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Sheenagh Pugh "Sheenagh Pugh" (Shetland)

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Alan Bennett's 'On the Margin' (BBC Audio)
Alan Bennett's 'On the Margin' (BBC Audio)
by Alan Bennett
Edition: Audio CD
Price: £8.03

17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not a minor writer, 22 Oct 2009
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Auntie BBC strikes again... no sooner had Alan Bennett's 1966 TV comedy sketch show On the Margin achieved so much critical acclaim that it had to be twice repeated the next year, than the BBC wiped the tapes. This CD compilation is all that remains.

A TV show surviving only in a radio format is generally bad news, but Bennett is so little a visual humorist, and so much a words man, that it hardly matters. Like his famous Talking Heads, this depends on observational, character-pinpointing monologue and dialogue, and it works just as well in audio; in fact anyone who didn't know it was originally made for TV probably would not guess.

Of the 12 tracks, two are very short, an intro and an epilogue, while Track 7 reminds us that sketch shows in those days mostly had a musical interlude, though Bennett still manages to subvert it; while the band plays "In the Sultan's Harem", he is assuring us that we are hearing the Carol Colores Chorale, "the only British string quintet in the advance at El Alamein".

That leaves nine sketches. Some are what might be called tramline dialogues, between people who are not really on the same wavelength, like the rather posh, fey gent trying to send a telegram and the very literal, pedantic post office worker taking down the text, who wants to know the exact spelling of "bottieboos". The best of these is the last, between a woman reading in memoriam notices and planning her own funeral, and an old man listening to her with half an ear while trying to fix the TV. Several others satirise BBC2 arts programmes of the day, which did tend to be solemn and pretentious. These include the gem on track 5, an "interview" with a "Northern writer" whose residence in Ibiza does not prevent him posing sentimentally as an unspoilt working-class lad from Doncaster. "I suppose we were all writers in our family, but I was the first who felt an urge to express myself on paper rather than at the coalface. I'm a writer but I'm still a miner at heart. I suppose in a very real sense, I'm a miner writer."

This is Bennett at his most accurate and acerbic. Two other sketches target what might be called the BBC2 view of the arts. One is a monologue, a very Betjemanesque poet reading a poem about going to the toilet. The humour comes from the mismatch of style and subject matter, but the Betjeman style is reproduced with such clinical accuracy that it actually ends up being curiously moving, as that poet's depictions of everyday city life sometimes are. The third, a straight send-up of a pretentious arts programme, feels like an easier target.

If I have a criticism to make of this compilation, in fact, it is that it goes for the same targets - middle-class affectation and hypocrisy - a bit too often. But Lord knows, nobody does it better than Bennett; I nearly did myself a mischief when the customer in the antique shop, who has heard that "camp" is the latest trend but clearly doesn't know what it means, asks the dealer (for whom the word might have been invented) if he has any of that sort of thing on the premises. Admittedly you might need to have been around in the sixties, as I was, to appreciate that not many people who used the word did know, at the time, what it meant.

There's a warning, to the effect that some of the humour "reflects the era when it was made". This can only refer to two passing remarks with a possible racial connotation, both in character. In the first, the laugh is quite clearly at the expense of the speaker, who affects to be very sophisticated and refined but blows his cover with this remark. In the second, it emerges that the old man trying to fix the TV has been assuming the contrast function is wrong, because the faces he sees onscreen aren't the colour he expected. Which clearly isn't a joke about race at all, but about an old man who is both flummoxed by technology and hidebound by his own preconceptions (it sounds very like something Bennett might have observed and recorded from life). The warning, in fact, is totally unnecessary, not to mention a basic misunderstanding of what drives the humour.

