Saturday, October 19, 2013
I never met Norman Geras, but he's been part of my daily life for years. His blog was always entertaining, intelligent, and thought-provoking. We had a shared interest in cricket, and I sometimes had exchanges with him via Twitter or e-mail about England's chances against his beloved Australia, or who was the best spin-bowler of all time. He kindly invited me to feature as a guest on his blog, thus giving Topsyturvydom its biggest ever spike in readership. Others better qualified than I am have written about his standing in the field of political analysis. What struck me about all his work was how he managed to write about complex subjects in scrupulously clear prose. I wish more academics would understand that, if you can't communicate your brilliant insights clearly, then there's no point having them. Norm was a brilliant communicator, and I will miss him.
Wednesday, October 09, 2013
To the Burgess, to be present at the 2013 Burgess lecture, given by the Malaysian novelist Tash Aw, author of The Harmony Silk Factory, A Map of the Invisible World, and, most recently, the Booker-nominated Five Star Billionaire. Aw was an inspired choice to deliver the lecture, as it turns out he was a great fan of Burgess's Malayan Trilogy as a boy. His talk was a fascinating account of his response to Burgess's representation of the Malaya of the fifties, a time he (born in 1971) cannot remember, but which his family lived through. As a boy, he was thrilled to discover an English novelist had set his story in the unfashionable part of Malaysia where he lived. He illustrated his talk with some family photos from the fifties.
The lecture was an astute mixture of personal reminiscence, close reading, and well-informed revaluation of Burgess's reputation. The event was introduced by John Mcleod, Professor of Postcolonial Studies at Leeds, and, as he was quick to point out, a Mancunian himself. His introduction and some of his later questions, teased out the tensions in Burgess's stance: on the one hand, unlike, say, Somerset Maugham, Burgess gave equal prominence in his novels to the indigenous population, making them major actors rather than local colour. On the other, he invented place names that were obscenities in Malay, and thus offensive in a rather puerile way. I suggested afterwards to Tash Aw that perhaps Burgess was evoking the spirit of Dylan Thomas, whose Under Milk Wood is set in the fictional Welsh village of Llaregyb, or "bugger-all" backwards.
The lecture was very well-received by the small but select audience, featuring some of the usual suspects, and also some new faces to me.
Tash Aw aligned himself with Burgess, as a writer dealing with the marginal and the marginalised, outsiders even when apparently "inside," and his latest novels, both featuring Malaysians displaced in other countries, confirms that notion. It's pleasing to see the connection between Burgess and such a talented contemporary novelist, and it's to be hoped that Tash Aw's career will go from strength to strength. The Harmony Silk Factory is now on my to be re-read list, as he confessed to some resonances between it and Earthly Powers, which I certainly didn't notice when I read it.
Tuesday, October 01, 2013
What a privilege to be a few feet away from Judy Collins as she performed in St Ann's Church in Manchester yesterday. There were no more than 130 people arranged on the pews to see this legendary (I use the word advisedly) artist perform. Blimey, I've given lectures to more people. Maybe more people would have been there if they could have got through the roadblocks around the Conservative party conference...
Anyway, a lovely intimate setting for Judy to perform. The thing is - she is still a magnificent singer. That crystalline voice that startled the folk world over half a century ago is as brilliant as ever, and it was truly spell-binding when she went for, and held, those top notes.
She looks as beautiful as ever, those enormous eyes still holding the attention beneath what is now an impressively lustrous mane of white hair. She strummed a twelve-string guitar for the most part, with her musical director Russell Walden adding depth from the piano. She also took over on piano for a few tunes, showing that she has lost none of the technique she learned as a budding concert pianist. She was charming, and funny, getting the name of the church wrong, and launching into anecdotes about her early days in New York, often including snatches of song acapella along the way. What a range she has, and she gave it full rein here. She sang Rodgers and Hart, she sang Lennon and McCartney; she sang Stephen Sondheim, she sang Stephen Stills; she sang Brel and Baez; she sang ancient ballads and poignant new songs about her parents; and she finished, as she had to, with "Amazing Grace", to which we were all invited to sing along.
A wonderful, uplifting evening, which occasionally brought a tear to the eye. Judy Collins is 74...
Sunday, August 18, 2013
Among the artists whose work was on display were Edward Bawden, John Nash, L.S. Lowry, David Gentleman and Barnett Freedman. Some of the work is undoubtedly aimed at cheering up the Lyons punters in an age of austerity, and as such occasionally veers towards the sentimental. But Lowry's familiar townscape, Sam Rabin's boxers slugging it out, and George Hooper's oddly Germanic hotel scene are certainly not that.
The exhibition arranges the prints in three sections, representing the three phases of the commission, and provides some useful background detail on the technique of lithography. There's a good selection of the images here.
