Sunday, January 07, 2018

The Bookshops of Harborough

Christine's Bookcabin, Market Harborough

My dream for years now has been to open a second-hand bookshop. I love books: I love the look of them, the feel of them and the smell of them, and the older they are, the deeper my love goes. An old yellowing paperback with an inscription by a previous owner inside it is almost a holy relic for me.

But you need money to start a business; and usually a mortgage to obtain a bank loan. Increasingly, books don't seem like a viable business proposition either. Acquaintances who know about my book obsession, and my dream, tell me with a sort of glee that no one reads anymore. 

This is the sort of thing people who don't read themselves tend to say, or people who like to ring their hands about the decay of civilised values in the technological age. The world still reads. But they can buy a greater variety of books at a cheaper price on Amazon. I use that indie-gobbling corporate giant myself, although in my case it's because I have no alternative most of the time, living in Northampton. Here we only have a Waterstone's. I go in occasionally, but I rarely find anything I want to read--at least not for the money I have in my pocket.

The town of Market Harborough, which is literally one footfall over the county line into Leicestershire, turns all the current wisdom about book shopping habits on its head. The last population estimate was 22,000--Northampton dwarfs it at approximately 219,000--and yet Market Harborough has five bookshops (that I could find) to Northampton's one. 

Age UK bookshop, Market Harborough

Two of Harborough's bookshops are run by charities. But they're not the usual high street charity shops where you can also buy clothes, jewellery and picture frames (much as I love those places). In Market Harborough there are Age UK and Oxfam shops dedicated to books, along with film and music, and whenever I'm there they both do healthy business. 

Oxfam Bookstore, Market Harborough, with Michelle

The books are high quality books too. Yesterday I bought Diana Souhami's 'The Trials of Radclyffe Hall', 'The Good Bohemian: The Letters of Ida John', and 'Journey Around My Room: The Autobiography of Louise Bogan' for a little more than ten pounds. There were many other books I could have bought too, but I had to leave a few quid for lunch in the Sugar Loaf pub up the street (where, by the way, I had the best veggie burger and chips I'd eaten in months).

I've wondered before why this gorgeous little town has more places for book lovers to indulge their passion than places ten times its size. Is it the closeness of a big university? Perhaps, but Harborough also has more bookshops than Leicester, as far as I know; and Northampton has a good university--it should be, the author of this blog is one of its graduates. Is it Harborough's socio-economic make-up? or just tradition? 

Whatever the answer is, I go there as often as I can, and buy as many books as I can find that pique my curiosity. Amazon provides a great service, even if it has a reputation for treating its employees appallingly. Nothing, however, beats the experience of browsing shelves in a bookshop, running your gaze along rows and rows of spines imprinted with some names you know and others you don't, meeting the eyes of other people who've come in for the same reason, looking at the books in their arms and guessing who they are by what they read. I want to support good bookshops and keep the social side of book consumption alive, or even help it to grow again.

It's hard enough to watch councils across the country taking away the libraries that gave us our love of books in the first place.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Poem: Trump's First Year

With no frail ego that needs shoring up
by pulverising those with different views,
no love for money, power, influence,
no wish to be a headline in the news,

taught by my mother that my home was Earth,
that walls were artificial, people real,
loving colour, language and diversity,
preferring not the known, but what we feel,

I sank into a deep gloom watching Trump
campaign to take the White House, then get in.
His first year taught me that the triumph's mine,
since I will never, ever be like him.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The American Resistance: My Heroes of 2017

2017 will be known in history as the Year of Trump. Across the world. The 2016 election of this man, about whom, for me, almost no pejorative is adequate, has sent shock waves -- as well as peals of derisive laughter -- around the world. Surely, we all thought, almost everybody in every country on Earth, America can't be serious. Let's be fair: most of America isn't, and it never was. Not about him. But he got in anyway.

For me, however, the last year hasn't been about Trump. Or, he isn't the lasting memory I choose to take from the year, even though I've spent more than my fair share of it watching the news, wondering when he or his deranged mirror-image in North Korea were going to hurl us all into nuclear war; looking on in exasperation and growing outrage as he sought to delegitimise the media, wrote bigoted executive orders against Muslims, Native Americans and transgender soldiers, did nothing in response to the latest mass shootings except invoke the name of God and invite the NRA to the White House on the anniversary of Sandy Hook. This supposed leader of the free world even retweeted three unverified videos (including one proven to be fake) from my own country's British National Party, an organisation of hooligans in whose name a Labour MP was murdered.

