Sunday, 16 July 2017
This is the fourth and final part in a series of linked essays, which have been published at irregular intervals in 2017. It is presented here, initially, in small segments to make things easier and more disruptive. An introduction to the series will appear shortly.
This is written in the hope that others will sing about a quick trip to Iceland (to the tune of The Fall’s ‘A Figure Walks’) when popping up the local shops. And incidentally, on the subject of songs, there is along the road a new supermarket to get lost in. There probably was no desperate need for one, but then there would not really be any call for more nail or tattoo parlours, tanning salons, coffee shops, takeaways, restaurants, betting shops, vape vendors, opticians, jewellers, solicitors, estate agents, pawnbrokers, payday loan arrangers, gyms, traditional Turkish barbers, card shops, funeral directors, building societies, banks, bathroom and kitchen fittings showrooms, churches, chemists, Chinese herbal medicine places, mobile phone outlets, sportswear and shoe shops, discount stores, and arguably charity shops.
The new store is a branch of Lidl, which is a brand name new to this town, and is here now in addition to Asda (and its smaller offspring down by the doctors where Netto used to be), Iceland, and Sainsbury’s, as well as the M&S food hall for the less prudent. In a way the new store replaces the much-missed Aldi which moved on some years ago when Mothercare made them an offer they could not refuse.
Our new Lidl is right up the end of the high street, past Sainsbury’s, Wilko, and the pound stores, beyond the cinema and the bingo hall, and nearly up as far as the old Woolwich Equitable pagoda building. So, a special effort does need to be made to get there, but it will make a bit of a break from the usual routine to go up that far from time to time. It seems pleasant enough. It is an odd place, though, being upstairs, so shoppers need to use a funny moving sidewalk or travellator thing to get up to where the action is. So, there might be trouble ahead, technology being what it is.
None of the supermarkets along the local high street are soullessly large, and none of them are ever particularly busy in the mornings. The really serious bulk-buyers go elsewhere, presumably to the out-of-town megastores where they can load up their 4x4s and SUVs to show how well-off or stupid they are. So, doing the rounds of the local supermarkets can be a pretty pleasant experience, though admittedly there are many political and environmental arguments against using them.
On the plus side, walking around these stores is good exercise, physically and mentally, and it can be fun seeing how people behave, witnessing the best and worst of human nature in terms of manners, humour and helpfulness. So, if you do go there for a special offer, you are guaranteed personalities. Odd snippets of overheard conversation can be hilariously surreal when caught wonderfully out-of-context, people’s antics can be bafflingly eccentric. And it can be fun waltzing down the aisles accompanied by an old hit played over the store’s PA system, humming along, while checking out the new lines and the promotions, and wondering which of the checkout operators to fall in love with and which brands to boycott.
So far it has been fun watching people in the new Lidl, before they become blasé, acting with genuine inquisitiveness: “Ooh that Irish tea loaf looks lovely. Shall we try some?” One real surprise was the low-key approach Lidl took when opening the store, an occasion which was sensibly marked with little fanfare, avoiding a situation like in the excellent novel Radio Activity by the very great John Murray where Radio Cumbria was broadcasting live the opening of a new Asda outside Aspatria, intruding on the Radio Tangiers broadcast the book’s hero was listening to, prompting him to hope “it crumbles overnight!” and “that some bankrupt corner shop proprietor has the sense to go and gelignite it.”
Another passage from a John Murray classic springs to mind when considering supermarkets, and that is from his novel Reiver Blues where the barmy Loon Cheng (aka Henry Hawkes) muses about opening his dream café: “I’d have Edinburgh philosophy professors obliged to talk about nothing but the current retail prices of babyfoods and tinned spaghetti hoops across ten different shopping chains in their glamorous university city. Ten chains, Wm. Low to VG, Spar to Tesco, Nisa to Asda, Morrison’s to Sainsbury’s, from Morningside to Leith and back and not forgetting Musselburgh and Penicuik while they’re at it.”
