Notes from the sofa

There may yet be a glimmer of sunlight at the end of the grey tunnel of gloom that has been May 2021, but I would not place much money on it. It would be nice to able to read in the garden beneath warming rays instead of curled up under a blanket on the sofa, after all. Perhaps too the sun might raise levels of enjoyment, for  much of my recent reading has been sadly somewhat underwhelming.

After what was a tremendous start with ‘A Load Of Old Bones’, I have to say that I found Suzette A. Hill’s second instalment in the series to be a disappointment. The multiple narrators still work to a degree throughout ‘Bones In The Belfry’, but I admit I found myself tiring of the voices of Bouncer the dog and Maurice the cat, particularly as in this book they rarely move the narrative on and instead are devoted mostly to recapping in a slightly different way on something that we have already been shown through the words of the vicar, Francis Oughterard.  It rather reminds me of those dreadful television news bulletins and ‘magazine’ shows where there is a compulsion to say exactly the same thing several times, often in exactly the same words (but occasionally with a fractionally changed inflection), so concerned are the writers that we are too dim to understand. Also there are, perhaps, only so many witty observations to be made about cat and dog behaviour…

There are a few light meta-fictional touches in ‘Bones In The Belfry’ (a character turns up to write a crime novel about the murder that is at the heart of ‘A Load Of Old Bones’) but these feel a little half hearted and do not really develop as one might hope. Sadly, the peculiar tension between morality and self-preservation, between self-sacrifice and individualist self-interest that permeates oddly through ‘A Load Of Old Bones’ is almost entirely missing here. Instead the thing is almost entirely played for laughs, leaning towards comedy rather than the comic. Perhaps subsequent books recapture something of the charm and strangeness of the first, but on the evidence of ‘Bones In The Belfry’ it may be some time before I feel the desire to find out.

Better by a significant distance is Sarah Caudwell’s 1981 novel ‘Thus Was Adonis Murdered’. Now this had languished unread in my Kindle library for several years, to the point at which my initial impulse to buy and subsequent failure to actually start it are lost forever in the murky mire of my memory. Thankfully a nudge from L.C. Tyler had me loading it up, and goodness, what a wonderful read it is. For much of its length the book utilises the model of novel in letters, with additional cogitation by the series’ title character Hilary Tamar. Tamar as a character is quite lightly drawn in the book, with much of the focus being given to her barrister colleagues, yet this lightness of touch allows really quite concrete and appealing characters to emerge. Mostly this is done through the most marvellous exchanges of dialogue which are so thoroughly redolent of Red Brick University educated professionals as to be almost parodic. Caudwell (Sarah Cockburn) delicately treads the line between farce and thriller, weaving a tremendously well constructed plot with threads of bright humour, literary reference and a splendidly evocative sense of place (her depictions of Venice may be less detailed than Donna Leon’s but are every bit as captivating). As a ‘detective’, Tamar is very much in the mould of the detached thinker, making astute observations and lingering somewhat in the background, and I am certainly intrigued to see how the subsequent novels unfold. Certainly too I hope for something more fulfilling than that provided by the Reverend Oughterard.

Now I have noted several times in the past that the British Library Crime Classics series is a reliable source of good quality reissues that give a tremendous return in terms of enjoyment. I’ve noted too that the broad church of detective fiction means that occasionally a particular title or author fails to hit the (personal) mark, and this is certainly the case with Marie Belloc Lowndes’ 1934 ‘The Chianti Flask’. Perhaps best known for her 1913 novel ‘The Lodger’ (and this perhaps known to more people in the form of Hitchcock’s film adaptation), Lowndes writing, even in 1934, feels stylistically rooted in the Edwardian era. Indeed ‘The Chianti Flask’ reads very much as some kind of Romantic Melodrama with barely a nod to the genre of crime or detection. If one were being kind it might be described as an inverted mystery, but really there is little mysterious about the story, whilst the build up to what feels like an obvious and inevitable reveal feels laboured and tedious rather than suspenseful and thrilling. Unless you are committed to collecting the series or enjoy the florid limpidity of constrained romance, I would leave this one on the shelf.

In contrast, some of my own favourite titles in the British Library series have been the resuscitations of Freeman Wills Croft and his Inspector French, although in recent weeks it is a couple of his titles outside that reissue series that have entertained me. The first of these is ‘The Pit Prop Syndicate’ from 1922, in which some of the foundations for his Inspector French character are sketched out in the form of Scotland Yard detective Willis. As with Belloc’s ‘Chianti Flask’ there is still something of the melodramatic to Wills Croft at this point of his development, particularly in the treatment of the ‘love interest’, but on the whole the pace of the thriller carries this one through. Split into two parts, Wills Croft creates an opportunity to lay the groundwork for his later commitment to the police procedural approach. In the first half of the book therefore we follow two amateur detectives attempting to uncover fraudulent activity, and whilst they Do Their Best in a kind of Richard Hannay ‘Boys Own’ manner, it is clear that only professional involvement can crack the case. ‘The Pit Prop Syndicate’ may not be the best example of Wills Croft’s craft, but it is thoroughly entertaining and an interesting reference in terms of his development as a writer.

