Saturday 18 December 2021

Albums of the Year 2021

1. Floating Points/Pharoah Sanders/The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises

2. Can – Live In Stuttgart 1975

3. For Those I Love – For Those I Love

4. black midi – Cavalcade

5. Mogwai – As The Love Continues

6. Low – Hey What

7. Sarah Davachi – Antiphonals 

8. Arooj Aftab – Vulture Prince

9. Various Artists – Somewhere Between: Mutant Pop, Electronic Minimalism & Shadow Sounds of Japan 1980–1988

10. Joan As Police Woman, Tony Allen, Dave Okumu – The Solution is Restless

11. Viagra Boys – Welfare Jazz

12. Lou Reed – Live At Alice Tully Hall (January 27, 1973 - 2nd Show)

13. Jane Weaver – Flock 

14. John Murry – The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes

15. Cathal Coughlan – Song of Co Aklan

16. The Hold Steady – Open Door Policy 

17. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Butterfly 3000 

18. St. Vincent – Daddy’s Home 

19. Ryley Walker – Course In Fable

20. Valerie June – The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers 

Bubbling Under:

Iceage – Seek Shelter; Deafheaven – Infinite Granite; Black Country, New Road – For The First Time; My Morning Jacket – My Morning Jacket; Rhiannon Giddens (with Francesco Turrisi) – They’re Calling Me Home; Robert Plant & Alison Krauss – Raise The Roof; The Weather Station – Ignorance 

Reissues I’ve enjoyed, which are not merely remasterings of the old stuff, but rather feature lots of new material (which means they are mostly live, or the originals were never properly released in the first place), include: Bob Dylan – Springtime In New York: The Bootleg Series, Volume 16 (1980-1985); The Knocking Shop – Half Orphan; John Coltrane – A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle; and Alice Coltrane – Kirtan: Turiya Sings. 

Music Book of the Year: Harry Sword – Monolithic Undertow: In Search of Sonic Oblivion – A virtual Bible, from which I’ve discovered so much good stuff I’d never heard of previously. 

Saturday 13 November 2021

Autobibliography by Rob Doyle


By Rob Doyle

(Swift Press, £12.99 h/b)

Regular readers of these book pages will recall that throughout 2019 (aka ‘the before times’) Rob Doyle contributed a weekly column under the tag line ‘Old Favourites – A year of Rob Doyle’s best-loved books’, in which the acclaimed author of Here Are The Young Men, This is The Ritual and Threshold reread and wrote about some of the books which had meant most to him as formative influences. Well, here are all 52 entries collected under one roof, with added interpolated ‘memories and reflections on books, reading and writing, and the life through which they’ve flowed’ punctuating each entry, the latter born partly out of frustration with the original 340-word limit.

The result is a bracing smorgasbord of literary delights and oversharing, ranging from the oldest, first century B.C. Buddhist text Dhammapada (#33), to the most recently written, Emmanuel Carrère’s ‘post-fictional’ The Adversary (#35), by way of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (#11) and J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (#47).

Not all of the following additions relate directly to the preceding text, or only tangentially so: Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation (#18) is followed by a summary of the London addresses at which Doyle has resided. Regarding his reading habits, Doyle’s preference is for ‘non-fiction, including criticism, philosophy, aphorisms, history and books about what the internet is doing to me...autobiographical writing of all sorts…novels that don’t act like novels’, explaining that ‘If all that’s going on is yarn-spinning, with narrative proffered as an end in itself, I’ll sit there thinking, ‘What’s the point of this?’ Incidents, setting, character – these are well and good, but if there are no ideas charging through them I get restless.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, Borges (#49) is nominated as ‘his century’s greatest writer.’

If this all sounds a little too heavy, be aware that humour is not least among the components in Doyle’s armoury. There is a riff on Schopenhauer’s (#5) ‘A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short’; a couple of forays into self-criticism where he finds himself on ‘the wrong side of history’; a skewering of the culture of literary prizes; a hilarious ahistorical interview between RD and La Rochefoucauld (#45); and an extended analogy between the  Brazilian 1970 World Cup team and Latin American literature, in terms of ‘outrageous and ingenious embellishment.’

