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Books I read in Q1 2021

March 31, 2021

Baggage

March 31, 2021

Another portrait of a character from Investing in the Afterlife, Inc.. Baggage!

But of all the dunderheads that made up the English contingent, the one to the right was by far the most abhorrent. A drunken childless uncle at a children’s party, Baggage was the boors’ boor, barking his rancid opinions to make decent people wince. In the way some people boast of not carrying an ounce of fat, Baggage carried not an ounce of humanity. His mouth was a fearful cavity that cigarettes dreaded to enter for fear of catching cancer. The thought of his skin made his clothes crawl. His eyes swivelled independently, like a pigeon’s, the whites browned from the inside with spoors of nicotine. An advocate for yesterday as a solution for tomorrow, he ran with a myopic dream that the cap-doffers of yore should be at the service of the new money bullies, for whom no amount of riches was too vulgar and no level of privilege too excessive.

The Old Hall

March 27, 2021

The Old Hall appeared in Interpreter’s House, Volume 69:

The Old Hall

This old house, the Old Hall,
where your friend lived before dying.

Word was
he’d seep from the acrylic
of his paintings on winter’s nights
to warm himself by the cold fire,
turning records he’d loved in his living days.
I can’t say I saw him
or heard him
but we slept in his room and woke
to the lake lapping at the bedroom door.
So much floor for a ghost to dance across,
with the kohl-dark night washing in from the reservoir
and your diamante make-up box offering lotions
to make his long-gone features real.

Did he smooth life into his complexion
with your foundation, face powder, blusher,
laying expression with your eye liner, eyeshadow, lipstick, mascara,
thrilling as his face took fresh form,
as he reconstructed himself as if alive?
Perhaps he hauled a coat from your clothes chest
and took on its shape,
held his ground before the full-length mirror
and laughed,
the shackles of a life pleasing him,
blissfully jealous of the limits of the real world
and in love with the doors that contain us,
the clocks that strike against us,
the gentle blinkers of existence
that tie us down to what’s to be known,
what can be heard,
what can be smeared across a face.
Maybe he sneezed and took pleasure
that a cold November starless night
could still touch the dead.

And scanning the grooves of a vinyl LP
with a fingertip that leaves no grease print,
no trace beside a dust of talcum,
with such a memory of music surfacing
in a heart in death still warm,
did he need to share it,
late one night when you were home late drunk,
when he surprised you
as you took his face as your own
in the window you’d wiped that morning?
And did you find yourself thinking of him,
of songs he gave you on cassette
that you sung together driving
or he sung alone that morning late for work
when his car ran aground on a corner
too slow for the speed he threw at it?
And did he bow to you,
and start dancing,
and know bliss?

What I thought of God Bless You, Dr Kevorkian

March 24, 2021

I read God Bless You, Dr Kevorkian in an hour-long sitting. It’s a lovely book that demonstrates just how good a writer Vonnegut was.

The clarity of his thought is astounding. Every sentence in every paragraph on every page has a purpose. He is in total control of the narrative at all times. There is clear steady progress from the start of the book to the end. Ostensibly, the interviews the narrator conducts with people in the afterlife are presented as if in random order, yet somehow the pacing has an internal logic that renders the whole story immensely satisfying.

His skill with language allows him to pick and chose the words, the phrases, the idioms that suit his purpose. I read somewhere that he worked each sentence over and over until it said exactly what he wanted it to say, at which point he moved onto the next sentence and that, once he was through with writing the novel, he had no need to go back to develop it or edit it. I’m not sure how true that is, but there is something wonderfully self-assured about his writing style that allows the reader to trust him as he tells his tale.

(This contrasts with Stephen King’s approach. He listens to loud heavy rock while drafting the first draft to allow his subconscious to tell the tale it wants to tell. The second draft is when he rewrites the first draft to bring out a cogent narrative. Again, probably an oversimplification, but it’s interesting to compare the two different techniques, both equally as valid, both producing amazing results, but each utilising a very different approach).

And everything Vonnegut learned in his career is put into service to frame his moral viewpoint, his belief that society should be run for the benefit of all and his insistence that we should look after the poor, the weak, the troubled. The further he grew into his career, and the more assured he was that his work was held in high regard by the American reading public, the more his morality took its place front and centre within his storytelling. His morality drives the narrative.

Basil

March 20, 2021

I’m currently working my way though what I hope will be the final edit of a novel I wrote in 2017 called Investing in the Afterlife, Inc.. The novel was a vehicle to talk about the sickening situation that confronted America after Donald Trump was voted into power in 2016. Though Investing in the Afterlife, Inc. is primarily about the US, there are a sub-cast of characters called the English, who are modelled on people in right-wing UK politics, some of whom are or were in the Cabinet. This is Basil:

Corpulent and mercenary, Basil was still the public schoolboy caught funnelling the proceeds of the fourth form tuckshop into his greedy, bottomless pockets. He grinned his man-child grin and milked his blow-dried duckling look, as though a chortle and a bumbled fib could clear him of all charges. There were people who adored him but no one trusted him, and he was used by one and all as a diversionary tactic, not least by himself. He hid behind a facade of belittling smarm while calculating how the situation could be used for political or capital gain, though his political acumen was dubious and his ability to capitalise on a situation was laughable. Only his shamelessness kept him in the game.

Basil chipped in. “You can build on our lawn, if you like. We’ll sell you the whole thing for a pittance. Build whatever you like, as tall as you like.”

