bands like Heavenly and Marine Research, I was delighted to hear that their most recent project Catenary Wires had a new album out. Birling Gap has quickly become one of my favourite records of 2021, with its 21st Century Folk-Pop songs’ broadly connected theme of England in a post-BREXIT landscape resonating strongly as voices from the edge. Of landscape, of life and of perception, perhaps.

Every song on the record is a tremendous treat, but the first song that connected most strongly with me, and that was subsequently dropped onto the Unpopular mix for May, was the mesmerising ‘Cinematic’. Musically reminiscent of Moose circa their criminally undervalued 1993 album Honeybee, the song shimmers like a sea mirage, sonically and lyrically nuanced; mysterious and suggestive rather than explicit.

On closer inspection it turns out that lyrically ‘Cinematic’ is in fact an adaptation of a poem called ‘As A Last Resort’ by David Herd (from his chapbook Songs from the Language of a Declaration), so rather than write a straightforward review of the record, I thought it would be interesting to explore something of the various processes involved and where the realms of poetry and song composition might connect and/or diverge.

AF: What do you see as being the key, essential differences between poetry and lyrics? Do those differences change when thinking about poetry that is written to be read and poetry that is written to be performed?

Rob Pursey: For me, poetry comes with its own music. The rhythms are there, already embedded in the structure of the poem. Poetry is more complete. Lyrics, on the other hand, have to accept the rhythm that the music proposes. They can play against that rhythm, and they can disruptive when you want them to be, but for the most part they have to comply. Maybe the difference is a bit like that between a painting and a book illustration. The former stands alone and contains its own reference points. An illustration in a book complements and illuminates a piece of writing but doesn’t really have an independent life.

The physical sound of a lyric becomes very important when you’re singing it. If you want a line to end with a long note – one that might have a harmony on top – you need the last syllable to contain a nice long vowel so that there’s no problem stretching it out. The words you choose are very much influenced by this: they may be lucid and accurate and moving, but if you can’t sing them easily they aren’t going to be much good. A lot of songs get by without worrying too much about the sense at all. As pieces of writing they are poor, but as long as they sound OK, it doesn’t really matter!

I think the ambivalent status of lyrics is why a lot of bands aren’t keen on printing them alongside their recordings. These words weren’t designed to be read on their own, and sometimes they do look a bit naked when they can be scrutinised as pure ‘writing’. Having said that, people do like to sing along with records, and having a lyric sheet does make that a lot easier!

David Herd: Good question! So, the key difference between poetry and lyrics would seem to be that whereas poetry is stand-alone, lyrics are written in relation to music. That seems clear enough. The next question, I guess, is what difference does this difference make? In the case of the poem – at least from the point of view of the poem! – the words have to carry all the interest. If the lyric can lean on the music that is going on around it, the poem has to make all the music by itself. At the same time, if the lyric can lean on the music that is taking shape around it, it must also play its part in carrying the tune. One way or another, in other words, the lyric is a more collaborative mode.

But then the minute I write this, I know there is more to say. Any poem, for instance, is a collaboration in some way, perhaps with other poems or with other voices, or with the situation it wants to articulate. It’s not the same, for sure, as having a walking bass to answer to, but it does mean that the poem is, at some level, a collaborative act. So maybe the real difference is in the kind of listening that is involved. When you read a poem as opposed to when you hear a lyric, I think what you are listening with is the inner ear. It’s on that invisible element of the ear that the poem forms, where its play of sound and meaning emerge and take shape.

As for whether these differences change when the poem is written to be performed rather than read, the answer is: yes! Many poems, (though definitely not all) are written with both the act of reading and the act of performing in mind. But performing brings out a very different quality in the poem’s sense of voice. For example, one contemporary poet I love is Peter Gizzi, not least for the way his writing is at the intersection between poetry and lyric – he was deeply influenced by the New York punk scene of the late 70s and early 80s. When you hear Gizzi read you are hearing a poem in which the voicing is really important, where the poem itself is written in part to be said or spoken. But when you read the poem on the page you are constantly aware of the way the poem is making its voice out of its different elements, that voice itself is a constant performance. I guess the difference here might be the difference between hearing the poem in the time of performance and reading the poem in the space of the page.

AF: What poets and lyricists do you get most pleasure from reading/listening to? Do you recognise common threads between them? Stylistically as well as thematic, perhaps?

RP: Mark E Smith has been my favourite lyricist for years. When The Fall first started, he’d already written prototype lyrics in the form of poems. I don’t know whether he saw them as poems or as lyrics waiting for a song to turn up in those early days. But either way, the words had a primacy from the very beginnings of The Fall, and that was something the band never lost. And yet – the band, in its various incarnations, never lost its energy or its sense of spontaneity. There are various cliched tales of Mark E Smith disciplining the band, preventing them from improvising, and his on-stage antics, messing about with their amplifier settings, made for good theatre. But when you listen to the recordings you can hear Smith bending his words to celebrate the rhythm of the music. He wasn’t just ‘reading the words out’. He was performing them. He was too smart to try to neuter the band completely.

In terms of poetry, I like Milton (marrying epic, political tales to a very disciplined structure) and I like Geoffrey Hill. Hill I like in the same way that I like The Fall. There are shards of language that are clearer and sharper than anything you’ve heard. And then there is the density and complexity, which means there is always more decoding to be done. There is always something new to be got out of a re-reading (or in The Fall’s case a re-listen).

In terms of pop music, I think the Kinks are the band whose lyrics I love the most. The melodies are beautiful, and the words are perfectly chosen to convey those tunes. But at the same time, perfect and very precise vignettes of real life are conveyed. The Kinks knew how the music could make those portraits even more amusing, or moving or angry. I say ‘they’ because it feels like the whole band were tuned into this enterprise, even though Ray Davies is the songwriter.

I guess one thing these all have in common is that they were writing about the country we live in. They are capable of being emotive but are never sentimental. They all keep their brains in gear, all the time.

