Can’t Get There From Here

Do you ever stand in your younger self’s shoes, glance into the future and wonder how on earth you got there from here? Tony King does this in ‘The Tastemaker’, wondering at the end of the book how his young self in Eastbourne, hearing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ for the first time, could possibly believe the way in which the/his future was about to unfurl. A life spent living the rock’n’roll dream, yet doing so essentially under the radar. A life lived with the likes of Elton John, The Rolling Stones and John Lennon. Fairy tales are more believable.

To say that ‘The Tastemaker’ is a memoir is something of a red herring, for really it is a scattershot mix of moments clipped from the dipping wings of memory; anecdotes stitched together into some semblance of chronological narrative form. To say that it barely hangs together as a book is a criticism only in so much as one gets the distinct feeling that the written word is by far the least effective medium for Tony King to be sharing these escapades and observations. They read like short bursts of excited, barely connected slippages of time. You can almost hear the gaps between the paragraphs being filled with King taking a moment before saying “and then there was the time when…” or “did I ever tell you about…” and off again in a breathless charge into the sequinned spangle of the past. There is a definite sense that ‘The Tastemaker’ would be best experienced as a series of meetings in an exclusive club where the clientele are the holograms or 22nd Century avatars of the “legends and geniuses of rock music” whose life King has shared. A club where you might be thrilled beyond belief to have been invited to but in which, after a little while, you are not entirely certain you would like to stay for the long haul.

I have long had a problem with the notion of ‘genius’. It seems to me that not only is it often so easily bandied about as to be meaningless, but it also diminishes the very qualities that make individuals successful. Leaving aside the complexities of defining ‘success’, it strikes me that the term ‘genius’ infers some ineffable natural quality that in turn effectively masks the requirement for hard work to turn that quality into something worthwhile. The mediation of ‘geniuses’ perpetuates this mythology, but that is part of the role of the Entertainment Industry after all. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. The man who, in many instances throughout the 1960s and certainly the 1970s, was Tony King. Working as hard as the artists he was promoting and having almost as much of a ball whilst doing so. Perhaps more so, since he would be all but invisible outside of the rarified circles he mixed in. ‘Celebrity’ must be a curse in many respects, but such is the price.

‘The Tastemaker’, however, is hardly a book to fully lift the curtain of Oz and reveal the grubby inner workings. Such an action would surely be entirely alien to Tony King, a man whose loyalty and common courtesy emanate graciously from the pages just as effectively as does his devotion to the music he felt driven to worship and serve. There are far too many extraordinary anecdotes in the book to single out any for particular note but all of them reverberate gloriously with a warmth and presence that encapsulates the era in which they take place. Historical details contextualise everything in a marvellous flickery haze, like watching home movies in a living room clouded by smoke rather than the blockbusters of the time in cavernous cinemas. Or, to put it in musical terms, like having Elton John perform ‘Your Song’ in your front room rather than in Madison Square Garden. There is an illusory intimacy that is surely not altogether accidental. It might be a glimpse behind a curtain, but there is too an implicit understanding that there is more hidden somewhere else. Curtains cloaking curtains. Rooms within rooms. As I said, fairy tales seem more real than this. We love to suspend belief, or at least to edit our gaze.

Reading ’The Tastemaker’ it is tempting to wonder whether the times for the likes of John Lennon, Elton John, The Rolling Stones or Tony King might ever truly come again. Do these ‘legends’ belong to a distinct moment in time when Popular Culture was globally homogenised to the balancing point where shared experience was at its peak? A point from where it teetered precariously for the merest blink of an eye before plunging into the maelstrom of a torrent where distinct streams became ever more fractured and where ‘global’ recognition became lessened and shorn of value? Or is that just me projecting my own experience? Out of touch, clueless and blissfully so. Perhaps someone will write a similar book in time where names like Ed Sheeran will reverberate with the same qualities as Lennon and Jagger. And fair play if they do. Whatever…

So do you ever stand in your younger self’s shoes, glance into the future and wonder how on earth you got there from here? My own younger self would surely, like Tony King, gaze on my own unfurling future and think “what the hell…?” In turn I think the same when glancing in the rearview mirror. Head shakes. Discomfort and disbelief. No regrets, but still. Fuck sake.

There is none of this in ‘The Tastemaker’ but you have to think there is at least the possibility such moments might have passed. Perhaps not. Perhaps that’s just another one of those traits of ‘successful’ people. One of the elements that make up ‘genius’. Don’t look back. And if you do, ignore the leering unpleasantness you might see there. At most, add a faint wash of sorrow and a hint of gracious regret that is always qualified with “but what could I do?” Mostly though, celebrate the magic, the beauty and the value of the friendships. That and the love of the cats that you meet on the way…

It Must Be Hell

or All The Way Down With The Stones’ ‘Undercover’
by William Crain

Lately he found himself wondering how he had ever cared passionately about anything, thoughts not originating from tough guy bravado but born of a genuine confusion over where those passionate feelings had gone and more importantly how the spark that ignited them in the first place had been extinguished. He felt dead inside, like his soul had already left his body and the rest of him was just hanging around doing time.  

He wanted to ask a priest about the soul leaving the body long before death – was it possible? But he couldn’t think of a way to approach the subject. You go to a priest to try and talk mystical/spiritual questions and they hit you with the mundanity of leading an orderly, obedient life and if you go to them with ordinary day to day cares they come back with the lofty spiritual stuff.  Maybe they didn’t have a line on nothing. Or maybe they were all secret Taoists slapping him with some paradoxical wisdom that was just not taking the desired effect.

In any case the only thing he could really connect with at the moment was the Rolling Stones album ‘Undercover’ from 1983. It was a violent album. Lots of sharp edges, sounds jumping out of the mix, screaming, ugly lyrics about ugly things and production ideas that seemed surprisingly modern for the stones (dub, new wave, post punk, the pop group even exclaimed J. Cope on hearing ‘Undercover of the Night’).  The album sounded violent because violence was its subject matter.  ‘Undercover’ was a ‘Some Girls’ for the 1980’s with the latter’s preoccupation with sex and licentiousness replaced with world weariness, violence and corruption.

But he didn’t feel especially violent. That was not what he related to in the album, although when emotions begin to die often you’re left only with anger, but here it was the Stones confusion that he related to. They sounded angry and confused and were pointing a finger at the world outside as the culprit: dictatorships in Latin and South America, corrupt officials, death cops, underworld dealings, everything moved secretly by unseen hands, by money, sex, and power. But still they seem to have some lingering doubts as if it’s also the inside where the corruption is coming from as much as the fallen world outside. Harkening back to their “I shouted out who killed the Kennedys? When after all it was you and me” territory. Or maybe they’re realising that line between the inside and outside either didn’t exist or had dissolved through the passing aeons.

In many ways ‘Undercover’ is an album whose time has finally come both sonically and lyrically. Witness the lyrics to ‘Undercover of the Night’, the opener and best song on side one – “the race militia has got itchy fingers, all the way from New York back to Africa.” And “hear the screams of centre 42, loud enough to bust your brains out, the oppositions tongue is cut in two, keep off the streets you’re in danger”. Cuddle up baby indeed and keep it all out of sight.

So in the second song ‘She Was Hot’ Jagger and company attempt to banish the more disturbing aspects of the soul sucking darkness by seeking solace in the place they always found it in the past, their female admirers. But in ‘She Was Hot’ the singer sounds somehow both over and underwhelmed at the intensity of emotions on display. The emphasis is on the female: “she was hot, she was quick, she was strong, she was black, she was lost”. The singer appears bemused and uninvolved with the strong emotions on display. And so he leaves unfulfilled and even more puzzled than before. No solace here. He decides to head back to the “human zoo”. 

