Saturday, September 30, 2017

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Motorpoint Arena, Nottingham, 28th September

My sister and her husband went to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on Thursday. She and I were always fans, and the way she describes the concert, it sounds like practically a religious experience this time around. The videos below (not by her, but of the same concert) look like nothing so much as a huge gospel gathering. It looks intense. It looks amazing. Over to her:

We went to see Nick Cave last night, R. and I, in Nottingham and it was just the most incredible experience. It was at a large arena, similar to the NEC. Browsing the merchandise before the show, which consisted of the usual ‘Loverman’ tea towels, some recent records and a selection of accessories including a rather hideous Nick Cave doll, R. purchased a leather backed Bad Seed keyring to replace the fabric O’Neill one he’s had for the last decade or so. Wow, I thought.

We sat waiting in our plastic seats with trays of chips that cost four pounds each. I was on the end of a row, which meant I could swing my legs over the side of my chair and perch my feet comfortably on an aisle step. We were quite far back but happy enough with our spot. Why would you, when you’re over a certain age, want to stand up for two hours, hot and uncomfortable, we mused? I’ll tell you why a bit later on.

It was dark. The stage lit up. The Bad Seeds took their places. Warren Ellis’ violin started screeching ominously. My hero was coming.
Here I come now, here I come
I hear you been out there looking for something to love
There he was. The sharp tailored suit. The hair combed back like a raven’s wing. He sat briefly for a few gentle piano chords but then he went straight to his crowd. And there he remained for the majority of the night, leaning in to the fans and holding their outstretched hands.

People shouted to him, wanting to engage him in conversation, but he said very little. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said genuinely. ‘I’m shy.’ A group near the stage broke into the happy birthday song. A quick Google search later and we realised that six days ago Nick Cave had turned sixty, which was hard to believe. He accepted a card from a fan, opened it and put it on the piano. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘That’s very kind.’ He wasn’t shy in his stage performance though. During ‘Stagger Lee’, he stage dived into the crowd arriving nose to nose with a group of burly men just in time to scream: ‘I'll crawl over fifty good pussies just to get one fat boy's asshole’! A different skill set, I suppose.

It must be a wonderful thing to look back at such an expansive career and pick out songs for your set list. R. had said to me before the show that Nick Cave is one of the only musicians he can think of who has got better and better. I take his point and when immersed in the beauty of ‘Distant Sky’, with stillness across the arena like a collective quiet intake of breath, you know that this is as good as it gets. But then, it can’t get any better than ‘The Ship Song’ or ‘The Mercy Seat’ or ‘Tupelo’ either. Old songs, new songs, violence and tenderness: an eclectic mix of brilliant music that flowed seamlessly.

The encore was incredible. It started with ‘The Weeping Song’, in which Cave encouraged rather ridiculous fast hand clapping from the audience and then stopped and started it like a conductor. He disappeared from view several times, diving into the crowd. He finally reappeared like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, leading hundreds of fans onto the stage by the power of his music. He then performed ‘Stagger Lee’ which, of course, they all went crazy for. That’s why it was a good idea to buy a standing ticket!

The very last song of the night was ‘Push The Sky Away’. He abandoned the fans on the stage at this point and, to my delight, came our way. He leapt around the arena from empty chairs to steps. Could this man really be sixty years old? The standing area was quite empty towards the back, especially now that there were a good many folk on the stage. ‘C’mon, c’mon,’ he beckoned urgently, gathering a new crowd at his feet. I jumped up of course and rushed down to him. I looked up and it was the closest we had ever been. He stood above me, his arms outstretched singing:
And some people say it’s just rock and roll
Oh but it gets you right down to your soul

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sarah Bakewell – ‘At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being & Apricot Cocktails’

