A holiday away from home requires at there to be at least some attempt to find literature that is appropriate to the location, it is a tried and tested approach to reading. Admittedly, it is a plan that I have only successfully executed in one previous location – partially reading Hans Fallada’s excellent ‘Alone in Berlin’ (recently a somewhat less good film) whilst staying near Checkpoint Charlie.
An ‘all-tinclusive’ hotel holiday in Menorca proved somewhat challenging subject matter, but thinking slightly laterally Alan Hollinghurst’s ‘The Swimming Pool Library’ seemed appropriate – a book picked up at the Greenwich and Blackheath Amnesty International second hand book sale last autumn.
The novel is set in the summer of 1983 for William Beckwith a 25 year-old feckless and work shy narcissist ‘riding high on sex and self-esteem – it was my time, my grande époque.’ He is living on the early inheritance from his grandfather when cruising for sex in a public lavatory, Will saves the life of Charles Nantwich, an 83-year-old gay peer.
Nantwich asks Will to look at his diaries with a view to writing a biography, this juxtaposes the past criminalisation of homosexuality with Will’s considerably different experiences of early 1980s London.
Cleverly and wittily told, the narrative sometimes drifts off into almost Sebaldian diversions with a flawed but always engrossing narrator. It was certainly better than the only other novel of Hollinghurst’s that I had read before – ‘The Stranger’s Child’, which had rather put me off his work. It seemed a novel of its time, set before HIV/AIDS had become widespread and at a time when attitudes to gays much more hostile and coming out still hard for many.
Was it the best of my holiday reading? Sadly, not; that accolade goes to the subtly told tale of bereavement and developing a new life beyond just coping
Colm Tóibín’s delightful ‘Nora Webster.’
Until my early teens we had very little music in the house, we very much a Home Service, and its successor, Radio 4, household. We didn’t have a record player or gramophone until I was around 8 or 9. While a TV was bought just before I went to school in 1965, so I ‘didn’t feel left out’, I only remember being allowed to watch ‘educational’ programmes and certainly not music.
I don’t remember having listened to popular music before one of our regular trips to Cornwall; Mum originates from there. It would have been the summer of 1966, we had gone down with my cousin from Canada – Mum was one of seven and four of her siblings were to emigrate to Canada; moving away was part of Cornish life – many of my grandparent’s generation had emigrated to Australia. There were five of us in a tiny Austin A40 (picture Wikipedia Commons) with masses of pre-war suitcases, neatly wrapped in polythene on a roof rack that made the journey from Mansfield to Penzance in the days before motorways. One of the brackets of the roof rack broke off around Cirencester in the Cotswolds and the rest of the journey was spent with my Mum, my cousin and myself (for short periods) holding onto the roof rack from the passenger side-clipped window.
We stayed with my aunt; I think that she had moved to Penzance at that point from her previous home in Newlyn. Unlike us, she had a record player and a radio in the car and bought singles – unsurprisingly she had bought The Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’ which was a double A-side with ‘Eleanor Rigby’ – the former was played a lot more though. I remember signing along and thinking it hilarious to change the words to ‘Jar of Vaseline’ and ‘Tub of Margarine’ – how the adults must have laughed.
As had been the case in previous visits, I was allowed to go in the car with my aunt. Oddly, I associate ‘Yellow Submarine’ with rows in the car – they were something that never happened at home. By that stage, I think that she was with her second husband with whom she seemed to have had quite a volatile relationship, there seemed to be a row every time we got in the car. She had divorced a year or two before, her first husband had eventually and painfully ‘come out’ in days when homosexuality was still illegal.
Despite the early exposure to The Beatles, they were never a band I listened to much – I think that I only ever bought ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and ‘Back in the USSR’ – the latter was oddly a song that was always played at parties of the group of friends that I was part of in the late 1970s, linked to a church youth club. The reasons for it being ‘our song’ were never clear though.
More recently, both A-sides featured in Beatles ‘sites’ seen in a visit to Liverpool – the former outside a community centre in Penny Lane where we were told on a bus tour that Lennon stayed and looked out at this bizarre yellow construction. It was utter nonsense, of course, ‘facts’ for the gullible tourist, as the history of the song demonstrates. The Eleanor Rigby bronze statue in Stanley Street is much more tasteful and genuine – designed and made by the entertainer Tommy Steele, who is a renowned sculpture artist as well – it wasn’t even mentioned on the tour bus commentary as the less than magical mystery tour strangely by-passed the area around The Cavern.
I’m quarter Geordie, my paternal grandmother’s side of the family came down to the Nottinghamshire coalfield from its Durham counterpart in the later 19th century. Their sojourn in Durham had been a relatively short one – the family had previously been colliers in Northumberland, 30 miles to the north. It seems that there was a liaison with a daughter of a local landowner, a quick marriage and a move to near Bishop Auckland which saw the family of miners become a family of pit managers. There were still some links to the Northumberland coalfield and one of the sons was middle named after a colliery in a pit village that was eventually swallowed up by Cramlington New Town. It became a family tradition to continuing the naming, passed down to me and now one of my sons.
