The habit dies hard

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Reading Journeys

I think I’ve always had a mental block when it comes to Clive James, due in the main to memories of his TV shows in the late 80s and early 90s which were among the first to use clips of unintentionally amusing TV shows from around the world, Japan in particular, and often involved Margarita Pracatan. Not that there was anything inherently wrong with such trivia, just that it didn’t sound to me like something a serious literary critic, poet and essayist would have involved themselves in. Even the fact that he’s a Formula 1 fan didn’t encourage me to explore his work.

All of which just shows how wrong you can be. In starting with Poetry Notebook 2006-2014 I’m beginning at (not quite) the end of the canon and, knowing what I know now, the great thing is that I have all the rest of it to…

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Heady Heights and Dodgy Deals

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David F. Ross: Welcome to the Heady Heights. Orenda Books.

It’s a story that begins and ends in a graveyard. Not just any graveyard, the Daddy of all graveyards, Glasgow’s Necropolis. It also begins and ends with hope, because the latest protagonist created by David F. Ross, Archie Blunt, is ‘a stoical son of Glasgow; an unrequited optimist’. Moving from the Ayrshire of his first three novels, David takes us to 1970s Glasgow, and a cast of corrupt politicians, small time (and big time) gangsters and hard men, dodgy clubs and dubious hotels, and the gloriously awful television personality Hank ‘Heady’ Hendricks, who gives Archie his big break and wishes very much that he hadn’t. This is what by now we can call vintage David F. Ross, a comic romp through the underbelly of Glasgow with a seriously good playlist.

But lets’s not give the impression that this is all comedy. There are serious themes here, from the struggles of WPC Barbara ‘The Tank’ Sherman against institutional misogyny to Gail Proctor’s doomed search for justice and the shadowy (and all too believable) world of privilege and corruption embodied in ‘The Circle’.

As always though, the genius and joy of David’s work lies in the characters that he creates and makes us love (before sometimes snatching them away from us with a wicked capriciousness). Every player in the drama is fully-formed, from Chib Charnley and his ‘metal fist’ and dodgy hip to the glorious return (and disappearance) of Bobby Souness. There’s also a putative boy band who turn out to be more talented than anyone has a right to expect, and certainly more resourceful. At the end of the day, Archie has risen, fallen and risen again and a retail empire is born. Having said that, if David gives us a sequel (and surely that’s the least we have a right to expect) you wouldn’t bet against Archie’s vans hitting the odd bump in the road or Bobby Souness losing one of his remaining appendages.

It’s all there – the characters, the spot on dialogue, and the page-turning story-telling. Read this book, and hope that we get to meet Archie again when spring comes to the Necropolis.

Watch the promo video here.

Thank You: The Man Who Loved Islands by David F Ross – Blog Tour

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If David F Ross played the church halls and small clubs in The Last Days of Disco and the major venues in The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas, then The Man Who Loved Islands is very much the stadium tour. This time the canvas is as far flung as China, Ibiza, Ailsa Craig…

In the prologue we have opening epigraphs from The Jam and Shakespeare (we get Mark Twain at the end of the book). David F Ross is a man who knows his literature; and his architecture; and his music (boy, does he know his music); and, in a sequence that could act as a great primer for anyone who wants to set up a fraudulent company, his contract law. A Renaissance writer, then. Or, if you prefer, a writer who would probably have told the Renaissance to get tae Falkirk and set up a legendary mandolin orchestra instead.

You can see it, can’t you? The rewriting of the mandolin orchestra repertoire, the opium sessions, the stashed Spanish gold, the escape of the orchestra’s clerk with all the takings, the last minute avoidance of the Spanish Inquisition, the lead mandolin ending his days under the name of Brother Grandolo in a remote monastery…

Sorry, got a bit carried away there (by the way, I’m sure a mandolin orchestra is a wonderful thing but never try to do a dress rehearsal for a new play when one of them’s rehearsing next door, that’s all I’m saying). Actually that’s a good example of what David’s writing does to me, it sets me off on imaginative flights of fancy. In fact, that’s probably one of the best things I can say about this book, and about David’s work generally. It lifts you up, it wakes up your imagination, it gives you ideas (and I’m not talking about the fraud, not at all, no way). Sure, he deals with serious topics: life; death; love; family. But he captures the underlying absurdity of life, the stupidity that typifies the human race, the innate humour that’s just there beneath the surface. So that somehow even the sad parts manage to be joyful at the same time. It’s feel-good fiction, but it’s make-you-think fiction at the same time. Mind you, if the image of a middle-aged man in a wheelchair being rescued from the sea by a man in an emerald green suit and a motorcycle helmet in a storm off Ailsa Craig doesn’t make you joyful and make you think, the copies of The Joy of Spreadsheets are on the shelf just over there…

