Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Northampton Keeps Its Best Venues...For Now.

found image, artist unknown

I was delighted to hear the other day that two important venues in Northampton have been thrown a lifeline in their struggle to survive the economic hardship of the pandemic. Roadmender and the Lab will both receive grants from the government's Cultural Recovery Fund. Natalie Norris of Roadmender is quoted in the local paper the Chron as saying that the money will help them keep the doors open for another six months. I presume it will have a similarly beneficial effect on the immediate future of the Lab. 

I have a small history with both places. I saw Hawkwind play at Roadmender on a spectacular double bill with the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. I also saw a band called Nik Turner's Space Ritual. Nik Turner used to play with Hawkwind, so you can see what kind of musical head I had on in those pre-epilepsy days. I can't go to most indoor gigs anymore because flashing lights give me seizures. (Epilepsy warnings at live shows, anyone?) Another band I saw at Roadmender was Polyphonic Spree. Or I think it was there. It may have been in Birmingham. As Bob Dylan would say, 'A lot of water under the bridge / A lot of other things too.'

Everybody in Northampton knows Roadmender even if they haven't been there. It's a big white-walled building that sits prominently on the corner of Lady's Lane. You see it from the road when you're heading up to Kingsthorpe, towards Semilong or when you're coming in the other direction travelling towards the bus station or the rail station. The Lab, on Charles Street, is probably less well-known but in terms of the cultural life of Northampton, I think it's more important.

I went to a poetry and music night at the Lab when it was still called the Labour Club. Raising The Awen was organised by the folks who brought us the annual Bardic Picnic; its purpose was to encourage poets and spoken word artists to share their work in an uncritical, non-competitive environment. Musicians came along too. It wasn't for me in the end because I have too much angst about reading in public, even in a supportive arena like the Labour Club was; I'm a wallflower. But the nights were good ones and the club has continued to support poetry and the singers and bands in the Northampton area ever since. I believe I'm right in saying it's largely volunteer-run as well.

A town that's suffering like Northampton, with businesses going to the wall and Covid deaths multiplying again, needs its culture. And the longer the mess we're in continues, the deeper the need for that culture will go. It's good that venues like the Lab and Roadmender will survive for a few months more so that the musicians and the poets might one day have somewhere to play again.

Saturday, October 03, 2020

'Years of Poetical Prosing': John Clare and the Shoe Town Tradition

At least two great poets are associated with the county I live in, Northamptonshire. One is John Dryden, who grew up in Titchmarsh and has his figure carved into the wall of the Northampton Public Library on Abington Street. Dryden wrote the brilliantly nasty poem MacFlecknoe which was the first poem I remember really enjoying; we studied it in A Level English at Tresham College in Kettering.

The second poet is John Clare, whose reputation has waxed as Dryden's has waned. He is known as The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet, although because of administrative changes the village of his birth, Helpston, previously inside the county boundary, now falls under the City of Peterborough Unitary Authority. Clare spent 23 years - the last years of his life - at the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, now St. Andrew's. Dr. Fenwick Skrimshore, who admitted Clare, attributed his illness to 'years of poetical prosing.' God help us all.

Clare is now celebrated as one of the great sons of Northampton. His statue sits - curiously - in the Guildhall courtyard where very few people see it except council officers on their lunchbreaks. But there is also a plaque directing tourists to All Saints Church, where Restoration King Charles II stands on the portico like a slightly effete Roman Emperor, gazing down Gold Street towards Wilko and the Salvation Army shop. Clare liked to sit outside All Saints, or so Tourist Information tell us. I have sat outside the church myself quite often trying to think myself into his world, his time, wondering exactly where he sat, this small, probably very intense, rumpled man. Even the effort of that makes you feel a sort of kinship with him.

In this generation Northampton has many poets. My personal favourite is Jimtom James, whose performs his poetry - pandemics notwithstanding - with a small band accompanying him. Jimtom's poems work equally well as spoken word pieces, and on the page, which isn't always the case with poetry. I won't attempt to describe them. I don't have the critical vocabulary, and that's not surprising: his poetical voice seems entirely original to me. How can you describe something that you've never encountered before, other than in the broadest terms? His poems are like spells. But not really. His poems are manifestos. But they're not at all. His poems are prayers. Yes, some. But not like in church. Jimtom's poems remind me best of Keats' metaphor of a pool of water (or is it a lake?). When you dive in, you don't try to understand the water, you swim.

