Thursday, 7 September 2017
Saturday, 29 July 2017
This is a collection of four linked essays, each of which is essentially an extended examination of works by four favourite authors: Ali Smith, Shena Mackay, Jonathan Coe, and John Murray. And there are plenty of diversions and digressions along the way.
The framework or context was indirectly inspired by a passage from W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn where he refers to the poet Swinburne and his rigid routine while in exile in suburban South London, which was to walk in the morning, write in the afternoon, and read in the evening. That has stuck in the mind as it is quite uncannily close to home.
Sebald’s account of Swinburne’s time living in Putney, at The Pines, seems to draw heavily on an essay by Max Beerbohm, based on visits he had made as a privileged visitor to The Pines when relatively young. The essay begins: “In my youth the suburbs were rather looked down on – I never knew quite why. It was held with some merriment that Swinburne lives in one of them.” Max goes on to give an affectionate account of Swinburne’s life in Putney with his faithful companion Watts-Dunton, after the poet was taken there “ailing and broken”.
The Beerbohm essay is the starting point for a lovely book by Mollie Panter-Downes, published in 1971, called At The Pines, which sounds like it should to be a cue for a song. Coincidentally she states that when she visited the property the house’s recent tenants had included a well-known pop group.
Mollie seems fascinated by the whole mythology surrounding Swinburne and Watts-Dunton in Putney, not least how “that dazzling boy whose wondrous singing had electrified his generation” ended up for so long in such a “frowsty but cosy establishment”.
She seems equally attracted to and repelled by the pair’s lifestyle, their quiet life of academic retreat, the deliberate detachment of comfortable old buffers, a proper Dickensian little pair in their carpet slippers, with their inviolate, invariable routine, the regimen which Beerbohm said Watts took a “tutorial pride” in.
Watts is portrayed by Mollie as a solid, comforting, soothing presence. She acknowledges that some never forgave him for whisking Swinburne off to a new life at Putney, where depending on your point of view he appointed himself the poet’s guardian, gaoler, companion, and carer.
The methodical round of life at The Pines seemed to suit Swinburne, and Mollie acknowledged: “When we look back at Swinburne’s methodical day-to-day routine at The Pines, it strikes us as having the monotony and isolation of life on board ship, which many people, after all, find extremely agreeable.”
Every day Swinburne would take his “habitual healthful walk”, up the hill, over Putney Heath and Wimbledon Common. After 25 years of this, Watts-Dunton got engaged to Clara, a beautiful young lady 44 years his junior. Clara somewhat shook up the “comfortable frowsy academic establishment”, adding light and colour to The Pines. Years later she wrote a charming account of her life there, during which she describes Swinburne’s constitutional.
She acknowledges that many other people have done the same thing, but shows her perceptiveness by writing: “These enthusiasts have, as a rule, ended their narratives at the very point where cynics might suppose the human interest of the story to begin, namely the village of Wimbledon itself.”
The poet was in the habit of dropping into the Rose & Crown there for his daily bottle of bass, and a read of the paper or some magazines, carefully avoiding the locals with the connivance of accommodating hosts. He also loved to visit the bookshop run by his steadfast friend and “fairy godmother”, Miss Frost.
Swinburne’s daily routine is of an extreme and eccentric nature, and yet there are parallels with life today. Oh, it is a very different suburban South London now, and Swinburne had far the better of it, being able to scurry over the nearby commons rather than winding his way along side streets where so many of the front gardens are now concreted over, with weeds growing through the block paving by way of revenge.
But, today, the suburbs still serve as home to plenty of willing exiles, with their own routines, many of whom for whatever reason do take a daily constitutional, even if it is only along the road to the local high street, to do the rounds of the charity shops, the library, the discount stores, the supermarkets, with infinite variety in the seemingly never-ending sameness.
Clara Watts-Dunton describes how when Swinburne visited his favourite shop he was “like a child in a tuck shop”. Apparently he would wear a coat with special poacher’s pocket so that he could carry his book purchases home comfortably. She writes about how when he got back to The Pines “his eyes would sparkle with sheer delight as he produced some of the morning’s finds”. That sort of enthusiasm will seem familiar to so many of us when we have returned from our daily rounds.
