Sunday, December 13, 2015

John Muir – ‘The Story of My Boyhood and Youth’

A month or two ago, I saw Mike Maran’s Rhapsody in Green at the Dundee Rep. It’s a one-man play told from the point of view of a clergyman who travelled with John Muir, the Scottish-born conservationist, who was a key figure in establishing the American national parks. There were two set pieces, one for each half of the play: in the first, the clergyman lost his footing climbing a mountain, and when he tried to haul himself back on to the path with his hands, both arms dislocated (they were prone to this) and he held on with his chin until Muir, who was some way ahead, came back to rescue him. In the second, the clergyman adopted Muir’s voice, telling the story of how he and his dog, Stickeen, traversed an Alaskan glacier, at one point crossing a wide crevasse by crawling painstakingly along a splinter of ice luckily laid across it – an impressive feat for a man, and an almost incredible one for a high-spirited dog. It was a remarkable show, Maran’s conversational delivery easily placing the audience in the moment, and then building to a state of high tension for these perilous episodes. The effect of telling the stories from the point of view of Muir’s friend was a little distancing, and I wondered about that. It created an impression of a great man glimpsed through privileged vignettes, which is fair enough, but what would his own voice be like?
I have seen flocks streaming south in the fall so large that they were flowing over from horizon to horizon in an almost continuous stream all day long, at the rate of forty or fifty miles an hour, like a mighty river in the sky, widening, contracting, descending like falls and cataracts, and rising suddenly here and there in huge ragged masses like high-plashing spray. (p. 74)
This is the sight of passenger pigeons migrating, which is poignant from a modern-day perspective as they are now extinct. Muir doesn’t comment directly on the population decline (though it was almost complete by the time of publication in 1913: the last known passenger pigeon, Martha, died in captivity the following year), but he gives a brutal account of the hunting that caused it. His voice is by turns precise, matter-of-fact, rhapsodic. He is sparing with his wonderment, making it the more striking when it does appear, and he never complains. Not even when his father has him dig a 90-foot well on their second farm with a hammer and chisels, which takes months, and nearly kills him when ‘deadly choke-damp – carbonic acid gas that had settled at the bottom during the night’ (p. 107) overcame him one morning. After that, they learned how to clear the air in the well first, and how to test for oxygen with a candle. In the following chapter comes the bald statement ‘Father at this period devoted himself entirely to the Bible and did no farm work whatever’ (p. 118). So – I say he doesn’t complain, but you know what he thinks. It’s remarkable though that, given this treatment, his father only emerges as a tough man, even with the odd glint of humour, and not a monster.
Of the many advantages of farm life for boys one of the greatest is gaining a real knowledge of animals as fellow-mortals, learning to respect them and love them, and even to win some of their love. Thus godlike sympathy grows and thrives and spreads far beyond the teachings of churches and schools, where too often the mean, blinding, loveless doctrine is taught that animals have neither mind nor soul, have no rights that we are bound to respect, and were made only for man, to be petted, spoiled, slaughtered or enslaved. (pp. 50-1)
This is the heart of the book, I think. Animals are what animate it, more than any human character. Domestic and farm animals like horses, dogs and oxen make their personalities known (we get grief from an ox, faithfulness from a horse, and gluttony from a dog, who can’t stop himself eating the neighbours’ chickens); and wild animals do strange and touching things too. A shrike enters a gopher burrow, behaving more like a ferret than a bird; a goose at the head of a migrating group turns back to try to help another goose which has been shot; a bee uses Muir’s head as a navigation point and is utterly confused when he moves.

If that were all, it would be enough. What emerges in the final chapters, though, is an idea of how irrepressible Muir really was; how much more than a skilled observer. It comes about through an argument with his father over reading, that he is granted permission to get up as early as he likes. Going to bed at eight, as the whole family do, he wakes at one o’clock, gaining five hours on the rest of them. It’s too cold to read, though, so instead he works on his inventions – directly under his father’s bedroom, of course, making him regret this lapse in severity. These inventions (clocks, barometers, thermometers) are his ticket out of obscurity, and to the University of Madison. As though it were the most normal thing in the world, he pre-empts Wallace and Gromit’s The Wrong Trousers, Heath Robinson’s drawings and Buster Keaton’s The Scarecrow*, with his glorious, crazy inventions:
I invented a desk in which the books I had to study were arranged in order at the beginning of each term. I also made a bed which set my on my feet every morning at the hour determined on, and in dark winter mornings just as the bed set me on the floor it lighted a lamp. Then, after the minutes allowed for dressing had elapsed, a click was heard and the first book to be studied was pushed up from a rack below the top of the desk, thrown open, and allowed to remain there the number of minutes required. Then the machinery closed the book and allowed it to drop back into its stall, then moved the rack forward and threw up the next in order, and so on, all the day being divided according to the times of recitation, and time required and allotted to each study. (p. 131)

* Also Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, S. has pointed out.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Patti Smith – ‘Just Kids’

When I was ill and off work the other week, Patti Smith came on the radio (on Woman’s Hour) to talk about her new book M Train. Jenni Murray expressed incredulity at her fondness for English murder mystery TV, with a pause, and a ‘WHY?’ Patti said something about time spent in hotel rooms, and why not? I remembered that I had Just Kids stashed on my Kindle, along with so much else, plucked when it was on sale and then forgotten. Everyone knows that Just Kids is great. It can’t miss and it doesn’t. It’s the tale of two young artists in New York in the late ’60s, who supported each other to great things, surrounded by an impossibly glamorous cast.
He said they’d live in New York
And the stars would be their own
’Cause she was Debbie Harry
And he was Joey
He was Joey Ramone
        (Helen Love, ‘Debbie Loves Joey’)
That kind of thing, but a few precious years earlier. There’s Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine, Candy Darling, Sam Shepard, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Warhol and Lou Reed from a distance. Allen Ginsberg tries to pick up Patti after mistaking her for a boy (he doesn’t mind, and they become friends). She is a great reporter of this social whirl, level-headed and journalistic, but able to dig down into artistry too. She is engagingly un-cool, in her own telling (most would disagree), her own rags-to-riches tale relatively workmanlike compared to that of her soulmate, Robert Mappelthorpe. She looks amazing in his photos, and adores the cultural milieu, but the social side can make her uncomfortable, and in a scene so defined by homosexuality and drug use, she is a bit on the conventional side. Tony Ingrassia, who directed her in two plays, calls her out on this:
Tony and I had a heated exchange that ended with him incredulous with laughter. ‘You don’t shoot up and you’re not a lesbian. What do you actually do?’
What she actually does, while the stars of New York swan around being fabulous, is work. Both in the prosaic sense, to support herself and Robert, and in the artistic one. She has a surprisingly religious attitude to creativity:
Robert […] never seemed to question his artistic drives, and by his example, I understood that what matters is the work: the string of words propelled by God becoming a poem, the weave of color and graphite scrawled upon the sheet that magnifies His motion. To achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution. From this state of mind comes a light, life-charged.
Just Kids as a whole is not a book with a religious message (Robert is conflicted about his Catholicism, but mainly in relation to how his family see him), so this stands out.

