Monday, 15 May 2017

Doing The Rounds: Part Three

This is the third part in a planned series of four linked essays, which will be published at irregular intervals in 2017, hopefully. It is published here, initially, in small segments to make things easier and more disruptive. On this occasion it might be more appropriate to suggest it is a detailed dossier presented in fragments.

Doing The Rounds: Part Three #1

This is dedicated to anyone who has ever improvised on a theme of Captain Beefheart’s ‘Frownland’ when entering the doors of their local Poundland: “I cannot go back to yer land of gloom”. It is also for everyone who has been intensely irritated by people who refer to x as a Poundland this, y as a Lidl or Aldi that, z as a Primark the other. What does that even mean? Why would you write it? What does it say about you and the way you view the world?
In the local high street Poundland sits neatly next to Poundworld. Both shops seem to do a good trade. There is certainly a lot of overlap in what they stock, but there are similarly a lot of differences too in what they sell. This could be neatly represented by a Venn diagram. So many things could be represented by Venn diagrams, particularly the vagaries of taste and how they fit in with acquaintances’ likes and dislikes in real life and on social media.
Where would we be without discount stores like the pound shops? Lost, probably, certainly locally. Add in Savers and Primark, and they form a core part of many people’s daily rounds. There are no doubt plenty of ethical and aesthetic arguments against these shops, but generally they seem to be a force for good, at least in terms of wealth redistribution. Why pay more elsewhere?
There is no doubt that Poundland sells some right old rubbish. But one’s person trash is what brings a smile to someone else’s face. It is like that line from the Shena Mackay short story about being moved by ephemera and junk and seeing eternity in a plastic flower and the human condition in the brittle pink Little Princess Vanity Set in the supermarket, whose tiny mirror flashes a fragment of a dream.
Poundland actually sells a lot of very useful items, many of which are made by old established companies, and many of us rely on them for our sundries from their range of toiletries, medicines, household cleaning products, stationery, sweets, cakes, biscuits, soups, decorating and gardening items. And getting away from the old idea of Poundland being a haven for the working classes, there is the Jane Asher Kitchen range and the In the Garden with Charlie Dimmock items, including a very impressive metal trowel and handy gardening gloves, all of which are clearly targeted at a rather respectable market.
The only downside is the transient nature of their stock, though perversely that unpredictability is oddly appealing and a reason to keep checking the shelves. Things can disappear alarmingly quickly, never to be seen in there again, which is annoying when one has not bothered to build up a reserve stock.
Any habitué of discount stores can cite their own examples of favourite items which have disappeared never to be seen again. Of late there is the case of Poundworld and the vanishing supplies of Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls. Allied to this then is the fear of things vanishing. How many packets of those addictive CCI Menthol sugar free boiled sweets should one stick in the drawer, just in case?
And then there is the media section, the shelves of CDs, DVDs, and books where just occasionally something startling will turn up, like Flann O’Brien’s The Dalkey Archive, and some Picador titles like Greil Marcus’ Invisible Republic and Well Done God! Selected Prose and Drama of B.S. Johnson. The latter, which could cost £25 elsewhere, was an unexpected treat so fine it might make one stop and yell. But, truth to tell, it has remained sitting on the side, largely only read and enjoyed in fragments found while flicking through curiously.
One of the editors of Well Done God! is Jonathan Coe, and it feels like something of a betrayal not to have devoured all of this book in one go having loved Like A Fiery Elephant, the story of B.S. Johnson which Jonathan told so powerfully. He drew the reader in so beautifully, sharing his enthusiasm and his internal conflicts, gently guiding the reader through the life and work of “Britain’s one-man literary avant-garde of the 1960s”. Not being familiar with Jonathan’s subject matter at all made the whole thing seem somehow more like a thriller, with some similarities to an early Len Deighton work, with Jonathan’s approach being to present us with “more of a dossier than a conventional literary biography”.
