TotW: Jessie Buckley – Country Girl

‘Country girl / Take my hand / Lead me through / This diseased land / I am tired, I am weak, I am worn’

A song for our times – or, perhaps, for the times still yet to come; for the post-pandemic. 2021 has seen a few good tunes so far, but I heard this cover of the Primal Scream original on the joyfully-bearded Huw Stephens show, stepping in these last two weeks for the holidaying Marc Riley’s evening slot on 6Music (@11:20). It crouched, but gathered, and then just leapt at me across the airwaves accompanied by an ecstatic, celebratory, life-affirming roar.

Recovering, I dived straight for Jessie’s Bandcamp to grab a copy; but there was no artist page, so I turned next to Wikipedia which told me she’s not actually ‘a singer’ at all (which would explain the lack of a Bandcamp…), rather an actress (and with a fair amount of pedigree in TV roles) who also sings quite a bit in her acting roles. Anyway, enough of the labelling. Buckley took the title role in 2019’s BAFTA-nominated Wild Rose, from where ‘Country Girl’ comes, which is something of a paean to Glasgow and in which she plays the role of Rose-Lynne Harlan (a country name if ever I heard one), a young, somewhat troubled, working class woman trying to get to Nashville to pursue her singing dreams. Not being much* of a TV viewer and without regular access to cinema (pace the Screen Machine), the film (like the rest of Buckley’s substantial credits) has rather passed me by up to this point (though I will try and see Wild Rose now, in some sort of format, it not yet being available on the Screen Machine’s small screen offer). It was well-reviewed and there was a good amount of noise about Buckley herself in the film’s release publicity rounds, but I did take an even stronger interest when I read the plot on the Wikipedia page on the film, which includes a description of our Rose-Lynn going to Nashville where she sneaks on stage at the historic Ryman Auditorium during a backstage tour.

(Dear Reader: now, that struck something of a recollection in me since I also did exactly this (in my younger days, obvs). Only I sneaked into the Ryman building, in May 1989, underneath some scaffolding and through an open backstage door, very early on in some substantial reconstruction works going on there ahead of it becoming again a venue, which would take five years to complete, before hitching myself to what I fortuitously quickly realised was some sort of guided tour already going on right there in front of me and which included ascending up there, on that famous, enormous arc of a stage. Unlike Rose-Lynn, I didn’t sing (well, it wasn’t empty). I just looked out at those seats – the same view that Hank Williams would have had – took in the completely dishevelled and inevitably dusty atmosphere, wondered about how easily it would have legendarily reached 120F up there on the stage when it was packed on a hot summer’s night in the South, and posed a wee bit. And imagined. God, yes! Can’t say that I met Hank himself, though.)

Back to the present day, and here is Jessie Buckley with ‘Country Girl’, as seen on Wild Rose:

It’s great to see a woman sing this song, which gives the lyrics an extra dimension, and also reclaim aspects of the video filmed for the original, which left me uncomfortable (while at the same time also paying a kind of homage to it). It’s also worth checking out some of Jessie’s other songs from the film, such as ‘Born To Run‘ (no, not that one – Ed.) – she has a belter of a voice both for stompers like ‘Country Girl’ and crooners alike. And it looks as though they had great fun filming it, which is also likely to help the dynamism of any film in which you have to believe the essential realism of the world the characters inhabit.

Jessie’s backing band features Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham, also of this parish, as well as Neil MacColl, and you have to have a fair amount of chops yourself to be fronting up a band with them supplying the backing. Better still, it puts the mandolin – one of the best things about the original – closer to the front and adds some down-home fiddle. The layering and increasing stridency as the song builds its power, highlighting in the film the singer’s consideration and then definitive rejection of the internal doubts running through her (a crisis of self-doubt being something all too familiar to working class women), is a sign of great confidence not only in the material but also in the singer’s own abilities. And, if all that’s indeed your thing, and so it oughta be, I think, the Wild Rose soundtrack is out on Island Records.

TotW – Track of the Week. Likely to be an irregular, and probably not at all weekly, series of posts about new (or new to me) songs that have left me all shook up. Uh-huh-huh.