As is well known, Martin Heidegger was a Nazi for part of his life, and refused to issue a categorical renunciation after the Second World War. Given that, it is amazing what he was against:
By ‘machination’ he meant the making-machine-like of all things: the attitude that characterises factory automation, environmental exploitation, modern management and war. With this attitude, we brazenly challenge the earth to give up what we want from it, instead of patiently whittling or cajoling things forth as peasant smallholders or craftsmen do. […] Moreover, we rarely use what we take at once, but instead convert it to a form abstract energy to be held in reserve in a generator or storehouse. […] When something is placed ‘on call’ or in ‘standing-reserve’, says Heidegger, it loses its ability to be a proper object. […] If we are left alone ‘in the midst of objectlessness’, then we ourselves will lose our structure – we too will be swallowed up into a ‘standing-reserve’ mode of being. We will devour even ourselves. Heidegger cites the term ‘human resources’ as evidence of this danger. (pp. 182-3)
He was interested in experience at a very basic and individual level (the craftsman hitting a nail with a hammer, the moment when the nail bends and things go wrong), but he wasn’t so interested in people. Rather than ponder this (yes of course it’s a contradiction in terms), I’ll just point out the similarity of the above to the argument Naomi Klein makes in This Changes Everything about the move from water mills to steam power during the industrial revolution, which is precisely about human resources. Coal and steam were initially a ‘tough sell’, she says, as water was free and the larger wheels produced more energy than a steam engine could. The deciding factor was that coal powered factories could be situated in cities, ‘where there were gluts of willing industrial workers, making it far easier to fire troubleshooters and put down strikes.’ She argues that energy production needs to become geographically determined once again, through solar, wind and other renewable sources: not, it is true, in order that humanity can save itself from objectlessness, but, more straightforwardly, so that humanity can save itself. Which is about as existential as you can get.

Objects interested Jean-Paul Sartre too, in a slightly different way:
Sartre knew very well that we can lose sight of the sense of things. […] Many such moments occur in Nausea, when Roquentin finds himself flummoxed by a doorknob or a beer glass. But for Sartre, unlike for Camus, such collapses reveal a psychological state: they are failures of intentionality, not glimpses into a greater truth. (p. 151)
Camus sees a great emptiness, and Sartre a call to action; but he, like Heidegger, was drawn to a political ideology (Marxism, in his case) which denies individuality: ‘For Marxists, human beings are destined to progress through predefined stages of history towards a final socialist paradise’ (p. 256). Sartre struggled to reconcile Marxism with existentialism, particularly following the Soviet put-down of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, but for Camus it was more straightforward:
he did not think that history led to a single inevitable destination, and he did not think that there was such a thing as perfection. As long as we have human societies, we will have rebellions. Each time a revolution overturns the ills of a society, a new status quo is created, which then develops its own excesses and injustices. Each generation has a fresh duty to revolt against these, and this will be the case forever. (p. 257, a summary of The Rebel)
Sartre’s journal Les Temps modernes ran a review of The Rebel criticising it as ‘an apology for capitalism’, and he also wrote Camus a long letter about it which ended their friendship. Bakewell is scrupulously even-handed in her account of this, just as she is on the importance of Heidegger’s philosophy versus his Nazism. She points out that Camus’ essay came at a very sensitive time politically (it was published in 1951), and was clearly intended to be anti-Communist, when the re-making of the world in the wake of the Second World War hung in the balance of two ideologies.
The world had fallen to pieces, but for that very reason almost anything could now be done with it. (p. 165)
Going back to Klein again, this is exactly what her ‘shock doctrine’ idea consists of: smash everything up, grab the pieces for profit. Sartre’s fury at The Rebel was due to its undermining of the alternative scenario: grab the pieces for the social good.

At the Existentialist Café is a tale told in a personal, engaging way, with frank opinions on the readability of the texts concerned. It weaves together philosophy with biography and historical context (cafés, jazz and zazous, the smuggling of unpublished papers from occupied territories), and follows How to Live in its attractive use of illustrations amongst the text. Bakewell despairs of Sartre’s abandonment of editing in later life, though his first novel Nausea is something of a key text, as is Being and Nothingness. In contrast, Simone de Beauvoir remained readable throughout her life, and The Second Sex ‘can be considered the single most influential work ever to come out of the existentialist movement’ (p. 210).
She showed how choices, influences and habits can accumulate over a lifetime to create a structure that becomes hard to break out of. Sartre also thought that our actions often formed a shape over the long term, creating what he called the ‘fundamental project’ of a person’s existence. But Beauvoir emphasised the connection between this and our wider situations as gendered, historical beings. She gave full weight to the difficulty of breaking out of such situations – although she never doubted that we remain existentially free despite it all. (pp. 215-16)
Finally, the book calls for a reappraisal of the existentialists for the purpose of ‘breaking out’: it is tempting to think of ourselves, in our increasingly computer-networked world, as ‘out-of-control mechanical dupes of our own biology and environment’ (pp. 318-19). Is this an excuse not to act, to abdicate from ethical choice and responsibility? You can swim with the tide, you can (as per Quentin Crisp) swim faster, you can tread water, you can drown. Or you can make another metaphor up, and go your own way.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