DH: Well, there are poets and lyricists I keep coming back to – obsessively re-reading and listening to again – and I am also always discovering new writers I love. So, for example, a book I encountered recently but one I know I will be coming back to for a long time is Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalia Diaz. Diaz is a native American poet who writes brilliantly from the politics of her position and for whom the poem is a constant negotiation between the intimacies of the body and violence of state-imposed architectures of space. As for lyricists, one example would be Portishead, who as far as I understand it write as a collective and who are never so far down the playlist when the night gets late. And are there common threads? Well, there are many uncommon threads, but I know that that something I almost always want in a poem and a lyric – and basically in all cultural forms – is a play of voices. I like work that samples, collages, opens itself to interruption. I was lucky enough to be in conversation with Diaz recently and she spoke with great power about the play of languages in her writing – Mojave, Spanish and English – how they challenge, unsettle, dislocate and locate one another.

AF: I’ve spent the best part of 30 years as an educator in a High School setting. In that time I’ve been interested in exploring and reflecting on the meta-cognitive processes involved in learning, particularly in the realm of visual arts. So, I wonder, is there an underlying structure to your working practice that you recognise as a/the/your creative process? Is this even something that you give thought to?

RP: I’m not able to read music, so I’ve always done things by ear. I think a lot of people write pop songs like this. I do sometimes wonder if a bit of learning would help me, but then worry that the magic of stumbling across combinations of chords and melody would be lost. Anyway, it’s too late now!

I always come up with the tune first. Partly because I find that a lot easier – it feels like there’s no work involved in coming up with a melody. Lyrics, though, I definitely have to work at. Because we are writing pop music (of a kind) there would be no point having a song with fantastic lyrics and an indifferent tune. I wouldn’t want to hear that, and I wouldn’t want anyone else to have to endure it. The honest truth is that there are loads of songs that I love, sometimes songs I’ve known for years and will sing along to, where I still can’t make the lyrics out. It hasn’t spoiled my enjoyment (and maybe has even enhanced it!)

DH: This is hard, and I guess the answer is yes and no. I mean, I have ways of working for sure, yes, but whether I want to write them down is another matter. For the most part, I guess, I’d rather catch myself in the act, where the act is the desire to open spaces of possibility. I like poetic sequences because of the relationalities they open up. The poem Rob and Amelia worked with to make ‘Cinematic’ came from a sequence called ‘Songs from the Language of a Declaration’. I l love the fact that the words of the poem now stand in the space of their song.

AF: David, that’s interesting what you say about poetic sequences and the relationalities they open up. I’m reminded of William Eggleston talking about his photographs. He said that he likes to think of his works flowing like music. He says it is one of the reasons he works in large groups rather than one picture of one thing. “It’s the flow of the whole series that counts.” Also, Martin Parr who says he “never thinks of photographs as being individual. Always as a group.” Rob, is that perhaps similar to the way an album takes form as opposed to individual songs? Not that I mean to get into the realm of ‘Concept Albums’, but…

Also, David, I’m interested in how you see Rob’s adaptation of your words to fit the structure of song, how some lines become repeated or moved around (I’m thinking that line ‘Lilac / Held in hand’) and a chorus (‘automatic, cinematic’) inserted. (Not sure if you’ve seen Rob’s photo of his editing process!) I’m assuming you are okay with all of that, but at what point do you think you would say ‘hold up there, that’s going a bit far…’. I’m guessing you are fairly relaxed about it, given your comments about liking work that “samples, collages, opens itself to interruption”.

RP: Once songs start to look like candidates for inclusion on an album, they do change. You start to notice the themes they have in common, and those elements tend to come to the fore – it’s like they’ve been remixed, as if a ’thematic similarity’ control on the mixing desk has been pushed up. The songs retain their individuality, and sonically they haven’t changed at all. But as their kinship becomes apparent you start to hear them differently. At this point you have a decision to make – whether to emphasise those thematic similarities, or whether to ignore them. With Birling Gap, we chose the former. We were very conscious of the risks associated with the ‘concept album’: to us it feels like a pompous idea, where the songwriting is subjugated to a message, or to a narrative that binds everything up too neatly. Luckily, we didn’t make the decision until most of the songs had been written, so they were ‘innocent’ of contrivance. But by now it was clear what linked them. While we were writing them, we, like most people, had talked a lot about England in the period dominated by Brexit, and we had allowed the songs to become platforms for little dramas set in this turbulent, anxious, argumentative country. Because most of our songs are duets, they do lend themselves to drama – the voices don’t always sing directly to each other, but with two characters ‘on the stage’ there is inevitably a dramatic relationship between them. A couple of the songs are very directly about the crisis in English identity: Three Wheeled Car is about a nationalistic couple heading to the seaside to celebrate the splendid isolation of living on a sealed-off island; Alpine is about a middle-class Remainer couple whose political imagination (and relationship) hasn’t moved on from a skiing holiday when they first fell in love, and when travel to Europe was a badge of their wealth, success and apparent sophistication. In other songs the theme was less discernible: Liminal, for example, is about looking after someone who is very close to death: but the characters in that song inhabit the same time and space as all the others. Anyway, we decided to cast a net over the whole thing by calling the album Birling Gap. The real location, on the Sussex coast, combines a lot of elements that the album touches on: there are the fabled white cliffs beloved of patriots, the sheer drops into the sea that mean the spectre of self-destruction is never far away – and there’s that constant nagging anxiety that derives from a landscape where climate change is making a very obvious impact.

‘Cinematic’ was the last song to go onto the album, and, by the time we got round to recording it, we had decided what the album was about. So there was a risk that this song would become self-conscious – trying too hard to fit in. I think this is one of the reasons I reached for David’s poem! I knew the song wanted to be about the disengagement and callousness people adopt as a response to the sight of migrants attempting to reach the South Coast of this country, across the English Channel. That yielded the chorus – cinematic / automatic / it’s what we do – I was imagining people impassively watching news images of migrants in little boats from the safety of their living rooms, but that’s as far as I got!