What I choose to take from a year preoccupied with a president who, far from making America great again, who far from restoring respect for America internationally (he craves respect like the stereotype of a Mafia boss), has made his country look bellicose, uncooperative and fifty years behind the global political agenda -- what I take from the year Trump's seemingly ugly heart has dominated, is the rise of an American Resistance which we haven't seen the like of for decades. It makes me feel hope that the Trump victory was an historical aberration which will soon be corrected. And the fact that the Resistance is as much a populist movement as it is a mainstream political movement -- from this distance it seems more about the people on the streets, although there are still good men and women in Washington -- makes it all the more inspiring. I have been loosely involved with grassroots campaigns against government for decades. But most of the times it's hard to get more than twenty people to a rally.

The Resistance isn't one thing; it's a lot of things. Women have found a powerful voice in campaigns against sexual abuse popularised by activist celebrities like Alyssa Milano and Rose McGowan; the discourse is often controversial and divisive, but shouldn't it be? The man running the country is on tape boasting that he can 'grab [women] by the pussy' because he's famous. In Britain, which is far from a perfect democracy, that recording would have ended Trump's political career the moment it was released. We hear of arguments between activist women, and some insist they stop and present a united front. But they overlook that the inevitable consequence of finding your voice is the freedom to use it any way you fucking like. Live with it.

The 'Take a Knee' protests begun by NFL star Colin Kaepernick incensed Trump so much he tweeted and ranted publically about it for weeks. Obama, previously, had told a serviceman in a television studio that Kaepernick was exercising his constitutional right to protest against the treatment of black people in America; Trump told an audience of his own supporters that any NFL player who took a knee during the national anthem was a sonofabitch and he should be fired.

There were clear racist overtones in his comments that anybody who cared to see would see. Trump's racism, however, is not news. After a white supremacist rally resulted in the death of a young woman  protesting their odious presence in Charlottesville, Trump said there was blame on both sides for the fighting and insisted there were good people among the white supremacists. He didn't characterise them that way, of course, but he wouldn't, would he? No politician of even marginal intelligence will use derogatory language about his constituents, however accurate it is.

Trump and the American police force, according to the testimonies I've read and heard, take more credit even than those bold NFL players for imbuing many young Americans with a fierce determination to stop the brutality that makes a black man fair game if he's out on the streets after dark. The President told the cops that he supported them being much harder on the people they arrested. His comments were contradicted the next day by senior and beat officers, but the statistics speak for themselves. Too many young men become known to the world because they died in their car with a bullet in their chest.

Some people I know reject the idea that negative racial profiling is behind the killings and chokings. I think that's naïve and in itself kind of racist. But even if they are right, which seems unlikely, American police officers wouldn't be so jumpy if the country brought its gun laws in line with those of the rest of the Western world. That's not going to happen in this administration, of course, because Trump and the Republican Party are puppets of the NRA. I detect, in my reading, that there may be a grassroots gun control movement slowly growing in America though, as part of this Resistance which has flowered in 2017 on so many fronts. Let's hope that it gathers momentum and some real, positive change occurs. One wealthy lobby group shouldn't hold the safety of all Americans in its hands, any more than one bloated businessman who bought an election by lying to vulnerable people and stealing from almost everyone should be responsible for the fate of the whole world.

The American Resistance exists on other fronts, but I've run out of time to discuss them all today. The women and men taking part in it, and the ones who have died supporting it, are my heroes of 2017. I was almost grief-stricken when the country that gave me most of the books and music I love, and most of the movies I love, and some of the ideals I cherish, elected to its highest office a man I've considered a vainglorious fool for thirty years; but the Resistance showed me that America was the country I presumed all along. And now we British onlookers can organise our calendars to welcome Mr. Trump to London in 2018. It should be quite a party.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Bishop's Wife

I like old movies. One of my favourite Freeview channels to dip in and out of is Talking Pictures, which rarely shows anything made after the early 1960s. Is my age causing me to retreat into a comfortable, sentimentalised idea of the past when I watch these films? Do I feel I understand the world they represent more than I get the one in which I actually live? Perhaps. But I loved them when I was younger too.

This morning I got up early. It was too dark to read without turning on the light in the living room, and if I turned on the light I would wake up our birds Wild Bill, Calamity Jane and Wyatt Earp. If I did that, everyone in our building would complain. So I turned on the tv instead of the light. What I saw when I scrolled through the viewing options was my favourite Christmas film 'The Bishop's Wife'. I hadn't seen it for at least five years, despite it having been, once, an annual seasonal ritual to watch it, and it had only started a few seconds ago. The next part of the morning was decided.

'The Bishop's Wife' was released in 1947. It's based on a novel I haven't read from 1928 by Robert Nathan, but it has a distinctly post-war feel about it. All of the central characters, from David Niven's Bishop to Monty Woolly's down-at-heel scholar are weary, lost, struggling with faith in some way. (Woolly says that when he passes the graveyard he feels as if he were 'apartment hunting'.)

