Some Thoughts on Howard Waldrop

83 years ago today the great American novelist Thomas Wolfe died in a Baltimore Hospital, so that means today is Howard Waldrop’s 75th birthday. (Wild Cards! fans will know 15th September 1946 for Jetboy’s doomed attempt to defeat Dr. Tachyon in ‘Thirty Minutes Over Broadway’. It was a Sunday not a Tuesday.)

Howard Waldrop is usually described as a writer whose work (almost entirely shorter fiction) is indefinable. I disagree. John Clute uses the term desiderium to describe Waldrop’s Science Fiction. I disagree, in part. It is said, including by Waldrop himself, that he never writes the same story twice. This I almost agree with.

The stories of Howard Waldrop are predominantly characterised by their use of historical figures, settings and events; and by literary and mass media figures, settings and events; and the combination of the two. They become a curious riff on the alternate history as most often attempted. It is in this respect that Clute proposes that:

Waldrop’s “nostalgia” for the icons and lifestyles of the 1940s or 1950s is not nostalgia at all. A better word to describe this complex emotion, one which deeply characterises his work, is desiderium — a term which may be defined as a state of intense longing for something that never literally existed, but should have. (Pardon This Intrusion,  2011, p220)

This works until we look at exactly who those figures Waldrop adopts are. With very few exceptions they are writers, actors, musicians, performers of every kind. Those who aren’t, are filtered through the lens of old movies and TV series. People who adopt a persona or have it imposed upon them.

In his first notable solo publication, ‘Der Untergang des Abendlandesmenschen’ (1976) silent movie era cowboy actors William S Hart and Bronco Billy Anderson fight nosferatu in 1920s Bremen. The vampire is ultimately defeated using a an armband ripped from a German corporal. “On its red cloth was a white circle with a twisted black cross.”  The Germans adorn the dead vampire with a Star of David like the one Hart wore ‘when he played Ben-Hur on Broadway.’ The alternate timelines of a Waldrop story are not usually better worlds, despite the title of his collected stories Other Worlds, Better Lives, but different and individual.

ISFDB tells me Waldrop has published around 80 stories to date, but if you haven’t yet had the thrill of a Howard Waldrop story where do you begin? There’s an obvious choice, one I have thrust on many a friend in the past, but I’ll come to that shortly. Here are ten a dozen (it was a tough job choosing) of my personal favourites, in chronological order of publication.

1. Mary Margaret Road Grader. (1976) A feminist love story of sorts set in a post-automotive future where Native American-esque groups celebrate and compete in tractor pull events. There is a nostalgic final line, but the story is about the little things we do, and the strength of our myths. ‘Changes in history come easy, you know?’ feels like the most significant line in Waldrop’s early oeuvre.

2. The Ugly Chickens (1980) The obvious one. The dodo story. If you know Waldrop you know this one. A researcher uncovers evidence that dodos survived until Depression-era Mississippi. Obviously it’s nostalgic, who wouldn’t want to believe the dodo wasn’t extinct, but that’s not what the story is about. As with so many other Waldrop stories here he writes with compassion about the little people that big History forgets.

3. Ike At the Mike (1982) Possibly the archetype for people who try to write a fun Waldrop-like story. (Trust me I’ve done that.) Jazz legends Eisenhower and Patton, Senator Presley, Ambassador Pratt… Waldrop sometimes looks like he’s taken a lucky dip approach to history, but the details tell otherwise. The details are about how we got here. The details reveal multiple jonbar points, global and personal, and close reading shows that they’re not what we might wish for.

4. Flying Saucer Rock’n’Roll (1985) When Rock critic Charles Shaar Murray once said that if he edited a rock’n’roll anthology half of it would be by Howard Waldrop he probably had this story foremost in mind. A doo wop singing competition over territorial rights in 1965 New York, tied in with the UFO craze of the time, and, no spoilers, a major historical event.

5. Heirs Of the Perisphere (1985) Almost all Waldrop stories are set in a version of the past, ‘Mary Margaret Road Grader’ being the notable exception. This one is set 1500 plus years from now but is about the 1939 World’s Fair, Disney world and the permanence of cultural icons beyond the apocalypse. And about friendship.

6. French Scenes. (1985) Arguably this story, like ‘Der Untergang des Abendlandesmenschen’ earlier, takes place within a movie. Waldrop loves movies for what they tell us about what we are. This is small town Texan nouvelle vague.

7. Night of the Cooters. (1987) Two things, Bill Hicks observed how UFO sightings always happened to “small groups of rednecks in Southern towns” and I always wondered why major SF events only happened in one place. Howard Waldrop’s Martians didn’t just land on Horsell Common but some landed in rural Texas.

8. A Dozen Tough Jobs (1988) Oh Brother, where is the movie of this novella? The Labours of Hercules transposed to 1930s Mississippi. Houlka Lee is a convict sentenced to work for Boss Eustis for a year. Told by fellow servant I.O.Lace the Labours are secondary, barely on the page in some cases, because the subject is how people treated each other in the Depression and why things happened. See also ‘The Ugly Chickens’

9. Fin de Cyclé (1989). J.G.Ballard wrote ‘The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race’ in the 60s. Waldrop writes about the Dreyfuss Affair as a velocipede race. And again it is about the impact on the individual rather than the global.

10. You Could Go Home Again (1993) This is why Thomas Wolfe’s death in 1938 was my opening line. It’s the story that Clute cites as example of desiderium and the one I consider exemplar of Waldrop’s Romanticism. There is much to say about this story of Wolfe recuperating from the surgery he died during in our timeline. He is travelling by airship home from the 1940 Tokyo Olympics when he meets two British military men, Ross and Norway, and is entertained by pianist Fats Waller. Aside from being packed with typical Waldrop obscure references and touchstones, this story shows me what all those other actors and characters are doing in his work. Yes, there’s a poignancy about Wolfe not remaining his former personality which could be desiderium but more importantly I think, there’s a demonstration in the choice of the five characters of how imagination works, how the individual works, of almost Coleridgean thingifying. It’s a masterpiece.