There have been few writers in any medium as sharp and thought-provoking as Bennett, and many of these characters - the poseur writer, the lawyer considerably less honest than his peeping-Tom client, the woman whose daydreams all seem to involve planning her own funeral - will surely live in the memory. This may not be Talking Heads, but some of it feels like a try-out for that. Well worth having.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 17, 2009 11:47 AM GMT

Hancock: The 'Lost' TV Episodes: WITH The Flight of the Red Shadow AND The Wrong Man (BBC Audio)
Hancock: The 'Lost' TV Episodes: WITH The Flight of the Red Shadow AND The Wrong Man (BBC Audio)
by Ray Galton
Edition: Audio CD
Price: £9.25

21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars One for the dedicated fan, 28 Aug 2009
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The BBC's neglect of its comedy archive was criminal. While they were busy preserving every Trooping the Colour (true), hundreds of classic comedy episodes were junked as ephemeral. By the late sixties and seventies, some of the fans in Australia and New Zealand had video, which is how we recovered lost episodes of Dad's Army. But in Hancock's day the only way fans could preserve anything of a TV programme was to hold a mike next to the screen and record the soundtrack. This is what has happened here.

The 5-star system is irrelevant and misleading with this product. Nobody needs to sell this CD to Hancock buffs, who will simply want their collection to be complete. For newcomers, of course this is not the place to start. Galton and Simpson did write Hancock for radio too, but this is made-for-TV Hancock without the visuals, and naturally there are stretches of musical filler or audience laughter where there are clearly visual jokes going missing. If you are new to Hancock and James and want to know just how sublimely funny they could be, listen to made-for-radio episodes or watch complete made-for-TV ones first.

Having said that, if you're already a fan, you will find yourself seeing Hancock's comic bafflement and Sid's eye for the main chance in your mind as you listen. And nothing, even poor sound quality, can obscure the sharpness of Galton and Simpson's writing. In "Flight of the Red Shadow", Hancock is playing in repertory, very unsuccessfully:

SID: Do you know what the advance booking for Bolton next week is? One 2/6d stall.
HANCOCK: My mother again.

And in "The Wrong Man" Hancock is mistakenly picked out at an identity parade:

INSPECTOR: If you're innocent you have nothing to worry about. We never convict an innocent man, unless it's absolutely essential.

One golden nugget in "Shadow" - a truculent Australian sailor played by what must have been a very young Rolf Harris - I wonder if he's making royalties? He wasn't playing for laughs either; he sounds quite sinister.

If you're a dedicated fan, this is worth having now. If you're a newbie, discover two of the funniest men in history elsewhere first and come back for it.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 1, 2012 3:55 AM GMT

by Roberto Bolano
Edition: Hardcover

8 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Something got lost in translation, 27 Aug 2009
This review is from: Amulet (Hardcover)
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This book sounded intriguing, and it was easy to read. But in the end it didn't quite deliver for me.

It concerns Mexican politics and culture around the late 60s and 70s - its fulcrum is a brutal 1968 campus invasion by the Mexican police during which a woman hides in a toilet for about 2 weeks. This sounds like either a real incident or at least a persistent urban myth; I don't know, because though I was around in '68, that year of student revolt, and very conscious of what was afoot in Europe, I don't recall hearing a thing about events in Mexico. I'm not acquainted with Mexican poetry either, which is why I don't know which of the poets in the book are real and which invented - I suspect at least some of the older names are real, but that the younger are fictions. I haven't tried to find out if that's so, because it seems to me that most English readers will be coming from the same state of ignorance and they need to know if the novel crosses cultures successfully.

For me it didn't, quite. Its female narrator has an interesting voice, but I'm not sure what, in the end, she is saying. The tricksy narration, forever going back and forward, with her sometimes "remembering" events that haven't yet happened or maybe didn't happen, doesn't help. It might be different for Mexican readers who would naturally be better acquainted with the relevant history; it isn't clear to this reader what exactly happens to all the poets she describes so lovingly - do they become victims of the repressive rightwing government, or just go on wasting their time in local bars?