DH: So I guess I think there is a big difference – a world of difference in way – between a concept album and a poetic sequence or series. Rob’s description of a concept album seems completely right to me: that everything is wrapped up all too neatly by the central idea or narrative. A sequence, or series – I’m going to go with series now, though there are subtle differences to be sure – is pretty much the opposite. A really good series of poems, say by Wallace Stevens or Lorine Niedecker, knows that it is unfinished and that its not being finished is completely the point. So what I like in a series of poems is the play of similarity and difference, the ongoing variation across a thematic and all the openness to change that implies. James Schuyler was great at that, in a work like ‘The Morning of the Poem’ for instance, as is Susan Howe. Having a poem reframed and resituated the way Rob and Amelia do with ‘As a Last Resort’ seems to me to be continuous with this play of change across a series and I think, as you say Alistair, that it’s all closely connected with collaging and sampling. All the poets I like most start from the basis that the words they are using come from somewhere else, whether from another poem, or from conversation, or from some other kind of text or document. Making is re-making where the point is not to allude or reference, but just to acknowledge that the language is a material that other people are always using and have used. But I’m really interested to know how this relates to what Rob calls the ‘thematic similarity’ control that underscores the writing of an album. I really like the fact, by the way, that Rob connects Milton and Mark E. Smith. I love Milton too (for all the reasons you say, Rob, and more) but sometimes I’m not sure if he was more concept artist than maker of poetic series. The way you talk about MES, on the other hand, reminds me of John Cooper Clarke, but I’m not sure who came first. And as I write I guess the question that is occurring to me is how the idea of the ‘song’ relates to this question of lyric and poem? Birling Gap is a collection of wonderful songs. Is there some guiding sense, underpinning of that, of what makes a song?

RP: I can maybe answer that best in relation to a specific song. As it’s the subject of our discussions, I’ll use ‘Cinematic’ as my example. It’s not a process I’ve ever thought about properly before, so apologies if this is long-winded or incoherent.

First of all, there’s a set of chords that come to me when messing about with the guitar. It’s definitely not a song yet – just an unnamed but pleasing set of chords. Playing it over and over to myself it seems to conjure something – it seems to have potential. Then I think of the vocal melody. Now there are two musical elements – the melody and the guitar line – and it’s starting to take on a life of its own. It’s not a song yet, though. Then, a new vocal tune suggests itself and leaps ahead of the verse chords: a chorus is starting to form. I have to work quite quickly at this point because if I don’t figure out the accompanying chords, that tune will be forgotten! I establish what the chords are – A, F, G, A, F, C, G – and the melody has been nailed down. That’s quite a relief. It’s captured now and can’t escape.

I like it, this almost-song, the way the verse and chorus play against each other, and there’s already an implication of relentlessness, and even cruelty, when the chorus gives way and the verse resumes. I can’t describe why it feels like that – I wonder if I am hearing echoes of other songs? If so, I can’t identify them. Anyway, that hard-to-define ‘feeling’ will determine what the song will become ‘about’. But now, there is an important test. This song, if it is indeed to become a song, has to be played by the group, and they have to be enthusiastic about it. I play it to Amelia, improvising nonsense lyrics just so I can convey the melody to her. She likes it well enough, so I feel confident enough to pursue it. It’s still not a song yet, though.

Now I record the bass and guitar as a rough demo. The lyrics for the chorus start to crystallise from those ‘nonsense words’ I sang to Amelia (I sang them without thinking about them, and that’s probably why they sound right). Now I start wondering what they mean! ‘Cinematic, automatic…’ The themes of callousness, emotional distance and inhumanity are all still there, and are getting louder. Now, I have to work on the words for the verse, but my ‘nonsense lyrics’ really are just that: nonsense. They bear no relation to the theme of the song. I need to write them from scratch. But at this point I remember David’s poem ‘As A Last Resort’. I’d first read it a couple of weeks before, and it’s stayed with me. I’m also thinking about David work with Refugee Tales – an organisation that campaigns for the rights of asylum seekers, and asserts the humanity of the people caught up in the UK’s immigration system. That’s what this song wants to be about. So, rather than try to write new words I have a go at singing the words of the poem. Fortunately they fit the melody with remarkably little manipulation. I can’t imagine writing better words than these. ‘Cinematic’ is complete – it’s definitely a song now. But with ‘Cinematic’, there is one more thing I have to do. I need to make sure David is happy for me to take advantage of his poem in this way. I am very relieved when he says ‘yes’.

AF: Yes indeed. And there is something in the way in which the initially unseen ‘collaboration’ taking place in the making of the song is, in itself, a reflection on the many positive interactions between refugees/migrants and the so-called ‘indigenous’ British public. Such interactions may be unseen and certainly un-reported, but nevertheless create bonds forged from shared experiences, thoughts, feelings, ideals or whatever. The energy of connectivity is perhaps more subtle yet more profound than that of division and fear. I certainly hear that sublime positive energy in ‘Cinematic’ and in the entirety of Birling Gap. And now that I’ve been introduced to David’s work I am looking forward to reading more of it in his words.

Birling Gap is available on the Skep Wax label in the UK/Europe: https://catenarywires.bandcamp.com/album/birling-gap
and Shelflife in the USA/North America: https://catenarywires.bandcamp.com/album/birling-gap-north-america-only
David Herd is Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Kent and a coordinator of the Refugee Tales project https://commapress.co.uk/authors/david-herd/
Songs from the Language of a Declaration is available from Periplum Press: https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/courses/undergraduate/ba-english-and-creative-writing/periplum-poetry

The Law and Detective Fiction

I have said several times that L C Tyler has written some of my very favourite contemporary comedic crime stories, so when he suggested I might enjoy the novels of Sarah Caudwell, I admit I took the plunge immediately. Rather embarrassingly then as I began my purchase of a Kindle version of ‘Thus Was Adonis Murdered’ (I know, I know, but our house is simply overflowing with books and records and there is only so much space and only so much that one can part with for the charity shops and anyway I am going to admit that I rather like the fact that I can go away on a holiday and not take an additional suitcase filled with paper) I was helpfully informed that I had already bought this item on 25th August 2019. Even more embarrassing was the fact that when I loaded the book it opened at page two or three, highly suggestive of the fact that perhaps I had failed to be immediately captivated and had given it up in pursuit of something shinier and newer. Or, as would have been more likely, older.

