Monday 30 April 2012

More Larkin in New York

It is unlikely Philip Larkin, who died in 1985 at age 63, would have attended the tribute to him held by The Poetry Society of America Tuesday night. Larkin shunned fame, even declining to become Britain's poet laureate.

Yet hundreds headed to Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, the evening's co-sponsor, to mark Farrar, Straus and Giroux's recent publication of Larkin's "The Complete Poems."
The poet has staying power. The Times of London in 2008 named Larkin the greatest post-war British writer, with George Orwell trailing in second place.

As the crowd settled into their seats, the Queens CollegeLouis Armstrong Ensemble enveloped the Great Hall with sounds of jazz. This was fitting, since the poet Larkin was once a jazz writer for the Daily Telegraph. The ensemble played intermittently throughout the evening, as though punctuating lines of poetry with musical exclamation points.

The singer Paul Simon read a short poem by Larkin about a hedgehog killed by a mower. The poem ends with a plea for people to remain careful of one another. The poem concludes: "Of each other, we should be kind/While there is still time."

Andrew Sullivan, the blogger and former New Republic editor, offered an impassioned rendition of "The Whitsun Weddings." Larkin's own voice haunted the room with a recording of "Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album."

The president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Jonathan Galassi, novelist Zadie Smith, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik and poet Billy Collins also read.

 Meanwhile, on Gramercy Park, British bad boy of contemporary literature, Martin Amis, was toasted.

Vanity Fair chieftain,  Graydon Carter, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Jeffrey Eugenides and Janis Bellow, a lecturer at Tufts University and widow of Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow, were on hand to pay tribute to Mr. Amis and his incisive prose. The National Arts Club program had a 62-person dinner committee, of which this journalist was a member.

Examples of Mr. Amis's humor and acerbic wit are plentiful on the printed page. For example, in "The War on Cliché: Essays and Reviews, 1971–2000" (Talk Miramax Books), the author declares, "Norman Mailer's new book bears all the signs, all the watermarks, all the heraldry—of a writer faced with an alimony bill of $500,000 a year."

Awarded a gold medal that evening, Mr. Amis spoke of first coming to America in 1958 at age 9 and his more recent move here.

"The smiling blue skies of New York have made us welcome," he said, though conceding, "It's very difficult to be interesting about the weather."

On the sidewalk after the program ended, Mr. Amis offered his recollections of Larkin, who lived in the city of Hull. Mr. Amis recalled telling Larkin that since the latter now had a car, he should get an apartment in London and begin meeting some nice women. Instead, Mr. Amis said, Larkin responded with complaints about car repair bills and other expenditures.

Saturday 28 April 2012

Larkin in New York

Larkin Out Loud

Posted by Giles Harvey
April 26, 2012

As with so much else—England, foreign countries, children, grownup people, a great deal of literature, and a great deal of life—Philip Larkin didn’t care for poetry readings. Listening to poetry read aloud, complained Larkin, one never knows how far away the ending is; all sense of stanzaic form disappears; and this is to say nothing of all the tiny misunderstandings that chip away at our ability to concentrate, the “theirs” being taken for “there’s.” I don’t much like poetry readings either, and I would add to Larkin’s list of grievances the fact that most people aren’t very good at reading poetry aloud.

The greatest offense is usually simply that of reading a poem as though it were a poem, in a boomingly uniform incantation that obscures nuance and texture. Fortunately, there were few such performances on display on Tuesday night at the Cooper Union’s Great Hall, where the Poetry Society of America had organized a tribute to Philip Larkin, England’s greatest post-Second World War poet, to coincide with the publication of “Complete Poems,” a clear improvement on the earlier editions, which includes each of Larkin’s collections in their original order, along with a section of uncollected and previously unpublished work, and a staggeringly thorough commentary. Like the clientele of a hyper-exclusive café, the evening’s readers—James Fenton, Saskia Hamilton, Mary Karr, Nick Laird, Katha Pollitt, Paul Simon, and Zadie Smith among them—sat in threes around small tables up on stage and took turns approaching the lectern to read a Larkin poem of choice.