Book Review: Summer

Ali Smith’s Summer – the last in her quartet of seasonal novels – was published in August 2020. Autumn, the first, emerged in October 2016 which means that, within the life of this blog, whose first post was also October 2016, she has published four bestselling, critically-acclaimed novels. I have read – and reviewed – them all (Autumn, Winter and Spring). Smith’s is a phenomenal achievement whose origins might owe something to a long-rooted desire to produce a series of connected novels about the seasons but more so to a piece of personal misfortune – she was a year late with her manuscript for 2014’s How To Be Both, but the publisher still managed, somewhat heroically, to get the book out more or less on time. Among other things, this demonstrates something very interesting about Smith’s own writing process, of which more in a bit.

Summer, recently shortlisted for the 2020 Highland Book Prize, ties up some though by no means all the loose ends established in the earlier novels. For those with an interest in these things, others have exhaustively and painstakingly drawn the myriad links which Smith has made, connecting characters, motifs and figures in the art world, in the course of these four novels.

This one starts, however, with new characters Grace Greenlaw, recently divorced from a husband who now lives next door (interesting, but entirely coincidental, thematic echoes here of Our House which I read just previously), together with her daughter and son, Sacha (16) and Robert (13). In terms of the narrative arc, there is an entirely chance meeting with Art and Charlotte, who we met in 2017’s Winter (though this time it’s the real Charlotte), who are on a mission to reunite Daniel, the old man we met in Autumn, with something which Sophie, Art’s mother, wanted returned to him after her death. This they do. In the course of the journey, Grace and Daniel both revisit their youths, summer being a time for warm, even dreamy, recollection, her at the end of the 1980s, him in the 1940s, while the tale is spiced with latter-day notes prompted by the activism of Sacha, who is concerned not only with environmental issues but also with the fate of refugees in immigration removal centres whose story was central to 2019’s Spring. The item is returned and the tale reaches a surprisingly romantic (and, perhaps, a rather cliched) conclusion as a vehicle for Smith to relate her significant optimism and hopefulness for our future on this planet, born from the warmth of our essential humanity and the timeless things that endure about the human spirit.

The narrative arc is thus slight but, as in all the novels in this series, the point is indeed the journey not the culmination of the tale, just as summer is neither the end of the chronological year nor, indeed, is the end of the year ‘the end’ as the seasons continue rhythmically to roll around. The book, and thus the series, does have a conventional end – it would have detracted from the work had it not – but, in pointing us back towards autumn, we are reminded both of those seasonal rhythms, that eternal regeneration and the continuing evolution of the human story.

This evolution is naturally picked up via Smith’s literary reference points throughout the quartet to Shakespeare (in Summer, overtly, to The Winter’s Tale); and to Dickens (in terms of narrative genius as well as Dickens’s own writing of some of his stories, including Oliver Twist, serially for regularly published journals). Both would recognise Smith’s characters in their own times and their own tales feature recurrent human tragedies and heroism (and with a strong eye on the singular rather than the grandiose).

Smith started writing Summer at the end of January, when the Australian wildfires which wrought such devastating environmental effects were much in the news, and just as stories were coming to the attention of the western media about Covid-19, with the narrative mostly taking place in March – Summer is not set in summer, but in late spring – handing in the final manuscript as Black Lives Matters protests took to the streets (there is an understandably brief reference to the murder of George Floyd, which took place at the end of May 2020). Thus it was written entirely during the early phases of Covid-19 and there are references to the ‘sickness’ – which is unnamed – in the novel both thematically as well as in terms of the events described, both Daniel and Charlotte experiencing their own lockdown imprisonments, both physical and mental. Six weeks from manuscript to finished product, in the middle of a pandemic, is indeed another heroic achievement by Smith’s publishing team.