That book was published in 1996, and in the past 20-odd years there has been a massive change in who goes or does the shopping. The local supermarkets always seem to have in them a very high proportion of blokes, chaps, geezers, guys, gents, and that is on their own rather than with a spouse or as part of a family group. Men alone, usually with baskets, who seem to know what they are doing, and where they are going. Many are philosophers, and some may even be professors.
Who are they all, these savvy souls in the supermarkets, the seemingly happy shoppers, who know their north from south? Some are Shena Mackay’s mad old men of London, some are bachelor boys by accident or design, some are shopping while the partner’s working, some are retired, some are redundant, some are ones who work at home and fit the shopping in when they want a break.
And some are part of that growing army around here, all the single fellows of 50-plus looking after an Aged P who would otherwise have to go into some kind of a home or endure daily visits from a care agency, a way of preserving some sense of independence, and an arrangement that suits all parties because these coves are your everyday failures with nowhere else to go but back to the now almost empty family home, where they fit the household chores, and so on, around their daily routine and get by, with the help of their books and music and films, the football, some studying, gardening etc., finding they should have too much time but that they are oddly more constructively occupied than most.
There is a special shelf here, in a cupboard, reserved for books by Shena Mackay and John Murray. If one tries hard enough it would be possible to find plenty of similarities between the two great writers. While it is unlikely either have made much money from their novels and short stories, they at least have the consolation of being enthusiastically reviewed on a regular basis, often by their fellow authors.
This, for example, is taken from a review of John’s Jazz etc. which was published in The Independent in May 2003. The reviewer is D.J. Taylor, who has been a big supporter of John’s comic classics: “Since his mid-Eighties debut, Samarkand, John Murray's career has followed a predictable path. Every three years or so, Murray produces a novel, published by a small provincial press and dealing, generally in surreal-to-magic realist terms, with some aspect of his native west Cumbria. On publication, the half-dozen or so critics who regard him as, in Jonathan Coe's words, the nearest thing we have to a modern-day Flann O'Brien, turn pink with excitement. The book sells a thousand copies, and then everything goes quiet for another three years.”
In an almost wistful, envious tone, he adds: “There are advantages, of course, in this kind of tenuous barnacle-hold on the national literary consciousness. For one thing it means that, within certain broadly defined limits, you can write what you like. You can write in the way you like, too, with the result that Murray's novels digress all over the place, ramble drunkenly through forests of phonetically rendered Cumbrian dialect, and frequently stop dead out of sheer exhaustion. This is part of their charm, while calculated to alarm the general reader avid for plot, pace and resolution.”
Another respected writer, Andrew Martin (best loved here for his old Tube Talk columns in the Evening Standard magazine), in a Telegraph review of John Murray’s 2004 novel Murphy’s Favourite Channels, said: “John Murray is a grizzled, handsome fellow in a flat cap. He lives in Cumbria, and seems to do exactly what he wants in print, which amounts to formal experimentation combined with an exquisite, dryly comic tone. He has been compared to Flann O'Brien, although I admit that my first thought was of Les Dawson giving one of his deadpan, wordy monologues. (Well, all right then, Les Dawson with a PhD.).” He concluded: “Certainly a weight of poignancy accumulates as the book progresses. And for all its problematic nature, this is the funniest novel I've read for a long time.”
The poet and critic William Scammell once wrote that John provided “a direct line to Rabelais and Flann O’Brien”, while closer to home, on the Tangents website in April 2005, John Carney claimed: “Let’s be bold and say he’s our Jim Dodge.” It is a good line, but does it work? Well, perhaps John Murray is the only Englishman who would be capable of writing Fup, Not Fade Away, or Stone Junction, which is not quite the same as saying Jim Dodge’s books are like John Murray’s. Possibly a case could be made for John’s old rural North Cumbrian farmhouse being related to Jim’s isolated ranch in Sonoma County. And they are both rebels and outlaws, magicians in their own way, with their beards and recalcitrant hippy contrariness, and they are both gloriously funny and rude and profound, so perhaps the chap had a point.
