Monday, 17 November 2014

Temporary beauty, not at all far away

I know this blog doesn't normally concern itself with flora and fauna (although, back in December 2010, I did eulogise about pineapple sage and fields of lavender.)  So allow me a little digression from the usual fare of books, music and time travel to marvel at something closer to home. A few weeks ago, my wife Sue noticed a couple of striking-looking fungi growing in our garden. These handsome specimens looked like something that might be found growing in the shade of The Magic Faraway Tree (though I wouldn't want to suggest they were that kind of mushroom.) 

The problem was even our Big Book of Nature didn't seem to know what kind if fungi they were either. So after a bit of googling, I emailed a chap called Pat O'Reilly. Pat works at First Nature and what he doesn't know about fungi isn't worth knowing. Pat kindly got back to me immediately saying he believed they were stropharia caerulea. His webpage explains these are one of very few blue-green fungi and that they also go under the beguiling name of Blue Roundheads. 

... And no sooner was this confirmed then the blue began to fade and the bell-like caps began to flatten so that, now, you wouldn't give them a second glance, their pale wateriness blending in unremarkably with the leaf litter of a soggy mid-November. So it is, I suppose, that all that is vivid, vivacious and attractive in nature withers and pales with time, a reminder we must relish the momentary splendour of life and celebrate beauty and joy wherever and whenever it may take us by surprise. 

Thursday, 9 October 2014

From a Distant Shore

I'm really enjoying the Tracey Thorn book Bedsit Disco Queen (which my brother Phil got me for my last birthday - or was it the one before?) Tracey Thorn always amazed me because, somehow, she was a year younger than me and yet I bought her album A Distant Shore when I (and she) were still at university! She was studying English at Hull while I was studying English at Bangor. I could never figure out how someone younger than me had released an LP by the time I was 22, and she must have only been 21, but then I think Roddy Frame was only 19 when Aztec Camera released the dazzlingly brilliant High Land, Hard Rain in the same year. Now that I'm 53 it's easy to understand how people younger than me may have released records ... but when I was 21 or 22 it was impossible to comprehend!

Bedsit Disco Queen is a fascinating, understated memoir of that weird post-punk and pre-New Labour time when I was finishing university, being unemployed and, eventually, starting my training as a mental health nurse; the strange hinterland between my youth and meeting the wonderful woman who became my wife. I never liked Everything But The Girl that much, despite the early promise of A Distant Shore, but Bedsit Disco Queen is a terrific testament to being young in the early 1980s ... CND marches, miners' strikes, Jamming magazine, Billy Bragg and The Style Council.

I occasionally buy The New Statesman and Tracey Thom's column is one of the highlights. I think her writing for New Statesman is even better than that she displays in her book (which was written over a number of years). So, thanks to Phil for the very thoughtful birthday present!

Meanwhile,Tracey Thorn's partner and musical collaborator Ben Watt is also now an author (as well as resident DJ on BBC 6 Music's electronic music show 6Mix.)  I'm a big fan of podcasts and have a backlog stored on my i-Pod. This week, I heard the BBC's Open Book podcast from February, featuring Ben Watt talking about his memoir of his bohemian parents Romany and Tom. While I might not be the world's biggest Everything But the Girl fan, I have great respect for Tracey and Ben, who have combined a political and artistic sensibility in the various media of memoir, songwriting, broadcasting and journalism, over three decades, in a way that is wholly admirable.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Cool Poetry for Hot Nights - Memories of Pierre Reverdy's 'Selected Poems'

Some time after my big sister Jan left home to get married, it was agreed that my brother Phil could have the big front bedroom to himself and I could move into the little box-room at the back of the house that had previously been Jan's. This room could only be accessed via my parents' bedroom, but I rarely felt any lack of privacy because they always went to bed after me and usually got up before me. Jan' s bedroom became mine for a few years from, I suppose, my mid-teens until we moved house when I was 17. Here it was that I read books, wrote songs, did my homework, listened to the radio and perused university prospectuses.

The room was directly above the kitchen (which doubled as a bathroom) and, immediately beneath my window was the flat roof of the outside toilet and a view over next door's garden onto West Street. On summer nights, when my parents were fast asleep in the next room, I would sometimes climb out of the window and stand on the roof of the toilet to enjoy the cool air and admire the moonlit sky.

