iamhyperlexic

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Review: Where The Road Runs Out, by Gaia Holmes, Part 2: The 7 Reasons

It was always my intention with my earlier review of Gaia Holmes’s third poetry collection that I would need to revisit it, as the appreciation of the poetry developed in my mind.

When I posted the link to the earlier review on Facebook, I said I could think of at least 7 reasons to buy the collection.  Michael Stewart has since asked what the 7 reasons are.  Some of those in the following list have already been touched on in the previous review.

  1. It represents a much better treatment of poetry based on place than one is used to seeing.  Furthermore, the place in question is part of Scotland, which I regard as notorious, along with Yorkshire and the Lake District, for prompting mediocre poetry of place.  Holmes has not allowed the location to put her technique off balance.  Too many stanzas in poems of place might as well be struck out and replaced by the words, ‘It was amazing.  You should have been there.’  This criticism does not apply to any of the poems in WTRRO.  Holmes at all times applies the same craft to conveying the location as to any other subject. 
  2. The cover, by Hondartza Fraga, is a masterpiece, which suits the content of the book, perfectly.
  3. The treatment of the subject of dying, which is dealt with honestly and sensitively, but without sentimentality.  Holmes gives the feelings related to dying a personal identity, which is vitally important.  Feelings about death are useless if they are impersonal.  If I want to gain insight into how it feels to have a parent who is dying, then I want to read the impressions of another, real person: I want to know how you feel, to give me a bearing on how I might feel.  Anything which attempts abstraction is going to sound like a Hallmark sympathy card and be, at best, cloying, and at worst, oppressive.
  4. Even if you take away the body of poems of place, and poems about dying, there is a substantial range of other subjects.  The breadth and balance of subject matter is one of the collection’s outstanding features.  I am not going to try to convey this in a review: if you want to appreciate it, buy the book.
  5. It is yet another Holmesian masterclass in how to build the treatment of complex ideas out of the details of everyday life.  I am not merely repeating item 3: Holmes does this throughout. 
  6. The sheer skill and ingenuity in the use of language.  When a poet reaches the stage of publishing a third collection, and when the blurbs on the back are written by Sara Maitland and Helen Mort, it is easy to overlook how the poet does the simple things.  In spite of the fact that Holmes generally uses a wider range of vocabulary than I do, there are pieces in which she produces something quite remarkable out of next to nothing.  An example of this is ‘Leaves’. 
  7. Accessibility.  There are about 60 poems in the collection.  As I read them, they affect me in a variety of ways.  Not one of them has made me say, ‘What the hell was that about?’
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Review: The Damned United by Red Ladder, Cluntergate Community Centre, Horbury, 17 November 2018

http://www.redladder.co.uk/whatson/the-damned-united/

This was the first time my wife and I had been to Cluntergate Community Centre (CCC) since it was extensively renovated. The last time we were there, we were performing, together. We did ‘Welcome To The Mad’, our joint performance about how we met, with prose, poetry, and photographs. That was part of Wakefield Litfest 2017.

The Damned United is a play, based on the novel of the same name, by David Peace. This has already been adapted for cinema (2009). David Peace comes from Ossett, which is next to Horbury. I spoke to him at Huddersfield Literature Festival in 2011. This production is by Red Ladder, the same company that produced Sex And Docks And Rock ‘n’ Roll, which I have also reviewed.

This was a homegrown, intimate production: a play about my football team; staged at my local community centre; by a theatre company run by people I am acquainted with; based on a novel by an internationally acclaimed, local writer. The big room at CCC has a stage, but Red Ladder didn’t use it. The actors were at the same level as the audience, only a few feet away from the front row of seating. During the scenes when Brian Clough is berating players in the dressing room, members of the audience are picked on as if they are players. It just so happened that, when the player in question was Billy Bremner, Clough addressed him as ‘William’, and he was pointing at me.

The staging was minimal, but ingenious and engaging, at the same time. Apart from a 1970s chair, two occasional tables, a phone with a curly cord, a bottle of Bushmills, and a glass, the staging included several tall, narrow storage units made of galvanised wire mesh. One of these held a hand-axe. The dominant feature was a giant screen, at the back, which seemed to be made of the corrugated plastic that is used to keep rain off driveways. The images projected onto this were synchronised with the action and the dialogue. Most of them were in monochrome, and sinister. Members of the Leeds United team were identified by having their names, in white, on their jerseys. The fact that they names were always visible indicated that they were facing away when Clough was talking or shouting.