Writing as much as one new novel each year, by the time of 1939’s ‘A Fatal Venture’ Wills Croft was well into his stride, with Inspector French an established character and his reputation as the expert in unpicking watertight alibis very much in place. Raymond Chandler once said that in terms of plots, Wills Croft was “the soundest builder of them all” and certainly ‘A Fatal Venture’ has a sturdy storyline peppered with interestingly sketched characters. An infatuation with modes of transport (trains and boats in particular) comes over in many of Wills Croft’s books, and if that manifests itself in the rather cool detachment of factual detail rather than effusive passion, then so be it. One very much knows what one is getting with his books, and with that in mind his Inspector French seldom fails to deliver. He certainly does so here, and with an interesting solution to the key alibi being found through the realms of photography, it is also going to interest anyone who ever wielded a camera as much as to those who appreciate the lines of a steamship.

Anti-Pop Pop Art

Perhaps the ongoing onslaught of interminable winter has coloured my thoughts, but there is something marvellously apposite in experiencing the steely grey aesthetic of The Attendant’s ‘Audit’ collection in the midst of a bleak and chilly May. From the industrial glass grey of the 10″ vinyl, through the utilitarian plastic liner (neatly, subtly embossed with the Faux-Lux label logo in one corner) to the slim A5 booklet of poetry and photographs, the whole package is a magnificent Modernist/Brutalist homage to the (sub)urban experience. Originally released on a series of lathe cut singles, the sounds assembled here are the work of Pete Astor and Ian Button, two quietly iconic monuments in the landscape whose varied works with the likes of The Loft, Weather Prophets, Thrashing Doves, Death In Vegas and Papernut Cambridge have surely populated any number of Unpopular record collections in the past three or four decades.

There is something marvellously post-industrial about the act of making and distributing essentially hand-crafted artefacts that simultaneously embrace and reject the Pop prerogative. In this respect the recent resurgent fashion for lathe cut singles is to be applauded. For me they seem to exist in the exquisite void created by digital musical distribution and consumption, a void that Pop rightly insists be filled with Product. You don’t actually PLAY lathe cut singles after all, do you? And even if you do, they pay you back with a louche grin and disintegrate before your very ears like Dorian Gray rapidly decomposing the instant his painting is unveiled. There is also something rather appealing about artists making lathe cut releases in an era when The Vinyl has returned to a position of exalted worship. So, when Major Labels muscle in on the remaining pressing plants with their absurd Anniversary Reissue demands, bullying the tiny independents into the gutter in the process, perhaps the lathe-cut is simply an act borne of necessity. Either way, they are cult collectibles, anti-Pop Pop Art sculptures and political conversation pieces in one delicious package.

‘Audit’ of course is not a lathe-cut artefact but an industrially pressed 10″ vinyl treat for those of us who were too slow and/or insufficiently hip to scoop up the ‘originals’. Those originals were born to an extent in the early semi-apocalyptic haze of the 2020 COVID lockdown, The Attendant appearing disembodied and blinking into the light of eerily emptied city streets, an excuse and a reason to assemble some of Astor’s poetry into a form perhaps more easily consumed in the realms of mediated culture we like to inhabit. Responding instinctively to the (post) Punk edict of do-it-fast and do-it-now (also, do it clean), Astor and Button reacted to their environments and impulses, crafting Astor’s words into concrete form. The end result is not unlike listening to Lou Reed with a soft English accent recounting gently surreal tales of marginal members of extended families (‘Magnificent Aunt Mary’), the hidden complexities of people we think we might know (‘Music On’) and, my own personal favourite, “The hyper-intense banality of those years when everything is achingly, mind-blowingly significant.” (‘Teenage).

‘Audit’ reminds me too of the great suburban surrealism of Animals That Swim; of Robin Hitchcock’s psychedelic urbanity with the humour dialled back to a shade above zero; of Gravenhurst daydreams rotating under a disco ball at midnight; of The Kinks slow dancing with Saint Etienne illuminated in the flickering glow of an 8mm film projector showing a James Fox screen test; of Blue Aeroplanes in sleep mode given a blood transfusion of funk and electronica; of Stephen Duffy living on a hill with Wire as house guests, taking the world apart and reassembling it beatifically off-kilter, just so. A barrage of imagery. A slow burn of reference and illusion. The sound of “Film stock oxidising below” as Astor himself might say.

There is also something neatly cyclical in the idea of ‘Audit’ collecting together collectibles into a slightly more accessible form, in that there is a mirror held up to those inexpensive early Creation compilations where we were encouraged not to scrabble around collector’s zips for 7″s and where perhaps we first heard The Loft and The Weather Prophets. It was always good advice, and I’d certainly suggest snapping up a copy of ‘Audit’ before it too attains the patina of desirable rarity.

‘Audit’ by The Attendant is released on the Faux-Lux label on July 2nd 2021 and can be ordered from Bandcamp. There will be a launch show for ‘Audit’ at The Betsey Trotwood, London, on 2nd July with further live performances to follow.

You don’t know the monotony of infallibility!

Should you by any chance be a regular reader of my Unpopular witterings then it will surely come as no surprise when I tell you that I am not A Learned Man. I am certainly no academic. When I say, therefore, that there is a long history of multiple narrators in the English novel, stemming from the early development of the novel in letters, this is not backed up by any in-depth knowledge or vast breadth of reading. Rather it comes from observations of reading a bunch of crime and detective novels and identifying some similar threads of structure. Plus five minutes of reading some articles on the Interwebs. The desire to weave these observations with Serious Research in order to produce some kind of extended academic text is, not to put too fine a point on it, weak almost to the point of non-existence.  All I really want to do is (“baby be friends with you…”) tell you about some books I have read and (mostly) enjoyed.