A few years ago now, he and I went to spend some time with other John Clare enthusiasts at Clare's statue. I think it was for National Poetry Day. My wife Michelle came too. Everybody was invited to celebrate Clare by reading their favourite poem of his. Jimtom did; I didn't. I was too shy, even though the number of people there was small. But I was glad I'd attended. It occurred to me as I sat and watched that in different ways Jimtom and I were inheritors of the tradition begun by Clare, if not by the much less sympathetic and appealing Dryden. He had passed a torch to us and we were still doing the work, Jimtom most powerfully with his concern for the preservation of the natural world and our host planet.

Whether of us would have been able to bear Clare as a companion for too long, especially once he started talking about politics, is another matter entirely. Clare, by all accounts, was conservative in his outlook, although I suspect those labels might have had different shades of meaning at the time of the Industrial Revolution.

'I am as far as my politics reaches 'King and Country' – no Innovations in Religion and Government say I.' (John Clare)

Saturday, September 26, 2020

The Trial of the Chicago Seven (Well, Eight)

Aaron Sorkin's new Netflix movie 'The Trial of the Chicago 7' arrives on our screens in October. In the present climate, it's going to be a timely piece. The film is set in 1968, when the Vietnam War and institutionalised racism were dividing America much as it is divided today. At the Democratic Convention in Chicago that year, the police famously ran riot and viciously assaulted hundreds of young people who had come to the city to protest against the war. Although the motivation of those who came was more various and complex than that. Poet Ed Sanders saw the assembly of youth in the streets and parks of Chicago as a 'Festival of Life' that would act as a kind of karmic counterweight, in its affirmative message, to the hawkish warmongering inside what he called the 'Democratic Death Convention'.

Britannica suggests that the reason for the brutal attack by the police on the young people who'd come to the city was the attempted enforcement of an 11pm curfew, which the protestors refused to comply with. The city, run by the notorious Mayor Daley, denied the groups in attendance permits to all marches and rallies except an afternoon rally in Grant Park. Unsurprisingly, given that they had nowhere else to go, about 15,000 people turned up, but when they tried to march out of the park they were intercepted by police in a manner so violent Sandi Thompson revealed that it made her husband Hunter weep. He was in Chicago for the Convention. I've always believed his seething hatred of Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie, which flowered magnificently in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, took root during that campaign.

Julius Hoffman

Hundreds of people were arrested during the police riots that lasted, in total, five days and nights, among them eight significant political activists and counter-culture leaders. And in the trial that followed, which is the subject of the film, Judge Julius Hoffman and the Prosecution did everything they could to have the defendants jailed.  Everything legal and everything that pushed the law to breaking point. I've known about the trial for years because I am a fan of Allen Ginsberg, who testified for the Defence (though his testimony is not shown in the film). And yet the last time I saw the 1987 play Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8, it still shocked and angered me, even though I knew what was coming.

Bobby Seale

The film is titled differently from the play because Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers was severed from the case by Hoffman and sentenced to four years for contempt of court. Eight, therefore, had become seven. Why? Denied the right both to be defended by the lawyer of his choice or to defend himself, Seale was understandably furious:

[…] Those jive lying witnesses up there presented by these pig agents of the government […] lie and say and condone some rotten racists, fascist crap by racist cops […] I demand my constitutional rights!

Seale's reward for those comments, initially, was to be bound and gagged and made to sit in the courtroom as proceedings continued. This lasted for several days before Seale was finally removed. Even watching a group of actors play out this moment is profoundly distressing. To think that it happened in real life, in our time (mine anyway), boggles the mind. I don't know if the history of the Black Panthers is taught in American schools; I'm pretty sure it isn't in the UK. But in the era of Black Lives Matter, after the murder of George Floyd and the outrageous exoneration of the cops involved in the death of Breonna Taylor - at a time when cities in the US are burning with the need for racial justice - the spectacle of a black man being humiliated deliberately by a judge who the current president would invite to dinner might possibly prove incendiary. 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Silent Women of 'Don't Look Back'

Sally Grossman with Bob Dylan

There's a poetry documentary shot sometime in the Sixties in which Robert Creeley talks while his then-wife Bobbie listens and throws in occasional observations of her own. But interjections are all she gets to make. She has a place at the table, but her role is to be there as witness to her husband's speech, his insights, to be (I can't help thinking) in her rapt attentive state a sort of boast that reinforces his importance. Creeley, we learned when Bobbie found her own voice, was open about his expectation of the woman he lived with. He did not want to compete with another writer. But conscious or unconscious misogyny were a habit of the times.


This afternoon I watched the D.A. Pennebaker masterpiece Don't Look Back for the first time in years and I saw something in it that I'd never seen before: the silence of the women. Several women appear in the film; some make interjections like Bobbie Hawkins and the others say nothing at all. The only exception is Joan Baez, who's extremely vocal, sings songs (mostly Dylan's) and follows Bob from town to town hoping (we learn when we read a little deeper) that he will invite her onto the stage as she had invited him when his star was in the ascendant in America. He doesn't reciprocate. Another woman silenced, at least publicly, although Joan didn't really need Dylan's help. Her reputation as one of folk music's greatest artists is undiminished 55 years after the movie was shot.