Now there is of course something of a tradition of legally trained professionals writing crime and detective fiction. In the UK there have been the likes of Cyril Hare, Michael Gilbert, John Mortimer, Alexander McCall Smith and the inestimable Martin Edwards, whilst in the USA there has been a veritable plethora of lawyers as crime writers, including Erle Stanley Gardner, Scott Turrow and of course John Grisham. Marcel Berlins, incidentally, wrote a fine, short piece about the practice for the Guardian back in 2004. No surprise then that Caudwell’s own standing (as Sarah Cockburn) in the profession means that all four of her books appear to be so convincingly rooted in the legal world, and that her own speciality of tax law is a recurring theme throughout. If that sounds potentially stuffy and hopelessly dull then be assured that Caudwell treats it all with a splendid blend of assured intellectual precision and self-deprecatory wit.

Whilst legal language and terminology abounds, throughout the four novels there are also numerous Classical and literary references, almost all of which are lost on an uneducated oik such as myself. Yet such is the lightness with which these references are touched that it matters not a jot. Or at least, not so much of a jot. Indeed, there is a delicious line in ‘Thus Was Adonis Murdered’ that feels marvellously and personally apt: “[He] takes things so seriously. He’s a Scotsman, you know, from Ayrshire or somewhere like that. I think his father was a miner. There are certain hardships to which such a background does not, I suspect, inure one.” Well, quite.

Written and published variously between 1981 and 2000 (the last published posthumously), curiously the suite of recurring characters appear to remain very much of the same age and personality throughout, even as technologies and the world advances around them. Indeed, it is largely these references to technologies that mark the passage of time, since much of the narrative structure in the books is in the epistolary style and as such the format of these move from the traditional letter through the quaint ‘telex’ and back, curiously enough, to letters in the final novel when one might have expected the development to include email. That it doesn’t embrace email perhaps says as much about Caudwell’s awareness of the nature in which she utilises the form as it does about a mistrust of technology. There is certainly a sense, particularly with the implausibly lengthy ‘telexes’ in ‘The Sirens Sang of Murder’, that Caudwell is (perhaps not so) subtly drawing attention to the fact that this is literary device. All is unreal.

Lisa Hopkins has written at length and with insight about the epistolary style and other connections between Caudwell and Jane Austen and her piece reminds me that whilst I certainly enjoy Austen in film, in print there has always been something of a barrier. This suggests that it is hardly the themes of Austen’s work that I have struggled with, but rather the somewhat florid late 18th/early 19th Century language. Why use ten words to make a point when twenty, punctuated by commas and additional asides that, admittedly, might sparkle with wit and wisdom, will suffice just as well? In truth Caudwell does embrace this style unapologetically, which may explain my original (virtual) shelving of ‘Adonis’ at first attempt. Perhaps this means too that I am finally prepared to enjoy an Austen. Perhaps not.

Certainly there are innumerable lines from Caudwell’s books that I can imagine an Austen character in a BBC adaptation delivering, dripping in entitlement and period costume. She is eminently quotable. A favourite, from ‘The Shortest Way To Hades’ is this: “A particular tone is used by young men apparently ingenuous to make observations apparently innocent in a manner apparently respectful with the intention of being extremely impertinent: one can hardly hope, in academic life, to be unfamiliar with it.” In the subsequent ‘The Sirens Sang of Murder’, Caudwell’s key narrating character Hilary Tamar returns to the subject of Youth with another charmingly biting barb: “One becomes accustomed in academic life to the unreasonableness of the young. They desire not merely to be understood, but to be understood by telepathy; not merely to be permitted to tell their troubles, but to be prevailed on to do so.”

Much is made by some of the fact that Caudwell never resorts to the baseness of a gender reveal for Hilary, but I admit that from the off I simply made an assumption that Tamar is a woman. Perhaps this is an example of conflating/mistaking the author as narrative voice, or perhaps there is just something in how the character reveals themselves (or more accurately fails to reveal themselves) that feels vaguely feminine. Or at least, appears not particularly masculine. Perhaps too this reluctance to assign gender to Tamar is a means of underpinning the necessarily detached observational logic of the academic/historian/detective. Gender, Caudwell seems to suggest, is really rather an irrelevance in such a context. One wonders what they would make of the 21st Century’s obsession with ever-increasingly macro/micro definitions of identity based on individual sexual preferences. I for one would rather have liked to read those thoughts.

If Austen used her novels to critique the gentry and the rigid social structures of 18th Century England then there is certainly something similar happening throughout Caudwell’s. Populated almost entirely by characters from what one might judiciously call The City and it’s environs, the first three novels in particular are ones that I would very likely have balked at had I come across them when first published in the 1980s (there was an eleven year gap between ‘The Sirens…’ in 1989 and the final novel ‘The Sibyl in Her Grave). Filled with entitled, financially wealthy and self-obsessed individuals, they are situations and characters I would have studiously avoided in fiction as in real life. Some forty years on I am finally at least willing to allow them entry into my choice of fiction.

Flitting between Venice, Corfu and The Channel Islands in the first three novels, much of the narrative, plot and motive for crime centres on inheritance, tax avoidance and, inevitably, the greed that such topics engender and/or encourage in humans. If it is a not altogether positive outlook on life then that is surely a large part of the point Caudwell is making. There is certainly something of an admission of implicit collusion between lawyers and those who, shall we say, may be less scrupulous in their attitudes to the world than we would like to think admirable. Early in the first novel for example comes the observation that “The funeral rites of the rich are a signal for vultures to gather: among whom one may class, with all respect, antique dealers and the Chancery Bar.”

Yet whilst Caudwell admits to the slippery, necessarily confused relationship between lawyers and moral certitude she nevertheless allows herself the pleasure of having her characters pronounce variously barbed opinions. On bankers for example: “He is, after all, a banker – that is to say, he spends his life persuading people to pay for the privilege of lending him money and again for the privilege of borrowing some of it back.” On the Gentry: “he’s as nutty as a fruitcake and ought to be put away somewhere he can’t do any harm – House of Lords or somewhere.” And on men, generally: “My Aunt Regina, so far as I can discover, doesn’t believe that men progress much morally or intellectually after the age of six, and she treats them accordingly.” Ouch.