Around this time, I bought a copy of Selected Poems by Pierre Reverdy. The book was published in Cape Editions in 1973, originally priced at 75p, but my copy had been marked down - first to 40p and then further reduced to 20p - making it worth taking a chance on, even though I had no idea who on earth Pierre Reverdy might be. The paperback, a mere 96 pages, (just about the shortest a book can be without it being a mere pamphlet,) had a white cover with the title printed in silver. This elegant cover was concealed by a green dust-jacket, with some blurb explaining that Reverdy was, in fact, 'one of the great figures of twentieth-century French poetry ... a contemporary of the Cubist painters and the Surrealists.'

As a working-class boy growing up in Shropshire I knew nothing of Cubism or Surrealism but it all sounded terribly interesting and exotic. I had no way of knowing if Reverdy was a famous poet or not but I liked to think he was suitably obscure, a secret discovery of mine which nobody else - or, at least, nobody I knew - had uncovered. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz recognises this quality when he describes Reverdy as 'a secret poet for secret readers’.

Reverdy was born in 1889, moving to Paris in 1910. When his father died, he was obliged to try to make a living by writing and published his first volume of poems in 1915. He associated with fellow avant-garde poets and painters including Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Georges Braque, Juan Gris and Pablo Picasso. Reverdy was among the founders of the monthly literary review, Nord-Sud, which became a focal point for the first cubists and surrealists and featured the works of Louis Aragon and Andre Breton.

Greatly admired by other surrealist poets, Reverdy nevertheless sought to move beyond surrealism in his later poetry and his work became more mystical and spiritual. After twenty years in Paris, Reverdy retired to the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes where he lived as a lay associate. He continued to write and publish poetry, making only occasional trips to Paris to see his old friends, until his death in 1960. This life of simplicity, spirituality and seclusion naturally permeates the poetry. Mary Ann Caws, the American author, art historian and literary critic, finds his work 'at once impersonal and intimate, crystalline and opaque, simple to the point of austerity. The landscape of his poetry,' she writes, 'is both instantly recognisable and, devoid of local specificity, imbued with an otherworldly strangeness.'

The very first poem in my green-covered paperback - bafflingly-titled The Same Number - begins with the lines:
The hardly open eyes
                The hand on the other shore
The sky
            And everything that happens there
The leaning door
              A head sticks out
From the frame
And through the shutters
You can see out...

Perhaps it is this jumble of windows, doors, sky and 'everything that happens there' that first inspired me to stick my head out, climb outside and take a look around at the moonlit, urban landscape. These images, 'devoid of local specificity', may just as well have been North Street and West Street as the Place Vendôme or the Boulevard St Michel.

One of the attractions of the book was that it was a bilingual edition with what is called parallel text (i.e. Reverdy's original French poems on the left-hand page and an English translation on the right-hand page by, according to the blurb, 'one of America's foremost Cubist poets' - Kenneth Rexroth.) I have to admit that, at no time in the past 40 years has either Reverdy's original French or Rexroth's English translation made a great deal of sense to me. I understand the words but not the meaning of the phrases. The blurb, though, reassures us that making sense of Reverdy is a difficult task because he apparently 'sought to break down and then reform language, to achieve a poetry of direct perception, poésie brute as he called it.'

The American author Paul Auster describes how 'Reverdy's strange landscapes ... combine an intense inwardness with a proliferation of sensual data.' Auster notes that, although 'almost mystical in their effect, his poems are nevertheless anchored in the minutiae of the everyday world; in their quiet, at times monotone music, the poet seems to evaporate .... The result is at once beautiful and disquieting as if Reverdy had emptied the space of the poem in order to let the reader inhabit it.'

Take, for example, these lines from Turning Road:
...When the fires of the desert go out one by one
When the eyes drip like blades of grass
When the dew falls barefoot on the leaves
Morning hardly risen
Somebody seeks
A lost address on a lost road...

Though I still struggle to grasp the meaning, I have no problem with this poetry of the empty space, this 'poetry of direct perception.' I perceive the slim, green volume (with its concealed white cover beneath), the two swathes of text, French to the left, English to the right, and I directly perceive the teenage boy, absorbing the quintessential cool-ness of the words of a Surrealist, Cubist, French poet in the heat of a summer's night in a box-bedroom in Shrewsbury - a poetry of pure atmosphere.

Many a summer since - but only on very hot nights with a deep, dark blue sky - I have revisited Reverdy's Selected Poems. The mere sight of the cover is enough to transport me back to the strange exhilaration of being that working-class teenager who stood surrealistically on the roof of the outside toilet in the middle of the night, with his head full of French poetry and of the promise of travel and escape.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Fracture Zone to play at Worcester Music Festival

Fracture Zone at an open mic evening

It's been a while since Fracture Zone played a gig. The little duo comprising me on guitar and vocals and my old chum Phil Richards on cajon and harmonica have played a few open mic nights over the last few months. We've even had a couple of mentions on BBC local radio (where our music was described as "West Coast".) And we've made some new recordings at our friend Billy's Cavendish Studios. But now we're really looking forward to playing in the intimate surroundings of the characterful King Charles II pub as part of this year's Worcester Music Festival.  

