Thursday, May 30, 2013

Life at the Top by Mark Hodkinson (Queen Anne Press 1998)

Tuesday 23 September 1997

Wimbledon 4 Barnsley 1

The lowest Premiership crowd of the season, just 7,668, saw Barnsley defend gallantly for 65 minutes before conceding four goals in the final 25 minutes. Michael Hughes, Carl Cort, Robbie Earle and Efan Ekoku scored for Wimbledon, after Eric Tinkler had given Barnsley the lead. The defeat was put down to a 'lack of professionalism and failure to take responsibility' by Wilson. 'It is happening too many times and I am sick of it. It has to stop,' he warned.

The goal proved to be Tinkler's last in a season where he struggled to find fitness and and form. Better Red Than Dead was particularly uncharitable in its critique of Tinkler: 'His performances on the field have been absolutely abysmal; he can't tackle, can't pass, gets brushed off the ball like he isn't there and for a bloke built like a brick shithouse is about as hard as a marshmallow toasted over an open fire. Yet he struts his stuff as if he's the best player we've ever seen . . . I'd rather play Lars Leese in midfield than this streak of cow's piss.'

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Kismet by Jakob Arjouni (Melville International Crime 2001)

May 1998

Slibulsky and I were crammed into the china cupboard, emptied for the purpose, of a small Brazilian restaurant on the outskirts of the Frankfurt railway station district, waiting for a couple of racketeers to show up demanding protection money.

The cupboard was about one metre twenty wide and seventy centimetres deep. Neither Slibulsky nor I would be giving the clothing industry cause for concern about the sales of their XL sizes. Furthermore, we were wearing bulletproof vests, and when it came to the crunch we hoped at least to get a pistol and a shotgun into position where we wouldn’t shoot ourselves in the foot or blast our own heads off. I could just imagine the racketeers entering the restaurant, hearing pitiful cries in the corner after a while, and opening the cupboard door to find two total idiots squashed inside, arms and legs flailing helplessly. And I pictured Romario’s face at this sight. Romario was the owner and manager of the Saudade, and he had appealed to me for help.

. . . .


‘Hm?’ Brief, unemotional. The sweet he was sucking clicked against his teeth.

‘What did you have for supper?’

‘Supper? What do you mean? Can’t remember.’
You don’t remember what was on the plate in front of you a few hours ago?’
He cleared his throat, the way other people might give a little whistle or roll their eyes, indicating that they’ll try to answer your question in friendly tones, but naturally it doesn’t for a moment interest them.

‘Let’s see … oh yes, I know. Cheese. Handkäse. That was it. Gina went shopping this morning and …’

‘Handkäse with onions.’ And you can’t get much smellier than Handkäse anyway.

‘Of course with onions. You don’t eat cheese with strawberries, do you?’

I put a good deal of effort into giving him as contemptuous a glance as I could in the dim light of the cupboard.

‘Didn’t I tell you we’d be spending some time together in this hole?’

‘Yup, I believe you did mention it. Although I remembered the cupboard as kind of larger.’

‘Oh yes? Like how large? I mean, how big does a cupboard have to be for two people, one of whom has just been stuffing himself with onions, to breathe easily inside it?’

In what little light filtered through the keyhole and some cracks in the sides of the cupboard, I saw Slibulsky make a face. ‘I thought we were here to scare off some sort of Mafia characters? With our guns and bulletproof vests, like the good guys we are. But maybe Miss Kayankaya fancies running a hairdressing salon instead of a detective agency?’

What did I say to that? Best ignore it. I told him, ‘I’ve got sweat running down my face and into my mouth, I have a feeling your stink is condensing, and I don’t reckon the good guys have to put up with other people farting.’
Slibulsky chuckled.

Cursing quietly, I bent to look through the keyhole. I could see Romario’s bandaged arm the other side of it. He was sitting at the bar doing something with a calculator and a notepad, as if cashing up for the evening after closing the restaurant. In fact he was too nervous to add up so much as the price of a couple of beers. They’d paid him their first visit a week ago: two strikingly well-dressed young men not much older than twenty-five, waving pistols and a note saying: This is a polite request for your monthly donation of 6,000 DM to the Army of Reason, payable on the first of each month. Thanking you in advance. They didn’t say a word, they just smiled – at least until Romario had read the note, handed it back, and believing, not least in view of the sheer size of the sum, that he was dealing with a couple of novices said, ‘Sorry, I don’t see how I can go along with your request.’