As does this:
Harry Smith suddenly materialised, as if he had disengaged from the wall. He had wild silver hair, a tangled beard, and peered at me with bright inquisitive eyes magnified by Buddy Holly glasses. He shot animated questions that overlapped my answers. ‘Who are you do you have money are you twins why are you wearing a ribbon around your wrist?’
The longest section of the book is called ‘Hotel Chelsea’, as Patti and Robert live in this famed artistic centre for a while, and retain links to it (such as using its toilets and showers) when they move into a loft space nearby. Harry is the most Chelsea Hotel character imaginable, with his great archive and his idiosyncratic ways, alternately waspish and avuncular.
Harry was also an expert at string figures. If he was in a good mood he would pull a loop of string several feet long from his pocket and weave a star, a female spirit, or a one man cat’s cradle.
Who wouldn’t want him for a neighbour?


Warning: don’t read the Kindle edition, like I did, if you want to see the book’s pictures, as they are left out. A bit of an omission for a book largely about a photographer.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Patrick O’Brian – ‘Post Captain’

Am I getting this yet? Twenty books? That’s very nearly half an arm! They’re so rough and ready, too, and episodic enough to perhaps not be discrete novels at all, but an almost unending single work. And yet, and yet. What were those episodes again? There’s an entirely unexpected, and unexpectedly convincing Jane Austen bit near the beginning, when Stephen and Jack retire to a country house on the proceeds of the Cacafuego, blasted into submission by the heroic Sophie at the end of Master and Commander. Jack takes up courting – appropriately – Sophia Williams, and Stephen Diana Villers, her cousin. Then Jack’s prize agent fails, and he finds himself bankrupt, spending the rest of the novel in an undignified avoidance of arrest for debt (shades of Amelia, which I think also has information on where in London one can and can’t be arrested for this). There’s an amazing sequence in France, when war is declared and all Englishmen are wanted, so Jack dresses up as a performing bear, with Stephen his keeper, for a supremely uncomfortable walk to Spain. On returning, Jack is given command of an almost un-sailable ship, the Polychrest, which was built to carry a massive gun in any direction, so bow and stern are the same, and she advances, slowly, along a permanent curve (or leeway). The gun itself was found to be impracticable during construction, but the ship was completed anyway. Jack nevertheless manages a daring mission in her, and so arrives at a more satisfactory, but temporary, command, of the streamlined Lively. Here Stephen comes aboard as Jack’s guest, as there is already a surgeon, and is free to indulge his inner crank, which is a match for (and as funny as) Professor Calculus from Tintin. He brings aboard a swarm of bees, for research, and is delighted when they learn to feed on the crew’s morning cocoa, as it shows that they are able to communicate (the crew are less delighted). He wears an all-in-one woollen outfit, with flaps and sleeves to adapt it to various climactic conditions, which is a huge embarrassment to Jack, instantly undermining his new command, but Stephen is oblivious. This section of the book was my favourite. Here is Stephen at his absent-minded, charmless best:
        ‘Do you hear, Stephen?’ said Jack. ‘There is a gibbon aboard, that is not well.’
        ‘Yes, yes,’ said Stephen, returning to the present. ‘I had the pleasure of meeting her this morning, walking hand in hand with the very young gentleman: it was impossible to tell which was supporting which. A fetching, attractive creature in spite of its deplorable state. I look forward eagerly to dissecting it. […]’
        A chill fell on the conversation, and after a slight pause Jack said, ‘I think, my dear fellow, that the ship’s company would be infinitely more obliged to you, was you to cure it.’ (p. 405)

Monday, October 26, 2015

Monorail: A Weekend Abroad, 23rd – 24th October, CCA, Glasgow

Time was, I’d scramble to gets the words down early the morning after, before too much of the hangover kicked in. Keep it fresh, keep it quick. I don’t know how relevant that approach feels anymore, and in any case, The Pastels sunk any possibility of it this time with their own Pastelism Pilsner, on tap at the CCA for the whole event, at a powerful 6.2%. Notes of elderflower, reckoned S. Very tasty. It had been a while since we’d been to Glasgow, but Brogues and Stephen conspired to get a few of us match fit by putting together a fanzine about the bands playing on Saturday. A kind of sequel to the one we did for the Pastels / Tenniscoats Stereo show in 2009. Brogues’ multi-coloured autumnal design was just perfect, and his enthusiasm (for Spinning Coin in particular, and for Glasgow music in general) as infectious as always. Chris S.’s contribution, about two idiots latching on to The Pastels as impressionable students, beginning to ‘slightly obsess’ (slightly?) over their music and the other music they drew on and fed into, is one of my favourite things ever. Just as actually living through it has been, of course. I love Andrew R. Hill’s piece too, the way it’s so abstract it doesn’t even mention the band it’s about; and the way it paints music as normal, problematic, everywhere.

‘So you missed the only good thing?’ said C., on Saturday, when we confessed to having missed Happy Meals the previous day. Before demolishing The Space Lady in three words: ‘It’s funny once.’ Which is a bulletproof argument*, but having thought about it, I would like to employ the Nigel Bruce defence: good isn’t the only good. And the least good thing in The Space Lady’s set was also the most striking: a new song, on her new split LP, called ‘The Next Right Thing’, in which she argues that the approaching environmental armageddon can be averted if each of us, individually, only goes about always doing the next right thing. It’s bollocks, and trite, but something about the flashing red helmet she wears saves it from the kind of terminal earnestness that it would have in the hands of, say, Bridget St John. Actually, through a decent PA, The Space Lady’s Silver Apples basslines punched pretty hard, and the ‘Tainted Love’ drum patterns sizzled pleasingly in the vacuum above. It sounded great. ‘Born to be Wild’ was a highlight, with reverb echo shrieks coming out of nowhere, belying the polite backing. Molly Nilsson followed, and had the audience at the front dancing crazily away for the duration. Between songs she knelt down to press ‘play’ on her laptop, which was a step too far from performance for me: there were no visuals, just Molly bopping slowly away, and singing not very expressively. Having said that, I did like some of the songs: particularly ‘Lovers are Losers’. I’m intrigued enough to want to know more, and actually I’d love to get back into music that sounds like this, because 1987 is where I came in, musically speaking (and the new New Order is nowhere near).