Back at the human zoo which he calls home Jagger is the recipient of a version of the same violence he’s been seeing in the streets and hearing about on the news. The third track ‘Tie Me Up (Pain of Love)’ bemoans “you’re deaf to it, blind to it, it’s like a thunderclap, feel the prickles running up and down your back, why so divine, the pain of love”.  The stones much like the rest of humanity have a long history of mingling sex and violence but here the total effect is just more alienation and anger rather than a turn on – “you have to work for it, pay for it, bust your ass, lie for it, cheat for it, forget about your past” which leads to the ultimate question “looking back, cut the crap, was it really worth the rap? Its hard to survive the pain of love”. Once again none of the old distractions, the old highs or the old goofs are working to dispel the despair and the darkness.

Next we take a quick break from the action and despair to hear Keith warble ‘Wanna Hold You’.  It’s a slight uptempo song, but not unpleasant and gives you a rest from the grimness that otherwise abounds on the record while also cueing us up for the end of side two and the giant space out that is ‘Feel on Baby’, wherein the stones aurally disassociate from their troubles by turning off some of their senses to amplify others and in the process produce a hypnotic reggae groove that has none of the tentative by numbers quality of their previous efforts at the genre.  The presence of Sly Dunbar no doubt helped. It’s an appropriately numbed out/on the nod way to end a side in which reality has literally left you black and blue. Mick concludes “Wanderlust and love disease, Taken over and strangled me, Cure my body, make me whole, feed my body, feed my soul”. Well we shall see, we still have a whole album side left after all.

Side Two continues our journey all the way down. ‘Too Much Blood’ opens the ‘back side’ as they call it on the label and it’s definitely the high point of the second side. We are now back in the proverbial shit. Sonically it’s another song that displays more modern influences (early 80’s) with delay on the rhythm guitar figure (a very un-stones like part apparently played by their guitar roadie Jim Barber) and a horn chart (also with heavy effects) that brings to mind pigbag or teardrop explodes’ first album.  Lyrically we remain in extremely grim and gruesome territory with Jagger referencing the horrifying story of Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa. The Stranglers beat the Stones to the punch here by detailing this sordid tale on their 1981 song ‘La Folie’.  

Jagger’s vocal is by his own admission largely improvised and revolves around the media’s unhealthy fascination with true crime. “I can feel it everywhere, feel it up above, feel the tension everywhere, there’s too much blood.”. He then humorously mentions watching ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (‘orrible wasn’t it) saying people ask him do they really do that in Texas. One is left wondering why people would ask Jagger about Texas, but then again by this time he was dating Texas model Jerry Hall. Jagger then cops to preferring movies that are “more romantic, like ‘An Officer and A Gentleman’”. Ah what an old softie. I bet Keith preferred ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’. 

Ron Wood’s ‘Pretty Beat Up’ uneventfully follows. Reportedly neither Keith nor Mick were too happy about it’s inclusion on the record. Call it throwing Mr. Wood a bone or giving the Woodie some. It’s pretty much the definition of filler just a mid tempo r&b song that goes nowhere fast with Jagger repeating the title ad infinitum while David Sanborn noodles on sax in the background. No Sonny Rollins moments of brilliance here like on ‘Tattoo You’. It’s the weakest track on the record, but not unpleasant, sort of like one of the lesser tossed off numbers on ‘Some Girls’. It gives you time for your mind to wander or to empty your bladder, possibly both.

‘Too Tough’ is a vintage 70’s sounding Stones number built around a catchy if slightly generic guitar riff. Here we find Jagger regrouping and trying to ground himself back in his old impenetrable heart of stone character of youth.  “When it comes to fighting, trying to play it rough, I will take you twenty rounds, I’m just too tough”. But the past as Elis Regina sang is like an old shirt that doesn’t fit so well anymore. And you feel like he’s trying to convince himself as much as anyone else about his own toughness and prowess. And it’s not working. 

‘All The Way Down’ is the penultimate track. Here Mick reminisces about a girl that taught him things in bed “she showed me love a hundred ways, she went all the way, all the way down”. It has that strange paradoxical Stones thing where they appear to be both celebrating and denigrating their female protagonist. “How the years rush by, birthdays, kids and suicides. Still I play the fool and strut. Still you’re a slut”. Not very charming but they’ve been mining this vein successfully for years. And like the character in ‘Too Tough’ it continues the theme of a retreat to old stances, things that worked in the past but not so much in the present. Still not ready to believe it we find Mick asking “Was every minute just a waste? Was ever hour a foolish chase? I don’t believe it”.

‘Undercover’ ends with the song ‘It Must Be Hell’, which cheekily nicks the guitar hook from John Cougar’s ‘Hurts So Good’ which was of course a Stones pastiche to begin with. Lyrically here they seem to be distancing themselves from the hellish world the rest of us have to live in, or at least hedging their bets. “Our TV leader boldly speaks, the words of Christ he tries to preach, we need more power to hold the line, the strength of darkness still abides”. But then the kiss off chorus “It must be hell living in the world, suffering in the world like you”.  

A bit condescending and insolent but then again equal parts insolence and arrogance has always been a large part of the Stones appeal. Strangely at the end of the song they seem take a different tack fading out with the repeated refrain “I say we, we are heaven bound”. Do we create our own suffering? Is our perception of the world only projection? And if so aren’t The Stones as guilty as the rest of us? 

You might think he or I or whoever the hell is writing this is reading too much into the meaning of largely forgotten Rolling Stones record. But while listening to the album my attention was drawn to the painting on the inner sleeve, which I had carelessly tossed to one side, the painting by Shozo Otawa is of two ripe apples on a branch. Surely the Stones placed it there as a metaphor for temptation, the Biblical fall of man and the subsequent state of the world? 

But then again it looks like the painting of apples also contains a buttocks similar to the one featured on the lower right hand of the back cover. That’s the thing about the Stones, part of what made em great really, sometimes apples aren’t a reference to a fallen world at all. Sometimes apples are just, well, butt-cheeks.

For me this is the last really interesting Rolling Stones record and also the last in which they engaged with larger musical trends of the day in an interesting and rewarding way.  As it remains largely unappreciated both by fans and by the Stones themselves, I hope this might open up the album or at least encourage some to revisit it with fresh ears. 

Addendum: There were three singles released from the  Undercover LP and all three have additional material and are essential for fans of the album. These versions together with the album and Julien Temple’s three distinctive videos would make an appealing deluxe edition but as the Stones and particularly Keith have never been fond of this album don’t hold your breath.

1. ‘Undercover of the Night’ – There are two different versions of this 12 inch, one that runs at 45 RPM and has a close up of the back cover buttocks and is labeled the extended cheeky mix in case you don’t get it. The other 12 inch runs at 33 1/3 and has cover art that is a variation on the LP cover.  Both are otherwise the same as far as tracks – An extended version of ‘Undercover of the Night’ that works well in building on the dance/dub flavor of the track and an almost psychedelic stripped down dub version of ‘Feel On Baby’ that emphasizes the bass, organ and harmonica.

2. ‘She Was Hot’ – The b-side of the ‘She Was Hot’ single is the otherwise unavailable ‘Think I’m Going Mad’, a song from the ‘Emotional Rescue’ sessions which though not exactly for the ages, might have been a good substitute for either Ron or Keith’s songs on the record. 