After the exhibition, it's a must to visit the café, where the waitresses have donned "nippy" uniforms, and serve against a giant photo of a vintage Corner House. Can't imagine Starbucks ever doing something like this.
(Image: John Piper, Elizabethan Dance)
Thursday, August 08, 2013
Nottingham Trip, so I was puzzled by this substitution, especially as some of the action takes place in Nottingham, where Firethorn pleases the locals by giving them his Robin Hood. Extensive research (well, I googled it) suggests there was no Trip to Jerusalem pub in York, and actually, Marston's pub now has a new name since it was taken over by Sir Clarence Marmion.
Bracewell is his usual resourceful self, saving the company from disaster, and bringing a plot that involves recusant Catholics, gay spies and a mad woman to a satisfactory conclusion. Still enjoying the series, and looking forward to where a capricious fate will take him and the company next.
Wednesday, August 07, 2013
Thanks to Salt for sending me this collection, the latest eclectic volume in their series. It's very much the mixture as before, with well-established authors rubbing shoulders with newer names, with stories garnered from a variety of sources, from the august (Granta, The Edinburgh Review) to the obscure (Willesden Herald New Short Stories 6) and with some having previously been published online only. The selection, by editor Nicholas Royle, delights by its variety and its juxtaposition of the nightmarish and the mundane. Royle's entertaining introduction starts with a lively rant at the concept of flash fiction, and then goes on to examine the state of the short story in Britain today, which, it seems, is in rude health.
The collection offers stories by leading authors such as Jackie Kay, Adam Lively, Robert Shearman and Lesley Glaister. More intriguingly, the volume features some writers new to me, whose profile will benefit from the exposure gained by being alongside those familiar names. Regi Claire's 'The Tasting' is an unsettling, somewhat surreal tale in which a woman is led into a dangerous game that threatens her being and her sanity; in Nikesh Shukla's 'Canute' a man escapes briefly from his life as a software engineer to lose control as he hunts for sea-bass; Charles Lambert's 'Curtains' explores the devastatingly destructive psychological effects of abortion on a couple; Laura Del-Rivo's 'J Krissmann in the Park' is a strange vignette in which an oddly obsessive old man filters the everyday world through his fractured consciousness. There is no overall theme, other than excellence, to the collection, but time and again, one senses a kind of Verfremdungseffekt - that sense by which the familiar is made strange.
This is an ideal bedside book, offering immediate gratification for the reader in these often very short (but not flash) stories, great for dipping into. It's well-produced, too, and includes author biographies, often highlighting the quirkier aspects of the writers' lives: Laura Del-Rivo, whose first novel was filmed by Michael Winner fifty years ago, "lives in Notting Hill and runs a stall on Portobello market." She sounds like a character from Penelope Fitzgerald.
This volume, like the previous ones in the series, is highly recommended, and Salt are to be congratulated for promoting the continuing development of the short story in this country. And thanks too to Nicholas Royle, whose voracious reading allowed him to identify these gems.
Sunday, July 28, 2013
The second volume of the Bracewell mysteries is very much the mixture as before. The familiar figures of the Earl of Westfield's players, presided over by the calm and commanding presence of Nick Bracewell, encounter a series of baffling events that threaten their livelihood. Our hero's wit, persistence and fortitude allow him to engineer the obligatory happy ending, though not without some blood-letting on the mean streets of Elizabethan London.
The merry devils of the title are characters in a play of the same name that seems to be jinxed, possibly, according to its co-author, because it uses actual spells from the Malleus Maleficarum. Nick suspects a more worldly source for the trouble, and is eventually proved right, though not before an unexplained death and his own imprisonment disturb his plans. The subplot features a mysterious prisoner in Bedlam, and some dark work at a country estate. As in the first volume, the climax features a performance that is sensationally and bloodily interrupted. The play, a comedy as the name implies, seems very like Jonson's The Devil is an Ass.
The novel uses essentially the same elements as the first in the series, and is none the worse for that. The sights, sounds, and especially the smells of Bankside and Southwark in the late sixteenth century are vividly evoked. Again, some of the explication is a little laboured, and one wishes Marston veered more towards showing than telling, but it is a minor quibble, and for readers unfamiliar with Elizabethan stagecraft, I suppose it is essential. And, since Marston has been a successful full-time writer of historical fiction for thirty years and more, who am I to criticise?
Marston won't ever win the Booker, but these novels are more entertaining than many that will. And that should be enough for most. Even then, there are some profound moments, none more so when Dr Mordrake ( a John Dee-like figure) is in conversation with the anguished poet Ralph Willoughby: "The duty of a divine is to justify the ways of God to man. Christianity gives answers. The duty of a poet is to ask questions. That can lead to danger. Religion is there to reassure. Art disturbs."