We arrived in time to catch most of Take Three Girls: The Dolly Mixture Story on Saturday, which certainly rewarded a second viewing, and which may yet come to DVD, said Paul Kelly, if they can clear the rights. He and Debsey Wykes did a Q & A afterwards, in which he said that there is yet more footage he’d like to edit in, adding another ten minutes or so. Debsey laughed at how much of a creep the guy on local TV had been, interviewing them before they played ‘Baby, It’s You’. ‘And yours is the definitive take?’ he said, remembering the original version. Debsey demurred: ‘I don’t know’, not playing the game, skin crawling, caught promoting a single none of them believed in to this cheesy guy. That single seems to have been the big mis-step in their career, earning them the distain of their peers. Though partly it was their aesthetic, too, and they were marginalised in much the same way that Talulah Gosh were later, for being girls not trying to be boys. The main insight which came out of the Q & A was that Take Three Girls is very much an insider’s take on the story, and a much needed one, to set the balance right, even in the minds of the band members. Paul said that their initial interviews were largely negative, and so he did them again (getting Captain Sensible and Rachel Bor’s son to interview Debsey), after making an effort to convey to them what a great thing they had achieved with Dolly Mixture.

After that, things start to get a bit hazy. Roxanne Clifford’s new band Normal Love seemed like a return to form following Veronica Falls’ attempt to go a bit too large with their second LP. Lightness, urgency and melody are back! It will be exciting hearing this come to recorded fruition – soon, hopefully. Spinning Coin’s shimmering 90s-ish indie rock sounded beefier than their first cassette EP, but I didn’t quite make the leap to adoration on this showing. There was some wittering between songs which didn’t help. ‘Is this some kind of metaphor?’ heckled Chris, helpfully, when they started to go on a bit. ‘It could be a metaphor,’ they conceded, to their credit. I had worried a bit about Birdie in advance, having watched some 2013 YouTube clips when preparing my fanzine piece. As a three piece, through a phone mic, there wasn’t much left of their detailed pop vision. In person, those concerns melted away, Paul filling in the gaps with his 12-string electric and high backing vocals. He even sang lead on one song, East Village’s ‘Shipwrecked’. Debsey was in fine voice, and sang the songs we wanted to hear – ‘Let Her Go’, ‘Linus’, ‘Folk Singer’. So elegant, full of tough melancholy. Amazing to hear. At the Q & A they said they’d retired Birdie in 2001, but also that they were doing this show for the simple reason that they had been asked. Promoters of the world, do some more asking, please. The Pastels followed this with a confident, home crowd set drawing largely from Slow Summits, dipping into their past for ‘Fragile Gang’ (dedicated to ‘our friend Carey’, the Camera Obscura keyboard player who passed away recently), ‘Baby Honey’ and the New York Dolls’ ‘Lonely Planet Boy’. Stephen’s songs ‘Night Time Made Us’ and ‘Summer Rain’ have never sounded better, and Katrina avoided melancholy completely with ‘Check My Heart’ and ‘Come To The Dance’ adding to the celebratory mood. The defining Pastels moment of the weekend, though, has to be this Tweet, from Friday:
See also the #fuckedonpastelism hashtag. Who else can do this? It’s great to be a part of it.

* Is it, though? Defence #2: Doing it once wouldn’t be all that funny, it’s the fact that she’s been doing this act for forty odd years that gives it… not gravitas, obviously, but something like poignancy.

Chris S.’s photos are here.

Andrew’s review of the gigs (including a pic of the zine) is here.

Brogues’s review, including a download of the zine, is here.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Andrew Roberts – ‘Napoleon the Great’

The friendship began when Napoleon tested Betsy on the capitals of Europe. When he asked her the capital of Russia she replied, ‘Petersburg now; Moscow formerly’, upon which ‘He turned abruptly round, and, fixing his piercing eyes full in my face, he demanded sternly, “Who burnt it?”’ She was dumbstruck, until he laughed and said: ‘Oui, oui. You know very well that it was I who burnt it!’ Upon which the teenager corrected him: ‘I believe, sir, the Russians burnt it to get rid of the French.’ Whereupon Napoleon laughed and friendship with ‘Mademoiselle Betsee’, ‘leetle monkee’, ‘bambina’ and ‘little scatterbrain’ was born. (p. 783)
Sent by the British to St Helena following the battle of Waterloo, Napoleon remained himself, here making friends with his hosts’ 14-year-old daughter while he waited for his own house to be made ready. He is frequently a disarming presence in this biography, which has no truck with the idea of the Napoleonic Complex, and excuses or explains almost all of his behaviour, give or take a massacre (at Jaffa) or an execution (of the Duc d’Enghien). It refutes, too, the suggestion that the British poisoned Napoleon on St Helena, going into detail about the stomach cancer which killed him and a number of his relatives. It clarifies that he wasn’t really all that short. Coming to it without a great deal of context it’s difficult to know what to make of Roberts’ defensive writing on occasion. His book is one long argument in its subject’s favour, but what an argument it is.

The context I did have was entirely from fiction: War and Peace, The Count of Monte Cristo and Conan Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard stories all make use of the cult of Napoleon (from safely after his reign), though he is only fleetingly present in those books. His reputation rather than his person is the point: he has dominated Europe and inspires awe, fear and… something else. Respect is part of it, and it’s something to do with the way he fused monarchy with republicanism. Roberts notes that ‘Emperor of the French Republic’ ought to be a contradiction in terms, and makes much of the durability of Napoleon’s reforms, saying that he was able to make them stick because of his autocracy, so that the Bourbons, when restored to the throne in 1815, found France changed in an irreversible way:
During his sixteen years in power, many of the best ideas that underpin and actuate modern democratic politics – meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, secular education, sound finances, efficient administration, and so on – were rescued from the Revolutionary maelstrom and protected, codified and consolidated. […] The Napoleonic Code forms the basis of much European law today […] His bridges span the Seine and his reservoirs, canals and sewers are still in use […] The lycées continue to provide excellent education, and the Conseil d’Etat still meets every Wednesday to review the proposed laws of France. (pp. 809-10)
Yet Napoleon’s own position was fragile, which is also part of the appeal. He tried to mitigate against this using every means at his disposal:
Napoleon’s strategy was to ensure that, although he could always count on British hostility, there would be no moment when all three continental powers of Russia, Austria and Prussia would be ranged against him at the same time. He thus needed to play each off against the others, and as much as possible against Britain too. He used Prussia’s desire for Hanover, Russia’s inability to fight on after Friedland, a marriage alliance with Austria, the differences between Russia and Austria over the Ottoman Empire and the fears of Polish resurgence that all three powers felt to avoid having to fight the four powers simultaneously. (pp. 459-60)
Although the 1812 campaign in Russia is identified in the turning point in Napoleon’s fortunes, the reason he invaded was to protect his Continental System, which was designed to prevent trade with Britain. Russia initially signed up to this, but Tsar Alexander became progressively less keen as the blockade hurt the Russian economy. The Royal Navy was a constant thorn in Napoleon’s side, and the reason his plans to invade Britain never came to fruition. Blocking trade with France and her allies was the only way he could hurt Britain – and it did hurt us, helping to ‘spur the Luddite protest movement against unemployment in England’ according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Which gives us a link to Charlotte Brontë, whose Shirley is set during the Luddite protests, and whose hero, as we know, was the Duke of Wellington, victor at Waterloo. I wonder if this is part of the reason she’s so incredibly ill-disposed to Belgians?
‘Napoleon is a torrent,’ Kutusov said in deciding to surrender the city, ‘but Moscow is the sponge that will soak him up.’ (pp. 609-10)
We’ve met Russian commander-in-chief Kutusov before, in War and Peace, where he – as in real life – gave Napoleon the run around while he wore himself out. The map showing the brutal reality of the half-a-million French losses during the campaign (above) is chilling, and a reminder that war is more than political action. Which is the rub, I guess, with Napoleon. Roberts puts the figure of French military and civilian losses during ‘the Empire period’ as 916,000, ‘of whom fewer than 90,000 were killed in action’ (p. 811 – the remainder are casualties of the campaigns caused in other ways than direct conflict, like disease, starvation or suicide). For the whole of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, across all nations, the figure is four million, but that predates Napoleon’s ascent, going back to 1792. Is any great man worth 916,000 deaths? Don’t the deaths mean he wasn’t great after all? In as far as it is possible to make the contrary case, Roberts makes it.