Joan Baez

Don't Look Back is about Bob Dylan, of course, and the frantic nature of his growing fame. It's not about Joan Baez, although Pennebaker does seem interested in her as a subject; and Allen Ginsberg has only a minimal role - although he features in the outstanding sequence for Subterranean Homesick Blues that opens the film, and was already infamous enough to need no introduction. But the presence of Sally Grossman seems almost decorative, and Marianne Faithfull sits so quietly in Dylan's noisy hotel room you would hardly know she's there (the grainy black & white film Pennebaker uses makes her harder to see, I have to admit). It's Alan Price who talks and sings, and Donovan who Bob seems almost threatened by until he meets him. Many Dylan fans feel he deliberately owns Donovan by singing It's All Over Now, Baby Blue after the latter's To Sing For You when they are trading songs at the hotel. Bob's is undoubtedly the better song, but Donovan asks him to sing it, and Dylan looks pleased by the request.

Who is the woman who sings with Alan Price backstage at one of the shows and gamely tries to be heard over the chorus of loud male voices? This may be common knowledge among bigger Dylan fans than me (although I have admired him for nearly forty years), and among devotees of Alan Price; but I've been searching on the internet for two days and I can't even find her picture. Nor can I find any information about Jones Alk, other than that she was the first wife of Howard Alk, the bearded, bespectacled, bear-like figure in the movie who seems ready to throw people out of the hotel room for Bob when a beer bottle is dropped out of the window.

Howard was a filmmaker and Jones is clearly recording sound throughout the film. So you might not expect her to speak anyway. But in a long sequence toward the end of the film, when Dylan confronts an admirably restrained reporter from Time magazine, Pennebaker makes the curious decision to shoot the interview from such an angle that only Dylan and Jones can be seen, notwithstanding cutaways to the reporter; other people, the men in Dylan's entourage, can be heard, joining in with Bob's impertinent attack on the reporter in what looks to me like an act of collective bullying (I know many would find that an absurd statement), but they have had their exposure earlier in the movie. Jones is in full view for 6 minutes and says nothing at all; she smokes and listens with rapt attention, as if what she's hearing is provoking the deepest thoughts. Her presence at the table is so similar to Bobbie Louise Hawkins' in its nature and symbolism it can't be a coincidence.

The difference is that Jones doesn't speak at all. I can't be the only one who wants to know if she agreed with Dylan that Time would be improved by collages or that he was onto something when he said each word had its little letter and big letter. I'd like to think that she was really writing a poem in her head as I sometimes do when someone else is talking too much; but I suppose we'll never find out.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Rare and Collectable: Rexroth & Ferlinghetti 'Poetry Readings in the Cellar'

This was recorded in 1957 in the Cellar on Green Street, San Francisco, and released on the Fantasy label. The Cellar, apparently, was a downstairs nightclub that in a previous incarnation was a Chinese restaurant. The album features Kenneth Rexroth, the reluctant and sometimes unacknowledged progenitor of the West Coast bohemian scene, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the legendary poet and City Lights bookstore owner, whose most celebrated cultural achievement, perhaps, was publishing Allen Ginsberg's Howl in his Pocket Poets series. Ferlinghetti almost went to jail for that bold visionary act, but thanks to a landmark decision by Judge Clayton Horn, what resulted from the Howl obscenity trial was a liberalisation of poetic expression in the Western world, enormous publicity for Ferlinghetti's store and publishing house and global fame for Ginsberg.

Here, Rexroth and Ferlinghetti read poems and the Cellar Jazz Quintet accompany them, improvising impressively. (To me Rexroth's voice is weirdly like Tom Hanks when he's in deep character.) On the original vinyl lp at least - I haven't heard the cd reissue - the sound is wonderful. I don't have the critical vocabulary to explain why it's so good, being neither a critic nor a musician, but I love the way it transports me, when I hear it, back to the time when High Fidelity was the most advanced technology they had. I could almost look out of my window and see businessmen in macs and fedoras coming home from work in the dark. Sound on cd tends to be so clean and pure all the atmosphere is distilled from it. 

ruth weiss, who waitressed at the Cellar but also mesmerised audiences with her readings there, famously said, 'Ferlinghetti and Rexroth were poets who read over jazz; but jazz was part of me; I swung.' That's true, but it doesn't matter. Both wrote great, intelligent poetry - Rexroth sometimes overtly, angrily political; Ferlinghetti hipper, funny, subtly political - and some of it is represented on this record. They're not jazz poets, they're poets of words and ideas vocalised over microphones, but the Quintet are sensitive accompanists who weave their jazz around and through the orations so they're given greater emphasis and emotional context. Which is to say that you might understand what they say a little easier and give them more attention because of the jazz, and if you're encountering Rexroth for the first time you might need the help.