B.S. Johnson (and it is odd now to think how another B. Johnson with a father named Stanley really was not a major player when Like A Fiery Elephant was first published) comes across as a thin-skinned high modernist, someone who was “serious, single-minded, uncompromising” with a “rage for authenticity” whose story in Jonathan’s hands is sympathetically treated. As a consequence it is easy to feel guilty for not warming more to B.S. Johnson’s writing, but every one of us will have a list of books, films, TV programmes, records, and so on, we feel horribly uncomfortable about not loving. Some of us keep these names private, while others show them off like a badge of honour, usually to bait others.
So many of us are likely to have piles of books not yet read, CDs not yet played, DVDs not yet watched. Here, for example, is a copy of the DVD of Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, based on the novel by B.S. Johnson, and directed by Paul Tickell who was a bit of a hero here in the very early 1980s when he was writing for The Face and NME. The DVD is still in its plastic wrapping, which has a Replay sticker on the back from Poundland. You never know what’s going to turn up.

Doing The Rounds: Part Three #2

Jonathan Coe is a good person to have around in precarious times. It is easy to take Jonathan’s presence for granted, but we are lucky to have him. As a writer he occupies a pretty unique position in popular culture. This works for him and against him. He is a force for good, and an incredibly fine author.
Some writers are great at the small things, and present us with sentences that can make us sigh in admiration. Shena Mackay and Manuel Rivas spring to mind. It is the sort of thing that fans of Anita Brookner will claim. And it is what makes, say, Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick so compelling.
Other writers are great at telling stories. Jonathan Coe is a perfect example of someone who has this gift. He actually has “storyteller” in his Twitter biog, which presumably is done with a twinkle in his eye as no one would be more aware than Jonathan that “telling stories is telling lies” is one of the phrases from B.S. Johnson’s writing that sticks in the mind.
Jonathan has given us some wonderful stories over the years, often ones which are intricately plotted and perfectly paced, gathering momentum as the pages are turned, pulling the reader in gradually. It sounds simple, but the art of storytelling is a difficult one to master. It is what made authors like Jeffrey Archer and Maeve Binchy so incredibly popular with their fans, and is nothing to sneer at.
By many people’s standards Jonathan Coe is a popular and mainstream writer, but there is always a subversive element there in his books. He may know the avant-garde inside out, but in a way he is part of a tradition that Alan Plater refers to in an old interview with Matthew Sweet when he says:  "One of the things that has changed, I think, is that middle-of-the-road drama was always allowed to carry a few extra ingredients. A little bit of social comment or political comment. You were encouraged to make the mix a bit richer with elements other than who did what to whom, and will he or she get caught before they go into the burning building?”
Jonathan has been writing a fair old while now, and it seems fair to say that it took him a while to really get going. Things seemed to fall into place, pretty spectacularly, in 1994 with his fourth novel, What A Carve Up! It remains a supremely entertaining book, one underpinned by social commentary, making it a very effective form of protest. It is satirical in the sense that it uses comic exaggeration to highlight grotesque behaviours. By modern day standards though, the way Jonathan ridicules 1980s excesses oddly now feels more like documentary than a flight of fancy.
What A Carve Up! is largely about how a privileged family’s activities impact on everyday lives. The extended Winshaw family is truly grotesque, but no more absurd than Boris and the Johnson family and where its tentacles have reached and how through school and university the connections get entangled with privilege and politics and the media. If Jonathan had conjured up their story back in the early 1990s he would have been laughed at.
The Winshaw dynasty as captured in What A Carve Up! takes in such symbols of the 1980s disease as the controversial newspaper columnist, the exploitative art dealer, the farmer whose disdain for her livestock is matched by her contempt for the public who buy her deadly frozen foodstuffs, the merchant banker obsessed with wealth creation, the businessman dealing in weapons for whoever pays the going rate, and the political strategist whose mantra is “freedom, competition, choice” and who is implicit in the privatisation process and NHS cuts. His indifference is best summed up by his phrase: “There’ll be an outcry of course but then it’ll die down and something else will come along for people to get annoyed about”.
It is a book that is both tragic and funny, but at times it works best because real anger comes through, and is all the more powerful for being a little unexpected. There are glancing references by characters to the “wretched, lying, thieving, self-advancing Winshaws”, the “meanest, greediest, cruellest” of people, driven by “naked, clawing brutish greed”.