I also have some issues with the translation. For a start it doesn't seem sure whether it is using UK or US English. The spelling is UK English, but the idiom is sometimes US - eg "I better not" for "I'd better not". I can handle either, but the melange of both is disconcerting. There is a long passage near the end where the narrator, prophesying, consistently uses "shall" for "will" in a way that would be wrong either side of the pond - "who shall read Gilberte Dallas?" Most weirdly of all, the female narrator refers consistently to her "underpants". What? Neither in the US nor the UK do women call those garments underpants - only men wear those! The translator's name is Chris Andrews so presumably he's a native English speaker. Maybe he just doesn't know any women. (In the end I couldn't resist looking him up - he's Australian. Do Aussie women wear "underpants"? It's hard to credit.)

The writing does often have a dreamlike quality which is appealing, but neither the situation nor the characters hooked me enough to go back.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 30, 2009 11:40 AM BST

Parthian Shot (Marcus Corvinus Mysteries)
Parthian Shot (Marcus Corvinus Mysteries)
by David Wishart
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars You can't believe their oath, 10 Aug 2009
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Rome's royal Parthian guest Phraates seems to have been the target of an attack and the diplomatic service wants Corvinus to investigate. So he has to get to know the small Parthian community, whose reverence for the truth is legendary. Unfortunately this doesn't extend to actually telling it, and the Roman diplomats are none too keen on that either. So Corvinus has to rely on the wits of himself, his wife Perilla and his pal Lippillus of the Watch as usual. Some great characters here.

How to Fall (Salt Modern Poets S.)
How to Fall (Salt Modern Poets S.)
by Karen Annesen
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars In Transit, 22 July 2009
Arriving is always the same sweet mix of promises.
Leaving, well, you never know a person or a place
until you leave.
("Carl's Bar and Grill")

Karen Annesen, a poet born in one country, living in another and seemingly travelling in as many more as she can manage, chooses a quote from Gaston Bachelard to preface this collection: "Each one of us, then, should speak of his roads." It's extremely apposite, given the number of poems here which are on the road from one place to another, set in railway stations, trains, roadsides cafés, hotels, places where people are in transit or, at best, temporarily settled and still aware of living in a transient moment:

This seems like a return-
the taste of salt in the air
tells your bones this is home.
There are six more days.
("Driving Cornwall")

People reading in that Eng Lit way and "looking for the symbolism" sometimes automatically assume that everything is code for relationships and that physical journeys are symbolic of emotional ones, but it isn't really as simple as that. It's more a natural association: at the most literal level, people who travel a lot do tend to have more transient relationships, and indeed the break-up of a relationship can itself set one travelling.

People on the move also hear a lot of fragmentary conversations and witness decontextualized acts that hint at immense back-stories. Annesen is very good at tip-of-the-iceberg poems which are haunted by the seven-eighths of the story we shall never know, like the past of the man in "Domestic Fire". Sometimes the back-story, so delicately hinted at, can be partly guessed, as when the woman in "Via London", waiting at a station, notices passing lives;

I blink hard to forget the blue-eyed baby
gliding by in her pram.

But often, questions like how things got to this particular point remain unanswered, and the poems are the more universal and rich in possibility for that. The strange, dreamlike journey of "An Error of Timing" resonates as if it were one's own:

Turn back
ask directions of the man
selling melons
at the side of the road.
He doesn't know,
but says the melons are ripe.
The woman with the baby
signs to keep going
until you reach the sea.

Annesen is a quiet user of language, lucid rather than pyrotechnic; her language often achieves a terrific stillness and intensity that stays in the mind. How quietly, and memorably, extreme emotion is conveyed at the end of "Stirring":

A wooden table lies
between them and if his hands

would only halfway cross it,
her clothes might find their way to grass.

In her fingers, the petal
bruises now to mauve.

And how the choice of a detail and an image, in "Here, Now", creates the sense of an emigré assimilating into a new culture:

Gardens I called yards
the pushing at the door
only when I stopped.