The unfolding of David’s trilogy of Ayrshire novels (he’s going to need a collective title for the omnibus edition, by the way) has been an annual pleasure for the past three years (what on earth I’m going to read next March is already worrying me). The Man Who Loved Islands brings together the strands from the previous novels as the stories of the Disco Boys and The Miraculous Vespas converge through the unpredictable and scatalogical agency of Max Mojo (surely one of the funniest creations of modern comic fiction). The book moves back and forward in time to show us how Bobby and Joey have staggered into middle age with shattered families, stalled careers and monumental mid-life crises. On the way we get a potted history of the development of the club scene in Ibiza and Chinese urban development, combined with some pertinent observations of the hotel business.

There are some wonderful comic sequences such as Bobby and Hammy’s escape from Ibiza, and some moving descriptions of age, illness and post-traumatic stress. We also take in some iconic musical events such as Live Aid which are woven seamlessly into the fabric of the novel. Not everyone makes it to the end, but those that do seem to have rebuilt the relationships that matter and found a degree of peace, but in a way that doesn’t ignore the fact that none of us are going to get a happily ever after ending (as we’re helpfully reminded by the quoting of a certain Malcolm Middleton song early in the book).

Other reviewers on the blog tour are covering the plot in more detail so I’m not going to dwell on it, save to say that I love the way David weaves the strands together and keeps you turning the pages. His ear for dialogue remains as acute as ever and these books are just made for a film treatment. Actually I’d hold out for a TV series as the wealth of detail deserves more space than a film would give it. This isn’t another Tutti Frutti, there’s so much more to this story than that.

It’s been a real privilege to see David’s writing career take off and to see his wonderful creativity get the platform and the recognition it deserves. A big part of that is the amazing support of Karen Sullivan and Orenda Books, and it’s great to see their success growing in pace with David’s. Sincere thanks to both of them, and here’s to many more great reads.

David’s books are so much richer for the music than runs through them, and the addition of the playlist at the end of the book is truly inspired. I may be the same generation but I was never into music to the level that many people were and are, and David’s books are a journey of discovery into a world I sort of missed out on. It’s never to late to discover new sounds, so thanks for that, David.

Finally, to get the full impact of this book, try reading the final chapter while listening to Linden’s ‘Thank You’ from the ‘Bleached Highlights’ album. I know you won’t want to admit you cried but I know you will, and, between us, you’ll feel better for it.

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Turning up the volume

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Reading revelations are always exciting. Sometimes it’s reading an author you thought you wouldn’t/didn’t like. Sometimes it’s a type of writing you thought you wouldn’t enjoy. Sometimes it’s the realisation that a different style of writing is possible, that there’s a different way of approaching things. The revelations are something you remember all your reading life, and perhaps the early revelations are the most memorable.

I had some great English teachers. Thanks to them I ended up doing a degree in English literature. I loved the things I read at school. There was a fair range, from Shelley and Shakespeare to Hardy and on to Joyce. But it’s the discoveries I made myself, armed with a book token and access to W H Smith in Plymouth, scanning the shelves for something eye-catching, that had the biggest impact.

The poetry we were reading at school was Hardy and later Shelley. Beautiful poems, expressive language, but quite formal and old fashioned to a teenager. Then, on one of my book token-laden trips to W H Smith a paperback with a snazzy design caught my eye.

It was called ‘New Volume’ and had some strange looking people on the front cover, three names I hadn’t heard of.

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It was poetry, though it didn’t say that on the cover. The first part of the book was by someone called Adrian Henri. The first poem was called ‘Death in the Suburbs’ and it opened ‘The end of the world will surely come/in Bromley South or Orpington’. The rest of the poem looked odd. It didn’t have any capital letters. It didn’t rhyme or have a regular metre. Some lines only had one word on them. It mentioned a lot of everyday things, often in the same breath as the flowers and nature images I was more used to. Oh yes, and it was about a nuclear attack wiping us all out. It was poetry as I’d never seen it before, and it was brand new. It was, quite frankly, mind-blowing to someone who’d just been reading Hardy talking about the ‘beetling Beeny Cliff’ and ‘no more summer for Molly and me’. There were love poems, football poems, and Brian Patten writing about fondling the remains of Emily Dickinson.