Whereupon they stopped smiling, shoved the barrels of their pistols into his belly, crumpled up the note, stuffed it into Romario’s mouth and forced him to chew and swallow it. Then they wrote Back the day after tomorrow on the bar in black felt pen, and went away.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Gig: The Life and Times of a Rock-star Fantasist by Simon Armitage (Viking 2008)

On The Road 9

A reading in a cinema complex in Sheffield for the Off the Shelf Festival, followed by a Q & A session on contemporary poetics and related literary topics:

Me: OK, one last question.
Man: In a fist fight between you and Jarvis Cocker, who'd win?
Me: Er . . . I've never met him, but from the pictures I've seen I'd have to fancy my chances.
Man: He's outside.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Black Jack by Leon Garfield (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1968)

There are many queer ways of earning a living; but none so quaint as Mrs. Gorgandy's. She was a Tyburn widow. Early and black on a Monday morning, she was up at the Tree, all in a tragical flutter, waiting to be bereaved. 

Sometimes, it's true, she was forestalled by a wife or mother; then Mrs. Gorgandy curtsied and withdrew - not wanting to come between flesh and flesh.

But, in general, she knew her business and picked on those that were alone in the world - the real villainous outcasts such as everyone was glad to see hanged - to stand wife or mother to in their last lonely movements. And even after.

It was the after that mattered. Many and many were the unloved ones weeping Mrs. Gorgandy had begged strangers to help her cut down as they ticked and tocked in the diabolical geometry of the gallows.

"Oh, sir! The good God'll reward you for your kindness to a mint-new widder! Ah! Careful with 'im, sir! For though 'e's dead as mutton, mortal flesh must be respected! Here's 'is box! Mister Ketch!" (To the hangman.) "Mister Ketch, love - a shilling if you goes past my house with the remains. Seven Blackfriars Lane, love."

Then, her sad merchandise aboard, Mrs. Gorgandy would lift up her skirts and, with a twitter of violet stockings, join her "late loved one" on his last journey but one.

His last journey of all would not yet have been fixed on; Mrs. Gorgandy had yet to settle with any surgeon who'd pay upwards of seven pounds for a corpse in good condition.

And so to the hanging of Black Jack on Monday, April fourteen, 1749.

A vast ruffian, nearly seven foot high and broad to match, who'd terrorized the lanes about Knightsbridge till a quart of rum and five peace officers had laid him low.

"Poor soul!" had sighed Mrs. Gorgandy when she'd learned of Black Jack's coming cancellation. "When there's breath in you, you ain't worth two penn'orth of cold gin; yet your mint-new widder might fairly ask fifteen pound ten for your remainders. And get it, too!"

She must have been at the Tree all night, for first comers saw her already propping up a gallows' post against the rising sun like a great black slug.

"It's me 'usband, kind sir! Wicked, shocking sinner that 'e's been! But me dooty's 'ere to see 'im off and decently bestowed. Will you 'elp a poor widder-to-be, dear sir? For 'ee's that 'eavy, 'ee'd squash me flat! Oo'll 'elp?  Oo'll 'elp?

So she went on while round about her the crowd grew, and soon her sobby voice, though never stilled, was lost in the general hub-bub of Tyburn Monday.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Bedsit Disco Queen: How I grew up and tried to be a pop star by Tracey Thorn (Virago Press 2013)

I had never met anyone quite like Ben before. He was on the one hand simply posher than anyone I was used to, while at the same time less conventional and suburban through having grown up in a bohemian household. His dad had been a jazz musician and big-band leader, his mother an actress-turned-journalist and he was the fifth child in the house, the other four being half-brothers and a half-sister from his mother’s first marriage. Though three months younger than me, he had somehow managed to cram in a year off between school and university, during which time he had worked as a groundsman at a sports club, mowing lawns and marking out pitches. He seemed older than me, infinitely more self-confident and assured (which he wasn’t), and at first, after he interrupted a lecturer to correct a mistake the poor man had just made in his introduction to Beckett, I mistook him for an intellectual (which he certainly wasn’t). The displacement of the desk by the record player in his room should have alerted me to that fact, but it took me a while to realise that all he cared about was music, and it wasn’t until I noticed he was choosing his courses purely on the basis of which ones required the least reading that I finally let go of my initial misapprehension that he was cleverer than me.

So we would never share a passion for reading long Victorian novels, but at least he liked Vic Godard. As for the rest of his record collection, well, it reflected the fact that punk itself had largely passed him by. There were no Sex Pistols or Clash records. The band who really first inspired him was Joy Division, followed by other archetypal post-punks like Magazine, Wire, This Heat. Along with these bands Ben had records by people I had barely even heard of: Eno, Kevin Coyne, Robert Wyatt and Captain Beefheart. In 1977 Johnny Rotten had famously broadcast a show on Capital Radio where he played his eclectic record collection. Many of the records he had played were also in Ben’s collection, alongside Public Image Ltd’s Metal Box. Then there were things like Neil Young’s Decade, and John Martyn’s Island albums, Solid Air and One World, all records Ben loved for their emptiness and sonic open spaces. A sprinkling of soul – Stevie Wonder, George Benson, Chic, Earth Wind and Fire. And jazz, of course, via his dad – Roland Kirk, Bill Evans, Clifford Brown. Not much pop, though. No Undertones, Buzzcocks or Orange Juice. Ben had more albums than me, but fewer singles. I thought that might need addressing.