If you're in Worcester at 4pm on Sunday 31st August, come along and see us. Since no one else performs them much these days, we'll be playing a lot of Tony Gillam songs, but we pepper our set with a few unexpected cover versions. If you can't make it on 31st August, you can hear some of our latest recordings on SoundCloud.  If you like what you hear, get in touch.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Shedloads of memories

Ever since we moved into our house more than 20 years ago, there's been a large white time machine parked in our garden. Most people mistake it for a garden shed, a slightly ramshackle construction that's been there since at least the early 1960s. But they're wrong - it's definitely a time machine. Once or twice, it's even fooled me.  I've kept lawnmowers and garden shears in it, and patched it up with bits of wood when it began to disintegrate.

This year we decided that, if it were a garden shed, it would be judged an irreparable eyesore, only good for demolition.  So we began to clear out all the junk that had accumulated there over more than two decades, some of which, I swear, had never been unpacked since the previous house-move. It was when I began to empty the 'shed' that I was reminded it wasn't a shed at all. Some of the contents had been destroyed by rain, damp, mice. But, being a sophisticated time machine, it had preserved everything of importance.

The time machine first of all transported me back to 1974, when I was a 13 year old singer songwriter who wore a denim cap to look like Dylan and Donovan. The 13 year old Tony Gillam had already been writing songs for three years and was contemplating learning the harmonica to accompany his guitar playing.  He never did ... but he got as far as buying a copy of J Reilly's The ABC of Harmonica Playing from Bratton's Pianos in Shrewsbury. When he wasn't browsing through the sheet music at Bratton's, the teenage Tony would be checking out the LPs in the basement record department of Wildings Bookshop, imagining buying the albums in the Island Records Illustrated Dictionary  - a beautifully-produced free catalogue made to look like a children's pictorial alphabet book.

Journeying through time, we are able to see again the hand-written lyrics to songs written when I was 14, 15, 16. Just reading the words on the page allows me to hear the tunes - unplayed since the 1970s -in my head, and my fingers find the abandoned chord progressions on an invisible guitar. The teenage Tony was now dreaming of electric guitars, but even the budget-priced instruments in the Woolworths catalogue were out of reach. (£15.49 for an Audition Solid Body Electric Guitar, £11.75 for an amplifier - who could afford that kind of money?)

The songwriter, back then, was a poet too, a regular contributor to the school magazine, The Priorian. And the time machine has kept these too, along with the thrill of first seeing my name in print.

Marc Bolan sang, 'Whatever happened to the teenage dream?' and I wanted to know whatever became of the schoolboy poet?  For the answer, we are transported to St Brieuc in Brittany, 1981, where the young student buys a few large posters to cover the walls of his bleak bedsit ... among these a print of Ha Van Vuong's Mandolin. This enigmatic picture combines my love of acoustic instruments with the beauty and simplicity of Zen philosophy.  Yet, it was rolled up when I left France in 1982 and remained thus hidden from view as I moved from Wales to Shropshire, Shropshire to Worcestershire, Worcestershire to Staffordshire and back to Worcestershire.  After 32 years, for the first time we've framed it and put it on the living room wall. I never knew my wife would like this picture as much as I do.

Finally, the time machine is emptied of its memories and made ready, Tardis-like, to de-materialise. It has no need to linger. Its job is done: it has reminded me of who I was ... and who I am. 

Monday, 21 April 2014

Speaking without being interrupted

You can't create new writing without ruining a few saucepans
My fellow Severn Valley Author Rob Ronsson has invited me to answer a few questions as part of a kind of writers’ chain-letter. As I don’t twitter, tweet or twist-like-we-did-last-summer, he’s going to do whatever the twittering classes do with these things. So I thought I’d just try to answer the questions as best I can and pop it on my blog to simmer gently … 

What are you working on?  
Two projects: one non-fiction, one fiction. The non-fiction is a proposal for a dissertation, part of a Masters degree I’ve been doing part-time alongside the full-time day job and alongside the writing and the music. I’m researching wellbeing and mental health nursing and, when I’ve finished the dissertation (and the Masters), I’m planning to use some of this material in a non-fiction book.The fiction - apart from the on-going effort to try to get some of my short stories published - involves a novel with the working title Nothing but a Phantom. 

