This is the first part in a planned series of four linked essays, which will be published at irregular intervals in 2017, hopefully. It is published here, initially, in small segments to make things easier and more disruptive.
Tuesday, 31 January 2017
Notebooks are a bit of an obsession here. It is not that there is any actual intention to collect them, but they are difficult to resist. If they are there, beckoning, beautiful but inexpensive, on the shelf of a charity shop, or in the stationery aisle in Poundland, or reduced in one of the supermarkets, then it is good for the soul to indulge occasionally, to acquire one more, and to add to the clutter.
This notebook here, in blue, hard-backed, nice and solid, very tappable (currently with a BiC MatiC mechanical pencil), ruled, a Banner affair, from the old Oxfam shop just before it closed down, is currently being used for scribbling down quotes, stray sentences, pithy passages, things read in books, words that capture the imagination or seem particularly moving. It is an old, old habit, and not one that it would ever be easy to break.
Of late, the notebook seems to have been rather taken over by Ali Smith and her words, with numerous lines from her books filling pages in quite awful scrawl. That is a little surprising, for Ali’s name and words had not featured in this, or any other, notebook here previously.
This all started really, well, it would have been on Remembrance Sunday, when there were references on social media to Ali picking Orange Juice’s ‘Falling and Laughing’ as one of her choices on Desert Island Discs. There was not really any clue as to whether she specifically asked for the first release on Postcard Records version, or the opening track on the OJs’ debut LP You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever. For Ali, it seems the song serves as a reminder of the sound of her young Scotland, when she was away at university in Aberdeen, not far from where she grew up in Inverness.
Picking the magnificent ‘Falling and Laughing’ suddenly made Ali Smith seem like an attractive prospect which is ironic as there was no real compulsion to take any notice before. How facile is that? Suddenly becoming interested in a writer just because she has chosen a particular favourite song to take with her to a desert island! Honestly, whatever next. How shallow. Yes, facile is the word that springs to mind. How facile can you get? Funnily enough, fácil, as in easy, came up in the online Spanish lessons that have been so wonderfully time-consuming (and a protest of sorts!), which prompted thoughts about how facile is used now.
In the old Concise Oxford Dictionary here (a pound, also from the old Oxfam shop before it disappeared, and also very tappable), which dates back to 1960 (there is still someone’s banking slip inside from 21 October 1961, a receipt for £75 and 10 shillings paid into Barclays in Brixton) facile is defined as something “easily done, won; working easily, ready, fluent”, which sounds pretty good. But, now, looking up facile on the Internet, the first thing to be found is the definition: “appearing neat and comprehensive only by ignoring the true complexities of an issue; superficial”. That is pretty dismissive.
In the way one thing leads to another, thinking about the word ‘facile’ and its variations mutated today into repeated singing of the word ‘facility’ to the tune of Orange Juice’s ‘Felicity’ (“I guess so”), prompting a muddled memory of the words to that song being printed in the 1981 Postcard brochure along with the words of the group’s ‘Wan Light’, accompanied by a Swallows and Amazons-style Arthur Ransome illustration of a figure on an improvised raft heading for what looks like a desert(ed) island, appropriately: “There is a place where no one has seen / Where it’s still possible to dream / An unchartered world which will be unfurled ...”
Ali Smith’s appearance on Desert Island Discs (not a programme usually listened to in this home) coincided very neatly with the publication of her novel, Autumn, which came in a hardback edition in a wrap-around cover with a striking David Hockney illustration (not for the first time). There had been of blaze of publicity surrounding the book, all about it being arguably the first post-Brexit novel. Now that really does seem like a facile claim in the worst possible sense, because the book covers a lot more ground that the English Civil war between the Remain and Leave camps and what Gentleman Joe called the “new party animals”.
There is, admittedly, no denying Autumn’s topicality, which from a promotional sense would be pretty irresistible. The referendum itself and the fraught fallout from the vote are pretty central to the book, as are the timely references such as to the refugee crisis, and the murder of Jo Cox MP outside a library. It is still hard to take that one in, and how later there were the never to be forgotten words in that weasel-like spiteful cad Farage’s comments in his presumptious (there’s no such thing as) victory speech at 4am after the referendum, him standing there smug as anything, hailing “a victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people ... without having to fight, without a single bullet being fired." Of course, he later made a meaningless apology.
This is exactly the kind of thing that would have prompted Ali’s autumnal avowal: “I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it.” And so on.