Goss snuffled down his nose. Basil reminded him of a children’s entertainer he’d seen as a kid. He’d given the guy a punch in the testicles, just for fun. “And?”
“I just wanted you to know. I’m a natural salesman. I’ll sell you anything you want. You name it, I’ll sell it to you. I’m so proud to be British, I’ll sell the whole country to the highest bidder.”

The English were basking in deckchairs on the porch of their mansion, mulling over the tea and cake that had appeared on a fold-away card table.
“Are you having that cake, Basil?”
“I won’t just have the cake, I’m going to eat it as well.”
“Surely, that’s the same thing.”
“Not at all. One involves having the cake. The other involves eating the cake.”
“But once you’ve had the cake, how can you go on to eat it, too?”
“Because my plan is to have the cake, and eat it.”
“But how can you plan for something you can’t do?”
“Because that’s my plan. And I’m going to stick to it, whether it’s possible or not.”
“But doesn’t a plan have to be possible in order to be a proper plan?”
“I have sovereignty over the cake. If I want to have the cake and eat it, I shall do, and I won’t let the bureaucrats and cakeist deniers stop me.”
“I fully support your cake sovereignty. It’s just that I can’t understand how you can have your cake and eat it.
“We didn’t fight two World Wars and build an Empire in order for me not to have cake, and not to eat it. We need to take back control of the cake. It’s the People’s Cake. We are going to put the metropolitan pen-pushing elite back in their place before they take the Great British Cake and give it to some entitled migrant cockroach who hasn’t paid taxes.”
“I can just picture those arrogant faceless elite. But I have to ask, is there one cake or two? One that you would have, the other you would eat?”
“You know, the biggest obstacle that blocks us from having our cake and eating it is moaners like you undermining confidence, talking the cake down. You’re Project Fear, that’s what you are. Tell him, Ruth.
”Ruth leaned across, “We will have the cake and eat it by a predetermined date which can’t be revoked, whether we like the cake or not.”
But no one ate the cake. Or had it.

Why we went to Hyde Park

March 16, 2021

Ten years ago, I wrote the following. It was about a rally in Hyde Park to protest the austerity measures the government under David Cameron introduced, ostensibly to manage the economy following the crash of 2008, but in reality to introduce hard-line market economy dogma, to reduce the government’s obligation to look out for us, and to undermine the British institutions that many people hold deal. It was the first protest I’d attended for a long time. It was very pleasant, very personable, fun. There were speeches, but we had the boy in a carry rucksack so we didn’t stay long.

Reading it back, the events of the last ten years have proven far worse than we believed they’d be. We naively believed that there would be some sense of shame, some propriety that would stop the Tories twisting the laws of the land for their own ends, some respect for the norms of civilised society that would see the country right. But no, ten years on, we’re governed by troglodytes, spivs, and right wing trouble-causers, with the press and national broadcaster in the pocket of the Conservatives, (or the other way around). And there’s no end in sight.

I’m writing this about the Policing Bill was voted through. It’s possible that anyone attending a similar rally from when he Policing Bill enters the statute books, could go to jail for ten years. Ten years for damaging a statue. Ten years for trespass. Ten years for protesting noisily. This is arguably the nastiest law pushed through Parliament by unarguably the nastiest people.

We went to Hyde Park the week before last to register our displeasure with the current Government. While most of the people I know are angry about the policies enacted by the coalition, I have seen the odd comment from people I respect on Twitter expressing the belief that the protests are somehow pathetic, or that we’re hiding from the truth of the financial situation. So here are my reasons why I was there and why I think the Government is wrong:

  • These cuts are being made for ideological reasons. This Conservative administration believes in Market Forces and Big Business, and are rearranging the nation to reflect this. Yet these changes are being delivered under the guise of emergency austerity measures. This is wrong. I don’t doubt the financial situation needs addressing, but this Government wasn’t voted in with a mandate to make changes as drastic as they are making. This is a coalition government – the side that limped over the line first allied with the team that finished third. Neither party swept to power armed with the collective will of the people – in the case of the latter, I can very seriously imagine many of the voters who backed them would have deliberately voted Labour rather than let the Tories in. The former would not have received half the votes they did if this discussion had taken place, if their dogma had been laid out before the public. The latter spoke explicitly about not making changes such as these. I dread to think the irreparable damage done to the NHS, Schools, Libraries, the Arts before we next get chance to vote on their performance. All we can do is protest, and hope our voices are heard.

  • I’m a liberal centrist. Small ‘l’. In a democracy, how can you not be. I know Capitalism has to be accomodated. I have no problem with people or companies making money. But I also believe in governance, in regulation of people and companies to ensure they have a regard for the common good. Without regulation, we are left to trust that market forces alone will guide a company to do the right thing. I don’t believe for one second that in the case of big business, that will happen. Maybe the odd time, but not enough to build a society on. Not when decisions are made thousands of miles away from where they will have the most impact. And if companies can’t be relied upon to make sound, socially responsible decisions, how can they be expected to support the Arts, Libraries, social services and all the rest of the infrastructure that a civilised society needs?