How does your writing differ from others in its genre?
Let me tell you a bit about Nothing but a Phantom and then perhaps you’d be able to tell me what genre it is! At the moment, it goes a bit like this … An adventure story set in an alternative version of the late 1970s-early 1980s, where an Anglo-Saxon king still rules over a country called Angland. Dissenters risk banishment or assassination. The government is experimenting with a radio station called relax’d that can lull the populace into indifference with specially engineered chill-out music. Meanwhile, in Brittany, plans are afoot to form an alliance with the Celtic nations of Cornwall and Wales in a challenge to the power of King Edgar IV…  It doesn’t really sound like historical fiction, science fiction or fantasy. Would you call it ‘literary speculative fiction’? If anyone knows what genre I’m writing in and, more importantly, who will publish my novel when it’s finished, I’d love to hear from you! 

Why do you write what you do? 

I write songs and short stories to encapsulate ideas and experiences in a compact, accessible form; I write non-fiction, (articles and books,) to try to interpret and distil knowledge so that it can be better understood and used in practice. As for the novel, I’m writing that partly for the sheer enjoyment of it (and in the hope it will give others pleasure) but also because, in the UK, it seems almost impossible to get short stories published (either singly or as a collection) without first being published as a novelist. I suspect all my writing – stories, songs, articles and books – stems from being the youngest of four siblings who grew up in a noisy family. I write so as to be able to make myself heard, and this is still true, even now I’m grown up and living in a quieter family home. At work, and in the wider world, you can’t always say exactly what you want … but you can write it.  Jules Renard, the French writer, wrote: ‘Écrire, c'est une façon de parler sans être interrompu’ (‘Writing is a way of speaking without being interrupted’.) 

How does the writing process work for you? 
The young Tony Gillam (not to be mistaken for Rapunzel)
When I was little I took a few old candles and tried melting them in a saucepan to see if I could reshape the melted candlewax into new candles, as it cooled and re-solidified.  The experiment was not a complete success and turned an old but serviceable saucepan into an unusable one. It was also probably a significant fire risk and terrified my mother. But it taught me that you can’t create new writing without ruining a few saucepans, making your loved ones anxious and nearly burning the whole place down. Had someone actually been interested in my attempts at recycled candles that would have encouraged me to persevere. Even better, if someone had commissioned me to produce candles, offered payment, promised they would display them prominently with my name attached to them and set me a deadline by which to complete the project, then that would no doubt have helped. If, as too often happens, there is no publisher or editor urging me on, I find it helps anyway to set myself deadlines and try to imagine how excited the unsuspecting editor/publisher will be when they first get hold of the finished product.

I’m supposed to nominate a couple of other writers now to take up the challenge of answering these four questions. I feel slightly uncomfortable about doing this. It’s like trying to sell raffle tickets to friends of friends. That said, I would be interested to hear what my fellow Severn Valley Author Chris Smith would have to say on this topic and also to hear the thoughts of my dear old friend and freelance journalist Paul Dinsdale. But no pressure, there, Chris and Paul.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Cary Grant and his drip-dry suit ... February in Paris

Hotel St Jacques - view from the balcony by day
The Hotel St Jacques in the rue des Ecoles proved to be a good choice. It seems to have changed little since Cary Grant took a shower here whilst wearing a suit, much to Audrey Hepburn's amusement, in the 1963 comedy mystery 'Charade'. A comfortable room with a delightful view from the balcony, friendly staff and a varied and delicious buffet breakfast.
The streets around the Pantheon are very atmospheric and it's only a short walk to Boulevard St Michel and the Musee d'Orsay.

We had arrived via Eurostar (from Ashford in Kent, direct to Paris). (It's very useful having a daughter who lives 40 minutes from Ashford and who can provide a lift and overnight accommodation in Kent.) Travelling by Eurostar is much less stressful than dealing with airports and much more comfortable than travelling on British trains. It's also amazingly quick. One excellent, time- and hassle-saving innovation is that you can buy books of metro tickets from the Eurostar buffet en route to Paris (and Oyster cards for the London underground, if you're travellling in the other direction.)