The screen is also used to convey text. Some of the scenes are preceded by which day of Clough’s 44-day tenure at Leeds is about to be examined. This is one of those plays where, like a Greek tragedy, the audience already knows how it is going to end, but that only increases the tension and drama.
This version of the adaptation has five characters, but only three actors. I cannot find their names: this production has a different cast from the one at Leeds Playhouse. One actor plays Brian Clough, another plays Peter Taylor, and the third plays Sam Longson (chairman of Derby County), Manny Cussins (chairman of Leeds United), and a coach, called Sidney. The projection screen serves another purpose in keeping the actors out of sight while they are picking up or discarding props, or changing costumes. The degree to which the same actor, with minimal time for changing, managed to project three different personas, was remarkable.

For those who are not familiar with the story, this is not a play about football. Football is the background, but not the story. The story is about hubris, obsession, envy, love, and betrayal. It is also a powerful portrayal of the 1970s, when football players ate steak and chips, and the managers of top clubs had sometimes grown up in households that didn’t have a refrigerator.

Apart from the imaginative staging and consistently convincing acting, another excellent feature of this production is its length: it is a single act, lasting 65 minutes. It delivers a more concentrated version of the story than either the book or the film.

The tour continues until 31 December 2018. Highly recommended.

Review: Where The Road Runs Out, by Gaia Holmes

ISBN 978 191097 445 2

GBP 9.99

90 pages

commapress.co.uk

 

Where The Road Runs Out is the third poetry collection by Gaia Holmes.

In one respect, this review is easy to write, because it is such an outstandingly good collection.  There is Gaia Holmes’s accustomed craft, and her ability to choose a completely unexpected word or phrase, while reinforcing the meaning of a poem, and not bewildering the reader for the sake of sounding poetic.  There is a secure foundation of universal themes, and a range of overlapping subjects which is very well balanced.  There are lines, and stanzas, and whole poems which will give individual readers back something of themselves and their own experiences, or make them realise that they have just read an articulation of something that has been bothering them for years.

On the other hand, this review is very difficult to write, because Gaia Holmes is one of my oldest writing-related friends, and some of the pieces in this collection are ones of which I have personal, prior knowledge. I have written a companion poem to at least one of them.  Even though I have not yet managed to attend any of the launch events, I have heard Gaia reading some of them, live.  But those personal associations only lend additional strength to my appreciation of this collection, because the collection is so good in the first place.

The themes the book opens with are the setting of the Orkney Islands, particularly Shapinsay, and the fact that the writer’s father is dying.  The subject of mortality is one that Gaia Holmes handles with a combination of honesty and acute observation.  There is an unfailing courage which is completely un-self-conscious, and is the kind of courage which is manifested by facing up to one’s fears.  There are details: lots and lots of important details.  Gaia Holmes is a more figurative poet than I am, and so some of these details refer to things that only exist in the imagination, but they are no less important or powerful for that.

I won’t tell you what the other themes are.  The collection continues beyond its starting point, which is poetic in itself.  The narrative voice throughout is feminine; acutely observant; somewhat overwhelmed and put upon, but fed by her own, quiet determination.  If you love contemporary poetry, then buy it.  If you don’t understand or think you do not like contemporary poetry, then buy it, because it is a superb set of examples of how contemporary poetry can demonstrate artistry and craft.

Review: 20 Stories High, by Michael Yates

ISBN 978-0-9934811-8-5

Armley Press

GBP 8.99

This collection contains some experimental pieces, including one which has no human characters, and others in which some of the characters are human, but also dead.  There is a story set aboard a stranded spaceship, in which two of the characters are inscrutable robots with seemingly diametrically opposed moral purposes.

There are some references to what the Open University calls ‘sensitive material’ (substance abuse, violence, sex – particularly sexual impropriety) and a healthy amount of swearing.

I enjoyed this collection in two, separate ways.

The experimental stories intrigue me not so much in how the weirdness of the story is set up, but more by how it is resolved.  These resolutions, without contradicting any of the set-up, often emphasise the more basic elements of character, motive, and desire.

This leads me to the second way I enjoyed them, which was to dwell on Michael Yates’s own biography and career as a provincial journalist in the days before word processors and the smoking ban.  Whether set in a sub-editor’s office or a spaceship, Michael Yates’s most convincing characters are male, middle-aged, and have a chip on their shoulder about something they may or may not admit to.  The chap who might try to bore you to tears in a golf club or railway station bar is somebody we never want to meet, but I do like to read about him in Michael Yates’s stories.  Michael, like any good writer, can make a character who sounds as if he has had a boring life come clean about the one part of it that makes a good story.  An extraordinary person, telling interesting stories, will soon get boring.  An ordinary person, telling just one story, as if his life depends upon it, can be fascinating.

