Haiku Salut – The General

I should say before we go any further that Derbyshire trio Haiku Salut have been my band crush for a couple of years at least now. Take this as caveat on what follows or as confirmation of how their music affects me.

The General is Haiku Salut’s fourth album and the recording of the score they were commissioned to write to accompany a remastered print of Buster Keaton’s eponymous 1926 silent classic. As such it definitely sounds and feels like a Haiku Salut record with its familiar mix of accordeon, piano, synths, percussion, electronics and samples. The 23 tracks here often incorporate the band’s intriguing knack of making the seemingly disparate and fractured flow seamlessly.

On the other hand the dynamics of the film narrative and the need to support rather than distract from it created limitations and structures that they might otherwise have evaded.

Anyone familiar with the regular Haiku Salut live experience will be aware that virtually every piece involves multiple instruments being used by all three interchangeably. Sensibly for The General the band recognised the risks this entailed with music cued to a film. Amongst other self-imposed restrictions that meant only one track here includes accordeon, previously a major component of the HS sound.

But what of the actual music? As an album without the film behind it, does it work? Well, yes and in two different ways. Many of the tracks here can be extracted as individual pieces successfully. At the same time the 80 minute whole has a coherence and flow that is effective greater than the sum of its parts.

It is a warm album, right from the opening skittering clicks underpinning then making way for lingering piano chords of ‘Start’ and the similar shifting layers of electronics and keys in ‘Intro’. Listening through headphones really emphasises the nuances as the components entwine, taking predominant and supporting roles. Rhythmic patterns such as the beat of ‘Going Back’ are initially simple but as drones ebb and flow above the siimplicity evolves. Although Haiku Salut sound nothing like Thelonious Monk I am nevertheless reminded of how he created intensely catchy refrains that were simultaneously difficult to follow as they changed subtly.

There are other moments that are half-familiar, the beautiful Romantic piano refrain that opens ‘Enlist’ almost expands into something recognisable before leading us away. Somewhere I almost caught a hint of 70s electronic prog. The last 30 seconds of ‘Train Steal’ have a classic electronic boom boom crash pattern that could accelerate into a techno dance piece in other hands. ‘Hide’ too opens with big beats and electronic stutters.

And there are unique sounds. Apparently the deep resonant drone on ‘Reunited’ is Gemma’s voice transposed. Other samples include raindrops (really a household shower) and reversed, manipulated conventional instruments.

Many of the iconic scenes from Keaton’s film were filmed without effects. Most notably the trainwreck scene (sorry if that’s a spoiler, but you’ve had 93 years to see the film!) Although Haiku Salut use effects they retain an organic, human feel to most of this album. In places there’s what Gemma described on the Haiku Salut blog as a ‘cartooonish in a good way’ use of guitar effects that undercuts any hint of sterility in the artificial beats. Sophie explains this better than I can, lacking the technical vocabulary of music:
We wanted to write something wistful and dreamy. To achieve that Gemma put the electric guitar through a pedal which sounds like a warm and happy memory returning from a distant past.

That’s the single ‘Loves’ she’s describing but it sums up much of how I feel about Haiku Salut and The General. They take the precise and formal and transpose it through metaphor and simile to infuse it with a rich complexity and delicate simplicity at the same time. They evoke whilst mostly eschewing excessive literalism.

I said earlier that parts of the album succeed as individual tracks, but such is the Haiku way that within these tracks there are moments of uplift, epiphany, poignancy. The tentative piano a minute into ‘Reunited’; the epic drum tones of ‘Cannon’; the strident intro to ‘Rock River’ and the gentle fades of ‘The Crash’ stand out. The spaces throughout that let the music breathe. My favourite track today is ‘The Flood’ for combinations of every aspect of Haiku Salut I love but tomorrow I might say something else.

Officially The General was released on 2nd August but CD copies were available at the end of April. In those three months I’ve listened to pretty much every genre of music but I return to this album almost daily and am still a long way from discovering all its concealed delights. I love this album.

Haiku Salut will be performing the live score at screenings of The General later this year in York (11 Sept), London Royal Albert Hall (19 Oct) and Leicester (18 Dec).

The General is available on Secret Name records.

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The Nightcap – a desiderium in a minor key

Those of you who were around Manchester in the early to mid-80s may recall a little place on Oxford Road called Pandemonium Records. Up a rickety wooden staircase was a trove of second hand rarities presided over by the eccentric George.