As noted previously, L.C. Tyler uses the multiple (in this case dual) narrator structure to great effect in his Elsie and Ethelred (or perhaps it is ‘The Herring Collection’) series of books. All are tremendously entertaining and hugely enjoyable and I encourage you to explore without delay. Another contemporary(ish) author who was on my recently compiled list of comic crime books to sample was Suzette A. Hill, and I have taken the plunge with the first of her Reverend Oughterard series. First published all the way back in 2007 (the time of The Ancients, surely), ‘A Load Of Old Bones’ is a rather peculiar type of crime novel for a variety of reasons, not least the fact that two of the three narrators are animals, and the third a/the murderer (that last point is hardly a spoiler, in case you were wondering). Expectations are further confused in that it also strays from the expected structure of an inverted mystery. By which I mean there is no mystery for anyone to solve or to prove in court. Not really. Instead there is almost an inversion of the inversion, and questions of moral choices are similarly challenged and somewhat turned on their heads. It’s a tremendous comedic read, with the voices of the cat (Maurice) and the dog (Bouncer) being marvellously captured as cartoonish tropes that nevertheless develop subtly as individual characters throughout the book. This gives the book a pleasant sub-theme where Hill develops the idea of mutual need and trust triumphing over received/mediated divisive stereotypes. That Hill does so in a vibrant, marvellously engaging manner is to be applauded. Also to be cheered is the way in which Hill casts such a breezy air over a tale of such dark and despicable fact. This detachment between reality and fantasy seems to simultaneously grow and diminish as the book unfolds and the murderer seeks to cover his tracks and avoid detection. By the novel’s conclusion I admit that I came away feeling that I had read a marvellous piece of entertainment and yet was also left curiously troubled. There are, it seems, a further five novels in this series, all starring Maurice and Bouncer, and all but the latest (2016’s ‘The Primrose Pursuit’) featuring the Reverend Francis Oughterard and I admit I am intrigued to see how Hill addresses and develops the questions raised in this first outing.

Leo Bruce may not have used multiple narrators in his 1936 book ‘The Case For Three Detectives’ but he does rather marvellously weave in three other fictional detectives alongside his own Sergeant Beef (making his novel debut). I’ve previously only been familiar with Beef through short stories, and I very much enjoyed this first extended outing in which, typically, the sergeant is almost invisible for the entire novel. Almost from the off Beef tells us quietly via the narrator that he knows who the murderer is, but before we find out we must follow the tortuous paths taken by the thinly disguised  characters of Lord Peter Wimsey (Lord Simon Plimsoll), Hercule Poirot (Monsieur Amer Picon) and Father Brown (Monsignor Smith). I have no idea what Sayers, Christie or Chesterton thought of this curious ‘homage’ but I do rather hope they took it all in the deliciously lighthearted spirit in which the whole book reads. Bruce gleefully and perceptively picks up the crucial character traits of each of the fictional detectives and has a great deal of fun poking gently at their literary idiosyncrasies. Detective novels of the period are peppered with deft asides that self-mockingly dig at the very medium and genre they are written in, but for the most part this is done with sharp one-liners from any members of the police who may or may not be principal characters. In this case however the entire book is effectively given over to being a confection of raised eyebrows and self-knowing smirks. It’s also a neat method of covering multiple suspects, motives and solutions to the locked room puzzle, cutely puncturing the whole air of ‘look at how CLEVER I am as an author for plotting these devilishly confusing crimes’ that can hang like a depressing pall over some of these books. Metafiction in a comic detective novel of 1936. Who’d have thought.

Going back briefly to touch on the idea of multiple narrators now, it’s probably important to acknowledge that Wilkie Collins of course used this approach in ‘The Moonstone’, a novel which is cast as pivotal in the development of the crime/detective genre. Now I have tried several times to get a grip on Collins and with ‘The Moonstone’ in particular, but every attempt has drawn something of a blank. As previously noted I am far from qualified to cast aspersions on the academic claims to its Importance In The Canon, it’s just that I have always found it (and Collins generally) somewhat impenetrable and more than a little dull. Doubtless this says more about me that it does about the book (and doubtless too there are calls of ‘kettle’ and ‘black’ at this point), and perhaps in future years the blindfold will be removed and its genius fully revealed to me but until such times I shall continue to drift along with my stock response of ‘Wilkie Collins… meh…’