  • The changes the Government are pushing through are vast. To push through vast change requires great skill, wisdom and experience. Cameron and Osbourne are going into this with no managerial experience to either of their names. Neither has built a business. Both inherited wealth. I have no problem with that as such, except they are now at the wheel of the country and are determined to take it off-road, with a map they sketched for themselves in the Conservative Research Department. To illustrate how mad this is, it’s like putting a kid from the mail room in charge of a multinational. It’s like putting one of the ballboys in charge of the England football team. You can’t run a country using just theory – the Cold War showed us how far blind dogma got the world. It needs practical experience, which these two lack.

  • I really don’t mind that this pair are from privileged backgrounds as such but the changes they are pushing through are going to profoundly impact the lives of the general public. We are not all in it together – these cuts will not affect all people equally. For most people, there is no get-out clause, no place to retreat to if it all gets a bit much.

  • These services have taken 60 years to become the world class resource they are. I’m not blind to the faults of the NHS, the BBC, the school system, the library system etc, but it drives me nuts when people are clearly oblivious to the massive, massive benefit the country gets from having these institutions as part of our national infrastructure. I am genuinely scared that the Government is going to make irreparable damage to these organisations in the name of austerity to serve their dogma. They are too important to us.

Patronage

March 13, 2021

The Mighty Adrian McEwen, Maker Par Excellence, the Co-founder of DoES Liverpool, the author of Designing the Internet of Things, Host of Ignite Liverpool, kindly bought a copy of The Company Freak album, which was quite a shock. That’s the last thing I thought anyone would do. Thanks, Adrian.

I post songs on Bandcamp so I can hear them in context. Though I could use iTunes or even just play them in Finder, I like to hear the songs as if they were a proper album, on a proper streaming service, with all the associated file compression, gaps between playback, accompanying bumf, and rubbing shoulders with other songs for reference. I use the platform to tell me whether any given mix is finished or not.

You mix at micro level but your songs are listened to at macro level. Changes to a mix are made in tiny increments: 0.2 of a decibel on the shaker, a 3 degree turn of extra reverb on the snare, an acoustic guitar panned marginally to the right. But when we listen, we’re not concerned with anything of that nature. The song either appeals or it doesn’t. But it’s impossible to know when you’re mixing how it will sound at that macro level. The analogy I like best is I’m creating pictures on earth that will only be seen from space. Something like that. So using Bandcamp is my way to get away from the mix and view the song from a great height, which is how the casual listen will hear them.

I know the songs aren’t ready for public consumption. Most of them need remixing. They all need mastering. I need to come up with a better cover than the one I bodged one night when I needed to get to bed. But I didn’t think that was a problem because the public didn’t know the songs were online. I hadn’t told anyone about the Company Freak Bandcamp site. And when I discovered the widget for embedding a song in a blogpost, I gave it a whirl, thinking no one would see it anyway, because it’s so long since I blogged, anyone back in the day who was in the slightest bit interested in my blog would have wandered off to websites elsewhere where the owner actually made an effort to post once in a while.

Then Adrian paid for a copy of the album. Adrian is Old Skool. I’m guessing he uses an RSS feed reader to keep track of dozens of his friends’ blogs. (He’s one of the few people who is still following this blog, so I could ask him directly – Adrian, do you use an RRS feed reader to keep track of your friends’s blogs?)

Adrian is a great champion of the work of others. He’s a magnificent collaborator, he runs Ignite events, (where lots of speakers get the chance to make short presentations on the topic of their choice). On Twitter, he said he was happy to buy a copy of the Company Freak album as largesse, as encouragement for me to do more. That says a huge amount about Adrian’s heart: you can tell why he’s good as a tech community leader, why his events have been running for over ten years and are still going strong.

And it has worked. The fact he has given the album a listen, that he’s shelled out for something that’s half-finished, has given me a real boost. It coincided with another friend saying she liked my singing. (Thanks, Jane). These two things have given me a shot in the arm, a little faith in what I’m doing. There’s only so much ticking along in obscurity that a person can do before they need to step out into the open, only so many rejection letters before any sane person questions why they’re doing it.

Suddenly, it’s like I’ve got a target audience, someone to mix for. Kurt Vonnegut said one of the secrets of his writing was to have a target audience in mind. In his case, it was his sister. In my case, I’ve got Adrian and Jane, two good people whose sensibilities and viewpoint I largely share. So instead of mixing for a distant, unknowable wider world, I can focus the mix on what would work for those two people.

Things like that make such a difference.

Books that belong to my wife that someday I will read

March 10, 2021

My wife is a voracious reader of books, some of which I love, some of which I’m happy to ignore. Here are ten books that I can imagine myself getting into some day.

She points out that I bought her half of these books. And the half I bought her are not necessarily the half that she’s read.

Curious, that!

Mixing and editing

March 6, 2021

I wrote the following ten years ago and for some reason I didn’t post it at the time. It wasn’t quite finished, which is ironic considering the post is about how to finish things. At the time, I was putting together an album of songs now called Ten Unpolished Pop Songs From The Popular High, (The High being a block of flats in Streatham where my friend, Mike, and I recorded the basic tracks). I was mixing  the songs at home, often on headphones because I was trying to juggle a sleeping toddler, my wife’s right to watch TV (my computer and the TV were in the same room), and the desire of my neighbours to be able to live a sane life without my caterwauling leaking through the party walls.