Into this melancholy group, all of whom are linked by the 
Bishop's wife Julia (Loretta Young), who knows that her husband has lost his way in the pursuit of his ambition, comes the charming, playful, mysterious Dudley, played by Cary Grant. He appears in answer to a prayer to God that Niven makes when he feels that he may not be able to build a magnificent cathedral because of problems he has with a wealthy benefactor. Dudley presents himself to the Bishop as an angel, one who hasn't 'earned his wings yet.'

At first the Bishop struggles to believe him, as most of us would. Once convinced, however, he enlists Dudley's support in securing the funds for the cathedral. But Dudley is distracted by an inappropriate attraction to Julia. In fact, he uses his magical powers to distract and keep the Bishop occupied so that he can woo her.

Ultimately, Dudley confesses his passion and Julia rejects him. But this is not an unhappy resolution because when the Bishop realises he may lose his wife, he rediscovers his own passion for her and declares himself ready to fight even an emissary of Heaven to save his marriage. 

The cathedral is never built. Desiring to complete his mission, Dudley visits the Bishop's benefactor and enables her to confess that she has been so concerned with building a monument to her late husband because she never loved him. Her only love was a young composer who died nearly three decades earlier. She has been haunted by his memory ever since. When the Bishop arrives he finds her utterly changed by her confession, and determined to give her fortune to people in need around the world.

As Dudley has said at another point in the film, it would have seemed a great pity to build such an enormous roof when the money could have been spent building so many smaller ones. 

A message as apparently radical, but actually entirely logical and humane, made sense only two years after a conflict that nearly destroyed the world. But in two or three years, as McCarthyism began to sweep through Hollywood like a California wildfire, such sentiments would have been unconscionable. Political fashions come and go, thankfully, and great art lives on past its creators and detractors.

To quote David Niven in the film, watching 'The Bishop's Wife' gave me 'an inexplicable feeling of happiness' all day. We all need a restoration of our faith sometimes, whether we are Christians, Buddhists, hallucinating mystics or we believe in nothing but football.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Bard at the Beeb

A week or so ago, I went down to Radio Northampton to do an interview about the old Railway Club in Wellingborough. A researcher at the station is putting together something about the history of music and youth culture in the county (I think that's the focus), and after seeing something I wrote here on Suffolk Punch, he invited me to participate.

We could have done it over the phone, or via Skype, if I'd had Skype, but I wanted to have a look inside the station. I'd been passing it every day for years, whenever I was in town, and latterly I'd known several people who'd been in there to talk about poetry, or charity. I don't like to admit it, but I'm occasionally very competitive. I want adventure; and I don't want you to have more adventure than me.

The experience was brief, but I loved it. And hated it. I went into a studio just vacated by the guy on the afternoon show and spoke into a microphone like Willie Nelson on a tour date promo. The young researcher asked me about the club, the bands who'd played there, and the attractions of the rock 'n' roll and rockabilly culture. I said that it was my first experience of anything vaguely adult, and that even the stories about the violence the club attracted were compelling reasons to be there for a naïve kid. I theorised that back then everybody wanted to belong to a gang, and mine was just a nostalgia gang with greasy hair, tight trousers and fluorescent socks. Was it the same these days, I wondered? I didn't know.

Occasionally my voice trembled. His attentive gaze made me nervous. I was afraid I was talking crap, or worse, sounding as old and irrelevant as reminiscing about these things was making me feel. It was a club that had been demolished at least a year ago. And the school I attended when I went there had been turned into a housing estate in the Nineties.

I don't want to go into the archives of history as an ex-Ted, I thought, absurdly, even as I romanticised for my interviewer. But in some way the idea that something, at least, might outlast me for a while was curiously comforting. And it sure as shit won't be my poetry. Those were good times. And the music was excellent.

After about fifteen minutes, the researcher concluded the interview. Is that it? I thought, Geldof-like. I wanted to go on for another half an hour, expanding into new areas, inspiring other programmes.

"That's great," he said. "I can use more of that than I thought."

Are you just being professional, saying that? I wondered, while feeling simultaneously flattered, like a child who'd been praised for cleaning up his toys. Public appearances of any sort open me up like a wound, letting out all of my insecurities. But I have to take him at his word. We'll see when the show airs on February 7th at midday how much of my interview made the cut.

Not that I'll be listening. I'll be out walking in the park while Michelle listens for me and prepares all the reassurances I will, and won't, believe.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Rabbit in the Moon

The rabbit in the moon appears in Bengali folk tales as well as the Buddhist story I've written about before.

I have seen it, as anyone who listens to my inconsequential ramblings will know. But I won't tell anyone else where it is, because each person must find the rabbit in the moon by him-/herself; it's a test of spiritual perception.