Writing in this highly contemporary fashion allows Smith to use literature to shine a light on our own times as well as to draw illuminating connections with events in our shared history. This not only allows her to explore the circularity of events within the human condition, but also lends a considerable topicality to her work – Daniel’s (very real) recollection of the 1940s is as the son of an unnaturalised German living in the UK, and thus interned for a period on the Isle of Man (while his beloved sister Hannah is fighting the Nazis in occupied France): events called to mind later in 2020, and which have re-surfaced recently, as the Tories have openly considered sending asylum seekers to places such as Gibraltar and, indeed, the Isle of Man for the processing of their asylum applications (an idea immediately rejected by both). Lorenza Mazetti, related to Einstein and the artist whose spirit informs this part of the quartet, and who died only as Smith was getting underway with Summer, was herself an ‘undesirable alien’ in 1950s London. More humourously, the disagreement about sourcing a Hannah Arendt quote from the internet, the subject of a debate at the start of the novel between Sacha and her mother, crossed my Twitter feed on only Wednesday this week as Deutsche Welle wondered why so many famous quotes – many of them from Einstein – are fake.

As with the rest of her novels, Smith glories in language, both verbal and non-verbal, and in playing around with words and Summer is no different – I love, for example, the fun she has here with Einstein and ein stein; while here, the opening monologue takes on, and challenges, the simple word ‘so’, in the first place as an expression of jaded, shoulder-shrugging, care-free indifference and in the second as a word as resolute, determined, programmatic and as focused on action as any verb. This love of language dominates her work and its expression here – never forced, never apparently hard work – seems to come entirely naturally to her. The revelation that she suffered during the writing of Spring from a loss of faith in what she calls ‘dialogue with the form’ – the conversation between author and novel in progress – is thus a surprising one, Spring representing for me a return to form from what I saw as an over-hasty realisation of Winter.

All artists suffer at some times from a form of “writers’ block” – that crisis of confidence in which you read, or hear, or see only the weaknesses in your work accompanied by a stymieing inability to recognise that what makes something great can also be its weakness, whether you’re a late-20s New Jerseyan taking months to get right not just the sound but the opening sound on what will turn out to be your most famous record; or a member of a production crew walking around Los Angeles at more or less the same time wearing T-shirts carrying the legend ‘Stevie’s nearly ready’. It is therefore a sign of great confidence in her own abilities that Smith took on the task of producing such a masterwork in this timeframe, as well as in bringing it to its conclusion. Artists of all kinds have to have the confidence, but also the courage, to ‘let it go’ – to let things out in the wild despite what may be imperfections and such that they stand or fall as products of their time. Smith makes such a connection between art and literature in this series; I draw a similar connection between literature and music in the same way – not that literature needs to be the rock’n’roll more than anything else does (rock’n’roll being some way from falling on its back). But, a novel is much like an album: you let it go and it may turn out to be ‘long grass by the wayside’ in ten years’ time (as Smith herself self-deprecatingly thinks likely about these volumes) or your songs may still be being sung 120 years in the future (see Nanci Griffiths’s introduction before playing track ten).

It’s partly confidence but it’s also about process. Smith is able to get novels out in this short timeframe because she re-drafts and edits as she goes. Consequently, there is no lengthy period of to-and-fro between writer and production house: what the production house gets as a final manuscript is – give or take a bit of subsequent judicious editorial intervention – what the reader holds in their hand. This ‘dialogue with the form’ is the key: books don’t ‘write themselves’, but they do go down their own roads in the process of being written, sometimes in ways that surprise their authors the most successful of whom have that confidence in the natural evolution of what they are writing. Writing is, ultimately, about your own reading.

Summer starts out as a book about forgiveness, perhaps as befits a novel whose purpose, at least in part, is to bring about some form of closure to the series. But with the pandemic raging against the background of a government whose multiple failures, weak preparation and incompetent handling, alongside PPE debacles and cronyism, allied to its catastrophic trust in a murderous herd immunity strategy, this was clearly no time for a message of ‘forgiveness’. In lesser hands, this turn of events might have implied disaster to a novel written for the here and now but Smith has skilfully turned the book into an extended consideration of the collective implications of the occurrence of a national sickness.