11. The Sawing Boys (1994) Fairytale retellings became popular in the 90s. Waldrop used The Musicians of Brementon to pastiche Damon Runyon in a tale about the non-linear spread of mass communications. Or so he says.

13. Heart of Whitenesse. (1997) The road trip (or airship) is another Waldrop device for scenery settings. On this occasion an ice ship up the frozen Thames with Christopher Marlowe channeling Philip Marlow and as the title implies, Conrad’s Marlow too. Such are the layers and recycling of history that fascinate and inspire Waldrop. Not what could have been but why it was how it was.

14. US (1998) Three views of the same event. The kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh Jr in 1932 where the baby lives and grows up. Three views therefore of the US in the 40s, 50s and 60s. None of which are nostalgic.

So that’s Waldrop. Writing not simply about what could have been, not with a longing, but about why it didn’t happen with compassion and tenderness. As the author himself said his reason for writing ‘The Effects Of Alienation’ was ‘to find out what effect Hitler winning World War II would have had on Peter Lorre.’ Not how the world would have changed. Using the mythologies of public figures to decode the mythology of our times without regret, without the wishful thinking of nostalgia. Instead tying the threads of history together.

In his most recent published story ‘Till the Cows Come Home to Roost’ (2018) Waldrop links the frontier feuds of the Lincoln County War with 50s Hollywood and a famous literary feud of the 70s. Threads that pull together to show how and why, not simply could have been. This is the thread that makes Waldrop definable. An alternate approach to history.

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A Ghost In The Throat – Doireann Ní Ghríofa

In bold capitals Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost In The Throat lays down a statement of identity in the very first line.

THIS IS A FEMALE TEXT.

A Ghost In The Throat, which has just won the 2021 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography, is in fact a book with multiple identities all of which sit beneath that initial statement. The final sentence of the book is a repeat of the first, holding all else that passes these pages within that identity.

It is a memoir, a biography, a description of historical detection, a lament, literary criticism, perhaps a prose poem and more. Doireann Ní Ghríofa first came across the 18th century Irish poem An Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire at school, but it was a few years later that she began first to feel it resonate with her, then to obsess her. The Lament for Art O’Leary as it usually translated, was composed by Art’s widow Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill after his murder in 1773. The poet and Oxford professor Peter Levi called it the greatest poem written in the British Isles in the 18th century, and it has been described as one of the greatest love poems in the Irish language.

For Ní Ghríofa though, it is more. It became the mystery of who really was Eibhlín Dubh, what happened to her? A Ghost In The Throat is her account of researching the older poet’s life, alongside creating her own deeply personal translation. She doesn’t name names, but Ní Ghríofa makes it clear that all the earlier translations lacked a certain life-force for her. Though already a poet with several volumes, and awards, to her name, this a bold claim considering earlier versions bore the names of Thomas Kinsella, Frank O’Connor, Paul Muldoon and, just a few years prior to Ní Ghríofa, Vona Groarke. A bold claim, “brazen audacity” in her own words, but indicative of how deeply Ní Ghríofa bonded with Eibhlín Dubh.

Quite early Ní Ghríofa shows her cards. Noting that Dubh is remembered, if at all, as wife or aunt to famous men. (Her nephew was Daniel O’Connell.)

“How swiftly the academic gaze places her in a masculine shadow, as though she could only be of interest as a satellite to male lives.”

She explains that as a Caoineadh the original was in oral form, passed down by women, and for this reason it is often suggested that Dubh was not the sole author. A not unusual accusation aimed at women authors. Drily, and almost in passing, Ní Ghríofa records that Art’s father was credited with part of the poem, despite predeceasing Art by several years.

In 2012 Ghriofa notes,

“This is a female text, written in the twenty-first century. How late it is. How much has changed. How little.”

The investigation into the lives of Eibhlín, her sister, mother, her sons is in itself an intriguing mystery. Finding letters between Eibhlín’s estranged brothers gives hints, rarely more, about her.

Ní Ghríofa is forced by dead ends and blank spaces again and again to try new routes. At one point she finds a list of marriages including that of a descendent of Eibhlín Dubh’s family. It shows date, husband’s name and family origin, wife’s name and family origin in each case except the one of interest where no bride is actually named. Of such blank spaces are women’s histories formed.

But as much as this is a lament for Eibhlín Dubh and her due place in history, this is a personal memoir of Doireann Ní Ghríofa. She begins her self-appointed task whilst pregnant with her third child. As Eibhlín Dubh was that day she rushed to the site of her husband’s murder. We know already that Art O’Leary left his wife doing household tasks and child care never to return. Are we meant to anticipate some parallel tragedy when Doireann begins by waving her man off to work? Gladly it doesn’t come to that, but we are drawn into identifying the two poets, the two mothers, as linked.

Doireann Ní Ghríofa describes how she snatches moments to work on her translation whilst feeding baby the third; how she hopes the children will stay quiet for even 10 minutes in the library archive; how she is drawn into imagining Eibhlín Dubh’s daily life in 1773 Cork as she sits in 2014 outside her son’s nursery.

This is a female text. Doireann breastfeeds each child at her right breast until well into their third year. Her left determines within months to cease production. She tells us this both matter of factly but also in a poetic oral rhythm. Beyond her own children she milks herself to be distributed to premature babies, to those in need. Here I learn the marvellous new to me word Galactagogue – foods which aid and promote lactation.

And Doireann becomes pregnant a fourth time, whilst her eldest is only five years old. This too echoes the women of the Ní Chonaill branch, Eibhlín’s mother Maíre bore 22 and buried 10 children.

In a section I defy any reader not to fret and fear through, this baby struggles, may not be developing enough in the womb, may be dead. In frantic trips the elder children are taken to an aunt, a message sent to her husband who is not allowed a phone at work, and a rush to the hospital. Don’t worry about reception and security, she is advised, they will see your face and know the emergency.