Highlights for me are Rexroth's 20 minute reading of 'Thou Shalt Not Kill (In Memory of Dylan Thomas)', which at certain points rises to such magnificent rhetorical levels it has echoes of the Moloch section of Howl; I also really like Ferlinghetti's Autobiography. But Ferlinghetti has an impish charm that makes everything he does appealing, even if he sometimes seems a little too cute and doesn't quite get to the meat of the matter. You'd certainly rather spend a night out with him than intense, grumpy old Kenneth, snarling anarchist slogans through his well-groomed moustache. 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

'Ratched' is an Entertaining Let-Down

Ratched arrived on Netflix the other day. It's based on one of American literature's most memorable creations, Head Nurse Mildred Ratched from Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Everybody who read that book, or saw the movie of the same name, was chilled by Ratched's cold, brutal domination of the ward at the acute mental hospital in which. the protagonist, and Ratched's antagonist, R.P. McMurphy arrives after doing time at a prison farm for statutory rape. (How times have changed. Imagine trying to sell that as a heroic backstory now.) He isn't mentally ill; he wants to avoid hard labour for the rest of his sentence - which by any reckoning is profoundly sensible. The question of how mental illness is defined and how it should be treated is of key importance to Kesey's novel and the film.

This new show is, in one respect, a prequel to Kesey's novel because it presents us with the early life of Mildred Ratched. It shows her, in the pilot we watched last night, getting her first job in a mental hospital. She is already displaying the cruelty and menace of her later incarnation and we learn why. The show's star Sarah Paulson even bears some resemblance to Louise Fletcher's Ratched from the movie. But that's where the similarities between original and prequel end.

Ratched is described as a 'psychological thriller drama' or a 'psychological horror drama'. It's genre, and Paulson's Ratched is a grotesque, drawn so large her wickedness is less shocking than it is comedic. This is the sort of tv you watch to laugh at each new grizzly murder or incredibly rude comeback. Kesey's Ratched - and Fletcher's Ratched - was frightening because her evil (if such a thing exists) was coldly banal. I worked with more than one person who Kesey might have modelled his Head Nurse on in my 15 years as a care worker. They were appalling, cruel people, completely lacking in empathy, and they went home every day to partner and children and led utterly normal lives, popular in their communities and untroubled by conscience.

I intend to watch the rest of the series, though. It may be derivative and occasionally predictable; it may be yet another show that depicts the mentally ill as physically ravaged, stooping, body-slashing maniacs (some are, most aren't); but it's also great fun, something colourful and stylish to sit down with for an hour before you go to bed. If you want something deeper you can go back to the movie or the book. Then you'll really learn about the true nature of madness, and the improper exercise of power.


Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Second Wave is Here

Boris Johnson announced yesterday what had been apparent to most of us for some time: the second wave of this coronavirus has arrived. Now, according to the news, the government are considering a second, short, nationwide lockdown to arrest its exponential growth. Whether that will happen or not I don't know. (Obviously.) My guess is that nationwide readjustments will come into effect to the measures that were announced when lockdown was eased. Another ban on visits to other households; perhaps a ban on meetings in parks, although as the colder weather comes in that will be less of a problem anyway. We might see a curfew placed an pubs and restaurants, which they already have in parts of the North. What's certain is that something has to be done, and as Angela Rayner, the Labour Party's deputy leader has said today, all of us should get behind the actions taken if they are indicated by the science. I would add that if the science indicates a complete lockdown, then that's what must be done, regardless of the economic consequences (although if it didn't work last time...). Perhaps I can afford to say this because I'm broke anyway and have nothing to lose except my life and the lives of the people I love. But two people in my partner's family have had Covid-19; others have had scares but were ultimately okay. It's like a small earthquake in your world when you hear somebody close to you has been struck down.

My fear is that the government's scientific advisors are too close to Johnson, Cummings and whoever else makes the political decisions at present to give a truly effective, impartial view of the state of the pandemic and the best strategies to tackle it. That could be my cynicism, of course - as a lifelong doubter of institutions - but having watched most of the broadcasts from Downing Street during the first lockdown, when Professor Whitty stood beside whichever half-bright minister Johnson sent in his place and looked far too meek and humbled for a clever man, I doubt somehow that the scientists have as much influence over government as they should.

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