Far, therefore, from Summer being ‘derailed’ by the pandemic, as some readers have alleged, it is in fact made by it. This is the case not only in that the pandemic forms the essential background to the novel – which would have been written to the same timeframe whether it had happened or not – but which also provides the key hook for the key message which she allows to evolve from it – that, given Smith’s ability to juxtapose opposites and enjoy doing so: a Winter’s Tale toured in summer; lightness in the middle of darkness; happiness in the midst of sadness; protests in the face of implacable opposition; hope for the possibility of another world when this one seems to be at its worst; health (and healing) coming after sickness – we may still, despite all the signs of loss of the times in which we live, find the hope of a healing which will resolve the fractures and the fractiousness of the years in which this series of novels has been set. That we cannot truly experience joy unless we have always seen despair – that, in terms of the theatre, we carry two masks: one for comedy and one for tragedy. There is, at least, hope and, indeed, times pass as time passes. Til then, our pandemic-influenced position is, as it is for Leontes in The Winter’s Tale which Grace interprets for her colleagues in the repertory company as follows:

A blight comes down on him, on his country, from nowhere. It’s irrational, It has no source. It just happens. Like things do. They suddenly change, and it’s to teach us that everything is fragile and that what happiness we think we’ve got and imagine will be forever ours can be taken away from us in the blink of an eye. (pp. 282-3)

Smith is not for everyone – those who prefer a more linear narrative arc will find the novel’s extended flashbacks and playing around with the time sequence confusing and disorienting. Others of a less liberal mindset will find much that they will despise. Purists will hate the lack of quotation marks when characters are in dialogue. But, if you love words and enjoy the thought of watching a master writer at work, able to tell a story about the way we live in our times and, in doing so, relate much about the creative process that authors and editors experience, do engage with this: Summer, both in its own right as well as the summation and realisation of an immense literary ambition, deserves all the awards that ought to be coming its way.

Fogbow at low tide

I proudly tweeted yesterday a picture of a fogbow and people were kind enough to like it, so I thought I’d re-post it here for the non-Twitterers who read my stuff.

Here it is, taken at ten to three and just less than half an hour ahead of low tide. I’ve condensed the picture slightly by removing some unnecessary foreground scrubland and compensated by removing some area above the fogbow – with the effect of emphasising it better (and also using the fence better as a pointer). Otherwise, no other editing!

This was the culmination of several days of foggy, misty weather held tight us over locally by the relative lack of wind – today the wind is a little stronger and has shifted everything out. Or, rather, up – it remains overcast, with occasional warm glimpses of shadow.

A fogbow is formed like a rainbow, with the sun interacting with water droplets in the air which, in fog, are much smaller than when falling as rain. This small size means that, when sunlight is defracted, the colours are leached out leaving only a reddish tinge to the outer edge of the ‘bow and a bluish tinge to the inner one. The Met Office website inevitably explains it a lot better than me.

Rainbows we see a lot out here, but fogbows are a little rarer – this was actually the first I’m conscious of seeing in the wild. When they do appear, there is quite a bit of interest in them – the Western Isles Weather website has a collection of brilliant photos. Note in particular the one by Mike at An Solas Oir, which is more or less the same one as mine but from the other side, looking towards the sun whereas the sun is directly behind me in this photo.

As with the Aurora, even cheap cameras like mine can improve the image significantly compared to what the human eye sees. In real life, this wasn’t as obvious as in the photo: my eye was caught by something at first glance and it was only when looking harder (and slightly away) did the shape come together out of the fog and take on a bit of solidity. A few minutes later and the sun had dispelled some of the fog, creating stronger sunlight, a hint of blue sky above and, thus, the opportunity for a photo. Even then, it was impossible to see an image on the camera’s LCD screen – it was somewhat ‘point and hope’, lining up just enough of the headland on the left to ensure some sort of ‘fit’. And – fingers crossed!

Elsewhere, there are signs of spring and of hope, not least with the timetable to Scotland, and these islands, emerging from lockdown becoming a little clearer; and, with no new cases anywhere now for ten days, and the vaccination programme extended now to those aged 40+ likely taking us, on the basis of average age, to a figure of over half the population having at least one jab, a collective sigh of relief, a release of long-held breath, is beginning to become evident. Nature, ever good at supplying symbols – or perhaps it’s just us who are ever good at re-interpreting them – supplied us with the first open daffodil today; the rest remain a breath of spring – but they’re coming. Prospective gale force winds or not.

Book Review: Our House

Our House, the twelfth book by Louise Candlish, was published in 2018 and was well-garlanded following publication, not least being selected as the British Book Award’s 2019 Crime and Thriller Book of the Year.

