Monday, 8 April 2013

The Unknowing Master

Happening to mention to an old friend recently that I had once won a prize in a short story competition, I fell into the inevitable elephant trap. “Can we read it?” he asked. “Why not republish it?” So, with heavy heart, I dug the magazine out of a tattered box and read the story for the first time in thirty-five years. I found a self-conscious cleverness about it which now embarrasses me, but I could see below the flashiness there was a certain stylistic flair of a type that gets you noticed. It evidently got the attention of revered sci-fi author and all-round good egg Brian Aldiss, who judged the competition.

Despite Aldiss’s flattering description of me as “discerningly hip”, the story now seems like a relic of Cold War paranoia, of a time when Mutual Assured Destruction promised to wipe us all out, leaving only a few remaining idealists to eke out an existence on some Pacific islet.

The jokes come from spending too much time in a “writers’ workshop” group at Oxford, where I grew to relish the sound of laughter when I read my efforts before an audience. 

The story first appeared in Isis in December 1977. Turning to the back cover, I’m reminded that the editor at the time was a pushy young man called Mark Thompson; I believe he later joined the BBC.

Enough with the throat-clearing. For what(ever) it’s worth, here it is. (Click on frames to enlarge.)

Monday, 18 February 2013

Michael Arlen

Michael Arlen (1895-1956) was a literary shooting star among the smart set of the 1920s. Born to Armenian parents as Dikran Kouyoumdjian, he migrated to London during the First World War, changed his name and reinvented himself as a dapper man of letters. Determined to be more English than the English – or ‘every other inch a gentleman’, as a joke of the time had it – he became the self-styled chronicler of the Mayfair set, publishing a string of short story collections and novels, none more successful than The Green Hat in 1924 (later filmed with Greta Garbo). If you don’t know the name, this excellent short piece by Christopher Fowler in The Independent will give you the facts.

I first encountered him in the pages of Claud Cockburn’s Bestseller (1972), a survey of ‘the books everyone read 1900-1939’. Cockburn had little time for Arlen or the celebrity that he so studiously cultivated: ‘[he] was, I believe, the only novelist to have his trouser-buttons torn off by mobs of fans on the quay at New York.’ He dismissed the baffling plot of The Green Hat as ‘a hurriedly constructed though highly painted vehicle in which the reader is to be taken on the conducted tour through an imaginary England’. And how right he was. The book is a farrago of improbabilities, of fatuous dialogue and rhythmic, empurpled prose. Let me take a passage at random, this from the narrator’s first encounter with the enigmatic, hat-wearing heroine, Iris Storm:

Her eyes were stronger than mine, even as wind is stronger than air, and always in them was the magic of wide open places. I looked down, and far below, like two pearls in the dust, shone two ankles clasped in silk the colour of daylight. I thought of her fate and of her. I thought of corruption, of curses, of death, of life, of love, and of love’s delight. I took hold of the sword in my mind with both hands, but was not strong enough to lift it. I thought of the limbs of Aphrodite, of the sighs of Anaitis, of the sharp cries of love’s delight. I thought how charming men would be if they could misbehave outwardly as prettily as the can in their minds…

Whether two ankles, however comely, could possibly inspire this stream of quasi-philosophical speculation in an attentive young man is anyone’s guess. Somehow it didn’t matter, for what Arlen gave his readers was the illusion of reading about fashionable people leading ‘racy’ lives, all evoked in a language of baroque ornamentation – a winning formula that made him a millionaire, at least until taste started to move away from him in the 1930s. In his own first novel, Burmese Days (1934), George Orwell conjured up an image of Arlen’s typical reader in typical reading posture:

Elizabeth lay on the sofa in the Lackersteens’ drawing-room, with her feet up and a cushion behind her head, reading Michael Arlen’s These Charming People. In a general way Michael Arlen was her favourite author…

