music

Words Best Sung by Lee Stuart Evans

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Love, Trains and Rhythm & Blues the cover promises, and if like me that’s enough to hook you, you’ll love this novel. Set in the vicinity of Nottingham (except a few bits set in Skegness and London) in 1963-5 it captures an England on the cusp of change: the sixties are about to swing, skirts are getting shorter, and the trains are going diesel. And the teenaged Alastair Braymoor has just landed his dream job working on the local steam engines.

Like a modern offering from the Angry Young Men, Words Best Sung sits nicely alongside (and gives the occasional nod to) Billy Liar, A Kind of Loving and the like, though perhaps with a lighter overall tone. There’s excitement and romance, there are mods and rockers, friendships and copious amounts of beer. There’s also a good deal of fumbling and farting, but this is mainly a book about teenage boys so it’s only fair. In between silly voices and dangerous driving there are life lessons to be learnt, like the different ways you can love a girl and how reality doesn’t always live up to the dream. It’s got some great lines and I liked Alastair and his friends so I was rooting for them along the way.

My dad’s a steam train enthusiast and a fan of British R&B (being approximately the same vintage as Alastair), and I’ve absorbed a milder form of both those passions, so I happened to appreciate the musical references and the odd train detail but I don’t think it would ruin the experience if you didn’t (a bit like me enjoying This Sporting Life while knowing little and caring less about rugby). I normally have low tolerance for spelt-out accents (largely because of who they’re spelt for) but maybe Nottinghamshire and West Yorkshire are similar enough in their key sounds for me to read it all as expected, because I got used to it pretty quickly.

Lee Stuart Evans has long been a writer for well-known TV and radio comedy programmes but Words Best Sung is his first novel. I first heard about it from his article on No Writer Left Behind, which is worth a read in itself and also shows exactly where this novel sprang from. If ever there was a time to read a novel about good music and youthful foolishness, it’s this unusually hot, lazy summer – do yourself a favour and buy it.

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Sick of football? Let me read you some stories

So stunned was I by the England-Panama game that I failed to blog yesterday, but during (at least the second half of) England’s next match I’ll be in the local pub reading stories. Ilkley Writers are interspersing their stories and poems with a couple of 20-30 minute sets from singer-songwriter Lisa Marie Glover. Tickets are only a fiver and you’ll be supporting local creative types.PurpleRoomFlyer

Of course, given that most of you reading this won’t be in the vicinity of Ilkley on Thursday evening (or maybe you were, but you’re not reading this till next week and you’re cursing your poor timing), it seems only fair to remind you that you can listen to me reading a few of my stories (and an essay) here, and there’s a whole radio drama to go at, over at East Leeds FM. And if you’re still looking for distractions from the football, I can recommend a good book.

Writer as performer

The last week or so it’s all been about performance. On May 17th I read some stories at the All Ears Listening Club in Ilkley, alongside Andrea Hardaker and David Hesmondhalgh. At first it seemed quite daunting – a couple of rooms of music enthusiasts had gathered for their regular fix and we were not there to give them those kind of sounds. The music was loud and the conversations were louder. I fell silent as I felt every word I tried to bellow scorching my throat, and I had a sudden fear of standing up to read later and simply croaking. Then eventually the three of us were introduced and it was absolute hear-a-pin-drop quiet, so fast that I was looking for the mute button someone in charge had clearly pressed. All eyes (and ears) on us, and no-one knowing quite what to expect. I read four pieces with some kind of musical connection (you can listen to Summer of ’96 here, you might already have read it at the Fiction Pool. You can read The Lesson at Ellipsis Zine, too) and they seemed to go down well. We’re already talking about reading together again somewhere, maybe with musical accompaniment.

Last weekend Alice Courvoisier and I sat down to plan the order of the York Festival of Ideas event we’re doing with Alice’s friend Carolyn in a couple of weeks. I guess it’s largely the history and philosophy of science (mainly physics, because that’s what we collectively know the most about). It’s on June 14th and tickets are free.

As if that wasn’t enough, Ilkley Writers (or some of us anyway: Jane Cameron, Emily Devane, Andrea Hardaker, David Knight-Croft, Patrick McGuckin, Rosalind York and me) are reading at the Purple Room event at the Wheatley Arms in Ben Rhydding on June 28th 8-10pm (tickets £5 on the door). We’ve been paired with Lisa Marie Glover and there should be four sets (two music, two spoken word) over the course of the evening. Just as long as I don’t lose my voice over the next month…

Writers’ imposter syndrome

I’m no longer a new writer, I think I mostly come under the ’emerging’ heading. I’ve had a fair few successes, I’m doing ok. I’ve even taken over running the local writing group. Yet I still sometimes end up at writers’ gatherings feeling thick, left out, and like I shouldn’t really be there.