Because of his aesthetic judgements, and general worldview, Doyle is certainly the younger Irish male writer (younger than me, that is) with whom I feel most affinity. As he puts it in his after-the-fact rumination on Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp (#2), in answer to the question ‘What is it we’re reading for?’: ‘…what I’m primarily in it for is friendship’, a fair proportion of which consists of like-mindedness, or as they say nowadays, empathy.   

First published in The Irish Times, 6/11/2021

Friday 18 June 2021

The Night Always Comes by Willy Vlautin

The Night Always Comes

By Willy Vlautin

(Faber & Faber, £12.99stg original paperback)

Willy Vlautin’s protagonists have a harder time than most. Whether it’s the Flanagan brothers on the run in his 2006 debut The Motel Life, the vulnerable and abused Allison Johnson striking out in an attempt to make a new life for herself in 2008’s Northline, the always hungry 15-year-old orphan Charley Thompson’s struggle to escape his fate in 2010’s Lean On Pete, disabled Iraq war veteran Leroy Kervin and the overworked nurse and janitor at his group home, Pauline Hawkins and Freddie McCall, in 2014’s The Free, or lonely ranch hand-cum-aspirant boxer Horace Hopper in 2018’s Don’t Skip Out On Me, the world wasn’t exactly made for these marginalised characters.

  Now we have Lynette, a pastry chef/bartender/escort/part-time Community College accountancy student from Portland, Oregon, who is cast from a similarly self-sabotaging mould, although it can easily be argued that it is a mercilessly acquisitive societal system which keeps all of them in an endless cycle of hand-to-mouth alienation as much as it is the consequence of personal misfortune or individual psychology. 

  Subjectively, 30-year-old Lynette has been saddled with: Doreen, her tired, defeated mother; a long departed, building contractor, alcoholic father who she only ever sees when he comes to cadge free drinks from her at the bar; and Kenny, her developmentally challenged brother, two years her senior, for whom she is the chief caregiver. She also has a history of abuse and trauma at the hands of Doreen’s former boyfriend, Randy, which caused her to run away from home when she was sixteen – the dark memories of which manifested even in the midst of happiness with her beautiful ex-boyfriend Jack Burns. Now Doreen has reneged on a plan for them to get a mortgage to buy the house they rent (by buying an expensive car), which amid rising astronomical rents and lack of credit, Lynette sees as their last chance to stay in the city before their landlord sells. So she embarks on a nighttown odyssey, featuring various lowlifes, in order to call in some longstanding debts, which imbues the novel with the noirish urgency of a page-turning thriller.

  We may be suffering a housing crisis in this country, but the ideological disease of greed which sponsors it – where people no longer speak of ‘my house’, let alone ‘my home’, but instead ‘my property’, and the unattainability of home ownership and the rise in homelessness which follow the accumulation of ‘rental properties’ (Great Oxymorons of Our Time: Fair Rent), which are direct consequences of said property being promoted as a legitimate form of investment rather than as a roof over your head – is imported from that beacon of neo-liberal capitalism, the U.S.A.. Portland, like Dublin, due to incessant gentrification, is pushing its working class out to new estates in peripheral towns they’d never previously been to, or in all likelihood even heard of, resulting ultimately in the evisceration of a city. When Lynette says, “The whole city is starting to haunt me. All the new places, all the big new buildings, just remind me that I’m nothing, that I’m nobody”, we can relate, as we walk by yet another new hotel or student accommodation, juxtaposed with tent dwellers along the canals, in our own capital.

  Frank Kermode wrote of one of Vlautin’s avowed influences, Raymond Carver, ‘…(his) fiction is so spare in manner that it takes time before one realises how completely a whole culture and a whole moral condition is represented by even the most seemingly slight sketch.’ It has become redundant to say that Vlautin is more well-known as a singer/songwriter, formerly with that alt. country band Richmond Fontaine and now with exceptional country soul outfit The Delines, as his reputation as a novelist has now exceeded that achieved in his initial creative outlet. But he brings the same eye for detail and knack for the telling phrase already displayed in his song lyrics to his prose fiction, where one seemingly innocuous line can reveal so much. That said, Doreen’s extended monologues, particularly the concluding one with its wholesale rubbishing of the myth of the American Dream (“Isn’t that the American dream? Fuck over whoever is in your way and get what you want”), ranks among the most direct, even didactic, writing Vlautin has ever produced.  