A community of women congregate as their babies struggle and grow in incubators, carefully monitored at every point. The devoted breastfeeding Doireann is angered when the doctor says they need to use formula. She feels rejected, dismissed, a failure. But it is for sound, monitoring reasons to investigate what the baby is, or isn’t absorbing. Doireann’s breast cannot be measured that way. (Instead she notes the E cup right and B cup left, humour in tension.)

(Photo from Ní Ghríofa’s blog)

These are female texts. Texts rarely linked to the rareified academic literary histories. These are rebel texts written in the bodies of women, the oral keeners.

Art O’Leary was flash, handsome and generous, owner of the finest horse in an age where his sort, Catholics, were prevented from this by the harsh, discriminatory Penal Law. Only if they kept quiet were they tolerated. Under the Penal Law a Catholic was forbidden any horse worth over 5/- but Art won many races on her. For this he fell foul of a local official, and for his refusal to surrender his horse, an excuse was conjured which led to the fatal shooting.

In the Lament, the horse leaves dead Art and flies home. Eibhlín sees the bloodied saddle and allows the horse to carry her to her husband. In a powerful, vivid scene she weeps over his body, ultimately drinking great gulps of his still flowing blood. This symbolic, catholic act, is mentioned without judgment throughout the book. It is the ultimate expression of her desire.

In 21st century Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s desire is her strength and her vulnerability. And she asserts her presence, talking of things normally suppressed, female texts. The need to be pregnant, to feed, the desire for her husband even as post-partum sex hurts. The tolerance of pain so she can please him, and the guilt of misleading him.

It is a carnal text. Written on the body, as Ni Ghríofa says more than once metaphorically, and literally as she chooses lines for a tattoo to be read after her death as medical students dissect her donated cadaver. And I haven’t mentioned those funny scenes as young Doireann studies anatomy.

A Ghost In The Throat is a slender volume containing multitudes. History, poetry, maternity, rage, lust, tragedy and hope, fear and strength. At different moments I wanted to draw different friends’ attention to it, as I saw deep resonances and direct parallels. This, I think, is fitting as Doireann Ní Ghríofa finds echoes of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill in her life almost 250 years on. And fitting perhaps that it is female writers I think of. Writers on the body. Female texts. Texts passed through history by women unnoticed by men.

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Edge of Utopia? – Redefining Utopia in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge

Pacific Edge (1990) is generally considered to be the utopian aspect of Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Three Californias‘ or Orange County sequence, following the dystopian post-apocalypse The Wild Shore (1984) and the near-future extrapolation of The Gold Coast (1988). However, in Robinson’s typical approach to these things, it is not possible to make such simple judgements. As part of a loose trilogy, or perhaps more correctly of a triptych, Pacific Edge does depict the most idyllic of the three societies. Taken on its own, there are two sides to the novel – ‘Pacific’ and ‘Edge’ – which suggest alternative explanations.

It is possible to consider Pacific Edge alone because, whilst the three books consider a common setting – Orange County, California – and one common character – Tom Barnard – they are in no sense contiguous. For a start, the nature of the setting varies: the near-survivalist The Wild Shore, the industrial greed of The Gold Coast and the social harmony of Pacific Edge. Robinson uses Tom as a link with something approaching our society, and he is the closest Robinson comes to a Heinleinian Wise Old Man figure, particularly in Pacific Edge. In each book he is effectively the same character; Robinson has said: ‘he shares the same genetic make-up'”(NOVA Express # 7, interview), but his role varies considerably, and in Pacific Edge he is a reluctant participant for much of the time.

The most important way in which Pacific Edge differs from its predecessors, however, is in a structural device which creates the duality between ‘Pacific’ and ‘Edge’. The ‘Orange County’ side of the story is interspersed with brief scenes from elsewhere, notes from the diary of a man interned in holding camp for those testing HIV+, in a world which is far from utopian. Although comprising just twelve pages of the two-hundred-and-eighty page total, these episodes bear a significance which entirely changes the tone of the novel. It is in these diary scenes that the question of Pacific Edge-as-utopia is raised. (In conversation in 2018 at the UK Eastercon, Robinson told me there were originally more of these scenes but his editor felt they were too dark.)

The narrator of the prison sequences is a lawyer deported from Switzerland in a general clampdown on foreigners by that country, and he is arrested immediately on his return to the USA. The first of these journal entries is dated 2 March 2012, just over fifty years prior to the events in the main body of the novel (p. 30). Scattered clues throughout these sections reveal the identity of the author as a younger Tom Barnard, and this is confirmed on page 257. As Sherry Coldsmith wrote in her review of Pacific Edge. ‘Tom’s journal entries, written during his youth, tell of a period when it seemed that the postmodern fascism described in The Gold Coast was the only possible future‘ (SF Eye #9, pp. 93-4). Throughout Pacific Edge, when the hero Kevin Claiborne encounters political and/or personal difficulties, ‘It is Tom who provides a counterpoint to Kevin’s frustrations and sorrows‘ (SF Eye # 9, p. 94).

However, there is an element to these journal entries which raises important questions about how the rest of the novel should be perceived. Tom is writing a book, which turns out to be a utopia: “a stab at succeeding where my realwork has failed” (p. 30). “Now I’ll change the world in my mind” he writes (p. 31). So, is the story of Kevin and his friends’ ecological campaign and opposition to political corruption Tom’s real future? Or is it the future of Tom’s book an imaginary expression of Tom’s socialist principles, in Tom’s own words: “at least an attempt to clarify my my beliefs, my desires?” Or an attempt to clarify Robinson’s beliefs?

“Now I’ll change the world in my mind”

Surely then the existence of Tom’s journal belies the view that the world of 2012 is the only possible future? Ultimately, of course, Pacific Edge is all fiction, and the relative reality of one section or another is meaningless except where it offers clues to the aims of the author.