Some of this comes from not knowing the jargon. Surrounded by people with a BA in Eng Lit, or an MA in Creative Writing, they say things like ‘of course that’s a metaphor for…’ and my mind swings back to the pre-GCSE English class where we learnt that a simile is where you’re saying it’s similar to and metaphors are the other one. By which time I’ve missed the rest of the sentence anyway. Or they use some terminology I’m completely unfamiliar with, and since everyone else is nodding and looking serious, I don’t like to interrupt matters by asking what the blazes they’re on about. For the most part, I don’t need to know the technical terms – there are lots of bits of grammar I don’t know the rules for, let alone the names, but years of reading other people’s books, and absorbing the rhythm and typical ways of phrasing things means I can use them in context.

Sometimes they’ve seen themes in my work that aren’t there. I get suggestions to mine this a bit more, or go further with my exploration of that. It was just a story about a teapot, I want to say. I am not as deep and multi-layered as you think I am. The teapot is not symbolic, it’s certainly not a metaphor for whatever it is you just said that I missed while I was remembering what metaphor means, and I don’t want her to shatter it at the end. It’s a teapot, it’s for making tea in. She’d only have to sweep it up afterwards.

At any given gathering of writers, I can guarantee that someone will mention a book and at least one other person will have read it. Occasionally I’ll have heard of (but not read) it, often I haven’t even heard of the author and I marvel at this literary synchronicity that means that out of all the millions of books available in English, these two people in the same room have read the same one in the last few weeks. Then I wonder how I come across – do they all think I don’t read? I mention Ben Aaronovitch or Reginald Hill and they look blank. Terry Pratchett at least is a recognisable name even if they know nothing about his books. I give up, stay quiet, consider only going to genre-based gatherings.

On Kit de Waal’s Radio 4 programme about working class writers last year, someone said working class stories are rock n roll to the literary novel’s classical music. I don’t think it’s purely class-based snobbery though, it’s genre as well (look at the lack of genre novels winning mainstream prizes). Most of the fiction I read is SF, crime or a mixture of the two. I read recently that a writer needs to keep up with the literary world. Listen to Front Row, the advice went. Read the books pages. Now The Guardian has good SF reviews, I often add things to my To Read list from there, but whenever I’ve inadvertently caught bits of Front Row (Radio 4 arts review programme) it’s always struck me as people being pretentious about books I don’t want to read, and events in London. The musical analogy caught up with me though and I had a (minor) revelation.

I like listening to music and I know a fair bit about it. The stuff I like, that is. Get me on glam metal, NWOBHM, certain strands of British indie, and I can bore for Britain. However, I neither know nor care what’s on Radio 3 or Radio 1, who’s on the proms this year or who’s just won a Brit award. Why should I, when the radio station I’m most likely to listen to is La Grosse Radio Metal? If I want to listen to old music it’ll be Benny Goodman not Beethoven. I don’t recognise anything I hear emanating from the flat of my opera-singer neighbour, but I can guarantee he doesn’t recognise my Bon Jovi tapes either. It doesn’t mean I’m less intelligent than an opera buff, just that we have different tastes.

Note that different doesn’t mean one is better than the other. Nobody has any business saying that someone ‘should’ have read any book outside their favoured genre, and I need to remember that just because everyone else around the table has read Muriel Spark or Ian Rankin there’s no need for me to do so. I’m not going to tell people who don’t like SF that they should read Tad Williams, just like I’m not going to tell people who like hip hop that they should listen to Black Sabbath. That doesn’t stop me from wearing my Sabbath hoodie, and while I’m not about to buy a Tad Williams T-shirt I may bolster myself at writer’s gatherings by cultivating the secure separateness of the metaller in a crowd of Radio 1 listeners.

Lavender Ink, my first radio drama

Script of Lavender Ink by JY Saville and Rosalind Fairclough

We did it! Rosalind Fairclough (who you may know as poet Rosalind York) and I read our way through half an hour of the drama we’d written, live on the radio, and lived to tell the tale. We were fortunate to have technical assistance from Chapel FM‘s Elliot who was thrilled with our comprehensive cue sheet, and in return did a sterling job of dropping in sound effects and music. You can listen to Lavender Ink here, but you might want to read a bit more about it, first.