I’m currently in a similar situation. I’m trying to mix an album of songs in the same room, (though the TV has moved to the front room). My equipment is a little bit better now, (my headphones and speakers have been upgraded). However, I’m still trying to find a workable mix from the wavs and aiff files I’ve got stacked up in Logic Pro. So the blog post that follows rings true and, and though it isn’t perfect, I’m going to publish it, because it speaks to the work of the editor and the mixer, each trying to get their project closer to a specific, elusive, goal one iteration at a time, each knowing that at some point they have to commit, to admit that that was the best they can do, given their finite time and budget.

I think I’ve finished the side-project/solo album. I think I have. At least the music part of it is done. I think. Maybe one song needs remixing a little. And I can’t decide whether to include what was going to be the final track as, as a finished arrangement, it’s not as good as the other songs. Or I could include a cut-down version, one verse, which would kind of work, and would leave it open for me to get the song right on following albums. If I ever get to make one.

These are tough decisions. Not real-life tough – I know in the grand scheme of things this is vastly unimportant. But tough as in this matters to me, I have been working on this album for a couple of years, have committed time and money to it, and whichever way I go, I have to live with my choice for all time. And I have one chance to get it right. And while I could try and hide behind the fact that this is a DIY album, a truly independent effort, that seems wrong to me. Bad music is bad music, regardless of how much money you spent making it, and to unleash bad music on the general public is simply wrong, and makes you no better than the self-serving charlatans who run the X Factor and its like.

These last couple of years, I have played a big part in putting together two albums. Mixing is a *massive* part of the process. Get that wrong, and you needn’t have bothered. And it’s made me think about what you’re aiming for when you’re mixing. What is it you’re trying to achieve.

Each song is an experiment. And there’s no one benchmark for whether any given song is successful – it’s different for every song. The criteria for success might be whether someone can sing it, dance to it, quote it, whether it makes them think, move, laugh, fall in love. Whether it makes emotional sense to them. Or, you might hope, all of the above. You’re trying to imbue the artefact you’re working on with its own personality, a living thing that stands for itself. Or a seed that you plant in the listeners/readers head or heart, so it matters to them once you’ve walked away from it.

This Quiet Coup by The Company Freak

March 3, 2021

I’ve been making music again. I spent a week in October, recording at home, and cobbled together an album’s worth of songs. The nom de pop I’m using is The Company Freak.

This song is This Quiet Coup.

February reading

March 1, 2021

Just finished:

On the go:

Recently acquired

What I thought of White Bicycles

February 24, 2021

If ever a book was written to appeal to me, it’s this nicely-told tale of sixties pop culture, written by a man who was right at the heart of things. I’ve read White Bicycles about five times so far, and I’m sure I’ll read it again pretty soon. I love everything about it.

Joe Boyd discovered, produced, signed, managed or egged on Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Vashti Bunyan, The Incredible String Band. He was an organiser at Newport Folk Festival when Dylan went electric. He founded the UFO club with John Hopkins. He funded Pink Floyd’s first single. He was the road manager for tours involving Muddy Waters, Rosetta Tharpe, Brownie McGee. He worked with Jay Holzman at Elektra and Chris Blackwell at Island. He was the great facilitator, or eminence grise, as he preferred to describe his role.

When I wrote Love and Death in Three Minutes, Joe Boyd was one of the impresarios whose life I used as a template for the lead character, Vansen Jonsen. Just like Boyd, Jonsen is an American from the Eastern Seaboard who found a home in the UK in the mid-late sixties. Both are full of charisma and brilliant ideas, and are spotters of talent that others have missed.

White Bicycles is full of lovely anecdotes, such as the one about how John Cale came to play on Nick Drake’s Northern Sky:

After a session one day, he (John Cale) put his feet up on the mixing desk, waved his arm imperially at John Wood, (Sound Techniques in-house engineer) and said, ‘Let’s hear what else you guys are working on.’ We played him a few things, and eventually got to Nick (Drake). Cale was amazed. ‘Who the fuck is this guy? I have to meet him, where is he? I mean, where is he right now?’ I rang Nick and told him that John Cale would be over in half an hour. Nick said, ‘Oh, uh, OK.’ I wrote down Nick’s address, John grabbed it and ran down the stairs.

I don’t know if Nick Drake knew who John Cale was before he showed up. This would have been 1970; Velvet Underground weren’t the massive influence at that time that they later became. The story goes on:

The next morning, I had a call from Cale. ‘We’re going to need a pick-up for the viola, an amp, a Fender bass and bass amp, a celeste and a Hammond B-3 organ. This afternoon.’ I had scheduled a mix on another project that day but Cale had decided it was time to record ‘Northern Sky’ and ‘Fly’. They arrived together, John with a wild look in his eyes and Nick trailing behind. Despite his domineering manner, Cale was very solicitous towards Nick, who seemed to be guardedly enjoying himself: his only choice was to relax and be carried along.

Whenever I read about Nick Drake, I get very protective of him, as clearly does Boyd. So I love the fact that, for a while, Cale became Drake’s champion. Cale did that a lot. Beside his ridiculously influential work with the Velvet Underground, he also worked on the Modern Lovers demos, (which eventually formed half of their only LP), and he produced the first Stooges album. (I’d even argue that I prefer Cale in combination with other people than Cale on his own, though I’ve got plenty of friends who would fight me to the death about that).

I love this insight into Chris Blackwell’s character:

We loved haggling, either with each other or teaming up against a third party. Whenever our deal was renegotiated, we came up with more and more complicated financial structures. At the end of one particularly arduous session, having got his way, Chris turned to me and said: ‘Now how much do you really need?’ and wrote me out a cheque for far more than called for in the contract.