Between 1993 and 2009 John Murray published seven novels that are life enhancing, and particular favourites here. His books tend, or tended, to be 200-odd pages of comic extravaganza, featuring ridiculous realism, and grotesque spiritual slapstick, with a dissenting political undercurrent. To use a phrase that appears on the back cover of the Rebel inc. edition of Jim Dodge’s Not Fade Away, John has given us “bawdy folk tales, packed with gags, raunchy misadventure, and a mordant wit.” (and it will probably turn out John Murray wrote that Scotland on Sunday review the quote is taken from). And what a great series that Rebel inc. Classics one was: Nelson Algren, Barry Gifford, Richard Brautigan, Emmett Grogan, John Fante, and Jim Dodge being the favourites here.
Undoubtedly John Murray is a smart arse, a right old clever clogs, who studied Sanskrit at Oxford. He is also a great storyteller, with a wonderful habit of telling several tales at once, who is very funny, ribald, earthy, wise, argumentative, opinionated, intolerant, open-minded, and something of a seeker who possesses an intimidating intelligence. His books are never arid, abstruse academic works, and they suggest he would be great company.
In photos on his books he looks a genial geezer, with a big bushy beard and a nice line in flat caps. His works are slightly spiritual, in a non-specific way, and they are filled with words, words, words, though as he would point out he is not fascinated by words for their own sake but where they and what they lead to, what can be done with them. Unlike most theorists he is a great communicator. There is poetry in his writing, a very definite rhythm, which makes it great to read aloud, in a rapping sense, and one confesses to loving phrases about “esurient, edacious earthworms”
There are certain patterns, tropes, themes in his writing, like the recurring Cumbrian location, use of Cumbrian dialect, deeply-flawed heroes or narrators who are usually highly-educated failures (but not everyday ones), and nostalgia for childhood which is used as a tool for making sense of what life has turned into. His ‘heroes’ seem to share similar passions, which presumably overlap with John’s: fine food, cooking, Greek islands (John now lives and runs writing workshops on the island of Kythnos), retsina and other wonderful wines, languages, literature, films, and regular reading of The Guardian and New Statesmen, though that really refers to how those publications were rather than are.
Joe Gladstone, the central character in John’s 2009 (and seemingly most recent) novel The Legend of Liz and Joe, makes the case that a guy in his 70s is no different than someone much younger, and makes a list of his passions which may not be at all different from John’s own and several of his other leading men: “I for one like unpackaged foreign travel, all-night card games, original birthday presents, wild electric jazz and serenely harmonious classical music, and for that matter lots of pungent physicality.”
On the Tangents website in 2006, John Carney when writing about one of his favourite authors, John Murray, claimed: “He does for Cumbria what Shena Mackay does for South London. He captures something strange amidst the outwardly normal. He has an ear for how people speak, and an eye for how we act. He clearly is torn between love and hate for the homelands he exiles himself in.”
John Murray could be said to be a Cumbrian writer in the sense that he was born and grew up in Cumbria, and wrote about Cumbria and its people while living in Cumbria among its people. John’s Cumbrian writing is not really about a sense of place. He has never really gone in for long descriptions of the local landscape, or described endless walks he has taken over deserted terrains. We are spared that sort of nonsense. He does his rambling on the page, and wears that as a badge of honour: “I divagate, I ramble, I meander”. He is wont to argue that “the best roads, both real and the imagination, divagate and branch, without warning into unexplored, inimitable riches.” And another of his maxims is that “digressions are the staff of life”.
John’s Cumbria is not the Lake District of popular tourism. Indeed there hardly seems to be any mention of the Lakes at all in his great comic novels. To generalise madly, John’s use of Cumbria in his books is to have some character growing up in the industrial West (Workington, Whitehaven, Maryport etc.) of the county, with them or others ending up living in the rural North of the county, usually on a smallholding in what John calls the Debatable Lands. This presumably repeats part of the pattern of John’s own life.
His use of Cumbrian themes extends to the occasional use of dialect, often for comic effect, which may make the going tricky for some, but in fact his books have never seemed to be a difficult read here. His way of doing this is to weave translation to and from Cumbrian dialect into the text, using what he calls “impertinent phonetic and punning distortion” and invariably emphasising the Nordic roots of Cumbrian dialect, suggesting someone in Norway would manage nicely with what he would hear in the Debatable Lands.