There is much more than Brexit in the body of Autumn’s social commentary, touching on zero hours contracts, reality TV, and so on. Timeliness in the literary world is pretty unusual given how slow wheels turn in that industry. So, the accelerated cycle of production which took in Ali’s writing, the process of editing and revising, proofing, design, printing, promotion, distribution, and so on, is impressive and worthy of attention.
Autumn was wolfed down here after that Desert Island Discs appearance. It was very much a case of finding Ali’s book at the right time. Autumn is a delightful book. It is very provocative, very funny and very wise, and very much a protest. It is a dignified protest, though.
In her novel there is plenty of anger, but there is a gentleness to the protest. There is no doubt what side Ali is on, though there is no sense of being battered over the head with dogma or even of adding to the pervasive hostility seeping into our lives, the ill-will. Is she preaching to the converted? Perhaps. “Mostly saying three cheers for our side”.
If she uses her art as a weapon it is to show how it can offer solace and comfort on the darkest of days. And there are some moving meditations on enduring and unlikely friendships, and Ali’s writing about the way elderly people are treated and regarded in Britain today, and what they have to offer, is as touching as Kevin Rowland’s ‘Old’. How appropriate to think of that song, with its lines about the dumb patriots having their say, only seeing their way.
Autumn by Ali Smith is never going to Nigel Farage’s choice of book, though reportedly he (and it is better to think of him as a ludicrous ham, like, very much like, a braying Bernie Clifton riding a bucking toy ostrich around the stage on The Good Old Days) doesn’t read novels, nor does he listen to music. That only adds to the impression of him being an unsavoury Graham Greene villain, one who might turn up in some horrible update of The Captain and the Enemy. Conversely, Nicola Sturgeon has described Autumn as “glorious”.
Joanna Kavenna writing in The Guardian hailed the book as “a beautiful, poignant symphony of memories, dreams and transient realities”. Hitherto, the lingering impression had been of Ali being very much a favourite of Guardian reviewers and readers, though it is now clear the praise is justified, unlike the text in her books.
Some kinds of critical acclaim can be off-putting, which may be something to do with why Ali’s work passed by unnoticed here. There is something, occasionally, about a certain tone in glowing reviews which repels. Once this might have been called the Go-Betweens syndrome, back when there was a running gag about how prosaic positive pop press coverage would even put Robert and Grant off the Go-Betweens.
It is good to be wrong. It is not the first time, and it will not be the last. Certainly, memorably, one had been horribly wrong about Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano books, which became an addiction. Similarly, it turned out that Fred Vargas’ crime novels were not, as suspected, in the Harlan Coben or Dennis Lehane tough thriller tradition, but were actually gloriously odd, poetic flights of fancy, which was a wonderful surprise.
Ali Smith being so funny was the lovely big surprise, and a massive factor in so quickly deciding to make a dramatic switch from a default, faulty, ‘not for me’ position to one of ‘very much for me’. There is not enough humour in ‘serious’ books nowadays. Autumn’s passport renewal scene in the post office is supreme farce worthy of Shena Mackay or Muriel Spark (there was a picture of Ali artfully holding a copy of Abbess of Crewe as part of the publicity for the Desert Island Discs appearance), though without their venomous sting.
It has been remarked on many times, no doubt, but Ali’s writing is remarkable for its torrent of words and unstoppable gushing of word play, the revelling in puns, jokes, the careful construction of immaculate sentences, capturing the rhythm of words, like a rapper’s meticulous attention to how their lyrics flow, creating a carnival of sorts. It creates an impression of performers on an old Variety show, a bill made up of contortionists, dancers, acrobats, conjurers, illusionists, mesmerists, comedians, ballad singers and so on, but not one with some idiot riding a toy ostrich.
The humour in Ali’s writing does perhaps form a link to the early days of Orange Juice and Postcard Records. Edwyn Collins’ and James Kirk’s songs were funny, witty, clever, moving, super smart, providing a link (via their hero Vic Godard) to the greats like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. Their cleverness and wit could also irritate some, which is presumably the case with Ali Smith’s writing too.
A review of Autumn in Private Eye was decidedly sniffy: “A new Ali Smith novel presents a number of challenges to the reader, which is perhaps putting it mildly.” Well, many people like a challenge. Later on in the piece the sneery tone persisted: “The great drawback to the Smith approach to fiction-writing lies not in its non-linear narratives, its circular flights, its very mild avant-gardarie or its rapt interrogations, in which question marks descend like so much flung confetti – but in the construction, the sense of everything just being chucked down more or less at random and the reader being left to do the bulk of the work.”