There are plenty of magnificent, entertaining biographies about rock stars out there, but biographies about pop entrepreneurs are often more entertaining. An entrepreneur’s career is frequently longer than the interesting bit of a average pop star’s, so there’s more to get your teeth into. They come into contact with a wider circle of people than most pop stars. And their tales of creativity are often just as compelling, having been there as an observer on many of the big occasions, with a clearer head. Pop stars are often self-absorbed, whereas entrepreneurs might be egotistical, but they can’t afford to be insular.

When I was writing Love and Death, the fact that Jonsen was an entrepreneur, rather than a musician, meant there were so many ways I could take the narrative. It wasn’t all early years, studio, tour, studio, tour, divorce, studio, tour, rehab, studio, tour, and then two hundred pages about the aftermath of their golden years.

I don’t know if there’s a Chris Blackwell autobiography/biography out there, but I’d love to read it if there is. The same with Bernie Rhodes, Chas Chandler, Dave Robinson. And I need to re-read Follow the Music, Jak Holzman’s autobiography. Somewhere in the past, I managed to lose Jerry Wexler’s autobiography, which annoys me, but Berry Gordy’s is a beauty, and the two or three about Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records. Seymour Stein’s autobiography is excellent, as are Simon Napier Bell’s books. Mickie Most’s is a good read.

At the moment, I’m reading Nick Drake’s biography, which is nice but not very revealing. I’ve just reached the bit where Drake is about to meet Boyd, introduced by Ashley Hutchings. Even in a book about pop music, it feels like I’m about to meet a famous person. I can’t wait!

Contracts

February 20, 2021

A couple of years ago, I wrote a short story called Algorithm. There was a section that I quite liked but, after umpteen edits, decided it was stopping the flow of the narrative. I didn’t want to chuck it away, but I didn’t have a home for it. It’s not a poem, not a short story, it won’t build up to be a novel. So I’m bunging it here:

Contracts! Clem’s neighbour had suffered the consequences of a binding contract. He was the ostensible winner of a competition run by a global HMO. The prize, as advertised, was the medical equivalent of eternal life, a guarantee from the HMO that the winner would never, ever die. Through his ailing seventies and eighties, he received the world’s best medical attention to stave off two heart attacks, four strokes, and three forms of cancer. Every time he closed in on death, he was scienced back to life. He was now 135 and he’d been on life support for 39 years. A Supreme Court judge ruled that, because of a stray Oxford comma in the original contract, he no longer had the legal right to die. Both sides would have happily dissolved the agreement and let him drift into a peaceful eternal sleep, but they were bound by the terms of the contract to keep him going against every instinct of nature. He was forced to carry on: withered, unresponsive, dead in all but fact.

What I thought of Galapagos

February 17, 2021

I love Galapagos. It’s in my top five Vonnegut books, alongside Slapstick (or Lonesome No More), Timequake, Bluebeard, and Mother Night. (I love pretty much all his books, but those are my favourites). I’ve read Galapagos about six times, and I never get bored with it.

Galapagos follows a handful of disparate strangers who become stranded on a small Galapalos island. Together, they form the gene pool which eventually saves the human race from extinction, when bacteria prevents the rest of the world population from reproducing. The novel speculates about how these remaining humans might evolve in those unforgiving conditions, where all food has to be caught in the sea, and ingenuity is no longer a tool to aid survival. The era of the Big Brain is over.

Vonnegut’s best books are all beautifully constructed. I’ve read pretty much everything he wrote that made it into print, (so many of his talks, essays and short stories are anthologised, you don’t need to dig too deep to find even his most obscure articles), but I don’t recall reading anything that explains how he plotted his novels. I assume he created a chapter by chapter plan of what would go where before sitting to write the text, a comprehensive catalogue of which revelations would appear at any given stage in the telling. One of Vonnegut’s great skills is divulging the plot points before they happen without detracting from the engagement of the reader. The overall plot is only a part of the story’s appeal. In that sense, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five, the reader becomes unstuck in time, able to view the entirety of the story arc from beginning to end while honing in on individual moments to understand what is happening to the characters. And like Billy Pilgrim, the reader is unable to do anything but get angry or be saddened by the human frailties that drive the plot.

Galapagos, like Mother Night, uses Vonnegut’s favourite technique, where he builds the narrative of each chapter to set up a pay-off or punchline in the final paragraph, as if he were writing an episode of a TV serial and needed to give the reader a buzz of satisfaction so they’d switch on the following week or, in the case of his novels, to turn the page and embark on the next chapter.

There are a dozen themes running the Galapagos which speak to the world as it is at the moment: the world is at the mercy of a microscopic virus; as a human race, we have taken huge liberties with the natural world, and we will no doubt suffer for it; we are three or four missed meals away from anarchy; greedy people will drive us to ruin; we are still prone to promote charismatic people to positions of power, where their incompetence puts other people in jeopardy; charisma can be bought through the tutelage of expensive schools; we are still infatuated by beautiful people, and will give them crazy proportions of our wherewithall in order to get their patronage; the world of property and wealth is a confidence trick which can fall apart at any given moment; some people think of nothing but their own personal aggrandisement; school teachers are wonderful people; when times are hard, some country’s reaction will be to declare war on its neighbours.

