HOME  UP 

REVIEWS

ISSUE 18

MEDAL FOR MALAYA by David Tipton Shoestring Press, 19 Devonshire Ave., Beeston, Nottingham, NG9 IBS ISBN I 899549 75 7 £8.99  

"Remember National Service?" asks the blurb on the back cover of this book and it occurred to me that not many people under the age of sixty will. The last National Serviceman was discharged in 1963 and since then the country has managed to rely on its regular forces to defend its interests. Prior to 1963, though, thousands of young men were conscripted and served two years in a variety of places, ranging from camps in this country to Germany, Hong Kong, Egypt and just about everywhere else where it was thought necessary to have British forces stationed. Leaving aside the large army presence in Germany the map was still dotted with red patches in those days, even if the decline of the Empire was well under way. And although most National Servicemen never heard a shot fired in anger, some did in Korea, Suez, Malaya, and one or two other trouble spots. Almost 400 National Servicemen died in action between 1945 and 1963.

Those notes may suffice as an introduction to David Tipton's novel of army life in the 1950s, and perhaps I also ought to declare an interest at this point. Like Tipton, I experienced the army around the same time, though I extended my service to three years to get better rates of pay and have a chance to choose where I went I got to Germany, which suited me fine as, unlike England, the pubs were open late and the shops had plenty of American books and jazz records. I've never looked back on my years in the army as wasted and whenever I'm asked which university I went to I still like to say BAOR.

Revill, the hero of Tipton's novel, does his basic training, with its overtones of bullying and sadism, and is later posted to Singapore where he soon involves himself in a life that, outside the army routine, includes visits to local bars and brothels and a series of scrapes with fellow-soldiers. Putting groups of young men together in confined spaces can soon lead to clashes of temperament and personality and barrack-room bullies need to be dealt with and manipulative older soldiers watched carefully. To be fair, Revill isn't oblivious to the world beyond the camp and unlike some National Servicemen, who took the view that being away from home was a kind of punishment they had to endure, he notes aspects of local life and customs, even if they often only concern the women he meets.

The 1950s were the years of "the emergency" in Malaya and Revill is posted away from the fleshpots of the city and into the jungle, where communist guerrillas ambush convoys and a brief firelight finds him elated at having experienced action. But the sight of dead bodies hauled away by the Ghurkas who did most of the fighting makes him realise it wasn't just an adventure designed to provide material for the novel he plans to write when he leaves the army. Real bullets kill real people. Still, Revill's life continues in its usual way, with beer and women providing distractions from army routine and occasionally violent (towards each other, not the enemy) soldiers. Brushes with authority also enliven the story and even his final days in uniform have a drunken episode that leads to a trumped up murder charge. But he does make it back to England and civilian life.

I've laid out the bare bones of Medal for Malaya but perhaps haven't done justice to its fast-moving style. It rolls along in a direct fashion, rarely taking time to look at motives or consider long-term consequences. But that's the way it was for most National Servicemen, with few extended friendships formed and many of the demands of army life having little meaning beyond its framework. Get a group of ex-National Servicemen together and anecdotes rather than analysis form the basis for a discussion. In the way that it focuses on action, whether military, sexual, or personal. Medal for Malaya offers a lively account of a young man's rite of passage.  

 

BLUES FOR BIRD by Martin Gray (Santa Monica Press - $16.95 - ISBN 1-891661-20-5)