I may have spent too much time (not to mention money) there. In the end I found myself helping out and being paid mostly in stock. The discoveries I made… The Good Rats anyone? Diane Davidson? I wasn’t the only student doing this.

George also struck deals with local cinemas and venues to display posters in exchange for free tickets. I could probably have taken more advantage of this than I did.

But in June of 1984 there was a gig I fancied at Band on the Wall. Normally our pair of freebies for BotW each month specified a number of exceptions, gigs certain to sell out. Like The Enid who I suddenly realised were playing that very evening.

George was nothing if not a chancer though. Ring up and see what they say, he encouraged me. So I phoned from the shop. Eventually I got through to someone.

I explained the situation and what was the chance of tickets.

‘I don’t know. There’s not really anyone here to ask. I’m the drummer. Let me see if Robert knows.’

Checking Wikipedia I think it must have been Chris North I was speaking to, but I don’t have to look up the next person. The Enid founder Robert Godfrey came on the line. I explained the situation again.

‘So you are a second-hand record store? Have you got a copy of my solo album?’

As it happened I’d filed a copy away that morning. That might have been my prompt about the gig.

‘Fall of Hyperion? Yes we do.’

So Robert got directions and found his way to the shop to buy a copy of his own record. And offered to put me on his guest list for the gig. ‘Is there anyone you want to bring?’

‘What about Pippa?’ George said. Pippa also helped out in the shop, and lived near me in the toblerones, as our halls were nicknamed. ‘Take my car and pick her up.’ Robert agreed to wait.

So a rush down Oxford Road, a knock on the door, an invite, a quick change, and drive back to the shop later, Pippa and I joined Robert in a taxi to the venue.

‘They’re with me’ he told the doorman.

‘Right, but no more, ok?’

The Enid were one of those bands I knew as much by reputation as a great live act, as by their actual records. I’d maybe heard Tommy Vance play the odd session but not really absorbed it. Somehow I knew I should see them onstage though.

I was right. Their classical influenced prog was sometimes a bit thin for a NWOBHM kid like me in scruffy denim, but live it filled with bombast and majesty and epic. In a packed small venue it was strong stuff. Packed, hence the doorman’s concern about letting more in.

I don’t know what time I’d picked Pippa up, but it was late by the time The Enid came on and they played a long set. So it was around midnight when Robert Godfrey announced ‘I think it’s just into D Day now so we should play this.’ And they performed Elgar’s Nimrod to an ecstatic crowd.

Eventually it was over. Time to get home. A two mile walk, Pippa and I buzzing from the gig. I walked her to her flat. It was close to 2 a.m.

‘Do you want to come in for coffee?’ She asked. Pippa was tallish, slim, dark hair, attractive and chatty.

‘I don’t drink coffee’ I said. I was naive, inexperienced and awkward.

‘Tea?’ Nope.

‘I’ve got orange juice I think.’ So she drank her coffee and I sipped my orange juice and time passed. It was getting late now… so I said goodnight and went home to my flat a block away.

It was getting into exam time and I was struggling with my course. I failed and had to resit. By the time I dealt with that life had moved on. I occasionally went to Pandemonium Records the next year, but I don’t think I saw Pippa again.

It was long afterwards that I realised that a coffee might have been more than a coffee. Might have been.

June 5/6 1984. 35 years ago today. I wonder what might have been if I drank coffee?

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Rock Goddess ‘This Time’ CD

‘Are you ready?’ Jody Turner screams as this album kicks in. 32 years after their third album Rock Goddess are back with a fourth. It’s been on repeat in my car for a week.

This Time features the original Rock Goddess line-up of the Turner sisters, guitarist/singer Jody and powerhouse drummer Julie, along with bassist Tracey Lamb. Soundwise it is still the classic NWOBHM power trio of the early 80s, but better.

It’s a simple formula, chunky riffs and shoutalong fist-punching choruses. A careful listen reveals depths that list RG above the herd. Take track two ‘Obsession’ where the riff pushes into Julie’s drum patterns at just the right point to emphasise a sense of pressure. Or the brief rumble of Tracey’s bass lifting Jody’s solo in ‘Why Do We Never Learn?’ Throughout the album I’m increasingly aware of the fluidity of Julie’s drumming. Rarely flamboyant but almost always nuanced and pinning everything above it in place. Mixing Tracey’s bass high helps too.