There’s so much in this book I haven’t touched on at all, but two more quotations to finish, the first showing Napoleon’s pragmatic approach to religion:
In religion, I do not see the mystery of the Incantation, but the mystery of the social order. It associates with Heaven an idea of equality that keeps rich men from being massacred by the poor… Society is impossible without inequality; inequality intolerable without a code of morality, and a code of morality unacceptable without religion. (p. 272)
He was a very thoughtful, and a very well-read man, in Roberts’ telling, frequently drawing on the examples of his heroes Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. He was also a compulsive liar, always manipulating battle (and plebiscite) statistics in his own favour. His first wife, Josephine, showed an ‘almost psychotic extravagance’ (p. 155), which led to this:
Josephine also kept there [at Malmaison] a menagerie of kangaroos, emus, flying squirrels, gazelles, ostriches, llamas and a cockatoo that had only one word (‘Bonaparte’) which it repeated incessantly. She would occasionally invite a female orang-utan dressed in a white chemise to eat turnips among her guests at table. (p. 468)
Those nouveau riche, eh?

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Mitch Cullin – ‘Mr Holmes’ / Anthony Horowitz – ‘Moriarty’

Having enjoyed Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk a few years ago, more or less as a guilty pleasure, I immediately resigned myself to Moriarty when it appeared in a Kindle Store sale recently, putting aside a book on Napoleon for one on the Napoleon of crime. It’s possible I may have resented Moriarty unfairly for this interruption, and also more than likely that it is not my kind of book: an action-packed thriller, with violence several notches above anything in Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories, and stretched, too, over a longer distance than any of his Holmes novels. It doesn’t even have Sherlock Holmes in it, aside from the short story ‘The Three Monarchs’ included at the end. This story is excellent, a playful take on ‘The Six Napoleons’ (there he is again), with a murder and the theft of three jubilee souvenir statuettes of Queen Victoria from three neighbouring houses. Horowitz captures Dr Watson’s style to a T. In the main body of the novel, his narrator is Frederick Chase, ‘senior investigator with the Pinkerton Detective Agency in New York’, who is a surrogate Dr Watson to Athelney Jones’ Sherlock Holmes. Jones is a Scotland Yard detective, featured unflatteringly in The Sign of Four, who has become obsessed with Holmes’ methods, and is determined to redeem himself for his earlier dunderheadedness. They meet in Switzerland, and view what appears to be the body of Moriarty, ‘fished out of the Reichenbach Brook’. In a concealed pocket they find a note in code, arranging a rendezvous in London with Clarence Devereaux, a criminal mastermind who has encroached on Moriarty’s territory in London, importing brutal American methods and generally raising hell. This is the starting point of their joint effort to eradicate him. More than that, it would be unfair to say – which is a shame, because the virtues of the book lie in the clever plotting and deception. I liked what happened more than the way in which it happened, which is why it isn’t my kind of book.

Mitch Cullin, writing in 2005 (of 1947), seems to have Horowitz’s number. This is the kind of thing which comes through the letter box of the 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes:
There would be requests for magazine or radio interviews, and there would be pleas for help (a lost pet, a stolen wedding ring, a missing child, an array of other hopeless trifles best left unanswered). Then there were the yet-to-be-published manuscripts: misleading and lurid fictions based on his past exploits, lofty explorations in criminology, galleys of mystery anthologies – along with flattering letters asking for an endorsement, a positive comment for a future dust jacket, or, possibly, an introduction to a text. (p. 7)
‘Misleading and lurid’ is a perfect description of Moriarty – though not necessarily a criticism, since it sets out to be both. Mr Holmes (or A Slight Trick of the Mind as it was called before it was made into a film) is an altogether more gentle and straightforward novel. At least, it is if ‘straightforward’ means not concealing things for dramatic effect. From the point of view of character, it is far more complex, and tries to imagine an old and declining Holmes, trying to stave off the effects of old age and coming to terms with the few things which, almost despite his efforts, he has come to hold dear. Chief of which is his apiary: as indicated in several of the short stories, Holmes retires to Sussex to keep bees. Partly this is to do with the royal jelly they produce, which he believes helps to keep him active and well; but as the inter-woven story ‘The Glass Armonicist’ unfolds, it emerges that there is also a sentimental reason, a bee which alighted on the glove of the woman in that case, a woman who fascinated him for no very discernible reason. But perhaps the reasons for these things are never overtly demonstrable, and Mr Holmes tussles with Holmes’ strict logic, and the people who circumvent this. It doesn’t make him lovable, exactly, and the strict logic is always there, but he does have feelings of comradeship for Watson, Mycroft (both now dead), and Roger Munro, the teenage son of his housekeeper, who tends his bees when he is away. This thin thread of human connection and affection is as necessary to him as his work, which takes in the apiary and the composition of specialist texts, such as The Whole Art of Detection*. The sub-plot involving a trip to Japan to find that other rejuvenating substance, prickly ash, works as an illustration of what happens when Holmes tries to engage with the world. He has kept up a correspondence with Mr Umezaki on the subject of prickly ash, the culmination of which is his visit, but it turns out that Umezaki has an ulterior motive, and has merely had the sense to dress up his plea for help in the guise of scientific interest. When Holmes tries to reach out, it doesn’t work. He doesn’t have the knack, so has to wait through a lifetime of rigour for those three or four moments when connections to other people occur, unprompted, uncontrived, unforced. That they all die is as brutal an authorial policy as anything in Moriarty, but the Holmes that remains is sustained by his interests, and receptive to the possibility of genuine connections, however rare they may be. He comforts Roger’s mother with this moving speech:
It seems – or rather – it’s that sometimes – sometimes things occur beyond our own understanding, my dear, and the unjust reality is that these events – being so illogical to us, devoid of whatever reason we might attach to them – are exactly what they are and, regrettably, nothing else – and I believe – I truly believe that that is the hardest notion for any of us to live with. (p. 240)
There is no higher reason for Roger’s death, caused by wasp stings as he defended Holmes’ apiary – except, of course, to allow Holmes to work out what happened, and Cullin to make that point. Here they are earlier on, in happier times, surrounded by phenomena which can, reassuringly, be defined:
        ‘Is this cliff only chalk?’
        ‘It is made of chalk, and it is made of sandstone.’
        Within the strata beneath the chalk was gault clay, greensand, and Wealden sands in successive order, explained Holmes as they continued downward; the clay beds and the thin layer of sandstones were covered with chalk, clay, and flint added throughout the aeons by countless storms. (pp. 112-3)