Deborah Garrison got some laughs for her brilliantly plain and unobtrusive reading of “Poetry of Departures” (“So to hear it said / He walked out on the whole crowd / Leaves me flushed and stirred, / Like Then she undid her dress / Or Take that you bastard”), while Andrew Sullivan’s rendition of “The Whitsun Weddings” was bracingly alive to the poem’s atmosphere of gathering mystery and power.

To mix things up—and Larkin was all for variety (he said he always put a lot of thought into the order of poems in a collection: “I treat them like a music-hall bill: you know, contrast, difference in length, the comic, the Irish tenor, bring on the girls”)—the floor was intermittently ceded to the Queens College Louis Armstrong Ensemble, who played several of Larkin’s favorite Sidney Bechet numbers. (The New Yorkers Adam Gopnik did a fine job with Larkin’s poem to Bechet, where he exclaims, “On me your voice falls as they say love should, / Like an enormous Yes.”)

Many of Larkin’s best poems follow the same structure. First, the poet is arrested by something seemingly mundane—an invitation to a party, the sight of a young couple passing in the street—and begins to turn it over in his mind. As the poem gathers steam, these meditations take on a metaphysical cast and are expressed in an increasingly lavish diction. Then, almost bashfully, Larkin seems to overhear himself and to reject conventional poetic speech and sentiment in favor of a more grounded, clear-eyed vision of the world, one that his experience has verified.

“Sad Steps” is probably my favorite Larkin poem, and it is also one of his most characteristic. The poem’s modulations—grogginess (“Groping back to bed after a piss”), quickened thought (“There’s something laughable about this”), a somewhat confected awe (“Lozenge of love!”), self-correction (“No”), and final clarity—were expertly captured by J. D. McClatchy, who spoke the lines as though they were only at that moment occurring to him, and thereby restored to them a welcome freshness and spontaneity:

Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness.
Four o’clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There’s something laughable about this,
The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)
High and preposterous and separate—
Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,
One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare 
Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can’t come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.

 Zadie Smith’s voice, which is at once musical and strangely affectless, was well suited to “The Old Fools,” with its brutal catalogue of uncomprehending questions. Many of the people in the audience looked to be the wrong side of eighty, and there was an almost unbearable tension in the hall as Smith asked, matter-of-factly,

What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember
Who called this morning?

What saves the poem—and saved the reading—from seeming merely hectoring is the last line, when Larkin, having taken in the grotesque spectacle of old age, as it were, turns the camera on himself (and by extension, all of us who are not yet old). Smith spoke the last five words unimprovably, with just the right tone of grim anticipation:
Can they never tell
What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?
Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout
The whole hideous inverted childhood?
Well, We shall find out.

The audience chuckled and gasped simultaneously. There was no question about it: Larkin had come through.

Thursday 26 April 2012

Last night's setlist

At The Habit, York: -

(with Ron)
Let It Be Me
The Price Of Love
He'll Have To Go
When You Walk In The Room
Bye Bye Love

Yes, there's a picture of Bob on the stairs! Another night of disparate (and sometimes desperate) music, much appreciated by the assembled multitudes - well some punters that is.

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Philip Larkin at Cooper's Union

Sadly, we're a bit late with this...
Tonight: Philip Larkin via Paul Simon, Zadie Smith, and Others

Cary Abrams
East Village
24 April 2012

Paul Simon has called Philip Larkin one of his favorite poets; tonight at Cooper Union’s Great Hall, the musician will join an illustrious group honoring the “archetypical English poet of the second half of the 20th century” (per Sunday’s review of the newly published “The Complete Poems”).

Joining Mr. Simon will be readers from both sides of the Atlantic, including Zadie Smith, Billy Collins, Adam Gopnik, Mary Karr, and Jonathan Galassi.

Larkin, who died in 1985, is often referred to as a poet’s poet, publishing a scant four volumes of poetry during his life.

He was also a jazz aficionado, serving as music critic for The London Daily Telegraph.

Tonight, The Queens College Jazz Band will perform some of Larkin’s favorite jazz compositions.

You come, too!

by Alice Quinn

Two months ago, we received a galley of the new edition of Philip Larkin's Complete Poems, edited by Archie Burnett and just published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. I realized that Larkin had never been celebrated in New York, and on the galvanizing energy of "attention must be paid," I phoned some of the people whom I know are (or guessed would be) passionate readers of his poetry.