One thing that generally anchors the previously rootless, both emotionally and physically, is parenthood. But Annesen's poem to her daughter, "Filling Mia", is not so anchored that she has forgotten the essential transience of things. It is an injunction to live in the moment, to keep and save moments against the future (that cherry on the cover is, amongst other things, a good reminder that "carpe diem" does not mean seize the day, but pluck it, like a fruit), and its ending carries the same barb as that of "Driving Cornwall":

Open your mouth,
let us fill you
with a walk along the quay,
fifty sailboats tipping their sails,
crabs in a bucket,
cakes by the beach at the caravan café.

There are hungers coming.
These days will always be there
jumbled together -
crabs and skies and sails
and I will not.

This collection is cumulative in its effect; the voice grows stronger and more characteristic the more you read. Bernard O'Donoghue, on the back cover, calls her a poet of the very first order, and he isn't wrong.

The Men from Praga (Salt Modern Poets S.)
The Men from Praga (Salt Modern Poets S.)
by Anne Berkeley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.93

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Livin' in the shaddah of the bomb, 14 July 2009
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Back in the 60s there was, in the BBC Radio comedy series Round the Horne, a character called Michael Bane, a skit on M. Caine, played by Hugh Paddick (trust me, it's possible) who would complain, in thick cockney, of the futility of "livin' in the shaddah of the bomb".

Born in 1950, I too grew up in the shaddah of the bomb, and until I read this book, I didn't realise how little documented that particular childhood was in poetry, nor how strange it must seem to those who have not had to seriously wonder, as children, if someone would press a red button and end the world. "I lived in fear of the Bomb" (from "Yellow Sun, Green Grass") is literally true for children of the Cold War; not all the time, nor to the exclusion of the normal business of childhood, but it was a real fear and has surfaced surprisingly seldom in poetry. And when it does, it generally comes from the side of protest, from those who were busy marching with CND symbols and negotiating with their mothers for posters of Castro on the bedroom wall (guilty, m'lud). But the father of this book's protagonist was aircrew, one of those for whom the bomb signified strength and safety, as the father himself, though often absent at work, does for the child, so her attitude is interestingly conflicted ("Heaven'd/weep at what my father knew" ("Nav Rad").

In the first half, titled "Co-ordinates", we are mostly in the mind and voice of this child, playing with cap-guns and working out ways to kill the local bully while her elders test more deadly weapons. Being a child, her fear of rats in the basement is always more urgent than the shaddah of the bomb, yet adult concerns leach through into the child's world of let's-pretend:

When the weather clears
I will look for letters
in the hollow
of the old conker tree

Sputnik will track me
so I wear a big hat
to hide my face
from the man-made moon.

The child's-eye view is sharply observed. Readers who are old enough will find many rueful reminiscences, like the intolerance of fifties adults for anything they considered slang ("you're not supposed to say bike/ it's bicycle", from "My Mother's Migraines"), while readers of any generation could react to the child's whole-body shock on first hearing her father's plane take off close by ("Olympus Mk 301")

I lay on the ground and howled.
The grass itself was shaking in the awful wind.

The adult response to this exhibition of terror, as far as the child can recall, is more or less what one would expect at the time ("Was I smacked? I expect so") and the remembering child is philosophical about it in a very fifties way which comes as something of a relief after some of the obsessively self-pitying child's eye poems of recent decades. It was what parents did at the time; you could whinge on about it in poem after poem, or you could just grow up.

And grow up is just what the voice does in the second half of the book, "Trajectories". It is fascinating, in fact, to see how the child's eye becomes an adult eye, equally imaginative but more conscious. The child who transformed innocent footprints into clues in "Russkis" is essentially the same person in "Chamber of Horrors £2 extra", where waxworks take on a life of their own, or the brilliant "Britannia", where reality and metaphor blur their borders completely:

Careful not to soil her dainty Ferragamos,
the grand piano moves discreetly through the herbaceous border[...]