Then there’s the more melodic ‘Drive Me Away’ that almost but doesn’t quite break into an epic ballad album closer.

The other thing that lifts Rock Goddess above many others is the tenor of Jody Turner’s lyrics. Even back in her teens she explored a strong woman’s perspective on flawed relationships. Here she asserts her independence on ‘Flying To See You’ and turns the tables on ‘It’s My Turn’. Not clichéd man-hating or simple role reversal Jody’s characters reveal weakness as well as strengths, are driven by self-esteem more than rage.

Young Jody, although a distinctive vocalist, was occasionally prone to overdone screaming. This time she’s more in control, gravelly and breathy in turn, but belting the choruses.

It’s not the perfect album, ‘Why Do We Never Learn’ is probably the weakest song, despite the aforementioned solo. I like ‘Calling To Space’ but can’t quite work out what it’s saying. There’s a bit of repetition but simplicity can work, and many acclaimed albums are less varied. Quibbles though. This is an album I expect to keep coming back to when I need some classic new wobbum rawk!

And I am so looking forward to hearing these songs live this week.

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Signal to Noise – Silvia Moreno-Garcia

You have to admire a novel that almost immediately but briefly digresses into a discussion of the best concept album ever* all whilst developing the protagonist’s harsh yet sympathetic personality.

Mercedes Vega or Meche returns to Mexico City for her father’s funeral, 18 years after leaving, 20 years after last seeing him. On the ride from the airport her cousin reminds Meche of an old friend, Sebastian, and buried memories resurface.

15 year old Meche is the awkward nerd with a love of music. Her friends Sebastian and Daniela similarly are isolated, linked as much by their differences as their similarity. Her mother is largely absent working, her father a musician and drinker. So Meche is loosely supervised by her grandmother who has oblique ideas around magic and witchcraft.

By chance Meche discovers that the record she played focuses a form of magic against a school bully. Angry thoughts listening to ‘Break On Through’ lead, in her mind, to the unexplained fall suffered by her bully on the stairs. She recruits Dani and Seb to experiment with old records in an abandoned factory.

“Guys, I just want to remind you I have to be home by seven,” Daniela said. “I’m also not allowed to do any Satanic stuff.”

Moreno-Garcia skillfully sketches characters through little, often humorous, asides. Amongst other qualities, Signal to Noise is frequently a funny novel.

Back in 2009 the funeral preparations reveal the relationship between Meche and her mother through the difference in their relationships with the late Vicente. Meche has buried him emotionally long ago. Natalia, remarried, still organises the wake, the party, the food.

The teen sections of Signal to Noise have a YA feel. The trio’s responses to school, other people and each other reflect youthful concerns. Fancying the boy who is out of reach, trying to find the right clothes with no money, worrying about being caught by parents. Meche argues with her mother about spending all her time with Sebastian. Sebastian ruminates on his poor family and being bullied. Daniela is ill and thus over-protected by her parents and longs for the freedom she thinks her friends have, but fears it too.

Sebastian wanted it. He wanted that corny, fabricated music video universe in which a couple could pop up from under the waves, water dripping from their bodies, embracing each other.

These moments, where Moreno-Garcia drops in reference to popular songs (in this instance Timbiriche’s Tu Y Yo Somos Uno Mismo) enrich Signal to Noise for me, both fixing the scenes in time/place/culture and developing the characters through their interaction with the music. They bring Meche and Sebastian to life by proxy. The novel could almost have a linked playlist for the reader so inclined.

Later, Meche reflects on Miguel Bosé’s hit Nena.

When Bosé sang about an impossible woman with an insatiable mouth and they fought — and rolled around the floor — it seemed gritty and true. A fucked up relationship, but fascinating all the same.

The 1988 settings show aspirations and anxieties in working class Mexico City. The 2009 scenes haven’t changed but the people have. Meche has, by leaving, changed everything she left behind.

In Mexico City everything returns. The rains and the past and everything in between.

Meche sees Sebastian across the street, neither acknowledges the other. She contacts Daniela but it is clear she begrudges her former friends putting an end to the magic and the friendship.

Why has Meche stayed away from her father for so long? How did the magic go wrong?

At one point Meche cautions against too much use of magic, yet we know she resents the end of it.

“It’s like reverse engineering.” …

“Umm… it’s when you lack the software specifications so you poke around the program interface trying to find the solution. That’s what we are doing with the magic.”