The blurb said it was the sequel to a book the three writers had published in the 1960s called ‘The Mersey Sound’, which had also been reissued at the same time. Cue another trip to W H Smith…

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The first thing I read in The Mersey Sound was Adrian Henri’s ‘Tonight at Noon’ and Thomas Hardy was dead to me. I’d found poems that spoke to me. I’d discovered that there are many ways of writing, that there’s something for everyone, and that poetry doesn’t have to be ‘difficult’. I was hooked. I bought Henri’s collected poems, everything I could find by Brian Patten, though for some reason Roger McGough, while probably the most famous of the three, never quite did it for me in the same way.

Later on, at University, I began to find the Liverpool poets a little one-dimensional, perhaps here and there a little trite, as my wonderful tutors began to introduce me to the poets I still love today, like John Berryman, Hart Crane, Anne Sexton and William Carlos Williams. The Liverpool poets were of their time, contemporaries of the Beatles, part of that amazing explosion of popular culture from an iconic city. I was getting what I’m sure I thought was more sophisticated. Maybe ‘difficult’ wasn’t such a bad thing, maybe that made the reading more rewarding. But then again, maybe without New Volume I wouldn’t be reading any of it, maybe I’d still think that poetry was all Shelley and Hardy, all Mont Blanc and the ghosts of dead wives.

Today, when I tend to dwell on a poem I like and re-read it to extract as much as possible rather than devouring it and moving on, the Liverpool poets do seem a little light on meaning and depth. But they opened up a whole world of reading, and I still remember the thrill of that 35 years later. Not only that, but I still re-read Brian Patten telling us what poetry is supposed to do, and find myself nodding in agreement:

When in public poetry should take off its clothes and wave to the nearest person in sight; it should be seen in the company of thieves and lovers rather than that of journalists and publishers. On sighting mathematicians it should unhook the algebra from their minds and replace it with poetry; on sighting poets it should unhook the poetry from their minds and replace it with algebra…

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Book Gifts and Reading Journeys

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There’s something special about being given a book as a gift. The giver has clearly thought about it. To give a book can mean that you think the recipient will enjoy reading it; or should read it; or will benefit from reading it; or, perhaps, will have their horizons widened by reading it. Then there is the book as an object. This is not a gift that is no longer there after it has been consumed. It’s not a gift you look at and then place in a cupboard. It’s a gift you spend time with; that tells you something memorable; that becomes for a short (or perhaps long) time a part of your mental landscape, a part of your day.

The best book gifts are those that open up a new avenue of exploration. Perhaps a new author, a new genre, a new period, a new country, or a combination of those things. Just as books as gifts are special, so are the recommendations of friends and acquaintances. These are to be followed-up or discarded as you think fit of course, but on occasion they, too, open up new directions and enthusiasms. A chance remark about an area of reading can result in ‘have you read…’ and the pleasure that comes from a single recommendation spawning a whole strand of reading stretching out for years to come, as one book can sometimes be the key that unlocks scores of others.

One of the working practices of my Fellow Librarian boss in Cambridge when an academic suggested a book for the library was, once it was acquired, to trawl through it and order all the key texts referenced in it, so that a single recommendation became the basis for the development of a new area of collecting. Frustrating though this could be when the bulk of the works required were long out of print, it was a perfectly sensible way of collection-building, based on the premise that a key text identified by one of our tutors would be likely to be the key to that area of study.

As an example, a Christmas gift of Italo Calvino’s ‘Collection of Sand’, a late book of essays on historical and artistic subjects, is providing a small revelation this January. Like most literature students, a reading of ‘If on a Winter’s night a traveller…’ was part of my education, but I would never have thought of picking up anything else by Calvino. Until now. This is the Penguin Modern Classics edition, elegantly translated by Martin McLaughlin, and it fits in the hand as only a Penguin paperback can, with suitably soft spine and that iconic clear and easy-to-read page layout (set in 10.5/13pt Dante MT Std if you’re interested). It’s a perfect design and a joy to read. Other paperback imprints are available. None of them read like a Penguin.