The Pastels and Ela Orleans, The Glad Café, Glasgow, 1st September

There was a song I half-wrote once, which never got any further than:
I took a long vacation
In the wilds of the outback
And I may be mistaken
But I don’t think I’ll be coming back
’Cause there are birds and a sky
And a blue in your eye
And a truck on a trail
And a wind to set sail
So fuck these corporations
That last line capsized it, I must have had a particularly rubbish job at the time. The ‘truck on a trail’ bit was a Pastels reference, of course, and last night Stephen took a swipe at the indie rules of old by congratulating the audience for being enthusiastic about two slow songs in a row, in contrast to ’80s audiences, who would heckle even one slow song and demand ‘Truck Train Tractor’, indignant that they may not get a saleable high-octane bootleg out of the occasion. Tascam recorder in hand, obviously I had to shout out for ‘Truck Train Tractor’, but a slow, gentle ‘Boats’ demonstrated how bad an idea that would have been. The most extreme point of The Pastels’ journey into gentleness and calm was probably the 2007 set of ‘quiet music’ I wrote about for Tangents, best represented on record by the Two Sunsets LP. Since then there has been a definite re-introduction of a rock element to their music, with songs like ‘Night Time Made Us’ (an all-time favourite, and amazing last night) and ‘Wrong Light’. In the small back room of the Glad Café, they sounded fantastic, particularly on a rejuvenated and extended ‘Frozen Wave’, with Ela Orleans contributing some wild vocals (and, between songs, a hilarious non-apology about ‘coming over here, stealing your Pastels’). Another nice surprise was Katrina singing ‘Thru Your Heart’, her own song, but one Stephen usually sings.

Ela’s own set was beautiful too and, aside from ‘In The Night’, deliciously crisp and devoid of rock. In tone it was most like her Lost album, which is to say, song-based, rather than taking in the sonic tendrils and detours of her two double LPs. Her approach to sampling reminds me a little of Bill Wells, in that a repeated fragment can take on all kinds of colours and intonations from the sounds going on around it. It can also be far more sophisticated, but when used simply like this it is often at its most affecting, entwined with delay-heavy, plaintive vocals. It’s a great balance, and you wouldn’t want to be without either the intricate, curious explorations or the directness of a line like ‘I am lost without you’. It is going to be fascinating to see which direction she takes next.


I didn’t take any photos, but plenty of other people did.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

While we’re waiting for the next one to arrive

It may be the natural ageing process, a helpful Quietus reappraisal, The Mountain Goats’ electric piano-led homage ‘Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds’, but more and more frequently it seems to me that The Sisters of Mercy’s 1990 album Vision Thing is one of the most vital records around. It may be those things, but it is also the dire state of politics, headed up by Trump, whose election Eldritch hinted may even tempt him to record again. It would be great if he could bring the venom he oozed into the veins of Bush Snr to bear on the current president. Then again, it’s no stretch at all to simply transpose the album’s title track to now:

It’s a small world and it smells bad
I’d buy another if I had
What I made
For another motherfucker in a motorcade
The narrator in the song shifts between having been paid for (as above) and having paid for (‘Take back what I paid’) the assassination of a US president. It’s obvious from ‘motorcade’ that the allusion is to JFK, but who is to say if he is the target on both occasions? One interpretation of the song could be that the person who made his fortune from a contract for killing Kennedy blew it all having a later president done away with. They’re all just another motherfucker in a motorcade. Some worse than others, with Trump the mother of them all. Typically, ‘motherfucker’ in Eldritch’s usage is razor sharp, and relates to the bad-smelling ‘small world’, which the president intends to exploit for all the oil he and his oligarch chums can get, and is the most surprising turn of this dark, dirty, gasoline-guzzling song: it’s actually eco-friendly. To the bridge:
What do we need to make our world come alive?
What does it take to make us sing?
While we’re waiting for the next one to arrive
One million points of light
One billion dollar vision thing
The ‘vision thing’ bit relates to Bush’s search for a palatable cause during the 1988 election campaign (obviously you can’t campaign on motherfucking, you have to have a cover story). Maybe the wall across Mexico is Trump’s vision thing. Theresa May’s vision thing is Brexit. ‘While we’re waiting for the next one to arrive’ though… the next world? There isn’t going to be any next world. We only have one. Eldritch is pointing this out at the same time as summing up right wing environment policy (‘waiting’), at the same time as drawing Bush’s cynicism across the sky in the only terms he would be able to understand (‘one billion dollar’), and illustrating too the paucity of imagination of a Republican trying to grasp what the good things of life might be, for no other reason than drawing voters in and legitimising motherfuckery. It’s dizzying and brilliant, and once you’ve taken it in, the song’s opening couplet, which at first comes on like macho rock bravado, transfigures itself into a protest against greed and ridiculous consumption:
Twenty five whores in the room next door
Twenty five floors and I need more
This only really hit me in the light of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, which argues powerfully against consumerism and the model of economic growth at all costs upon which the modern western world and free market capitalism are based:
Free market ideology may still bind the imaginations of our elites, but for most of the general public, it has been drained of its powers to persuade. The disastrous track record of the past three decades of neoliberal policy is simply too apparent. Each new blast of statistics about how a tiny band of global oligarchs controls half the world’s wealth exposes the policies of privatization and deregulation for the thinly veiled license to steal that they always were. Each new report of factory fires in Bangladesh, soaring pollution in China, and water cut-offs in Detroit reminds us that free trade was exactly the race to the bottom that so many warned it would be.
Deregulated industry is never going to give us the emission reductions we need to prevent catastrophic global warming, she argues: legislation is the only way. Society can change, government can take back control of the things it needs to in order curb the market, and ultimately, this would restore the values we should have had all along: fairness and quality of life over profit. The bottom line would no longer be the bottom line. I’ll return to this book, but wanted to note, for what it’s worth, in advance of the general election this week, that Labour want a state which provides more than opportunity for its citizens, which doesn’t let people down for not earning enough. Money always matters, but wealth is not a moral quality. Don’t vote for a motherfucker on Thursday.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Johnny Marr – ‘Set the Boy Free’

Through music, the people who follow you have something of you in their life, and in some ways they’re like you, even if they think they’re just a fan. (p. 357)
As a teen with a classical guitar, and some fairly tortuous lessons behind me, I made the transition to playing songs through Johnny Marr’s example. I had the sheet music books of The Smiths and Meat is Murder, and, laid out as they were for piano with guitar chords above, they contained enough clues to attempt reconstructions of the wonders he was up to, just beneath the surface (it was always a disappointment when the piano part followed the vocal melody). Ludicrously, I spent hours grappling with ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ without realising that a capo would have rendered it possible to play. As it was, my fingers contorted into C-shape bar chords that were impossible to move between smoothly. I could play the guitar and bass parts to ‘Rusholme Ruffians’ and ‘Well I Wonder’ simultaneously, after a fashion. The spindly ‘Suffer Little Children’ was another favourite (just the guitar part for that one). It was a great way to learn, and of course I didn’t realise how unusual Marr’s guitar parts were – just as the rest of The Smiths seem not to have done when they tried to replace him in 1987 (you might as well have replaced Morrissey). He offers a few insights into how he arrived at them:
instead of focusing solely on what the guitars were doing I would try to play what I was hearing on the whole record, giving me an accidental ‘one-man band’ approach. (p. 30)
I was finding inspiration in all sorts of music, but mostly I was listening to girl groups. I wondered if the approach on those records could be applied to a guitar band, and I worked on eradicating any traces of traditional rock guitar that might be in my songwriting, while trying to maintain my own sound. (p. 127)
He’s also just the right age for T-Rextacy, which explains the music to ‘Panic’:
In 1972, not long after I bought ‘Jeepster’, T.Rex released the single ‘Metal Guru’, a record I thought was so beautiful, it sounded like it came from another world, yet was strangely familiar to me. I watched him perform it on Top of the Pops, and was so ecstatic after seeing it that I got on my bike and rode off down the roads until I got lost, then had to find my way home when I came back to my senses. (p. 28)
Isn’t that lovely? It’s echoed in later passages when he would run ten miles or so before each show he played with The Cribs, and it links to the book’s title, which amounts to a defence of his career choices. The section dealing with The Smiths’ split places the blame not on any individual, but on the pressure of not having proper management. There is also the decidedly odd session just after Strangeways, Here We Come was finished, which produced ‘Work is a Four Letter Word’ and ‘I Keep Mine Hidden’, in which Marr was made to feel like a session musician in his own band. Towards the end of the book, he says that The Smiths couldn’t have lasted any longer, because of the personalities involved. Those personalities didn’t have to take him for granted though. Compared to Morrissey’s account, which ‘mostly consists of side swipes at Geoff Travis and the hippies at Rough Trade’ as I thought after reading Autobiography, Marr’s is much less partisan and paranoid. Even when the pressure leads him into crazy behaviour like trying to steal the master tapes of The Queen is Dead or driving like a manic when he can’t even drive at all because he’s never learnt to, he just comes out and says it. His book has none of the literary ambition of Autobiography… but this is just stating the obvious. Morrissey wrote a self-absorbed Morrissey book, and Marr wrote a book absorbed in everything but the self: in guitars, the studio, bands, celebrities he has played with. Read both of them and you get the picture.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Damon Krukowski – ‘The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World’