That, of course, is how the fantasy writer usually defines her magic. Working backwards from the results. Here it is also how Moreno-Garcia tells much of her story. It works because magic and music are, in this novel, both plot device and thematic device. The escapism and the empowerment they bring coincide for Meche. Her father was a musician, a would be writer on all things pop and Hispanic. Meche’s estrangements and attachments are tied this way. It creates an intriguing tension.

Ultimately the two strands are unbalanced; 1988 could exist without 2009 but not the reverse. The teenage adventures, bordering on teen cliché occasionally, are dynamic. The later scenes are predominantly introspective. Older Meche is unpleasant albeit understandably at times. The teenage desire to be attractive to the in-crowd, whilst simultaneously despising them, more identifiable.

Signal to Noise is a debut novel but by an experienced author and editor. It takes an unusual idea and builds on it, foregrounding her community, the people and the city above the magical conceit.

I’ve argued before that there is a difference between fantasy taking place in a city, and Urban Fantasy where the specific city environment is significant to the novel. It is hard to imagine translating Signal to Noise wholesale from Mexico City to New York or London without losing all personality and substance.

The throwaway details the author uses, like Sebastian getting too old for his supermarket bag packing job at 15, depict a culture not just a story. The tunes, their significance historically and personally, are introduced deftly too. Passing references build a bigger picture. Meche fancies blond Constantino not dark Sebastian but this contrast is dropped in not laboured.

Signal to Noise is fun, cleverly constructed and original. On those grounds I recommend it.

It is also significant in the nuanced depictions of poor, working class lives. Fantasy glosses over this a lot. Moreno-Garcia’s characters live it. We need books like this.

Note :

*he didn’t know Alan Parsons Project because they sang Games People Play from The Turn of a Friendly Card which, in her opinion was a very nice concept album. Not the best, but nice. The best was an easy pick. Most people would probably say the concept album of all time was The Dark Side Of The Moon, but Meche preferred The Kinks’ Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire). Her parents had met thanks to that album.

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The Trelawny Collection #2: Trelawny with Shelley and Byron – Joaquin Miller 1893

Continuing my working through biographies of the old rogue Tre, this brief pamphlet is my most recent acquisition and only in scanned e-book format.

In my previous post I implied that Richard Edgcumbe was the sole biographer to actually know Trelawny. In fact the Californian writer Joaquin Miller also had some acquaintance with Tre.

Edward John Trelawny of London, Italy, Greece, Wales, the whole world in fact, was certainly the most singularly fortunate man I ever met, and I have known not a few notable and brave men.

Thus in his opening sentence Miller eulogises Trelawny and adds his own story in. We learn subsequently that Trelawny ‘must have been far up in the eighties when I saw him’, that Trelawny sent Miller copies of the revised Recollections but also ‘for aught I know he may still be living.’ (Tre died 11 years before Miller wrote this.)

Miller spends several pages thus setting the scene, stressing repeatedly Trelawny’s rough edges and ‘cold-blooded, not to say brutal, acts’ in advancement of his theme.

No one can help wondering all the time how it happened that this bloodless fellow claimed to be the best friend of these two most sensitive of all noble-born Englishmen from the day when he first met them till he laid them in the grave.

Miller shifts slightly to almost literary reviewer as his subject becomes not quite Trelawny but Trelawny’s writings. He excuses what he describes as ‘lies’ about the poets as ‘born of the very air and time in which the book was first concerned’ which may have some validity, but then follows up naively ‘here is a pleasant bit about Shelley which must be true’. So anything bad about Shelley we question but praise we must believe.

The passage Miller quotes then is the famous story of Shelley reading standing resting on the mantlepiece all day. Of all Trelawny’s writings this passage seems to have been most widely adopted as characterising Shelley.

Alongside this Miller quotes Shelley’s funeral scene but fails to note how lyrical Trelawny could be in such passages whilst more straightforward elsewhere.

On Byron subsequently Miller describes some of Trelawny’s words as showing a ‘sweet and restful occasion’. There is an account of an alleged conversation laden with irony for the 21st century reader but rendered in more innocent manner by the American biographer.

That said Miller does question Trelawny on detail if not spirit.

I here quote a few paragraphs from Trelawny’s account of [Byron’s] death; observing that if he is not entirely truthful here he at least seems entirely so, and prudent, too, and thoughtful of Byron’s friends at home and all the world.

