When it comes to detail Shena Mackay is great at shops, novels, poetry, painting, radio programmes, TV soaps, films, flowers, clothes, colours, buses, trains, smells, and so on. And there are many excellent examples within Shena’s books of where she uses musical and pop culture references incredibly effectively.
The historical context of her novel The Orchard on Fire is pinpointed by a mention of ‘How Much is That Doggie in the Window?’ which in 1953 was a number one for Lita Roza, much to her eternal horror. There is another lovely passage where the young April’s mother sings a few lines from ‘Try A Little Tenderness’: “She maybe weary, women do get weary, wearing the same shabby dress.”
There is a passing Gene Vincent reference in Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumburger, and in the accompanying Toddler on the Run there is “Leda, crying, while Ray Charles sang and her thin sister dies of cancer in Lewisham Hospital.” Ray reappears, sort of, in the later short story Cloud-Cuckoo Land where ‘Born To Lose’ mutates into ‘Bored To Sobs’.
There are times when Shena is great on that hinterland between the rock ’n’ roll explosion and the beat boom. There is, for example, a lovely mention in the short story Crossing The Border of the old Johnny Burnette hit ‘Clown Shoes’ in connection with a bequest left to Flora who had been (a day too late) to visit her great-uncle Lorimer at Grimaldi House, a home for retired clowns down Bromley way, which seems so real the temptation is to look it up, though that is likely only to lead to an old Avengers episode with an all-star cast.
That story features in Shena’s 1999 collection, The Worlds Smallest Unicorn, which prompted a Private Eye piece about red faces at the publishers about a missing apostrophe in the book’s title, brilliantly demonstrating that someone had not read the opening story from which the title comes.
That story, The Worlds Smallest Unicorn, features a fantastic passage about the family background of Teddy and Webster Shelmerdine, whose parents were musicians, Willie ‘the Weeper’ Shelmerdine and Delia MacFarlane: “They grew up in the English jazz and folk revival of the Fifties and early Sixties, and although they had been named after Teddy Wilson and Ben Webster, they were weaned on skiffle and cut their teeth on Trad.”
Shena goes on to state: “Willie and Delia were part of the scene, minor household names along with Pete and Peggy Seeger, Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey, Chris Barber and Ottilie Patterson, partners in the tightly knit world of performers and fans on the jazz and folk circuit of gigs and festivals and clubs. Everybody knew all the gossip, and there was not a dry eye in the Green Man the night Willie bawled out ‘Delia’s Gone’ for the first time after she had run off with the jew’s harp player from the Colin Clark City Stompers. Beryl Bryden, who was topping the bill, enfolded the weeping boys in the wings of her striped tent-dress like a hen comforting her chicks, but when they got home bleakness drifted like dust.”
The Green Man, where the Shelmerdine kids’ parents played, before Willie hit Delia “one time too many and she rode that freight train, the 5.15 to Charing Cross, out of his life for ever,” on Blackheath Hill, like Delia now long gone, was a regular haunt for skiffle and Trad. jazz fans in the early 1960s. One wonders if the skiffle-loving washboard-playing nun who haunts the corner shop in Dunedin was a Green Man regular before she heard her name being called.
There is something of a tacit Trad. undercurrent to Shena’s Music Upstairs with mentions of all-nighters, and maybe Sidonie and Joyce were there alongside the girls from Patrice Chaplin’s Albany Park one night at Cy Laurie’s. Shena, in an accompanying note to the Virago Modern Classics edition mentions that she is surprised how little actual music there is in the book, when the early Beatles and Tamla Motown were everywhere.
One specific reference to music comes when Sidonie goes out with her on/off boyfriend Jimmy, a jazz drummer who sports a white mac and a pale blue polo-neck sweater, and they pop into the Coleherne pub in Earls Court to try to track down someone: “This cat also stole a Coltrane album of mine and some clothes”. There is someone playing the piano in the pub, which overlaps with other London stories like Val Wilmer’s Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This with its mentions of how the Coleherne, a predominantly gay pub even in the early 1960s, would allow jazz musicians like Russ Henderson to play there. The Coleherne reappears in Shena’s short story Pink Cigarettes featuring one of her beloved faded poets Vivian Violett.