Analog refers to a continuous stream of information, whereas digital is discontinuous. (p. 9)
One of the lectures on the computing course I did in 2003/4 opened with a statement to the effect that everything digital is also analogue, and everything analogue is also digital. The first part is true because a signal containing digital information will itself be physical, and therefore bound to have variations, but within thresholds which allow it to be recognised as a series of discrete values (i.e. as 0 or 1). I can’t remember exactly why the second part was said to be true, but I suppose that any parsing of information involves categorising it, ending up with a discrete value. Speech is broken down into syllables as it is spoken and built back up into sentences as it is heard. Music is built back up into notes, chords, rhythms, words – and noise. Damon Krukowski’s book is an argument in favour of leaving the building-back-up to the brain, rather than outsourcing it to the microprocessor and the corporations in charge of the algorithms which determine what we see and hear. He thinks we need the noise, even if we choose to discard most of it.

It’s not just about the argument, though, and the book is often best at its most tangential. Looking for a passage on the difference between analogue and digital recording just now, I found relevant sections in two or three chapters, in amongst discussions of pianolas, copyright, listening to sports radio along to TV coverage, mistakes and even studio directions you can hear if you listen closely enough to Pet Sounds, quadrophonic sound, the loudness wars, Can getting their analogue studio to play itself, and the accumulation of so much music in iTunes that it becomes impossible to listen carefully enough (‘thick listening’ (p. 119)). This is the closest I found:
In the digital audio workstation, where you are at any moment in the recording is precisely determined by the timescale, but when any given sound occurs is not. All times are equally available to it. Compare this to an analog recording on tape: the tape itself has no absolute time value, but any moment on that length of tape is fixed in relation to all the moments it is not. (p. 188)
That is, unless you splice the tape, which is discussed in relation to John Cage’s dense ‘Williams Mix’, which is in turn compared to The Beatles’ ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’:
rather than compressing […] time by cutting it up as Cage had, the Beatles layered over and over the same length of tape, until it was so thick with time that listening to it reminded people of an acid trip. (p. 116)
There is much discussion of plus and minus points of stereo – minus, because it takes music away from shared space and into headphones, effectively de-socialising it. This incident crops up repeatedly:
I saw a woman fall from her bicycle in the middle of the street. ‘What happened?’ I asked as I helped her up – the one car nearby had hardly come close. She took her headphones off and said, ‘I was totally self-absorbed. Suddenly I realised there was a car in the road. I braked and fell.’ (p. 19)
The conclusion drawn is:
She surrendered her shifting analog sense of what is signal and what is noise, replacing it with the digital stream of information on her headphones – a stream that is signal only. (p. 51)
Here, Krukowski pushes his thesis too far. It is fair enough to blame the headphones for the woman’s disorientation, but it is ridiculous to claim that it was anything to do with the music being digital. An analogue Walkman could have produced exactly the same effect. There are a few moments of imprecision like this. He mis-defines crosstalk as ‘feeding a part of one channel’s sound into the other in order to re-create the kinds of binaural clues we use to locate sounds in space’ (p. 51) (this is panning – crosstalk refers to unwanted noise leaking between channels), and proceeds to defend something which was never under attack. He says that mp3s are designed to sound worse than CDs, which would be a lousy design aspiration. And while I am nit-picking, the separation of everything into signal and noise can seem arbitrary. Social media is one of the digital innovations which works by eliminating noise, he argues, leaving just signal, and no way to orient yourself. In a certain sense this is true (you can’t hear the tone of voice in a Tweet, and its brevity maximises the potential for a binary interpretation), but on the other hand, it often seems that social media is nothing but noise.

