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A dazzling exploration of classical music – over @shinynewbooks :D #paulmorley #asoundmind

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I have a review up on Shiny New Books today I want to share with you, and it’s of a real chunkster – as you can see from the image below….!

The book is called “A Sound Mind” and it’s by a favourite author of mind, Paul Morley. I’ve read every book he’s published, and a good number of his other uncollected writings, as I started reading his work back in the heyday of the NME in the 1970s. Ever since he’s been an author I love to spend time with – his books are always stimulating, original and very wordy (which I like!) And “A Sound Mind” was particularly intriguing, at it follows Morley’s exploration of classical music in all its forms, from Bach to Birtwistle. As you might guess from the sheaf of post-its peeking out of my copy, I absolutely adored spending a half-term week reading this book – and you can read my full review here!

“.. the strange codes passing back and forth between audience and stage…” @pawboy2 @FitzcarraldoEds

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It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track by Ian Penman

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time recently with lovely Fitzcarraldo Editions books; and indeed I amassed several from their back catalogue in a recent flash sale they held, which are sitting prettily on my TBR. However, I was very excited to hear about one recently published volume from the publisher, and they were kind enough to provide a review copy. You might think it’s perhaps not an obvious title for me to read (or you might, given my eclectic taste and grasshopper mind!) So first off, I should really nail my colours to the mast where this book is concerned and give a little background.

Back in my teens/early twenties, I had another coping mechanism alongside books, and that was (and still is, to a certain extent) music. I grew up through Glam and then Punk and then into the 1980s and all the amazing Post-Punk stuff. However, my taste stretches backwards and forwards from those points and can take in anything from Shostakovich to Billie Holiday to Wire to the Manics to my current and recently discovered favourites, Public Service Broadcasting. I followed the music press religiously back in the day, and New Musical Express in its heyday was an amazing publication with some incredible writers on board. The cream of these were the dynamic duo of Ian Penman and Paul Morley, both of whom I still count amongst my favourite authors. They took music journalism off into esoteric and often surreal directions, producing some work that was inventive, unusual, occasionally impenetrable but always entertaining. Since then, I’ve read pretty much every book Morley has put out, but Penman has been more elusive. There was a collection of journalism a couple of decades back (which I have) and he’s continued to write for various publications, including the London Review of Books and City Journal. “It Gets Me Home…” brings together a selection of pieces originally published there, and makes for the most marvellous and stimulation collection.

There’s a clue here to how it is that a lot of supposedly lightweight easy listening, far from being merely diverting kitsch, can contain a whole world of stronger, darker currents. How often it feels, as Apollinaire said of De Quincey, like a ‘sweet and chaste and poisoned glass’.

“It Gets Me Home…” contains eight substantial pieces, each focusing on a different musician or musical culture; ostensibly perhaps they could be regarded as reviews of music books, but they’re really so much more than that as Penman takes those works as jumping off points to consider the life, music and legacy of some of the greats. There’s James Brown, a pioneering and yet complex man; Elvis, about whom you would think there was nothing left to say (but you’d be wrong); jazzman Charlie Parker and crooner Sinatra; and the late Prince, as well as others. These are not subjects that I would, necessarily, read about; but in Penman’s able hands, each essay becomes a stellar piece of reading and writing, and the book is just fascinating.

In Charlie Parker’s 1940s heyday jazz was one of the few spaces where black performers might carve out a life of relative artistic freedom, mostly on their own terms.

As I read through the book, it struck me that Penman has a rare ability to really capture and put into words the effect that music has on us. Our response (or at least mine) is so often a visceral, emotional one that it can be hard to pin down how and why music affects human beings so powerfully. In particular, the twentieth century saw such a massive increase in the influence of popular music owing to modern recording methods, radio and TV and the ability of everyone to have the music they loved in their own homes to listen to whenever they wanted. Penman is particularly astute on the changes that had to be made in the presentation of music when it moved from being seen live in concert or dance halls to being recorded.

For the music business the switch from live music to recorded in the 1950s was as much of a revolution as Hollywood’s changeover from silent cinema to the talkies.

What shines throughout the book is the sheer quality of Penman’s writing; I marked any number of pithy truths and ‘yes’ moments, too many to probably quote here, and his breadth of knowledge allows him to take a wider intellectual view. His essay on the Mod phenomenon is particularly fascinating, recognising as he does the cultural forces involved which many other commentators don’t; and he sensibly decries the modern trend of any kind of musical revival as being entirely sterile when taken away from the context in which it originally developed. He’s spot-on in his discussion of the difference between the lovers of Trad jazz and modernist jazz, commenting that “mods backed the darker horse of existentialism”. Running through the book is Penman’s love of jazz, and haunting the narrative is the discreet presence of the great Billie Holiday, who Penman acknowledges in his introduction should have been central to it; excitingly, he hints that decades of his writing about her may make it into a book and THAT would be wonderful!