Additionally, there is a lovely light meta-fictional atmosphere that occasionally wafts across the pages. In particular, at the start of ‘The Sirens Sang of Murder’ a couple of her recurrent characters are themselves involved in an attempt to pen a novel in the Romantic Crime genre, set within the realm of the legal profession. Julia admits that they are keen “to appeal to as wide a public as possible” adding that it seems clear that “readers who want fiction to be like life are considerably outnumbered by those who would like life to be like fiction.” Elsewhere Caudwell has Hilary pondering: “would that I could indeed bring to my task the skills not merely of the Scholar but of the novelist. Would that the historian might be permitted to have regard to Art rather than Truth, and so enliven the narrative with descriptions of scenes known only by hearsay or speculation.” And my favourite, which feels particularly observant and poignant: “People do what books have taught them to do and feel what books have taught them to feel – it is curiously difficult to do otherwise.’”

By the time of ‘The Sibyl in Her Grave’, however, there is a definite sense of a certain darkness falling, and I rather like the fact that this gloom encroaches on a setting which is the (stereo)typical English Village because in doing so Caudwell both self-consciously mocks the gentility of the stereotype and exposes the faint undercurrents of darkness that exists in, say, Christie’s Miss Marple stories. There is too perhaps an inescapable sense of awareness of death and finality hanging over the book, given that Caudwell died of cancer in January of 2000 and so never quite lived to see it published. So whilst it most certainly continues in the marvellously entertaining and engaging manner of the preceding three books, it also certainly is a book that allows in a degree of bleakness and, dare I say it, existential weariness. There is, in its conclusion (and without giving away too much in the form of spoilers) an acceptance of the hand of chance, of logic not always being able to explain occurrences, and of the peculiarly unjust hand of Fate.

There is too a tremendous passage where Hilary Tamar reflects on truth and reality: “…when someone’s entire life is based on pretence, they will seldom if ever return to reality. That is the secret of successful politicians, evangelists and confidence tricksters – they believe they are telling the truth, even when they know that they have faked the evidence.” Tamar concludes by suggesting to her friend and colleague Julia that “Sincerity… is a quality not to be trusted.” Ah, the studied, deeply ingrained cynicism of the academic, the lawyer or, indeed, the novelist. As insightful and prescient in 2021 as it was in 2000 and will no doubt be in 2042. Where would we be without it?

Finally, almost as a concluding aside, interestingly it appears that Caudwell’s books were at the time (and perhaps still) more popular in the USA than the UK, and certainly the American paperback editions have marvellous Edward Gorey illustrations. There is therefore a great temptation to pick these up from the second hand sellers and be damned with the ever-receding amount of available shelf space. Life is too short and all that.

Tiny Moments #216

The air is still filled with chill, but the sun is tricking some into believing that warmer days are coming. In the Lower Comberoy copse I spy the first blanket of Bluebells, whilst over the Killerton Clump floats the first hot air balloon flight of the season. It advertises Bath Gin, another hopeful cipher for a brighter future.

In the ’70s

A quick search in my reading list archive tells me that I have read forty two George Bellairs novels in the past three years, and whilst most of them have been at the very least highly enjoyable, the latest on that list (‘Murder Adrift’ and ‘Devious Murder’, originally published in 1972 and 1973 respectively) have sadly been amongst the weakest. Written towards the end of a highly productive career, neither of these titles seem to go much of anywhere other than to idle around somewhat sedate plot lines. It’s a great shame, because when Bellairs is at his best he is a tremendously engaging writer. For what it’s worth, my favourites amongst those forty plus books featuring series detective Inspector Littlejohn are without doubt those set on the Isle of Man. Bellairs settled there after life as a bank manager, and his island novels really are thinly disguised love letters to the landscape. The crimes and the detection are almost secondary to the sense of place and local character, his fondness for the island and the people coming through with warmth and astutely observed detail. By the time of these 1970s novels, though, the places the tales are set in seem nondescript and the characters bland. If we were being kind perhaps we could say that’s just a reflection of the times, but they are certainly not books that I would recommend as starting points for exploring Bellairs’ work.

Also from the 1970s come a series of books by Anne Morice, newly republished by those fine folks at Dean Street Press, featuring serial character of jobbing actor Tessa Crichton and with cover imagery seemingly beamed direct from ‘sophisticated’ TV dramas of the period. Now our previous visit to the reissue action of the DSP had us enjoying four detective stories by Cecil Waye and rather wishing that the most interesting character (the terrific Vivienne) had not been married off and written out after the first. I’m delighted to say that Morice trips on only one of these hazards, and it’s hardly a spoiler to say that the charming young man that Crichton spots in the pub early in ‘Death In The Grand Manor’ has by the time of the next novel become her husband. Indeed, the title of that second instalment in the series, ‘Murder In Married Life’ rather gives the game away. As a Scotland Yard Inspector (I have not read further in the series, but I imagine that he Rises Through The Ranks and becomes at least a Chief Inspector) he is perfectly positioned to supply Tessa with juicy problems to which she may lend her charms.

Now let me say straight away that I am not a fan of the fashion for describing certain detective novels from any age as ‘cosy’. I understand the marketing strategies behind such a move, but it feels lazy, and reflects a thoroughly inaccurate reading (or wilful reframing) of older texts. With this in mind then, let me stress that Anne Morice’s novels are not ‘cosy’, but they are certainly hugely entertaining and witty. A contemporary review by Edmund Crispin describes the first Tessa Crichton book ‘Death In The Grand Manor’ as a “charming whodunit….full of unforced buoyancy”, going on to suggest it as a “remedy for existentialist gloom.” Let us not forget that Crispin himself was certainly prone to bouts of existential gloom, but that he also penned some marvellously entertaining detective stories featuring the tremendous character of Gervaise Fen. One wonders too if his frankly bonkers (in a good way) swansong ‘Glimpses of the Moon’ (published in 1977) was not at least in part inspired by the kinds of words Morice was penning for Tessa Crichton. Frances Iles is typically more restrained, suggesting that ‘Death…’ is “a most attractive lightweight”. If that feels somewhat close to being damned by faint praise, then it likely says more about Iles than it does about Morice.