And there are things that regularly crop up in Vonnegut’s books: for someone who saw unimaginable death at scale in Dresden, he is always ready to destroy the human race, except for a few stragglers, who he leaves to cope; he simultaneously holds the human race in contempt and reverence; he was a humanist who regularly created an after-life in his books.

I am sure I’ll read Galapagos again in a few years time. I’m sure I’ll be astounded by his plotting, dismayed by the behaviour of his characters, flabbergasted by the story’s audacity, and I’ll rally behind his concern for humans and the planet. And I’m sure I’ll re-read his other books, and feel exactly the same way. In fact, it’s maybe time to re-read Wampeters, Foma and Grandfaloons. I haven’t read that one in a while.

Currently Reading

February 13, 2021

On the go:

Just finished:

Just acquired

What I thought of Autumn Journal

February 9, 2021

“Close and slow, summer is ending in Hampshire,
Ebbing away down ramps of shaven lawns where close-clipped yew
Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals
And the spyglasses hung in the hall and the prayer books ready in the pew
And autumn going out to the tin trumpets of nasturtiums
And the sunflowers’ Salvation Army blare of brass
And the spinsters sitting in a deck-chair picking up stitches …”

Louis MacNeice wrote Autumn Journal during the second half of 1938. He had not long split up with his wife, and while he pretended that he didn’t miss her, he obviously did. He was also trying to understand the political movements in Spain in the year before the Civil War, having visited the country earlier as a tourist. The rise of fascism is a major theme throughout Autumn Journal, and the book resonates in contemporary UK because it serves as an analogue for the worrying developments in Russia, under Putin; in the US, under Trump; and in the UK, with Brexit under Johnson, as well as for the assumption of power by oligarchs and dictators in Belarussia, Hungary, and India.

” … not realising
That Spain would soon denote
Our grief, our aspirations;
Not knowing that our blunt
Ideals would find their whetstone, that our spirit
Would find its frontier on the Spanish front,
Its body in a rag-tag army.”

Possibly my favourite ever poem is MacNeice’s Snow:

“World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.”

But while Snow is a poem about differences:

“On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands—
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.”

Autumn Journal is a poem about similarities, even when it pretends not to be:

“… And when I should remember the paragons of Hellas
I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists
The careless athletes and the fancy boys,
The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled sceptics
And the Agora and the noise
Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring
Libations over graves
And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly
I think of the slaves.
And how one can imagine oneself among them,
I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
and all so long ago.”

Which goes to show that every age of disruption is heralded in by a choir of cheerleaders and exploited by a plague of chancers. We’re no different to 1930’s Europe or Ancient Greece. And while in some ways, that can be depressing – as a species, we seemed doomed to repeat the worst moments of our history – oppression and greed never survive for long. Always we make progress, and the human characteristics of decency, goodness, trust, patience and fairness win out.

Things I read in 2020

February 6, 2021

Biography
Rock Pool
Excelsior
Broken Greek
Time and Place
Ridge and Furrow

Ecology and democracy
What Do We Do Now?
This Is Not A Drill
Winter is Coming

Children’s
John Blake
Why You Should Still Read Children’s Fiction
Fierce Bad Rabbits
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkerban

Novels
Ella Minnow Pea
The Russia House
The Looking Glass War
The Secret Pilgrim
Agent Running in the Field
Lonely Hearts
The Wind-up Bird Chronicles
The Martian
Mother Night
Bluebeard
If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?
God Bless You, Mr Rosewater
A Man without a Nation
Slapstick, or Lonesome No More

Sport
The World According to G
Shut Up, LegsDomestique
The Art of Captaincy
The Rider
What We Think of When We Talk About Football
Football and Money

Poetry
Hawk in the Rain
Crow
Some Trees
Why Brownlee Left
Autumn Journal
Under Milk Wood
Paul Muldoon – Selected Poems
Magnetic North

Music
Overpaid, Oversexed, Over There
David Bowie: An Illustrated Record
Brooklyn Boy
You Never Give Me Your Money
Rise
Come and Take These Memories

Essays
Fascism and Democracy (essay)
Literature and Totalitarianism (essay)
Freedom of the Park (essay)
Review of The Invasion from Mars (essay)
Visions of a Totalitarian Future (essay)

January reading

February 1, 2021

The Mountains According to G, Geraint Thomas
Twilight of Democracy, Anne Applebaum
Autumn Journal, Louis MacNeice
This Sporting Life, David Storey
Happy Birthday, Wanda June, Kurt Vonnegut
How Sweet It Is, Lamont Dozier.

Currently reading

January 28, 2021

On the go:

Just finished:

Dark Side of the Moon

December 22, 2017

‘It’s been a long time, I shouldn’t have left you …’

It has, and I shouldn’t have, and though several million of you have been hassling me for more stuff, more stuff, more stuff, well, you know it’s important for an artist to step back and give themselves time to create.

There’s probably a little exaggeration in the previous paragraph. It might be more accurate to say that, precisely no one has been hassling me to publish more stuff. But that hasn’t stopped me working at it.

And it’s not gone completely unrewarded. The good people from Tiger Shark have published my short story, Dark Side of the Moon. You can read it (for nothing) in the magnificent Issue 15.