I have a similar attitude towards Mary Kelly, whose novels ‘The Christmas Egg’, ‘The Spoilt Kill’ and (most recently) ‘Due To A Death’ have all been reissued in the British Library Classic Crime series. Of the three my favourite is certainly ‘The Christmas Egg’, yet I say that whilst acknowledging also that it is probably the least ‘good’ in terms of literary worth. Here is (often) the rub with crime/detective novels: the apparently ‘best written’ and ‘most literary’ can also be the least engaging and entertaining. Kelly’s ‘Spoilt Kill’ and ‘Due To A Death’ certainly fall into this trap for me, with each being undeniably well crafted and full of a literary grit that is admirable. Both books use the foundation of the crime novel as a basis for exploring Bigger Issues, and unless you are a Right Wing Daily Mail reading Gammon (surely impossible if you are reading Unpopular) it’s hard not to sympathise with those. In the case of ‘The Spoilt Kill’ those issues are around class, industry, commerce, love and money. In ‘Due To Death’ these class/commerce issues are still there, working alongside questions of illegitimacy, unwanted pregnancy and patriarchal attitudes. Yet whilst ‘Spoilt Kill’ still quite obviously uses the crime novel structure on which to hang everything else, this is pushed to, or indeed beyond the limit in ‘Due To A Death’. It could be argued that it’s in the inverted mystery sub-genre, but that would be stretching things because the ‘mystery’ or ‘crime’ is initially so vaguely referenced that one wonders if it’s really a crime at all, and maybe it’s just me, but my mind was certainly wandering as the book went on, to the point of skimming and skipping to see if anything was really going to happen. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that it really doesn’t. Which might be the point, but… There is some exquisite use of language in the book that is very much to Kelly’s credit. I particularly like how she describes “squalls slashing up the estuary, streaming over the windscreen, curdling like smoke on the roads.” There are also some very eloquent and perceptive observations on power and class, such as when her narrator describes the site of a re-purposed Country House: “It was far enough from the river once to have been the home of the rich; but even here they no longer lived. Their large houses had become their utilities: schools, golf clubs, hotels, clinics.” Elsewhere the question of being wealthy enough to be beyond the law resonates particularly strongly in 2021: “They’ll hook you for your paltry two thousand. You must chisel in millions before they’ll let you get by.” Ah, the fluid standards of the hyper-capitalist societies we are forced to inhabit. And yet for me this sharply observed critique of late 1950s and early 1960s UK society is not quite enough, and whilst ‘Due To A Death’ might conceivably land on the pedestal of classic literary novel, it struggles to convince as a crime one.

Catching (up with) The Herrings

“‘I used to think that my life was an Agatha Christie novel,’ I said. ‘A little convoluted, but essentially well-ordered and civilised. I’m beginning to think it may be more Raymond Chandler.’”

Last time out I was talking about comic crime/detective stories and made reference to some that I was hoping to catch up on. Top of that list were the two most recent books in the Elsie and Ethelred series by L.C. Tyler, which I am rather ashamed to say almost passed me by.  I have said this before and I will say it again, but I do find it difficult to keep track of contemporary releases by artists, be that music or books. Mostly this is, it must to said, My Own Fault, for I have long since struggled to find the time to read journals (physical or virtual) that might alert me to such things. In the virtual world I recall there was a period where it was so easy to set up RSS feeds from blogs I enjoyed, but that all seemed to go the way of the Dodo when Whoever Decides These Things proclaimed that RSS was Old Tech (that was someone at Google no doubt, who canned Google Reader) and that everyone was Doing Social Media instead. There was probably some significant degree of truth in that decision, and Time Waits For No Geek after all, so blah. Or Blah. Or even BLAH.

So it took a reference to the form of the comic novel in a comment by the author Stuart David, a delve into a back issue of CADS, a subsequent spark of ‘oh YES, L.C. Tyler’ and a tangential waddle across to Goodreads to see what I might have missed for me to Get With It. At which point I realised I had missed not only the cosmic coincidence of a just published ‘Farewell My Herring’ being beautifully lined up for me, but also the previous entry in the Elsie and Ethelred series ‘The Maltese Herring’. And yes, since you ask, it is only now that I realise I could just have ‘followed’ Mr Tyler on Goodreads, or indeed on The Social Media to find out what he might have been up to. But really. The Social Media. It’s such a cesspit of gloom and bile (interrupted occasionally by videos of cute animals doing amusing things) generally, isn’t it? The temptation to permanently disengage is so strong these days.

By some strange coincidence that of course is no coincidence at all, there is something of this thread in ‘Farewell My Herring’, as Elsie and Ethelred find themselves snowed in at a Crime Writing Workshop high in the Yorkshire Dales, without phone signal or (gasp) Access To The Internet. Now if you are some (ahem) snowflake Millennial undergoing an endless identity crisis (I jest – some of my best friends are Millennials with identity crises) you will doubtless have to imagine such horror. Those of us who are old and more than grumpy enough will be able to remember such a thing with gooey-eyed fondness and will doubtless nod in appreciation of the observation, expressed by the marvellously prickly and chocolate addicted Elsie that “It’s only the twenty-first century that thinks it has to be online twenty-four seven in order not to miss out.”

So this thread of disconnection from the online world is one that permeates the book, yet it also goes hand in hand with another thread, which is about the propagation of conspiracy theory within ‘pre-Internet’ networks of local gossip and story-telling (the bonkers idea of one character being a CIA agent). Thus Tyler adeptly juggles themes and makes points by writing in character, making observations about The World without sounding insufferably dull and worthy. Inevitably too there is something of the very contemporary notion of Living Through Lockdown in the sense of the characters being locked into the same space and unable to leave without the very real danger of death or serious injury. Of course this might be a case of one of those cosmic coincidences dropping into the thread of the (my) world, and I do wonder if anyone reading the book at some point in the future will make this connection? Perhaps not.