* The Whole Art of Detection seems to be an actual thing.

A glass armonica in action.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Patrick O’Brian — ‘Master and Commander’

My second go at this, having batted it away in its Kindle edition with some fool comment about the mechanism of character (eh?). Since then it has kept popping up in second hand shops, nagging at me that ebooks don’t hold the attention as well as the real thing, and that it deserved another attempt. And so it proved. There is plenty of good characterisation, most obviously with the hearty Jack Aubrey and the precise Stephen Maturin, but taking in too Captain and Molly Harte, and James Dillon. Chapter three is a whirlwind of unfamiliar sailing terms which drives you to a dictionary every few lines (why is there no glossary?), and to Google if that fails, but that diminishes to some extent in later chapters, and is, in any case, integral to the way the book works, because the ship herself is a character, and the navy another, both dragged out of history on to the page through a very specific vocabulary. Set in 1800, it finds the British navy at war with the Spanish and French, patrolling the Mediterranean, safeguarding the passage of trade ships and disrupting the activities (both trade and military) of the enemy. Jack Aubrey is given his first command, the Sophie, and invites Stephen Maturin aboard as surgeon. Maturin has nothing to lose at the time, and is a lost soul:
Stephen Maturin was not afraid of any vulgar betrayal, nor was he afraid for his skin, because he did not value it: but he had so suffered from the incalculable tensions, rancour and hatreds that arise from the failure of a rebellion that he could not bear any further disappointment, any further hostile, recriminatory confrontation, any fresh example of a friend grown cold, or worse. (p. 95)
Both Stephen and the Sophie’s lieutenant, James Dillon, were involved in the United Irishmen Rebellion, and it affects them in different ways. Stephen is relatively apolitical, for someone with such a history: he is interested in science, particularly zoology, and his passions tend to be in the realm of intellectual inquiry. By contrast, James is consumed by the rebellion’s failure, and frustrated that he can’t speak out about it. He and Stephen do discuss it, one night, but he regrets this: nothing can be right with the world while the injustice remains, and he seems to feel he has only belittled his intense loyalties by talking about them. His is a tough, brooding presence in the book, as professional as he is inscrutable. Jack can’t work him out at all and, having once gained his friendship, loses it at a stroke by sending him aboard a ship bound for America to root out two supposed Frenchmen on the run. From their descriptions, James realises they are Irishmen from his own organisation, and seethes with divided loyalty: he can’t betray them, but that doesn’t make foregoing his duty to the navy an easy thing to do. He longs for action as a way of coping with these emotions. Stephen observes all this and records in his diary:
when JA is in a rage with his superiors, irked by the subordination of the service, spurred on by his restless, uneasy temperament, or (as at present) lacerated by his mistress’ infidelity, he flies to violence as a relief — to action. JD, urged on by entirely different furies, does the same. The difference is that whereas I believe JA merely longs for the shattering noise, immense activity of mind and body, and the all-embracing sense of the present moment, I am very much afraid that JD wants more. (p. 303–4)
There are a few great set pieces of action, most spectacularly the taking of the Cacafuego, a Spanish ship with a crew which outnumbers the Sophie’s by 319 to 54 because, although the Sophie usually holds 90 crew, they have captured several ships recently, and 40 men are away returning them to Port Mahon, where their base is (there seems to be a thin line between piracy and warfare, because the men directly profit from the ships they capture, even referring to them as prizes). In a feat almost worthy of Douglas Fairbanks’ Black Pirate, the Sophie slips under the Cacafuego’s guns and gives her a succession of broadsides from a distance of six inches, before the fifty-three sailors board, leaving Stephen alone at the tiller. As for The Guardian’s claim that Patrick O’Brian is ‘Jane Austen at sea’ – that’s about the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Intelligent and sensitive though it is, Master and Commander is really about rough and tumble, ambition, real men doing what they have to do, and the politics of life in the navy. Its focus on money and status, I guess, are a connection to Austen, but there are almost no women, and the only romance is between Jack and Molly Harte, which is decidedly short-term, as Stephen observes at one of her dinners:
Stephen felt the odd bareness on his knee that meant his napkin had glided to the floor; he dived after it, and in the hooded tent below he beheld four and twenty legs, six belonging to the table and eighteen to his temporary messmates. Miss Wade had kicked off her shoes: the woman opposite him had dropped a little screwed-up handkerchief: Colonel Pitt’s gleaming military boot lay pressed upon Mrs Harte’s right foot, and upon her left – quite a distance from the right – reposed Jack’s scarcely less massive buckled shoe. […] in time Mrs Harte rose and walked, limping slightly, into the drawing room (p. 272)

New words: holystones, antiscorbutic, roborative, hypnogogue, carotid, drabble-tail, pake, strake, futtock-shrouds, kelson, fid, top-maul, bilboes, orlop, specie, libeccio, patareroes, abaft, mizen, luff, tompion, loblolly, anamometer, stanchion, taffrail, genet, solomongundy, tramontana, xebec, cullions.

(There is more of the vocab in this Goodreads review, which also makes a good point about the desultory nature of the Sophie’s cruises.)