Almost overnight, this event fell into place—swiftly and perfectly. It will take place in the Great Hall at Cooper Union on Tuesday, April 24th at 7PM. Bring your friends. It's free, and it will be AMAZING.

The English voices are James Fenton, Nick Laird, Zadie Smith, and Andrew Sullivan. The editor of the new edition, Archie Burnett, is Scottish, and he will be on hand. The Irish poet Eamon Grennan will take part.

Paul Simon is coming, too. And Billy Collins, who told me that Larkin is Paul Simon's favorite poet.

Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker and Katha Pollitt of The Nation are coming. Mary Karr, Meena Alexander, Vijay Seshadri, Dennis Nurkse, Deborah Garrison, and J.D. McClatchy will be with us.

Jonathan Galassi, publisher of the American edition of the Larkin Book and author of the new collection of poems, Left-Handed, will be there. Rowan Ricardo Phillips, a new FSG poet, is coming, and Saskia Hamilton, poet and editor of The Letters of Robert Lowell.

A sextet ensemble from The Queens College Jazz Band will play some of the music Larkin championed and loved most.

Please—as Frost wrote—you come, too! It will be so memorable. Each participant will read a single poem, and we will close with Larkin reading his beautiful "Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album."

We hope to see you there, and come a bit early to get a good seat!

Neil leak

Last night's setlists

At the Waggon & Horses, York: -

Set 1:
Love Song
I'm Just A Loser

Set 2:
I Don't Want To Talk About It

An eclectic night of music as always. And some excellent beers.

Sunday 22 April 2012

Bert Weedon RIP

Farewell Bert Weedon, the man who helped make stars of John Lennon and Paul McCartney   
The guitarist's Play In A Day manual guided many an aspiring rock star to greatness.

21 Apr 2012

I never used Bert Weedon’s Play In A Day book, which perhaps explains why it took me 15 years to get to grips with the guitar, and why my playing remains so rudimentary. The list of rock stars who have declared that the guide written by Weedon – who died yesterday – gave them the first grasp of their instrument is a testament to its practical genius. It is one of the sacred tomes of the birth of British rock.

The teenage John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison all started off with Play In A Day, so Weedon could claim to be a key figure in the genesis of the Beatles. Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Steve Hillage and Brian May were all acolytes. “I wouldn’t have felt the urge to press on without the tips and encouragement Bert’s book gives you,” Eric Clapton has admitted. “I’ve never met a player of any consequence that doesn’t say the same thing.”

It is a statement, however, that rather betrays his age. To later generations who could watch guitar heroes on video and freeze-frame chord changes, Weedon’s once revolutionary approach to the instrument is already ancient history.

Yet Weedon is a legend to that first rock and roll generation because he provided something vital to youngsters caught up in a storm of new music: immediacy. The title of his book expresses the urgency that kids felt at being confronted with the intense, primal energy of the new wave of guitar music from across the Atlantic, blowing away the horn-driven virtuosity of jazz and swing, stamping all over the solemn orchestral propriety of 1950s pop.

Faced with an electric explosion at the heart of youth culture, what teen gallant could contemplate studying for years to master an instrument? These kids wanted to form bands, play gigs, pick up girls, make a noise. Bert promised to teach you how to Play In A Day, and that’s about all the time they felt they had.

On their first session with Bert’s manual, McCartney and Harrison learnt the chords D and A together. After that, there was no stopping them.

What Weedon’s book really did was cut through the preciousness that almost inevitably grows up around any musical or artistic discipline. A guitar has only six strings, and with just three chords you can play almost every blues and rock and roll song ever written. Whether they will sound any good is another matter, but at least they’ll sound like something.

“It’s such a tactile instrument, it moulds into your personality,” says Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. “Even in people who have been playing for a short time, you can recognise their character in their playing. Watch kids play, you’ll see their attitude coming through that guitar.”

Despite its title, however, Weedon’s book is not quite the crash course it promises, which is, perhaps, why it remains a favourite of the kind of guitarists willing to put in hours a day practising their scales, with Mark Knopfler and Sting among its latterday advocates. “Bert’s approach was very much of his day,” according to Neville Marten, editor of Guitar Techniques magazine. “He presumed intelligence on the part of his reader and assumed that he or she was prepared to take a journey that might take some time to complete. It was based on reading notation and on learning 'band’ style guitar, which might involve playing rhythm or taking single-line solos. It was about learning the art of being a musician.