There is a particularly moving passage where the book’s central figure Michael Owen speaks to his neighbour, in very sad circumstances, though he may be talking to himself in the way we do to keep ourselves sane: “And so they sit at home getting fat on the proceeds and here we all are. Our businesses failing, our jobs disappearing, our countryside choking, our hospitals crumbling, our homes being repossessed, our bodies being poisoned, our minds shutting down, the whole bloody spirit of the country crushed, and fighting for breath. I hate the WInshaws”.
By Winshaw standards Michael is a loser. He is a minor author, whose early books have titles rather like Jonathan’s. He has had a breakdown of sorts. And he is a typical Coe central character in that he is nothing special. He is pretty insipid, and rather weak in many ways. He has come to a standstill, of sorts, at least for a while. And he is not even an oddly romantic figure like the everyday failures which pop-up in Shena Mackay’s books. But he seems decent, and is sort of appealing in his passivity.
Jonathan does make his disappointed heroes strangely attractive, and this may well be because he seems to genuinely like and understand his horribly fallible and very ordinary characters. There is genuine warmth there, which is something he has inherited from his own hero David Nobbs. There is a telling passage from David’s novel The Better World of Reginald Perrin where Reggie is being interviewed on television and he says:
“They come to Perrins in the hope that here at last they’ll find a place where they won’t be ridiculed as petty snobs, scorned as easy targets, and derided by sophisticated playwrights, but treated as human beings who are bewildered by the complexity of social development, castrated by the conformities of the century of mass production, and dwarfed by the speed and immensity of technological progress that has advanced more in fifty years than in millions of years of human existence before it.”

Doing The Rounds: Part Three #3

The great David Nobbs asked if he could adapt What A Carve Up! and it is easy to imagine Jonathan Coe’s delight at the idea of his hero approaching him in this way. An eight-part radio dramatization was broadcast on the BBC in 2005, and there was mention of a complementary TV series being made for ITV.
Jonathan has been very open about the debt he feels he owes David Nobbs for the way his Reggie Perrin TV scripts and the series of novels opened up all sorts of possibilities. In a very touching way Jonathan paid his own tribute to David and Reggie with his characters in his 2010 novel The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim which features a quote from The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin as part of the epigraph and has characters with names familiar from the books and TV series like Roger Anstruther, David Webster and Tony Harris-Jones, and the wonderful Miss Erith who steals the show entirely with her brief appearance.
The story of Maxwell Sim and his disintegration is linked to that of the yachtsman Donald Crowhurst, but plenty of parallels can be drawn with Reggie Perrin’s destructive urges. In an odd way, Reggie’s world is so familiar to many of us, and the various catchphrases still reverberate unwillingly in our heads, with the whole eleven minutes late, I didn’t get where I am today, a bit of a cock-up, great, super, I’m not a whatever person, Success City Arizona thing. It is easy to forget certain aspects central to the story.
There is the sense of middle-aged insecurity, anxiety, boredom and breakdown, but together with this is Reggie’s serial success. As the original story starts he is a fairly senior manager in a large firm. He later has enormous success with his Grot shops, and later once again with his Perrins community. Each time as things are going well, Reggie hits the self-destruct button, as he gets restless and things begin to unravel: “Contentment worries me”. Or, as he tells his cat Ponsonby: “We've got to do something unpredictable occasionally haven't we?”
Reggie argued that “the world is absurd. The more absurd you are, the more chance you have of success” One of Reggie’s more absurd ideas was his shop Grot about which he said: “My plan is to make and sell rubbish. I plan to make things that are of no value and sell them in our shop at high prices to people who will find them of no possible use whatsoever”. The subsequent success of the shop, which rapidly expanded into a multi-million pound empire, prompted agonised analysis along the lines of was Reggie offering “a valuable social service” and whether he was a high street prankster or social visionary?