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Wyndham Wallace — ‘Lee, Myself and I: Inside the Very Special World of Lee Hazlewood’

The strings are like veins swelling with blood — slowly at first, then increasingly uninhibited. A hint of horn and a tease of oboe offer brief flashes of bare skin, the melody floating over its surface. The song suddenly shifts up a key, and I gasp: it’s like we’ve reached the peak of a treacherous mountain, and now, below us, as clouds part, we’ve discovered at last hidden hillsides and dark, unknown forests. I’m entering Freudian territory. Man, I really am stoned. (p. 31)

This is a description of ‘Leather and Lace’ from Cowboy in Sweden — of Wyndham Wallace hearing it for the first time, and getting it right between the thighs. It’s the early ’90s. He’s been out to a Mark Eitzel show which finished abruptly when a heckler went too far causing Eitzel to storm off, and ended up, via a few games of pool, in a Camden flat inhabited by The Rockingbirds, hogging a joint and falling hard for Lee’s music. It’s some introduction, some description. Scenes of Wallace taking his first tentative steps in the music business from a privileged starting point which he sees as a disadvantage (how times change!) are woven in with his first meeting with Lee, five or six years later, in a hotel bar in New York. It doesn’t start well:
‘How the fuck old are you? Thirteen?’
I’m not even shit on his shoes. (p. 18)
Wallace is actually 27 by this point, and runs the UK arm of City Slang (or possibly is the UK arm of City Slang). Steve Shelley is in the process of re-releasing some of Lee’s records and has involved Wallace for UK promotion. Faxes have bleeped back and forth, and now the launch party has occasioned this meeting with his hero. It’s a bit tense, but he gets through it without alienating Lee too much.

The book is the story of how these unpromising beginnings lead to a real friendship. Lee is difficult, Wyndham indulgent; gradually trust starts to build. It’s also the story of a comeback: the discography at the back shows a prolific career losing momentum in the mid ’70s, skipping the ’80s entirely and never really getting its mojo back right until the end, with 2006’s Cake or Death. Though there are reminiscences of the glory days, the focus is necessarily on the nineties and noughties, some comeback concerts (particularly at Nick Cave’s Meltdown in 1999 — though Cave’s one appearance in the book is stand-off-ish in the extreme), and Lee’s cancer, of which he died in 2007. It’s a fine memoir, but it makes you thirst for a similarly meticulous account of the sixties and seventies. A project to get down some of Lee’s anecdotes while he can still tell them is mooted late on, but there’s a problem with that idea: ‘Lee rarely speaks about the music on his old records. He’ll talk until your smile muscles ache about all sorts of things, but not the contents of the albums he made.’ (p. 195). There are a few indications in the book that there was a depressive side to Lee – at least, that he was a man who needed his own space. That made me think of ‘Friendship Train’, and the line ‘when you’re blue I’ll lie and say you’re not feeling like yourself today’. When you’ve sung that, really, why elaborate?

Except that one of the chief pleasures of this book is hearing Lee speak. It doesn’t much matter what about, and in fact, it’s hard to find anything very concise or even to the point. It’s just nice to do. Here he is reminiscing about making someone else’s records (‘Bubba’ is his nick-name for Wyndham):
        ‘You know, we started making Duane Eddy records in 1957, in Phoenix, Arizona. That’s over forty years ago. Corky Casey’ – he relishes the sound of her name as it rolls off his tongue – ‘played rhythm on a lot of them. She didn’t play in the band in person, but Corky was always on the records. You know, what Corky Casey may have been is the first American rock lady guitarist in America. I haven’t found anybody who can say otherwise, and I’ve talked to several people about it. They say, “1957? That’s waaaay back there, isn’t it?” So if you know of anyone, Bubba – and I don’t mean your grandmother who played in a band – then I think you ought to tell me.’
        ‘I don’t think my grandmother ever played in a band,’ I laugh, surprised by the notion, since I’m not sure I’ve ever mentioned her before. ‘She was more of a wannabe poet.’
        ‘Aha! I like the sound of her.’ (p. 96)
Miss you, Lee.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

P. G. Wodehouse — ‘Something Fresh’

        ‘What cheese would you recommend?’
        ‘The gentlemen are speaking well of the gorgonzola.’
        ‘All right, bring me some. You know, Adams, what I admire about Americans is their resource. Mr Peters tells me that, as a boy of eleven, he earned twenty dollars a week selling mint to saloon-keepers, as they call publicans over there. Why they wanted mint I cannot recollect. Mr Peters explained the reason to me, and it seemed highly plausible at the time, but I have forgotten it. Possibly for mint-sauce. It impressed me, Adams. Twenty dollars is four pounds. I never earned four pounds a week when I was a boy of eleven. In fact, I don’t think I ever earned four pounds a week. His story impressed me, Adams. Every man ought to have an earning capacity…. Tell me, Adams, have I eaten my cheese?’
        ‘Not yet, your lordship, I was about to send the waiter for it.’
        ‘Never mind. Tell him to bring the bill instead. I remember that I have an appointment. I must not be late.’
        ‘Shall I take the fork, your lordship?’
        ‘The fork?’
        ‘Your lordship has inadvertently put a fork in your coat-pocket.’
        Lord Emsworth felt in the pocket indicated, and, with the air of an inexpert conjuror whose trick has succeeded contrary to his expectations, produced a silver-plated fork. He regarded it with surprise, then he looked wonderingly at Adams.
        ‘Adams, I’m getting absent-minded. Have you ever noticed any traces of absent-mindedness in me before?’
        ‘Oh, no, your lordship.’ (pp. 43–4)
Once upon a time, I doted on Wodehouse, and particularly the Blandings stories. Their appeal is simple: it’s an idyll, a place it’s charming and relaxing to visit (Trollope’s Barsetshire has a similar attraction at times, though it’s obviously more extensive and less comic. But there are real points of crossover: both The Small House at Allington and Something Fresh feature breach of promise to marry as a theme). They turn on the character of the Clarence, Ninth Earl of Emsworth, who wants to be left alone by the world to potter around Blandings, enjoying the gardens, and looking in on the Empress, his prize pig, around whose condition (i.e. fatness) various labyrinthine plots are constructed. The recent BBC TV series got it all wrong by being madcap: Blandings is about calm. Of course things happen to intrude on that calm, generally to imperil the Empress’ girth when she’s about to be entered into a show, and then the Earl will be troubled, within his exceedingly narrow focus. But it’s a joy to observe that narrow focus, and a comfort to watch his ruffled feathers settle as the status quo is restored. Something Fresh is the first Blandings novel, from 1915, and the pieces aren’t all in place yet (there’s no pig, and no Lady Constance to keep Clarence on his toes), but on the other hand it has characters who feel things for each other, and a plot stacked high with farcical potential.

The plot turns on a scarab that the Earl unconsciously pockets: the pride of the collection of American millionaire Mr Peters, whose daughter Aline has unaccountably become engaged to Freddie, the Earl’s vacant youngest son. Mr Peters is furious when he discovers the loss, but can’t accuse Emsworth of the theft for fear of jeopardising his daughter’s marriage. Emsworth becomes convinced that the scarab was intended as a present, and gives it a prominent place in the museum at Blandings castle. Mr Peters lets it be known he’d give $5000 to get the scarab back, which causes a rush of people (well, three) to the castle to retrieve it. Two of them pretend to be domestic servants: Joan Valentine, an old school friend of Aline Peters, who once was the target of a stream of love letters and poems from Freddie, whom she impressed as a chorus girl; and Ashe Marson, a fitness fanatic and reluctant writer of the Gridley Quayle detective stories which Freddie, cooped up at the castle with no allowance, adores. Joan pretends to be Aline’s maid, and Ashe the valet of Mr Peters — who, I forgot to mention, is dyspeptic and on a diet he can’t stand, of nuts and greens. Then there is R. Jones, whom Freddie has paid £500 to get back the letters he wrote to Joan, lest she raise a breach of promise case and endanger his marriage to Aline. Joan didn’t keep the letters, and tells R. Jones so. He leaves, and is just in time to listen at the door when Aline arrives, and tells Joan about the reward for the scarab. This gives him an idea for squeezing more money out of Freddie.