“Today’s learner is drawn to the internet. On YouTube, they can see players showing them how to break down this song, that riff or solo. They very rarely think about notation and there seems little intent on making people better 'musicians’.”

In fact, that change was already well under way by the late Sixties, with the popularity of rock music partly to blame. For one thing, you could see more and more guitarists playing right in front of you. My father learnt to play by following a TV series, frequently blaming his inability to master a piece on the fact that he had missed episodes two and five.

In a straw poll of musical contemporaries, I couldn’t find a single guitarist who had even perused Weedon’s book – despite its two million sales – although everyone knew it by reputation. “It was already a bit arcane by the Seventies,” says session guitarist Reid Savage. “We were learning by copying Hendrix and Page, nobody wanted to read an old book by a guy called Bert promising to teach you how to play like Hank Marvin.”

Mind you, Jimi Hendrix famously commented that “I’ve been imitated so well I’ve heard people copy my mistakes.” Maybe it’s time to dust Weedon’s manual down.

Friday 20 April 2012

Levon Helm RIP

Levon Helm
Levon Helm, who has died aged 71, was the percussionist with the 1960s group The Band, and drummed for Bob Dylan during the folk singer’s troubled transition to electrification; with his distinctive raw white Southern soul style, Helm also brought one of the great blue-collar voices of America to bear on many classic rock numbers.

20 Apr 2012

Regarded as one of rock’s greatest drumming polymaths — he also played mandolin, rhythm guitar and bass — Helm’s warm, dry “thuddy tom-tom” beat, underpinned The Band’s new, rootsy sound. With their stories of medicine shows and moonshine, many of his songs recalled his Deep South upbringing, notably The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Up on Cripple Creek.

When Dylan decided to change his sound in the mid-1960s to “go electric”, it was to Helm and his group — then playing as Levon and The Hawks — that he turned for help. But during their first tour together, Dylan’s die-hard folk fans resisted. Slow-clapping, walkouts and constant booing so distressed Helm, surveying a scene that resembled a war-zone from “the best seat in the house” on his drummer’s stool, that this sheer level of nightly abuse caused him temporarily to drop out out in late 1965.

Meanwhile Dylan and the rest of the band came off the road, took up residence in Woodstock, New York, rented a large, pink house where they wrote and rehearsed new material, and renamed themselves The Band, the name by which they were known to the locals.

Helm rejoined them when Capitol Records awarded The Band a recording contract. Their first album, Music from Big Pink (1968) , made them household names and in the autumn of 1969 they appeared on television on the Ed Sullivan Show. Six further albums followed, including their masterpiece, called simply The Band, and one live recording in 1972, Rock of Ages.

Although The Band became closely identified with Dylan, they only backed him on one official studio album, Planet Waves (1974). The group’s blend of musical forms from gospel, mountain music, blues, R’n’B, rockabilly to contemporary rock came to define what is now called Americana.

Later in his career, Helm pursued a solo career, and three of his albums won Grammy award. Of the first, Dirt Farmer, one British critic remarked on “the thrill of his farm boy’s holler”, pointing out that Helm’s currency “isn’t perfection but raw, honest virility”.

Mark Lavon Helm was born on May 26 1940 in Elaine, Arkansas, the son of a cotton farmer and amateur musician. The family enjoyed listening to travelling music shows, and took the boy to see his first live show, Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, when he was six. “This really tattooed my brain,” he recalled in his autobiography, This Wheel’s On Fire (1993). “I’ve never forgotten it.”

 Levon’s father bought him his first guitar at the age of nine. When not in school or at work on the farm, the boy could be found at KFFA’s broadcasting studio in Helena, Arkansas, watching Sonny Boy Williamson broadcast his radio show, King Biscuit Time.

With his younger sister Linda playing a string bass, Levon played harmonica and guitar in a double act called “Lavon and Linda”, which won many talent contests on the local club circuit.

After watching an undiscovered Elvis Presley perform, Levon formed his own high school rock band called The Jungle Bush Beaters. When he was 17 he was invited by Conway Twitty to share the stage with him and his Rock Housers. Helm had met Twitty when “Lavon and Linda” opened for him at an earlier show.