Here’s a quote from John’s The Legend of Liz & Joe (which includes a story told in translation from Cumbrian dialect) explaining how all this works: “So it is that my translation includes selective extracts from the dialect original, the latter being embedded and bracketed at appropriate points, as a constant reminder of the source from which the translation came.”
As well as using dialect John also vigorously upholds the Cumbrian tradition of telling tall tales. His novel Radio Activity revolves around the world’s biggest liar competition, which really is held annually in Santon Bridge. A tall tale about nuclear power is told by one Tommy Little, an odd hippy shepherd from Bewcastle, the Herman Hesse of the Debatable Lands, who renders his mendacity with veracity, and puts on a perverse display of virtuosity, a little like Floorboard George Gastin, the Pilgrim Ghost, in Jim Dodge’s Not Fade Away.
A similar structure is used by John in The Legend of Liz & Joe where his narrator Joe Gladstone is writing a short story in Cumbrian dialect for a competition. His entry is a send-up of New Labour authoritarianism. It features the excellent Fenton Baggrow as the rebel in a far-fetched tale, set initially a decade hence in 2017. The government has decided to use Cumbria as a test area for the compulsory visible wearing of braces by men at all times, to raise the moral tone, improve citizenship skills, etc. That is deliberately ludicrous, of course, but who would have predicted what has happened so far in 2017, so who are we to sneer at the “disorientating outlandishness of his satire.”
Fenton fights a lone battle and gets to tell the premier in person: “You manage to rule the country by behaving like a school prefect ... this monitor approach, this back door control, by the school sneak? Is it just bare-faced bullying, by any other name?” Fenton, spurning braces and sporting an antique kid’s snake belt he got off eBay, is “fearless in his flagrant flouting that it was almost as if he wished to provoke the authorities into a brutal over-reaction (a basic if nut acnied Knee-o Trutskyisht manyeuver, even if Fenton issel wuss allus mare ev an oot an oot Noth Cummlan Hannykist).” You see, that is how John does it. Go on say it aloud! It’s great fun.
The book ends with Joe being told that this approach to writing is not to everybody’s liking, which is rather poignant as it is the last book in this sequence of John Murray novels, the last novel we have from him. That may have something to do with his long-term publisher, Flambard Press, folding with the end of its Arts Council funding.
Joe hears how the competition’s judges “had disliked its insolent meandering and jumping about in narrative terms, not to speak of that insufferably show-off geographical jumping about. Worst of all was the insistent and gratuitous political thrust; the disrespect towards decent old-fashioned patriotism. Far too often this was aggravated by the rude, at times, outrageous, language in some of the puns. All in all they really disliked the way Joe Gladstone used the dialect to do things it wasn’t supposed to do; the way it focused sarcastically on national, even world events, instead of restricting himself to local ones.”
The wonderful series of John Murray comic extravaganzas, which runs from Radio Activity through to The Legend of Liz & Joe, features a couple of great examples of the exotic fathers of Cumbria. These are outlandish comic inventions, presented in an affectionate way, providing endless scope for mangling of the English language by immigrants who made Cumbria their home after WW2, namely Klaus Asbach in Radio Activity and Vincenzo Mori in Jazz etc. John captures their ridiculous speech cadences and patterns with, dare it be said, something of the absurdity of Benny Hill at his best.
Klaus’ story is told by his son Ed, who is alternately horrified by and proud of his “deviant father”, not least because his dad’s paintings are hanging in a third of Cumbrian pubs. Klaus apparently painted approximately 2,000 landscapes of the Lake District in 30 years, without ever really going to the lakes. He was, Ed claims, a flesh and blood version of Joyce Cary’s Gulley Jimson, and altogether rather too much of a character.
Klaus grew up in Asch, Sudetanland, and during WW2 was sent to a POW camp at Bassenthwaite, in Cumbria, and later as a displaced alien applied for British citizenship. Working as a labourer for Jakie Baggrow (Fenton’s forefather perhaps), he learnt to speak “English gibberish”, and that was how a “linguistic monstrosity” developed.