We argue jazz. I map a connection direct from intuition to expression without the filtering of intellect or literal articulacy. Steve says no, musicians - like everyone else, rely on an accumulation of technique and phrases they randomly permutate on whim or inspiration. We're both right. On a sliding scale from one extreme to the other. Sometimes within the same musician. Sometimes within the space of a single phrase of breath. During the mid-to-late 1940's, using only an alto sax - a metal pipe / with keys to him', Charlie Bird Parker created a spontaneous warp-speed fluidity that derailed all jazz since, yet his mission-statement claims he was merely looking for the 'pretty notes'. While - incidentally, a mission that wordlessly achieves what poetry aspires to, but never comes dose, 'so that what he thought and played / was instantaneous'. An (in)articulate speech of the heart. Via the gut. Harmonies in the head. Sonics that bend spacetime. On the Dial record-label. In 'Anthropology'. 'Ornithology1. On The West Coast. On 52nd Street. With Dizzy Gillespie. In Paris. In the Yardbird Suite. On Verve. With Strings. He introduces an architecture of strange voices new to jazz by playing anthems for fleeting moments. Celebrations of the dispossessed. His saxophone is 'moist, / warm like the human voice, / yet also it is cool / supremely logical', breaking out beyond the diatonic-scale using complex harmonic changes, grace notes and an obliquely accented relationship to the beat, into a chromaticism that seems angular and unsettling to ears of the day, yet has a nightmarish beauty of infinite elasticity. Where squares hear only cacophony, hipsters peak with epiphany. 'Music is a game / private, intimate / individual, yet / a conversation with / each person in the crowd'. Beat-writers try to catch those Bop cadences with a kind of free-scat jazzetry, tracing Bird improvisations by distorting vocabulary into a deliberately disconnected dance of cracked syllables. Even Charlie Watts - Rolling Stones' drummer, and no mean jazz-slouch, writes his own 'ODE TO A HIGH-FLYING BIRD' in percussive stanzas. While Ross Russell's biog 'BIRD LIVES' remains essential. And coming later, Martin Gray acknowledges its 'infectious enthusiasm', but while developing his own verse-biography form (through earlier shots at Modigliani and Pollock), he ducks any attempt at catching Bird's sound, with no attempted mood-enhancing through experimental typography or Wow-mad incendiary ruptured texts to give his words flight, preferring technically well-researched fact-oids line-cut into narrative chapters interspersed with etched-sketches, middle-eights and a useful glossary-of-terms cadenza ('appoggiatura', dig, fix, cat, horse, lick, tea/grass, gruppetto). In fact, he deliberately chooses the neglected iambic trimeter and syncopated hexameter, a regular - and predictable sliced-text form. Yet one uniquely suited to the re-telling of anecdotes, myths, one-liners, and reported-conversation speech-patterns, and he uses this dramatic directness to its full potential. His is a narrative that prefers an anatomical scalpel-exactness - 'Bird's little finger was long as the others were', located more to Steve's cool technique than my hyper-physical extemporisation. Charlie Mingus called Parker King Spook'. And Bird - Yardbird, was a Goof Demigod, a human contradiction, as capable of selfless generosity - with no concept of value, as he was of pawning a borrowed sax to raise drug-dollars. Whatever, he accelerated, revolutionised and evolved tonal possibilities through immaculately stoned flesh, vomit, sadistic games with heroin, syringes, sex, food and piss. Until, with references outside of jazz - to Debussy, Toscanini, Varese, Heinrich Heine and elsewhere, Martin Gray finally talks of Bird talking of working with Hindemith, or Yehudi Menuhin, while he was too juiced to even play the horn that was his last true friend. Feeling 'what men at war must feel, / a love tinged with despair... his stellar music gifts / disrupted by his need / to tamper with his flesh... till drink and drugs combined / to quiet his instrument'. The dissonance of speeding highways. Kinetic galaxies spattering. He made it cerebral by smashing it. Poets envy it. Dream of doing the same. But must always fail. Wow's The Time...

 

JAZZ ETC. by John Murray Flambard Press. £8.99 ISBN 1 873226 62 4  

In 1952 I wandered into a small electrical goods shop in Whitehaven. Like many such places in small towns it also sold gramophone records and I asked if they had any jazz. The man pulled a couple of cardboard boxes from under the counter and, looking through them, I found two Dizzy Gillespie 78s on the HMV label. I canít recall the titles but I can remember thinking that the town must have had at least one or two secret hipsters. Or perhaps it didn't and that's why the records were still in the box?

That exercise in nostalgia was triggered by reading John Murray's excellent new novel, which is largely set in Whitehaven and that part of West Cumbria. The action revolves around Vince and and Enzo Mori, father and son and Italian Cumbrians. Vince has an ice-cream van but also leads a local trad band which appears in the pubs and dubs of the area, merrily lifting tunes from better-known bands like Acker Bilk while Vince eyes the ladies in the audience.