Our Eurostar tickets also gave us two-for-one entry to the Musee d'Orsay.  The former grand railway station would be worth a visit in its own right even if it didn't contain a mesmerising collection of the world's best art. Looking through the giant clock out over Paris, it's incredible to think this building was threatened with demolition in the 1970s.
My wife Sue and I spent the days walking, exploring, having improvised picnic lunches in the Luxembourg gardens, browsing in bookshops and stopping off in cafes. Despite a disappointing vegetarian meal at Le Grenier de Notre Dame restaurant and a horrible coffee at Starbucks (why bother?) we agreed that, thanks to Eurostar and the Hotel St Jacques, this had been our most relaxing trip to Paris ever, and the best holiday we could remember in a very long time. We will definitely do it again and, next time, I might even take a shower with my suit on.
Hotel St Jacques - view from the balcony by night

Saturday, 15 February 2014

A Starship lands in Bromsgrove

Jefferson Starship live at The Artrix, Bromsgrove, Wednesday 29 January, 2014

Since she was a young teenager, one of my wife’s favourite records has been Jane — a 1979 hit by Jefferson Starship. Over the past 35 years, Sue has oftentimes spontaneously burst into anguished song — 'Jane you're playin’ a game you never can win, girl!' —so, when we heard that Jefferson Starship were coming to nearby Bromsgrove, how could we resist? 

Jefferson Starship grew out of the seminal psychedelic band Jefferson Airplane whose 1967 album Surrealistic Pillow featured the classic singles White Rabbit'and Somebody to Love. The history of the band (from the 1960s Jefferson Airplane to the 1970s Jefferson Starship, with a further continuation in the 1980s as Starship) is complicated and we weren’t sure who, if any, of the original members would be in evidence.)  It seems the current line-up includes two original Airplaners (David Freiburg also of Quicksilver Messenger Service fame) and Paul Kantner. Sadly, the latter was too ill to join the tour so Freiburg was the only authentic aviator aboard this particular incarnation of the starship.

The band was fronted by the powerful presence of Cathy Richardson, sporting a fantastic rock voice and leggings with an interestingly ecclesiastical, stained-glass window design. (I’ve since discovered, as well as being a singer, Cathy is a graphic artist and clothing designer, about to launch a line of hand-dyed organic cotton yoga pants, so that might account for it.) Jude Gold — virtuoso lead guitarist — is also a man of many parts. When he’s not playing with Jefferson Starship he’s the Los Angeles editor of Guitar Player magazine. Overcoming a few problems with microphones and monitors, David Freiburg (who incidentally co-wrote Jane), at 75 years of age and still singing beautifully, shows that it probably pays to practice Buddhism and to live in California. Airplane fans were treated to a fine selection including White Rabbit and Somebody To Love while fans of the later 70s music were delighted with exhilarating versions of Miracles and Count On Me as well as, much to my wife's obvious joy, Jane. Cathy thrashed a cow bell with a rolling pin and David beamed beatifically. And so did we.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Fracture Zone hit the big time in a very small way

 Members of Fracture Zone — far too ugly to be depicted here
2014 has got off to an exciting start for my musical project, Fracture Zone. For those not in the know, Fracture Zone is ... me, joined in live performances by my good friend and cajon-battering harmonicist Phil Richards. How to convey our sound in words? Well, it has been described (by me, actually) as ‘Original, guitar-driven songs with spicy lyrics and a pop sensibility nestling alongside capricious instrumentals.’ It’s also been said that ‘our live performances are peppered with the occasional unlikely cover version while the Zone's lo-fi recordings have a more psychedelic tendency than our live sound; (guitars are blended with broken keyboards, autoharps and dulcimers played backwards and sideways.)’

 Phil and I decided to play a few open mic evenings locally to get the New Year underway and hopefully get a few more gigs under our belts. So, we showed up on a Sunday afternoon at The Talbot in Bewdley for the session hosted by renowned blues guitarist Gwyn Ashton, who spontaneously and expertly accompanied us on bass. Next, we cropped up on at Pete Kelly’s amazingly friendly Tuesday evening bash at The Queen's Head in Wolverley and then, a week later, back in Bewdley at The Cock and Magpie at a splendid evening curated by stalwart of rootsy percussive acoustic guitar, Dave Onions. Here, we were approached by the irrepressible Andy O’Hare (music reviewer from BBC Hereford and Worcester’s Introducing.) As a result, on Saturday night, we got a mention (‘this very capable duo who have hidden their light under a bushel’) along with a tantalisingly brief snippet of airplay on Andrew Marston’s radio show.  After forty odd years of writing songs, strumming, bashing and blowing on various instruments, it’s nice to get some recognition.

About me

My photo
Tony Gillam is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at the University of Wolverhampton, a freelance writer, trainer and musician. He is the author of 'Reflections on Community Psychiatric Nursing' (2002) and 'Creativity, Wellbeing and Mental Health Practice' (2018).