So, aspects of the daily rounds are used here as springboards from which to dive in and explore the writings of Ali Smith, Shena Mackay, Jonathan Coe and John Murray. Apart from being particular favourites, perhaps it can be argued these authors are linked by their use of humour, their political aspects, their powers of observation, and in an odd kind of way by music.
There is a very specific fascination in this collection of essays with the way writers use their own passions in stories, and there is a considerable amount of attention paid to how these writers use music in their books. And, perhaps not too surprisingly, there are at times some detours into particular aspects of pop culture.
If you start reading the essays here, then they will run from last to first, but that should not matter. The essays are broken down into small sections, and in theory each of these should work as a standalone piece, so it should be fine if segments are read at random. But if you do want to start with Part One then go to the blog archive in the right hand column, and click on posts for January. For Part Two, go to the posts for March, and for Part Three go to the posts for May. Part Four is in the archive for July. That should work.
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’.
Inventing musicians for use in novels can be a tricky business. Music-loving readers can be an unforgiving audience. And it is easy enough to think of examples where writers have got things horribly wrong. It is harder to think of occasions where authors have conjured up musical lives that seem implausibly convincing. Perhaps one of the very best examples of a novelist getting it right is The Tango Singer by Tomás Eloy Martínez, which came out as a UK paperback in 2007.
In the novel the narrator Bruno Cadogan, a Borges scholar, goes in search of the tango singer Julio Martel. This was in late 2001, at a time of political upheaval in Buenos Aires, and when the world was in its precarious state immediately after the 9/11 attacks. The singer Bruno seeks is elusive, illusive, intangible, and has never recorded a single line commercially. Martel is tormented by a twisted, sick body but remains an incredible singer with a faultless memory who turns a lost tango “into a mystic lament on mortal flesh and the solitude of the soul without God”.
In 2001 he was singing only when and where he felt like it. He showed up in absurd locations, unannounced, singing for himself, recovering a past city. His performances were extravagant and sporadic, like dramatic gestures. In this way he tried to recover what the past put out of reach, by ceremoniously evoking old friends, the dead. He says he never stopped singing, but simply declined to give recitals for people who did not understand: his singing being an incantation against cruelty and injustice. Bruno never gets to hear Julio perform, but in a way that suits the book’s theme. Bruno admits he only wants to remember what he’s never seen.”
John Murray’s Jazz etc. is another great example of where an author conjures up the lives of musicians that seem so real and appealing that it is hard not to resist checking on Discogs or Wikipedia to see if they really did exist. In the book John’s narrator is Enzo, and the great (unrequited) love of his life is Fanny Golightly “the canonised jazz guitarist”. They met as teenagers at the end of the 1960s while studying at Oxford. They both loved jazz and were both from Cumbria. Enzo was from Whitehaven, while Fanny was from the Salterbeck council estate, near Workington.
Fanny’s initial influences were Hank Marvin, The Beatles, and later Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Clapton, and then John McLaughlin. Fanny introduces Enzo to the newly released and to them extraordinary Extrapolation by John McLaughlin, a record which presumably had a massive impact on her own playing. In the early performances Enzo sees by her, the terror and tenderness Fanny experienced in her upbringing seems reflected in the music she made leading a power trio, which was heavy but not quite the thing for fans of Sabbath, Jody Grind, Blodwyn Pig.
As her music evolved, in her later ECM phase, Fanny’s playing took on a choir-like nature, sounding almost medieval. And it is tempting to imagine her recordings in the label’s catalogue alongside ones by John Abercrombie, Ralph Towner, Pat Metheny, Egberto Gismonti, Terje Rypdal, for example.
Without giving too much away, Fanny’s path through life inevitably leads to that of Toto Cebola, the electric jazz violinist, a Portuguese gypsy virtuoso, who was born in 1945. As a kid in Coimbra (where the fado is even more melancholy and regretful than in Lisbon), working for peanuts as a shoeshine boy, Toto hears jazz for the first time in a café. What he hears, accidentally, is West Coast Cool, and it changes his life. The music he hears is “like fado highly formalised and extremely solemn but that was where the similarity ended.”
Using his cunning and persuasive powers Toto gets free violin lessons from Vesuvio the Clown on the local municipal rubbish dump. He amazes a character called Joey Conto, who loves his jazz and runs an English school in Coimbra, and he becomes Toto’s patron, and arranges his musical education. Toto is sent away to study formal classical playing and composition, and at the same time receives training in jazz informally. He later makes waves in the late 1960s jazz era with his spiritual electric violin playing, and he is fated to play with Fanny, which sounds suspiciously as if John Murray intended someone to use that line.