Like a true Cumbrian Klaus worried himself sick about making ends meet, and worked in a succession of lowly factory jobs, doing his landscape paintings in his spare time. He ended up at the Sellafield plant as a process worker, where he contracted a rare form of cancer caused by radiation. This resulted in a small compensation package for his widow Ilse, a refugee from Austria, who was in contrast to Klaus a quiet, tender, nervous, steadfast, sober soul.
In Jazz etc. the story of Vincenzo Mori, or Vince, is told by his son Enzo. Vince migrated to England in 1948, one of twelve from a tiny Naples hamlet who came to Whitehaven, in Cumbria, to work in the pit there. Later Vince becomes an ice cream salesman, while his (yes, steady, quiet, steadfast) wife runs a guest house.
At night Vince plays clarinet and sings in a trad. jazz outfit, The Chompin’ Stompers, and did so for many years, worshipping Mezz Mezzrow’s Really The Blues. Vince also has huge respect for “blurry big brines that make blurry big ponceshillinsonpiss”. Among the classic episodes starring Vince is an occasion where he comes across a package tour of waning 1960s stars, including Lippy Leek (Leapy Lee), Headshoppers Omniboose, Wong Fontana and his Moonbenders, and the Hunni Cums, with inevitably Vince being particularly taken with Honey their singing drummer. He is something of a ladies’ man, and his rake’s progress gets him into all sorts of trouble. At the end of the book we are witnesses at a party for Vince’s seventieth birthday, held in the ballroom of the Chase hotel, Whitehaven, with 200 other people there. This is in 1991.
In contrast to the gloriously outlandish characters of Klaus and Vince, in John Murray’s John Dory there is the redoubtable Mrs Singer who ran her sweet kiosk in Maryport docks, in a tin mission hut which stood from 1920 to 1987. When Ma Singer, or Muriel, sold her last Werther’s mints, or Callard & Bowser’s toffees, her son George (the book’s narrator) took over. George is very different to his mother, whose “drive and willpower were boundless and incredible”. As balance George’s s father, Joe, was “one of the gentlest as well as the stablest people ever to walk the streets of this town”.
In John Dory there is a beautiful scene where George is prompted to remember a nocturnal walk with his dad, up by the deserted pits where by day his father worked as a clerk, and how that night he “felt father’s gentleness, silent tranquillity”. This is part of what George describes as “the improbable fairytale absurdity of my earliest memories,” a recurring feature of John Murray’s wonderful books.
The West Cumbrian childhood of George Singer is recalled in John Dory. He was born in 1936, and with his best friend at primary school, the wonderfully nicknamed Squinty Bar Radish, was taught by Miss Blood, who has returned from retirement to do her bit during wartime. Coincidentally, this is of interest having grown up hearing tales of the inspirational Miss Jones, a lady who had once been to Oxford and had come back at an advanced age to teach kids in wartime Hengoed, including some evacuees who had lost everything in the London Blitz, and how her remarkably high standards had left their mark indelibly and indeed unknown to her were handed down subsequently here, thankfully.
Miss Blood, however, belonged to the school of teaching obviously aligned to the theatres of the absurd and cruelty. She was “a seasoned flagellomaniac”, and under her evil eye the not-so-bright Squinty suffers, while the smart arse George duels with her mercilessly. Actually Squinty doesn’t have a lot of luck, full stop, which makes for wonderful farce, as in the episode involving his mother’s “emetic winter tatie pot”.
Even better is the Rabelaisian outdoor bog episode, which features another less-than-loveable teacher Miss Briar, for which George feels slightly guilty when he remembers her kindness in taking him on a daytrip to Carlisle and recalls his insides slowly melting when seeing mesmerising pre-Raphaelite paintings for the first time. Actually it is the unexpected tender touch like that which makes John Murray’s writing so magical.
George Singer, looking back wistfully, decides that his Maryport childhood “clearly had been characterised by an intensity, a vivid and uneven poetry that made my adult existence seem embarrassingly paltry”. The same could be said of Roe Murphy in John’s Murphy’s Favourite Channels. Roe was born in 1950, the same year as John Murray, presumably not coincidentally.