I’d met J on a field trip course during a bitterly cold Easter at Dale Fort Field Centre (left on a Creative Commons via Wikipedia), a very bleak former Victorian fort which guarded the northern entrance to Milford Haven. She was from Surrey commuter land and her trip was a biology one, mine geography – we had got chatting in the pub one evening. We stayed in touch and wrote to each other quite a lot – she was the only person I have ever ‘corresponded’ with. We met up a few times including seeing Tom Petty, Genesis and others at Knebworth in 1979 and I went up to see her in Durham a couple of times when she went there to university.
On one of those visits we went to see the band Lindisfarne. They had always somehow resonated with me in my youth, I felt that there was a connection – perhaps I wanted there to be as I knew the history of my middle name. They were close to ‘home’ in a small, crowded venue full of both students and north-eastern fans of the band, every song being sung-along to. Lindisfarne seemed to be in their element. Few gigs I have been before or since came close to the amazing atmosphere that night; my ears were ringing for days afterwards.
Unsurprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be any footage of the concert, but this was one of their concerts from a few years later at Newcastle City Hall.
I think that I’d borrowed and taped a live album, probably ‘Magic in the Air’ around 1975 and bought ‘Run for Home’ which did quite well as a single in mid-1978 – at the time we saw them it was my favourite song of theirs. My tastes moved on though, and any vague liking of Lindisfarne was completely destroyed when the band allowed Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne to do an appalling rendition of ‘Fog on The Tyne’ in 1990.
As for J, I think that we saw each other only once or twice more before losing touch – it was in the days before Friends Reunited and then Facebook – I guess that I was never really a letter writer and that I probably didn’t really have the time anyway as I got more involved politically in my second year at LSE. Oddly, I saw her Dad again a few years later in a corridor at Nationwide Building Society’s head office, where he worked, when I was having a meeting with someone in relation to my housing policy PhD.
Set in late 1960s Ireland against the backdrop of the growth of the Civil Rights movement, ‘Nora Webster’ is about one woman’s loss of a husband, Maurice, a well respected teacher and member of the local community. It also deals with the impact that his death had on their children, particularly the two younger sons. Several of the interviews given at the time of the publication suggest that it was partially shaped by the death of Tóibín’s own father.
Death, loss and the beautifully observed small town Ireland feature strongly, they are well trodden paths for Tóibín – featuring in some of his other novels, notably ‘Brooklyn.’ As the flow of visitors and people stopping her in the street to ‘pay their respects’ reduces, Nora begins to find a voice for herself and a new confidence through classical music as the beautiful, well-paced novel progresses.
In future, she hoped, fewer people would call. In future, once the boys went to bed, she might have the house to herself more often. She would learn how to spend these hours. In the peace of these winter evenings, she would work out how she was going to live.
The detail of the Austin A40 (picture Wikipedia Commons) driven by Nora brought back memories of my own youth – trips from the Nottinghamshire coalfield to the south west of Cornwall with five on board, piled high with carefully polythene sheet wrapped ancient cases, precariously balanced on a roof rack of uncertain stability. I digress though ……
Tóibín has a delightful reading voice, which you can almost ‘hear’ in the narrative; it is a voice that I first came across reading a short story by Sylvia Townsend Warner on the excellent New Yorker Fiction Podcast. The YouTube video below has him reading some extracts from Nora Webster as well as discussing it.
The early to mid-1980s saw a growing interest in West African music, I probably first came across it at Glastonbury in 1983 when I saw King Sunny Ade and Fela Kuti the following year.
I started seeing highlife bands at Arts Centres around Birmingham and later at smaller London music venues. The standouts were the excellent Somo Somo and my favourites of the era, Orchestre Jazira. Musically, Jazira while labelled an “Anglo-Ghanaian band” were much more diverse than most and this was reflected in their music.Their only album, ‘Nomadic Activities’, was released in 1984 and while it could have been a springboard to success it wasn’t, as one of the few on-line biographies of the band noted
The album was consciously and defiantly at odds with what both the UK record business and its public then expected of an ‘African’ band – that is a simple, happy, all-night party sound.
‘Happy Day’ is atypical of ‘Nomadic Activites’ and was a final doomed attempt by their label Beggars Banquet to eke out some sales from the album, it did have a rather good video which surfaced again on YouTube a year or two ago.
I saw them a couple of times live, once in a crowded pub in Islington (I think) and the other in an almost deserted community centre in North London – around Crouch End, if my fading memory serves me correctly. The former was full of joy, dancing and sweat (probably what Beggars Banquet thought that they had signed), the latter much more subdued – the organisers appeared to have forgotten to do any publicity, but the band was slowly drifting apart, a shadow of the recent past. As it was probably around 1987, it may have been one of their last gigs – they were to finally split up that year.