There are aspects of Tom Barnard in this novel which closely match aspects of Kim Stanley Robinson at the time he was writing Pacific Edge. Like Tom’s, Robinson’s wife was engaged in scientific research in Switzerland and he lived there for two years. Robinson has no qualms about proclaiming himself a socialist; he did so in an interview for Vector 176: “I really do what I can in an attempt to salvage what is left of the socialist approach….There are some obvious principles of fair play and justice that are expressed in the socialist utopian dream that are being trampled badly by the looting and pillage of capitalism… We’re living in the shambles of a bad century here, and you just have to keep making those little attempts to reconnect.” (pp. 7-8).

It seems clear then that Robinson is attempting in Pacific Edge to do exactly what Tom Barnard is doing in his book, but with the typical Robinson sense of the duality inherent in every situation. The opening line of the novel, part of Kevin’s narrative, offers an example of this: ‘Despair could never touch a morning like this’ (p. 1). If this morning is so beautiful, why introduce even the thought of despair? Is it significant that Tom’s journal begins in hope on a day of bad weather?  Robinson had a practice in several stories and novels of beginning and ending on antonyms, a device that was both personal quirk and clue to his use of opposing concepts to build his work. 

Consider Tom’s thoughts as he begins to write: “I’m writing a utopia in a country that runs as smoothly as Zuri’s little blue trams … Conflicts that tear the rest of the world apart are here solved with the coolest kind of rationality – I write in a kind of pocket utopia, a little island of calm in a maddened world Perhaps it will help make my future seem more plausible to me – perhaps it will even seem possible.” (p. 31). Consider the town of El Modena, where Kevin Claiborne and his friends discuss their problems rationally during public council meetings. Several times references are made to other towns where such things are less amicable, and where ecological or social concerns are secondary to profits. Kevin receives irregular messages from his sister working in Bangladesh, which highlight the fact that so much work still needs to be done. As Tom concludes in his first journal note: ‘There’s no such thing as a pocket utopia“(p. 31). So Tom’s model, Switzerland, is recreated on a small scale in Orange County, but with global problems continuing, this is not enough.

He goes on to consider what he means by utopia: “What a cheat utopias are … Engineer some fresh start, an island, a new continent. So they don’t have to deal with our history. So the utopias in books are pocket utopias too … They don’t speak to us trapped in this world .. We have to deal with history as it stands. Must redefine utopia” (p. 81).

“Must redefine utopia.”

If Pacific Edge is Robinson’s attempt to re-assess and redefine utopia, then the voice he uses must be that of Tom Barnard, and hence Kevin’s story is in fact Tom’s book. Robinson gives us at least one hint that he is working this way. Tom’s journal quotes from the author’s journal section of Samuel R. Delany’s The Einstein lntersection: “I decide to change Kid Death’s hair from black to red” which leads to Tom wondering ‘How come when I consider revisions it’s not ‘change Kid Death’s hair from black to red’ but ‘throw out the first draft and start the whole thing over’?” (p. 81). Such an overt reference to another openly mctafictive work can only be an explicit confirmation of Pacific Edge’s similar status.

Later, Tom tells his wife: “I’m thinking of alternating the chapters of fiction with essay chapters which discuss thepolitical and economic problems we need to solve”(p. 103) and goes on to discuss Wells’s utopian essays. In which case, Pacific Edge can be viewed as layers of reality, with Tom’s Journal depicting the outer, primary reality, and hence the world of the novel, far from being utopian, is instead a dystopia. Nevertheless, the novel is about utopia. It is about the practical realities of achieving utopia. Hence all the small details about ecologically sound and aesthetically pleasing housing design, about land reclamation, and the legal mechanisms being developed to steer this work.

Hence too, Tom’s consideration, and rejection, of a range of conventional SF routes to utopia -alternate history, the Great Man theory – as ‘not useful” (p. 126). He quotes Marcuse: “one of the worst signs of our danger is we can’t imagine the route from here to utopia” (p. 127). For Tom, that point comes when he is imprisoned in the internment camp, and he sees the most truly debilitating effects of his world, and he tears up his notebooks. One of his fellow inmates challenges him and brings paper and pens: “You got to tell what happens here. If you don’t tell it, then who will?” (p. 237). And so Tom discovers something new about utopia:

There is a refusal of despair … There is a courage that should shame the rest of us. There is a place where people on the edge of death make jokes, they help each other, they share what they have, they endure. In this hell they make their own ‘utopia’ ” (p. 237).

This brings things back to Tom’s earlier remarks on redefining utopia: ‘Utopia is the process of making a better world, the name for one path history can take, a dynamic, tumultuous agonizing process, with no end” (p. 82). Applying this back on to Pacific Edge, Kevin’s battles with Alfredo over a planning issue demonstrate that even this intellectual idyll has its flaws. Robinson uses discussions of this issue, which might seem trivial as far as fiction’s concerns go, to postulate some of the ways that society canbe changed Pacific Edge is Kim Stanley Robinson’s attempt to show both where we might be headed, and an example of the sort of place we could achieve.

“A refusal of despair”

It is utopian by the definition Tom adopts, even though Kevin’s personal story ends with things going tragically ‘Wrong in an Oresteian sense” (Vector 176, p. 8), because there is hope and there is a a mechanism for social change towards a more perfect world free from discord.

The original version of this piece appeared in the British Science Fiction Association journal Vector 189 in 1996. Page references are to the 1992 UK Grafton paperback.

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Poison and Light- Gillian Polack (Shooting Star Press, 2020)

“To immerse yourself in Utopian thinking is to refuse to engage with the real, suffering world” – Gwyneth Jones (1)

Nobody reading Gillian Polack’s Poison and Light would seriously consider the colony of New Ceres a utopia, but for many of the inhabitants of New Ceres capital Prosperine, it is an idealised world.

New Ceres is a restricted colony, where society operates in the manner of the Age of Enlightenment. No technology is allowed that was unknown at the end of Earth’s 18th century. The fashion is to meet and discuss anything of import in coffee houses, and salons, or through printed pamphlets (approved by the Lady Governor of course.) It is a world of honour, prestige, and reputation above all. It is the ideal, for the elite classes.