Here’s a little glimpse to keep you going:

At Miss Fulbright’s side was Celia. Celia shook our hands vigorously, one person after another in patrician order – my dad, me, Daniel, my mum, Mary. She offered each of us a scrambled smile that glanced off our shoulders and lingered on our collar bones once the handshake was over. She was smaller than Miss Fulbright, wearing a long hippy skirt that hid her feet, a cheese-cloth shirt with no bra beneath, and a head of hair I’d last seen on Janice Joplin. She wore an assortment of necklaces that featured an assortment of runes. She began talking and never quite stopped the whole evening, addressing everything to the space between us. “What a beautiful house, Mr Ireland. Looks about a hundred years old, am I right? I love to see a well-tended garden. Is that clematis? And a proper compost heap; I bet you get some good soil from that.”

What astounded us was not the stream of chat she came out with but the fact that she was American. All we knew of America was what we’d seen on TV. You could have parachuted Starskey and Hutch onto the lawn, and we’d have been no more surprised.

By this time, Celia had lead the way from the back door, through the porch, into the living room via the kitchen, pointing out how cute she thought our kettle was, loving the folding chairs in the hallway, rapping the door frame to compliment us on how solid it was, bashing the outside wall and saying how secure she felt in a millstone house quarried from local stone. “Do you need us to take our shoes off?” she said to the rarified air between my dad’s ear and the ceiling light. “Ah, man, I love that lampshade. How long have you lived here? This is a home and a half. I bet the kids feel right at home here, right? Do you guys leap over the yard wall and roughhouse in the field? We used to do that back home. There was a field of clover about a hundred yards from the house where I used to play football with my big brothers – that’s American football, obviously, not your British soccer, this was before the real estate moguls carved up the land, I guess you can’t stop progress and people need a place to live, but kids need a place to play, too, otherwise they’ll just goof around the streets sucking on a doobey getting the munchies eating potato chips.”

We definitely understood some of what she said.

 

30 Songs in 30 Days – Day Thirty – Porch

October 20, 2014

And …. stop!

So that’s it. 30 Songs in 30 Days. Finito. Fertig. Fini. I’m rather proud of myself for keeping going. It took some doing, I must admit.

I thought I’d dress up for this final video. I bought the suit for my friends’ Bruce and Claudia’s wedding. I picked it up for £30 from a vintage shop. It’s genuinely moth-eaten – when I pulled it out of the wardrobe this morning, the moths have taken chunks out of it. It’s Canadian, Rick! It survived the journey across the Atlantic only to get chomped in Streatham. Seems a cruel end for such a fine piece of cloth.

I tried doing a multi-camera angle thing but it didn’t quite work out. Ah well. Never mind. The sun was kind enough to come out as I recorded, which is what caused the comical dappled effect as the song progresses. And the garden looks great, (that completes the tour of the house, Liz!). And the trains were kind enough to stay away while I was singing, (the house backs onto 2 railways, including the route of the Gatwick Express).

Porch has appeared on three albums so far. I included the same version on both Pop Happenings Vol 4 and Love Songs from the Feral Park, (for reasons that made sense at the time but which I can’t quite fathom, right now) and Simon does a great take on Born in a Barn. The best version is Speedy Sue’s forthcoming version on Speedy Sue and the Shadowy Collective – she sings it so beautifully.

It’s a nice signing-off song, I think. It steals a line from Rock and Roll Suicide, (or Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine’s Shopper’s Paradise, if you like) but then Bowie is such an eclectic pilferer, I don’t think he’d mind.

So what have I learned from this. Well, I have some wonderfully supportive friends, for a start, but then I knew that already! Another key take-away is that, whatever you want to do, you’ll get better at it if you practice. My picking went from laughable to kind-of competent during the course of these videos. I learned to trust my singing, (though even if I’ve sung a line correctly twenty times, I can still cock it up – how does that work!?).

It was great to have a music project to get my teeth into, and hopefully it will spin off into gigs and albums and what have you. It’s up to me to keep it going, but then that’s true of everything we do, isn’t it!

Many thanks to everyone who, over the last month, has Tweeted, Shared, Facebooked, Liked, passed comment in passing, proffered advice, laughed about, put up with, championed. Hopefully, there were a few of you who thought, well, if he can do it, I can do it, too. Let’s hear it, when you’ve got something you’re ready to share!

Anyway, your kind thoughts have been thoroughly, thoroughly appreciated. You’re good eggs, the lot of you!

30 Songs in 30 Days – Day Twenty-Nine – Wish You Were Here

October 19, 2014

29 down, 1 to go. These last few have been a bit of a battle, I must admit. I look knackered here!

I tend to think of Wish You Were Here as a companion piece to The Damage Is Done. Wish You Were Here is her side of the story. The Damage is Done is his.

 

30 Songs in 30 Days – Day Twenty-Eight – When Katy Hansen Died

October 19, 2014

When Katy Hansen Died got its’ start in life in my bedroom in a shared house in Burnage upon my return from a day studying at Manchester Poly, (you could put “a day” and “studying” in inverted commas). At the time, the song railed against Thatcher, Big Style, lambasting her for her tunnel-vision monetarist policies that undermined community while selling off British business to the highest bidder. And while I still stand by those sentiments, it made for a lousy song. Done well, political songs are moving and stirring. Done badly, they are embarrassing, and that’s what the lyric to When Katy Hansen Died was. (It wasn’t the only one I tried and screwed up. Sorry, Cause! I won’t be championing you tonight! I wish you well!)