The time with the poets being done it would seem too that Trelawny’s drama was over, but Miller acknowledges that his subject continued an active life in the Greek Wars of Independence ‘as if he had not yet been favoured enough by the gods of song — think of it!’

And then abruptly, mid description of the assassination attempt in Mavre Troupa and it’s aftermath, mid sentence, this edition of Miller’s pamphlet ends. He has already told us there is no space for more, so how much is missing I can only speculate but i suspect no more than 3 orv4 pages presumably summarising Miller’s thoughts on Trelawny. These we know from his opening and other comments are somewhat awestruck but mixed with an idealised view of noble-born Englishmen and class perception.

Miller’s quotes of long passages from Trelawny’s own accounts mean that really it is as well to go to the source and skip this partial (in both senses) text.

Note: the missing pages here are clearly the responsibility of the publishers of this scanned edition HardPress (Miami) who brag about not using OCR to avoid ‘introduced errors’ yet not only miss pages but more glaringly add a generic e-book cover misspelling Shelley.

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Albums of 2018

Slightly belatedly, a rundown of 2018’s best albums.

A year where keeping up in any genre was difficult so being eclectic like me, well, how the hell do I not miss great stuff? Not many of my established favourites, the ones you’d expect me to list, released albums this year. A few new favourites arose though.

And there were a few I came across too late to fully assimilate for list purposes. Farai, the London based Zimbabwean electro artist with a voice reminiscent of Ari Up for instance.

Quick note too. Unreleased track of the year was Gasteruption Jaculator by Mary Epworth a highlight of her live set I can’t wait to hear recorded.

But here’s what I did love…

30 Gaye Su Akyol – Istikrarli Hayal Hakkikkattir

Gaye Su Akyol has classic pop style and her band traditional Turkish folk meets psychedelia. Her voice cuts through on impassioned songs of press freedom and other vital topics.

29 Lubomyr Melnyk – Fallen Trees

Contemporary classical piano at it’s most blissful enhanced occasionally by the stunning voice of Hatis Noit.

28 Ammar 808 – Maghreb United

If Melnyk was for quiet moments, this needs volume and bass. Electronics and North African instruments bring modern and ancient into something new.

27 Cupcakke – Ephorize

Sexually explicit and very much positive feminist hip hop from Elizabeth Harris.

26 Maisha – There Is A Place

Pharaoh Sanders influenced spiritual British jazz with lush strings supporting.

25 Deafheaven – Ordinary Corrupt Human Love

You’d expect anything described as genre agnostic to intrigue, this is, if not exactly Black Metal, certainly Very Dark Grey Metal.

24 Hookworms – Microshift

Their abrupt split after abuse allegations against their frontman overshadows a fine contemporary indie record.

23 David Byrne – American Utopia

In a way this is Byrne’s entire career. Adventures in rhythm beneath oblique political abstracts.

22 Saxon – Thunderbolt

I do like me some New Wobbum and nobody embodies its joys more than Barnsley’s finest.

21 Tony Kofi & The Organisation – Point Blank

Kofi’s hard bop sax joins the B3 driven Organisation on a selection of grooves.

20 Anna von Hausswolf – Dead Magic

As soon as I heard lead track ‘The mysterious vanishing of Electra’ I knew this was great. Howling gothic squalls of pipe organ and vocals that are part-Kate Bush part-Diamanda Galas are only part of this epic.

19 Anna Calvi – Hunter

A grower. Calvi’s sensual guitar and lyrics take time to infuse. It’s the apart contradictions of moody and frenetic that gradually make haunting sense.

18 Zeal & Ardor – Stranger Fruit

Yes the title is relevant to both Billie Holiday and Seamus Heaney. Taking black metal to spiritual and field songs seems unlikely but I can’t stop playing this late discovery.

17 Dirtmusic – Bu Bir Ruya

A step East into Turkey away from previous West African adventures modifies the detail of Chris Eckman & Hugo Race’s music but not the restless spirit. And songs like Border Crossing are vital today.

16 Ólafur Arnalds – Re:member

The intellectual heir to Bill Evans’ Conversations with Myself as Arnalds has written algorithms to play two more pianos responding to his highly structured compositions as he plays.

Half way and we’ve had jazz in various forms, hip hop, metal, classical and indie, and the outright avant garde. What next?