Enzo, meanwhile, goes to school and struggles to find a form of music that matches his own needs. As he says of pop music, he "knew precisely what was coming after the first beat", and it leaves him unsatisfied. But an encounter with a teacher who runs a small jazz appreciation group soon introduces him to better things, and this being the late-Sixties, he starts to listen to Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk and newer innovators. Needless to say this leads to fights with his father, whose view of any jazz outside the traditional style is colourfully expressed in a vigorous and funny patois.

There are additional plot lines running through the book, including one about a young Portuguese growing up under the Salazar dictatorship, and another about Enzo's encounter in Oxford with a girl from Workington who soon becomes a major figure on the jazz scene.

The Portuguese boy and the girl are both outstanding musicians, so their paths inevitably cross, with Enzo drawn into the story because of his love for the girl. Oxford and New York provide part of the backcloth for the book but neither are as real as the lovingly described Cumbrian sections.

It's also true that the most colourful characters are those whose lives seem limited to the local. John Murray has a real novelist's eye and ear for the oddities of human behaviour as the musicians in Vince's band display their eccentricities and a lodger in Enzo's home exchanges ideas with him about life, love, music, and the mysteries of the universe. It's a powerful achievement on John Murray's part to create a world which, though Enzo frets over its limitations, offers a wide range of comic and other possibilities, many of them arising, of course, from the limitations.

At one point there is a reference to someone's 'Verbal jazz," and this neatly describes Murray's style of writing, as characters exchange banter, argue, explain, and analyse. He says of one of them: "That was the way he established a theme, improvised, returned to the original, set off again and stayed out on a branch line of a branch line for the next ten minutes. His two principal compositional modes were monologue narration and the duet of virtuoso two-handed banter."

It will be obvious by now that I enjoyed this book. I liked its jazz content, even if some of the jazz enthused about is not what I prefer to listen to, and I liked its adherence to a part of Cumbria the author dearly knows well. Enzo makes the point that "even though they are only seven miles apart, Workington and Whitehaven exist in separate and hermetic equatorial spheres," which is something that metropolitans often cant understand. To them, the provinces are all the same. Jazz Etc. gloriously ridicules that idea and it does it in a way that is vibrant, fast-moving, and often very funny.

   

The Butcher's Hands by Catherine Smith Smith Doorstop ISBN 1-902382-60-9 £6.95  

"Intense", "critical acclaim", "startling and original", "often astonishing". This from the back cover. What's inside is competent, mostly, and readable. Catherine Smith is a perfectly adequate poet and one or two of the pieces here are memorable. The hype does her no favours. A salesman's patter works if it sells the product. The lingering distaste at dishonesty doesn't matter to the mind of what used to be called a "commercial traveller". Poetry isn't to be sold. It has to convince on its own terms. We really do need to deflate the hype on the covers of poetry books. For the good of poets, poetry and readers. In pursuit of honesty. Smith puts her poems together in a conventional manner. You won't find anything in her technique which isn't replicated in the work of dozens of contemporary poets. In some of these pieces she pursues a weird subject or perspective, but these are unshockable times. We watch the news. Smith's tone is perhaps too unmodulated. There seems to be a search for significance in these pieces which some of them won't sustain. Are the banal facts of a hen night really significant? And Cast, which works out a predictable conceit from hearing over a supermarket tannoy that James Dean is wanted in fruit and veg is typical of that over-knowing, over-self-conscious, going for the obvious effect, that is so common these days.

 

TAKE IT EASY by Jim Burns Redbeck Press ISBN 1 -904338-05-4 £5.95  

The front cover of this book carries a picture of Paris Jazz Comer, Place Emile Male, in the 5th arrondissement. Lovers of the city will know this as the heart of the Latin Quarter. This tells you something about the essence of Burns: he's urban, culture-hungry, an habitue of second-hand book and record shops, enthusiastic for his own interests. Whatever Burns may be, he isn't a Beat poet, Does such a thing as British Beat poetry exist? Wasn't it a particular American moment? Yet the Beat label comes back to him like a dog to its vomit: lazy minds like pigeon- holes. Most of the poems here tell little stories. Burns likes the short poem that narrates a tale and points to a wry moral. The poems often have a final line (or two) which rounds them off, takes them back to where they began, or, like the punch-line of a joke, shows you the garden path. Whether or not you share Burns's opinions (some readers may blench from a defence of violent vigilante-style action) or his enthusiasms, you canít deny that he sticks to his guns and turns out unadorned poems formed from simple language that try to hold by virtue of their internal consistency. Some of them point up the foibles that make us human, others take a slightly more spiked approach. The best poem here, in my view, is Hints For Visitors To English Art Galleries. It's witty, well-constructed and It hits the target, bullseye: that strain of cool Philistinism and anti-intellectualism that runs through the heart of English culture and which sniffily disdains all enthusiasms. This is Burns at his best, rising to the challenge of spiking a cultural or social stupidity or viciousness and doing it with intelligence and aplomb. This poem should be displayed at the entrance to every art gallery In Britain.