  His staked-out territory remains the hardscrabble lives of America’s underclass (or squeezed middles), those lost or lonely or rootlessly marginalized blue-collar folks whom college-educated, upper middle-class Americans typically dismiss as ‘losers’ or ‘white trash’, as he continues to mine the terse, laconic, Hemingwayesque tradition in American letters, a seam whose subsequent practitioners include Carver, Denis Johnson and Nelson Algren.

  A late revelation from sympathetic co-worker Shirley about Doreen’s character reinforces our intuition that Lynette is better off cutting loose from her family and trying to make a life for herself, however painful it is for her to leave Kenny behind, even temporarily. It is not for nothing that Willy always signs his books ‘Good luck always’, in pointedly unironic contrast to that ominous admonition ‘May the odds be ever in your favor’. The odds are never in his characters’ favour (just as they never favour participants in The Hunger Games), but as she drives eastward out of town on the interstate at the conclusion of this harrowing tale, we are allowed to glimpse the hope that Lynette’s journey to the end of the night might just have led to a new dawn for her.

First published in The Irish Times, 12/06/2021.

Thursday 13 May 2021

Seamus Deane R.I.P.

At U.C.D. in the '80s, I would learn more from him in 50 minutes than from everyone else in a year. His brilliant extemporary lectures were not rambling, but the verbal equivalent of improvisatory jazz, variations on a stated theme, weaving many strands until they arrived back where they started from in the finale, a couple of minutes before the tolling of the bell. But they could have gone on indefinitely. His books, equally, were something you broke your teeth on - you felt like more of a grown up after reading Celtic Revivals or A Short History of Irish Literature. Also, his novel Reading In The Dark is great, perhaps all the more so considering it is his only one. I admired him.

My favourite Seamus Deane story. Seamus strides into a lecture theatre and begins a disquisition on Middlemarch by George Eliot. After about ten minutes a student in the front row holds up a foolscap page with the letters T.S. written on it, in reference to the noted Missourian modernist. Realising his mistake, but not missing a beat, the Prof continues, “Which brings me to the influence of the novels of George Eliot on the poetry of T.S. Eliot.’

I find that I wrote a short review of Reading In The Dark on its publication in 1996, for Image magazine. Seamus' quip when I met him subsequently, after a reading: "You're marked for life."

Reading In The Dark

By Seamus Deane

(Jonathan Cape)

Firstly, an interest must be declared.  I am a former student of Seamus Deane’s, from when he was Professor of Modern English and American Literature at University College, Dublin.  He has since moved on to the University of Notre Dame.  This novel has been in gestation for almost as long as I have been aware of its author, and an extract appeared in Granta magazine as far back as 1986.  Literary gossip has it that familial objections to certain skeletons in the cupboard revealed in this highly autobiographical work were responsible for the prolonged delay.  So was it worth the wait?  The answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

    This is a Bildungsroman, a rites of passage novel which, in common with other recent Irish books in the same genre, Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and Lia Mills’ Another Alice, follows the central character through their formative childhood and adolescent years.  But Reading In The Dark goes further, in being the first Irish novel since Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to give us a glimpse into the childhood of a genius.

    This is a surprisingly accessible read, considering it comes from someone whose critical work is often very prolix.  The sectarian strife of Derry in the ‘40s and ‘50s is depicted well, but there is also a mythic quality present, provided by the nearby Sun-fort of Grianan, home of the warrior Fianna.  

    If one accepts William James’ distinction between the tough-minded and the tender-minded, Deane is very definitely tough, as is demonstrated by the scene in which the hero confronts his father by uprooting and destroying the roses in the backgarden, which shows his strength of character.        