I will not divulge which among the collection is my undoubted favourite.  I will just say that it uses a borrowed title, a first person narrator who is clearly out of his mind, and it has no section breaks.

Review: The Bleeding Obvious Christmas Party, The Red Shed, 16 December 2017

First up was Helen Rhodes. (You can follow her on Twitter: @ThinkingChimp )  She is based in Wakefield, but this was the first time I had heard her.  She began with an anti-fairy tale.  I do like a good anti-fairy tale (search on this blog for Fairy tale, if you don’t believe me).  It was well-crafted, with rhyme and metre effectively used, but not according to a rigid scheme.  She did a poem about self-doubt, and two political ones.  You may have heard me saying before that I do not usually like political poetry.  Politics, and self-doubt, are very frequent subjects in contemporary spoken word, and they are also frequently mishandled.  Poems about self-doubt have a tendency to implode in a way that makes the audience think, “Yes, you aren’t very good at this, are you?”  Poems about politics tend to produce a lot of sterile shouting about things that the audience already gets, or they inadvertently convince the listeners that the person speaking doesn’t know what they are talking about.  All Helen Rhodes’s pieces worked.  The self-doubt poem had the audience nodding with recognition and approval.  The political poems used poetic technique to make them stand up, rather than a mere, selfish appeal to the audience’s sense of justice.  Helen definitely left the audience wanting more, and I will be looking out for her next performance.

Helen, wife of The Bleeding Obvious’s Jess Rowbottom, began selling raffle tickets in the interval.  This was for the benefit of Mermaids UK, a charity which supports transgender children, and their families.  I bought two strips.

Next up was the inimitable (and I use that word advisedly) Lee McHale, from Castleford.  Those of you who are familiar with the ‘Mr Gum’ series of children’s books by Andy Stanton may be interested to know that Lee McHale looks uncannily like Mr Gum, himself.  It’s a combination of the beard, the cap, and the wild-eyed expression.  I have never yet seen Lee stick a picture of a scary shark on his beard to make himself look more frightening, but it would not surprise me if he did.

Lee started with ‘Ted, the Teabag’.  He then picked up a ukulele, which appeared to have been made out of a cigar box, with the bit of cord that Compo Simonite used to keep his trousers up with, instead of a strap.  The cord, and its unpredictable behaviour, were an unscripted contribution to the act.  He started a musical version of  ‘Jeremy Kyle Is A Wanker’.  I am familiar with the unaccompanied version, but not this one.  Lee can certainly play the ukulele, but he gave up on the instrument two verses from the end, because the unreliable trouser-cord was giving him gip.  He returned to reciting, unaccompanied, without any diminution of the effect or the audience enjoyment.

His last piece was announced as, ‘a hobby poem’, again set to the ukulele.  It was called, ‘I Like To Kill’.  The audience laughed out loud, though some people looked a bit uncertain at the injunction to “J O I N  I N !”

Whereas Lee did words with musical accompaniment, Louis James, who I mentioned in my last review, did guitar playing accompanied by singing.  Louis has a highly accomplished, complex finger-picking style, which includes a lot of moving his hands onto and off the strings, so that he can do things like strike the sound box, or play harmonics.  (If you don’t know what harmonics are, ask somebody.)

His first three pieces were his own compositions.  While his instrumental technique is breath-takingly sophisticated, I don’t really get his songs.  He is too young, too thin, and not sweaty enough for my taste.

Almost as if he were reading my mind, Louis finished with a cover version of ‘Ace of Spades’.  It was innovative, and it worked.

A late addition to the programme was Jasmine, from The Black Horse Poets.  She appeared under her pseudonym, which I didn’t catch.  She did a piece called ‘Spiderwoman’, which delighted the audience, including the bit where she stuck two fingers up.

As Geneviève Walsh was getting ready to go on, Helen Rhodes and Lee McHale had to go out into the cold, to travel to The Snooty Fox, for another benefit gig, a Christmas food drive.  “I’ll try not to take it personally,” exclaimed Geneviève, as they were leaving.

It was another effortlessly accomplished set from Geneviève.  Most of the pieces I had heard before, but I enjoyed them all the more for that.  The intro to ‘Contradiction’ (the piece about the beautiful woman in the library with the recalcitrant child, called Bradley) said that she was performing it in recognition of the casting of the new Doctor Who as a woman with a Yorkshire accent, and, so I was told, a male assistant, called Bradley.

The main thing I took from this performance of Geneviève’s was from the intro to ‘Dance Of A Thousand Losers’, and it was, “Life is about finding your kind of weirdo”.

The headline act was, of course, Jess Rowbottom in her guise as The Bleeding Obvious.