Even if you’ve loved this music for half a lifetime, you can find the algebraic lingo of jazz theory about as clarifying as a book of logarithms baked in mud.

The title of this book is drawn from an Auden poem (not a song lyric, as you might expect) and as the blurb suggests, music can be a crucial support when all around is madness (and certainly the world seems very like that nowadays). It can give a sense of belonging; it can speak to our souls; for many it can be a lifeline. As Penman says in his introduction, “When all else fails, when our compass is broken, there is one thing some of us have come to rely on: music really can give us a sense of something like home.”

A Pair of Penmans

I’ve often perceived a snobbery about writing on the subject of popular music, but “It Gets Me Home…” smashes that prejudice with the insights it gives, with the social commentary Penman weaves seamlessly into his essays and with his deep understanding of just how profoundly music is essential to human beings. He’s an extremely erudite man, though never showy, and as he references everyone from the Bauhaus through Camus and Adorno to Anita Brookner, this never feels gratuitous, simply highly relevant and necessary to his exploration of the cultural significance of music. Even if you think you don’t like the artists covered or writings about music, I would recommend you read this marvellous selection of pieces; Ian Penman was one of the first writers I read who made me realise that you could push the cultural boundaries and that it was a good thing to do so – and he’s still doing it! 😀

 

More words from “The North”

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Inevitably, when reading Paul Morley’s “The North” recently, I ended up with a sheaf of bits of paper sticking out of the book, marking quotes and passages I loved. I couldn’t really stuff them all into the review, so here are few more of my favourite bits from the book!

Halifax Mill Chimneys

On the traditional images of the north:

“The north all wrapped up and firmly in its place as a combination of nostalgia and obedience to the notion that the north is summed up by a cloth cap, an Eccles cake, a bangin’ tune, a witty catchphrase, a no-nonsense hard man, a once-vital political struggle, a stick of rock, a vast ocean of coal under the ground, a stagnant canal, meandering backstreets, clinging on to a narrow layout first established in mediaeval times, the careful brick detailing on an everyday railway tunnel, a comedy double act, an outside toilet, a deep gorge, a rags-to-riches story, a situation comedy, ghosts forever rehearsing the same futile rigmarole, a smoking chimney in a pre-clean-air-act sky.”

 

Greengate

On the wonder of the world seen through a child’s eye:

“A matter-of-fact zebra crossing and a metal garden gate in a certain shade of green can for a while introduce a young mind to the spiralling miracle of existence; and the zebra crossing can give you a certain amount of power, stopping cars in their tracks, and the gate can be opened, leading to the creation of a brand-new moment where something unexpected could happen. There were plenty of corners to turn, and places to visit at a later date, and high brick walls, fences and hedges that hid from view what might be nothing special, but what might be astonishing. The hidden remained astonishing, until I knew for sure that it wasn’t. I learned from an early age to relish being lost, because then I would find new areas that I had not yet surveyed.”

Jpriestley2

His fertile imagination can just throw out brilliant ideas here, there and everywhere:

“For Priestley, the idea that people’s actions are dictated solely by their conscious selves was akin to the equally fallacious assumption that ‘what can be seen of an iceberg is all there is of it’. Priestley of Bradford thus becomes the missing link between Charles Dickens and J.G. Ballard”

Alan Garner

Morley is aware of the power of books over the young, developing mind and of his discovery of author Alan Garner he says, “He wrote enticingly about the areas around where I lived as though they were next door to the lion, the witch and the wardrobe, where unicorns roamed through a warren of pasty, rayless streets, as if they were wonderful hidden places you might reach using a time machine that was all in the mind, where a shadowy line between reality and fantasy could be crossed using nothing but words and will and the maps his books became, describing a dying land that needed to be saved.

 

Some thoughts on The North…

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…by which I mean Paul Morley’s book “The North (and almost everything in it)”. And I’m not even going to attempt a formal review because that frankly isn’t the sort of approach I feel you can have to such an idiosyncratic and wonderful work!

north pb

I’ve already declared here my rather obsessive love of Morley’s writing, ever since I first stumbled across his pieces for NME in the late 1970s/early 1980s and his memoir “Nothing” would definitely be one of my Desert Island Books. “The North” in many ways is a companion volume/prequel/sequel to that book as there is much autobiography and I think it helps to have read “Nothing”. Nevertheless, Morley’s range is more sweeping here, covering not only *his* north, and the town he grew up in, but also the history of the region. It’s a heady mix of autobiography and history all filtered through Morley’s unique vision and wonderfully individual writing.