However unreadable his writings, Arlen interests me because he had all manner of connections to other people whose reputations have held up better than his own. A friend of DH Lawrence, he turns up in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) as the playwright Michaelis. One of the many lovers of Nancy Cunard (she nicknamed him ‘The Baron’), he vied for her affections with Aldous Huxley, who as early as 1915 was writing in a letter of Lawrence’s plans to decamp the ‘deserts of Florida’ with an ‘Armenian’. Later, Huxley speared Arlen in print as a character in Those Barren Leaves (1925). Lightly disguised as ‘the swarthy Syrian with the blue jowl and the silver monocle’, he ‘never lost an opportunity of telling people he was a poet; he was forever discussing the inconveniences and compensating advantages of possessing an artistic temperament’. (Cunard, I should add, is supposedly the model for Iris Storm, although the wife of our esteemed Chancellor also stakes a claim for Idina Sackville in her book The Bolter (2008)).
Arlen influenced the young Hemingway, too, an influence that Scott Fitzgerald deplored. He bankrolled the first production of Noël Coward’s play The Vortex (1924). When Anthony Powell came down from Oxford, he was naturally drawn to lodge in Shepherd Market because that’s where the seduction scene in The Green Hat was set (yes, those pearly ankles again). Rebecca West spent General Election Night 1929 in Arlen’s company at an all-night party at Selfridge’s, although she was later to write sniffily of his work as ‘a mixture of the genuine article and advertising copy’. 
Surprisingly, there is no biography of this once all-conquering novelist.* A good friend of mine is a relative of his, and with her help, I nosed around the possibility of attempting one. Arlen’s son (a rather better writer than his father, if truth be told) is still alive and resident in New York, where Arlen père moved after a final snub from the English society he so longed to join. Michael J’s response to my approaches was to advise that everything he had to say about his father he had said in his own memoir, Exiles (1971). A very fair response: it’s a fine book and paints a memorable picture of the ageing novelist in ‘retirement’, now forgotten by the public and afflicted by writer’s block:

…from downstairs, just below my room, from the library I’d hear these footsteps. Footsteps pacing. Back and forth. It was a small room really, the library. I don’t know how many times he must have walked around it. The big desk up against the curtains. The paper laid out for him. The pencils. His favourite pen. The books all around…

Perhaps, instead of a biography, there is an essay in the history of the taste waiting to be written. How do the ‘books everyone read’ ninety years ago become the books that no one reads?

*Harry Keyishian’s volume in the Twayne’s English Authors Series (1975) is primarily a work of literary criticism, although it contains much useful biographical material and remains the only book-length study of this author. 

Tuesday, 29 January 2013


Let me take you back forty years. Harold Wilson is Prime Minister. In the General Election of 1970, Harold of the Gannex mac and trademark pipe will be replaced by ‘confirmed bachelor’ Ted Heath, ‘Grocer Heath’ as the satirists called him. But nothing much changes. Soviet missiles are still pointed at western Europe. On the other side of the world the Vietnam War continues its murderous course. The women’s movement has begun to stir, and young people argue about politics…

Well, some young people do. If you’re a shy schoolboy like this one, indifferent to geopolitical machinations that you can neither understand nor influence, you prefer to immerse yourself in music. Which, in those days, arrived on 12-inch pieces of vinyl with lustrous artist-designed packaging. 

The physicality of the vinyl experience is impossible to replicate now. (CDs half-destroyed it; with downloads there’s nothing left to hold.) New records were reluctant to come out of their sleeves. That bashfulness was part of the appeal. You had to coax them out gingerly, being careful not to put sweaty fingers on the playing surface, lest the smudge attract dust. You watched the playing arm track across the vinyl from play-in to play-out grooves, taking you on a twenty-minute musical adventure. Then, unless severely disappointed – or you had homework to finish – you flipped the disc and went through the whole experience a second time. 

Stumbling into adolescence at the tail end of the 1960s as I did, there was the feeling of having arrived at a party just as it was breaking up. More empty bottles than full ones. People who had arrived singly were leaving in pairs. Sure, the hair was still long and the skirts were still short (well, on the average high street, anyway) but the revolutionary zeal of the youthquake was beginning to ossify. The ghastly spectre of the 1970s was knocking at the door: the ‘three-day week’, the endless industrial strife and (worst of all horrors) the Bay City Rollers.

At school, circa 1970, someone formed a ‘Progressive Music Society’. Not very ‘progressive’ by historical standards – I recall a lot of headbanging in the lunch hour to Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, which was hardly my thing – but occasionally some boy with taste would bring in an Island album. That’s how friendships form. Because, you see, Island Records, greatest of the independents of the era, was ‘my’ label. To see its distinctive pink record label with the white letter ‘i’ revolving on the turntable was a guarantee of quality as certain as any appellation on a wine bottle. In fact, such a guarantee that, should your pocket money stretch, you could almost buy a record unheard, confident that if the taste-masters thought it was worth recording then it was very likely worth hearing. 

Nowadays, accessing music is like turning on a tap. Back then it was more like drawing from a well; you had to make the effort, schlepp up the hill with your bucket. And albums were expensive. So we relied on ‘samplers’, which offered all the best acts on a label anthologised at half the price of an album by any one of them. Today, samplers are routinely given away free with music mags. In the late ’60s it was a ground-breaking idea, pioneered by CBS as a means of reaching their intended audience at a time when ‘Auntie’ Beeb controlled the radio waves and airplay for rock music was limited. And no one did samplers better than Island. Beginning in 1969 with You Can All Join In and Nice Enough To Eat, the company extended the successful format to a double-album in 1970 with Bumpers.