For those who have never yet enjoyed the blessing of visiting The Red Shed in Wakefield, it is, literally, a shed.  The – for want of a better word – “auditorium” is a room that has to be extended by opening a folding partition.  It tends to attract people who are looking for the bar and open the wrong door; it has 1970s-style, fireproof ceiling tiles, a self-assembly wardrobe in one corner, a granny carpet, and a laminate dancefloor and piles of stacked chairs, which give it the air of a low budget wedding reception.  Jess made it feel like Madison Square Garden.   Just about every seat was taken.

I am not going to go through the whole set list of 14 songs.  The performance began with some keyboard playing which reminded me of how Animal from The Muppets plays the drums.

One of my favourite pieces of unscripted banter was, “I didn’t used to be like this: I used to identify as a software engineer.”

I did not realise, the last time I heard Jess perform, that her instruments all have names.  I didn’t catch all of them, but the melodica is called Sven (which I always thought was the name of a Swedish hit man).  The gold keyboard with the shoulder strap is called Judith.  Don’t ask me why.

Louis James returned to the front, with his guitar, for a song called (I think) ‘Gender Babylon’.  They engaged in what I believe is known in some circles as, “getting down”.  It was very good.

The 13th song was ‘Keith Chegwin For A Day’, which Jess said she had written in 1991.  When Jess announced this as the last one, there were howls of protest, and so she finished with ‘One Foot In Front Of The Other’.

The raffle was drawn, and I won the naff Christmas compilation LP (yes, a vinyl LP) that had recently been contributed after a trip to a charity shop.

As I was on my way home, there were two middle-aged lesbians in the taxi office. One of them asked me about the record. “I love vinyl, me. What’s that? Christmas songs? I wish I had that. I’d love that.” I gave her the record.

When you have been unemployed as long as I have, the opportunity to attend an event devoted to self-realisation, with well-crafted music and words, in the company of people who are mostly familiar, does you a power of good.  The things I took from this event are that we are who we are, and anyone who doesn’t like it can fuck off, and that the exercise of talent, especially in an atmosphere of human warmth and solidarity, can keep austerity and prejudice at bay.

Merry Christmas, everybody.

Review: Killing the Piano, by Joe Williams

ISBN 978-0-9957642-1-7

Half Moon Books

26 pages

http://www.halfmoonbooks.co.uk/index.php/jo-williams/

I heard Joe Williams performing his poetry, and I met him, before I read this.  I think it is his debut collection.

This review is particularly difficult to write, for two reasons.  The first is that Joe Williams does not come from Leeds, but lives in Leeds, whereas I do come from Leeds, but I now live in Wakefield.  Westgate Studios, in Wakefield, is one of the places I have heard Joe Williams perform.  Hyde Park Book Club, in Leeds, is another.  Matt Abbott recently observed that he himself chose to write about Blyth in Northumberland, rather than Wakefield, because he was too close to his place of origin to see it.  Matt has written some poems about Wakefield, but that is not the point.  Joe Williams writes not just about Leeds: he writes about my Leeds.  And that makes the review more difficult.

Many poets try to write about, or evoke, a sense of place.  When you make a reader feel conflicted or regretful about the way you have evoked that place, that means you are doing something right: at least you have engagement.  The way Joe Williams has evoked Leeds will not just appeal to people from Leeds: it will not just appeal to people who come from the industrial, university cities in the North of England: it will appeal to anyone who feels attached to a certain place – all the more, if that feeling of attachment is conflicted.

The second reason is that the subject matter of Joe Williams’s work is similar to my own.  I once had a rather unsatisfactory conversation with Kirsten Luckins in which she asked me to describe my poetry in one word.  I said, “urban”.  She said, “Does that mean you are a rapper?”  I said “No.”  She said, “If you describe your work as urban, that means you are a rapper.  Why do you describe your work as urban if you are not a rapper?”  I said, “I describe it as urban because it is more likely to be appreciated by people who live in cities.”  She said, “Name one poet that you would describe as urban, who is not a rapper.”  I said, “Brian Patten.”  She reluctantly admitted that I had a point.

Joe Williams’s work is urban, in the Brian Patten sense.

The three fundamental questions that I ask myself about the work of a new poet I encounter are: 1. Who is speaking?  2. What are they saying?  3. Why might it be important?  I already had the answers to these questions, from Joe Williams’s performances, before I began to read, ‘Killing the Piano’.  My reading of ‘Killing the Piano’ shows that Joe Williams has not just found his poetic voice, but has cultivated it to the point where he can use it to portray more than one persona.  In this collection, he depicts a wider range of voices than I did in ‘Throwing Mother In The Skip’.  The furthest I get from my own ego in my debut collection is in ‘Eleven Colours of Loneliness’.  Joe Williams creates situations which are completely hypothetical, but very compelling, in ways that I haven’t, yet.