A rather more likely reading of the book from the future, given the setting of a snowed-in Victorian house, is an expectation that this might, at any point, turn into a ‘Christmas Murder Mystery’. Well it hardly needs a spoiler alert to say that the book resolutely refuses to follow that expectation whilst simultaneously teasingly leading us on. As one of the characters points out: “as a crime writer, I am well aware how inadvisable it is to kill somebody when snowed in at a house in the middle of nowhere with no escape route.” and anyone familiar with the genre will immediately start thinking of all those snowed-in murder mysteries (re)published in November/December in recent years with their cover illustrations of Country Houses cloaked in the blue/purple hues of moonlit snowscapes. Step forward the likes of J. Jefferson Farjeon’s ‘Mystery In White’ (okay, this one has an illustration of a train stuck in a snowdrift, but didn’t the runaway success of the 2014 reissue of this 1937 novel kick this all off?), Francis Duncan’s ‘Murder for Christmas’ (1949) and Jill McGowan’s marvellous ‘Murder At The Old Vicarage’ (a relatively unusual late 1980s pleasure for me). Elsie would most certainly approve.

My own favourite amongst this sub-genre of Snowbound Crime/Detective Novels Set In Or Around The Festive Season however would be Lorna Nicholl Morgan’s wonderful ‘Another Little Murder’. Originally published in 1947, this is the book which I most instinctively thought of whilst enjoying ‘Farewell My Herring’, not least because the inclusion of the word ‘Christmas’ in the title of the reissues is at best a shrewd marketing ploy, for the story really has almost nothing to do with the festive season at all. Now although Tyler makes no specific reference to any of these books in his text, there is an offhand reference to Gladys Mitchell, whose ‘Murder In The Snow’ from 1950 would certainly be a delightful addition to any pile of seasonal reads. There are also numerous mentions aside to John Dickson Carr, but since I still find his books to be, on the whole, insufferably smug, I will pass swiftly on.

From the outset of the nine book series Tyler has used the technique of two different narrators, with Elsie and Ethelred each moving the story forwards from their own perspectives. As a technique it works well in allowing each character to develop and to firmly establish their relationships with other characters and inevitably with each other. It means that one of the many pleasures of the books are the exchanges of dialogue between the two. My favourite of these exchanges in ‘Farewell My Herring’ is almost certainly one where Ethelred leads with “He’d have been thrown out of the Crime Writers’ Association, if they ever do throw anyone out. If he’d stayed a comic crime writer he would at least have had some respect.” To which comes Elsie’s swift rejoinder of “Not much”. Ouch. In ‘The Maltese Herring’ meanwhile, there is a marvellous exchange under Ethelred’s narration:
“‘How many scheming dames with mouths like a scarlet gash have tried to seduce you for their own crooked purposes?’ ‘Just the one,’ I said. ‘I turned her down.’ ‘How many times have you been beaten up by a corrupt cop in a grimy alleyway?’ ‘Not at all,’ I said. ‘Just scammed by academics.’ ‘Doesn’t sound like Chandler,’ said Elsie. ‘Maybe Edmund Crispin on a quiet day.’”

The Crispin reference, as I have said many times in the past and will repeat ad nauseam in the future, is entirely apt, for it is Crispin’s effortless, featherweight lightness of comic touch that these novels of Tyler’s most resemble to my eyes. The similarities extend too into how both authors explore post-modern notions of metafiction within their stories. Crispin, writing from the 1940s to the 1970s, is deliciously knowing and relatively sparing in breaking the third wall. Tyler, meanwhile, as a 21st Century author is almost gleeful in abusing the form. In many respects I suppose it is meta-meta: Tyler knowingly poking fun at the very knowingness he has his characters display as the books unfold (from their titles inwards and onwards). Indeed, in a supreme moment of inverted self-mockery he has Ethelred proclaim (in ‘Farewell My Herring’) “I hate metafiction”. LOL.

It is inevitably true that most of us likely also hate metafiction when we are excluded (for whatever reason) from the in-jokes. As such it is impossible for me to judge how others might react to the comic knowingness of Tyler’s Elsie and Ethelred books, yet I suspect that there is more than enough to enjoy without any knowledge whatsoever of crime/detective fiction’s rich tapestry. These books are, like the early Flavia De Luce stories by Alan Bradley, deceptively light and breezy reads. Both ‘The Maltese Herring’ and ‘Farewell My Herring’ are, like all the preceding books in the series, hugely enjoyable contemporary comic romps that are shot through with more than enough marvellously rewarding jibes and referential homages for those who want to see them. Now I just need to figure out how best to be kept in the loop for future instalments.

Unpop 202

Ghastly mellow saxophones all over the floor – Download disc 1

Sir Orfeo – Alula Down (from ‘Future Folk: Friendly Faces; Different Spaces‘ LP)
Stopping Out (Concrete Antenna Reinterpretation) – King Creosote (from ‘Transmissions Volume One‘ LP)
Prayer – The Durutti Column (from ‘Another Setting’ LP)
Winter Moon (edit) – GNAC (digital single)
South Beach Kiosk – Looper (digital single)
Live Or Die – Jackie Leven (from ‘Straight Outta Caledonia‘ LP)
The End Of The World Is Bigger Than Love – Jens Lekman (from ‘I Know What Love Isn’t‘ LP)
Feel It Disappearing – MONNONE ALONE (from lathe cut single)
Sorry For Laughing – Josef K (from ‘Sorry For Laughing’ LP reissue)
Late Light Romance – Negative Nancies (from ‘Heatwave‘ LP)
Bluebird – Arab Strap (from ‘As Days Get Dark‘ LP)
Half a Feeling – Massage (from ‘Still Life‘ LP)
Cinematic – The Catenary Wires (from ‘Birling Gap‘ LP)
Runaway Jane – The Natvral (from ‘Tethers‘ LP)
Gutters of Love – Quivers (from ‘Golden Doubt‘ LP)
Hard to Fall – Love, Burns (from digital single)
Downhill – Days (on ‘Nice Try, Sunshine! A Swedish Pop Mixtape‘ LP)
All My Worries – SUPER 8 (digital single)
Albert The Painter – David Long (from ‘Moll & Zeis‘ LP)
What’s Shouted In The Dark (The Dark Shouts Back) – Alex Rex (from ‘Paradise‘ LP)
1974 – Robyn Hitchcock (from ‘A Star For Bram’ LP)
And The Lights Went Out All Over Town – Modesty Blaise (from ‘The Modesty Blaise‘ LP)