Roe and his mate Flogger, also known as Turnip Brains and more formally as Humphrey Farrell, grew up in a very small West Cumbrian village, and their Fingland fables are fabulous fun, with episodes involving going to the pictures in the Fingland Miners’ Welfare Hall to see The Cockleshell Heroes and The Three Stooges, finding an odd gunman on the loose in the local woods, and rousing the wrath at school of Karin the Tollergill bruiser.
As the kids grow older they drift apart, going to different schools, so seeing less of each other, having less in common. Flogger as a young man goes to work in a sweet factory, becomes sex made, parades around in ice blue jeans. Roe is less sure in his sex life, and less efficient, hence the wonderful scene where he and the love of his life Sheila Starr are interrupted in a local wood by a curious white horse which farts at an inopportune moment, marring the magic of the scene, though rendering it unforgettable.
This drifting apart of old school friends is a bit of a theme in John Murray’s books, with the narrator going off to the nearest Grammar School, and subsequently onto university, gradually becoming a disappointed man, a highly-educated and far-from-everyday failure, making a mess of marriage, having fidelity issues, with all the attendant complications and consequences. And John’s narrators do seem to have a lot in common when it comes to passions.
There is an endless fascination here with writers and their passions, and to what extent they allow their own enthusiasms to creep into their work. When it comes to the passions of his characters John Murray is particularly good on cooking, and brilliant on books. His gloriously comical and wise novels are littered with references to the likes of Liam O’Flaherty and Peader O’Donnell. Turgenev is a recurring name, as is Eça de Quieroz, and a particular debt is owed to John for prompting a passion for Kate O’Brien’s books.
A passion at the heart of John’s books is music, and in particular jazz and classical works. William Stapleton, one of the heroes of Radio Activity, enjoys listening to jazz, ethnic folk music, and is a devotee of African, Oriental and Balkan vocal music. Ed Asbach in the same book once worked with a potter in Maryport who was very fond of his progressive jazz (this would have been around the late 1960s). And there is a lovely passage where Ed and his mother Ilse, in the late 1970s, are happily sitting at home listening to Ornette Coleman and John McLaughlin (they shared their literary and musical pleasures) while the head of the household Klaus is out causing havoc in his Reliant three-wheeler.
Reiver Blues, despite its title, is the least musical of John’s books, but there is a mention of Cimarosa’s Requiem. In John Dory there is a lovely passage about the adult George Singer moving back to Maryport, the Cumbrian town where he grew up, and optimistically opening a book and record shop, which he bravely filled with Oxford and Penguin Classics “including Lementov, Saltykov-Schedrin and Turgenev. But no one wanted Saltykov-Schedrin in Maryport and my bold array of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor LPs was also slow in shifting.”
He, however, did sell reasonable numbers of singles at 6/4d by Nirvana, Cream, Spooky Tooth and Fairport Convention, and confesses to a fondness for blues rockers with extended stoned guitar solos. He also admits to loving Procol Harum’s ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ which he describes delightfully as “the sound of surreal seasick music”. These references to Spooky Tooth, Procol Harum and early Island singles provides an excuse to mention that on the rear cover of Reiver Blues John Murray is pictured looking alarmingly like Guy Stevens, though undoubtedly a far healthier Guy, around the time he produced London Calling for The Clash.
Also in John Dory there is mention of George listening to Fauré’s tranquil piano music, which acts as an aid to memory: “Something about its benignant melancholy and tender pastoral intensity seemed to subtly clarify the perplexing identity of the flickering ghosts I had glimpsed”.
The ending of the book is haunting, and without giving too much away there is a beautiful, and very John Murray-like, passage which reads: “His explanation left me speechless, but then so did everything else in life that mattered. Bach’s Masses. Joe Pass’s guitar. Summer sunsets over the Solway Firth. Especially those over the unspoilt wilds of Flimby shore where the plaice teem around the old shit pipe and the fishermen’s dialect sounds as raw and old as the haematite hills.”