    At the heart of the book is the family secret which the son knows, the mother learns, but the father remains ignorant of, and the consequent havoc this reeks in their interpersonal relationships.  Deane may be telling stories out of school, but at least he has the necessary ‘ice in the heart’ which Graham Greene said was required by all great writers.

First published in Image.

Saturday 20 March 2021

Come Join Our Disease by Sam Byers

Come Join Our Disease

By Sam Byers

(Faber, £18.99 h/b)

Maya Devereaux has been homeless for over a year when the encampment where she has been living for a month is dawn raided and broken up. After being fingerprinted and photographed, she is interviewed by Seth and Ryan, a double act of vacuous corporate-speak, who ‘seemed to have attended a recent PowerPoint presentation on the projection of sincerity.’ This duo are ‘not the usual faces of officialdom’ – neither policemen nor council workers – but representatives of the Giving Department of Green (‘Tech solutions, communications, web content, search. Your basic highly disruptive global player.’). 

  Maya learns she has been selected for Green’s ‘opportunity programme’, the aim of which is ‘to humanize homelessness. Select a candidate, offer a comprehensive second chance, then make that second chance public and build a following. Payoff was an even split: a new life for the candidate, brand boost for the sponsors.’ Despite realising that for Seth and Ryan, like ‘the men who tried to slip into my tent at night…Empathy was just another tactic of manipulation’, she doubts her ability to survive on the streets for much longer, and so accepts their offer. They furnish her with an Instagram account called Maya’s Journey, and a job at Pict, where she ‘parses online content for suitability’ – which essentially means she does what lots of those employed by Google and Facebook in the Dublin Docklands do: make sure vile or potentially triggering images don’t find their way on to client websites. 

  At Pict there is also a Wellbeing Programme or, rather, ‘mandatory detoxes’: ‘You start work with them, and they start work on you.’ The whole experience of her first weekend retreat at BodyTemple (juice, yoga, meditation: the mindlessness of mindfulness, or, as an acquaintance of mine characterises it, ‘religion without the backbone’) makes Maya physically sick. While she continues with the classes back in London, she senses that they are just a thinly-veiled, extra-curricular forum for vaguely spiritual twenty-somethings, who work in PR, advertising or media, to network and swap information on clients.

  The daily Overground commute is the main evocation of the alienation of urban nullity, coupled with the redundant nature of most work (before you are actually made redundant), and her inability to sustain it was one of the chief reasons Maya fell into homelessness initially. As we are frequently told, 60 to 70% of the populations of Britain and the U.S. live three pay cheques away from a similar fate. For the precariat, it’s a stark choice between the pointless mundanity of exploitative work or winding up on the streets – unless you’ve got parents wealthy enough to subsidise you, and your endless education and training and your unpaid internships. It all adds up to a thoroughgoing critique of the tyranny of work, for those who prefer a quieter lifestyle, and a good argument for the introduction of universal basic income.

  However, though largely friendless (a bout of homelessness will do that to you) Maya chums up with an environmentally ill woman she meets in a doctor’s surgery, Zelma, who enjoys defacing magazine articles and advertising billboards with factual corrections of their fatuous claims. (For an excellent cinematic treatment of environmental or chemical disease, see Todd Haynes 1995 film, Safe, featuring a fledgling Julianne Moore.) The story becomes marginally less interesting, and much more repulsive, once Maya walks out of her office building for the last time, having posted a pic of her faeces on Maya’s Journey, fetches up in a disused warehouse on an industrial estate with Zemla, and the focus shifts from Maya’s uncomfortable negotiations with the corporate world to the dynamics and tensions between the two friends and the other women who, having been vetted, come to join them – additions which don’t always feel necessary. They engage in a dirty protest on a massive scale, defecating and urinating where and when the urge takes them, but their lack of any apparent agenda or ideological manifesto, other than ‘liberation through decay’, plus the support it garners in certain quarters, increasingly infuriates the wider community. It all gets rather messy.