When I saw it, I stood alone on Kettering Road in Northampton and laughed out loud. I must have looked at the moon 100,000 times without noticing it.

As the Buddhist saying goes, "When the student is ready, the teacher appears."

That night a young East-European couple had stopped at the kerb on Churchill Avenue looking up at the sky. The man was pointing at something above their heads and the woman was laughing.

Perhaps he had just seen the rabbit in the moon as well. It must have been a night of magic.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Meet Lew Bear

Lew Bear is a folksinger (at least, that's what I'd call him) making albums and appearing live, when work allows, in and around Northamptonshire. He probably goes further afield, but in keeping with SP's usual commitment to high quality investigative journalism, I don't have that information for you. Have a look at Lew's website and I'm sure there'll be information on gigs.

Like all artists, I imagine Lew has been practising and refining his craft since he was old enough to pick up a guitar; I know I wrote my first novel, a revenge Western called 'Blood Lust', when I was 10 or 11. But the three albums he sent me, which cover 2011 to 2014, show that the process of critical self-appraisal necessary to the creation of good work in any medium, continues with Lew even though he has found the space in which he wants to work.

How is that evidenced? Not necessarily in quantum leaps of improvement, because the first album, 'Done in the Dark', is by no means a bad album; and it's certainly not as bad as Lew told me it was, before he admitted it wasn't wholly atrocious but might have been better as an ep. I like it. It lacks polish, perhaps--at times the songs sound like demos rather than finished recordings--but that's what Springsteen calls, 'not just the sound of music being played, but music being made', and it can be fascinating, like peering undetected through the window at a band rehearsal.

Elements that will feature in the two subsequent albums are already present on 'Done in the Dark', like an intelligent appreciation of the folk tradition, which is to say true folk, the old songs and stories;  tthe wonderful 'Mad Ole Girl' and 'All Roads Meet' lope along like horses loose in a field, and it's not hard to imagine Jack the Bastard getting drunk to either of them by a crackling fire after robbing a coach on the Daventry Road.

The congeniality of Lew's more mature style is present here too. His rich, round voice tells us just to enjoy life's journey on 'All Roads Meet'; and he advises us to greet the world with a friendly 'Hey Ja' on the song of the same name. This year's 'Ripples' opens with an eponymous track reminding us that if we give love we spread love; our actions are our only true heritage. He writes it better and sings it better in 'Ripples'--that song's exquisite--but the seed is there early. I can't think of anyone else who ploughs that sweet, generous, open-hearted furrow (can a furrow be open-hearted?) without sounding trite. But with Lew you can tell that the evenness of his spirit is hard won. 'Echoes of the Past' and 'No Return' on the 'Ripples' album are filled with sharp regret.

Politics shows itself in all three of the albums Lew's recorded since 2011, though you might say the version of Kipling's 'If' on 'Ripples', combined with the title song's call for love, gradually draws politics into something more existential. (What is it with Kipling by the way? That old imperialist seems really popular right now. The Scrumpy Bastards have set one of his to music as well.) 'Land of Hope and Glory' on 'Done in the Dark' is a recession-era call for collective resistance. 'My Son John', I suspect, is another version of the traditional anti-war song 'Mrs McGrath'. But don't quote me on that. Seeing Martin Carthy perform something similar was one of the high points of my gigging life.

If I could only take one of Lew Bear's three albums with me on a rocket ship out of the galaxy, I have to admit it would be the second, 'Down by the Riverside'. It's not necessarily any better than 'Ripples', but it was recorded, as the sleeve states, 'completely live, without overdubs or fx, by the rivers and in the forests and fields of Northamptonshire'. The opening track, 'Slow Lane', a hymn to unhurried, quiet living (that congenial vision again), has wild birds accompanying Lew's vocals, and rushing water for an intro and an outro. I would want that, in space, to remind me how much I loved the county I'd left behind.

Some of Lew's original compositions here appear on the first and third albums, demonstrating what I said before about how committed he is to refining his art.  And the choice of traditionals has clearly been made by an aesthete. 'Cancha Line Em Track' sounds like a very English version of an Alan Lomax field recording; and 'Wild Mountain Thyme' is restored to its original folk beauty after being transformed into a slice of psychedelic pop a few decades ago. Ken Nash has done 'In the Pines' live, or at least during his soundchecks, and everybody remembers the version by Nirvana from their MTV Unplugged. It remains one of the weirdest, greatest, most sinister songs I've ever heard. Strangely, an artist as gentle as Lew has no trouble making its strangeness convincing.

Perhaps there's something more twisted about the affable, extremely gifted Lew Bear than meets the eye.