It is tempting to suggest that back in 1977 David Nobbs with his storyline about Grot kind of foresaw the incredible success of Poundland and other discount stores. In fact the story of Poundland’s founder Steve Smith and his rise (and in a world of rapidly rising prices how hard will it be for the poundshops to maintain their position?) from a market stall in the West Midlands to being in a position where he could sell the business for £50million is suspiciously David Nobbs-like, except that as yet, thankfully, there do not seem to be any stories about Steve and Tracy Smith leaving behind piles of clothes on Chesil Bank.
David Nobbs’ writing career was impressively long, and in many ways the enduring appeal of Reggie Perrin overshadows what else he created. His final two books, in fact, are arguably his best, and form a remarkable pair. His 2012 novel The Fall and Rise of Gordon Coppinger is a (still) topical tale of a control freak losing control. Written at a time when bankers were the lowest of the low (and Sir Fred Goodwin or Fred the Shred public enemy number one) it tells the story of Sir Gordon Coppinger, self-styled tycoon, financier, industrialist, patriot, philanthropist, philanderer, who in the autumn of 2011 starts to feel uncharacteristic anxiety and unease, as he and his empire start to unravel. His schemes come undone, and he gets found out as the “British Bernie Madoff”. And this was well before Sir Philip Green’s disgrace, which in an odd way is foretold here.
The funny thing is that somehow David Nobbs makes Sir Gordon seem more and more likeable as his world comes apart at the seams and he is exposed as a right old so-and-so. He is a very different character to Jonathan Coe’s Winshaws with their privileged background. Sir Gordon comes from a humble West Midlands background, and simply liked and was good at making money. And there actually seems some hope for him.
Characteristically David fills the book with an excellent supporting cast, including the Coppingers’ butler Farringdon and Gordon’s brother Hugo, a merchant banker, who is less loveable and says things like: “I love walking in London. It keeps me fit, and I always see something I can disapprove of”. There are loads of lines that good in the book, including the one about “a kiss is a kiss is a kiss as Gertrude Stein might have said on one of her more affectionate days.”
It is a bold and radical move making Sir Gordon an oddly human figure, who in his downfall becomes involved in some truly touching scenes, suggesting perhaps there may be hope for mankind. The same sense of redemption flows through his final book, The Second Life of Sally Mottram, from 2014. As the book starts Sally is 47, the same sort of age as Reggie Perrin was when we first met him, and she is the very epitome of respectability, married to a lawyer, living in the small Pennine town of Potherthwaite, her children having grown up and moved away. Then her husband commits suicide, she is left without any money, and has to start her life all over again.
Inspired by the Transition movement, Sally decides to launch a campaign to transform her home town, and over the course of the next few years she is remarkably successful, initially opposing the arrival of a new supermarket, and moving on to far bigger projects. It is a fantasy of sorts, a far-fetched one, and a feel-good story, but it is an inspirational tale, with lots of lovely diversions about how Sally’s crusade also transforms the lives of the people she comes into contact with. It is an incredibly moving book, a very political one, very warm and full of hope about the power people have to bring about change. And it is all the more powerful because sadly David died a year or so after its publication.
As a tribute Jonathan Coe dedicated his novel Number 11 to David Nobbs “who showed me how”. In an odd way Number 11 feels as much the concluding part of a trilogy that takes in the stories of Gordon Coppinger and Sally Mottram as it does a sequel to What A Carve Up! In their own unique ways they are all protests. And while the Winshaw family pops up again in Number 11 it feels like in trying to reflect the times (this is Britain just before the referendum that in Reggie Perrin’s prophetic words created “Needless division! Heedless attrition!”) Jonathan finds life is rather more complex than in the 1980s where it was very clear who was on which side and why. One telling phrase a character of Jonathan’s uses is: “Let envy, rivalry, economic uncertainty and status anxiety be the new spurs to creativity.”

Doing The Rounds: Part Three #4

Jonathan Coe comes across as something of a cinéaste. He certainly knows about films. His most recent novel Number 11 has as its subtitle Tales That Witness Madness, a reference to the 1973 British horror film with an all-star cast and a strapline which appropriately said: “An orgy of the damned! It happens beyond madness – where your eyes won’t believe what your eyes see”. The film could easily be described as classic rubbish, but it is also something that has a very specific charm.