In 1957 he met Ronnie Hawkins, a charismatic Canadian rockabilly entertainer and front-man, who was looking for a drummer to tour Canada and recruited Helm. When Ronnie and the Hawks signed to Roulette Records, they had two hits, Forty Days and Mary Lou, sold 750,000 copies and appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.

Another four Canadian musicians, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson, joined in the early 1960s. When the five decided to break from Hawkins, they called themselves “Levon and the Hawks”.

After the Dylan debacle, Helm built a barn and studio at Woodstock, which became his permanent base. This became a regular rendezvous for rock royalty, with two of the Beatles, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, joining Helm and Dylan for turkey sandwiches and beer at Thanksgiving in November 1968. In his diary the Beatles roadie, Mal Evans, recorded them meeting with Helm, and noted that he also played “great guitar”.

The Band held a farewell concert in San Francisco in 1976, featuring guests including Ronnie Hawkins, Dr John, Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. The event, called The Last Waltz, was recorded as a triple album and filmed by Martin Scorsese.

Helm released his debut solo album, The RCO All-Stars, in 1977. He also embarked on a modest acting career, making his first film appearance playing Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), followed by a role in The Right Stuff (1983).

In 1998 Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer, but continued to play the drums, mandolin and harmonica, often performing with his daughter, Amy Helm, also a vocalist and instrumentalist.

In January 2004 he held the first of his Midnight Ramble Sessions, a series of live performances at his studio in Woodstock, named for the travelling minstrel shows of his youth.

He recorded two albums of The Midnight Ramble Sessions, followed in 2007 by Dirt Farmer, his first solo studio album for 25 years, featuring music from his childhood and songs handed down from his parents. “The dirt on which America was built is still running through this man’s fingers,” noted one British reviewer. 

Dirt Farmer won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2008 and earned Helm a place in Rolling Stone’s The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. In 2011 Sir Elton John and David Furnish named their son Zachary Levon in Helm’s honour.

Helm was also recognised by the Recording Academy with a lifetime achievement award as an original member of The Band and was named Artist of the Year by the Americana Music Association.

In 2010 Helm’s album Electric Dirt won a second Grammy for Best Americana Album. In February this year, his live CD and DVD Ramble at the Ryman won him a third consecutive Grammy, also in the Americana best album category.

Levon Helm married Sandra Dodd in 1981. She and their daughter survive him.

Levon Helm, born May 26, 1940, died April 19 2012

Bob Dylan: April 19, 2012

In response to Levon’s passing

He was my bosom buddy friend to the end, one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation. This is just so sad to talk about. I still can remember the first day I met him and the last day I saw him. We go back pretty far and had been through some trials together. I'm going to miss him, as I'm sure a whole lot of others will too.

Watch and learn:

Thursday 19 April 2012

Loudon Wainwright III - Older Than My Old Man Now

AMERICAN singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III turns his attention to the Grim Reaper in his latest generous musical offering.

This 15-track exploration of mortality takes an unflinching look at how time will be called on all our lives - sooner or later.

Now this would be grim listening indeed, without Wainwright's trademark wit and humour.

Joined by most of his immediate musical family, including son and daughter, Rufus and Martha, plus at least one ex-wife, Wainwright hits the mark with stand-out tracks All in a Family, The Days That We Die, In C, Somebody Else, Over the Hill - written with his late former wife, Kate McGarrigle - and the self-explanatory title track.

Blessed with poignant prose introductions by Wainwright's late father, this quality album's apparently gloomy subject matter is ultimately life-affirming.


Loudon Wainwright III
Older Than My Old Man Now
(Proper Records)

Last night's setlist

At The Habit, York: -

(with Ron)
Bye Bye Love
The Price Of Love
Time Is On My Side
The Singer Not The Song

A strange night in some ways, very quiet at 9:15 but heaving later. Some interesting turns inc. a young dude who attempted Mr. Tambourine Man and almost made it.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

"The slave of certain appetites..."

Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargeant
Dr Jekyll and a not so wicked Mr Hyde: how a portrait of evil was toned down
Robert Louis Stevenson deleted "certain appetites" to make his creation Mr Hyde less sinister, an edited draft of his novella to be displayed at the British Library reveals

Dalya Alberge
The Observer
Sunday 15 April 2012

Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is one of English literature's most famous stories: the enduring classic of a man's transformation into a monster, first published in 1886. Now the manuscript for the novella is to go on show, revealing its transformation as Stevenson toned down his more explicit ideas.

The most complete draft of the novella – Stevenson burned a first draft because his wife was so alarmed by it – is covered with corrections. Reading between its chaotic lines shows how Stevenson deleted details such as the sexual connotations of Jekyll becoming "in secret the slave of certain appetites".

It is one of two historic manuscripts whose loans have been secured from the US by the British Library. The other is an instalment of Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, which the author himself rescued from the wreckage of a train crash. The manuscripts will get pride of place at the library in Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands, the UK's biggest literary exhibition this summer.

Stevenson's novella explores the psychopathology of the split personality in Dr Jekyll, whose development of a potion to separate good from evil transforms him into the murderous Mr Hyde.

It was written at feverish speed after Stevenson woke from a dream. He produced a draft that he showed to his wife who, it is thought, prompted him to burn it, though he brought it back to life, rewriting it twice in six weeks.

The 1885 manuscript which will go to the British Library reflects his obsessiveness. As ideas flowed, so did his pen, ignoring occasional grammatical and spelling mistakes as he struggled to get it all down.

Jamie Andrews, the exhibition's co-curator, said: "This is an incredibly interesting active draft. There's a sense of it stemming from a dream, the depths of the self. So the idea of this primal eruption of text is certainly there in the story, but then to publish something Stevenson really had to work it through to make it into that final version." Andrews believes that explicit references to Hyde's sexual "vices" might have concerned Stevenson's wife because of his reputation as a writer of children's novels.Andrews said of this draft: "It's a lot darker than the final version. This is the great psychological novel about a divided city and a divided self." He added that, because Stevenson was hard up, it was suggested that he should write a chilling shocker, as they called them.

Commenting on Stevenson's softening of his original ideas, Andrews said that sometimes individual words, lines or paragraphs were deleted. "There's a sense of bits being too sensitive to be published." For example, Stevenson deleted the following line: "From an early age, however, I became in secret the slave of certain appetites." He replaced it with: "And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition… hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public."

One of the exhibition themes examines how British landscapes permeate great literary works. Marking Dickens's bicentenary are pages from Our Mutual Friend – its first public show in the UK. Tanya Kirk, exhibition co-curator, said Dickens presented the Thames as a menacingly gothic place sustaining life but bringing death.

The pages to be displayed at the British Library come from the instalment saved from an 1865 rail crash by Dickens, who was hailed a hero for his role in rescuing the injured. The carriage in which Dickens was travelling through Kent with his mistress was derailed and suspended over a collapsed bridge. He risked his life in clambering back into the wreckage for passengers and the manuscript, its pages spattered with stains.

Both manuscripts are being lent by the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. It purchased the Stevenson manuscript in 1909 for $1,500 and the Dickens in 1944 for $17,000.

The exhibition, from 11 May to 25 September, will celebrate a superlative collection of literary works at the British Library spanning more than 1,000 years by writers from Chaucer to Hanif Kureishi. Exhibits will include letters penned by John Keats, Charlotte Brontë and Ted Hughes never before displayed.

Last night's setlist

At the Waggon & Horses, York: -

One More Time
How Can We Say Goodbye?
Till There Was You

An eclectic mix of musicians and punters. A very entertaining evening all told, including a seldom heard Scoundrels song.

Sunday 15 April 2012

Hugo Williams interviewed

Published: 12 April, 2012

Hugo Williams looks surprisingly well, considering he needs a kidney transplant. The winner of the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry and the TS Eliot prize is sitting on a well-worn sofa in his home in Canonbury having just got in from dialysis at St Pancras Hospital.

His wife, the artist and former tightrope walker Hermine Demoriane, is there watching over him.

His skin, which belies his 70 years, is full of colour and he looks lean and trim.

But, he warns, I shouldn’t be fooled.

“It’s very funny,” he says. “If you lose a lot of weight people tend to say you look well. I think it’s because they’re secretly horrified. They think: ‘God he looks thin, and ill and old and unwell – better say he looks well’.”