3. ‘Too Much Blood’ – The 12 inch has a twelve minute dance version by Arthur Baker which is very much of its time, but fascinatingly so. It gets really unusual in the last 4 minutes or so after Mick says “meanwhile back in the jungle”. Here more than anywhere you can hear Jagger’s love of early 80’s Clash extended mixes. There’s a quote (I can’t locate the source at the moment) where Jagger is talking about “all those great Clash 12 inches”. Additionally on the 12 inch is a dub version, also by Arthur Baker and just as weird as the dance version with what sounds like outtakes from Jagger’s vocal – Michael Jackson and Vincent Price get a mention, no doubt ‘Thriller’ was in rotation. There’s also a version on the 12 inch labeled album version which appears to have a longer running time than the album version.

Unpop 227

Invitation (feat. Ratboys and Mo Troper) – Ducks Ltd. (digital single)
Found Footage – quatermass 3 (from ‘Music for Most Occasions vol 1‘ EP)
Mod Girl – Steve Stoeckel (from ‘The Power of And‘ LP)
Touch Too Much – Arrows (from ‘The Complete Arrows Collection‘ 2CD set)
I’m A Stranger – The Action(from ‘Deviation Street: High Times In Ladbroke Grove – 1967-1975‘ 3CD Box Set)
Mrs Richie – Tony Rivers and The Castaways (from ‘Move A Little Closer – The Complete Recordings 1963-1970‘ 3CD Box Set)
Let Me In – The Osmonds (from ‘The Plan’ LP)
Hasbrook Heights – Dionne Warwick (from ‘Dionne’ LP)
You’re A Star – Aquarian Dream (from ‘The Greatest Soul/Funk & Disco 12″ Singles Of The 70s and 80s‘ 4CD Box Set)
Pre-Code Hollywood (feat. Nile Rodgers) – Jonathan Bree (from ‘Pre-Code Hollywood‘ LP)
Unconscious Rivals – Hairband (from ‘Under The Plow‘ cassette)
Arch Nemesis – Dancer (from ‘Dancer‘ cassette)
Weapon Of Love – Blone Noble (digital single)
Hobbies – Lichen Slow (from ‘Rest Lurks‘ LP)
So In the Moment – Belle and Sebastian (from ‘Late Developers‘ LP)
Jet – Iron Virgin (from ‘Teenage Glampage – Can The Glam 2‘ 4CD Box Set)
Waking Up (Radio Edit) – Withered Hand (from ‘How To Love‘ LP)
Big Air – Office Dog (digital single)
Lost Connection – Eric Silverman (from ‘Stay In It‘ LP)
Munich – Giant Brain (from ‘Grade A Gray Day‘ LP)

download part one

Delta – Crosby, Stills & Nash (from ‘Daylight Again’ LP)
Cowboy Raga – Delta (from ‘Singularity’ LP)
Days – Television (from ‘Adventure’ LP)
I’ll Remember – The Chameleons (from ‘Cherry Stars Collide – Dream Pop, Shoegaze & Ethereal Rock 1986-1995‘ 4CD Box Set)
Betweenness – GNAC (from ‘The Echoes on Departure‘ LP
(Half Light Of) the Cadmium Moon – Andrew Wasylyk (from ‘Parallel Light‘ LP)
Photographs Of Clouds – Peter Rogers (from ‘The Science of Imaginary Solutions‘ LP)
close your eyes – Áslaug Dungal (from ‘Drullumall 4‘ compilation LP)
Amarant – Troth (from ‘Forget The Curse‘ LP)
My Thoughts – Dana Gavanski (digital single)
Pass Back Through – L.T. Leif (from ‘Come Back To Me, But Lightly‘ LP)
This Heart Beats Black – The Declining Winter (from ‘Really Early, Really Late‘ LP)
Soundtrack for a Hummingbird – Goodparley x Shreddies (from ‘Soundtrack and Marine‘ cassette)
‘Heol Fanog’ – Gwenno (digital single)
Spoondrift – Pefkin (from ‘The Light Bends Inwards‘ LP)
Troon – Wohnen (digital track)
Go Dig My Grave – Lankum (from ‘False Lankum‘ LP)

download part two

Ready for Romance

If one or two of my more recent forays into the realm of detective fiction have left me a little tired then this is perhaps due to the fact that my attention has been somewhat diverted by Other Things. Notable amongst these have been visitations (and at times re-visitations) to the enormously rich body of work left by Ronald Blythe who passed at the start of 2023 aged one hundred years. What a life. I find Blythe’s writing to be deceptively soothing. Deceptive because there is, in his soft tone, something of the excitable school child flitting hither and thither. There is always a treasure trove of reference points to be chased when reading Blythe.

Yet despite his texts so often being tightly packed with jumping off points for exploration, Blythe also understands that Less Is More. There is little of the extraneous in his writing. Tangents veer off quite naturally and the lines loop exquisitely back into the design of the whole, like some magnificent illuminated manuscript carved as an Edward Bawden print block.

All of which means that my head has variously been turned by dips into John Clare, Francis Kilvert, James Woodforde and of course looking back at John Nash again. Paul too, naturally, and Ravillious and Bawden, all of whom seem to be quite fashionable (again). I’ve also been reading and looking at Thomas Hennell, who I have not noticed Blythe mention yet surely fits into the same universe, being a friend of Bawden and that circle. Hennell was also a lay preacher, which is a nice Blythe connection I suppose. Then there are Kurt Hutton’s photographs and James Hamilton-Paterson’s writing about Ships, Planes, Cars and Trains and the great dismantling of Britain (“the British disease in microcosm: laissez-faire government that, in its ideological obsession with shareholder profitability, puts off planning the nation’s infrastructure in the hope that private enterprise will take care of the future: something that has yet to happen anywhere on earth.”). All diverting and/or peerlessly riveting in turn.

Mostly though I have been distracted from detective fiction by more of those Furrowed Middlebrow books that the Dean Street Press have put out these past years. Foolishly I had turned my nose up at them for some time, assuming that they must surely be trashy romances. And whilst, yes, there is a lot of romance in their pages there is nothing trashy about them. Best leave that to the racey pulps, for which there is most certainly a place, just not perhaps in the drawing rooms of the millions of middle class readers who enjoyed the likes of Susan Scarlett and D.E. Stevenson in their prime.

I wrote about my discovery of Scarlett (or Noel Streatfeild if you prefer) a couple of months ago and really everything said there stands. There is still a place for froth and flimsy just as there is for fun’n’frenzy, and more of Streatfeild’s Scarlett novels remain on my to-be-read shelves as reliable backups for when the world gets just too dark and dreary to bear looking at. She’s been joined there by D.E. Stevenson, whose first Miss Buncle book I so enjoyed last year in a classy Persephone reissue. I admit I am looking forward to the remaining Buncle’s but there is so much else to discover and I rather think they might be lovely Spring and Summer reads, when the garden beckons and the warmth of the sun might heal so many wounds, physical and spiritual. Meanwhile it has been Stevenson’s ‘trilogy’ of novels from 1949 to 1951 that have most recently lit up the darkest depths of Winter.