He had played guitar in a couple of bands during 1979 and 1980. First, the startlingly named Fléau Moderne (French, apparently, for ‘modern scourge’), who dressed in grey sweatshirts and digital watches to look like David Byrne, except for the lead singer who was allowed to get away with wearing make-up and red trousers. They played one triumphant gig in front of an audience of two hundred and fifty at a church hall in Twickenham, at the end of which the drummer performed the customary salute of throwing his drumsticks into the crowd, only to have one thrown back and catch him in the eye as he left the stage. The local rivalry inspired by this gig was such that another nearby school formed a band called Macabre.

In 1980 Ben met Mike Alway at Snoopy’s, the club in Richmond where Mike promoted gigs, and asked if he could do a solo slot there one night.

‘Sure,’ said Mike, ‘what do you sound like?’

‘I sound like The Durutti Column with songs,’ said Ben, and on the strength of this Mike offered him a slot supporting the then unknown Thompson Twins, in ten days’ time. At this point Ben had never played a solo live set, or recorded anything, or in fact even written any songs. Surely this was audacity gone mad? But remember, the DIY ethos, still firmly entrenched, suggested that you could and should do anything you wanted, so he simply went home, wrote ten songs in ten days and did the gig. Performing under the name of The Low Countries (possibly to avoid identification, should it all go horribly wrong) he stood up with an electric guitar, a cassette player playing pre-recorded drum-machine patterns and sang desolate, atmospheric songs with titles like ‘Communion’, ‘A Darkness So Deep’, and ‘Ice’. It wasn’t hard to spot the Joy Division influence, and it all sounds about as far removed from the Marine Girls as you could possibly imagine. But the common strand came from the philosophy of the moment, which embraced more or less anything as long as it wasn’t hoary old rock music. Both of us were making quiet, minimalist music but within the context of rock-gig venues, where playing at low volume was in itself a confrontational thing to do. Music journalist Simon Reynolds quotes Stuart Moxham of Young Marble Giants replying to a heckler, who demanded some rock ’n’ roll, with the words: ‘Anyone can do that. They’re doing it all over town. But we want to do this.’

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Smith by Leon Garfield (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1967)

He was called Smith and was twelve years old. Which, in itself, was a marvel; for it seemed as if the smallpox, the consumption, brain-fever, jail-fever and even the hangman's rope had given him a wide berth for fear of catching something. Or else they weren't quick enough.

Smith had a turn of speed that was remarkable, and a neatness in nipping down an alley or vanishing in a court that had to be seen to be believed. Not that it was often seen, for Smith was rather a sooty spirit of the violent and ramshackle Town, and inhabited the tumbledown mazes about fat St. Paul's like the subtle air itself. A rat was like a snail beside Smith, and the most his thousand victims ever got of him was the powerful whiff of his passing and a cold draft in their dexterously emptied pockets.

Only the sanctimonious birds that perched on the church's dome ever saw Smith's progress entire, and as their beady eyes followed him, they chatted savagely, "Pick-pocket! Pick-pocket! Jug him! Jug-jug-jug him!" as if they'd been appointed by the Town to save it from such as Smith.

His favourite spot was Ludgate Hill, where the world's coaches, chairs and curricles were met and locked, from morning to night, in a horrible, blasphemous confusion. And here, in one or other of the ancient doorways, he leaned and grinned while the shouting and cursing and scraping and raging went endlessly, hopelessly on - till, sooner or later, something prosperous would come his way.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Tattoo by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (Serpent's Tail 1976)

'It's a metaphor. And a very appropriate one. What is a policeman if not a sociologist?'

Inspector Israel agreed. He stepped into the footlights for his moment of fame.

'That's true. A sociologist and a psychologist.'

'You see? Well, a permissive society like ours is bound to cause some mental confusion in your compatriots. They suddenly find they have sex and politics within easy reach.'

'But sex is expensive for all immigrants.'

'Exactly right. It's within reach, but they can't always get their hands on it. That creates a great sense of frustration, which unfortunately it is not our job to resolve. And then there's the political question. You know that here in Holland we are extremely tolerant towards any attitude that does not directly go against our constitution. We even have Trotskyists here, Mr Carvalho. But a Dutch Trotskyist has the immense advantage of being born in Holland. So first and foremost he is a Dutchman, and his Trotskyist behaviour will not go beyond acceptable limits. But can you imagine a Spanish Trotskyist, anarchist or even a communist in Holland? Can you imagine him trying to convert his politically starved comrades? We have to keep a much closer eye on every Spanish, Greek or Turkish activist than we do on a hundred Dutchmen. It would make a fascinating job for you. Above all, classifying the different ideologies and tendencies. Assessing how important they are: that way we would know exactly how your compatriots are evolving politically. Once we knew that, we could make sure they were pointed in the right direction, and that they came to no harm by doing things that were against the grain.'

Drive (2011)