Of course one is unlikely to be reading detective fiction from the 1970s for much more than entertainment value, and that is fine. Indeed it is one of its primary attractions. But Morice has a charming manner of cloaking quite barbed quips in comfortable attire. On marriage she has Tessa note that “One of the few snags I had encountered in married life was the obligation to account to one other person for one’s behaviour; and this was never more acute than in cases where the behaviour was unlikely to obtain the other person’s blessing and approval”, whilst at another point Crichton refers to a piece of sci-fi theatre with a description that feels uncomfortably prescient: “It was set in the year two thousand and something and the author’s comforting idea was that by then the computers would have taken charge of just about everything, from foreign policy down to bingo, with the result that Man had lost the power of self expression and was reduced to conversing in grunts and loosely connected monosyllables.” A more accurate description of Social Media interactions I have yet to read.

Then there is this uncomfortably amusing blast that reminds us how the BREXIT spirit of the 21st Century England ‘Daily Mail’ reader is nothing new: “there was nothing of the Dresden china about this particular little old lady. She was more of a retired Boadicea waging an implacable armchair-war against, predictably enough, immigrants, civil servants, motorists, pedestrians, abstract art, pop music and central heating.” Perhaps Morice had just seen Thatcher on the television.

Elsewhere she drops some delicious little meta droplets of knowing reference, with one character telling Tessa “for God’s sake don’t get the idea that you’re Miss Marple, and start asking all and sundry what they were doing between four and six o’clock, on Saturday, 3rd August.” before dropping the marvellous “‘I’ve lost the thread again,’ Toby said, appealing to Robin. ‘Have you any idea what this is all about?’ ‘Not a glimmer.’”

Losing the thread or not (and sometimes that is part of the pleasure), I admit that I have enjoyed these first two Anne Morice novels more than enough to explore further. And with eight more titles available in this current reissue flourish and a further ten due in July, there is certainly plenty in which to indulge.

Everything changes. Everything stays the same.

Did you watch the ‘Blitz Spirit’ show on the BBC earlier this week? It is not the sort of thing I would have watched normally but admit I was intrigued due to having recently read ‘A Chelsea Concerto’. For those in the dark, ‘A Chelsea Concerto’ is a memoir of the London Blitz by artist and author Frances Faviell, and it was used as one of the ‘voices’ in Lucy Worsley’s BBC show. Now I understand that some people have difficulty with Lucy Worsley but in these times it seems like everyone has difficulties with someone and with numerous platforms from which to express themselves it all gets rather tedious (yes, this sentence is heavy in irony). Heaven help future historians attempting to make any sense of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, picking through the innumerable source streams in attempts to piece together some sort of objective truth. Perhaps by then all notions of objective truth will be laughably archaic in themselves, and digital decay will mean that the problem will be a dearth of evidence rather than a glut, but who knows what the future holds? Perhaps they, like us looking back at The Blitz, will discover a fragment of unused propaganda and mutate it into a contemporary myth. Stranger things have happened.

So full disclosure: I like Lucy Worsley. She does the difficult job of condensing complex historical webs into something accessible and entertaining very successfully. Not being a History scholar I’m not best positioned to make a judgement on this, but I suspect this question of Information As Entertainment is something that all Historians struggle with, both in terms of trusting sources and making their own work. Does Worsley herself battle with the demons that say when to twist objective facts into subjective ones? I expect she must. Certainly she does this in ‘Blitz Spirit’ with the suggestion that Faviell and her husband Richard are already married when the Blitz begins. In ‘Chelsea Concerto’ it is clear this is not the case, and indeed the marriage (Faviell’s second) takes place in the midst of the bombing. It’s a tiny detail, and one I completely understand Worlsey making in order to make the script tighter, but still, it does make one wonder about what other details may have been flexed in order to fit the preferred narrative. The suspicion is that there may be many, but that’s part of the  deal. The action of editing is an integral part of how we tell and record stories after all, which in turn is how we shape and understand History. Indeed, that’s a big part of what Worsley tells us in the show. She makes this explicit in exploding the modern myth about the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster, and in unpacking the untruths within the famous photograph of the milkman in the rubble, but it’s also implicit in the texts she accesses in order to move her narrative along. ‘A Chelsea Concerto’ itself is a memoir written after the fact. Published in 1959 it was Faviell’s final book before her early death from cancer and one can only assume she used a modicum of artistic license in its creation. It’s not a work of fiction of course, but it is well structured and finely nuanced. It will have been revised and tweaked in various drafts, pulled apart and pieced together again. That’s how most good writers work, after all.

Faviell’s attention to detail is one of her strengths, and her artists’ eye picks out the visual beauty in the often brutal environment. I particularly like her description of the barrage balloons in the phoney war “going up slowly and awkwardly like drunken fish”. She makes reference to other contemporary artists in the book too, notably Elliot Hodgkin who survived the war and and former Bright Young Thing Rex Whistler who did not. Elsewhere she suggests that the war torn skies are as something from Blake, or, in a description of the sky over The City during the infamous December 29th 1940 raid as being  “awful – although beautiful, a brilliant blood-red – the kind of sky in which Turner would have delighted.” Worsley picks up this line too, although sadly neglects the Turner reference, before going on to analyse the famous photograph of St Pauls. She shows how the image is edited to omit the broken buildings in the foreground, another example of how what we choose to leave out says as much, if not more, that what we choose to include.

