Monday, 5 December 2016

Alan McClure

Everything Is Fine (Until It's Not) (LOST WASP RECORDS, 2014, CD)

Alan McClure is a man to watch. A 36 year-old from south-west Scotland, he first crossed my radar as lead singer and chief songwriter to quirky combo The Razorbills. Now he arrives with a solo album, confirming his status as a profoundly interesting writer.

Here he’s backed by The Mountain Sound Session. According to the press release, they “comprise some of Hull’s finest musicians”, and I’m inclined to believe it. Most of the songs sit on a bed of sensitive two-guitar arrangements, McClure’s own fingerpicking blending with Dave Gawthorpe’s classical guitar. The arrangements never overwhelm the voice.

As ever, McClure’s lyrics take you to unexpected places. ‘Ugandan Sun’ remoulds a folk motif about forbidden love, complete with recurring refrain line, to skewer the state-sponsored homophobia of a certain African nation. The title track is full of his trademark verbal dexterity: statements are advanced, qualified, withdrawn, forcing you to attend to what the man’s saying. But he does easy tunefulness as well. ‘The Notion’ has a relaxed Laurel Canyon vibe, harking back like much of his music to the 1960s, while ‘Rant’ ironically updates Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’ to the context of Glasgow dockyards and the ‘empty Highland’.

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Peter Gabriel

Growing Up Live/Still Growing Up Live & Unwrapped (3 DVDs)

The voice has aged, raspier in its lower register than in his Genesis days. But as the (mostly young) audiences chant “PETER! PETER!” we’re reminded that only a couple of letters separate the showman from the shaman. “My friends would think I was a nut / Turning water into wine,” he sings in ‘Solsbury Hill’, as he rides round the stage on a folding bike.  Peter Gabriel may not be a miracle-worker but he is still a hugely charismatic presence.

These DVDs (predominantly reissued material) record the tours following the release of his album Up. The most spectacular is a 2003 Milan gig, where the band perform on a revolving stage in mid-arena. Aided by designer Robert Lepage, Gabriel’s love of spectacle is undiminished. He hangs upside down from an elevated set in ‘Downside Up’, perambulates the stage in a zorb ball for ‘Growing Up’ as if suspended in amniotic fluid. Close-ups of Gabriel’s penetrating eyes are intercut with shots of orange-clad techies toiling like Nibelungs beneath the stage.

The 2004 gigs find Gabriel introducing the songs in French. The theatricals are toned down, the setlist different. As the previous year, daughter Melanie joins on backing vocals and there is a touching moment as father and daughter hold hands in ‘Come Talk To Me’. But the finest cut here is on the DVD ‘extras’: a joyous duet on ‘In Your Eyes’ with Mauritanian Daby Touré.

The band is tight, with long-serving guitarist David Rhodes a stand-out, and sound quality excellent.

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Hofmannsthal poems

Dredged up from an old computer disk – my clumsy efforts from the 1990s to English three poems by Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929) written a century earlier. If memory serves, the occasion was the possible publication by Carcanet Press of a volume of Hofmannsthal’s verse. Michael Schmidt, Carcanet’s editorial director, was unimpressed by my locutions, rightly suspecting that Michael Hamburger would have done it so much better. The poems are ‘Manche freilich…’ (1895), ‘Die Beiden’ (1896) and ‘Über Vergänglichkeit’ (1894).


Some there are who must perish below,
Where the weighty oars of the galleys scour,
Others dwell aloft by the helm,
Know the flight of birds and the resort of stars.

Some will always lie with heavy limbs
Among the roots of tangled life,
While for others places are set
With the sibyls, the empresses,
And there they will sit as if at home,
Light heads on lighter shoulders.

But a shadow falls from those lives
Across into the other lives,
And the light are bound to the heavy
As the air and earth are bound:

Weariness of quite-forgotten peoples
I cannot dismiss from my eyelids,
Nor ward off from my terrified soul
The silent fall of distant stars.

Many fates are woven next to mine,
Existence merges all of them in play,
And my part is more than this life’s
Slender flame or narrow lyre.


She held the goblet in one hand
-- Her mouth and chin were like its rim --
So light and certain was her gait
No droplet from the glass escaped.

So light and firm was his command:
He rode upon a sprightly horse,
And with a single careless gesture
Brought it, quivering, to a stop.

And yet, when it was time for him
To take the dainty vessel from her,
Its weight defied their joint attempt:

For both of them were trembling so
That neither found the other’s hand
And ruby wine spilt on the ground.


Upon my cheeks I feel still their breath:
How can it be that these so recent days
Are gone, gone for ever, as if in death?

This is a thing that no one fully knows,
Beyond lament, too dreadful to erase:
That everything glides by us, ebbs and flows.

And that my own self, quite unbound, appeared
Gliding out from a little child and rose
Towards me silent, like a dog, and weird.

A hundred years ago I too was there
And my forebears, asleep in shrouds, are near
To me, akin as I to my own hair,

As one with me as I with my own hair.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Rupert Brooke

Last year, among so many solemn centenaries of the First World War, we remembered the ill-fated Gallipoli landings – part of a campaign, intended to knock the Ottoman Turks out of the war, which cost the lives of so many British and Empire servicemen. The soldier-poet Rupert Brooke never made it to the landings. Bound for the Dardanelles, his troop ship was moored off the Greek island of Skyros when he developed septicaemia from an insect bite and died. He is buried on the island.