  All good things come to an end, and when the set up is broken up, mainly through two concerned parents’ media campaign to rescue their daughter from what they perceive as a ‘cult’, Maya finds herself interacting with social workers and shrinks in a psychiatric facility, where she is described as having a history of ‘self-neglect’. 

  Flaws? Alright: first-person Maya analyses society’s ills and her employer’s machinations with the acuity of a socio-economics PhD, and her own feelings and motivations with the insight of an unusually competent psychotherapist, and she writes like a…well, like a writer – all without any back story of significant study and/or academic achievement, which is not by any means unlikely, but still uncommon. Her previous job, before Pict, was also as an unfulfilled office drone, so we don’t know what exactly she ever wanted to be, if anything at all. Some will baulk at the obviousness of the extended scatological metaphor – society is shit, we produce shit, let’s celebrate the shit – although it does have precedents, for example in what Middleton Murry referred to as Swift’s ‘excremental vision’. But that objection rather depends on how valid you think the analogy is in the first place, which in turn depends on how well you think society is currently functioning. 

  Already the author of two previous broadly satirical novels, Idiopathy (2013) and Perfidious Albion (2018), Byers’ overriding target is the hollowing out of public discourse in the digital, online, social media age (and, in this case, self-help culture) which, to take the example of Charlie Brooker, can be played for comedic (Nathan Barley) or nightmarish (Black Mirror) effect. This considerably darker new work under review falls into the latter category. 

  Splendidly cynical, politically astute, endlessly quotable and highly visual (there is considerable filmic potential – at least for an audience with a strong stomach): the guy can write, is one smart cookie, and this book is quite outstanding.

The Irish Times, 20/03/21

Friday 12 February 2021

Mavis Staples

An interview I did with Mavis Staples, before her November 2012 concert in the National Concert Hall.

Gospel blues legend Mavis Staples is playing the National Concert Hall on Saturday, November 3rd, as part of a European tour, and I was lucky enough to speak to her before a recent Washington DC date, in advance of the trek across the pond. Considering this is someone who, as the youngest member of The Staple Singers, along with family patriarch Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples and sisters Cleotha and Yvonne, was in the eye of the Civil Rights Movement maelstrom in the ’60s, with Freedom Songs such as ‘Why Am I Treated So Bad?’,  ‘Long Walk to D.C.’ and ‘When Will We Be Paid?’, I feel a bit like a gushing, weak-kneed teenage fanboy trying to do a passable impersonation of a mature adult in the presence of an idol. The ice-breaker is a question about if she’s been to Ireland before, and what her impressions were.

  “I was there in 1989, I think it was, with Prince. Ireland is so beautiful, so green, and everybody was so friendly. We went to Dublin, and Cork, and I kissed the Blarney Stone.”

   Informed of the local belief that said action can work in reverse, i.e. while it is famous for imparting the gift of the gab to the normally reticent, it can also render the previously loquacious a tad taciturn, she says:

  “Well, it didn’t work that way for me. My sister Yvonne (now one of her backing singers, and her roomie on tour) always says, ‘Mavis, you talk too much and you talk too loud.’ ” As we crack on, the truth of this admission becomes increasingly self-evident. The woman doesn’t need much prompting to launch into story after story, and is not shy about expressing her views.

  Born in 1939 in Chicago, where Pops had migrated from Winona, Mississippi, Mavis began singing in church with her family, aged eight, and attracted attention from the off.

  “We weren’t singing for money in those days, we would just be singing around the house all the time. We used to sing at Aunt Katie’s church. The first time I sang Ms. Vivian Carter from Vee-Jay Records happened to be in the congregation, and she said, ‘Pops, you gotta record these songs.’ But I was only eight, he wouldn’t let me start singing outside church until I was 11. Our first single was a song we sung that day in church, ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’.”  It was a best-seller, as was the subsequent ‘Uncloudy Day’.