In many ways 1949’s ‘Vittoria Cottage’ is the odd one out of the trilogy as it alone is set in the balmy Southern climes of England as opposed to the isolated rural farming landscapes of the Scottish Borders that root ‘Music In The Hills’ and ‘Winter and Rough Weather’ (aka ‘Shoulder The Sky’). ‘Vittoria Cottage’ is also the book in the trilogy that is most easily read as a standalone novel since the threads and characters that feed into the next two are fairly minimal. It’s a lovely book in its own right and is fired through with the kind of post-war detail and musing that I am increasingly a sucker for. There is uncertainty and confusion. There are characters struggling to cope with the aftermath of trauma. There are truckloads of insecurity and impulses for self-sacrifice. It might all be rather overwhelming were it not for Stevenson’s deftness of touch and core of warmth and humanity. One rather gets the feeling that Stevenson would ascribe to the notion that neither being an optimist or a pessimist make a difference to the outcome of anything, but that the optimist has a rather happier time waiting.

‘Vittoria Cottage’ then is an optimistic novel, as are ‘Rough Weather’ and ‘Music In The Hills’, in which there may be cads and blighters but you know that in the end Those Kinds Of People will be inevitably sad and empty (they do “nothing but chase pleasure from morning to night without ever catching up with it.”) and will get their comeuppance. Everything in the books is calculated to be largely free from risk and it is hardly a spoiler to say that in the isolating snow storm that inevitably descends in ‘Winter and Rough Weather’ there are no tragedies to speak of and all adventures end happily ever after. This is the kind of book that Stevenson wrote: unapologetically chirpy and none the worse for that. One can imagine them bringing solace to the hardship of a post-war world of rationing, just as they might do in our 21st Century when “the difficulty of existing [might make] existence hardly worth while…”

If ‘Vittoria Cottage’ does a vague job of introducing characters that will be at the heart of the remaining two books, and ‘Winter and Rough Weather’ plays on the resilience of love in the face of adversity (with a side of the unbelievable for good measure) then ‘Music In The Hills’ is the one which feels most wholeheartedly complete in itself. Here Stevenson indulges us with some tremendous invocations of landscape, where the imaginary Drumburly and Mureth are amalgams of aspects of the Scottish Border country that Stevenson, whose father was a first cousin to Robert Louis Stevenson, knew and loved. Whilst many of the place names are fictitious, Dumfries and Lockerbie are both mentioned as is Gretna Green. Indeed Gretna is mentioned in one of the most uncomfortable portions of the book in which closeted 14 year old Eleanor falls in love with a man twice her age and talks about running away to Gretna to get married. Perhaps she had been reading ‘Pride and Prejudice’. To be fair to Stevenson (and her key character of James Derring) the inappropriateness of that crush is well handled and Stevenson uses it to make a nice point about the ‘invisible’ nature of women’s desire. James, confused by the feelings engendered by unexpected devotion, rambles on about how “Girls never talk about men. It isn’t the right thing. It isn’t done. Girls talk about—about hockey and—and things like that.”” Eleanor replies doubtfully with ““I don’t think you’re right… At school the girls talked a lot about their boy-friends…””

‘Music In The Hills’ deals at its heart with notions of a woman’s place within a man’s world and if the views expressed are essentially conservative and traditionalist then at least they are contextualised within the period and none of the women characters are portrayed as anything but accomplished and stoic. Central to the book is Rhoda, an artist who exited ‘Vittoria Cottage’ with head held high and a heartbroken James Dering in her wake. In ‘Music In The Hills’ Rhoda again makes the point that “If I married I could go on painting as a hobby but not as a career. It’s different for a man. A man can do the thing he’s good at and be married too. A woman can’t.” Or can she? The fact that I have already noted that Stevenson is at core an optimist and that nothing particularly unexpected happens in the books might give you the answer to that particular question, but again this is hardly a spoiler. These books are essentially fairy tales for grown ups (one hesitates to say ‘adult’ for there are no Adult Themes in evidence, really) and there is not much wrong with that.

This realm of the Furrowed Middlebrow, then, is one that I find myself being pulled into more and more and there are so many things to discover. I find it intriguing that one can go through life almost ignorant of whole trenches of culture and that the discoveries one makes that feel excitingly unique are in fact quite obvious. It’s rather like ‘discovering’ The Beatles when one is 55 and feeling as though they may be a secret treasure. The ‘reality’ rather bumps one on the head. And of course I say ‘one’ when really all I mean is me. I’m sure that others are vastly different and know immeasurably more about all sorts of things. There was a time when that might have made me feel inferior and rather dim, but whilst I suspect there will always be a trace of that in my response to the world (it may be, as people are fond of saying, “in my DNA”, even though I suspect this is actually all but impossible scientifically speaking) I’m now quite happy to simply enjoy the discoveries and live the moments. James Hamilton-Paterson suggests that one “trick for avoiding the threat of the future [is] to live in the past”. If that is true then roll up Barbara Pym and Stella Gibbons. Let’s be having some more of Margaret Kennedy and E.M. Delafield. Let’s delve into more of the 40 books that D.E. Stevenson wrote in the space of 40 years. Line ‘em up. I’m ready for romance.

Dreary Mr Dodsley

John Ferguson’s ‘The Death of Mr Dodsley’ is entry number 111 in the on-going British Library Crime Classics series and might sadly be seen as further evidence of the project running out of steam. As suggested previously, this may be a case of my own attentions being (finally!) diverted into other avenues but there are certainly other treasures being unearthed elsewhere that I have enjoyed immeasurably more than anything the BLCC series has thrown up for a while, so this is not entirely the case.

‘The Death of Mr Dodsley’ follows an infatuation for positioning the books as being a particular ‘kind’ of mystery. In recent years we have had a stream of books touted as being place specific (a Staffordshire Mystery, A Paris Mystery, an Alpine Mystery, an Oxfordshire Mystery, and so on…) and others that have been ‘event’ specific (a Fireworks Night Mystery, a Second World War Mystery, a Christmas Crime Story). In this case ‘Mr Dodsley’ is the latest in the trend of the ‘bibliomystery’. Now I’m sure that pursuing thematic threads within the archives of the British Library is a diverting occupation, but I admit I grow rather weary of the fashion, and certainly of having the ‘kind’ of mystery laid out in subtitles. At least John Bude (or Ernest Elmore if you prefer) just came right out and proclaimed the particular geographical location in his titles and I must say that his ‘The Cornish Coast Murder’, ‘The Lake District Murder’ and ‘The Sussex Downs Murder’ remain some of my favourites in the BLCC series. Still, perhaps this kind of playing down to the audience by including banal subtitles is as much A Sign of The Times as the dreary reminders and disclaimers about language and portrayals of gender, race, sexuality or whatever that now appear at the front of each book. These feel like insults to intelligence, but I’m a curmudgeonly old white man, so what do I know? To be positive for a moment though (don’t expect this to last), it is certainly to Martin Edwards’ credit that his research furnishes us with some background on John Ferguson and a body of work which is now largely forgotten some seventy years after his death in 1952. Amongst this biographical information Edwards tells us that Ferguson could count Dorothy Sayers as a contemporary fan, but then there is no accounting for taste.

Now I should hate to suggest that either the estimable Edwards or Sayers might be wrong, and it is an inescapable fact that both are much more highly qualified to make judgement than me. Yet, quite simply, I just don’t think ‘The Death of Mr. Dodsley’ is very good. There is inevitably something about following formulas when writing detective or any genre of fiction, and I have no truck with that. The trick to success, however, is to make that formula invisible, or at the very least to make it dance in a delicious manner. Ferguson does not manage this. Instead the formula is all too visible; a stodgy mass that treads on our toes every time it takes a step. Ouch.