The review came across a little like one of the contrarian comment pieces The Guardian might run about, say, Captain Beefheart, or the way Trout Mask Replica will be featured in a round-up of difficult listening. Is Ali difficult? Is Trout Mask Replica difficult? Celine Dion or Adele or Duran Duran, for some of us, could be considered difficult to listen to, but Trout Mask Replica is great fun for many.
The double LP of Trout Mask Replica was an unexpected sixteenth birthday present. Well, the birthday was not a surprise, but the choice of gift was. This was March 1980. And the present was Trout Mask Replica along with the Factory cassette of A Certain Ratio’s The Graveyard and the Ballroom in its gorgeous plastic wallet.
TMR certainly seemed wonderful and frightening, and some of it made instant sense in the context of new music by The Fall, Pop Group, and other things John Peel might play late at night. It was not an alienating record though, and lots of it made even more glorious sense when a year or so later Edinburgh’s Fire Engines seemed to take the more outright pop parts to shape their revolutionary beat noise. And, anyway, Beefheart was never going to be a problem for kids who grew up on Catweazle, Spike Milligan’s verse, Chinn and Chapman’s songs, Professor Branestawm books, and Wacky Races.
TMR is not a record that would be a Desert Island Discs choice, but it is a particular favourite. There has always been something about the Captain’s work (like the OJs and Postcard Records) that makes one want to reclaim it, which is why the link to Peter Meaden is so appealing, as revealed in the Steve Turner interview which was published in the NME in 1979 where there is reference to Meaden bringing Beefheart to Britain for the first time after becoming obsessed with and an evangelist for Safe As Milk. It is quite a story, which his friend and business partner Norman Jopling tells in Shake It Up Baby, a memoir about his life in pop in the 1960s.
Safe As Milk is such an enduringly joyous record. There is the extraordinarily vibrant ‘Zig Zag Wanderer’, ‘Yellow Brick Road’ (“around the corner the wind blew back”) with echoes of the Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen song from Wizard of Oz, then the ‘Then He Kissed Me’ coda to ‘Call On Me’, later echoed by Joy Division, the enunciation in ‘Electricity’, and ‘I’m Glad’, the beautiful soulful ballad covered by Jimmy James and the Vagabonds for the delight and at the instigation of Pete Meaden.
Sometimes the humour in Beefheart’s work gets lost. Just take, for instance, the wit and beauty of ‘Human Get Me Blues’: “I saw yuh baby dancin’ in yer x’ray gingham dress, I knew you were under duress, I knew you under yer dress”. It is naughty, warm and funny like Richard Brautigan writing The Abortion: An Historical Romance, with that library where one copy of a lost book can be deposited for posterity.
The Captain and his crew always had a close connection to the blues, which presumably was part of the appeal for the likes of Meaden the arch mod, but also there are clear links to Tin Pan Alley, and the Great American Songbook, like ‘Moonlight on Vermont’ being closely allied to Sinatra softly singing ‘Moonlight in Vermont’.
It comes through particularly on Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), the most up-to-date Beefheart record as the 1980s began, which is often gloriously easy listening, nice and easy does it, very pop, like ‘Tropical Hot Dog Night’ with its classic line about “two flamingos in a fruit fight”, as covered by Coati Mundi, sidekick of Kid Creole. And there is the very funny ‘Harry Irene’, about the couple who ran a canteen.
There is even on Trout Mask Replica an old time feel to things, a slapstick element, linked to the appeal of The Three Stooges, back when there were too many Saturday mornings at the pictures, collecting ABC Minors badges, with endless shorts of Larry, Curly and Moe. Then they turned up again later in Jack Kerouac’s Visions of Cody, borrowed from the local library as a kid, sitting there desperately trying to make sense of it, like Trout Mask Replica, picking out moments of magic and filtering out the irritating aspects, the bad beat-up surrealist stream of consciousness stuff.
That is true of so much art. Even with our absolute cast-iron favourites there tends to be a preferred side, like wishing Dylan did more torch ballads rather than those talkin’ blues rockers, and Sinatra did less ring-a-ding-ding swingin’ and more saloon songs, the contemplative bottom-of-the-glass numbers, like on In The Wee Small Hours, Close To You, Where Are You?, Only The Lonely, No One Cares, Point of No Return, All Alone.