Set in the fictional London district of Alder Rise, which may or may not be the Herne Hill of the author’s own residence, or perhaps somewhere just a little further south-east, it features Fi and Bram Lawson, a forty-somethings husband and wife with two young children living in upwardly-mobile suburbia whose outward appearances, as is well established in literature, are not as they seem (and which is very well-captured on the hardback cover of the UK version). The house of the title is the source of the couple’s invisible wealth but visible relationship stresses, as well as the device around which the plot revolves: we learn in the first few pages that the house has been sold without Fi’s knowledge with the guilty party apparently her husband; the questions that remain are to do with the whats and the whys which are successively peeled back in the novel’s pages as the two relate their post-event stories of their rapidly-evolving relationship in the first place via a podcast called ‘The Victim’ and secondly via a Word document which, we quickly learn, is a self-confessed suicide note. These are interspersed with brief, in the moment, accounts of Fi’s developing horror as what has happened to her becomes evident, alongside comments from the Twitterati listening along to her podcast.

Now, I don’t read a lot of crime stuff but this looks to me to be well set-up as a highly plausible cautionary tale about property and aspiration as well as being probably somewhat unusual in the genre in that the thriller aspects lie not in uncovering the identities of victim and perpetrator but in the explanations of their behaviour. It’s certainly a page-turner and this is a tribute to the gripping descriptions of the initial set-up as well as the step-by-step reveals of how the main characters have got to this point. The ending, containing also a moral message albeit somewhat confused in a contemporary setting, is quite breathtaking and which will leave the reader with a strong sense of melancholy. Ultimately, this is a novel about how little we too often know about those with whom we set up our lives, not least in the light of the ‘laws’ of attraction between people, where Candlish has some interesting things to say; and it provides some interesting contrasts between our tendency to share so much of our lives online, increasing our own vulnerabilities, and the ease with which fraud can take place both in the property sense and in terms of the ease with which men and women can choose to cheat each other.

There are, however, several difficulties, betraying the period of writing coinciding while the author was partially out of contract and, perhaps, with her mind on other issues. The book is under development for a four-part TV series now in production for ITV and due to be filmed this summer; and it will be interesting to see how the scriptwriter resolves these for TV.

Leaving aside some of the plot twists, which owe a remarkable amount to chance, this ought, firstly, to be a character study. Our sympathies may – and indeed should – shift as the accounts slowly reveal motivations and explanations; voice and the reliability of witness are important elements of a good crime novel. However, the characters are not only shallow in their obsessions but also rather shallowly drawn to the point where the reader realises that they actually care rather too little about either one. This makes it impossible for those sympathies to develop, or to shift. That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t occasional elements of real pathos affecting not least Bram, or sadness about poor choices affecting not least Fi, or a sense of bewilderment about their inabilities to communicate with each other. Secondly, the set-up of the novel ought to see it evolve as a psychological thriller; certainly it has some psychological elements but it contains too little in the way of the sustained sense of threat which would contribute to our growing understanding of why they act as they do (and which underpins the YouTube video made in support of the publication). This is partly a function of the author’s rather weak characterisation – had these been drawn deeper, psychological terror could have take a stronger root – but it also reflects the manner of the telling of the tale: step-by-step reveals told in reflective flashback do miss the terror of the motivations for actions as described in the moment.

The structure of the tale is somewhat odd. It’s not that the book is, at 435 pages, too long – although that is one criticism that has been levelled at it but which I suspect stems more from fans of a genre in which pace and mystery is key. Fi’s ‘The Victim’ podcast, however, stretches out over three hours. Now, I absolutely defy anyone to listen to a three-hour podcast – I top out at about an hour and it takes a lot for interest to be sustained over much more than about forty minutes. However ‘interesting’ other people’s ‘true-life’ stories are to fans of this sort of thing, I simply don’t believe that Fi’s podcast would still have listeners at the two-hour mark, let alone three. Bram’s Word document, we learn towards the end, has been written over a period of six weeks surely qualifying it, at least in literary terms, as the longest suicide note in history. The problem is not that these as vehicles for a tale are poor in themselves – they demonstrate an eye for a structural hook – but they are clearly inappropriate vehicles for the amount of detail the author wishes to convey. Additionally, at key points in the text, Twitter threads developed from the listeners’ comments could have acted as a kind of Greek Chorus, prompting deeper reflections in the reader, but they are used more to generate light relief and, while the author might have had a bit of fun with them, they turn out to be rather tiresome, adding simply too little.