Rupert Brooke, “the handsomest young man in England” in the opinion of WB Yeats, has become a poster-boy for the Lost Generation.  His Cambridgeshire connections are well-known. In 1909 he took lodgings in Grantchester in a former farmhouse called The Orchard (doubling as a tea room even then) before moving next door to The Old Vicarage a couple of years later. Early in 1912, frustrated in love and thwarted in his bid for a Fellowship at King’s College, he suffered some form of nervous breakdown. Recuperation abroad was recommended, and in May we find him in the Café des Westens in Berlin, seated at a table by the window, reminiscing about his skinny dips in Byron’s Pool:

Here I am, sweating, sick, and hot,
And there the shadowed waters fresh
Lean up to embrace the naked flesh.

‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’, from which these lines come, has become one of his most famous poems, a deft combination of nostalgia, luxuriant language and whimsy that stays just this side of sentimentality. Or so I would argue. George Orwell was less impressed:

Rupert Brooke’s ‘Grantchester’, the star poem of 1913, is nothing but an enormous gush of ‘country’ sentiment, a sort of accumulated vomit from a stomach stuffed with place-names. Considered as a poem ‘Grantchester’ is something worse than worthless but as an illustration of what the thinking middle-class young of that period felt it is a valuable document. [Inside the Whale (1940).]

My impression is that Orwell was a sensitive reader of other writers. As a thinker of the Left, he was naturally suspicious of writers who didn’t share his politics, but he was also a big enough critic to appreciate literary quality wherever it surfaced. If he didn’t find literary quality, he still recognised that a writer could be read historically as a voice of his time – which seems to be his approach to Brooke. The long, nuanced essay he wrote on Kipling shows all these strategies in play. Conversely, a writer could be on the same side of the political fence as Orwell but still be chastised for irresponsibility. A few pages after his comment on Brooke in ‘Inside the Whale’, he takes a pop at Auden. In Auden’s poem ‘Spain’ there’s a reference to “necessary murder”. Orwell doubts that Auden had seen murder at first hand: “Mr Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled”. Yet, overall, Orwell declares the poem to be “one of the few decent things that have been written about the Spanish war”.

But I digress. Back to Brooke’s poem and his “accumulated vomit from a stomach stuffed with place-names”. As a Cambridgeshire resident of twenty years standing, I’m perhaps more attentive to these place names than Orwell was (he was living in Hertfordshire in early 1940 when his essay appeared).

Brooke’s strategy is first to contrast England, where an “unofficial rose” blooms under an “unregulated sun”, where feet may trespass on the grass, with the Teutonic passion for order and regulation:

… and there are
Meads towards Haslingfield and Coton
Where das Betreten’s not verboten.

Then he narrows his focus to tell us why, of all Cambridgeshire villages, he prefers “the lovely hamlet Grantchester”. By contrast, he says,

… Barton men make Cockney rhymes,
And Coton’s full of nameless crimes,
And things are done you’d not believe
At Madingley on Christmas Eve.

In the margin of the manuscript Brooke wrote a list of villages to be worked into the poem. Comberton was on the list but didn’t make the final cut, being replaced by Trumpington. Denis Cheason, in his book The Cambridgeshire of Rupert Brooke, suggests that Brooke may not even have visited all the places he mentions. In any case, we locals are not to take offence:

To those of you who are residents of the villages, do not be dismayed by Rupert Brooke’s comments. He was only joking, or perhaps belittling neighbouring villages to highlight the Grantchester which he loved.

No offence is taken, for the choice of names is very obviously driven by the rhyme scheme: “Coton/verboten”, “rhymes/crimes”. But could there be any more behind it? In her slim volume on the history of The Old Vicarage, Mary Archer concedes that the place names “appear to have been chosen more for convenient scansion than for any accurate local allusion”. However, she goes on to suggest possible, if far-fetched, sources for the references to Barton and Madingley.  For Barton she quotes the anonymous ballad ‘The Knocking Ghosts of Barton’, which is almost in the same octosyllabic metre as Brooke’s poem:

Jiminy, criminy, what a lark,
You must not stir out after dark,
For if you do you’ll get a mark –
From this knocking ghost of Barton.

And of Madingley it is said that, in the late nineteenth century, a Rector of High Church leanings promised the villagers a High Mass on Christmas Eve. The squire forbade his tenants to attend but they went, defiantly, and were turned out of their homes on Christmas Day. It’s the sort of story that might have appealed to Brooke, had it come to his ears.

But neither Mary Archer nor Francis Burkitt and Christine Jennings, in their book Rupert Brooke’s Grantchester, have any suggestions for Coton.  Another work, Coton Through the Ages (Kathleen Fowle and others, 2013), lists a number of crimes and misdemeanours over the centuries – at least one case of arson and a fair bit of sheep-rustling – but I don’t see anything likely to tickle the fancy of the “handsomest young man in England”.

So do these place names go down in the annals of literature merely as handy rhymes? As “accumulated vomit”? Or are we missing a trick here?