Fanny and Toto play in a trio with the bass player William Joy, whose name somehow suggests the extraordinary recording of ‘Mr Joy’ by Karin Krog and friends including Jan Garbarek and the bassist Arild Andersen whom it is easy to imagine was a hero or rival of Mr Joy. William makes only a fleeting appearance in the book, towards the end, but pretty much steals the show.
What happens is that William bumps into the narrator Enzo while in New York, in a bookshop where Enzo is buying a Georges Duhamel book, whose novels turn out to have been something of a passion with William once upon a time, the Birmingham-born bassist admitting to being a jazz brainbox, citing Mike Ratledge of Soft Machine as another example. William despite his name is rather a lugubrious joyless soul , though it turns out there is a terribly tragic story which accounts for his demeanour, and explains why he sought salvation in music, and hence the aching sweetness he plays with.
Someone somewhere will have written a book about occasions on which minor characters have stolen the show in novels. One that springs to mind is Watson Holland, in John Murray’s Jazz etc. The remarkable Watson is very much one of John’s great comic figures.
When we meet Watson for the first time it is as a lodger in Enzo the book’s narrator’s family home in Whitehaven, Cumbria. It is the mid-1960s and Watson is aged 50. He is a cultured pharmacist, and is over-educated and under-stimulated. For amusement he indulges in verbal battles with the young Enzo, which John Murray claims is comparable to the interplay between Jan Hammer and John McLaughlin as part of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Actually Watson would not have appreciated that description, as he was very much against jazz, but John Murray claims that his tirades were like a jazz soloist’s improvisations, and like that great jazz composer Samuel Beckett in fact. And indeed so is John’s writing, for where he switches from story to story in the course of a book it is like the saxophonist and then the guitarist and then the trumpet player then the vibes player and the guitarist again stepping forward and taking their turn to deliver an improvised solo, while knowing when to step back and keep things ticking over as need be.
Hopefully without giving too much away, Watson Holland undergoes a Damascene conversion in 1991 when he discovers jazz and love, the two naturally being connected. The curmudgeonly intellectual and classical snob Watson Holland is converted to jazz on hearing Keith Jarrett’s Facing You, or more precisely the track ‘My Lady, My Child’. And it gets even better when Watson’s new wife, the retired school teacher Madge Bimson from Nether Wasdale way, discovers free jazz and in her 70s becomes a regular attendee of concerts by the likes of Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Lol Coxhill, and Ray Russell.
Watson’s original incarnation as the argumentative pharmacist with what we used to call highfalutin ideas and a bombastic nature, off-set with a sense of mischief, is responsible for some of the best lines in the book, and this is a typical example: “It’s a sad fact that people scarcely know how to play any more, my boy. Look to Shakespeare, if you want any proper guidance in that respect. He loved to play, he was the biggest player ever. Even his tragic plays he leavens with the idiots, the rude mechanicals and the punning artisans.”
Watson maybe meets his match in Bill Geraghty, father of George the narrator of A Gentleman’s Relish, John Murray’s 2006 novel. At the start of the book, when we are introduced to Bill, he speaks 55 languages and has had as many mistresses. Those numbers rise considerably as the book progresses.
Bill Geraghty is a disappointed man, like Watson, resentful at missing out on great glories. He was blackballed and excluded from academic success at Oxford, and occupied his working life as a proof reader in Abingdon. He was a rapacious autodidact, and as such an earlier example of Enzo in John Murray’s Jazz etc. who was “a slipshod autodidact in an age when there was no point at all in such a decadent occupation.”
He might be loveable as an English eccentric, but Bill Geraghty would have been a nightmare to have as a father. His son George is the book’s narrator, and through his reminiscences we learn of Bill’s escapades, including the incident with his father’s ashes, and how he was devastated by the death of a beloved budgerigar (Mrs White) which is buried with every possible ceremony in a valuable Wedgwood casket.
Bill is described as a “competitive failure” and seeks solace in languages and ladies. He is an inveterate womaniser, and his philandering inevitably gets him into serious trouble. On one occasion an outraged husband turns up at the front door of the family home, complaining about “cast an oafers” turning Abingdon into “Sodem and Gomorrer”, only to be bettered (and battered) by Bill’s long-suffering wife who seeks her own compensatory diversions among the decadent pre-war avant-garde.