It starts off entertainingly enough with an opening scene in the Houses of Parliament and one wonders if perhaps we are in for something as good as ‘Red’ Ellen Wilkinson’s terrific ‘The Division Bell Mystery’. No such luck, as the action quickly shifts to a second hand bookshop off the Charing Cross Road and the discovery of the body of, yes, you guessed it, bookshop owner Mr Dodsley. From here we flit hither and thither, being introduced to a variety of characters, none of whom one feels particularly strongly about and all of whom one would be quite content to see unmasked as the murderer at the book’s denouement. It’s the kind of thing where one sees the obvious emerging from the clouds of mystery even before they have occurred to the writer, never mind the minds of the Scotland Yard chaps (and one private investigator) that Ferguson has summoned to solve the case. What are their names? I finished the book a couple of days ago and I can no longer remember. Sadly too I feel disinclined to open the pages to remind myself. Names are an irrelevance anyway, as the detectives are as unremarkable and forgettable as the cast of suspects who amble through the book telling fibs and hiding secrets, none of which are particularly shocking or interesting.

Whilst not as infuriatingly self-congratulatory as John Dickson Carter Dickson Carr at his insufferable ‘best’, Ferguson does nevertheless summon the spirit of that writer’s convolutions and so-called cleverness. Less smug and obtuse it may be, but ‘The Death of Mr Dodsley’ tries to be too clever by half and ends up being as dim and ditzy as the character who likes to pretend they are in the latest Hollywood film showing at the Gaumont. Perhaps when he wrote ‘Mr Dodsley’ Ferguson thought himself to be artfully playing with the form by weaving a kind of metafictional confection where the illusions of fiction rub shoulders with reference to’ real’ literary characters, but this is folly. Sadly the book just doesn’t have the wit to carry that off. The feet in those large policeman’s boots tread on our toes again as they attempt a feeble waltz. Ouch again.

With my past passing interest in Pop music, I cannot help but draw parallels between the archaeology of records and that of books. Yes, there are many, many great artefacts that have fallen between the cracks over the years and that glisten like marvellous treasure when brought back into the light. Similarly there are innumerable things that perhaps are best left where they are. Just as there is not necessarily anything remarkable about something that has become embedded in a cultural canon, there is nothing intrinsically interesting about something just because it is rare, or because it has been forgotten for a lengthy period of time. ‘The Death of Mr Dodsley’ then is like one of those peculiar oddities that act as fillers on extensive CD boxsets of ‘lost’ Indiepop singles. A curious aside, at best, but hardly a Classic. Time for the British Library publishing arm to move on?

An Air That Kills

Every so often I think I ought to pick up some kind of more, ah, contemporary crime fiction. After all, one must make some kind of effort to exist in the timescale one physically occupies, even if only tangentially. One cannot exist solely in that space between 1930 and 1950, after all. Whenever this urge is surrendered to, however, it inevitably seems to lead to disappointment. Anything that is contemporary both in writing and setting leaves me cold. Too much ‘gritty’ realism that is anyway never as good as Derek Raymond. I’m not even sure I would want to (re)read Raymond these days though, and whilst David Peace’s books would surely still read as strangely beautiful depictions of deranged psychedelic monstrosities I’m not at all sure I ever want to go there again either. So the idea of anyone ‘new’ doing anything ‘new’ just strikes me as something I don’t much need to consider. Fair play to everyone who does, mind. Different strokes.

It’s much the same with contemporary writers who play around with historical crime/detective fiction styles. Much as I want to enjoy them, the majority seem to succumb either to an unbearable tinge of ‘cozy’ nostalgia for a mediated and misunderstood illusion or to pepper the text with insufferably detailed points of historical reference to show off their skills in period research. I’m quite certain that in my turn I come across as unbearably pretentious and snobbish about such things, but there it is. Unpopular by name…

The fact that I not only finished Andrew Taylor’s ‘An Air That Kills’ but also rather enjoyed it, then, took me by surprise somewhat. Of course 1994 is hardly ’contemporary’, and my enjoyment of the book likely suggests that there is a turning point early in the 21st Century that might mark my (new) notional cut-off point of interest, but there we are. At least I’ve moved that point on from the 1980s, so I’m travelling forward, albeit slowly.

First in the ‘Lydmouth’ series of novels, I admit I was seduced into giving it a go not only by the fact that it was a 99p speculative punt on Kindle, but also because ‘Lydmouth’ sounds West Countryish. I thought perhaps Lynmouth and Lynton on the North Devon coast might be the inspiration, and sure enough the book opens with a train journey out of London Paddington, heading west. The book is set in the post-war period and part of me wondered too if we might be about to visit some crime committed under the tragic shadow of the 1952 flooding disaster, but no, the train instead heads away from Bristol towards Wales, where ‘Lynmouth’ becomes Lydney (or vice versa) and the story begins in earnest.

It is all quite earnest too, as it quickly becomes evident that we are in for a narrative that revolves mostly around the themes of secrets and wanted/unwanted babies. Viewed through the lens of 2023 it might feel somewhat uncomfortable that this theme of women and pregnancy should be written by a male voice and I admit that the thorny issues of gender identity and voice leave me confused about how I ought to be reading this. Suddenly thirty years seems like an age, which of course it is. It’s as long a period as between when ‘An Air That Kills’ is set to when it was written. This too fuddles my brain and convinces me that time is something that is hardly stable and linear but instead is at best elliptical and irrational. That’s a discussion best carried out under the influence of whisky and wine though.

So ‘An Air That Kills’ revolves around dead babies and secrets. There is nothing particularly surprising in any of it, except in that, perhaps, we visit such sordid events in a fictional historical landscape that we are more often encouraged to think of as Above All That. A nonsense of course, for as the book shows us, such vile unpleasantness has existed for centuries as an explicit element in the complexities of human nature. There is nothing new under the sun, it’s just that perhaps at different times one didn’t talk about it. Or write about it, except possibly in hints hidden beneath ermine cloaks in books that took ten pages to describe someone posting a letter. Or in detective books that concerned themselves more with the altogether more socially acceptable motives for murder such as money and, occasionally, passion (as opposed to Lust, which would be A Very Different Thing).

Andrew Taylor doesn’t take ten pages to describe posting a letter. In truth his writing is nicely paced and there is little time wasted on anyone expostulating at length about possible explanations for the bones of a baby found in an old cesspit beneath a crumbling hotel from the wrong side of the tracks. In truth too there is no great mystery about any of it, and I suspect that most people will see the truth rearing quite unpleasantly into view long before it is officially uncovered for us by Inspector Thornhill. Newly arrived in Lydmouth, Thornhill too helps supply an undertow of lust into proceedings, although it’s all a bit uncomfortable because the poor chap is struggling to control sexual urges that cannot/will not be sated by his wife, who is too busy looking after their children. This kind of idea that only men have sexual needs might well be a case of Taylor reflecting the period notions of expectation, but it nevertheless feels a little clumsy and awkward. Thirty years, as noted, is an awfully long time, and perhaps this thread is picked up and picked apart in future instalments as the hinted at ‘relationship’ between Thornhill and returning journalist Jill Francis is explored. One rather hopes so, and I admit that ‘An Air That Kills’ is an enjoyable enough start to a series to tempt me into finding out. Not sure I’ll want to take much more than another 99p punt though.