Films often play an integral part in Jonathan’s novels. The perfect example of this is What A Carve Up! where the serious political protest runs parallel to the central character’s obsession with the 1961 British comedy the book is named in honour of, and in particular one scene starring Shirley Eaton and Kenneth Connor. Shirley is pretty central to the book, especially where the action hots up and connections can be made to another film she starred in, Ten Little Indians, which was based on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. And another of the book’s key characters, Phoebe Barton, an artist and nurse, apparently looks an awful lot like a young Shirley Eaton.
Phoebe reappears rather spectacularly in the sort of sequel to the What A Carve Up! book, Number 11, which features a tale which is named after another early 1960s comedy, What A Whopper!, which is a sort of reprise itself. As an aside, What A Whopper! was also the title of a 1992 Monochrome Set compilation on the Richmond label, an imprint which collected lots of material from the él records archives (a label which Jonathan Coe was very fond of), including the collection of odds and ends Amen: Last Sunshine Desserts of él Records to bring in a Reggie Perrin dimension. Another Simon (Fisher) Turner collection on Richmond, from 1992, used a still of the painted Shirley Eaton from Goldfinger.
Number 11 is made up of five interlocking stories, and that in a way echoes the style of the film Tales That Witness Madness which is made up of four tales, including one featuring Michael Jayston with Joan Collins as his wife, plus a sinister tree which takes up residence in the living room as the third person in the marriage, symbolising all sorts of things. It actually looks like the sort of thing Phoebe Barton might present as one of her art projects.
The Crystal Garden, one of the stories in Number 11, features Laura, an Oxford don, who is struggling with a book she has vowed to finish in honour of her late husband, Roger, who was a film obsessive. And one of the films she is supposed to be writing about is What A Whopper! which Roger had described succinctly as a “lame British comedy about a bunch of beatniks who travel to Loch Ness to build a model of the monster”. The film recurs late on in the book in a way which is curiously touching.
Roger own fatal obsession was with a short film called The Crystal Garden which he saw on TV as a kid while off sick from school, which haunted him ever after, and for a long time he wasn’t even sure it was real until the Internet opened up new opportunities to solve this sort of mystery, such as IMDb, message boards, and so on. One of the questions which Jonathan seems to pose in this story is about the role of nostalgia and the sense of an idealised past which some of us cling to. Roger, for example, loathed too much choice (presumably like the horrendous amount of TV and radio channels there are now which ultimately seem to offer less than when there was only a small number of stations to choose from).
Along the way Roger is asked to contribute to a book paying homage to the film writer Terry Worth, who had been a specialist in lost movies. Terry is a character from Jonathan’s 1997 novel House of Sleep, and one of the lovely things about the world of Coe is the way there are all these lovely little connecting details which form sort of incidental patterns. They are not central to the stories, and it does not matter if people see the connections, and there is anyway a sense that we as readers will be missing out on any number of references Jonathan works into his books. But they are lovely touches. Like House of Sleep itself features a 1934 Frank King novel of the same name, and the film What A Carve Up! is based on an earlier Frank King novel called The Ghoul. Perhaps not everyone would agree but these links are fun.
Michael Owen in the book What A Carve Up! is obsessed with the old film, and the way it connects to his life. Jonathan has written about his own personal infatuation with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. He wrote up his ‘diary of an obsession’ for Cahiers du cinema, and later included it in the 2005 Penguin Pocket edition of 9th & 13th. It now features in the Kindle collection of Jonathan’s non-fiction writing Marginal Notes, Doubtful Statements. In the essay he explains how from the age of 11 (of course) he was haunted, initially by the book (by Michael and Mollie Hardwick) and then by Billy Wilder’s film and its soundtrack by Miklós Rózsa.
It is a lovely article, and one which many of us can readily identify with, citing different names and other obsessions. There is a particularly vivid part about Jonathan haunting a record shop “in a tiny, Dickensian back street of Birmingham”. This street was called Needless Alley, and in a lovely touch in Number 11 we find our old friend Phoebe Barton living at Number 11, Needless Alley, in Beverley.