In Murphy’s Favourite Channels the young Roe Murphy’s record collection includes Stan Getz, Charles Lloyd and Debussy (so he was not a typical late 1960s teenager), and later there is a lovely episode revolving around listening to a new copy of Joni Mitchell’s Hissing of Summer Lawns with Francesca, a lady who would become one of Roe’s four wives, complete with a nice tip of the hat to the bass playing of Max Bennett.
There is also a characteristically Murray-like joke about Radio 3 announcers introducing works by Scheidt, Fux, and Ponce. The “that was Scheidt” joke recurs in A Gentleman’s Relish in which at the outbreak of WW2 records by Duke Ellington are played by that book’s narrator George at an impromptu party in his parents’ home.
In The Legend of Liz & Joe the septuagenarian Liz is a lifelong folk music enthusiast (and indeed A Gentleman’s Relish had been dedicated to Rick Kemp of Steeleye Span, and Maddy Prior is listed on John’s website as one of his patrons). Liz goes regularly to concerts at the local village hall in N. Cumbria, which is how she ends up having visions and her first affair, which is good going for someone in her 70s.
Among the concerts she attends is one by a Balkan jazz band, with a delightful mention of the genius Emir Kusturica, whose Underground is a particular favourite here. So, presumably, the outfit Liz dances to owed a debt to the music of Goran Bregovic, whose soundtrack for Underground and general reinvention of Balkan gypsy sounds eerily, illogically summons up something fundamentally anarchic with suggestions of Pigbag, childhood favourites here and ever since.
Also Liz’s second vision came while dancing in the village hall to a virtuoso jazz rock fusion group, who were playing the music of or like Weather Report, Stanley Clarke, Al Di Meola, Jean-Luc Ponty, and so on. Her husband Joe does not attend these concerts, but we are told that his own passion is for “wild electric jazz and serenely harmonious classical music”. And presumably it helps if this aligns with the loves of the author and the reader.
Jazz etc. by John Murray is a book that has a special significance, being the first time John’s name became known here. The local library had a copy on its shelves, and this was before it was rebuilt at the end of 2004, and the title was intriguing. It also came with a glowing endorsement from Jonathan Coe who described John as “one of the best comic writers we’ve got, the only natural heir to Flann O’Brien”. Jazz etc. had recently been long-listed for the Booker Prize, along with another favourite here, Shena Mackay’s Heligoland, which appropriately enough (a) John Murray reviewed for the Literary Review.
Ironically that library copy was later sold for 30p on 30 April 2010 when it had been “withdrawn from stock”. Alarmingly or amusingly the bookmark inside, a postcard advertising a couple of titles from the publishers Berg, one of which was Cinema by Jean-Luc Godard and Youssef Ishaghpour, was instantly recognisable as one that was in use here for a fair while.
Jazz etc as its title implies is very much a jazz novel. On the epigraph page there is a quote from the jazz guitarist John Abercrombie, saying: “The name of that song was ‘Spring Song’ and it was written for one of my cats”. And the book itself starts with its narrator Enzo Mori, at Solway Grammar School, West Cumbria, joining its jazz club in 1967, after the decade had exploded and was busy dividing. Enzo was perhaps not surprisingly mocked by those prematurely into the new heavier rock sounds, and among the school’s jazz cognoscenti Enzo endures the pain, pleasures and pitfalls of being an enthusiastic if absolute beginner.
There is a lovely passage where the young Enzo hears Miles’ Milestones and understands how “with absolute facility it demonstrated how the depths of tender melancholy offered the infallible emotional foil to the frantic world of raging, ranting improvisation”. Among the artists Enzo discovers through the school’s jazz club are Sonny Stitt, Monk, Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie. He realises that jazz is the music for him: “As in real life I was thoroughly fed up with the predictability, hackneyed structures, timeworn routines, laziness of ambition and imagination”
As an “indiscriminate tyro” he proceeds to torture his father with Dave Brubeck recordings, augmented by Bach and Scarlatti ones. His Italian-born father prefers the work of ballad singers like Miki and Griff, Ronnie Carroll, Ronnie Hilton, and Anne Shelton, as well as the music of Acker Bilk and Eddie Calvert (or Eddie Calf-foot as Vince calls him).