Another classic comic interlude comes along when Bill slopes off to spend time alone in a caravan at Penrhyndeudraeth with a shop girl, Mildred, who is half his age and who gets rather wonderful revenge for Bill’s erratic behaviour. Best of all though is the case of Lenny Risley, a barrow boy from Rotherhithe. Bill falls for his barmaid sister Coco’s “fizzical shams” (go on, work it out), and in the course of events gets caught up playing a game of cards with Lenny.
Bill may have been a city intellectual but it turns out he was a wizard at playing cards too, and would probably have had a whale of time playing poker with Bad Bobby Sloane, one of the stars of Jim Dodge’s Stone Junction, the man who teaches the young Daniel Pearse about how to achieve a balance of discipline and impulse. Lenny turns out to be an “East End Don Quixote” who speaks like Margery Allingham’s Mr Lugg and has a similarly uniquely peculiar idea of honour and how to lose. Lenny loses pretty much everything including, to Bill’s horror, the Risley residence: “This arse is your arse now”. It is one of the great comic episodes in fiction.
Whenever a critic claims such-and-such by so-and-so is the funniest book ever it is inclined to irritate. The simple, obvious truth is that different things appeal to different people. Different things make us laugh. One episode in a book that is guaranteed to raise more than a smile here is a passage in John Murray’s novel John Dory which involves a lady called Mildred (the narrator’s mum), some home-distilled sloe gin, a compost heap, and some hens which get paralytic, plucked, and come back from the dead wearing little knitted baby jackets. It is tempting to repeat the whole thing here, but that would spoil some fun if it is not familiar to you.
And there is scientific proof that the farcical episode is incredibly comical. There is a lady called Rosemary, the secretary to a rail pressure group whose chairman was from Maryport, the Cumbrian town in which John Dory is set. This chap, an elderly local politician who was immensely likeable, tended to describe himself as a Husband, a Socialist and a Methodist, in that order.
He could easily have been in John Dory. He always seemed to be wearing a blue blazer, with a little fish badge in his lapel, just like Ken Wright in the book, the visiting preacher at the Methodist mission hall at the far end of the North Quay. Ken has quite a vivid past, and a way with words even though he looked “monumentally anonymous” at the time of the book. But that is another story.
Rosemary always seemed fiercely protective of her chairman, and she was genuinely passionate about railways and public transport. It seemed natural to tell her about John Murray’s book John Dory being set in Maryport, with the aquarium and so on, and while on a lunch break at a meeting she listened to an account of the ludicrous episode with the hens. She could come across as a little stern and severe, so it was a total joy to hear her howl with laughter at the story, so much so that everyone else in the room stopped what they were doing and turned to stare at us, and several sidled up later to ask “What on earth were you doing to Rosemary?” So, there you are, proof of sorts that it is the funniest passage in English literature.
On another day the same claim could be made for the episode in John Murray’s Murphy’s Favourite Channels where, early on in the book, the narrator Roe is on a train up to London on the day of the total eclipse in August 1999. The account of a four-hour train journey on the West Coast from Carlisle up to London tells how Roe gets revenge on a software sales executive who is a menace with his mobile and ruins any chance of Roe sitting peacefully reading a Kate O’Brien novel: “By Preston I was bilious, by Wigan incensed, by Warrington incandescent, by Crewe half-insane, by Stafford ...” Well, intervention was called for, which is what Roe does, telling his own tall tale and completely bamboozling the menace with the mobile in a magnificent manner.
Another great episode in John Murray’s comic repertoire comes in A Gentleman’s Relish involving Joe Clifton, a friend of the narrator George Geraghty. Joe is a painter from the Aran islands. He is a great admirer of the novelist and revolutionary Liam O’Flaherty, especially his book Black Soul, which is a very John Murray-like detail. Joe exacts some maliciously gleeful revenge when he is overlooked for a Festival of Britain commission.
The wreaking of this revenge takes place at a party hosted by the distinguished critic Esmond Jell, and an invitation to his home was supposedly a wonderful thing: “Clifton had celebrated his acceptance by the metropolitan art world by deciding to make himself completely unacceptable. This headstrong instinct would soon accelerate his ultimate eclipse and eventually lead him to a terminal obscurity”
Joe attends the soiree with his eccentric Aunt Biddy, and he does give something of a warning to his friend George of what’s in store by saying: “Here’s to not kow-towing. Here’s to letting them know that subversive talents have a frightening penchant for genuine sedition.”