One of the great things about this article on Jonathan and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is that it is mostly so clearly pre-Internet. Indeed, being able to access information immediately on the web would have ruined much of the magic that tormented and tantalised Jonathan over the course of 20-odd years. It is something Jonathan refers to in a way when he writes about the film’s famous lost scenes: “Part of me, I realize would prefer this material to remain lost, unseen. That is its very essence. Take away that quality and you have destroyed something fragile, irreplaceable.”

Doing The Rounds: Part Three #5

There is a fascination here with writers and their relationship with music. Partly this is about what music authors work into their books, but also what they do with music in real life. Many writers, for example, find it difficult to work if they have music on. Other authors talk explicitly about what music they were listening to when writing a particular book.
In his introduction to Marcus O’Dair’s biography of Robert Wyatt, Different Every Time, Jonathan writes about how in 1991 Robert’s LP Dondestan provided some necessary inspiration when writing What a Carve Up!: “It was an ambitious book, and the main ambition was to write something intensely political which didn’t make readers feel that they were being harangued. To combine anger with warmth and humanity. Could it be done?” Yes, for Dondestan seemed to show the way to do so.
In a 2007 article for the Guardian newspaper about the 1980s Jonathan picks out Robert Wyatt’s album Old Rottenhat, from 1985: “It amazes me, now, to see how prescient that record was about its own era, even as it was unfolding. Most of us need the benefit of hindsight.” It is something he returns to in his introduction for the Wyatt biography, describing Old Rottenhat as “the album that had, for me, crystallised the emerging ruthlessness of the Thatcherite tendency better than any other, as well as foreshadowing the rise of New Labour ten years before Tony Blair tore up Clause 4 (‘If we forget our roots and where we stand / The movement will disintegrate like castles built on sand’).”
Jonathan has also acknowledged that Robert’s ‘Sea Song’ was one of the pieces of music that helped him when writing his novel House of Sleep. Very shortly after that book was published Jonathan got to interview his hero Robert for the New Statesman: “By the most superficial standards Wyatt might look like a marginal figure; his sales figures in this country have never been big. But at the same time it's astonishing to realise how often he has quietly risen to the occasion, what a diligent musical witness he has been to the key events in our recent history.” This was just before the release of Robert’s 1997 LP Shleep, part of a pattern of making a record every half a dozen years or so. The fact that Jonathan’s House of Sleep was only just out must have seemed a special coincidence.
Jonathan’s fondness for Robert’s music stems from growing up in the 1970s, and it would be fascinating to study different people’s relationship with the Wyatt world depending on when and how they first encountered his work. Here he is always associated with the period just after punk, when he was recording singles for Rough Trade, and working with people like Scritti Politti, Raincoats, Ben Watt, Elvis Costello and Working Week.
In the new millennium he has become a sort of national treasure, but this, no matter how justified the reverence is, can be off-putting and there is a huge temptation to rebel against the sense of being expected to like Robert’s music, as used to be the case with Captain Beefheart. Similarly, there is also a sense of feeling out of step with other people who like Robert’s records, and perhaps liking particular things which others are more uncomfortable with, like the beautiful covers of ‘The Whole Point of No Return’, ‘It’s Raining’, ‘Insensatez’, and Hasta Siempre Comandante’. And the old standards Robert sings from time to time, like ‘Laura’ and ‘What A Wonderful World’.
The whole nonsense with Wyatting is a perfect example of what is intensely irritating about some people who say they love Robert’s work. And it is brilliant that Alfreda Benge or Alfie’s response to this was to say it made her angry "that Robert should be used as a means of clever dicks asserting their superiority in pubs ... It's so unlike Robert, because he's so appreciative of the strengths of pop music. So that, I think, is a real unfairness. The man who coined it, I should like to punch him in the nose."
If, as Jonathan suggests about Marcus’ book, “this fine biography will tell you all that you need to know about the story of Robert Wyatt,” then what it does leave space for is far more about Alfie, or more about the life, loves and work of Alfreda Benge. Her artwork, especially the cover of Dondestan, is magical, and it added a whole new dimension to Robert’s music when with that record she started contributing lyrics. Her poetry is wonderful, and that is another reason why it is so offensive that people should presume to use this record as a weapon to disrupt other people’s pleasure.