I hesitate to use the word, “surreal”, because it has become a neologism for “a bit unexpected”.  But some of Joe Williams’s work is surreal in the sense that it deliberately blurs the boundary between fantasy and reality, in such a way that sane people might appear mad, and mad people might appear sane.

My first reading of part of this collection was while I was in the telephone queue for a call centre.  Yes, I had the phone in one hand, and the book in the other.  It is a book which understands things like being on hold on the phone, but without clichés.  The hands we are in, in this collection, may be, at times, timid, or experimental, but they are safe.  Where Joe Williams deals with situations you have read about, before, he does so in a way that is new.

He is just about the only Western writer I know who writes haikus which don’t make me feel nauseous.  This is because of his mastery of tone: there are times when it is impossible to tell if he is being serious, or taking the piss.  But he knew what he was doing, when he wrote the piece.

There is exactly one poem in the collection that I didn’t like, but I am not going to tell you what it is.  You will have to read the collection, and work it out, for yourself.

Review: Catch A Falling Star at Cluntergate Centre, Horbury 13/10/2017

I arrived late, at about 5 past 7, when a young man with a guitar was singing and playing.  I took him to be Louis James.  He began a cover version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’.  There was a fairly long and tinkly guitar intro, which led me to believe that this would be one from the  Jeff Buckley school.  And so it came to pass.  I am absolutely allergic to bad cover versions of ‘Hallelujah’, by Leonard Cohen.  They make me come out in terrible running sores, all over my bozzolikons.  This was a good cover version.  When he sang ‘All I ever learnt from love / was how to shoot at someone who outdrew yer’ the hair stood up on the back of my neck.  It sounded like an impersonation of Jeff Buckley, but it was a very good impersonation.  Louis James (if I have got your name right): why don’t you try a freer version?

A splendid build-up, in the Cluntergate Centre.  I get to walk to this place, from where I live.  I may be an outsider (I come from bloody Leeds) but this is my centre.

The next performer was Halima Mayat.  I know Halima from, among other things, the Black Horse Poets.  Halima is part of the spoken word scene in Wakefield.

She opened with a poem that she said had been written during a workshop with someone called ‘Gen’.  I have sent my spies out throughout the north of England, and the best they can come up with for a suspect called ‘Gen’, is Geneviève Walsh, of, among other things, Spoken Weird in Halifax.  It was a poem about bi-polar disorder, called, ‘Tin of Hot Dogs’.  It was a very good example of how to use an everyday object as a metaphor for mental states.

Halima’s next set of pieces were based on fairy tales: Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood.  These were modernist treatments of classic stories.

‘The Dark of The House’ was a chilling poem.  ‘Betrayal’ was an angry poem.

As a listener, I still find Halima’s poetic persona tantalising, but, from this performance, I learnt a great deal about her.  It was an excellent performance.  Halima held the room (there were 40+ people there – that is a serious room).  Her microphone technique was very good.  She got tumultuous applause, as well she deserved.

Stefan Grieve and Ralph Dartford appeared under the name ‘Specky & Specky’.

Stefan and Ralph performed 8 pieces.  Ralph did a piece about domestic violence, and relationship breakdown, which began, “There’s indentations in this chipboard wall…”  Stefan rhymed “Fill ya” with “thrill ya”, and “dyspraxic” with “sarcastic”.

Stefan also said, “Don’t let your pain be a stranger to those who can help,” which is a summary of the whole evening.

Ruby Macintosh wears spectacles and an A-line dress.  She evokes the 1950s.  She can really sing.  She plays an amplified acoustic guitar.  She has excellent technique in both hands.  That is not something that I say, often.

‘Raspberry, Strawberry, Gooseberry Jam’ was a tour de force.  Never mind the vocal and instrumental technique, in perfect unison.  The subject matter of the song is about life choices.  It is a kind of poetry that I would normally associate with Brian Patten, Roger McGough, or Stevie Smith.

Ruby Macintosh is as good as Eddi Reader.  Possibly, better, because she doesn’t have a backing band.

Nathan Birkinshaw did a routine that was partly about repetition.  He was telling a joke about a man who walks into a bar.  It involved a certain amount of lying on his back on a table, and shouting.  I am not keen on shouting.  There was a barmaid.

His funniest line, in my opinion, was, with reference to this chap in joke land, and the barmaid, “It’s later in the night, and they’re in bed.”

[There is an old 15 amp plug socket on the ceiling of the main hall in the Cluntergate Centre.  Don’t ask me how I know that.]