George, the narrator, provides an eyewitness account of what could be said to be the smashing time Joe has to the accompanying strains of Walter Leadbetter and his Jumping Thumpers performing ‘Wibbidy Wab’ with considerable gusto, all of which sounds so convincing that it is something of a shock not to find the song on YouTube in one form or another. In fact the only ‘Wibbidy Wabbidy’ that seems to come up is a brand new track by a rapper, activist and poet from Phoenix called Myrlin which is something special in its own way, and serious stuff too.
John Murray does describe himself as a comic novelist, which is fine, but somehow that gives no clue to the weighty issues he covers within his often very funny far-fetched extravaganzas. For example, his 1993 work, Radio Activity, was described by Jonathan Coe as being “the very model of a political novel”. Appropriately, at that time, Jonathan was well on the way to completing his own highly political novel, What A Carve Up!, which he saw as an ambitious comic work blending anger with humanity and warmth, which just about also perfectly sums up Radio Activity.
Set in 1986, the year of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, John’s Radio Activity has at its core the nuclear sites at Windscale and Sellafield in Cumbria, home to British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), and he plays with the attendant issues, like radioactive poisoning, leukaemia, cancer, contamination of the sea, and leaks from the plants, with the story being told in five emissions.
In a rather less headline-grabbing way the book also takes in the nuclear industry’s relationship with the local community. It is clever how John brings in the way people will accept pretty much anything as the norm if it provides steady employment and a reasonable wage. He covers the invidiously insidious arts of reputation management, media manipulation, public relations activity, well before phrases like spin and corporate social responsibility made it into our everyday vocabulary. So one man’s sponsorship is another man’s bribery and corruption, investing in the local community is tantamount to the buying of favours rather than helping to transform the region, and so it simply depends where one stands.
John’s 1996 novel Reiver Blues – A New Border Apocalypse is set in “the debatable lands” of the Anglo-Scottish border, where the book’s characters slip easily between North Cumbria and Dumfriesshire. Historically the term “debatable lands” refers specifically to that region, but it does turn up in the T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom in relation to the inhabitants of the Jordan Valley. John Murray, one suspects, rather likes the phrase as he used Debatable Lands as the title of an 1994 anthology of modern world writing put out by his own Panurge Publishing imprint.
In Reiver Blues the ‘hero’ or narrator Beatty (who just happens to be a keen cook, an Oxford-trained orientalist and a Sanskrit scholar, rather like John) is troubled by The Guardian’s foreign reporting, and in particular coverage of conflicts in Albania, Angola, Burundi, Bosnia, and so on, in fact any place where can be found “paupers of the world forever at the mercy of barbarians and borders”.
He decides to write a letter to Slobodan Milošević and Radovan Karadžić, the Serb leaders, not simply telling them to change their evil ways, which he lists: “Political cynicism; gross self-seeking; homicidal mendacity; pathological inconsistency; heartless breaking of promises; endless false accusation; undisguised genocide; undisguised ethnic cleansing; flagrant ethnomania; hectoring for Slav socialism while encouraging nationalistic Slav fascism; arrant religious bigotry; blatant dividing and ruling etc. etc.”
Beatty explains how, where he lives, in the Debatable Lands, hundreds of years ago there were ferocious border disputes, involving vicious deeds and colossal cruelties, the crimes carried out by reivers, one of whom, a certain Willy Moscrop, haunts his wife and is a peculiarly unromantic spirit, being weighed down by “venality, whining, deviousness, idleness, the compendious weight of his petty sins”
The solution to the Bosnian war, Beatty suggests, is through cooking, and he recommends firstly a recipe for the Albanian dish of mehudehra, a garlic soup of sorts, which should have everyone “flinging at each other the same sort of amiable cross-border rhetoric of tolerance I offer you now”.
As an aside there is a lovely anecdote on John’s old website about him attending the Legion d’Honneur ceremony held in Paris in December 1997 for the Albanian author Ismail Kadare (a favourite here, and fortunately the local library seems fond of stocking his books), and how he got interviewed for Albanian TV, being the sole representative of a country neither French nor Albanian.