You Can All Join In has a legendary cover. A photo by Hipgnosis shows a bunch of cool dudes, a selection of the musicians featured on the album, huddled in Hyde Park on a chilly morning. The message to the listener is clear: come on in; complete the circle; we are you and you are us. The artwork of Bumpers was less distinguished – a giant pair of training shoes against a lurid yellow background – but the message was the same. Retailing at 29 shillings and 11 pence (£1.49 in modern parlance), with a running-time of around 80 minutes, Bumpers was my full-body baptism into the Island cult. It took me from the jazz-rock of If to the folk-rock of Fotheringay and Renaissance. It introduced me to broody singer-songwriters like Cat Stevens and Nick Drake. It enshrined one of my all-time favourite guitar riffs (Mott The Hoople, ‘Thunderback Ram’). Three of the most forward-thinking bands of the era, Traffic, Jethro Tull and King Crimson, each fielded strong tracks. Even Island’s Caribbean origins were not overlooked, with a dash of reggae from Jimmy Cliff. OK, so Bronco and Blodwyn Pig will never merit a place among the immortals, but what astonishes me forty years on is how much of this music still stands up. It entered my body in 1970. It will never go away. 

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel) under the title 'It Started With A Disc'

Martin Simpson

Martin Simpson has been a full-time professional musician since 1970 and is, without question, one of the finest acoustic and slide guitar players in the business, as well as an accomplished banjoist and songwriter. In addition to his solo work, he’s constantly in demand as a session player; of special note is a career-long collaboration with June Tabor (‘staggering, an amazing singer’, in his words), a musical friendship that I’m delighted to see he revives on his new album, Purpose & Grace.

One constant throughout a long and fulfilling career crowned with awards has been his passion for American music. How did a lad from Scunthorpe become so interested in the American ballad, I asked him when we spoke recently. ‘The first ballad I ever heard was in junior school, a version of “Barbry Allen”, and it absolutely nailed me. I had such an intense emotional response to it’. This was the early 60s, when the folk revival was hitting its stride. Like many at the time he quickly found his way to Joan Baez’s albums, adding ‘Mary Hamilton’ and ‘Geordie’ to his youthful repertoire. ‘That was a lot of people’s exposure to the American ballad form, and shortly after that I heard Peggy Seeger. I was hooked – that was it!’

Living in the States for a good part of the 1980s, married at the time to an American, he plunged deeper into Americana. Smoke and Mirrors was a blues-based album more American than cherry pie. Ask him about his guitar influences and he’ll reel off a list of African-American masters before namechecking those nearer home like Davy Graham or Bert Jansch.  

So, in a sense, he rediscovered the traditional music of his native land through the American balladeers? Yes, he agrees: ‘It was all part of this massive amount of music that I was exposed to.’ 

Which brings us to Hedy West, another formative influence, who, like Peggy Seeger, was resident in Britain in the 60s.

As a teenager, Simpson first saw Hedy at his local folk club. ‘I had a major crush on her,’ he recalls. ‘She was really lovely. I purchased a copy of Ballads from her. She signed it for me with a very sweet little drawing.’ He cherishes that record still, although he’s had to buy a replacement copy as he wore out the original with repeated playing. Ever since then he’s been ‘proselytizing’, as he puts it, on her behalf, urging anyone who’ll listen to seek out her albums, hard as they’ve been to find until recently. ‘She had a beautiful voice and she was an absolute master of timing and, just, conversational shifts in singing. Massively important, and massively influential, certainly on me.’

‘The Sheffield Apprentice’ is one of the songs Simpson learned from Hedy West: ‘It’s a really interesting song on lots of levels. To start with, it’s a brilliant preservation of a British ballad in the States. I don’t know of any English version of it, despite the fact that it’s obviously an English song in derivation. I love the story. As Kit, my wife, pointed out, it’s a song where a woman is corruptly wielding power. That’s a very strong idea, a very strong image. Mostly, in folk songs, you find it’s men being corrupt with their power to have their evil way. Here, the poor man ends up getting hung because he’s faithful to his girlfriend! I also love the tune.’

I ask how he approaches traditional music in general. ‘In my music room I have a wall full of books. Bronson’s Traditional Tunes, the Child Ballads, all those American collections… You name it. If I see anything that’s on the subject, I buy it. Then you hear recorded versions. I listen a lot when I’m on the road to field recordings, as well as listening to modern music. So I’ll be constantly on the listen, on the look-out, for a great version of a ballad. Having found a great tune, then it’s up to you to decide what to do lyrically with it – whether you use an existing set of lyrics or you look through the various versions and find something that just adds a little more atmosphere, a little more depth or tension to the story. It’s a great process, a wonderful process. And great fun.’

First published in English Dance & Song magazine as part of a feature on the traditional ballad ‘The Sheffield Apprentice’.