My eyes are listening to some sounds that I think just might be springtime – Download Disc 2

Weekend (The Judas Triangle) [Dom Beken & Kris Needs Remix] – The Orb (from ‘Abolition of the Royal Familia (Guillotine Mixes)‘ LP)
Decoy Point (Live On Northey Island) – Ultramarine (from ‘Transmissions Volume One‘ LP)
Reaction Diffusion – Hannah Peel (from ‘Fir Wave‘ LP)
Fur & Feather – Penelope Trappes (from ‘Penelope Three‘ LP)
Jewel of the Blueridge – Sarah Louise (from ‘Earth Bow‘ LP)
Two Strong Legs – Wyndow (digital single)
Nightingale (a capella) – Me Lost Me (from ‘Future Folk: Friendly Faces; Different Spaces‘ LP)
Mobile – The Mountain Goats (from ‘Dark In Here‘ LP)
In Our Dreams – Teenage Fanclub (from ‘Endless Arcade‘ LP)
Come Clean – BMX Bandits (from ‘Star Wars‘ vinyl reissue)
Timber – Departure Lounge (from ‘Transmeridian‘ LP)
When You Last Heard From Linda – Field Music (from ‘Flat White Moon‘ LP)
Happy to Perform – Kane Strang (from ‘Happy to Perform‘ LP)
Days Of Our Life – Edwards Hand (from ‘Edwards Hand’ LP reissue)
Painting Box – Beautify Junkyards & Belbury Poly (from 7″ single)
The Mad Hatter’s Song – The Incredible String Band (from ‘The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion’ LP)
A Lenticular Slap – Ryley Walker (from ‘Course In Fable‘ LP)

Almost complete mix on Spotify

A bunch of Loopers

Last time out I was talking about Stuart David’s tremendous series of ‘Peacock Johnson’ books and I very much hope you have been tracking those down and enjoying them too. Now I do like the idea of crazy cosmic coincidences, and there have been lots of those cascading into my life just recently, not least of which has been the pleasure of being reacquainted with the terrific records made by David and Wee Karn (not forgetting Ronnie Black and Evil Bob at various points) in their Looper identity. I admit that I had lost track somewhat of what they were up to at around the time of 2002’s ‘The Snare’ and indeed, listening to that set now I’m convinced that even this one passed me by at the time. Particularly since it contains the track ‘Peacock Johnson’, which I’m sure I would have remembered on reading the books. This is how it goes with things though, isn’t it? We drift in and out as we move through life. I have this model of life being a series of ellipses (ahem) looping out from a centre to which we return every so often before flying off on a different tangent. Each loop is different, even if only subtly, in trajectory and length, whilst that centre is something to do with the sense of loss, or absence. A need for replenishment.

Anyway, that’s my cod-philosophical theory, backed up by nothing more than feelings, personal observations and experiences. You might well think it’s all nonsense, and that’s fine. There is perhaps something in the isolationist nature of existence that insists each of us has some theory that explains our existence, at least in part. And that’s mine.

So Looper loop back into my life, and that’s a pleasure for sure. I’ve been very much enjoying the 2015 retrospective collection ‘These Things’ which curates the work of some seventeen years into five discs of instrumentals, spoken word pieces etc. It’s a delicious treasure trove, a musical box of delights that transports us to a universe inhabited by electronic glitches snogging memories of childhood games of Dead Mans’ Fall on the Commando Hill. It takes me back too, to days of falling in love with Stuart David’s wee ‘Ink Polaroids’ for his Treehouse imprint, and my own ‘Belle Lettres’ stories and short pieces penned in that blurt of excitement around the mid 90s I suppose it must have been when we were doing our Living Room club in Exeter and pissing about with record decks, tape machines, slide projectors, TVs and video tapes. And in another of those crazy cosmic coincidences of course our Living Room friends Appliance would end up sharing the same record label as Looper on Mute. Crazy, crazy world.