The other recipe Beatty shares is for patlican dolmasi, or warm stuffed aubergines from Turkish Sarajevo, which he claims is so truly mouth-watering that nobody could be “frightened of or suppress or antagonise a people who have given the world its greatest vegetable cuisine since the world began.”
If Reiver Blues takes in East European and Third World news, and Beatty is tormented by what he reads about “genocide, oppression, mutilation, feuding, feudalism, poverty”, and the way it contrasts with the “EU genteel economics”, then John’s later novel Murphy’s Favourite Channels has the same spirit. It is set in the immediate post-9/11 world, and takes in antagonism towards and ignorance of Moslems, the Palestinian conflict (and the BBC’s reporting of it as soap opera drama), and the impact of the Foot and Mouth epidemic on everyday Cumbrian life, without beating the reader about the head with sanctimony.
One of the most serious issues John writes about in his books is dementia. George’s magnificent mother Mildred in John Dory is struck down by the condition, and he describes poignant scenes during her final days in Whitehaven hospital. Then in The Legend of Liz & Joe the narrator Joe Gladstone goes to visit his sister Sally in the Cherry Blossom Home just outside Carlisle. To put it bluntly Sally, age 76, has “lost her marbles”.
As Joe says: “The opposite of being driven and directed is being unfocused, divergent, random and repetitive, and my big sister Sall was all that and a damn sight more” Joe visits her once a week, in stark contrast to all her old friends. He admits that he was “startled initially”, but embarrassment faded, and the urge to entertain her took “its proper precedence”.
It is a good approach to take, but not everyone has the courage to do so. He rightly concludes that senile dementia is a modern epidemic. There is one phrase from the book that sticks in the mind about being “hearteningly young, heartlessly old”. And here is another great quote from the story: “In the real world which was often as mad as Bedlam, life was not a business of mimetic tribute music but of real music however discordant by real originals.”
There is a lot of religion in John’s books, one way and another, and they leave a lingering impression of a writer genuinely interested in Buddhism, Hinduism, Methodism, and other religions. In A Gentleman’s Relish there is a quote about the artist Joe Clifton who “reads the bible for its poetry, its sinew, its potence, its beauty”. And biblical quotes are scattered through Murphy’s Favourite Channels, while more generally in John’s books there is the recurring use of the time and chance happening to us all motif, from Ecclesiastes chapter 9 verse 11.
In this sense John seems to belong to an old tradition where non-denominational people find beauty in religious texts. One example that springs to mind is Shena Mackay’s frequent use of references to old hymns, but maybe more pertinently there is a quote from Old Growth, the great Jim Dodge poem about ancient rebels which appears in his Rain on the River collection, with the Gary Snyder endorsement on the back cover:
“I have a vision: I and thousands like me, hordes of psychedelic relics, pie-eyed dreamers, pantheists with Taoist proclivities, Trotskyite bandits from the emerald hills, all standing together, wrinkled, twisted, worn, tweaked, aging and infirm yet somehow indomitable, fighting hard for what we love and what remains: family, friends, freedom, justice and ancient forests. So heed fair warning, corporate heads and greedy running dogs, mergered oligarchs swathed in the baffle of bureaucrats and bought politicians, you mess with us at the risk of grief”.
Undoubtedly the writer John Murray is a gracious, gentle and generous man in real life, but in his books he does disputatiousness particularly well. He is terrific with the withering dismissal, the waspish phrase. Here he is talking about a character in Reiver’s Blues (a far from everyday tale of cooks, thieves, and lovers) whom he nicknames Loon Cheng (but is actually a guy called Henry who works in a bookshop in Langholme in the Debatable Lands), a former shepherd from Essex who suffers from MS and is a really menacing bore:
“All at once I saw Loon Cheng for what he was and would always be, tragedy or not. H.B. Hawkes had faced the extremes of experience, location, occupation, mortality and immortality and had chosen to take the lower path of the truly competent fool. He ousted mystery with Radio 4. He filled pregnant silences with abortions of babble. He was full of anecdote but the tales left no tang. He knew everybody and had been everywhere but knew nobody and need never have left his house. He took stunning photographs but had only looked at them the once.”