The last act on the bill was Jess Rowbottom, as The Bleeding Obvious.  She was, among other things, promoting her show, ‘Rainbow Heart’.  But this evening was all about the moment.

As a fan of Augustus Pablo, I am appalled at how Jess used the melodica.  To hell with that.  I am not appalled: I am encouraged.  There are new uses to which the melodica can be put, and The Bleeding Obvious is finding them.  More of that, please.

I am going to list some of the pieces that Jess performed, if for no other reason than I want her to know that I was listening:

  1. Life is Never As Straight as it Seems
  2. Not Dead, Yet
  3. Family Gathering
  4. Outside v Inside
  5. Wallflower
  6. Me, Myself, and I
  7. One Foot In Front Of The Other

It was #6 that did it, for me.  There was a sample from the old-fashioned speaking clock.  It went a bit Pet Shop Boys.  It went a bit Momus.  Jess briefly lost her place with the melodica, and had to count herself back in.  That was lovely.

If I have to crawl there on my hands and knees, I will put a blue plaque on the wall of Cluntergate Community Centre.  “13/10/2017 Jessica Rowbottom, rock star, performed here.”

It was partly about the keyboard playing.  It was partly about the vocals.  It was certainly about the hair.  But, mostly, it was about Jess.  With the playing, singing, and persona, she told us she was going to take us to a different place, and we acquiesced, and she did.

 

Review: The Ted Hughes Poetry Festival, evening, 24 June 2017, Mexborough Business Centre

Janine Booth had already started her set when we arrived.  Neither Valerie nor I had ever heard of her, before.  As we were entering the auditorium and faffing about with our tickets and trying to be as quiet as possible, I could tell that she was from London, and that she was reciting a poem that was political.  Political poetry usually makes me cringe, especially if it is rhymed, which this seemed to be.  I listened, and got ready to cringe.  But I didn’t cringe.  It was #1 delivered with controlled anger, not shouted or gone through like a times table.  #2 The poet sounded as if she knew what she was talking about.  #3 She had something to say that was not something I had heard said just that way, before.  It was engaging and lively and not the sort of thing you hear very often.

It turned out that Janine Booth might have been carved out of a slab of Valerie’s imagination.  She is from London.  She is vehemently anti-Tory.  (The poem we had walked in on was about hating Tories.)  She works on the London Underground.  She went on to do a poem about angry, middle-aged women, among other things.

Her final piece was a pastiche of ‘Hallelujah’, by Leonard Cohen, and, in my opinion, was a little step too far.  It didn’t have quite the same measure of craft and authority as the rest of the set.  Apart from that, Janine’s set was excellent, and I wish I had not missed the beginning.  Valerie bought two of her books.

Next was Tim Wells, another Londoner.  Valerie and I heard him for the first time at 7 Arts Centre in Leeds (near where I grew up) when he was supporting Kate Fox, earlier this year.  I had a chat with him, afterwards, about our shared passion for ska and reggae.  We had heard some of the same sound systems, in Leeds, though not at the same time.

Tim Wells has one of the most distinctive delivery styles I have ever heard.  His short pieces, which deliberately end before the audience expect, put me in mind of a Cockney version of Ivor Cutler.  I find his longer pieces fascinating.  I just want to hear what he is going to say next.  Tim Wells is one of the purest performance poets I have ever heard, in the sense that, for any given line or stanza, it is often not obvious what devices he is using: it usually isn’t rhyme, or metre, or repetition.  He just has a poetic voice –  an original, contemporary, poetic voice.  His speech is certainly Cockney, but it is also easy to understand to my middle class, West Yorkshire ear.

By the time Tim Wells finished his set, the atmosphere in the auditorium was already well on the way to healing the North-South divide.

Linton Kwesi Johnson looked much as I had imagined him.  I have seen images of him, before, on television, and in magazines such as ‘Black Music’ in the 1980s.  That was decades ago, of course, but his appearance was still in keeping with my expectations.  He wore an umber fedora, which he kept on before, during, and after his performance.  He wore a red tie,  a tailored jacket and trousers.  He was thin.  Despite the greyness of his beard, he doesn’t look old.  As many people used to say of my late father, he looks distinguished rather than old.

Linton Kwesi Johnson broke two of the basic rules of performance poetry.  He delivered long preambles, some of them as long as the pieces they preceded.  He also elided straight from the end of one poem into the preamble for the following poem, with hardly a second’s pause.  (This is what I call, “Doing a Gaia Holmes”.)  But there are mitigating circumstances in both cases.  The preambles were to do with the struggle for justice, both generally and with reference to specific campaigns, of black people in Britain, and he was talking mostly from first hand experience.  Also, the elision had the benefit of silencing all applause until the end, which was helpful to one’s appreciation and enjoyment of the performance.  I strongly suspect that he did this deliberately.