He laughs, before adding: “I have a fairly youthful skin, so for 70 I’m doing well. But I have lost two stone, so for me I look ghastly.”

Williams first learned he had a failing kidney three years ago and describes talking about it as a sort of out-of-body experience.

“It’s a shock, [a feeling that] this can’t be me,” he says.

“There are all kinds of reactions you go through. One is a slight sense of shame, another is depression and a shrinking of the world. People who have been through it before say you just have to get a grip really.

“It’s interesting why one feels shame,” he adds. “I suppose it’s because one is no longer quite the physical specimen one was before. And also feeling ashamed at being so self-obsessed and self-pitying.”

There are moments he forgets he’s ill but these are inevitably followed by the awful recollection.

A bit like waking from a pleasant dream. “In a sense the better time you have, the more of a shock it is to remember what’s really going on in your life,” he says.

“Sick people tend not to be with well people very much because they remind them about being ill too much. Whereas if you’re with sick people you can say, well, I’m not as sick as him.”

The psychologist he was referred to – “a young chap who was doing his best to comfort this old geezer” – had one bit of wisdom, he adds, which was to keep the dialysis separate from the rest of his life.

This is why he troops down to St Pancras three times a week armed with a laptop, CDs and Akira Kurosawa and Curb Your Enthusiasm DVDs.

“It’s five hours there, and four hours on the needle. It takes an hour to get there, so the whole thing is about seven hours. But it is containable in that it’s three times a week. I’ve got my mornings and my weekends.”

Williams was born into a theatrical family, and has the kind of easy charm and sense of humour that public schools – he went to Eton – tend to provide to some of their more sensitive pupils.

His sense of humour is still intact, and he explains that his wife Hermine is also a part of the treatment for the comfort she provides.

He is now on the waiting list for a kidney and looking for a donor. Hermine isn’t compatible but she may be able to join a kidney exchange programme.

In the meantime, there’s a likelihood of three years of painful dialysis.

That’s the average wait, he explains, although it’s not a list you move steadily up.

The computer throws in other factors, such as age, and whether or not you have young children.

“But would I do it myself?,” he wonders of donating an organ. “The dialysis is going all right – sometimes it’s not too painful putting the needles in.”

The laptop is one of the concessions to modern technology he has had to make – he still uses a manual typewriter. Another is buying a mobile phone so the hospital can call should a kidney becomes available.

“Otherwise they’ll offer it to someone else,” he says.

Being a poet, however, has proved to be a “sav­iour” he adds, because to write means going to a mental state where he is neither ill nor well.

He is thinking of writing a long poem about his condition and has a first line, inspired by St Pancras Cemetery, the grounds of the Old Church in St Pancras Road where he kills a bit of time before going for dialysis next door.

“The first line would be: ‘This is where the Great Western railway cuts through the cemetery of St Pancras Old Church’ to momentarily treat the cutting through of the cemetery as the news of this cutting through of my life.

“Poetry reminds you who you really are and what you do,” he says.

“I’ve never thought of poetry as being self-expression. I’ve always thought of it as a making job, making something that will last. It’s much more of a search than an expression – like trying to find out something you didn’t know. I start working with phrases and see what they can be made to say, rather than making them say things.

“So it’s a collaboration with words. It sounds pretentious. I’m always going on about this and hating myself at the same time. You need lots of peace and sunshine and music and coffee and all that. I was listening to a programme about Chopin the other morning and he was deeply crippled toward the end of his life and when started to play his body relaxed and became recognisably the way it had been before.

Saturday 14 April 2012

Susan Hill - writing The Woman in Black...

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
I set out to write a ghost story in the classic 19th-century tradition'

Susan Hill
Friday 17 February 2012

When I am emailed by pupils studying The Woman in Black for GCSE and A-level, many refer to it as "gothic", and indeed it forms part of a university course in gothic literature. But although the book has something in common with the pure gothic fiction of the 18th and 19th centuries, it is really only a distant cousin of the genre. It is a ghost story – not a horror story, not a thriller – and not a gothic novel; although the terms are often used very loosely, they are not by any means the same thing.