In later books John serves up some terrific splenetic rants. Joe Gladstone, the narrator in The Legend of Liz & Joe, is described as being a “monomaniac ranter” given to displays of “ugly choler” when in “unashamed didactic mode”. Joe specialises in opinions. By trade he is an unsuccessful cookery writer, a luxury subsidised for many years by his interior designer wife Liz. Fortuitously Joe inherits a fortune, and is able to run an exclusive gourmet guest house in the Debatable Lands, where visitors are vetted extremely harshly. The price is low but the fabled exclusivity is designed to keep dull people away.
We get to see a rejection letter Joe sends to a particularly persistent applicant who seems at pains to point out how cultured he is. Joe in his written assault asks: “Why do you not go to the public library and search intently along its shelves sampling page by page what might be good and might be bad, using your own brain and your own coordinates to assess and discriminate?” And he rants against the type of person who tries to keep up with what’s on the Booker shortlist or has been well-reviewed in the broadsheets, that type of middle-class cultured conventionality, the type of people who would not on impulse read a book by a foreign author or an old novel. And particular scorn is reserved for those who join book clubs.
Book clubs are just one of numerous bees in the Joe Gladstone bonnet, or as he puts it: “One of the bees in the numerous hives owned by a notional apiarist magnate, all of which corresponds, to sustain the metaphor, to the bonnet of yours truly”. Other subjects Joe gets his teeth into are vegetarian cooking, cheap meat production, and his son’s job as manager of an arts centre, pragmatically putting on tribute acts and clairvoyants to fill the venue on a regular basis. His son had once been a promising young anarchist but, in Joe’s words, “metamorphosised into his present ossification as a Wiltshire market town Civic Centre arts manager”.
The nature of comedy is another subject Joe holds forth on, and it is not hard to imagine he echoes John Murray’s own sentiments when he says: “The truly comic conforms to the dimensions of the soul, meaning it is deep and is always in a reversible equilibrium with the tragic or the sorrowful. I am currently in unashamed didactic mode, so let me tell you that my hero Charles Dickens is one of those rarities, the truly comic, because Charles Dickens among other things plumbs the depths of the grotesque, the cruel, the deformed, the desolate, the desperate and the lunatic, the fearful crenellations of the immeasurable because infinite soul.”
He continues: “Whereas e.g. Messrs. Clive James, Ben Elton not to speak of ten thousand apprentice ‘new’ or ‘alternative’ comedians, no matter how hard they sweat, will never be truly comic, meaning truly funny, because they are far too infatuated with the merely associative one-liner. The one-liner alas will never be anything but an indication of shallow breath and ideation, something that comes and goes like froth on the sea or like a monotonous hiccup. The truly comic is all about deep breath, expansiveness, hugeness, a straining and intimation towards that which is limitless (q.v. Dickens, Rabelais, Flann O’Brien, and unfortunately not many more).”
In the preceding book, A Gentleman’s Relish, there is a lovely passage where John’s narrator George Geraghty listens to a Radio 3 documentary on George Grosz, “one of my crucial influences when I was a precociously successful and gleefully savage young cartoonist”. George also wrote a slim book on Grosz, back in 1949, but he is left out of the radio documentary, and suffers from “the unglamorous and fatuous anguish of being so comprehensively ignored”.
Here he sounds like the poet Francis Campion, in Shena Mackay’s Heligoland, and no doubt their paths crossed in Fitzrovia or at the Nautilus near Norwood. George consoles himself by declaiming: “The wretched producer had gone for a cross between an avant-garde sound collage and too close parody of The Navy Lark and I hoped the bugger would be the first to be sacked in any future exercises in BBC downsizing.”
Meanwhile Murphy’s Favourite Channels contains some splendid John Murray rants about agit-prop theatre and soaps. The narrator Roe has at one time a highbrow wife for whom soaps and old sit coms (like George & Mildred) are homeopathic relief, and Roe’s ranting can come across as “arrogant bloody hectoring” by a snob sneering at what others love. He finds his own salvation in digital TV, and wonders how he survived without it: “In those dim pre-satellite days before The Year of the Total Eclipse, I had no matchless toy that could both divert and educate”.
With his remote control held in his hand he could now battle around the world geographically, politically, comprehensively, which was something of a miracle as: “Somewhere around the end of 1990, it hit me with a terrible jolt that, day by day, month by month, year by year and channel by terrestrial channel, there was nothing worth watching on the bloody television. By that date they were crudely and ruthlessly obliterating the idea of original one-off dramas, even on the august BBC2 and the once courageous Channel 4.”