I first started reading the Liverpool Poets in about 1983.  I have since heard the late Adrian Henri, and Roger McGough, live.  I first heard the recordings, and read the pamphlets, of Linton Kwesi Johnson in 1982 or 1983.  In all the time I have been reading and listening to poetry, this is the longest span of time between first encountering a poet’s work, and then hearing them, live.  About 35 years.

Most of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s set was from his early work: the work with which I am the most familiar.  Some of these pieces I have not listened to for 20 years, but I know parts of some of them by heart.  ‘Sonny’s Letter’, for example.  The hairs stood up on the back of my neck, more so than in just about any other live performance I have ever heard.  My vision became blurred.  I don’t know why: I wasn’t in tears, but I couldn’t see, properly.  All I could see was a thin, well-dressed West Indian man on the centre of a stage in a hall in Mexborough.  That man was the one and only Linton Kwesi Johnson.

I thank Steve Ely and the other organisers of this festival for bringing such an eminent performer to Mexborough.  It was an unforgettable experience.

Janine Booth and Tim Wells can both consider their reputations enhanced, because their sets supported and complemented LKJ’s set.  The common threads were: a sense of pride in one’s own identity, and the struggle for justice.

On the way out, Valerie shook LKJ’s hand.  He was having a cigarette.  As we left, he sounded as if he was hacking up a lung.

Review: The Price of Happiness by Kate Fox, s2 ep1, BBC Radio 4, 11:30 19 June 2017

You can listen to the programme on BBC iPlayer Radio for the next 29 days from today, or download it, if allowed in your territory:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08twgfv

Kate Fox is just about the best and most celebrated poet with whom I have a nodding acquaintance.  I have heard her perform live at Unity Works in Wakefield, and at 7 Arts in Leeds, and I had the pleasure of having a bit of a chat with her on both occasions.  She has national coverage (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about her on the BBC) and is one of the most effective campaigners in England for the belief that contemporary poetry can be relevant – sometimes, even, vital – to everyday life, and is worth paying to hear.

Like Matt Abbott, Ian McMillan, Kate Tempest, and some others, Kate Fox mixes her spoken word career with other art forms: in her case, stand-up comedy.  Today’s programme also had some musical accompaniment.  There were elements of audience participation which, to my great relief, worked very well, and were not at all an embarrassing mess.

The subject of the programme, entitled, ‘The Perfect Body’, is the amount of money that people – mainly women, but men, as well – spend on their appearance, and whether it is worth the expense and effort.  As regards hardly caring at all about what other people think of my appearance, I enjoy some advantages that Kate Fox doesn’t.  I’m male, and, although I did spend a long time in childhood being regularly taunted about my appearance and voice (I went through an artificial puberty at the age of 7) my circumstances were such that it never got to me.  All it did was to give me a rational fear of the mob mentality.

Despite the fact that this is not my kind of subject, I found the programme engaging and well worth listening to.  The most engaging parts were when she was talking about her own, idiosyncratic experiences, rather than talking generally.  But even the statistics about how much people spend on what items and procedures I found interesting. (There aren’t many statistics that I don’t find interesting, as long as they are derived from reputable sources).  She even mentioned the subject of cosmetic surgery (which, if I ever see it mentioned in a TV programme, causes me to change channels immediately).  Kate, if you are reading this, I know someone who may be getting in touch with you about your experiences.  The parts about being <adjective meaning ‘above average size’> and having large breasts provoked the most masculine reaction in me.  I find <adjective meaning ‘above average size’> women much more attractive than thin women.  I like women with big bosoms.  I know lots of men who are the same, but I unreservedly admit that this aesthetic does not fit the mainstream in this era (though it would have done in many previous eras – probably every era at least until Elizabethan times).  Even I get it that breasts beyond a certain size can not only be a problem socially, and psychologically, but can cause other problems, not the least of which is chronic backache.

A female comedian doing a live performance about women’s relationships with their own bodies, from a point of view which is socially mainstream (or working class, if you will allow) but personally quirky and idiosyncratic, invites comparison with Victoria Wood.  The fact that Kate Fox’s accent and outlook are also unmistakably Northern makes the comparison even more irresistible.  I am delighted to say that Kate Fox’s use of self-deprecation and trying to make a virtue out of one’s own ignorance or alienation is much less than Victoria Wood’s.  Even where Kate Fox uses these devices, the way she uses them is, in my opinion, more subtle and better-crafted than Victoria Wood’s.  This may or may not have something to do with the fact that Victoria Wood was from the North West, and Kate Fox is from the North East.  She now lives in North Yorkshire, but her accent is North Eastern.