The book is structured unusually in that it goes in two directions at once. There is the main narrative, which encompasses Morley’s growing up and coming of age in mainly Stockport and Reddish, as well as looking back to the very early evolution of the north and the tribes that settled there. This progresses forward in a relatively linear manner (nothing Morley ever writes is straightforward and you will have to deal with constant, often fascinating, digressions). Running alongside are listings of dates and notable events, starting in 1976 with a young Morrissey writing to the NME and going backwards in time, covering anything of interest you could think of, from the births and deaths of notable northerners, war events, thoughts of J.B. Priestley, the Industrial Revolution, all the back to when the great cities of the north were just settlements or didn’t even exist. There is a paean to L.S. Lowry and an extended celebration of Liverpool, scattered with lyrics and references (many of which I *got*, but some of which I’m sure I didn’t.) The forward narrative ends up, inevitably, with the tragic suicide of Morley’s father Leslie in 1977 and with Paul himself leaving the north for London. The backward narrative stops in the early 1500s when the north as a unit really didn’t exist.

If you’ve read “Nothing” this book will update you on some changes in Morley’s life since then. His mother, Dilys, has sadly passed away; his daughter Madeleine has surpassed him academically; and yet he is still trying to deal with the death of his father. Sadly, Paul was still left with unanswered questions he hadn’t been able to ask his mother and it’s an understandably difficult subject to approach your mother about.

Morley’s writing captures brilliantly the confusion and uncertainty of growing up, trying to find yourself and your place in the world. In many ways the book is a search, a quest to discover what it is that made Paul Morley what he is today. It’s a process I recognise in myself: as you get older you look back more to events in your past you simply lived through at the time, to try to make sense of how you got to this place and to be who you are, and it’s very engagingly done here.

The breadth of Morley’s knowledge is quite breathtaking; despite his acknowledgement of the Internet as being a source for much of the facts in this book, his weaving of them into the book’s narrative is a measure of his skill as a writer. I just love Paul Morley’s imagery, his amazing way with words:

“Compared to Bramhall, there seemed to be whole parts of Brinnington that had just gone missing, or had never been there in the first place. Most of the people living there found ways to deal with where they found themselves, even as it seemed to be disappearing into a hole the shape of a broken window, a portal through which you entered another dimension.”

His lyrical portrait of Lowry has made me want to go back and look at his work afresh, and Morley comes up with a wonderful description of the artist (which could almost be applied to Morley himself!):

“He creeps through his own life and the lives of others, compiling fragments, morsels of experience, searching for answers about death, disappearance, the past, why we live, why we die, where we go, where we come from, the oddity of everyday life, the pinched dead-eye ordinariness.”

The book is also something of an education and an eye-opener, with its potted histories of, and wonderfully phrased comments on, people and places I’ve never heard of. For example, of artist Trevor Grimshaw, who died in a fire, Morley states:

“The smoke of infinity he set his north inside gathered him up, as though he had known all along where he was heading and was using his paintings to predict that his end would involve light and murk and ash, and a final, comprehensive veiling of compressed energy.”

morley

And what’s not to love about someone who can describe their strict paternal grandmother’s house as smelling of “a blend of boiled sweets and dismay”?!

As I’m almost contemporary with Morley age-wise, so much of what he describes during his growing up years resonates with me – the grimness and tattiness of the 1960s/1970s in the provinces, the transition into a modern world that now looks incredible quaint, the awful fashions, the feeling out-of-place at a Grammar School (I also came from a financially challenged background and somehow passed the 11-plus, but like Morley never felt I fitted in).

“In four years of Latin I learned perhaps one fact: boredom is an extraordinary thing, somewhere between a time machine and a near-death experience, in which you become increasingly aware as a distant light beckons you that words are mere sounds containing only the meaning you can muster up from within your fear that nothing makes sense.”

Whilst acknowledging that he was desperate to get away from the grim north and all its associations, Morley laments the loss of a way of life. At the end of the book he suddenly comes bang up to date with an oblique commentary on how the north has changed, how the rough edges (like those everywhere) are being smoothed over by corporate identities, how the modern world has removed us from our outside environment which has almost become static while life continues inside houses and on gadgets – and the contrast is quite a shock.

“There had been a material improvement in people’s lives, an invention of new traditions, a creation of relative comfort, but there was also a cost, a kind of imprisonment in a mental and physical landscape that was now feeling old and drained, with the only signs of modernisation emerging from inside the houses, and cars, and buildings, from inside the screens that were being carried around by people.”