Jones continues “Isn’t the society where ‘everybody’ is good, simply a society described from the point of view of those who stand to benefit most?” New Ceres is that society at first glance. That ideal, Enlightenment, gossipy pleasure life is what we seem to see as Livia’s aim.

Livia, hostess, matchmaker, manipulator and schemer, carefully plans her every move to her advantage. Flirtations are encouraged, or diverted, over lingering, luxurious dinners. Livia has a taste for everything, uses it as a gastronomic memory palace. But slight her, and it will be a cold dish you are served.

In Livia’s New Ceres, being seen in the right places with the right people is the measure of quality. The salon and the coffee house, the fineries and the fripperies have an Austen-tatious air.

Into this Society comes an off-worlder, a famous artist and refugee from the destroyed earth, Grania. When Livia’s husband Alphonse tries to exploit Grania, the wealthy Dal rescues her and marries her. From this point she is unwittingly in opposition to Livia.

It probably doesn’t spoil anything to say that Livia, known for discretely removing rivals, is Poison whilst Grania the artist seeking the right subjects, is Light. Their clashes are occasionally direct, but often subtle and via proxies. Livia’s ambition is loftier than Grania knows, but Grania finds support in unlikely places. In a society of open gossip, the secret society is powerful.

The Jones quotes above were actually about Ursula K Le Guin’s famous story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’ which shines light on the dark underbelly of an apparent utopia. On Polack’s New Ceres food is potentially poisonous, sometimes fatally, unless treated using the only permitted technology. Who controls the tech controls New Ceres, and a form of servitude is the sole option for the lower classes. Grania shines the light on the poison.

Poison and Light is a Science Fiction novel in which, mostly, the Science Fiction is offstage. We know there’s a spaceport, that there was a war between aliens and the Inner planets in which Earthers were put in camps and murdered. We don’t see that.

This is Gillian Polack’s great trick here, she tells rather than shows so much of the time, yet makes it work. We are told of broadsheets circulating, some official a few samizdat. The approved printer known only as Mr F. plays his part here. Brief chapters simply tell the content of an article. A review of a coffee shop, a tourist guide to the Code Duello, a reprint of a genuine Enlightenment witch trial which creates a parallel in this New Enlightenment.

In this, although the surface is Enlightenment and Austen, it is told through the stylistic filter of a satirical Thomas Love Peacock. It is a perception of Enlightenment that New Ceres has adopted, rather than a true image, something that is shown by the relative influences of Social Standing versus actual Wealth. Polack even tells us this when a character is accused of having read too much Georgette Heyer. In a Jewish settlement outside of Prosperine Grania is told “It’s playacting. We pretend to haskalah and historical correctness.”

She tells us what happened, is happening, and will happen within a page. And via the interjections of tourist reporter Fred Xian, who we appear not to see onstage directly*, she provides commentary on those happenings.

Livia’s political manoeuvres create the drama, Grania’s political awareness creates a different perspective. For a novel about politicking though, there is a less overt political thread that runs deeper. Grania’s story is that of the refugee, the migrant, seeking to fit in a strange culture, to make her stand in a new society. Her husband, Dal, notes “I forget that when we adopt something from Mother Earth it doesn’t mean that people from Earth know it.” It’s as close as he comes to seeing his privilege.
Dal is a sympathetic character, despite his failure to see what Grania faces, and there are minor characters who standout too. Fabian the swordsman and frequenter of the Molly House, and Lizzie the Floozy, as Livia calls her, are possibly a charming couple, and great in a crisis. Their story could be told further.

Poison and Light languished through publishing failings for a decade prior to publication last year. Gillian Polack has published several novels in that time, but there are recognisable traits in this that her readership may note. The set piece dinner, the use of food, or more often coffee. The discursive telling whilst events happen in the background. And the strong, determined and interesting female leads.

Poison and Light is a gripping, funny Science Fiction novel wearing Jane Austen dress filtered through Thomas Love Peacock. It may not be for everyone, but I loved it.

1. Deconstructing the Starships, p201

* I have my suspicions about Fred, but no spoilers. I’m only guessing.

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Should We Fall Behind – Sharon Duggal (Bluemoose Books, 2020)

Jimmy Noone drifted, alone in a cold subway, falling away with the day as it faded to shadow. He dreamt of balloons: sky-blue, bought by his father to mark his third birthday.

So we meet Jimmy who I hesitate to call protagonist of Sharon Duggal’s second novel. Jimmy, who makes play of his surname as No-one, turns into catalyst of events rather than active agent.

Homeless, haunted by a difficult past, Jimmy leaves his regular patch to find a young woman. Betwa, also on the streets, draws him in before vanishing. Her stories of her past awaken his own.

In Betwa’s old area, Shifnal Road, Jimmy finds an old car between two houses, and sleeps there. On one side, a young couple, Grace and Mandy, live together in the ground floor flat, occasionally minding Tuli, 6 year old daughter of upstairs neighbour Ebele. The flats are owned by Nikos, a widowed Cypriot shop owner and Ebele’s employer. On the other side, Rayya cares for her dying husband, Satish, talking to him of events outside and their youth in India.

Duggal tells her story in short chapters focussing on Jimmy, Nikos, Rayya, Tuli and Ebele. Each one has lost someone, or is losing them. Tuli thinks her daddy is dead, because kids at school said so, but Ebele told her just disappeared in the trees. Ebele herself has had bad luck with men, and has become suspicious and closed in. Nikos’ childhood friend died young, Jimmy’s mother too.

Should We Fail Behind is about their loss, but also about their being lost. Duggal doesn’t quite say openly but these characters are less defined by their loss, as they were defined pre-loss by their relationship to the absentee.

It’s through this she draws our sympathy though there is little initially to like about Nikos or Ebele in particular. The latter is scared of Jimmy’s presence though Tuli thinks he’s a character from a book, and calls him storyman. Ebele’s would-be boyfriend, Daban gets involved in Jimmy’s search for Betwa too.