There’s more, but that’s the gist. Most characters have two functions which dovetail nicely into a wall of confusion. Now you mention it, it doesn’t actually sound all that calm; but don’t forget that the Earl is 99% oblivious. Without the pig to focus his attention, his only real concern is being at Blandings:
The Earl of Emsworth was one of the world’s leading potterers, and Sunday morning was his favourite time for pottering. Since breakfast he had pottered about the garden, pottered round the stables, and pottered about the library. He now pottered into the museum. (p. 213)
Doesn’t that sound delightful?

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Anthony Trollope – ‘The Small House at Allington’

Who does not know how terrible are those preparations for house-moving – how infinite in number are the articles which must be packed, how inexpressibly uncomfortable is the period of packing, and how poor and tawdry is the aspect of one’s belongings while they are thus in a state of dislocation? (p. 538)
Well, quite. S. and I moved earlier this year, to a house of our own, with an art room for her and a music room / library for me (hedging my bets), and while much of the house is tidy and functional, these two rooms are still Xanadus of boxes: all the things we couldn’t bear to part with, but aren’t strictly necessary. It’s ever so slightly tempting to lock them up and go digital. Mrs Dale and her two daughters, with whom Trollope sympathises above, don’t have that option, of course: it’s the 1860s, and they feel that their position as occupiers of the Small House at Allington is no longer tenable. They have lived there for many years, under the aegis of the squire, who lives next door at the Great House. His brother was Mrs Dale’s husband, and has left her a widow with a very small income. The squire, taking them under his wing in a practical sense, finds it impossible to show fondness (though it is not lacking) through his manner, so they always feel a little distant from him. When he tries to consolidate the family fortune, by marrying off the elder sister, Bell, to his nephew Bernard, they see it as a step outside his authority, and plan to leave the Small House for much plainer lodgings at nearby Guestwick. Whether they will go through with this or not gives some tension to the closing chapters of the book, alongside the greater question of whether Lily Dale will marry Johnny Eames. Certainly the book ends well, with these two gentle crescendos, and sets the reader up for more Barsetshire in the sixth and final book of the series.

While I did enjoy this book, and generally become more enamoured of Trollope the more I read, it didn’t quite live up to Framley Parsonage, which wove such a rich tapestry of old and new characters. The Small House feels more limited, though it’s unclear why this should be so: it takes in country, town, rich and… less rich. It contains a vicious and thoroughly enjoyable demolition job on the de Courcys, who move from respectable titled folk to in-fighting money-grubbing horror show without changing at all. There are scenes of clerk-dom at the Income Tax Office, which (say the notes) may draw on Trollope’s own time at the Post Office. There are comic scenes in a low rent guest house, and there is passionate, doomed love at Allington in two directions. There is a terrific scene showing how bored men get when women choose carpets. Money is everywhere, of course, but it’s not quite the actuating force it was in Framley Parsonage. Greed is more generalised; want, too. The lessons to be drawn are perhaps a little obvious: don’t run from the arms of the one you love into those of the daughter of an earl for whom you don’t care a jot. And – on the other side – don’t fall in love with a swell; don’t be a Cathy for the first dashing man who comes along, because he probably isn’t a Heathcliff.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Robert Tressell – ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’

This is a big, polemical, bloody minded book about working men in the early 1900s, and – not their struggle against, but their acquiescence in the condition of poverty to which capitalism has brought them. They are taught from a young age not to question their situation, but to trust in their Liberal or Conservative political masters. Class divisions are absolute, and ‘the likes of us’, as the men refer to themselves, think only of beer, women, football and racing; never of anything that might improve their circumstances. The men live and work in Mugsborough, a town on the south coast of England, and they are house painters. For the first half of the book, they are engaged in doing up a house belonging to the head of the company they work for, Rushton & Co. They are bullied into working as fast as possible by a man variously known as Misery, Hunter and Nimrod, who is Rushton’s right-hand man. He does all Rushton’s dirty work, and all his thinking too: calculating the cost of jobs, and creeping around trying to catch the working men not working, in order to be able to sack one of them and keep the rest on their toes – and ideally to force down the wage for which they are prepared to work . Below him is the foreman of the job, Crass, who does his share of creeping, and gives himself the easy task of mixing paints. This hierarchy is rotten to the core, and is a microcosm of the system of commerce in the wider world, which rewards cunning and greed, and scorns talent and craftmanship:
What Misery did not know about scamping and faking the work, the men suggested to and showed him in the hope of currying favour with him in order that they might get the preference over others and be sent for when the next job came in. This is the principle incentive provided by the present system, the incentive to cheat. These fellows cheated the customers of their money. They cheated themselves and their fellow workmen of work, and their children of bread, but it was all for a good cause – to make profit for their master. (p. 462)
There is a lot of talk of the ‘present system’ in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The central character, Frank Owen, is a socialist, who tries to kindle a sense of outrage in his fellow workers. He tells them that money is the cause of their poverty, and they laugh at him, because it sounds like it makes no sense. But it does make sense:
money is the cause of poverty, because poverty consists in being short of the necessaries of life: the necessaries of life are all produced by labour applied to the raw materials: the raw materials exist in abundance and there are plenty of people able and willing to work; but under present conditions no work can be done without money; and so we have the spectacle of a great army of people compelled to stand idle and starve by the side of the raw materials from which their labout could produce abundance of all the things they need – they are rendered helpless by the power of Money! (p. 588)
Tressell goes so far as to prefer feudalism to capitalism:
It would have been much better for them if, instead of being ‘Freemen’, they had been slaves, and the property, instead of the hirelings, of Mr Rushton. (p. 315)
Because then he would have taken care of them, ‘as he would of his horse’. Money cuts ties, creates abstractions. Rushton can pay them when there is work to be done, and lay them off when there isn’t: it’s like a zero hour contract, without the contract. And so the workers strive for the right to earn not enough to live on, and when they are out of work they and their families starve. The council is run by Rushton and his cronies Sweater, Grinder and Didlum, purely for their own profit, and the only councillor who stands up to them, Weakling, is so unpopular he gets voted out. Not because he is unpleasant, or an ineffecive speaker, but because he is not selfish enough, and this puts him in a position of weakness, which the voters can’t stand. Everything continually gets worse, and Tressell has only contempt for the charities which claim to want to help:
If it were not for all this so-called charity the starving unemployed men all over the country would demand to be allowed to work and produce the things they are perishing for want of, instead of being – as they are now – content to wear their masters’ cast off clothing and to eat the crumbs that fall from his table. (p. 428)
Charity is invariably tied to the Church, which sanctifies ‘the system’, and never, ever does what Jesus would have done. Witness the vile Rev. Mr Belcher:
If he had removed the long garment, this individual would have resembled a balloon: the feet representing the car and the small head that surmounted the globe, the safety valve; as it was it did actually serve the purpose of a safety valve, the owner being, in consequence of gross overfeeding and lack of natural exercise, afflicted with chronic flatulance, which manifested itself in frequent belchings forth through the mouth of the foul gases generated in the stomach by the decomposition of the foods with which it was generally loaded. But as the Rev. Mr Belcher had never been seen with his coat off, no one ever noticed the resemblance. (p. 202)
He has been made ill by his disgusting over-indulgence, and the most disgusting thing of all is that the children of his Sunday school are made to collect money from people on the poverty line to send him on holiday to recover.