Nothing I say can in the end really do justice to the wonders of this book which defies categorisation. This is, ultimately, Morley’s own personal north and much centres around that pivotal event in his life, the death of his father . Occasionally frustrating but mostly brilliant, packed with knowledge and thoughts and poetically charged words, it’s another one-off from Paul Morley and a rare 5-star read for me. “The North”, now nestling on my bookshelves next to “Nothing”, has become another Desert Island Book.

Recent Reads: Earthbound by Paul Morley

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Before I go any further with this review, I should nail my colours firmly to the mast and say that Paul Morley is, and has been for many years, one of my favourite, favourite writers. I first started reading his work in my late teens/early twenties in the heyday of the New Musical Express. Morley was then writing what were considered some of his classic pieces for NME, pushing the boundaries of so-called rock journalism – I still have a lot of these saved, and they’re priceless in my opinion. I have all of his books, and if push came to shove, on most days my desert island book would be his memoir “Nothing”. It’s a personal memoir of growing up in the north in the 1970s, combining adolescence, the discovery of music and Joy Division, and the suicide of his father. I’ve read it several times and I think I will always re-read it – it’s profound, moving, and it speaks to me about coming of age in that era in a way no other work has done.

nothing

What I love about Paul Morley’s writing is his ability to play with language, to say things and convey feelings in a way no other author can. So I approach this short work, produced as part of Penguin’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of the London Underground, with a significant amount of bias!

*****

 

earthboundjpeg
“Earthbound” is something you could never call Morley’s fantastic flights of prose and this slim book is a very personal response to the Tube (particularly the Bakerloo line), in the context of Morley’s first encounters with it. The Underground is presented as combining nostalgic and futuristic elements in a way that seems peculiarly British – which is some ways what Morley’s writing does!

Morley’s prose is liable to fly off in all sorts of unexpected directions, like when he says that Karlheinz Stockhausen’s music “…sounded like music emerging from the dead of night from Tube tunnels that connected the Bakerloo Line with underground caves on Jupiter. Fifty-five years later, when most forms of what was once unfamiliar, alienating electronic music had become familiar, even part of the bloodstream of the non-stop gaudy mainstream, a formulaic component in all the manufactured happiness, it would still sound like music you thought you’d dreamt; actually, it sounded like it would be what the internet dreamt about when it finally got some sleep, having convinced us that everything is everywhere and anything is everything.”

He pushes the intellectual boundaries and his erudition is always on display, pulling in disparate cultural references and tying in his early experiences on the Underground to post-punk, Eno and Can (the latter being the source of all musical things to do with the Bakerloo, apparently!) A Paul Morley book is never dull!

paul-morley-creditvalerie-p

And this being a PM book, we may well start off talking about the Tube, but it’s not long before we are meandering off all over the place, reflecting on music, Walkmans (Walkmen??), technology, the past and the future. These rich, extended meditations are a joy to follow and I love his discursive style and apparently random shifts of subject which make the most unusual and unexpected connections, but actually end up making sense. Morley tells of his coming to London, learning to navigate and take travelling by Tube for granted, highlighting the strangeness of the concept of disappearing under the ground to travel on a train!

Much of the writing is heavily autobiographical – in fact, it could be argued that most of Morley’s work draws on his life experience – so you do have to be prepared to want to listen to his opinions!

“I didn’t want to be a pop star. I wanted to write about pop stars, but it seemed highly unlikely that a lost, naive, traditionally provincial boy with little going for him but wild enthusiasm, an appetite for uncommon sensation and a secretly nurtured fascination with the outlandishly obscure would actually end up in what was for all its elastic wit and intoxicating inside knowledge a professional organisation established in London.”

But I find the way his mind works is like no-one else’s and personally I feel he could make any subject interesting. His prose works beautifully here, brilliantly encapsulating the oddness of train travel in wonderful passages that could almost be read to the clackety-clack rhythm of the train on the rails:

“The Tube is the Tube in another place deeply distant from the everyday sky-high sun, clouds, moon and stars, where you think about things differently, where you can be in different places that all look the same, surrounded by others, who’ve also become something else – so they are strangers anyway, and then even stranger, because they are temporarily concealed, passive, face to face, back to back, people in, people out, crushed together, touching, pulling away, lost for words, between the lines, not quite themselves, not quite anchored, temporarily fixed in this volatile, secluded zone, fellow nomads, people in, people out, at the mercy of invisible forces, keeping their minds well away from the dense, braced and soaking, rat-packed, worm-jammed void that encircles them.”

At the end of the day, it’s usually not really possible or even necessary to say what a Paul Morley book is about; but as near as possible, this volume is about Morley’s coming to London, bedding in there and experiencing life at the dawn of modern technology — with a little bit of Tube train riding in there too! I know his work is often very much a love-it-or-hate-it thing, but I love it. Essential reading!

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