Calvino’s essays are a revelation because he writes so accessibly about some difficult concepts, which is a boon for someone who would love to have the intellectual equipment to understand some of the great writers and artists but is very happy to have a guide with passion and clarity to spare. Highlights so far (I’m half way through) have been his description of the narrative recorded by Trajan’s Column and the story inside Delacroix’s painting of ‘Liberty Leading the People’. Two things I wouldn’t otherwise have thought of reading about brilliantly described by an author I wouldn’t have thought of reading. My potential reading for 2017 has just changed direction a bit, all thanks to a thoughtful gift. This was, of course, a gift from my brother. The books we give each other will sometimes have this effect and sometimes not, I suspect, but the choices are always imaginative on both sides. Which is where I came in.

There are other directions I’m planning to take in my reading this year, thanks to a pointer or two from my former tutor. Landscape is now being joined with poetry from 1950s and 1960s Britain, and the plan is to read around this and do a bit of blogging on it this year. My track record in updating this blog isn’t great, but I’ll give it a go, because it’s good to share, and maybe set someone else off on a reading journey they weren’t expecting.

Jack Clemo and the Map of Clay

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Anyone bought up in Cornwall has an awareness of the Clay Country. A mysterious lunar landscape of white peaks dominating the skyline in the centre of the country. Even without knowing much about how it came to be there, or why, its brooding presence has an impact on the imagination. Explore a little further and the narrow lanes reveal a fabric of bleak villages, isolated chapels, and the ever-encroaching pits and tips that have been gradually obliterating the natural landscape for well over a century. It’s a harsh and entirely man-made environment in the heart of one of the most beautiful parts of the UK.

Jack Clemo was born into this landscape in 1916, ‘dwarfed under Bloomdale clay-dump, solitary, grim-looking, with no drainage, no water or electricity supply, and no back door’ as he wrote in Confession of a Rebel. He considered it a ‘fitting birthplace’. He would not leave until 1984 when he and his wife Ruth moved to Weymouth, finally leaving behind ‘the rubble-wreckage of defiled meadows’ and ‘the iron teeth of an outgrown rejected cradle’.

Clemo was, and is, the poet of the Clay Country. In such a grim environment with its strong nonconformist heritage, its poverty and grind, it’s perhaps not surprising that his work is highly religious, mystic and passionate. Add to this the fact that health problems beginning in childhood left him deaf and blind by middle age (the result of congenital syphilis) and the ingredients for a unique poetic vision were in place. His early focus on novel-writing gave way as his disabilities increased to poetry and to religious writings and while he moved gradually away from a focus on the Clay Country in his later work, his most powerful poetry remains the work of the forties and fifties when poems such as The Excavator and Christ in the Clay-Pit were written.

Clemo’s poetry was reaching a wider audience in the early sixties, at a time when the work of The Movement poets was well-established and the publication of The New Poetry was promoting a group of writers including Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill and Thom Gunn as well as (in its second edition) Sylvia Plath. All these writers came from a university-educated background and, different though they were in approach, were closely connected and fed off each other in their poetic development. Sealed in his physical and geographical micro-climate, Clemo was refining his approach through religious debate in local newspapers and identification with religious mystics such as T.F. Powys. His publication in the Penguin Modern Poets series in 1964 was alongside George MacBeth’s allegorical responses to the holocaust, war and human cruelty and Edward Lucie-Smith’s sophisticated cultural vision. In this context Clemo’s poems must have seemed to readers to be from a different world altogether, his vision uncluttered and unaffected by the cultural shift of the sixties that was just beginning:

I shall see the flesh that is clay, the open-cast mine
Where men are not trapped but work with the wind on their faces
And the cold rain stings them away from the sterile swoon.
No pit-props there to sag with the weight of the ego;
No hot salacious smear on the white rib:
Only, when the vein is touched, the signal granted,
Comes the sharp snap of blast
As the agnostic rock is splintered and the barrier passed.

This is the final stanza from the poem Clay Phoenix, which also provides the title for Luke Thompson’s monumental biography of Clemo. Thompson has undertaken a significant work of scholarship in his forensic examination of Clemo’s papers and diaries, and his navigation of the damage done by the attempted sanitisation of them by his widow after his death. Like all good biographers, Thompson gives us Clemo warts and all, and unlike previous commentators does not duck the more disturbing aspects, such as his obsession with young girls which in a post-Operation Yewtree world is perhaps more of a concern than it might have appeared at the time (notwithstanding the village gossip it caused). Thompson is also the first to examine the roots of Clemo’s disabilities in detail and to consider the implications of congenital syphilis on his worldview as well as his physical and mental health.