In typical John Murray fashion the book takes in a wide range of sounds, and among the music mentioned are George Russell’s At Beethoven Hall, recordings of Ravel string quartets on the Czech Supraphon label, Nikhil Banerjee’s ragas and Ravi Shankar, as well as Bitches Brew about which John says: “Miles Davis’ trumpet scores the depths of haunted sadness in a number like ‘Sanctuary’.”
John McLaughlin’s own Extrapolation plays an important part in the plot, and in particular the track ‘It’s Funny’, which is described as a “limpid gentle little hymn to what the sleeve notes oxymoronically call ‘sadjoy’.” This came out in 1969, when Enzo (and John) was 19. There is a lovely mention of John Surman’s “achingly gently melancholy soprano sax”. John Murray as Enzo confesses: “I found myself wishing to erupt into something potently expressive of both joy and sadness. Such a combination was akin to the burning saudade of Portuguese fado”
Pharoah Sanders’ Tauhid is another record the book dwells upon magnificently, and mention is made of how in ‘Aum’ Henry Grimes “amnesically scratches his bass as if it is an irritant itch. Warren Sharrock’s guitar is all dogged, doleful mangling of an electrified rubber-band. Sanders, like a sagacious Zen master, smirks and pulls his ornamental oriental rug from under your feet.” He goes on: “With ‘Venus’ he is serenading us with the message that out of musical breakdown and an anguished wordless dissolution comes perhaps some tenderness, some mercy, some transfixity of, what shall we call it? Shall we call it love, Enzo? Or shall we call it Love?”
The New John Handy Quartet’s New View, a 1967 live recording, appears in the book as “a uniquely medicinal and consolatory LP” which Enzo falls back on. Jazz etc. itself was directly responsible for introducing New View to this household, for which enormous thanks are due to John Murray who included an anecdotal line about getting it for 60p in the bargain racks of Oxford’s Woolworth’s which has the ring of truth to it, being too precise to be made up entirely, and one cannot help musing on the fact that there really were times when such records were for sale on the high street for next to nothing.
In the later sections of the book there are a number of ECM references, partly with the connection between Cumbria and the Nordic region, and there is specific mention of Jan Garbarek and Eberhard Weber. A CD reissue of Keith Jarrett’s ECM release Facing You plays a pivotal role in the story, and John as Enzo describes it as “solo piano music from 1972, of an intensely plangent and infinitely poignant kind”.
It is one of a number of Enzo’s records which at one point his dad listens to, with Enzo hoping that they can find some common ground. Enzo’s father Vince in his mangled Neapolitan-Cumbrian dialect proceeds to give his verdict on Chip Curry the penis feller (Chick Corea), Terry Ribble the crazy Norway feller (Terje Rypdal), Chon Summon (John Surman), John Micky Glove Line (John McLaughlin), and Keith Jarrett (Kit Charock), admitting that Facing You actually made him cry, though he pleads he was “blurry pisht”.
Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert gets a mention too, and that is a record which plays a vital part in Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez, which appeared in a UK translation in 2011. Purgatory was Martinez’s final book, an attempt to write a novel about the Argentinean military dictatorship of March 1976 onwards, and in particular the disappearances that happened during that time. The central couple in the story are Emilia Dupuy and Simon Cardoso. They met in a basement where the rock group Almendra were playing their hits. They courted and then married. Simon becomes one of the disappeared, missing presumed dead by pretty much everyone except Emilia who never gives up searching or believing.
Emilia’s quest at one stage takes her to Venezuela: “In Oricao or Osma, I roamed wild untamed paths with the singer Soledad Bravo, who would sing as the sun was sinking into the sea, in a voice as huge and golden as the papayas.” Music plays an important part in Purgatory, particularly with the recurring motif of Keith Jarrett’s improvisations at his Koln concert, which is a record so important to Emilia and Simon’s story. Also Keith’s gorgeous 1999 CD The Melody At Night, With You, mostly truly healing performances of beautiful old standards, appears in the book, alongside mentions of Schubert quartets, Mozart’s Mass in C Minor, and Frankie Valli’s ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You’.