Coggin, Cockin and Cornish Comedic Crime Capers

Galileo Publishers has, in the past year or so, risen to being one of my favourite reissue houses, mostly on the back of the extraordinarily good series of Clifford Witting’s Inspector Charlton books that they have resurrected. His ‘Midsummer Murder’ was featured in the Unpopular advent series in December last year, whilst ‘Catt Out Of The Bag’ has made it firmly into my top ten of Seasonal Detective Novels and will no doubt be one that I shall enjoy again and again for years to come. Joan Coggin’s terrific ‘Dancing With Death’ was another richly enjoyable slice of seasonal fictional fare, and whilst not quite as top drawer as Witting’s offering it has nevertheless helped cement her place as one of my favoured purveyors of comedic criminality. ‘Dancing With Death’ was the fourth and final outing for Coggin and her magnificently scatterbrained character of Lady Lupin. Coincidentally (or more likely not) the book mirrored Lupin’s first outing (1944’s ‘Who Killed The Curate’) in being a mystery set in the Christmas season of goodwill to all men, except for those who are rather unfortunately earmarked for murder. Coggin is certainly light reading, yet whilst the books are coated with a patina of nostalgic whimsy there is too a little biting undertow of social commentary. ‘Dancing With Death’ then is about love, age, money, greed and the deception of appearances, yet it is also about the transition from wartime destruction to post-war privation and the uncertainties of The Future. I do hope that Galileo will be able to reissue the other three Lady Lupin books, for even the American Rue Morgue reissues are some twenty years old now and very difficult to find at a reasonable price. Fingers crossed. Perhaps too the Girls Gone By outfit will look at reissuing the ‘Bramber Manor’ series of girl’s school books that Coggin wrote under the name of Joanna Lloyd, although I imagine too that like all of us they have more than enough to be getting on with.

What Galileo has done however is publish a novel by the awkwardly similarly named Joan Cockin, whose ‘Villainy At Vespers’ I have just finished. Did I initially confuse and conflate the two names? It is a distinct possibility… Yet the chances are that I would have picked up the book regardless, for the resuscitation of Witting and Coggin is certainly enough for me to place a great deal of faith in the archaeologists of detective fiction working for the publisher. ‘Villainy at Vespers’ definitely repays that trust, for it is a tremendously entertaining romp through a post-war landscape. First published in 1949, the book is set in Cornwall during the kind of “June when workers in city offices look out through grimy windows at the sun and curse their luck in having decided to take their summer holiday in August.” It kicks off from the first paragraph in suitably grisly and melodramatic style: “Human sacrifice – primitive physical sacrifice – has long been out of favour in England. A considerable stir was, therefore, created when the body of a man, naked and with his throat cut was discovered upon the altar of St. Poltraun’s Church in the village of Trevelley.”

It is not entirely clear which part of Cornwall the fictional village of Trevelley is supposed to be, although I concede that for most readers this would be entirely irrelevant. For those, like myself, who find it impossible to read such things without at least once pulling out a map to consider the roots of physical inspiration, it’s an enjoyable diversion. At times Trevelley feels very much like somewhere on the North Cornwall coast, perhaps around Padstow, Polzeath and the Pentire Point. On the other hand, the fictional ‘Powey’ and the descriptions of the numerous crossings of the river inevitably makes one think of Fowey and the Bedinnick Ferry made so famous in much later years by Trembling Blue Star’s gorgeous song ‘ABBA on the Jukebox’. Either way, North or South coast (or most likely a fictional melange of the two), the Cornwall that Cockin depicts might yet be a ways from sinking into the unpleasantness of its own tourism successes, but there is already a sense of a landscape that sees a need to reinvent itself and to mediate its mythologies in order to move forward into the second half of the 20th Century.

So already in 1949 we have a Cornwall that is infiltrated by characters from London (and worse, from Abroad!), bringing the kind of crime and violence that will irrevocably change the character of the place. Cockin seems to take pleasure too in positioning this ‘new’ flavour of crime both as being alien and yet simultaneously connected to the ‘historic’ criminality of smuggling so essential to the Cornish Culture some might be seeking to protect. Throughout the book then there is a kind of push and pull between the two elements of criminality and their appeal as tourism attractions. Past and present (and, inevitably, future) jostle for position, each reliant on the other but also battling for supremacy. There are too notions of the position of The Church in all this, as Cockin notes the apparent decline in spirituality in favour of architectural interest or, indeed, the shock value of Unfortunate Events. Gruesome ‘pleasure’ seekers drawn to places by the grim allure of mystery and the pungent stench of ‘evil’, or the middle-aged, middle-class and semi-educated refugee from Modernity meandering from place to place with a Pevnser or a Betjeman clutched close to their chest, seeking out Medieval carvings and brasses to rub. Thumbing through my copy of C.B. Newham’s tremendous ‘Country Church Monuments’ I naturally plead guilty to at least the latter of these charges.

‘Villainy at Vespers’ might, then, be a clever observation of the transformational tourist landscape of immediate post-war England, but it is also quite simply a grand detective yarn. It sits comfortably within the Detective On Holiday sub-genre where Inspector Cam might be seen to rub shoulders with the likes of Christianna Brand’s Inspector Cockrill, George Bellairs’ Littlejohn or E.C.R. Lorac’s Macdonald. Or, if one likes one’s detectives in the amateur mould, perhaps Wimsey or Poirot. Indeed, Cockin plays the always enjoyable (to me at least) card of tipping the wink and invoking other fictional characters within her book. Poirot and Holmes get a namecheck, as does Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen who would by 1949 be sadly already near to the end of his enormously enjoyable ‘career’, until of course his odd resurrection in 1977’s somewhat bonkers ‘The Glimpses of the Moon’.

One might take this willingness to poke fun at one’s own work as as sign of confidence in one’s ability and understanding of the genre, and in Cockin’s case this would be entirely correct, for ‘Villainy at Vespers’ is a thoroughly well constructed and neatly, ahem, executed piece of period detective fiction. There are two further books in the Inspector Cam series (‘Curiosity Killed The cat from 1947 and ‘Deadly Ernest’ from 1952) and I for one would love to read them. Fingers crossed too then that Galileo will add those Cockins to the Coggins in their continuing reissue action.

The Quiet Moon

‘The Quiet Moon’ by Kevin Parr
Published in 2023 by Flint Books. Buy from Hive in the UK here.

The moon seems to be everywhere these days. It seems that not a day passes without being informed excitedly by The Social Media that tonight will be this moon or that moon or the other moon. Hunter’s Moon. Harvest Moon. Blood Moon. Storm Moon. Full Moon. Half Moon. Marquee Moon. A New Moon on Monday. A total eclipse (of the heart)… And photographs. Of course photographs. Almost all of them showing an indistinct blob surrounded by darkness or something that might or might not be the moon, it being so hard to tell with all the urban light pollution. And of course accompanying this infatuation with the moon seems to be a wider obsession with Getting In Touch With Nature. But only on the weekends and only when the weather is nice and only if one can enjoy it after a trip in the Chelsea Tractor (but it’s electric darling, so it’s fine!).

Sorry. My old cynicism is kicking in again. Apologies for that. But it’s complicated. Of course it is.

In truth I have no problem with this Middle Class infatuation with nature and its attendant rejection of (some) technology. I’m down with that. Guilty as charged. Such impulses and interests are both driven by a need to feel something, anything positive in a world that too often appears fractured and desolate, and, perversely, by the very technologically driven media streams that we might say we wish to escape. So which came first, the desire to escape to the country or the mediated suggestion that we Escape To The Country? Ouch.

There is an argument of course that the fascination with the moon and natural cycles is ageless. Or at least as old as humankind’s ability to put these fascinations and/or reliances into some form of language. Such ageless connections to nature underpin Kevin Parr’s ‘The Quiet Moon’ yet despite the subtitle of ‘Pathways to an Ancient Way of Being’ it is something that remains, perhaps inevitably, illusive. Parr is refreshingly open about this throughout the book, being in some respects apologetic about his ‘failure’ to be deeply academic about the Celtic culture to whom the moon was so vital, and which he attempts to understand.