 

LANDSCAPING by Joseph Allen Flambard ISBN 1-873226-63-2 £7.00  

Perhaps the most important fact of the modem world is the end of the European socialist moment, which endured from 1848 to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Despite European socialism's failure to push capitalism off the precipice of history, every capitalist society relies on socialism to keep it alive. Imagine a truly free market society: no school for your kids unless you can pay from your own pocket, no doctor, no hospital bed, no pension, no welfare benefits, no refuse collection, no street lights, no roads, no motorways, no housing associations. You get only what you can pay for as an individual. Capitalism would collapse in short order. This is a curious historical fact, that advanced capitalist societies survive by embracing socialistic measures. Joseph Alien is a socialist and there are two sadly amusing little poems in this collection about the failure and loss the creed entails. Alien is very wry and dry and sees the historical from a highly individual perspective (that of nursing a hangover) but the poems evoke quietly and poignantly the retreat of radical socialism to an impotent sect. Where now? The sense of disorientation that the end of the socialist moment has entailed permeates this collection. Alien has to find a personal seam to mine. Unlike many modern poets, he doesn't celebrate this. These mainly short, sotto voce pieces are full of a gentle sadness. Whatever he writes of - visits to Amsterdam, the pains and stupidities of work, a man waiting for a pick-up in a public toilet - his poems always seems to be asking a slightly bemused question: how did we get here? or why are things like this? or does life need to be so sad? Not that he's gloomy. On the contrary, he has the ability to accept sadness characteristic of the man who knows how to enjoy himself. Yet my feeling about Alien is that his work emerges from a pervasive sense of being lost up an historical blind-alley. The poems are well-structured, resonant and often quietly memorable. I think Alien has found his furrow. Long may he continue to plough.

 

A PASSION FOR JUSTICE The Stories Of Joe Kenyon Trent Editions ISBN 1 84233 082 9 £8.99  

Some of the pieces in this book are more reminiscences than stories. Kenyon is not so much an imaginative writer as a chronicler, and what he chronicles is his own journey through life, his struggles and those of people of his class, and the rewards of the values and principles which he never saw any convincing reason to abandon. Kenyon was born in poverty and was utterly unsentimental about its causes: the deprived are deprived because they are treated as objects not people.

Life is terribly unfair. Some people pay thousands to send their offspring to The Dragon School or Dulwich College, descend to humiliating sycophancy to get them into the best Oxbridge colleges, and they still turn out unable to write as well as Joe Kenyon, who pretty well educated himself. Kenyon is no James Joyce, but he is a very accomplished writer. His style isn't merely functional; it's sturdy, honest, bracing, straightforward. It fits is subject matter perfectly. All the pieces here are about the same thing: the struggle of working people in a society that treats them as objects to assert their humanity. Kenyon was a poor boy who often missed school simply because he had no clothes to wear (tell that to the spoilt kids in their Nike trainers skiving off and causing trouble in shopping centres). He became a miner and a radical socialist, and he married Irene. He tells of his disillusionment with the leadership of the Trade Union and Labour movement, how the primrose path of careerism replaced the stony road of radical change. Yet Kenyon never compromised. The NCB offered him a role in industrial relations (that honey-mouthed euphemism for defending the employer's interest while appearing to be fair to the employees), a house, a garden, a gardener. Would the current leadership of the Labour Party have any inkling of why Kenyon turned it down? Bosses, capitalist and union alike, didn't like him. He was too honest, too principled. All this comes through without a hint of boasting. Kenyon is utterly modest about himself and his achievements. He simply tells his story in plain terms and the effect is heartening, funny, touching, inspiring. To read these pieces is to be put in touch with a world we have lost. They are remarkable in their ability to bring that world to We. Remarkable too is the undeniable sense that Kenyon was a happy man. How could this be? Poor, marginalised, up against it, and happy? The story of his more than half century marriage to Irene offers a due. They didn't expect much. They didnít long for money or cars or holidays in the sun. They valued one another and their children. They expected to have to struggle but they knew they would always be there for one another. They had something they believed in. Socialism. Justice. The equal worth of every human life. Their love and support for one another, their belief in a shared set of values based on principle sustained them and made them happy in spite of all they had to go through. That's the culture we've lost, and, as Kenyon would have told you, it isn't accidental. Today, the constant stimulation of desire and expectation has created a society of Emma Bovarys: shallow, demanding, petulant, preening, self-dramatising, self-imprisoned. Joe and Irene remained married through real difficulties because they believed in one another. Marriages fail apart like gimcrack gew-gaws these days because expectations are so inordinate. Joe Kenyon has done us proud: he has preserved a fascinating record of the period through which he lived and in so doing has helped us understand its moral, social and political conflicts, how it changed to become the world we now inhabit, how it might have been different if a few more people of principle had fought like he did and, perhaps most important of all, shown us that the sources of human happiness lie more in giving much and expecting little than in the opposite.

