There is nobody better than Shena Mackay at using pop, literary and other cultural references in her writing. Anita Brookner once referred to Shena’s modus operandi and how in her stories “all this is served up with a full complement of television catch phrases, lines from popular songs, brand names, and references to bottle banks, cash points, and other urban detritus.”
There is perhaps nothing startling in that, but it is incredibly difficult to get consistently right. And it is hard to think of occasions where Shena’s references strike a wrong note or spoil the flow. On the contrary they often delight, and seem to fit the context, adding colour and shade perfectly.
The references are in keeping with the context and characters, but there is a temptation to wonder how often they reflect Shena’s own passions. In The Artist’s Widow there is a mention of Ligeti’s Sonata for Solo Violin, and allusions to Snape and Aldeburgh. There is also a lovely passage where Lyris returns home after a private viewing of her late husband’s paintings at a Mayfair gallery: “She went into the studio. An unfinished canvas stood on the easel. She put on a record, Ella singing ‘This Time The Dream’s On Me’, unscrewed the cap of a tube of paint, squeezed out a bead of ultramarine and took a brush from the jar”.
Then in Heligoland there is mention of a Miles Davis CD, and how on a tape in the Gypsy Rose Café “Chet Baker put the boot in with ‘The Night They Called It A Day’.” There are mentions of Les Six and Germaine Tailleferre, and a reference by Francis Campion to “a strange piece of music on the wireless, for male voices and orchestra. Turned out to be called Helgoland. By Bruckner.”
And in The Atmospheric Railway Dusty’s ‘Goin’ Back’ plays on the angelfish shower radio, and Muriel decides she wants it played at her funeral. Put those disparate elements together and it is easy to create, rightly or wrongly, a mental image of Shena loving these things, conjuring up a cultured, classy, non-conformist character.
Anyone looking for the story of 1960s pop in Shena’s early books might be disappointed or disorientated. There is probably more in the way of fragments from hymns, oddly. Or as it says at the start of Shena’s Soft Volcano: “There is nothing like the sound of children singing hymns for deceiving us into thinking there is some hope for mankind.” But then there is Gene Vincent.
Sweet Gene. Eugene Schlumburger. Vincent Eugene Craddock. It fits. At the start of the book Eugene hears the West Indian students who share his boarding house playing an old record, the ballad ‘The Night is So Lonely’. Shena said in an autobiographical piece from 2004 about her short spell at school in Kidbrooke: “The novel, as I thought it was until it was typed out, was originally titled The Night is So Lonely after the Gene Vincent song. The story was written at night to a background of Radio Luxembourg, and I wish I could recapture the pleasure and excitement I felt while writing it.” And then, in the accompanying novella, Morris Todd the fugitive dwarf is on the run in his leather trousers, arebel like Gene.
Ironically, when Shena’s first book came out, in 1964 Gene Vincent himself was living, at least temporarily, with his wife and young daughter in Welling, just down Shooters Hill from the Blackheath where parts of Shena’s novellas were set. It may not have been the happiest time of Gene’s life, but it is a gloriously surreal twist. And there we were living in the same town, albeit briefly. Admittedly he might have been on the road for much of that year, performing across the UK and to Les Blousons Noirs in France, so maybe he did not get much chance to sing ‘Baby Blue’ when he passed us in the high street or by the lake in Danson Park.
There is even mention on a Gene Vincent fansite of him playing a gig in Welling on May 8 1964, at St Michael’s Community Centre, in Wrotham Road, pretty close to where he was living in Upper Wickham Lane, past the old Odeon, near to where that horrible British National Party bookshop would later be. Did that show actually take place? If it did, it must have been wild.
Presumably the rockers, greasers, and old teds would have been out in force, dancing on the outskirts, with the mods down the Inferno, up near the station, keeping a low profile that night, maybe heading out to The Iron Curtain, in St Mary Cray, which was held in a big old Georgian house, or the Austral in Sidcup.