Now I’ve never been much of a one for drawing parallels between The Blitz and the COVID pandemic. It has always seemed to me that the difference in context is just too immense, so that any similarities are at best coincidental and ultimately demeaning to those involved in both eras. I suspect Worsley feels much the same, although with the timing of ‘Blitz Spirit’ in celebrating the 80th anniversary falling as it does, the programme cannot help but suggest that experiences of communal support and togetherness (as well as division, anger and frustration) may be similar. Faviell perceptively notes that “when a thing has to be endured continuously it becomes an accepted everyday fact, whereas when there are gaps it reappears with redoubled horror.” Or, at least in the case of the pandemic, repeated surge waves of infection lead to redoubled frustration and anger with Government, perhaps.

Another thing that Worsley makes clear in ‘Blitz Spirit’ which I suspect may not go down too well with traditionalists wedded to the modern myth of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ is the notion that The Blitz Spirit was one dimensional in its unyielding positivity. Worsley is hardly being revisionist in suggesting that the reality was much more complex and nuanced, but I dare say there will be those who will revile her for daring to suggest that there may have been cracks in the armour of Public Spirit. Even Faviell, who throughout the majority of ‘A Chelsea Concerto’ is fundamentally positive and full of  what has become the stereotype of Blitz Spirit, occasionally descends into bouts of despair and doubt. It’s only natural.

Looking back from 80 years in the future, one of the things that feels most poignant is how Faviell reports on the attitudes of many Londoners to anyone not falling into some blinkered classification of ‘English’.  She suggests that “many of the people [had] complained at having foreigners in the shelter” whilst “the host of foreigners, many of whom had lived all their lives in Britain, now found themselves regarded as ‘aliens’, and treated with wary guardedness by those who had known them all their lives.”

Faviell, herself well travelled and educated, proved herself of tremendous value to a community of Flemish refugees, and her tales of these characters are amongst the most entertaining and touching in the book. Yet as she points out, “language is no barrier to friendship, nor is knowledge of other countries necessary in helping foreigners.” Everything changes. Everything stays the same.

‘A Chelsea Concerto’ is certainly a tremendous page-turner, by turns exceptionally harrowing and touchingly perceptive and poetic. Reading it now, some 80 years on from the events Faviell recounts, we may sometimes be tempted to slip into the comfortable pleasure of Knowing How It Ends even before we reach the final chapters, but even here there are deep caverns to navigate, each one eloquently picked out in powerfully spare prose.

One of the must brutal aspects of the work that Faviell volunteered for must surely have been the assemblage of assorted body parts and flesh into something resembling a complete body for burial. Typically, Faviell refuses to shy away from describing the process in a way that manages to convey the necessary emotional detachment and a sensitivity that is palpable. Intriguingly, she also tells us that “this task dispelled for me the idea that human life is valuable – it could be blown to pieces by blast – just as dust was blown by wind.” That’s an enormously powerful admission to make, perhaps particularly for a nurse (volunteer or not). It’s also perhaps a particularly late 20th Century response, anticipating the growing existential crisis building through the 1950s into the ’60s and beyond.

It is clear, however, that even if for Faviell the value of human life had been exposed as an illusion, there remains still a deeply experienced emotional response. “The feeling uppermost in my mind after every big raid was anger” she says. “Anger at the lengths to which humans could go to inflict injury on one another.” Everything changes. Everything stays the same.

‘A Chelsea Concerto’ is published by Dean Street Press and Furrowed Middlebrow
‘Blitz Spirit’ is available on BBC iPlayer: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000sm7s

Unpop 195

“I’m a bear in hibernation, I don’t worry about the world.” Download Disc 1

Where we stand, flowers will grow again – Experimental Spanish Radio Station (EP. Bandcamp)
Waking Up In A Field – epic45 (from ‘Cropping The Aftermath’ LP. Bandcamp)
I Love You (Restrained In A Moment) – Royal Family & The Poor (from ‘The Temple of the 13th Tribe’ LP)
Inner Garden – Alexia Avina (from ‘Unearth’ LP. Bandcamp)
Black Widow – Trees (from ‘Trees’ LP 50th anniversary edition. Bandcamp)
November on my Mind – The Left Outsides (from ‘Are You Sure I Was There?’ LP. Bandcamp)
Another Door – The Bats and associates (from ‘Foothills’ LP. Bandcamp)
The Theology of Adventure – Dawn Landes (from ‘Row’ LP. Bandcamp)
Evidence of a Bear – Sarah Louise (from ‘Floating Rhododendron’ LP. Bandcamp)
Hibernation – Annika Norlin
Back Behind the Eyes Again – Chloe Alison Escott (from ‘Stars Under Contract’ LP. Bandcamp)
Count Your Blessings – Theatre Royal (from ‘Portraits’ LP. Bandcamp)
Wolf Count – The Mountain Goats (from ‘Getting Into Knives’ LP. Bandcamp)
Dark Clouds – Pauline Murray (from ‘Elemental‘ LP)
Rainy Fall – Tango With Lions (from ‘A Long Walk’ LP. Bandcamp)
Summer Boy – East River Pipe (from ‘We Live In Rented Rooms’ LP. Bandcamp)
Forgotten Names – The Reds, Pinks & Purples (from ‘You Might Be Happy Someday’ LP. Bandcamp)
Gruesome Castle – The Wake (on ‘Here Comes Everybody + Singles’ LP)
Soft Evening, Brilliant Morning – Trembling Blue Stars (from ‘Country Music Songs For Keith Girdler’ LP)
Hiemalis – Kinbote (from ‘Shifting Distance’ LP. Bandcamp)
Forest House – Doves (from ‘The Universal Want’ LP)
The Fading Light – The Apartments (from ‘In and Out of the Light’ LP. Bandcamp)