The idea of Paul Weller sitting down with Alfie to listen to her stories about when she used to go to the original London mod club nights, and dance to things like John Coltrane’s ‘Olé’ is lovely. There is actually a fantastic quote from her in Paolo Hewitt’s book, The Soul Stylists, which always bears repeating: “What was great about The Scene as well was that it was very democratic. It was really cheap to get in, there was no alcohol, just coke, a lot of pills, and this great music. But later on when these hippies came along to save the world, what did they do? They started opening up The Speakeasy, and places where they didn’t let anyone in. It became utterly elitist and all the good places died a death. I thought it was middle class colonization”. Have we ever seen any photos of Alfie from those days? Robert has mentioned that when he first met her she looked sort of like Jean Seberg.
Alfie’s words are one of factors in why Robert’s work has improved with age. That means his old records sound better as time passes, and when new records have come along sporadically there has always been the urge to argue that each one is better than the last. Part of why Robert’s music has continued to grow is that he is so open to ideas and different forms of music, while creating a style that is uniquely his own.
It is tempting to suggest that many people who love Robert’s work might not listen to similar records that are on occasion so close to being easy listening vocal jazz, like on parts of the beautiful Wyatt / Atzmon / Stephen collaborative effort. But then there sadly does not seem to be (enough) other people who make music like Shleep, Cuckooland and Comicopera.

Doing The Rounds: Part Three #6

The music of Hatfield and the North plays a vital part in the Jonathan Coe novel The Rotters’ Club. The LP of the same name, which spent one week in the lower parts of the British album charts in March 1975, appears in the book in a horribly poignant moment when Benjamin Trotter brings a copy of the record along when he visits his sister Lois in hospital, where she is recovering after the Birmingham pub bombings.
How many other people, after reading The Rotters’ Club, went out to investigate the music of Hatfield and the North? It would presumably make Jonathan Coe delighted to learn that he was responsible for introducing their music to a new audience who, certainly here at least, gradually grew to love their LPs.
Before the book the name was only vaguely familiar. There was a dim recollection that the great pop writer Dave McCullough had mentioned the group in a Scritti Politti piece in Sounds, the weekly music paper that features right at the start of The Rotters’ Club. And he did too, in a great December 1979 piece where he wrote about a new Scritti single, ‘Confidence’, as bringing “all the prominent Scritti influences together. There’s still that loose, brusque rhythm section chopping out a pure concrete bass, hinting at jazz and chiefly reggae influences, above which Green’s wonderful voice and guitar playing presents a genuinely original focal-point, making me think of rock-based folk influences, like Richard Thompson, or other great obscure voices like Robert Wyatt or Hatfield and the North or Family.”
But back in 1975 the name Hatfield and the North did not register here at all. Pop was an obsession back then, and here it would have been all about Mud, the Glitter Band, Showaddywaddy, David Essex and the Stardust soundtrack, ‘Down Down’, ‘January’, ‘Make Me Smile’, Trammps, Tymes, Stylistics. All the sort of things Jonathan doesn’t mention when writing about his 1970s. That is the difference a few years’ difference in ages makes. And part of why The Rotters’ Club as a book is so appealing, being instantly familiar but strangely unfamiliar.
There is a lot of music in the book, which is only natural for a story about teenagers growing up, but there is not much what you might pure pop. There never really seems to be in Jonathan’s books somehow. He doesn’t have characters who whistle along to Dusty Springfield in the shower. But he is great at what music he does weave into his stories. And it is very likely that many people will never be able to hear Gary Shearston or anyone else sing ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’ without getting something in their eye.