15 Hatis Noit – Illogical Dance

Nominally an EP but long enough and good enough. Japanese vocal artist Hatis Noit is another who convinced me on a single track, the glorious hymn Angelus Novus. I drove to Wakefield recently to hear her sing her self-sampled looped pieces.

14 Let’s Eat Grandma – I’m All Ears

A more robust, balanced record than their debut. LEG are now 19 years old but keep enough whimsy to balance their doomy witch pop.

13 Anna Meredith – Anno

If you ask me Anna can do no wrong at present. This album reworks Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with her own compositions and brings out the best of both.

12 Tomorrow We Sail – The Shadows

Another melange of influences, or echoes (shadows?) of prog, orchestral folk and more. Soaring, melancholy vocals and carefully layered instrumentation are as effective live.

11 Nils Frahm – All Melody

Of the various superb classical inspired pianists around Frahm is both the most playful and physical. Listening to part of this one can feel the thwock of finger on keys the way guitar records sometimes carry the slide of finger on string.

10 Gwenno – Le Kov

Whodathunk a song about cheese in Cornish would be one of the catchiest things all year? The whole album is like that, beautiful upbeat melodies and lyrics that could be nonsense for all I really know but sound great.

9 Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth

More Pharaoh than ‘Trane to my ear despite the standard comparison, but Kamasi continues to build and expand and soar. Maybe a triple CD was a little much but the album closer ‘Will You Sing?’ makes the journey complete.

8 The Lovely Eggs – This is England

Holly & Dave’s punk pop surrealism actually has a grounding in the quotidian that is often missed. It’s what makes this diverse mix of tunes work. That and the bloody good tunes.

7 Erland Cooper – Solan Goose

This I can’t wait to see live in March. Evocative pieces linked by Orcadian names and legends of great seabirds.

6 tAngerinecAt – Many Kettles

Punk as fuck. Hurdy Gurdy and penny whistle ? With electronics? Lyrics about gender and ethnicity and oppression and abuse?

Absolutely.

5 Neko Case – Hell-On

You kinda know what you’re getting with Neko by now. But still she surprises. Brutal honesty, tender warnings, oblique yet head on challenges to patriarchs and abusers. And that voice. Joined here by Mark Lanegan and Beth Ditto amongst others but it’s Neko at her most glorious. Which makes it very great indeed.

4 Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer

Genius. Prince-level, Bowie-level, conceptual genius and the chops to bring it together. Janelle gets in your face, makes you dance, makes you think.

For extra enjoyment view the full concept Emotion Picture. Like Beyoncé’s Lemonade, this is a full package.

3 Park Jiha – Communion

Korean instrumental music, classical, traditional and jazz intertwined on beautiful traditional instruments. This was album of the year for months.

2 Sons of Kemet – Your Queen Is A Reptile

Blistering jazz from South London. Driven largely by Theon Cross’ pulsing tuba, featuring ranting and exultant vocals, and running with Shabaka Hutchings sax. Each track honours a great woman including the likes of Harriet Tubman and Doreen Lawrence. ALSO number 1 for months.

1 Haiku Salut – There Is no Elsewhere

Then there was this. Haiku Salut with their third collection of cinematic, beautiful pieces of instrumental music. Unusual structures, multiple instruments and melodic lines that take you somewhere but don’t always show you how to get back at least not directly. This is good.

And there it is. To be fair any of the top 5 could shuffle to the top on a given day. That’s a sign of a great year. A diverse, eclectic, great year.

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The Best of Connie Willis

The novels of Connie Willis are popular enough that maybe I don’t need to tell you about them, but how about her short fiction? Time Is The Fire is the first UK collection of Willis’ shorter fiction and features ten stories originally published between 1982 and 2005. Eight of them won the Hugo Award, the other two were amongst the five that picked up Nebulas. That’s some record.

So this is a collection subtitled ‘The Best Of Connie Willis’, although qualified (sub-subtitled, as it were) on the cover as ‘The Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Short Fiction’. What makes it so good? Are there recurrent themes that explain Willis’ huge popularity?

Lisa Tuttle has a go in her introduction, identifying a number of Willis protagonists on quixotic quests:

worrying that they’ve misunderstood something important, and consumed by the certainty that there is little time left to get it right. Sometimes these quirky quests are personal obsessions, but sometimes (because these are science fiction stories) the fate of the whole world may hinge on the timely discovery of the right clue by one bright yet basically powerless person.