It is the same with writers. While odd is good. abstract is ace, disjointed is delightful, and experiments with form are welcome, when say the occult, the magical realism, the hallucinatory, the fantasy, any of that, comes in that’s when, here, there is a tendency to switch off or skip pages. Like Inspector Montalbano argues in the novel The Paper Moon: “Normality itself seemed sufficiently abnormal to him.” And, daily, it is clear there is nothing as surreal as the so-real.
So, even with Ali’s Autumn, that means being less comfortable with the freeform flights into a dream state, but that is a very minor quibble, and as the gloriously Dickensianally named Byron Stingily (in Ten City) sang: “Different strokes for different folks, whatever makes you happy”.
In that Autumn-Ali Private Eye piece there was a quibble about value for money, challenging the idea of £17 for a wafer-thin manuscript, suggesting Ali Smith was a “mite too indulged by her kind sponsors at Hamish Hamilton”. The value for money issue is a thorny one.
There is more in a slim Leonardo Sciascia or a Joseph Roth Granta novella than in a whole raft of doorstop tomes. A sparse Susan Hill novella packs more emotional punch than an epic story. Writing something short and concise is an artform. So it becomes quite complicated when talking about value for money.
There are distant echoes here of Fire Engines, back in 1981 in their immortal Paul Morley feature for the NME, taking (poorly aimed) pot shots at The Clash’s Sandinista, when asked about whether they were ripping off punters with their twenty minute sets: “I’d rather pay seven quid for a great single than 4.99 for three albums of fucking shite”
In January 1981 a 7-inch single for £7 seemed an absurdity, whereas in January 2017 it is a reality. Who buys singles at seven quid willingly? Who buys new vinyl editions of LPs at thirty pounds a time? Who can afford to go to high-profile football matches home and away? Who can feel comfortable about the price of concerts and theatre performances? Who buys new books at £20-odd quid a time?
Thankfully there is still the local library. And the local library had Ali’s Autumn promptly into stock, and had it prominently displayed. That is delightfully apt as Public Library is the title of a campaigning collection of Ali’s stories, a set of tales thematically linked by testimonies to the power of the public library to change lives.
Ali’s Public Library book is very much a timely protest against the policy of councils facing funding crises to close libraries or to outsource them. The testimonials in the book have a strikingly elegiac tone, though. It is hard to recall anyone saying that they go to their local library every day now. Some of us do. It is very much part of the daily ritual, the morning round. The local library today offers sanctuary, more than any church, and a library card serves as a lifebelt. But, it is presumably part of the problem if libraries are viewed fondly as something to do with the past.
“Why do you not go to the public library and search intently along its shelves sampling page by page what might be good and might be bad, using your own brain and your own coordinates to assess and discriminate?” runs a rant by the male lead in John Murray’s The Legend of Liz & Joe, the 2009 novel by the funniest writer around, who was to Cumbria what Shena Mackay was to South London. John is now running writing courses on the Greek island of Kythnos.
There is a well-known, oft-quoted line in a Manic Street Preachers song about libraries. There is a great Go-Betweens song about a library and a girl(a god!) called Karen who works in it. There is a wonderful passage in Bill Drummond’s 45 about how a library formed a vital part of his daily work routine. But those are all pretty old now. Maybe that is part of another problem.
The local library is the biggest in the borough, which is a real bonus, with lovely staff to boot. It has self-service machines for getting books out and when returning them. This modern trend is a bit of an ongoing thing, with the local banks, supermarkets, W.H. Smith, and even Poundland all now having self-service machines. People get used to them.
As well as books, in the library, there are banks of computers, free for members to use, which is a vital service, and free lessons on how to use them. There are a whole host of other activities and services which now share a space within the library. The information desk is there for queries, but also for paying Council Tax, parking fines, for renewing disabled parking permits, for buying bags for recycling garden waste, and so on.
There is a local studies section, which is popular with those into researching their family trees. There are public toilets, which are a godsend because there are so few left for the public to use. There is a coffee machine, and meeting rooms for hire. There is the Citizens Advice (now without its Bureau) section set up in the far corner, and free wifi. In the children’s section, there are often storytime and singalong sessions, which can be fatal if you want to avoid singing about the grand old Duke of York for the rest of the day.
Upstairs in the reference section, there is a quiet study area, which gets packed at the weekends and particularly near to exam times with kids working away at essays and so on. Back downstairs there are vital commodities like the large-print section and shelves of talking books where anguished souls ponder about what will be right for their Aged Ps and other loved ones.
There are shelves of books and maps withdrawn from service, being sold for next to nothing, and CDs and DVDs which can be borrowed for a small charge, though presumably these have been affected by changes in how we listen and watch.