I kept expecting the workers and the unemployed to form a society to help themselves – the ‘Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’of the book’s title. But they are too divided for that. The meaning of the phrase is actually the reverse: that the workers are the source of their masters’ riches, which they essentially donate, via the ‘money trick’ that forms the basis of Owen’s best lecture. Here is his illustration of that trick:

The solution to this problem? It’s not very likely to come about, I’m afraid:
Public Ownership of the Machinery, and the National Organisation of Industry for the production and distribution of the necessaries of life, not for the profit of a few but for the benefit of all! (p. 596)

Thanks to my Secret Santa for this book. I do like the fact that it came to me via work.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Hookers for Jesus Winter Revue Charity Show with Altres, Pauline M. Hynd, [Box] and Vex at Beat Generator Live!, 10th January

‘I am tired,’ said Miss Havisham. ‘I want diversion, and I have done with men and women. Play.’ (Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, chapter 8)
First, you should know about the stage dressing. Flagged in advance as a ‘Gothic Miss Havisham’s Christmas Day kind of vibe’, Daisy Dundee (who put the show on in collaboration with the Cool Cat Club) kitted the place out to startling effect. A wedding dress was the main prop, hung from the ceiling stage left, accompanied by a cake under a glass dome, an old stick telephone, a clock stopped at twenty minutes to nine, and a dead Christmas tree, still with its (white) lights on. There was also a table lamp and a portable fire with real fake flames. In the middle of all this, one of those mini reproduction Korg MS–20s, vintage from a different era, awaiting the arrival of Vex. Plus much other stage gear, and a screen showing images of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name, and some crosses, drawn white on black. Not sure how they tied in exactly. A link between stoic male characters and Miss Havisham, possibly? Or characters with grudges?

For my taste, there was too much noise and not enough melody in the show. It was a shame Rowan Wright of Blood Indians had to pull out, she would have redressed that balance a bit. Returning DJ Duncan did his best, and interlarded the noise with pop and jazz of the sprightliest order (Rodriguez! Nancy and Lee’s ‘Summer Wine’! The, er, James Bond theme!). Vex had the advantage of being the first noise act, and their racket was engagingly bloody minded, delivered from some dumb postures (the MS–20 was low, with no chair, so its player had to bend double for half an hour), and sounding to me like an extended version of Big Star’s ‘Downs’. Towards the end the front man held up his arms like a conductor trying to bring matters to a conclusion, and everyone stopped bar the keyboardist, who made some exaggerated movements as he continued to trigger (or failed to un-trigger) some ugly mechanical sound for a further few minutes. [Box], which is one man with a MacBook, a mixer and an electric guitar, made his usual drones, and William said they might sound good on acid. On beer, though — give me at least one out of rhythm, words, melody; who could care less about texture in their absence? Not that there weren’t some interesting shifts within the texture, but… too Wire magazine for me. It was some consolation to see these two anti-structure performers placed within a scene from Dickens, though.

Pauline M. Hynd, of The Onion Club, had to warm the room up again after [Box]’s freeze-out, and who better? It was strange to see her just get up and play songs on a guitar, with no grand entrance, no piano player, no 1920s schtick. Out with cabaret, in with blues. Candy, black crows flying, vocal acrobatics, and some much-needed momentum. ‘What a gorgeous audience,’ she said. ‘I’d like to lick you all.’ Most compelling was a cover of Nick Drake’s ‘River Man’, given a sinister edge and mixed with PJ Harvey’s couplet ‘Big fish little fish swimming in the water / Come back here and give me my daughter’ as a coda. Altres marked a move back to instrumental music, and… I don’t think I’ve written about them before, but playing music with two of them (but mainly Brian, the guitarist) is how I met S. Live, they can go either way, with their longform songs, digital synthesizer sound and tight arpeggiated riffs. They work best when a rhythm cuts through the texture. You can either get lost in the jam or the jam can lose you. Last night? A bit of both. I enjoyed it, but by the end I was longing for a chord change.

‘You’ll have to write a blog page,’ said Andy at the end of the night, before apologising for seeming to demand it. He’s right, though. It was a fine Hookers for Jesus show. He thought possibly their best, but there are several strong contenders for that crown. From their amazing, ridiculous debut in 2009, to other more accomplished shows, culminating in an Oxjam house gig early last year, acoustic with the addition of Anna on violin, and a beautiful song about a 1980 murder in Templeton Woods, which threatened never to be recorded in the inactivity which followed. Last night was a partial reprise, just in time, as Anna is to return to Canada in a few days’ time, leaving the remaining Hookers to — sound ugly again? They do a fantastic ugly sound, actually (see ‘Cabaret Song’, or ‘The Dead Don’t Dream’, which closed yesterday’s set in fiery fashion), but there has always been a softer undercurrent. Graeme’s introduction of classical / flamenco-inflected guitar was already a civilising strand, and his imagination won’t let them settle on a single sound, in any case. The flamenco style breathes new life into ‘Cindy’s on Fire’, and I wonder if I’m the person who has been listening to them play this song the longest, as I also wonder at its pull now, which wraps in the fondness of familiarity with a lightness it didn’t use to have. There are two new songs, one which passes me by somewhat, but one which is tender and magical, with its chorus of ‘I love you / P.S. fuck you’ and its through-gritted-teeth reflections on learning to accept the place where you live. The theme of the whole set, said Andy afterwards. That’s Dundee for you. And most other places too, which aren’t up their own importance. Miss Havisham could learn a lot from that. Pip, too. At the end, the Hookers join hands and bow like actors at the end of a play. That’s it: the violin phase is over. It sounded great. What next?

The two charities being supported last night were Dundee Young Carers and Dundee Foodbank.

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