All of these disparate characters find their emotions changed as they engage with the concept of Jimmy. His presence rather than actual interactions seem to stir things up leading to a coming together out with his control.

In her novel Sharon Duggal has managed to show homelessness, mourning, isolation, being a single mother, all as aspects of human invisibility. Nikos knows little of his employee, Ebele nothing of her neighbour, Rayya exists rather than lives. But Should We Fall Behind is not a bleak novel. There is humour in the multicultural voices, Rayya’s one-sided conversation with comatose Satish are poignant not comic relief but made me smile. Nikos jibes at Ebele’s timekeeping and her muttered responses almost become rote.

There is political commentary too, how could such a novel not have. Early on Jimmy shelters beneath a hotel that blasts The Four Seasons out daily. One of his fellow rough sleepers points out how inherently cruel this is, it being the DWP ‘hold’ music. The irony that Vivaldi died in poverty too is not missed.

Betwa, we are reminded, was named by her mother after an Indian river. Her flow has dragged Jimmy on, flotsam until caught up by Nikos’ tenants. He in turn entangles their lives and a foundation is created. For all the essential tragedies behind these people, Sharon Duggal has given them, and us, a momentary hope that love exists.

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Famished – Anna Vaught (Influx Press 2020)

Food is essential to life, yet often harmful. Eating is private, close your mouth, and social. Poison is often sweet.

Anna Vaught’s debut collection Famished reflects all of the above. 17 stories over 92 pages suggests morsels, canapes and petit fours, but there are riches here.

In Vaught’s piquant kitchen find tripe, sherbet, pickled eggs, seaside rock, cucumber sandwiches and lampreys, a surfeit thereof. Her diners, frequently us as she addresses the reader, indulge and suffer, are treated and mistreated.

Take the dangerous delights of the old sweet shop, calling unwary children; the epiphany of a devout churchman’s first taste of a sherbet dab; the subtlest of sugary murders; and the perfect torture of the eternal banquet. Beware the black teeth ‘like a rancid badger’ or the internal ravages of an ingested, well taste for yourself.

Occasionally Vaught’s stories seem sketches, plotless descriptions of an eccentric corner of the world, until a line, literally a ‘killer line’, brings a literary dyspepsia. In at least one story, ‘Bread and Salt’ this occurs in the last 6 words. Others are fabulations, opulent and vivant, souring gradually.

Most effective, for me, are the not-quite-but-almost tempters of an older domesticity where Vaught flavours her tales with hints and details. Fluted glass, hot cross bun recipes. And a twist, of lemon, bitter and unpalatable.

The swallowed laughter as humour darkens, light pellucid prose that sits hard. Anna Vaught offers up sweet and bitter at once. And occasionally stomach churning, horror. Snacks that leave you full, sated yet discomfited.

Some of these stories are delicious like the bitterest chocolate, perfect in the single bite, lingering yet pulling you in. Some are fantasy in the vein (ah yes there maybe a nibble of vampire too), in the vein of Shirley Jackson maybe or a rareified Roald Dahl. A kind of fantastic realism runs through them. There are suitably apt epigraphs by Angela Carter, Poe, Le Guin and Lovecraft. I thought too of Josephine Saxton’s Little Tours of Hell. Some, I should advise you, are stories you probably shouldn’t turn your back on.

My favourite? ‘cave venus et stellas’ makes a delightful amuse bouche, ‘A Tale of Tripe’ the main dish, and ‘Trimalchio Jones’ the luxuriant dessert that you shouldn’t, but can’t resist.

Note: I purchased Famished directly from Influx Press as part of their subscription deal after being highly impressed by Anna Vaught’s 2020 novel Saving Lucia published by Bluemoose Books. Famished is available as an individual purchase too.

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Red Velvet Underground – Freda Love Smith

The contemporary memoir at its best to me, is rarely about one thing. Not only that, but the most interesting aspect is frequently not the aspect that drew me in.

When bassist, artist and writer Joyce Raskin told me that former Blake Babies drummer Freda Love had written a memoir, it was downloaded to my kindle within a minute.  A voice from the remarkable late 80s early 90s Boston alt rock scene? Yes please. 

I am making strawberry scones with my son Jonah. Not Jonah at four, rosy cheeks and long eyelashes, or Jonah at seven, outsized front teeth and towhead crew cut, but Jonah at eighteen, scraggly blond mustache and apparent hangover. And yet my heart flutters. It is 10:30, Sunday morning. Jonah has been home for one day from the University of Illinois, where he just completed his freshman year.

He towers over me. I show him how to zest a lemon. He gets the hang of it, producing little ribbons of zest and a bright smell that elevates our little apartment kitchen, with its yellow 1970s linoleum and rusty appliances, to a place of memory and emotion where more is at stake than a tray of scones.

Thus the first paragraph and a half of Red Velvet Underground set the scene. This, and to be fair there were clues I withheld from you for the sake of the review, is a memoir of motherhood and of cooking. Those clues? The subtitle ‘A Rock Memoir, with Recipes’; the contents pages listing food items; the witty title and the cover art.

(Agate Books, 2015)

Freda decides, as her elder son reaches about 16, to teach him to cook. To prepare him for leaving home, and to help him think through his food choices. It becomes a routine, and a bonding experience, so that when Jonah goes to college it is the loss of this shared time that hits Freda.

Chapters focus on a cooking session, such as the scones, stir fry, and huevos rancheros, but evolve into memories and philosphising about the roles of food and cooking in Freda’s life. The dishes mentioned in that chapter are described in attached recipes, some with commentary including at one point ‘Makes enough to feed a 6-piece band or family’. Most are vegetarian or vegan, almost all can be adapted either way. Flexitarian at heart, Freda and family experiment with a raw food week, soup week, Vegan months. Some ideas flow into others.