There is a line in an old Pop Group song about “searching for love in the library of a ghost town.” It is the seeking out of the unexpected, the joy of discovery, finding something inspiring and absorbing among what often seems like a random selection of stock, it is this that makes the library’s shelves so compelling.
There is little to compare with finding stray books, picking them up out of curiosity, and becoming enchanted by them, as indeed happened once with John Murray’s Jazz etc., and more recently with Magda Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad and Jonathan Crown’s Sirius. And it is wonderful to find unexpected treats like a glut of Len Deighton and Eric Ambler reissues, or finding classics which delightfully prove to be revelations, such as Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, Graham Swift’s Waterland, William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault, and Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.
It is thanks to the local library that it has been possible to hoover up several (actually the tally is up to seven now, so that is just about at the halfway mark!) of Ali Smith’s books in the space of a couple of months, pretty much most of what she has published in the past ten years or so. This has been possible, partly, due to being part of a London Boroughs scheme where it is possible to reserve any book from the many participating libraries for 60p, even from the comfort of a home PC, which is a delightful example of progress.
One of the enchanting things that emerged from the process of gradually borrowing those Ali Smith books from the library was the continuity in the covers. There is a pleasing (Smiths’ singles style) consistency to the way they are presented, which reflects well on her “kind sponsors” at Hamish Hamilton/Penguin.
One of Ali’s books appears in Canongate’s myth series, Girl Meets Boy. This uses a well-known Roger Mayne photo, ‘Girl Jiving in Southam Street’, which is a perfect choice for Ali’s book cover as the subject, Eileen Sheekey, looks suitably androgynous and could easily be a Bowie precursor.
Morrissey used the same photo for the single he recorded with Siouxsie Sioux, a cover of ‘Interlude’, one of the great Timi Yuro recordings made with the British arranger and producer Ian Green in the late 1960s, a sequence which features the devastating ‘It Will Never Be Over For Me’. ‘Interlude’ itself is sung by Timi in an alarmingly appealing deep voice over the title credits of the 1968 film of the same name featuring Oskar Werner and Barbara Ferris. Morrissey was a champion of Timi in the early days of The Smiths when his selections for the NME’s ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer’ feature seemed radical and a direct challenge to the orthodoxy of the classic rock canon.
Girl Meets Boy is a title which, oddly, always prompts the singing of an old Haircut 100 hit. Ali’s There But For The (which features a Siouxsie t-shirt in the story) meanwhile suggests August Darnell’s Machine/Kid Creole classic ‘There But For The Grace Of God Go I’. Indeed Kid Creole’s Coconuts singing of the gorgeous word ‘onomatopoeia’ from ‘Annie I’m Not Your Daddy’ turns up in her storytelling, coincidentally or not, but then some will tell us they were not supposed to be singing that at all which is pure spite and ruins the fun.
Similarly the gorgeous photo of Sylvie Vartan and Françoise Hardy swinging down the street which is on the cover of Ali’s How To Be Both plays a vital part in the book. Indeed, Ali uses a line or two from Sylvie’s delightfully dramatic ‘Le Testament’ for the epigraph of How To Be Both. Actually, there is an appealing pattern to Ali’s epigraphs, with her choosing four for a book from a lovely variety of sources.
In How To Be Both Ali writes about listening to ‘Le Testament’: “What is great about the voice of that singer called Sylvie Vartan is that there’s almost no way it can be made gentle, or made to lie. Also, although it was recorded decades ago, her voice is always, the moment you hear it, rough with its own aliveness. It is like being pleasurably sandpapered. It lets you know you’re alive.”
Ali also chose a Sylvie Vartan song as one of her choices for Desert Island Discs. This was the enchanting ‘Par Amour, Par Pitié, a great example of the subversive nature of the 1960s French yé-yé sound. The reclamation of 1960s French pop was part of a trend which developed in the 1990s, another challenge to orthodox rock canon.
Gradually the appreciation of the yé-yé girls (Françoise, Sylvie, Chantal Goya, France Gall, Jacqueline Taïeb, Stella, Annie Philippe, Clothilde, Pussy Cat, Zouzou, and so forth) grew so much that the scenes featuring Chantal Goya in the recording studio in Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin- Féminin became loaded with new suggestions which it is doubtful the director ever intended.
Ali mentions Godard’s A Film Like Any Other in How To Be Both and the cover of her Public Library story collection features a still from Godard’s La Chinoise featuring Jean-Pierre Léaud and Anne Wiazemsky reading.