All of which is slightly beside the point. ‘Signal’ and ‘noise’ can mean a lot of different things, but something has definitely been going on with music this millennium, and most of it has been lapped up without question, because it has involved spending less money. The New Analog puts it in all sorts of contexts, and makes a brave attempt to define what we risk losing if we don’t take off our headphones and look around.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Unpleasantness at the Airdrie Club

From The Old Wives’ Tale I turned to David Keenan’s This is Memorial Device, thinking there would be a nice parallel in terms of books written about a backwater at the beginning of one century looking back at the end of the previous one. I was expecting it to rabbit on, and to be sexually transgressive, but the bit with the fetishisation of rips in surgically enhanced breasts was so revolting I didn’t much feel like carrying on beyond page 60. If I return to it, the questions will be: can the writing engage, rather than blindside and barnstorm? Can it be funny rather than swift and shocking? Can it shut up for a minute? Can it express something other than velocity through its headlong (long, long) sentences, and can it separate out its narrative voices (which have so far varied only in one character’s fondness for parentheses)? Perhaps it can. My feeling at the moment is that it thinks, ‘I’ve got rock and roll on my side, I can say anything’, a circular righteousness in wrongness that actual rock and roll, having tunes, is in a better position to get away with. I mean, it could all collapse into hilarious farce, or work as a championing of the old underground ways of doing things pre-internet. But still, yuck.

Instead, I picked up one of S.’s Dorothy L. Sayers books, The Unpleasantness at the Belona Club, which has an interesting exchange towards the end between Lord Peter Wimsey (speaking first) and Ann Dorland, one of the suspects in the murder case, about books:

        ‘Reading is an escape to me. Is it to you?’
        ‘How do you mean?’
        ‘Well – it is to most people, I think. Servants and factory hands read about beautiful girls loved by dark, handsome men, all covered over with jewels and moving in scenes of gilded splendour. And passionate spinsters read Ethel M. Dell. And dull men in offices read detective stories. They wouldn’t, if murder and police entered into their lives.’ […]
        ‘I don’t know,’ said Ann Dorland. ‘Of course, a detective story keeps your brain occupied. Rather like chess. Do you play chess?’
        ‘No good at it. I like it – but I keep on thinking about the history of the various pieces, and the picturesqueness of the moves. I’m not a player.’
        ‘Nor am I. I wish I were.’
        ‘Yes – that would keep one’s mind off things with a vengeance. Draughts or dominos or patience would be even better. No connection with anything.’ (pp. 236-7)

Monday, April 17, 2017

Arnold Bennett – ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’