The music of Hatfield and the North is central to the book, and not just because their title allows Jonathan to use some lovely puns. There is in particular a pivotal passage where the book’s ‘hero’ Benjamin Trotter as a young kid is taken by his older sister’s boyfriend to see Hatfield and the North play at Barbarella’s in Birmingham. He had not heard them before, but for some very important reasons that night, and the group’s music, will stay with him. In one of the most important paragraphs of the book, indeed of any book, Benjamin muses about that night:
“It was the world, the world itself that was beyond his reach, this whole absurdly vast, complex, random, measureless construct, this never-ending ebb and flow of human relations, political relations, cultures, histories ... How could anyone hope to master such things? It was not like music. Music always made sense. The music he heard that night was lucid, knowable, full of intelligence and humour, wistfulness and energy and hope. He would never understand the world, but he would always love this music.”
In the book’s freeform freak out, ecstatic ending there is a specific mention of the Hatfield and the North song, ‘Share It’, which is an excellent entry point, and very much a favourite of those who love the poignant pop ballads in the oeuvre of the Canterbury Scene rather than the more meandering and complex instrumentals. The singing of Richard Sinclair on that song is wonderful, and there is a kind of Canterbury vocal style he shares with Robert Wyatt which is sweet, tender, often deadpan, with cheery, Cockney conversational inflections, which is detectable too in some of the early Rough Trade groups, Scritti certainly, maybe The Monochrome Set, definitely This Heat, and incidentally, coincidentally, Charles Hayward is a character in Jonathan Coe’s The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim.
There are other mentions of music related to the Canterbury Scene in The Rotters’ Club, including a lovely passage where the delightfully exasperating Benjamin buys as a birthday present for his girlfriend (who wanted Evita) “Voices and Instruments, one of the new releases on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records label. One side consisted of some of e.e. cummings poems set to music by John Cage, sung by Robert Wyatt and Carla Bley. On the other, a Birmingham musician, Jan Steele, had composed some minimalist settings of texts by James Joyce.”
Is this the only mention of Robert Wyatt in the novels of Jonathan Coe? Perhaps, surprisingly so, though possibly, by association, he could be included as a Hatfield and the North fellow traveller, and his wordless singing on the miraculous ‘Calyx’ from the group’s first LP is a wonderful example of that part of Robert’s art, that style of singing he specialised in which was somewhere between jazz or Brazilian scatting and the classical choral form.
Henry Cow and in particular their guitarist Fred Frith also have a lovely cameo role in The Rotters’ Club, with Malcolm the hairy guy describing them as “The Yardbirds getting into bed with Ligeti in the smoking rubble of divided Berlin.” Their experimental pop music stimulates Benjamin’s desire for something new, and in the book the world’s ultimate indifference to this soundworld equates to the failure of socialism, all those beautiful ideas and noble aspirations.
There is a real sense of nostalgia in The Rotter’s Club, but it is easy to suggest that for once this warm glow serves a positive purpose. This book’s 1970s is presumably very much Jonathan Coe’s youth, a happy time inside his mind, and it is tempting to imagine much of him is there in the character of Benjamin Trotter. But what makes it so special is the sense of reclaiming something, setting the record straight, redressing the balance, and coming to terms with shaping forces, what went into making Jonathan Coe, the writer and person, he is today.
One of the book’s key characters is Doug Anderton, who is the one who enthusiastically embraces punk rock, and in the course of the book he looks back on the 1970s, and mentions “the ungodly strangeness of it, the weird things that were happening at the time”. He refers specifically to the fairly secret armies (and how Jonathan must have thought about David Nobbs when typing that) and the extreme racism. And elsewhere in the book the dark side of the 1970s is there with the industrial conflicts (the mentions of the Grunwick dispute and the inspirational Jayaben Desai, for example, as well as the more local Longbridge Rover plant), and the IRA campaign, and in particular the Birmingham pub bombings in November 1974.
In this sense, and in a very specific West Midlands way, The Rotters’ Club forms the final part of a trilogy that takes in The Prefects’ ‘The Bristol Road Leads To Dachau’, and Denim’s ‘The Osmonds’. One of the big questions left unanswered by The Rotters’ Club is whether Doug Anderton ever went to see The Prefects play in some small Birmingham pub, or at Barbarella’s? He would, presumably, have got plenty of mileage out of wearing a Prefects badge in the lapel of his school blazer to bait Benjamin.