 

SKELETON KEYS by Alexis Lykiard Redbeck Press ISBN 1-904338-04-6 £6.95.  

Greece has had a troubled past, especially in recent times. Alexis Lykiard's family, Greek, has a troubled past too. Troubles in Greek families are the origin of drama. In drama, public and private conjoin. In this collection Lykiard explores the drama of his own history along with that of his country of origin. Lykiard had two beloved, kind and gentle uncles, but his father was a bully. The most intriguing feature of this collection for me is the way the evocation of bullying and manipulation in private life is entwined with the bullying and manipulation of undemocratic regimes. To call the regimes Lykiard is writing about undemocratic is a compliment. It's possible, I suppose, to be undemocratic but kindly. Lykiard is writing about betrayal and fascism. Greece betrayed by Churchill and Stalin, its hope of growth to republican democracy dashed by the machinations of powerful nations. As he brings to life the shattered hopes of his people, so he recalls his own disappointment in his father:  

I summon up the man beset by guilt
and yet devoid of shame...  

Yet the poet has outgrown the bully. Quietly and without excessive optimism, Lykiard suggests in this collection that resistance is always possible, that the bully can be faced down. It's a brave and hopeful collection in spite of the painful subject matter on which it is based.

 

STAY by Jenny Swann Shoestring Press ISBN 1 899549 83 8 £4.00  

The poem I like most from this short collection is Plan A I think this is because, without advertising it, the poem is about something serious: how do we organise our lives around the things that really matter in a culture which drives us to work in needlessly stressful ways, to be at loggerheads with colleagues, to be too pressed, exhausted or frazzled to have time or energy for the fulfillments that go with a human mind? These are major questions and they go to the heart of the malaise of our culture. We have become a people endlessly pursuing fulfillments that donít fulfill and the emptier we feel the harder we push after what is destroying us (just like Emma Bovary - Flaubert saw it coming). I have a reservation about a slightly self-conscious tricksy effect in the penultimate stanza, but perhaps that's a little harsh. One or two of the other pieces here try to touch on themes that matter: Bread And Butter Pudding evokes the terrible cruelty inflicted on women in the poor and war-torn regions of the world. Yet, for the most part the poems could be said to be domestic. Nothing wrong with that, necessarily. And Jenny Swann, as her two previous collections have shown, is a skilled writer. Nevertheless, I have a feeling that a number of these poems begin in an idea which precedes the poem. That tiny gap between a poem and its idea, whenever it is present, is always discernible like that tiny hint in someone's voice which separates what they are saying from the way it's said. I don't mean to suggest that this mars the collection terribly. I simply believe that if Swann could hit that precise conflation of idea and its expression, then her poetry would rise to a very high level. Of course, it's hard to do and modern poetry is, unfortunately, full of poems whose ideas were worked out before the poem was written. If I were poetry Czar, I'd pass a law that all poems must find their ideas in the writing, not prior to it. All the same, I'd say Plan A alone is worth £4.00.