  The group signed to Memphis-based Stax Records in 1968, joining their gospel harmonies and deep faith with more contemporary sounds. The first two albums, Soul Folk in Action and We'll Get Over, were produced by Steve Cropper, although Mavis is at pains to correct any false impression that they were backed by Booker T. & the MG's: “It was our own band that played on the records.” In 1970 producer Al Bell took them down the road to Muscle Shoals, and things got decidedly funkier. Starting with ‘Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom Boom)’, The Staples hit the charts 12 times between 1971 and 1975, including two No. 1 singles, ‘I'll Take You There’, and the Curtis Mayfield produced ‘Let's Do It Again.’ By this time, Mavis was carving out a solo career, but the group continued to have hits on the R&B chart into the ’80s, once with an unlikely cover of Talking Heads' ‘Slippery People.’

  Probed about The Staples’ Civil Rights Activism, Mavis recalls meeting Dr. Martin Luther King:

  “We were playing in Montgomery, and we just had to go and hear Dr. King preach at his church. He knew we were there. He acknowledged us at the door of the church, and spoke to us.’

  But how effective is socio-political dissent expressed in music? Can it change anything, or is it just a form of comfort? 

  “You know, I’ve been singing for 62 years, and I remember the first time we were able to drink from water fountains, I felt so proud. We were part of that.”

  Given that she sings songs like J.B. Lenoir’s ‘Down In Mississippi’, which makes direct reference to segregated drinking fountains, and ’99 and ½’ and ‘My Own Eyes’, all from 2007’s Ry Cooder-produced album We’ll Never Turn Back, it’s a bit of a stupid question on my part in the first place. She continues with an anecdote around that record:

 “When I went to meet (former Dr. King associate and current Democratic Representative for Georgia) John Lewis in Washington, because I’d asked him to write the liner notes for We’ll Never Turn Back, he told me: ‘You should be proud, because you helped to bring about all those changes.’ Still, when I look at the news today in Chicago, where I live, I see when black families move into white neighbourhoods, they’re still not accepted. They get ‘the n-word’ sprayed on their cars. So it’s not like that’s all in the past.”

  Incidentally, Lewis’ eloquent liner notes affirm that politically charged music can both contribute to social change, and be a source of comfort during struggle: ‘Back then, some people thought legalized segregation in America would never come to an end. But those of us in the Civil Rights Movement were inspired by a higher calling. And even if it cost us our very lives, "we weren't gone to let nobody turn us `round". We believed that the action of peace, the way of non-violence, and the power of love could overcome our oppression and remind our oppressors of their own humanity. Through the power of this faith our nation witnessed a non-violent revolution of values, a revolution of ideas that changed America forever. 

  ‘The music you are listening to right now was the soul of that revolution. It was this music that gave us hope when it seemed like all hope was gone. It was the heartbeat of this music and its steady, reassuring message that bound us together as one solid force. So when we were beaten, arrested and jailed; when we stood together on picket lines or marched through the streets of the Deep South; when we faced the guns drawn, the billy clubs and the bullwhips raised; when we were teargased, trampled by horses, or scattered by fire hoses, it was these songs that lifted us and pushed us to a higher place. 

 ‘It is my hope that when you hear Mavis Staples, when you hear the Freedom Singers, and the other artists on this CD, that you too will be inspired.’

  So, what about the forthcoming Presidential Election, and the Obama versus Romney debate?

  “You know, I watched that debate last night, and I was so proud of President Obama, the way he just kept his cool. Romney was getting in his face all the time, but he was so calm.”

  Will you be able to vote, if you are abroad on tour?

  “I’ve voted already. Yeah, in the big cities they let you vote early, so you can avoid all the queues.” Which makes the pre-election debates rather redundant, no? “I have no doubt that President Obama will be our next President. If he isn’t, I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”

  As mentioned, Mavis has had some stellar collaborators over the years, with Prince on 1989's Time Waits for No One, followed by 1993's The Voice, and with Cooder. The latest in the line is Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who produced and played on 2010’s You Are Not Alone, and contributed a couple of songs as well. 

  “Jeff came to me with this song (the title track), and said, ‘I hope this song will comfort you’, and I thought it was just about the most beautiful song I’d ever heard. In the studio, Jeff asked me, ‘Do you know what I’m listening to on my iPod?’, and it was the old Staple Singers’ songs. That’s why we started recording some of them. He told me he used to work in a record shop, and that’s where he first heard our music. It’s my band on the record, but I love Wilco. Maybe I’ll make an album with them someday.”