About 12 years later, I was in the front room of a flat in Streatham, listening to my newly purchased copy of the White StripesDe Stijl. It’s a great album with great songs, and I was particularly struck by their version of Son House‘s Death Letter. (I didn’t know the original, Death Letter Blues, at the time. It’s magnificent!) I took the sentiment of the song, and applied it to what became When Katy Hansen Died, giving it a little twist so I wasn’t just hacking away at the same ground as The Death Letter.

As far as the video goes, I have been out all day on parental duties, and only got back after dark. I had to cobble together a lighting rig of a handheld torch, a candle and a bedside lamp, which I notice has left the film pixilated. Ah well, not much I can do about it now. It was more important to get it done on time, and the sound quality is no worse than for the other videos in this series. When it comes to music, sound trumps image, any day.

Finally, an apology to anyone called Katy Hansen. I know of no one of that name.

30 Songs in 30 Days – Day Twenty-Seven – The Devil Sips His Tea

October 17, 2014

The Devil Sips His Tea has taken on many lyrical forms, none of which were any good at all. I’ve always been trying to write something that would sit alongside By The Time I Get To Phoenix in the canon of All-Time Greats. I think the Devil Sips His Tea is the closest I will ever get, (and to stress, falling a *long way short*!).

30 Songs in 30 Days – Day Twenty-Six – Drift Away

October 16, 2014

Drift Away is one of my party piece songs, if ever someone is passing a guitar around at a party and it’s my turn to step up.

This is one of the songs we’re going to include on the Speedy Sue and the Shadowy Collective album, when we finally finish it. Sue sings it so incredibly beautifully. Wait till you hear it – you’ll be in tears!

30 Songs in 30 Days – Day Twenty-Five – Separate Beds

October 16, 2014

Most of my songs are written on the guitar. Separate Beds is different, in that it was written on a piano at my Mum and Dad’s house, many years ago. I think I was 19. The piano explains why the melody comes in on the 6th of the D minor chord. I’d never have thought of that if I’d been writing it on a guitar.

There’s a version of Separate Beds on Pop Happenings Vol 4, which has a much fuller arrangement. The little arpeggio at the end (that doesn’t really work here, hence the fade out) comes from that version, where the pattern is played on pizzicato strings. It was the first song I put together using Cubase or its like, and I threw everything at it. Surprisingly, the arrangement isn’t awful (well, I don’t think it is!) when it really could have been. I plundered the orchestral instruments on the XG soundcard of my Yamaha CS1X, (which was a lovely synth – why did I sell it?) so there are mute trumpets, a double bass, oboes and a host of others.

30 Songs in 30 Days – Day Twenty-Four – Good Times

October 14, 2014

Good Times has been languishing in my unfinished songs folder for a long, long time.  I really wanted to include it in this project – I think it’s one of my best tunes – so I bashed it into shape, re-writing the lyrics. One of things I’ve noticed from the videos I’ve filmed for this series, the songs miss a full arrangement. That doesn’t necessarily mean an array of other instruments, but playing a block of four bars of one chord as an introduction before I start singing doesn’t really cut it. To some extent, I’ve been keeping the intros simple because my faith in my guitar playing hasn’t been great. But I’m feeling a little bit more confident about being able to nail a phrase, now, after all this practice. So I’ve added the little guitar motif at the start and end of each phrase, which also allows me to catch my breathe before I move on with the next chorus or verse.

30 Songs in 30 Days – Day Twenty-Three – The Best Revenge

October 13, 2014

The light was fading. The evening was drawing in. With the last vestiges of the October sun, the lad from Yorkshire picked up his guitar and started to strum. The Best Revenge.

The line, “the best revenge is to live well”, was given to me by my pal, Jason Dunne. I don’t think Jason would claim the line as his own, (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, Jase) but it’s a great thought – if you dwell too long on the wrongs done to you, you’re the one to lose out. If you want revenge, then show you’re not affected by what happened. Move on. Leave the heartache behind.

There’s a version of this floating about on my hard drive which I recorded with Mike Mann in the High Sessions, which includes drum beat, backing vocals, electric guitar and organ. It’ll (eventually) appear on the album, Winner of the Fight, when I finally finish it.

30 Songs in 30 Days – Day Twenty-Two – Sincerely My Belief

October 12, 2014

Short but sweet, Sincerely My Belief. It’s nice to sneak the odd 12-bar in here. No One In This House (But Me) was an 8-bar. My favourite blues singer is Jimmy Reed. He took the 12-bar format and made pop songs out of it, such Baby What Do You Want Me To Do and Big Boss Man. Great hook lines, great melodies. Sincerely My Belief is as much a pop song as it is a 12-bar, (it’s in a major scale, for a start).

30 Songs in 30 Days – Day Twenty-One – No One In This House (But Me)

October 11, 2014

The version of No One In This House (But Me) on Love Songs From The Feral Park is one of only two songs I know that feature wah-wah congas. The other example, and the one I nicked the idea off, is You Sexy Thing by Hot Chocolate. What a great idea, wah-wah congas. In my case, they were played by ‘Seventies’ Mike Johnson, of Word Magazine fame, with Simon Trought, from Soup Studio, operating the wah-wah. I love the electric version of this song, but I prefer this acoustic version, I think.

I’m editing this on a different version of iMovie to previous songs. It seems to have picked up a bit of a hiss – can you let me know if it’s obtrusive or not, and I’ll see what I do about it. Thanks.