That Celtic culture is in many respects something of a red herring then, as in some respects is the subtitle, for if anything ‘The Quiet Moon’ reads very much as a book about contemporary life where solace is sought in the magic of the here and now. Which is to say the magic that eludes time and to which concepts of ritual and worship are alien and irrelevant. Humans being what we are, however, we look for patterns from which to draw reason and meaning, and Parr uses this structure of lunar and solar cycles to build a book that is by turns tender and harsh, lyrical and prosaic. This is Nature Writing with an eye on the Wellbeing market; a book of personal reflection populated by birds, butterflies, hares and mushrooms. Oh, and the moon, of course.

That the book inevitably suffers, for me, by being read amongst an understandable revisitation of Roland Blythe’s work is hardly Parr’s fault, for Blythe’s writing does rather seem to bestride the landscape as a benign colossus. Everything, it seems to me, pales just a little in the bathetic glow of Blythe’s prose, so to say that ‘The Quiet Moon’ is hardly any given year in Wormingford is not exactly to be critical. It is tricky to pin down the reasons for this though. Certainly one has the sense that Parr is deeply knowledgeable about the natural history of the Dorset landscape he inhabits and writes about. Parr writes at length about his mushroom forages and about the raptors he sees flying in the skies. He writes engagingly about butterflies and hares, always seeking to balance the personal with the instructional. This, I think, is what sets Blythe apart though; an understanding that less is more. That and an almost supernatural ability to remember things and to make deft tangential connections in the blink of an eye.

There is something too about Blythe’s writing that manages to position itself simultaneously within and outside of time. Hints of the present touch fingers with figures from the past and everything feels vaguely otherworldly. ‘The Quiet Moon’ almost manages this. Might well have pulled it off too if not for some very particular references to COVID and Lockdown. Is it too early to be writing about The COVID? Too late? It is open to debate, surely, yet for me it feels like ‘The Quiet Moon’ suffers from including such explicit references. It is understandable, of course, in a book that is in large part an exploration of the self and a reflection on that self’s position in space and time. Yet, for me, the references to Lockdown and pandemic are a step too far into a wider context and feel oddly irrelevant within the context of the bigger picture, which is to do with our connection to and within nature. And yes, yes, yes, of course there are arguments to be made about how a global pandemic is surely the most obvious signifier of humankind’s fragile relationship with Gaia (and beyond?) but as I said at the start: it’s complicated.

If this reads as being overtly curmudgeonly and critical of ‘The Quiet Moon’, it is not meant to, because the book really is enormously enjoyable. Perhaps an element of my prickliness is indeed due to the fact that there is a lot in Parr’s self-reflection that feels uncomfortably close to home. Is this behind the seemingly endless stream of memoir disguised as book about x, y and z masquerading as self-help journal cloaked in the forcefield of mindfulness resilience handbook excuse for writing about ourselves? People writing about themselves so we don’t have to? Or writing about themselves so we think we can do the same thing? Is this what the cult(ure) of independence and freedom of expression has led us to? A market place for the middle classes to navel gaze and Think Too Much, each of us desperate for connection whilst at the same time terrified of those very connections? Did I say it’s complicated?

Towards the book’s conclusion Parr writes: “I have no wish to become an expert on any one subject, and, more importantly, nor do I have the application. My mind loses interest before it gets too stretched and instead I am quite happy to scratch at the footprints that I happen to be stepping in rather than pause and dig up the singular treasures beneath.” This is a candid admission that resonates strongly with me. Perhaps it is the inevitable outcome of those exposed to Popular Culture and the, ahem, natural state of the post-modern individual. Perhaps too, though, it is a self-admission that is too harshly critical, for certainly within ‘The Quiet Moon’ there is evidence that Parr has indeed dug deep enough to find treasure, yet not so deep that the sides of the holes fall in on itself.

Then and Now

Whilst watching the most recent (2022) Batman film I found myself contemplating the scenes in which Robert Pattison removes his mask and emerges as a ravaged, somewhat haunted entity that has not yet settled back into the persona of Bruce Wayne. It may come as a surprise to hear that the figure reminded me of Lawrence, but there is something in both the damaged beauty of the physical features and in the abstract metaphor of embattled hero fighting on against the odds that strikes a chord. There is something appealing in the idea of Lawrence as comic book hero, and after all in recent years he has appeared as such on beer cans and record sleeves. Pure Pop Art, just like the labels on soup tins or The Archies.

That Lawrence has attained a position of High Pop majesty in the eyes of his dedicated followers ought to be a given. That he has always seen himself in such a position is equally beyond question. Rarely, if ever, has an artist so unflinchingly held to the belief that they are not only A Star in their own firmament, but that they deserve to be so in the eyes of the so-called Mainstream Majority. Lawrence has never had eyes on the squalid ‘indie’ swamplands, but instead has seen his place as being rightfully high in the Hollywood Hills. And as tempting as it may be to suggest that in parallel universes this might indeed have been the case, the truth is that parallel universe success does not pay the bills in this one. Such extrapolations on our part are whimsy; meagre excuses for our own failures to amount to anything much or to explain away our deviations from previous pathways. We write our own rules to make ourselves feel better in the realities though which we battle, and that is just fine. Yet Lawrence seems always to have been Lawrence, and there is something impressive in that.

One might argue that the Lawrence of Felt is very different to that of Denim or of Go-Kart Mozart and, now, Mozart Estate. There may be some truth in such thinking. The blending of poetry and Pop versus the garish ultra-kitsch of the Poundland plastic toy counter. I don’t think there’s much in it, myself. So the poetry might have changed from surreal symbolism to kitchen sink documentary fired with a slip of black humour, and the music from ethereal guitar (much of it courtesy of Maurice Deebank) or sensualist keyboards (courtesy of Martin Duffy, whose recent death is greatly mourned) to jingletastic Novelty Rock that now rarely bothers with the notion that attention spans can last longer than a couple of minutes. Yet in all instances there is a sense of things being not quite as one might expect. Square pegs inhabiting round holes. Bodies uncomfortable in the skin that’s been given them, playing the hands of perversity with a recalcitrant glee. Something like this, or nothing like this at all. Perhaps both at once.

In line with this thinking, then, the new Mozart Estate album ‘Pop-Up! Ker-Ching! And The Possibilities of Modern Shopping’ is a record that occupies a strange space somewhere between Then and Now, where ‘Then’ is a universe informed by early ‘70s sitcoms and ‘Now’ is a monthly Britbox subscription. That may sound pejorative, but it isn’t meant to, for in that particularly peculiar realm Mozart Estate manufacture the sound of an ecstatic anger at such an existence. Comfort is corrosive; the ‘chimera of content’ debilitating. The discomfort of existing within one’s own bubble, waiting for history to catch up or come round again and chime with one’s own vision remains intact. Lawrence still being Lawrence. This time it’ll be different. Until it isn’t.

It is difficult, frankly, to see ‘Pop-Up! Ker-Ching! And The Possibilities of Modern Shopping’ being the ‘breakthrough’ record that many would love it to be, simply because it feels like the entertainment industry no longer functions in the manner that such a notion of ‘success’ is framed. Perhaps some snippet of ‘I’m Gonna Wiggle’, ‘Vanilla Gorilla’ or ‘Doin’ The Brickwall Crawl’ will become a Tik-Tok sensation. Perhaps Cold War Steve will make a new video for ‘Relative Poverty’, the scales will fall from the eyes of the populace (who will see both the dark poetic genius of Lawrence and the bitter banality of Sleaford Slobs) and Lawrence will find himself on breakfast telly. Or at least his digital avatar will, for if any artist other that ABBA deserves that kind of ultimate Pop deification it is Lawrence. Either him or Elvis, which, if you believe Lawrence, might be much the same thing. I’m not about to disagree.