Thompson charts a clear development of Clemo’s life and work and his apophenic impulse, which saw him seek patterns and connections in his life and that of his relatives and friends, feeding into his belief that God intended him to be cured when he reached the right point in his life, namely the point of marriage. The influence of his mother and latterly his wife on his life is critical and Thompson shows us this with a clarity of understanding that is the result of a deep immersion in Clemo’s diaries and other papers. Those who provided Clemo with support do not always come out of this well, though they undoubtedly devoted their lives to him and his promotion, a complexity that Thompson navigates well in his description of Clemo’s inner and outer lives.

Clemo is a significant poet who stands almost as a prophet in the wilderness looking in on the literature of the mid-twentieth century and declaiming a working-class industrial nonconformist and mystical vision of a world that is now distant from us and was distant even from many of his contemporaries. In some cases writers of this type are more important for what they represent than for the quality of their writing. Clemo however has given us some of the most accomplished and vivid poems of the period and deserves to be better known for that, and not for the peculiar circumstances of his life. Thompson’s excellent explication of Clemo’s work and his obvious love of the poetry make him an ideal guide to Clemo the man and the poet. This biography was needed and, superlatively written and researched, does both Clemo and poetry a great service. It can and should bring Clemo’s work to a new generation of readers.

The Clay Phoenix: A Biography of Jack Clemo by Luke Thompson is published by Ally.

The Living Land

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Reading Robert McFarlane’s Landscape left me with a list of titles noted for future investigation (which is I think one of the main points of his book). In looking for books to read on the loose subject of landscape I’m hoping for authors (from any age) who will prompt me to look at the land in different ways. Every year I walk the same set of cliffs in North Cornwall, for example, but every year they look different, partly because of the passing of the years but mainly because I’ve read some more since my last visit and having read some more look a little differently at the rocks, the plants and the sea. Not being a writer I can’t really put into words what I see, but there’s a deep joy in finding writers who can, and who can bring me to see differently.

Which brings me to Jacquetta Hawkes and her book A Land, published in 1951. For many, this will be an established classic that they’ve read and re-read, for me it’s a new discovery. When Collins published a new edition there was an excellent discussion of it in The Guardian by (who else) Robert McFarlane that’s well worth reading. He also contributes the introduction to the new edition and it’s an expanded version of that which made its way into ‘Landscape’.

In essence A Land is a kind of prose poem, a recounting of a dream of the creation of the British Isles. Hawkes describes it as ‘a memoir’ and that’s a clever description, because while it follows a historical trajectory it’s not a history, and while it provides much geological detail it’s not a textbook, and while it talks about the development of human society it’s not anthropology or sociology in any conventional sense. What it is, is a meditation on how the land came to be the way it is, and how we came to be the way we are. Hawkes describes the geological formation of the British Isles in an accessible way and then overlays the development of our society in terms of its impact on the land. Once we get to the Industrial Revolution onwards it’s not, as you might expect, a pretty picture. Having said that, Hawkes locates the shift from working with the landscape to breaking through it somewhere around the arrival of the Romans and their straight roads, which are contrasted with the original green lanes that wind through the contours of the landscape.

Hawkes also describes the shift from the use of local building materials to their transport across the country and the attendant breaking of the connection between the local landscape and human settlement. Hawkes was writing in 1951 and I can’t help seeing the extension of her description rolling forward sixty years and covering the building of houses in places that traditional builders would have avoided and other practices of today that mark our shift from working with the landscape to imposing ourselves on it and dealing with any implications by yet more interventions such as flood defences and so on. Having said that, climate change is also threatening ancient settlements where the builders were in harmony with the elements once, but not any more. Hawkes however would no doubt say that seeing change as a natural process our ancestors would have simply moved to safer ground rather than trying to hold back the tide (so to speak). The world, of course, isn’t that simple any more, and today A Land reads in part as a lament for that fact.

Hawkes describes a point of balance between humans and the land and then shows us passing through it and pushing on into the age of concrete and the covering of our fields and hillsides with industry, pollution and waste. It’s a depressing picture at the end of an uplifting meditation on the forming, folding and eroding of the rocks that make up our country and it’s Hawkes’ wonder at this process and the picture of her lying in her garden in London feeling the living earth stretching out around her that I want to hold on to after reading this book. The science may no longer be current and society may be very different now (although that just makes Hawkes look prophetic) but the beauty of the prose and the magic of her vision of a living land make this an absolute classic and a must for anyone who wants to see the country through fresh eyes.