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.