The first Looper performance was in 1997 at the Glasgow School of Art, perhaps around the same time that a well-oiled Appliance were lubricating our Living Room in Exeter. It’s a nice touch of synchronicity, even if the particular truth exists only in my head*. Regardless, the Art School venue is another of those cosmic coincidences, for that place of wonder and powerful magic(k) continues to drop grenades of connection, memory, nostalgia and possibility into the/my world. How could it be otherwise? Well, just press fast-forward for two years, and a full Looper band played at the first Bowlie festival in April 1999. Now personally I could not make it to that very first Bowlie. I forget the reasons. Perhaps it was tied up with a general aversion to notions of festivals of any kind. Perhaps something else. I was, however, able to attend the pre-Bowlie shindig that Pam Berry and friends put on at the Betsey Trotwood the night before the gang headed down to Camber on a Routemaster, like some Indie Kid ‘Summer Holiday’ extravaganza. Upstairs at the Betsey I performed as The Duke Of Harringay for the first and final time, reading stories over rudimentary electronic collages cobbled together with computers and Pritt Sticks. Nicky Momus was in the audience, no doubt thinking I was a piss-poor attempt at something he did ten years previously. If Stuart David and Wee Karn had been in the audience they’d likely have sued for copyright infringement. Casting back it seems like a peculiar moment in time, a point at which the worlds of work and creativity could exist in parallel. Surreal.

The Looper collected on the ‘These Things’ box set are a bit of a collage burst of surrealism too, with threads of realities being pulled into their alternate universe taking on new and peculiarly delightful form. It’s a fine place to revisit or to visit anew, a richly rewarding trip down memory lane or a drift into avenues that may by turns evoke sensations of deja-vu and/or open up vistas of peculiar pop-art possibility. As one of the cuttings collected in the booklet (alongside excellent sleevenotes from Tim Burgess) suggest: “God bless Stuart and Karn – the Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Camberwick Green.”

All of which brings us up to the present day, and the delightful realisation that, like many artists during the period(s) of pandemic lockdown, Stuart David has continued to record and release a series of glorious golden nugget instrumentals. From a personal perspective (is there any other in the Unpopular universe?) the hazy shuffle beat strum of ‘South Beach Kiosk’ is the hook that draws me in; a literal and metaphorical strut on Troon prom past the war memorial and the bins where once we pasted up posters for The Sea Urchins debut single and flyers for the mythical, washed out Beach Party of nineteeneightywhenever. The cover photo shows a detail of the shuttered kiosk, a far cry from the chaotic abandon of the image that accompanied a Guardian article in summer of 2020 about the surges of (in)humanity to the beaches.

In a similar vein is ‘Heatwave’, with its cover shot of kiddies playing in the sand and its sound of Ben Watt’s ‘North Marine Drive’ dancing close with a drum machine caught in a timeloop of a 1930s dance hall. Short, sweet, and just ever so slightly sinister. Or what about ‘Wandering’, where we take to the dunes and gaze across the Firth at the Heads of Ayr cowering beneath low winter banks of cloud, shivering in our anoraks and daydreaming of car tyres rolling down the ballast bank, caught in interior Beatles movies. And ‘Blurred Stars’, sounding exactly as it ought: Ultramarine meets Felt on the Train Above The City. Or, most delightful of all, the two minutes and forty of the blissful ‘Faraway Near’ accompanied by its cover shot of lengthening shadows on the hill, eyes cast to the horizon and Arran sleeping lazily as the sun slips down and away. Like some kind of contemporary daydream to the ones we frittered away in our childhoods of listening to ‘A Distant Shore’ in the hillside grasses, it will break your heart whilst applying the most perfect balm imaginable.

And so it goes on. The endless ebb and flow of memory seeping, of time slipping and sliding. Future beams back to a past and tumbles forwards to a present. Concorde on circles and bumps. The Waverley on the horizon and a bunch of loopers in the dunes. Pure Magic, by the way.

*Intensive Research (looking at old flyers in boxes) suggests that there is some shade of fact in this truth, with Appliance playing at the Living Room in late March of 1997.

Comedic is not the same as Comedy

The other day a friend almost sheepishly admitted to reading (and enjoying) Richard Osman’s ‘The Thursday Murder Club’. Now I’m sure it is a thoroughly enjoyable book, but aside from admitting a degree of Unpopulist Elitism, the principle reality of my not adding Osman’s book to the already over-crowded and ever expanding ‘to-be-read’ shelves is that there are there simply too many already there, and that there are too many other things I’d put ahead of it on my list. One day, perhaps… one day.

It did make me think however about a couple of things. One: That we ought not to be sniffy when someone who may have gained ‘celebrity’ in one area of life explores other avenues. Unless the work in that new avenue is Not Up To Scratch, in which case, sniff away.
Two: That it is too easy to fall into the trap of being critical of Books As Entertainments and thinking that writing in a lighthearted and comedic manner is lightweight and easy.
Three: That all writing that may vaguely fall into the ‘crime and detective’ genre is All The Same.
And Four: Life is too short.

Point two got me thinking further about my own predilection for the more light-hearted and gently comedic end of crime/detective fiction. It has been said before, but it bears saying again that densely convoluted ‘technical’ or, that dreaded word, ‘scientific’ crime puzzles leave me cold and quickly bored. The Holmes books and stories just about get away with it for me because although Holmes is such an insufferably smug know-it-all character, the tales are saved by the foil of Watson, through whose narratives quite rightly Conan Doyle presents the cases. Sayers is adept at this also, as is Christie. It is a skill that ought not to be underestimated.