This is the first time I have listened to one of Kate Fox’s BBC Radio programmes.  I will certainly be looking up the others on iPlayer Radio, including a short extract from The Verb on BBC Radio 3 about swearing.  Based on one hearing of this one episode of The Price of Happiness, the Kate Fox persona I perceived was different from the one I have heard live.   Live Kate is freer, quicker, expects the audience to keep up with her in more of a lively fashion, expects the audience to be more imaginative and unshockable.  BBC Kate sounds very slightly inhibited (duh – almost as if she were appearing on the BBC).  One of the reasons I will be listening to more of her programmes is to try to detect moments where BBC Kate tips over into Live Kate.

On the subject of performance poets on the radio, there is a rumour that I may be re-appearing on Phoenix FM, broadcast from Halifax, in July.

 

Review: Sherlock: The Abominable Bride

Mark Gatiss gave us an episode of Sherlock in the original, Victorian setting, but only a fool would not have expected him to weave it into the end of the last episode of the modern adaptation.

After a selection of scenes from previous episodes, the story is introduced by John Watson, in his army uniform, being showered by debris from an exploding shell in the Second Afghan War. This is straight off page 1 of the original version of Conan Doyle’s ‘A Study In Scarlet’. (If you have never read this, then do so, as soon as possible.)

Everybody wants to know the resolution to the apparent suicide of Moriarty at the end of the last mini-series. The programme started by giving us a story which apparently had nothing to do with Moriarty, and then it did have something to do with Moriarty, but not in the way we were expecting, and then we did get some development of the story in the previous episode, but not a resolution, and then we got another cliff-hanger.

It is a testament to Gatiss’s skill as a story-teller and constructor of plot that he manages to dazzle the audience in this way, and maintain the tension, without ever degenerating into “one damned thing after another” (as happens in ‘24’, for example).
All the characters were rigorously played by the same actors as their modern counterpart, right down to the chap who says, “He is always like that” (Dr Stamford).

Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey), the pathologist who never appears in the Conan Doyle original, looks great in a moustache. I wish I could say the same for John Watson. It was obvious how a masculine disguise would have been necessary for a woman to be a pathologist in Victorian times, but even I did not supsect that this would turn out to be a key part of the plot. The same goes for John Watson’s petulant exchange with the housemaid over his breakfast.

When Gatiss is not inventing new characters, he is setting up relationships and axes of tension between existing ones, chiefly between Mary Morstan (spy) and Mycroft (spymaster), between Holmes & Watson (subjects) and Mary Morstan (investigator). Not only is Watson his own man (as all modern Watsons have to be), but Molly Hooper, Mary Morstan, and Mrs Hudson are their own women. The subtle and unintentional homo-eroticism of the original stories has been replaced by deliberate and blatant homo-eroticism between Sherlock and Moriarty. Under the layers of physical and psychological evidence and plot, under the raising of social and philosophical questions, against the settings and characters and the subtext-laden dialogue, we always get back to the same issue: the never-ending struggle of Sherlock and Moriarty to alleviate their own boredom. Sherlock and Mycroft are both fellow-sufferers from hyperlexia. Moriarty’s condidtion may resemble hyperlexia, but I suspect him of being merely a vulgar adrenaline-addict, rather than being addicted to the assimilation and analysis of coherent data.

The wait for this was too long. “So that Martin Freeman could portray Bilbo Baggins” is, in my opinion, one of the worst imaginable reasons for the delay, but it can’t be helped. I cannot wait for the next one. In ‘The Abominable Bride’, Mark Gatiss has succeeded in writing an ultra-promiscuous adaptation of a set of Victorian stories, and producing something which is better-thought-out, more plausible, and more gripping than the original. He has even managed to create a story which ends with “and then it was all a dream” without it seeming to be a cliche. Good writers avoid cliches. Great writers use cliches in new ways.

Finally, I come to the awards section.

Coolest Man On The Planet: Benedict Cumberbatch, for the way he delivers the line, ‘The name is Sherlock Holmes, and the address is 221B, Baker Street.’
Most Unlikely Person: Jane (Stephanie Hyam – ?) the housemaid, who just wins it ahead of Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) in men’s clothes.
Best Editorial Decision: making Mycroft fat again, but making him the subject of a tontine with Sherlock, and addicted to plum pudding.
Best Line Other Than Sherlock’s: ‘He didn’t want a drink: he needed one’, or ‘You’re Sherlock Holmes – wear the damned hat.’ (both John Watson). The latter is narrowly the winner.
Best sideburns: Lestrade (Rupert Graves).

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