And yes the rock music comes in too. Jonah asks his mom if she has heard Pixies, so she tells him about gigs together, and playing Euchre with ‘(coolest person in the world)’ Kim Deal. Even in a memoir of that Boston scene, did you expect that line? How about ‘Few people will ever gaze upon a human more beautiful than 19 year old Evan Dando.’?

But when Freda and a reformed Blake Babies go on tour briefly, the other mothers at young Jonah’s preschool have opinions. ‘I think it’s great that you can leave your kids like that for so long, I could never do that.’

Mostly the setting is Jonah’s late teens though, perhaps not the most commonly depicted period of motherhood? The time when Freda and husband and former bandmate, Jake, have gone into reputable employment in academia and administration.

Again and again though Freda returns to cooking, and especially shared cooking.

It was sublimation, an effective distraction, a form of therapy, and had the added bonus of ensuring that we ate extremely well.

That simple sentence amidst the detail of college applications, the stresses of costs, and cooking tilapia in a foil pouch, sums up much of Freda Love Smith’s charming, moving and uplifting memoir (with recipes.) The combination of pragmatic choices and natural human emotions is an unexpected balance where so many other memoirs come from trauma to supposed health, or show indulgent cliché ahead of humanity.

Each episode takes Freda into her own life patterns, occasionally her own parents, and her husband’s. As she ultimately seems to recognise in writing this book, structure becomes visible from a distance, relationships, patterns, echoes that seemed absent at the time emerge later. Her brother, praised her for his soup making but actually an acclaimed jazz bassist, is wise on this.

He claims that it wasn’t restaurant work that taught him most about cooking, it was jazz.

Music and cooking seem interchangeable emotionally for Freda, as the unity and community of the band becomes the unity of the kitchen. Touring memories are of eating free Hare Krishna meals through financial necessity, and of a particular vegetarian diner The Grit in Athens, Georgia, which earns a chapter of its own.

After Jonah goes to University, his brother Henry asks for lessons, but it is Jonah’s decisions on changing college that reflect Freda quitting high school to form a band across the country with her boyfriend.

It was a crazy decision. But it was one of the best crazy decisions of my life.

Quoting Mike Watt, they were ‘jamming econo’ she says. So with Jonah she aims for instilling the same abilities, but with better judgement. And she teaches him to make cake because ‘I know too many women who make their own birthday cake.’

[Cake] had become tied to thornier issues of gender identity and to my identity as a woman and a feminist. And I’m not sure how normal this is. I wanted to convey to Jonah that this was important, that this cooking lesson had, um, layers to it.

There’s the nub of Red Velvet Underground perhaps. Freda Love Smith chatting to the reader, to herself, to her son, about cooking, making a point almost without making a point. Educating not teaching, perhaps, and learning herself as she goes. She calls it a sermon at one point, but it’s exemplar too really. As she talks about work life balance she asks if it even exists. Her book suggests to me that it does, when we aren’t looking.

Red Velvet Underground is funny, charming and light, but deceptively substantial in areas outside it’s apparent focus. The memoir that is about so much more than its purported theme, like any good tune is more than its notes or a recipe its ingredients.

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The Books of 2019

I read a lot, at times, in the curious mixed year of 2019. Many from earlier times, such as my most recent read, Chester Himes’ Cotton Comes To Harlem.

One 2018 title deserves praise as amongst the very best I read in 2019 before I move on to those actually published this year. Sarah Churchwell’s Careless People is a great telling of the lives of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and their coterie leading up to The Great Gatsby. She combines this with a fascinating true life murder mystery from close to Gatsby’s setting. The result is revealing and gripping.

But from 2019 I eventually produced a list. 25 notable works across a range of genres.

25-11 in alphabetical order

Nina Allan – The Dollmaker

Nina Allan – The Silver Wind (revised expanded)

Zen Cho – The True Queen

Deborah Harry – Face It

Hannah Hodgson – Dear Body

Attica Locke – Heaven My Home

Juliet McKenna – Green Man’s Foe

Judith Moffett – Unlikely Friends

Amal el Mohtar & Max Gladstone – This is How You Lose the Time War

Fiona Moore – Driving Ambition

Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Gods of Jade and Shadow

Temi Oh – Do You Dream of Terra Two?

Gillian Polack – Year of the Fruitcake

Tim Robinson – Experiments on Reality

Kari Sperring – Serpent Rose

So there’s autobiography and memoir, crime, SF and Fantasy, poetry and more.

The top 10 almost wrote itself, with standout works of all kinds, again. I say almost, but a couple of the titles above I was very reluctant to leave out of the Top list. Those who know my tastes may realise which, and may not be surprised at some of the titles to come.

10. Melissa Harrison – All Among the Barley

9. Lisa Goldstein – Ivory Apples

8. Sarah Dobbs – The Sea Inside Me

7.Yvonne Battle-Felton – Remembered

6. Sarah Hall – Sudden Traveller

5. Lewis Shiner – Outside the Gates of Eden

By far the biggest book on the list, it needed to be to tell an epic, personal novel of the rise and fall of idealism across 60s and 70s music and society. Shiner is one of the few writers to get this right.

4. Natalie Haynes – A Thousand Ships

The siege of Troy (and related events) retold from the many, many women involved. Haynes gives passionate voice to goddesses, princesses, slaves, widows and lovers with rage, humour and honesty.

3. Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other

Almost as with Haynes, Evaristo’s cast of multiple women are enlightening, frightening, brilliant, lusty and funny. These are mostly Black British women, and their stories are revealing and affirmative.

2. Jeanette Winterson- Frankissstein

Reworking the overworked and misread is brave, but Winterson has never been a coward. This novel more than engages with its source, with the modern corrupted world, and her own worldview. If anything, there’s a hint of Richard Powers’ Generosity in here, but darker, more thrilling, more potent.