Following through on the train of thought about writing in the comedic manner has also had me delving back into issues of the tremendous CADS magazine for an excellent piece by Kate Jackson on ‘comical criminality’. There are so many suggestions of authors and books in Jackson’s piece that it can be quite a challenge knowing where to start, but as the case with these things, one of the first things I did is check to see if my own favourites are in there. And yes, there, present and correct, is Leo Bruce, whose Sergeant Beef stories are always a delight when included in those terrific themed collections in the British Library series. Ditto Richard Hull and Alan Melville, both of whom have benefitted from British Library reissue action with the tremendous ‘Murder Of My Aunt’ and ‘Death of Anton’ both being highly recommended reads. Some of Jackson’s other suggestions are more troublesome to track down without investing significant time and potentially funds in seeking out old printed copies, but then that can be part of the thrill. I managed to find reasonably priced copies of Joan Coggin’s ‘Who Killed The Curate’ and Delano Ames’ ‘She Shall Have Murder’ for example, and am very much looking forward to delving into those.

On a personal note it was also great to see Jackson giving a big thumbs up to Edmund Crispin. Crispin’s excellent series of books featuring the hugely entertaining Gervaise Fen were amongst the first English crime/detective stories that I read as I transitioned from years of consuming hard boiled American Noir, and as a result will always retain a special place in my heart. Really though Crispin’s books are, at their best, marvellously readable and remarkably post-modern period pieces with a timeless charm. As Jackson points out, it is the deliciously light and self-aware use of metafictional humour that Crispin does so well, and it is this quality that helps the books along at a terrific pace. It’s been said before and will be said again, but really if you are in any way interested in detective fiction, then Edmund Crispin is a Must Read.

Also amongst my personal list of Must Read’s are the two contemporary authors that Jackson also makes mention of in her article. L.C. Tyler’s wonderful ‘Elsie and Ethelred’ series has been one of my most enjoyed series in the past decade or so and I’m delighted to see that the latest instalment has just been published in the form of ‘Farewell My Herring’. One rather hopes that the title is only the latest in the series’ witty appropriation of classic crime story titles and not some signifier of An Ending, but regardless, the book has certainly leapfrogged many others to land on the top of the ‘to-be-read’ shelves.

As for Ian Sansom, well, I continue to await with great anticipation a new entry in the marvellous ‘County Guides’ series. I have written about Sansom in the past of course (in one of those strange circumstances of cosmic coincidences I realise this would have been around the time Jackson’s piece was published in CADS) so there is not much to add here except to say that if you have not yet delved into the County Guides, or the earlier series of ‘Mobile Library’ stories, then you are missing out on some real treats.

Other contemporary writers that Jackson suggests are Suzette A. Hill and Anthony Horowitz. From what I can ascertain, Hill’s stories sound quite whimsical and may, I fear, fall into traps of contemporary ‘cosy’. This may, however, be an entirely unfair assumption, and with her ‘A Load Of Old Bones’ available for less than the price of a coffee, is certainly worth an inquisitive punt. Horowitz, meanwhile, I admit I have avoided for much the same reasons of Unpopular Elitism as suggested for ignoring ‘The Thursday Murder Club’. Also, probably envy, but those are my own problems and I will deal with then in my own way and in my own time. By which I mean I shall Carry On Regardless.

One contemporary author that Jackson does not mention but who may fall onto a tangential ellipse of the comedic crime fiction arc would be Stuart David. Some Unpopular readers may be more familiar with David as a musician with his terrific Looper act and membership of the early (classic?) Belle And Sebastian lineup, but he’s also the author of the rather excellent series of ‘Peacock’ stories. In a rather glorious coup of metafictional theft, the Peacock character has been lifted from the pages of an Ian Rankin novel and given a new universe to inhabit. Now I will admit to being unfamiliar with the Rankin books, but this hardly matters I am sure, for David’s opening salvo of ‘The Peacock Manifesto’ is tremendous fun in its own right and needs not a shred of ‘context’ setting. Indeed, I did not even know of the Rankin connection until after I had devoured it in a couple of sittings. Its subtitle of ‘A beer-fuelled pursuit of the American Dream. Glasgow style.’ pretty much describes what you get and is worth celebrating for that fact. A recent survey noted Glasgow as the ‘sweariest’ city in the UK, and David’s book certainly lives up to this reputation in gleeful style. Its sequel ‘With Love From Evil Bob’ is an even quicker read but no less enjoyable for that. Written in the form of letters to Peacock from the titular Evil Bob (Peacock’s main Partner In Crime in the ‘Manifesto’), the book is by turns a hilarious caper and a witty metafictional romp in the post-modern rubble. Bob himself describes his letters as “junkyard jack-ass prose. Totally self-absorbed.” and that’s as good a description as any. Elsewhere, Stuart David has expressed a desire for the Peacock books to establish the genre of the Scottish comic novel. I’m already lining up the other titles in the series for consumption, but on the evidence of these two I’d say that Peacock and David are well on the way to achieving that goal.

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.

Tiny Moments #215

Up out of Tipton St John on the way to Sidmouth, just past the sign advertising fish and chips at the Golden Lion, the road kicks up to a 13%. I flip down the gears and pass a woman pushing an old Dawes ladies tourer, attached to which is a trailer carrying what looks like a Christmas tree. We wheeze a brief ‘hello’ to each other as I ride past, each bent to our task. At the top of the hill the landscape opens out and the road passes between two fields, each filled with Donkeys enjoying the sunshine. I think of my dad and how much he would have loved to see this.

In Sidmouth a couple of girls splash into the sea wearing summer bathing costumes. I sit on my bicycle on the prom, still dressed in winter cycling kit. I am not warm.