The lack of commercial success and their demise didn’t stop me playing the record – it remains one of my favourites. Sadly, it was never to get a digital release, Jazira had drifted apart by the time CDs effectively replaced LPs. A fair number of the tracks are on YouTube though.
Running Past occasionally covers some of the writers that have formed part of the Lewisham’s literary heritage. This has included some with clear links such as CS Forester, David Lodge and Robert Browning, plus a few where the links are a little more tenuous – including Thomas Dermody – a Lewisham resident only in is his dying days and burial at St Mary’s Church.
Graham Swift was born in Lewisham, and, if my memory has served me correctly, in a nursing home on Woolstone Road; this was based on an information board that used to be at Kirkdale Bookshop. Certainly, Swift was born on the borders of Catford and Sydenham.
There are South London settings to many of his novels – his debut novel, the wonderful ‘The Sweet Shop Owner’ featured both Upper Sydenham (perhaps then home to his maternal grandparents) and Wandsworth; ‘Shuttlecock’ was set…
The Pink Parker single with ‘Hold Back the Night’ as the ‘A’ side, was a discounted purchase from perhaps the coolest job imaginable – well coolest for a 17 year-old from a mining town. There was I, the kid with no discernible musical tastes or knowledge, who had drifted from Elton John to Status Quo to Focus over half a dozen months in an attempt to find a musical ‘home’ had suddenly landed a Saturday job to die for – in an independent record shop, courtesy of my Dad knowing the owner and a chance meeting in a doctor’s surgery waiting room.
The difference a ‘cool’ job can make to an inconspicuous, small, shy teenager was startling – people came into the shop to chat, even girls in the year above me at school – I hadn’t really changed though, I was still rather lacking in social skills but I was no longer just the lad who played the oboe (badly) in school assemblies, and would get picked for football and cricket teams just to make up the numbers.
It wasn’t all glamour having a Saturday job in a record shop – I got some really cruddy jobs to do – if we ran out of any particular chart singles (or other high volume sales) I would be sent out to scour the other musical outlets in the town centre and buy their copies for Syd Booths. In the main this involved trips to the neighbouring Boots, a shop called Vallances – a sort of pre-Currys electrical retailer that in addition to the fridges and gramophones had a motley collection of vinyl at the back of the shop, and outside the shopping centre, Woolworths. The worst of these forays was trying to come up with an excuse in Woolworths for the reasons why a 17 year old would need to buy a dozen copies of a budget record of the 20 Golden Greats (or something like it) by Tony Bennett -‘my mum wants them as a joke present for people at work’ was the excuse that oddly worked. The job only lasted 9 months or so – both of the Saturday staff were laid off in early June 1977 in a cost saving exercise – or that’s how it was presented – maybe I was just rubbish at the job.
I suspect not though, as I was to successfully get other Saturday shop jobs, none as cool though – the next job was a couple of months later in an awful, run-down men’s clothing retailer, Gentz, the name says it all, which took the dregs of clothes that the slightly less downmarket shops in the group couldn’t shift. Making sales was a real struggle; I remember a post-Christmas extra day I worked when there were negative takings, no purchases but a return on one of the shoddy garments we’d offloaded to a hapless customer during the run-up to the festive period. The job ended when the shop closed down after becoming little more than a jumble sale for unworn, un(never)fashionable clothes; I digress though….
As for ‘Hold Back the Night’, the ‘Pink Parker’ it was on was a lurid ‘Barbie pink’ vinyl which hadn’t been brilliantly pressed and jumped a bit, well a lot, but as the pink pressings were limited I would have only been able to get a boring black version as a replacement, so I kept it.
As a result of the quality of the single, I didn’t listen to it that much – although did I did listen quite a lot to the album that preceded it, ‘Heat Treatment’, which I also bought soon after. I must have lent the LP to someone, as I don’t remember having it by the time I went to university eighteen months later. I probably didn’t knowingly listen to Graham Parker again for a couple of decades, until I bought a ‘Best of…’ compilation for next to nothing in the Woolworth closing down sale – the CD was played a couple of times but then forgotten about, I knew something was missing though, but wasn’t bothered enough to work out what.
It was a mention in Sebastian Faulkes wonderful ‘Engleby’ that jogged my memory, Faulkes eloquently describes it being sung at the end of a gig – describing Parker as a
…thin, rodent like man with sleeveless tee shirt and bare arms – his snarling manner still seemed defiant even when admitting to emotion: ‘Hold back the night, Turn on the light, Don’t wanna dream about you, baby
Sebastian Faulkes (2007) Engleby pp145-146
The memories of the song flooded back, I put down the novel and immediately downloaded the song – oddly, the perfection of the digital version slightly annoyed me, for the first dozen or so plays I kept expecting the slight ‘jumps’ of my 1977 version despite not having heard it for almost 35 years. It is a song I still play quite a lot now.