Much more likely, sadly, is that the veneration of Lawrence within A Certain Age Group will continue to bloom, with a gentle smattering of The Younger Generations getting on board to whisper the legends passed down through the decades to each other in awed respect. Lawrence meanwhile will harangue them for merely streaming or downloading the songs and not buying the records.

I plead guilty to that particularly heinous crime myself, incidentally, the price of vinyls (sic) being prohibitively expensive for a pensioner like me, never mind for those who might accurately sing along with Lawrence on the aforementioned ‘Relative Poverty’. (altogether now: “I’m living on a tenner a week. Goodness, gracious, a tenner a week”). We’re not, of course. We’re just projecting. But Lawrence is 4-Real. He means it maaaan.

One must suppose he means it on ‘Record Store Day’ too, which is an, ahem, Pop at the marketing phenomenon that might have been at least partly guilty for the tedious resurgence in the popularity of vinyls (sic again) as fashion/lifestyle accessory and an excuse to buy one’s record collection all over again, after having done so at least once already when the scratched original was succeeded by The CD and then again with the remastered remixed version with extra tracks and then… oh good lord, we’ll be tripping unpleasantly into Morrissey territory of Miserable Old Geezer if we are not careful. Being wayward and cynical and all that.

Nevertheless I’ll be honest and say that the song itself bores/irritates me almost as much as the event in question, which perhaps is the point. “John Peel”, “Mark E Smith”, “Rough Trade” intones Lawrence. Sacred Cows to the slaughter. Line ‘em up, shoot ‘em down. Ka-POW! Ka-POW! Ker-CHING! In my head I have Tyler’s glamorous French friend Stephanie in ‘Shampoo Planet’ drawling that it is all “so barring”. Well quite. We need Batman now more than ever to say ‘this ends. Now.’

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the record, ‘Pink And The Purple’ is The Scaffold drinking acid-laced Cremola Foam; ‘I Wanna Murder You’ Derek Raymond ruminating on 21st Century News Stories whilst listening to late ‘70s funk acts covering Glam novelty hits. And then there is the gorgeous cover of Adam Faith’s ‘Honey’ in which Lawrence perfectly showcases himself as yes, a lousy singer, but equally one of of the finest vocalists of Our Generation. It’s a pretty faithful version, which is no bad thing, and it is up there with Felt’s equally beautiful take on The Beach Boys’ ’Be Still’.

It may be wrong, though, to fall into the critics’ trap (as indeed I have just done) of listing thoughts about, or worse, descriptions of individual songs, for ‘Pop-Up! Ker-Ching! And The Possibilities of Modern Shopping’ is an album that insists on being listened to as a whole. Forty minutes of Pop Art discomfort, a Play For Today in 16 scenes of faded technicolor where the actors are all channelling Brando in ‘On The Waterfront’. We coulda been contenders…

‘Pop-Up! Ker-Ching! And The Possibilities of Modern Shopping’ is, then, a record caught up in its own macro-nostalgic universe, a record that is beautifully infuriating and infuriatingly addictive. A record so rooted in and redolent of a peculiarly personal past that it feels utterly contemporary and ageless all at once. Time stands still and simultaneously rushes inwards on itself. Then and Now in imperfect harmony.

Unpop 226

Liquid – Dragon Welding (from ‘Lights Behind The Eyes‘ LP)
More – Pale Blue Eyes (digital single)
Kill Me Again – The WAEVE (from ‘The WAEVE‘ LP)
Time – Princess Chelsea (from ‘Everything Is Going To Be Alright‘ LP)
Anything – Frankie Rose (from ‘Love As Projection‘ LP)
I Don’t Know What You See In Me – Belle and Sebastian (from ‘Late Developers‘ LP YouTube)
1981 – The Tough Alliance (from ‘A New Chance’ LP YouTube)
Nothing Left To Lose – Everything But the Girl (from ‘Fuse‘ LP YouTube)
Too Through – Bad Girls (YouTube)
Promised You A Miracle (US Remix) – Simple Minds (YouTube)
First-Last-For Everything (Club Version) – Endgames (from ‘Musik Music Musique 3.0 – 1982 Synthpop On The Air‘ 3CD Box Set)
Post-War Glamour Girl – John Cooper Clarke (YouTube)
Once In Every Weekend – Sudden Sway (from ’76 Kids Forever’ LP)
Breaking The Grey – sliver biplanes (from ‘A Moment In The Sun‘ LP)
Looks Like Rain – Majority One (from ‘What A Groovy Day: The British Sunshine Pop Sound 1967-1972‘ 3CD)
Pretty Saro – Bob Dylan (from ‘Bootleg Series, Vol. 10, Another Self Portrait.’ YouTube)
Tomorrow Is A Long Time – Elvis Presley (YouTube)
Friends In Low Places – Marlody (from ‘I’m Not Sure At All‘ LP)

Download Part One

Prove Your Good – Rozi Plain (from ‘Prize‘ LP)
Rain From The East – Amy May Ellis (from ‘Over Ling And Bell‘ LP)
Young Blood Blues – Hurray For The Riff Raff (from ‘Young Blood Blues‘ LP)
Seeing you Around – Georgia Ruth (from ‘Week Of Pines‘ LP)
Maggie May – Susanna Hoffs, Matthew Sweet (YouTube)
The Balance – Steady Holiday (from ‘Newfound Oxygen‘ LP)
Fantasy Is Reality / Bells of Madness (feat. Carnie Wilson & Brian Wilson) – Rob Wasserman (from ‘Trios’ LP YouTube)
Carry That Weight – Carmen McRae (from ‘Just A Little Lovin’ LP YouTube)
I’ll Sail My Ship Alone – Lieutenant Pigeon (from ‘Lieutenant Pigeon: The Decca Years‘ 2CD)
Isn’t It Good – Sally James (from ‘Teenage Glampage – Can The Glam 2‘ 4CD Box Set)
Honey – Mozart Estate (from ‘Pop-Up! Ker-Ching! And The Possibilities of Modern Shopping‘ LP)
Party Fears Two – The Associates (YouTube)
Slum Lord – The Deviants (from ‘Deviation Street: High Times In Ladbroke Grove – 1967-1975‘ 3CD Box Set)
The Trains – The Nashville Ramblers (YouTube)
The Grass Will Sing For You – Tony Rivers and The Castaways (from ‘Tony Rivers: Move A Little Closer – The Complete Recordings 1963-1970‘ 3CD Box Set)
I Wish I Had Pictures – Darren Hanlon (from digital single)
Interlude 9 – The Skater – The Owl Service (from ‘Tracing Patterns‘ EP)
Desierto gris – Aura en el espejo (from ‘He perdido una galaxia‘ EP)
Happy Families – Zoo Boutique (from ‘Musik Music Musique 3.0 – 1982 Synthpop On The Air‘ 3CD Box Set)
Leaves Upon The Breeze – Theory Of Ghosts (from ‘EP1‘)
Let These Words Of Love Become The Lamps That Light Your Way – The Declining Winter (from ‘Really Early, Really Late‘ LP)
Abide With Me – The Mountain Goats (from ‘Isopanisad Radio Hour EP’ YouTube)

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