  Given all this recent activity, what songs are in the set?

  “It’s a mixture. We have some people who’ve been following us for a long time, so we put some old with the new.”

  I intimate, as subtly as possible, that life on the road at 73 might not be without its more onerous side.

  “Oh, friends say to me, ‘Mavis, now you’re getting up in years, why don’t you think about retiring?’ But the truth is, I enjoy singing so much. My work, it’s fun. I’m gonna sing as long as the Good Lord lets me.

  “You know, when I was a little girl, I hated rehearsals, I was always the last in. And Pops, one day he said to me, ‘Mavis, the Lord gave you a gift. And if you don’t use it, the Lord’s gonna take it away from you.’ That scared me so much. Ever since that day, I was always first into rehearsal.”

  Yes, she would have talked all night, and what’s more, I would have listened. Do yourself a big favour, and don’t miss this great lady on November 3rd.

Favourite Books #34

This endeavour began as a list of favourite novels, then morphed into a list of favourite books, and books includes volumes of poetry, and we haven’t had any poetry yet. So, moving on from football tomes, here’s the first of some verse. 

The Dream Songs by John Berryman is my Book of Common Prayer

There is a mistaken notion around that JB as a craftsman is a bit sloppy, i.e. not as formally rigorous as some of his contemporary big guns: Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop; and consequently his posthumous reputation has suffered somewhat in comparison with theirs. However, I contend that it is his innovation, inventing new forms, which sets him apart from them: he is more jazz, to their classicism. Besides, he’d already served his time with sonnets – a collection of earlier love poems was published after 77 Dream Songs, if written beforehand. Also, I think he is not now held in as high esteem as other major poets of his generation, in poetry circles, because he is perceived as a bit of a messer, i.e. he has a sense of humour. But, if he admits of more of the comedic, even the flippant, in my opinion he lets in more of the tragic, the pain, too. This wryness, I observe, has in contrast made him something of a reference point for a younger generation of indie rockers, who might share a similar sensibility: The Hold Steady, Okkervil River, Nick Cave and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! all mention him in songs.  

I also notice, having just read a recent Irish Times review of his Selected Letters, that the feminist revisionist backlash is in full swing against him (‘the male gaze’, etc). Look, as a male heterosexual, I am genetically programmed to find female anatomical attributes attractive. So was JB, and so is every other heterosexual male. You’re not going to propagandise that fact out of existence. Or, maybe you are, and sexuality will become as repressed and joyless as it was in this country under the Catholic Church dispensation, or as it is reduced to in Orwell’s 1984 – just a New Puritanism. To upbraid male heterosexual poets, playwrights and novelists (or any artists) for giving voice to such expressions of desire amounts to censorship; and to not write about such impulses would be a form of self-censorship at the most basic biological, hardwired level. 

Equally unnecessary is the fatuous gripe about 'the deeply troubling minstrel interlocutor' in The Dream Songs. The voice which addresses Henry as Mr. Bones is Thanatos, the voice of Death, which reprimands the lustful longing of Eros in many Dream Songs with a bucket of cold water guilt, and an intimation of mortality. 

Martina Evans quotes the first two stanzas of Dreamsong #4 in her review, as evidence of Berryman’s culpability:

Filling her compact & delicious body

with chicken páprika, she glanced at me


Fainting with interest, I hungered back

and only the fact of her husband & four other people

kept me from springing on her

or falling at her little feet and crying

'You are the hottest one for years of night

Henry's dazed eyes

have enjoyed, Brilliance.' I advanced upon

(despairing) my spumoni.—Sir Bones: is stuffed,

de world, wif feeding girls. 

It would have been helpful, and fairer, if she had included (or had the space to include) the third stanza also:

—Black hair, complexion Latin, jewelled eyes

downcast … The slob beside her feasts … What wonders is

she sitting on, over there?

The restaurant buzzes. She might as well be on Mars.

Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry.

—Mr. Bones: there is.