1. Jenn Ashworth – Notes Made While Falling

Quite simply unlike anything else I have read. Beginning in the nightmare of traumatic childbirth, Ashworth takes us through her subsequent psychosis, PTSD and breakdown in brutal, visceral depth. In the deliberately tangled narratives are personal analysis, cultural explorations of decay, faith, history and literary alleyways. It’s a working class, Northern work, but the despair and aspirations gradually balance. Chernobyl, Agatha Christie, trepanning and the recurring touchstone of King Lear make for hard, dark reading but the rhythms hold you as twisted humour flashes illumination.

So there you have it. 25 brilliant books full of dark brutality and shards of incandescence.

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Albums of 2019

Well, what a year it was musically. I noted well over 120 albums when I started making this list. I still missed a few that some of you probably love.

It was a year when I went way back in personal time, I’m not sure 15 year old Kev expected to be listening to Angel Witch almost 40 years on. And it was a year of new directions albeit on catch up with some. One of my most played albums this year was Black Origami by JLin from 2017 in part inspired by her set at Queens of the Electronic Underground in Manchester this summer.

Anyway, there’s a Top 30 ahead after some near misses that I also recommend. Kate Tempest, Mekons, Nick Cave, Springsteen, Jenny Hval and Princess Nokia to name a few.

30 Aziza Brahim – Sahari

More of the same, passionate, political Sarahwi blues.

29 Michael Monroe- One Man GangAbout as authentic raw anthemic punk metal as it gets.

28 Utopia Strong Steve Davis, Michael York and Kavus Torabi play swirling, psych synth prog. Simultaneously 1972 and 2019 somehow.

27 Nérija – Blume

A veritable who’s who of contemporary UK jazz in this almost all female lineup.

26 Will Burns & Hannah Peel- Chalk Hill Blue

Burns recites his evocative desideria of land over Peel’s sympathetic synths that then break out joyously.25 The Specials – Encore

Exactly what we expect from a Specials record. Informed politics you can dance to.

24 Angel Witch- Angel of Light

Cracking NWOBHM riffing and epic vocals ftw.

23 Cosey Fanni Tutti – Tutti

For her first solo record in 36 years Cosey did something different. Synths and humanity blend variously in an uncategorisable uplifting album22 Sunn 0))) – Life Metal

The first of two Sunn 0))) records in 2019, is basic, epic, slow and loud of course, but incredibly precise and controlled.

21 Stealing Sheep – Not Real

Dayglo electropop fun from start to finish. Great live too.20 Underworld – Drift series 1

Combined from weekly releases there’s well over 6 hours of everything here including glorious bubbling 30 minute jams.

19 Tenesha the Wordsmith- Peacocks and Other Savage Beasts

Jazz tinged hip hop poetry. Tenesha has something to say and a brilliant style to say it.

18 Mega Bog – Dolphine

If I’d heard this sooner it might have ranked higher. Again hard to classify, one of those eclectic female singer songwriters with electronics that get lumped together despite being quite varied. If you remember (C) that might be a clue

17 Tenement & Temple

The magnificent voice of Monica Queen in a more folkish setting with partner Johnny.

16 Leafcutter John- Yes! Come Parade With Us

Composed and part recorded whilst walking the Norfolk coast, a great contribution to rural electronica (see also Spaceship and William Doyle who also put out great tunes in 2019)

15 SEED Ensemble- Driftglass

Another great young female led UK jazz ensemble. Taking the album title from Samuel R Delany this is both futuristic and reflective.

14 Rock Goddess – This Time

Much as I loved it the NWOBHM wasn’t noted for feminism or humour. Enter the wit and determination of Jody Turner. This is classic stand up rock with stand up assertive lyrics.

13 Lizzo – Cuz I Love You

And speaking of wit and feminism and not taking any crap.

12 Snowdrops – Manta Ray OST

Snowdrops is a duo formed by my favourite Ondiste Christine Ott and keyboard player Matthieu Gnabry. This is a holistic soundscape that soundtracks Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s film about Rohynga.

11 Leonard Cohen – Thanks For The Dance

It is poignant, fitting that the last words on Cohen’s last record are ‘don’t listen to me’ His humour undimmmed even at the end.

10 Pill Fangs – PF2

A step beyond the garage psych of PF1, this is nuanced as often as blunt. Echoes of Paisley underground guitar duels sit alongside abstracted folk that could fit Dan Haywood’s New Hawks in the same song.

9 Yugen Blakrok -Anima Mysterium

Another woman defiantly doing her own thing. Cryptic, mystical South African hip hop with sharp edges.

8 Haiku Salut- The General

Another soundtrack, this time to a remastered edition of Buster Keaton’s great film. Although more restrained than some of HS regular sounds this is still great to listen to without the film or with it

7 Rozi Plain- What A Boost

Subtle, beautiful, soothing, warm, abstract jazz-tinged, folkish shoegazey shimmers. I saw these songs played live 3 times this year.

6 Park Jiha – Philos

Second western release for Korean multi instrumentalist. Another liminal work of traditional classical jazz elements played on yanggeum, saenghwan and piri to haunting effect.

5 The Comet Is Coming – Trust In The Lifeforce of The Deep Mystery

Shabaka Hutchings other band take blazing sax, electronic futuristic washes, and funking drums to new worlds. Jazz as exploration.

4 Honeyblood – In Plain Sight

Deceptively chirpy at times, Stina Tweeddale’s big chorus, raw guitar, eerie takes on punk and pop neatly combine personal and universal.

3 AVA – Waves

With piano and violin mostly, AVA paint pictures that float and soar like the eponymous waves. Stormy moments ease into restful ripples.

2 Holly Herndon – Proto

Hard to describe, this is co-written by Herndon’s AI, Spawn. Bold choral sounds are fractured and recombined in disturbing, intriguing ways. Not for everyone but fascinating.

1 Anna Meredith – Fibs

I knew this was a serious contender after two advance tracks. This time Meredith (MBE by the way, now) teases into classic rock riffs, ominous tuba basslines, joyous dance pop, and more traditional classical lines. So much variety shouldn’t blend this well.

It’s been a good year for music.

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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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