“Remember November, lying in the dark.” Download Disc 2

Ellemwood Meditation – Sally Anne Morgan (from ‘Thread’ LP. Bandcamp)
Song of the Shingle – The Drift (CD and pamphlet from Longbarrow Press. Digital Download on Bandcamp)
Hela’r Dryw Bach – Burd Ellen (from ‘Says The Never Beyond’ LP. Bandcamp)
Golden Neighbourhood / Closing of The Quarters – trappist afterland (from ‘Seaside Ghost Tales’ LP. Bandcamp)
Mutilated Land – Ben Edge (from ‘New Tradition’ LP. Bandcamp)
Started Again – This Is The Kit (from ‘Off Off On’ LP. Bandcamp)
Orpheus Beach – The Clientele (digital single. Bandcamp)
It Doesn’t Have To Be True – Snails (from ‘Hard Wired’ LP. Bandcamp)
Northern Slopes – Davey Woodward And The Winter Orphans (from ‘Love and Optimism’ LP. Bandcamp)
The Power Of Prayer – Bruce Springsteen (from ‘Letter To You’ LP)
Losing My Religion – Quivers (digital single. Bandcamp)
go your own way (piano version) – Elizabeth (from ‘The Wonderful World of Nature’ deluxe edition LP. Bandcamp)
New Neighbour – U.S.Highball (from ‘Up Top High Doh’ LP. Bandcamp)
Memory Tone – Anton Barbeau (from ‘Manbird’ LP. Bandcamp)
Fear It – Sulka (digital single. Bandcamp)
These Days Are Ours – Candy Opera (from ‘The Patron Saint of Heartache’ LP. Bandcamp)
Meet the Lovely Jenny Brown – The Bachelor Pad (from ‘All Hash and Cock’ LP. Bandcamp)
Quiero conocer (por tu actitud) – AIKO EL GRUPO (digital single. Bandcamp)
Say Goodbye – Riff Doctors (from ‘Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987’ LP. Bandcamp)
When All That We Hold Decays – The Luxembourg Signal (from ‘The Long Now’ LP. Bandcamp)

Partial playlist on Spotify

Full playlist on Mixcloud

unpop 194

Download Disc 1
Download Disc 2

Autumn Arrives – gnac (from ‘Early Recordings vol 4’ LP)
Magpie Lane – Belbury Poly (from ‘The Gone Away‘ LP)
Layers of Regret – The Leaf Library (from ‘About Minerals’ LP. Bandcamp)
Above Our Heads – Sam Prekop (from ‘Comma’ LP. Bandcamp)
Buildings Aren’t Haunted, People Are – epic45 (from ‘Cropping The Aftermath’ LP. Bandcamp)
Into Autumn – Peter Rogers (from ‘The Stubborn Light Of Things’ LP. Bandcamp)
The Murderous Huntsman – David A Jaycock (from ‘Murder, and the Birds’ LP. Bandcamp)
Three Ravens – The Rowan Amber Mill (from ‘Golden Strings To Tether The Sun’ LP. Bandcamp)
The Man Who Bended Time – trappist afterland (from ‘Seaside Ghost Tales’ LP)
Nothing Special – Trees (from ‘The Garden Of Jane Delawney’ LP and on ‘Trees’ LP 50th anniversary edition. Bandcamp)
Between A Breath And A Breath – Dyble Longdon (from ‘Between A Breath And A Breath’ LP. Bandcamp)
Mount Everest – Dawn Landes (from ‘Row’ LP. Bandcamp)
Pink Rabbits – Strand of Oaks (digital single. Bandcamp)
Get Famous – The Mountain Goats (from ‘Getting Into Knives’ LP. Bandcamp. YouTube)
Favourite Day – European Sun (from ‘European Sun’ LP. Bandcamp)
Strange World – PAINT (from ‘Spiritual Vegas’ LP. Bandcamp)
Holiday – The Pull of Autumn (from ‘Small Colors’ LP. Bandcamp)
Together We’re Alone – Theatre Royal (from ‘Portraits’ LP. Bandcamp)
Heart Shaped Clock – The Treasures of Mexico (7″ Single)
Crying Behind The Marquee – Emma Kupa (from ‘It Will Come’ LP. Bandcamp)

Thunder Road – Kevin Rowland (from ‘My Beauty‘ LP reissue)
Banksia – Alex The Astronaut (from ‘The Theory of Absolutely Nothing‘ LP)
It Don’t Rain in Beverly Hills (Original Mix) – Dean & Britta (from ’13 Most Beautiful: Songs For Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests’ LP)
Six Syllables – The Very Most (from ‘The Very Most Needs Help’ LP. Bandcamp)
I’ll Probably Be Asleep – Hachiku (from ‘I’ll Probably Be Asleep’ LP. Bandcamp)
Old Before We’re Young – Jules in Trouble (from ‘Dark Jewels’ EP. Bandcamp)
Eel Drip – Penelope Trappes (from ‘Eel Drop’ EP. Bandcamp)
The Turning of Our Bones – Arab Strap (single)
The Last Exit – Still Corners (digital single. Bandcamp)
Never Gonna Let You Go – THE YEARNING (from ‘Only When I’m Dancing’ LP. Bandcamp)
Always In Love – A Certain Ratio (from ‘ACR Loco‘ LP)
Secrets – Pauline Murray (from ‘Elemental‘ LP)
7 Seconds – Porridge Radio (digital single. Bandcamp)
Corporate Indie Band – Swansea Sound (digital single. Bandcamp)
If You Ain’t Got Love – The Veras (7″ single)
Country Pancake – The Bachelor Pad (from ‘All Hash and Cock’ LP. Bandcamp)
Siberian Butterfly – Bob Mould (from ‘Blue Hearts’ LP. Bandcamp)
Lost Cause – The Persian Leaps (from ‘Smiling Lessons’ LP. Bandcamp)
Skyway – The Replacements (from ‘Pleased To Meet Me’ reissue)
Sue’s – Throwing Muses (from ‘Sun Racket’ LP. Bandcamp)
Autumn Song – Sneaky Feelings (from ‘The Mercury Moment’ LP. Bandcamp)
Pocketful of Sunshine – The Apartments (from ‘In and Out of the Light’ LP. Bandcamp)

Full playlist on The Mixcloud

Partial playlist on The Spotify

Tiny Moments #155 (Lockdown edition #26)

To Sidmouth again, where I stop and sit on a prom bench in order to fix a loose shoe plate. Behind me a trader sells lobster and gin from a table in front of his restaurant whilst the beach in front looks as busy as I have seen it for a long time. A discarded transparent green beachball trundles past, blown by the wind and bouncing off the railings. It looks like the marble in Mousetrap.