Meanwhile, here’s one of my favourites Dream Song #14 (although the sequence of 385 poems can be opened at any page at random with pleasure and profit): 

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.

After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,

we ourselves flash and yearn,

and moreover my mother told me as a boy

(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored

means you have no

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no

inner resources, because I am heavy bored.

Peoples bore me,

literature bores me, especially great literature,

Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes

as bad as achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.

And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag

and somehow a dog

has taken itself & its tail considerably away

into mountains or sea or sky, leaving

behind: me, wag.‘dream-song-14’/


Wednesday 27 January 2021

Favourite Books #33

Okay, let’s get down to what really matters: football. David Conn is a Guardian sports journalist who qualified as a lawyer, after reading English and Politics at York University, who now specialises in financial investigations of contemporary soccer. He is also, mutatis mutandis, a lifelong Manchester City fan. Richer Than God mixes personal memoir with a thorough analysis of the changing fortunes of the club he has supported since boyhood. But Richer Than God is not just for City fans, but for anyone interested in the evolution of the modern game, as it engages with the ethical incongruities and cognitive dissonance involved in following a football club through thick and thin, and reckons with what it means to retain such affection in the face of the grubby late capitalist world we all endure. 

He has written three other books: The Football Business: Fair Game in the '90s? (1998) and The Beautiful Game?: Searching for the Soul of Football (2005) focus on the influence of money on modern day English football; while The Fall of the House of FIFA (2017) charts the corruption endemic at football's world governing body. He is also currently filing some fine pieces on the UK government’s handling of the Covid 19 pandemic. 

Incidentally, another great football read from the same year of publication (2012) is The Outsider by Jonathan Wilson, a study of the game’s odd man out, the goalkeeper (he can handle the ball!). The title provides a neat call-back to the previous entry in this series, which featured the famed Algerian shot-stopper, Albert Camus. (Nabokov, it may interest you to know, also briefly donned the gloves, playing as custodian while at Cambridge.) Whenever anyone sneeringly calls into question the validity of a grown man retaining a passion for watching twenty-two other grown men running around a field chasing a piece of inflated leather, I merely refer them to the quotation from Camus which forms the slogan which adorns one of my favourite t-shirts from my collection. See below. 

Tuesday 19 January 2021

Favourite Books #32

At first sight, rereading Camus’s The Plague during the time of Covid, as I have done recently, may seem appropriate. It isn’t. So similar to contemporary events are its descriptions of how individuals, and the wider society, behave in Oran during the time of crisis, that many passages could have been culled from today’s newspapers and news bulletins. Which tends to make one despair for human nature, and embrace the cliché that it doesn’t change much. So, if you want to avoid something clear-eyed and sobering, then don’t look here. 

It’s difficult to choose with Camus, as The Outsider, The Myth of Sisyphus, or the short but perfectly distilled The Fall, would all be eligible candidates. But, you know, given the times we live in, I thought it was appropriate. 

Sunday 10 January 2021

Favourite Books #31

I am a great admirer of the work of Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro. Although his more straightforward narratives have a dreamlike quality, and his more experimental work remains rooted in everyday yet universal concerns, there is certainly a noticeable distinction between his first three novels, and his fourth. Having secured his reputation, and presumably enough financial security not to have to worry too much about money, by winning the Booker Prize for The Remains of the Day, what he sprung on the public next came entirely out of left field, and sharply divided critical opinion. Esteemed literary critic James Wood – whose work I also have a high regard for - opined that The Unconsoled ‘invented its own category of badness’. As for me, I think it invented its own category of goodness. With all the atmosphere of an elongated series of anxiety dreams, it is my favourite novel of his, not least because he had the balls and the integrity to do it in the first place, but also because it is a literary work as startling, inventive and singular as Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, or Kafka’s The Trial , a cross between which it resembles. Look out for concert pianist protagonist Ryder’s obsession with World Cup trivia, and his son Boris’ fascination with Subbuteo table soccer. 

Ishiguro also seems like a good bloke as well. See profile below.

Also find a link to my review of his Never Let Me Go Below too.