It's not what it was, she says, the vulgar new building,
every year the path to the lily pond more overgrown-
a negotiation of unripened blackberries and birtwistle.

One of the pleasures of the second half is watching motifs swim back from the first, transformed by the newly adult viewpoint. I know some readers who always start with the title poem; they'll be puzzled if they do it here, because the whole point of the "Men from Praga" is that they are unexceptional, fishermen on the Vistula, and though language still separates the narrator from the scene, they are foreign not alien, a curiosity rather than mythologically threatening like the "Russkis" of part 1. This technique is most powerfully used in "River", another poem where subject and metaphor are more or less interchangeable and the father of part 1 is seen in a new light.

I haven't even mentioned the consistently sharp wit, so evident in the wonderful series of translations of "Baudelaire's Pipe". This is a collection constantly fresh and surprising: unsentimental, keen-eyed, unashamedly intelligent and erudite without being inaccessible.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 23, 2010 9:17 AM BST

Chasing Dean: Surfing America's Hurricane States
Chasing Dean: Surfing America's Hurricane States
by Tom Anderson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not just for surfers, 14 Jun 2009
This is an odyssey of two friends. Tom is a keen surfer who hasn't let his career interfere with his obsession; in fact by writing books in a surfing context he's managed to marry them to some extent. Dr Marc Rhys, once just as keen, has been sidetracked into academic success and delivering papers on baffling scientific matters at prestigious conferences. But they meet in 2006 with an aim: to travel America's east coast hoping for the perfect surfing waves created by a hurricane swell. It's the right season, with some potential hurricanes on the way, including a promising one called Dean; they can only hope it won't disappoint.

Hoping for a category 5 hurricane does of course raise some moral questions, and the dark side of their quest is not ignored. The description of their time in New Orleans is in fact one of the most gripping episodes, when they become aware of both the elemental power of wind and waves and the unquenchability of the human spirit. The observation is sharp and shrewd:

"A couple of miles further over we crossed into those less affluent neighbourhoods, heading south towards St Bernard and the Lower Ninth Ward - the places that hadn't had the same opportunities for evacuation and recovery. Skeleton warehouses lined France Road, alongside ruined shopping malls. More rubble followed, which was once someone's home - a veranda in tatters. The residents had moved to a caravan with a lifebelt tied cautiously to the rear. [...] some of the empty and abandoned properties had been spray-painted with macabre statements which nobody had yet bothered to erase, 'Has been searched' or 'Dead body inside'."

He's also more informative on the practical human results of Katrina than much reportage I have read; I didn't know, for instance, that when survivors were herded into the Superdome all drugs, including prescribed medication, were confiscated, so that, as his informant puts it, "schizophrenics and all sorts were running wild". The degree of paranoia still evident in those he meets, many of whom do seem sincerely to believe that the whole thing was orchestrated to kill off poor people, is both surprising and understandable, to him and us.

Dark side notwithstanding, the quest is about elemental joy, the sheer pleasure of moving with wind and waves, and here his writing is really effective. I don't surf; I can't even swim, and even so he manages to get across the exhilaration he feels. I think one reason he succeeds is that he doesn't stop to explain technical terms; if you know them, fine, if you don't, you can tag along breathlessly in his wake and pick it up as you go along. It worked for me, anyway:

"Duck-diving, I peered down a breaking wave, through the pitching barrel. I felt the vortex and the pull of the lip wanting to drag me back, and then heard the noise, a moving, echoing torque. It was the most enthralling sound on earth, the acoustics of water."

When the writing is energised by the quest, it is really strong. I think it's true that in some of the very early chapters, before he gets to what really interests him, it is less so. Writing of waves, weather systems or friendship he is always sharp, but at odd moments early on, when something interests him less, the language and observation are more perfunctory, and you get dud phrases like "an oasis of unspoilt greenery". But this is rare, and gets rarer as the quest takes hold. The first few chapters are perfectly readable, but not unputdownable. Persevere and you'll soon find it does get an unbreakable hold on you, rather as the quest for Dean did on him.