I set out to write a ghost story in the classic 19th-century tradition, a full-length one. There have never been many, writers perhaps having felt the form would not stretch successfully. By the time I began mine, in the 1980s, full-length ghost stories seemed to have died out altogether. I read and studied the Jameses, Henry and MR, and Dickens, and I also had beside me the "bible" – Night Visitors by Julia Briggs (still the best study of the form).

The list of ingredients included atmosphere, a ghost, a haunted house and other places, and weather. A footnote to "ghost" was a) of a human being; and b) with a purpose. There are dozens of little books of "true" ghost stories, usually sorted by geographical location, but almost without exception the ghosts have no purpose and so the stories are ultimately unsatisfying. A headless horseman rides by, a phantom coach clatters down a dark road, a veiled lady drifts up a staircase and through a wall, a pale and misty child's face is glimpsed at a window – and that is all. The ghosts are there and they apparently go through the same motions again and again. It is ultimately uninteresting. There has to be more to fiction than that. There also has to be more than an easy manipulation of the reader's superficial emotions – unless making someone jump out of their skin is the writer's only aim. Not that trying to induce a delicious thrill of fear is bad – it is another form of entertainment, and what is wrong with being an entertainer? Dickens certainly considered himself to be one.

I knew my ghost story, like all my fiction, had to have a serious point and it was this that must sustain the length and underpin the sense of place, the creation of atmosphere and the events. But moral points come out of character, and I kept asking myself the question: "Why does a ghost return to this life?" Perhaps to give information that they have withheld in life – the whereabouts of a will, say, or the identity of a murderer, or to warn. But my ghost returns to exact revenge and it is the nature of revenge that it is never satisfied; and so, loss and grief lead the woman in black on, trying to exact revenge for her child's accidental death by causing those of others. She cannot let go, and her revenge is an evil that continues to be visited on Crythin Gifford. The grief and craving for revenge must be released or she cannot find resolution and peace on either side of the grave. So here was my central character. Why a "woman in black"? I must have had Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White in mind but it was more than 25 years since I had read his novel. Otherwise, I have no clear idea where she came from.

Thomas Hardy believed that places are as important as people in fiction, because people are formed by the landscapes in which they are born and bred, though that is probably less true now than it was in his day, when, especially in rural areas, they tended to remain rooted in one place. But a harsh climate and a hard landscape toughen people. A low-lying, dank place tends to be lowering to the spirits, and we all know that constant wind drives people mad. I think the pathetic fallacy is less fallacious than is often supposed.

I don't know where the plot of the book came from, partly because I never do know, partly because it is too long ago. But I remember one thing. In the early 1970s I worked by the sea, behind which were the marshes. Walking there at dusk, the light making the dykes gleam and the low wind rattle the reeds, was when I began to think seriously about ghosts.

It seemed natural to adopt a rather formal style and that came along with the point of view. I had to write in the first person. The narrator, Arthur Kipps, is the living key to the book, just as the woman in black is the dead one.

See also

Friday 13 April 2012

Carl Wilson...

Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell at The Sage Gateshead

Published on Thursday 12 April 2012 09:11

NEWCASTLE-based folk duo Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell have bags of charm.

Delivering original and traditional material with equal delicacy, the pair - who met while studying folk and traditional music at Newcastle University - quickly won over an attentive audience which included family members of both performers, in the intimate setting of The Sage’s Hall 2.

There were several highlights, including Lucy’s haunting unaccompanied version of Peggy Gordon - a traditional song long associated with the late and great Luke Kelly, of The Dubliners - plus Green Leaved Trees and Down in Adairsville.

But as good as the duo are, I started to have nagging doubts about how they will develop, once their youthful charm wears off.

Kearney is an interesting, offbeat singer and songwriter, but his little-boy-lost stage persona could have a short shelf life.

Farrell, meanwhile, has a voice and a personality which could develop in several musical directions.

It will be intriguing to see what lies in store for this talented, quirky duo, who only released their debut album in October.

Thursday 12 April 2012

The Keel Row Bookshop...


Thanks to the great

A face in the crowd...

Last night's setlist

At The habit, York (with Ron): -

World Without Love
All My Loving
Walk Right Back

A packed Habit for once. Some great turns including a young dude who gave amazingly accurate renditions of Peggy-O and The Times They Are A-Changin' complete with harmonica.