For me that is one of the charms of the best of these stories, that Willis’ characters aren’t omnicompetent superheroes but closer to ‘ordinary’ people. It is also one of the annoyances, as Willis then frequently creates implausible setups for them. Looking at ‘Fire Watch’ from a rational, traditional SF position the premise that a historian who studied St. Paul could mistakenly be sent back in time to St.Paul’s Cathedral during the blitz is borderline ridiculous, but Willis isn’t that kind of writer. As others have noted, her model is often closer to Golden Age Hollywood’s screwball comedies than to Golden AgeCampbellian SF. ‘Fire Watch’ even makes this opposition clear when the narrator challenges his tutor over the examination focus on numbers rather than people’s lives.

The other stories of history here (they aren’t historicals as some would have it, but stories about history) are funnier than ‘Fire Watch’ and less poignant. ‘The Winds Of Marble Arch’ has a farcical runaround plot about conference attendees trying to arrange theatre tickets and some classic screwball banter where Willis shows off her love for the Underground. Interspersed with this are echoes of the Blitz seeping through from the past in ‘winds’ through the station tunnels. It isn’t a serious story on the surface, Willis’ London is romanticised and unrealistic for comic effect, but in contrasting this with the haunting winds there is a serious point about theme-park history and tourism. ‘Inside Job’ meanwhile has a fake medium who is actually genuinely channeling HL Mencken (of whom poignant is the least appropriate adjective.) Mencken may be less familiar to UK readers and this story perhaps suffers for that.

And then there is ‘The Soul Selects Her Own Society: Invasion and Repulsion: A Chronological Reinterpretation Of Two Of Emily Dickinson’s Poems: A Wellsian Perspective’ a mock-scholarly piece on the belle of Amherst encountering Wells‘ martians. Laden with footnotes, and of course footnotes on footnotes, it has some of Willis’ most directly funny writing.

(As an aside, and referring more to the novels, her much praised historical accuracy is nothing of the sort, she gets so many easy details badly wrong that some readers cannot immerse themselves.)

Several of these stories are slow-burning, taking 50 or more pages not to transmit an idea but to build relationships and settings. The stories of history go to lengths to create a sense of verisimilitude. The comedies focus on dialogue and comic juxtapositions. The unusual Christmas story, ‘All Seated On the Ground’ is like that. Willis plays the screwball card again. Stock characters are played with whilst a romance develops, the author shows off her detailed knowledge of Carols, and a point is made about communication with aliens and with other humans.

Less romantic, and in some ways less impressive are the older stories here. ‘Fire Watch’, ‘Even The Queen’ and ‘A letter From The Clearys’ date from 1982. The latter is reminiscent of stories I’ve read by Eudora Welty and by Kit Reed (acknowledged here by Willis in her various comments.) It is a post-apocalyptic story that reveals its darker side between the lines, but doesn’t quite surprise and doesn’t have the quirky pseudo-characterisation of later stories. ‘Even The Queen’ is another story where a regimented society is faced with a revolution based on human actions. The subject matter may have been challenging in 1982 but the basic theme is one SF has mined many times before and since.

My favourite story here is ‘At The Rialto’ which more neatly ties its SF premise to its comic set-up. Again academia comes in for some gentle ribbing, but in a less long-winded way than say ‘The Winds Of Marble Arch’ as Willis plays with quantum theory and hotel booking systems to comic effect.

Time Is The Fire also includes Connie Willis’ own introduction, afterwords to every story, her Worldcon Guest of Honour speech and not one but two SFWA Grand Master speeches. To be honest, you can skip any two of the three speeches and not miss much. The introduction also covers some similar ground, but hey some people like that. A lot of people like Connie Willis too, as exemplified by the list of awards she has won. Your mileage may vary on whether all or some were deserved as truly the ‘best’ stories of their year, and for me, if I was selecting the actual Best of Connie Willis there are stories I’d swap for at least a couple here. (‘Schwartschild Radius’ and ‘All My Darling Daughters’ since you ask.) Nevertheless as one of the few women SF authors to gain consistent attention she deserves this collection. It might be nice to see some critical attention too that judges Willis on her own terms, as a writer of character-driven, romantic, screwball comic SF that makes up in charm, warmth and humour what it occasionally and deliberately neglects in plausibility.

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