Ghosts and Lightning
Ghosts and Lightning
by Trevor Byrne
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.27

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Home is where the trouble is, 4 Jun 2009
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This review is from: Ghosts and Lightning (Paperback)
Denny Cullen, 21st-century Dubliner at university in Wales, thinks he's left home, but home isn't finished with him yet. Called back for his mother's funeral, he soon seems to be back in the groove, with relatives and friends who are going nowhere fast and doing nothing much (though, this being Dublin, they do it with considerable wit and inventiveness).

His sister Paula senses a ghost in the house she and Denny are allowing to go to rack and ruin; it might be her alcohol-fuelled imagination but then again it might be composed of memories of their dead mother, their absent father, the brothers from whom they are estranged and much other baggage. Before Denny can move on, he needs to decide which bits of his past he wants to leave behind, and which he needs to take with him. Though this is very much a novel of a young man in 21st-century Dublin, he is also a man with a sense of a long historical and mythological past (and his surname is no accident).

One reason this novel lives so vividly for the reader is the liveliness and realism of its voices. Denny's friends and family constantly come alive off the page: the insanely brave Paula, Uncle Victor the long-term book-borrower, gentle Pajo the emaciated recovering drug-addict with Buddhist tendencies ("he's mad into this kind o thing; life after death, ghosts, yetis, any and all religions. Basically anything there's f-all proof for, Pajo'll believe it.")

Both fulcrum and observer, Denny himself is a joy of a voice. He is sardonically honest about himself:

Probably why I can't get a job, some witch's hex. Well, that or the fact I never filled out them forms at the FAS office

but also endlessly imaginative, as when he describes his friend Maggit having second thoughts about something he's stolen:

And wha about the kid who owned it? Is he not gonna miss it?
Maggit thinks about this. He looks into the bag again, like he might o robbed the answer as well by accident.

or when, travelling west, he finds himself overwhelmed by a sense of history:

... Dungloe, Annagary, Glencolumbkille. Never even heard o those places before, never mind been to them, and yet I dunno why, it all seems dead familiar. Mad that, isn't it? This feelin I get that nothing is new, not really.

There are a lot of very funny scenes in this novel - the car being constantly turned upside down, the funeral dominated by a priestly speech impediment. The variation of pace is remarkable too, from frenetic to leisurely and back, but above all the register of language, which accommodates colloquial and lyrical effortlessly. It's a terrifically assured and likeable debut.

The Lydian Baker (Marcus Corvinus Mystery)
The Lydian Baker (Marcus Corvinus Mystery)
by David Wishart
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not Rome, but still works, 29 May 2009
Corvinus and Perilla, having left Rome at the end of "Sejanus", are living in Athens, but the formula works just as well. Stepfather Priscus has heard that an ancient statue of solid gold has resurfaced after being lost for years and wants Corvinus to act as his agent and buy it. Others. however, want to acquire it by less legal means...

I thought I might miss the atmosphere of Rome but I didn't. Plus point: a profane parrot. Minus: in my edition at least - I don't know if he's corrected it now - a really silly continuity error any editor should have picked up: Corvinus's mother gets the wrong name, Volumnia instead of Vipsania.

White Murder (A Marcus Corvinus Mystery)
White Murder (A Marcus Corvinus Mystery)
by David Wishart
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars racing certainty, 29 May 2009
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When Pegasus, racing mega-star and lead driver of the Whites faction, is found stabbed to death in the alleyway, Marcus Corvinus is already on site. Tracking the murderer down takes Marcus deep into the murky world of Roman chariot-racing with all its secrets, skulduggeries, and scams; and his task is not made any easier by the fact that in the process he has a lovesick major-domo, an invisible dagger, and Mount Etna to contend with.

As taut, pacy and gripping as usual. Great scene on the slopes of Etna.

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