Bought from the rather wonderful Ironbridge Bookshop after a visit to Enginuity, a museum about how industrial things work. The shop has an entire wall of Penguin books sorted by colour: there’s a lot of orange, but also the dark blue-green of crime, and light blue for Pelican non-fiction. En masse, it’s a great effect. The book is set fifty miles north of Ironbridge, amongst the ‘Five Towns’, a lightly-fictionalised grouping based on six real towns which now constitute Stoke-on-Trent, and which, as observed in its opening pages, supplies the whole country with pottery, at the expense of ‘an architecture of ovens and chimneys’ and an ‘atmosphere […] as black as mud’. This, ‘that you may drink tea out of a teacup and toy with a chop on a plate’ (p. 19). It’s a grim opening, and a slightly misleading one, as the book is set mostly in a draper’s shop: retail, not industry, is its dominant milieu (hospitality plays a supporting role). The story follows two sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines, from when they are young, in the mid-nineteenth century, to when they are old, in the early twentieth. Constance stays at home and takes over the shop from her parents, marrying an assistant, Samuel Povey, along the way; Sophia elopes to Paris with a supplier’s representative, Gerald Scales, and lives there for thirty years, through the siege in 1870 during which she accumulates enough money (through charging high rent and meal prices) to set up her own boarding house. The smoke and the grime fade quickly from the Midlands portion of the narrative, returning only when they are seen afresh by Sophia after her long absence. In other words, the dirt is presented realistically: those who live with it all the time don’t notice it.

There are a number of things which struck me as peculiar about The Old Wives’ Tale, which I’m struggling to reconcile, and it is dimly dawning on me that this might be the point. Its tone is detached but amiable, with a particular fondness for dogs. The bulk of it reads like a nineteenth century novel, with a little more licentiousness (around Gerald and Sophia’s elopement), but still, it is startling when cars and telegrams put in an appearance near the end. More startling is the way the sisters age and decline, with strokes of varying severity, obesity and sciatica all contributing. It is a brutally realistic account in some ways, and melodramatic in others: the timing of the attacks tends to coincide with important plot events, as though they are there for emphasis. It is an account, too, of the decline of retail in Bursley:
People would not go to Hanbridge for their bread or for their groceries, but they would go for their cakes. These electric trams had simply carried to Hanbridge the cream, and much of the milk, of Bursley’s retail trade.
        […] If Mrs Crichlow had been a philosopher, if she had known that geography had always made history, she would have given up her enterprise a dozen years ago. (pp. 567-8)
The Critchlows take the draper’s shop over from Constance, allowing her to live on in the rooms above it, and the pressure of the decline in trade eventually drives Mrs Critchlow to an asylum. Contrast the decline, for example, of Greshamsbury Hall in Trollope’s Doctor Thorne, which seems terminal, but is turned around by a cash injection when Frank marries well. Of course, the beauty of that plot is that he marries for love but ends up with money too. There is no such poetic justice in The Old Wives’ Tale: both sisters marry beneath them, one disastrously, and the only resulting child (Constance’s Cyril) is a neglectful son. Sophia lives in the shadow of her invalid father’s death, for which she was partly responsible, and which put an end to her only worthwhile ambition, to become a school teacher. Both sell their businesses and are comfortably off on the proceeds, but neither knows how to live well, because when they were living their important years, acquiring their habits, every available hour was taken up by trade. Cyril, with a generous £300-a-year from his mother, knows how to live a fashionable life, but has no moral fibre. There aren’t easy answers to any of these things, they are just (as the final section of the novel is entitled) ‘What Life is’.

Even if it is all ultimately pointless, it isn’t necessarily so at the time. Sophia ran her boarding house well. Constance ran her shop well, and brought up Cyril. And, as I say, dogs. Here is Sophia’s arrival on the platform of Knype station, after thirty years’ absence, observed by Constance:
Presently she saw a singular dog. Other people also saw it. It was the colour of chocolate; it had a head and shoulders richly covered with hair that hung down in thousands of tufts like the tufts of a modern mop such as is bought in shops. This hair stopped suddenly rather less than half-way along the length of the dog’s body, the remainder of which was naked and as smooth as marble. The effect was to give the inhabitants of the Five Towns the impression that the dog had forgotten an essential part of its attire and was outraging decency. The ball of hair which had been allowed to grow on the dog’s tail, and the circles of hair which ornamented its ankles, only served to intensify the impression of indecency. A pink ribbon round its neck completed the outrage. The ribbon had absolutely the air of a decked trollop. A chain ran taut from the creature’s neck into the middle of a small crowd of persons gesticulating over trunks, and Constance traced it to a tall and distinguished woman in a coat and skirt with a rather striking hat. (p. 468)

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