Additionally, the essential set-up for the novel’s denouement also contains weaknesses – it’s not actually clear why Bram chooses ultimately to go through with his scheme – while the key event in the middle of the novel is poorly described and, as a result, somewhat hard to visualise. These are rather basic plot development faults which an author of this experience ought to have ironed out by now.

We are left with a well-conceived tale which has an interesting twist in its conclusion and which spirals outwards from a very well-conceived, imaginative starting point. The middle of the journey – the story’s engine room – is, unfortunately, not as well captured as it ought to have been and this leaves it with an absence at its core which is as full of emptiness as the couple’s obsession with property rather than with each other. As much as concern about property ownership might have lain at the heart of Candlish’s purpose in developing and writing the work, the nature of the development between the praiseworthy start and end points leaves the reader with a sense of disappointment.

A song of our times

I tweeted earlier this week, after Dolly Parton received the Modena jab that she had also helped to fund, that Jeffrey Lewis, the New York artist, had covered and updated The Ramones, ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ for our times (and shortened it – at least in terms of time: Jeffrey does have the ability to spit out lyrics in very short order while playing a guitar – an immense skill for someone like me who can (only) do one thing at once). Faced with being awake at an entirely atypically early hour, and in honour of it being a ‘Bandcamp Friday‘, I thought I’d spend the time scribbling out his lyrics. So, here they are:

I Wanna Be Vaccinated

I’m making an appointment for the Covid drug

I wanna be vaccinated

It’s been a year since I gave my friends a hug

I wanna be vaccinated

Living in dystopia is losing all its charm

I’m sick of rising numbers, paranoia and alarm

So hurry, hurry, hurry and just stick it in my arm

Oh Oh Oh Oh – Oh Oh

I never see my family, or a gig or a movie theatre

I wanna be vaccinated

But that now all seems normal and that makes it even weirder

I wanna be vaccinated

Let seniors and essential workers get it in advance

Then although I’m scared of needles, man, just give me half a chance

I’ll be rolling up both shirt sleeves and be pulling down my pants

Oh Oh Oh Oh – Oh Oh

Bah bah bah bah bah – Bah Bah Bah Bah

I wanna be vaccinated

<key change>

Bah bah bah bah bah – Bah Bah Bah Bah

I wanna be vaccinated

I wanna stand around with friends and look like a Ramone

I wanna be vaccinated

If you’re an anti-vaxxer, Cool! you can stay at home

I wanna be vaccinated

Science is the coolest thing about the human race

So let’s keep spreading the safety and keep picking up the pace

‘Cos I miss having a life and I miss having a face

Oh Oh Oh Oh – Oh Oh

Bah bah bah bah bah – Bah Bah Bah Bah

I wanna be vaccin-a-ted

That line about anti-vaxxers just makes me smile! A somewhat better effort, I think, than Dolly’s ‘Don’t be such a chicken squat. Get out there and get your shot’ (from The Guardian article in the first link). Though full applause for Dolly, all the same.

If you can’t pick up the tune, it is, of course, to this absolute and indeed now visionary classic:

Jeffrey’s version, recorded in his ‘Pandemos’ series, is still not out yet (hurry, hurry, hurry!) but you can pick up a copy of ‘Keep It Chill (In the East Vill.)’ – an earlier lockdown special and with *a lot* more lyrics- at his bandcamp. So do stop by and at least hear Jeffrey’s style.

Like all net-based platforms, Bandcamp is not immune from criticism but, in music industry terms, its fair trade music policy does mean much more of what you pay them for your music goes direct to the artists – typically 80-85 per cent. On ‘Bandcamp Fridays’ – like today – that share rises to 100 per cent. So go on – give it a go. You can try (sometimes selected songs, sometimes the whole work) before you buy, so you have nothing to lose – and struggling artists have everything to gain.

Right. Now off to make a mug of coffee. And then brew some beer.