Having started out saying we were writing a Victorian melodrama, we ended up with an early 1960s drama with events during the second world war referred back to. Previously when Roz and I did reading and discussion programmes with Andrea Hardaker for Writing on Air, we were encouraged to include music to break up the programme, so I always had a musical element in mind. Once I thought about the practical side of two people in a small studio reading for half an hour, I knew we needed to give ourselves the odd rest when the microphones were off. It was most welcome, on the day.

The two eras of the play lent themselves to two different musical styles and we each picked three tracks we thought were appropriate. My character Pat, a less than enthusiastic bride on her wedding day c.1961, I imagined as having a portable record player and liking rock & roll. Roz’s character Marjorie, the bride’s mother, had been dancing during the war to vibrant (and quite rude) songs popular in the late thirties. She chose Bo Carter, Lil Johnson and Bessie Smith.

I initially wanted to stick to English rock & roll, Billy Fury for preference, though I was briefly worried that Pat might be an Adam Faith fan. My dad (a teenager himself in the early sixties) suggested Marty Wilde, so the intro is Billy Fury (Gonna Type a Letter) and the first interlude Marty Wilde (Bad Boy). When Roz and I spent five hours in the pub rewriting the script, the music they were playing was about the right era for Pat, and Shakin All Over by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates stuck in my head for the rest of the evening, to the extent that I decided it had to be one of the tracks in the play despite not being English. It became Pat’s ‘one more song’ before she puts the dress on.

We set the play in the West Riding of Yorkshire, though we never explicitly say where (nearby places are mentioned). That means Pat was written for, and read in, more or less my natural voice, though I tried not to sound too deep for a girl in her late teens.

If you’re a fan of late fifties/early sixties kitchen sink drama then Lavender Ink might be right up your street. If you like my Little Book of Northern Women, you’ll love it. If you want to hear me (39 and gruff) attempt to portray an innocent teenage bride, what are you waiting for? Sister Number One (notoriously hard to impress) has pronounced it ‘very good’.

Lavender Ink by Jacqueline Saville and Rosalind Fairclough – you heard us here first.

Inspired by Eric Clapton: a new story at The RS500

If you’ve been around here a while you’ll have spotted that music is pretty important to me (yes, glam metal counts as music) and you may remember me getting excited about running across a project called The RS500, where each week they’re posting two pieces of fiction or non-fiction in response to Rolling Stone magazine’s top 500 albums. Today my own contribution is up, a short story inspired by John Mayall’s Blues Breakers album with Eric Clapton, which you can read by following this link. But not before you finish reading this post, obviously.

John Mayall's Blues Breakers album with Eric Clapton

My dad’s actual 51-year-old copy of the LP

It’s quite a melancholy story which, as the editor said, kind of fits with the tone of the record so that’s ok. I listened to the album on repeat on Spotify while I was writing it, mainly because the LP was miles away in my dad’s record stash (and I wouldn’t dare touch it – look at how pristine it is! Zoom in and you can see one small crease). The aim was to infuse the story with some of the feeling of the album but I did keep getting lost in the music and downing tools for a while. I thought back to my early encounters with this LP as a child in the eighties, and then thought about the context of my dad buying the album twenty years previously (1966, though apparently he saw them perform in ’67 or ’68, which I guess was post-Clapton). If you want to look back on the era of peace and love with a sort of melancholy nostalgia, I can think of no better vantage point than the Thatcher years, and slap bang in the middle of the Falklands war seemed particularly suitable. Hence the story is set in 1982 (not explicitly stated but Falklands and Fun Boy Three references are there for the sharp-eyed).

I confess I did steal the non-anecdote (and family legend) of seeing Eric Clapton in a bar from my dad (“And?” “And he was probably buying a drink”). However, regulars here will also know that he did read to me a lot so there’s not much crossover with the main character. I should also thank him for taking a photo of the record sleeve and emailing it to me as though that was a perfectly normal thing for me to request.

So, now you know the background, and I bet you’re dying to read the only story you’ll encounter this week (probably) with the word ‘antimacassar’ in it, so for ease of clicking, here’s the link again. Enjoy.

Greetings from Batley Park W.Y.

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Borrowed from my brother, naturally

I’m reading my first rock autobiography of the year and I start wishing I could write fiction as raw and truthful and powerful as a Bruce Springsteen song, that would last as long in the head and the heart, and I stick one of Big Brother’s cast-off tapes in the cassette player in the kitchen and Thunder Road kicks in and my heart soars and I’m twelve again and buying a second-hand Born To Run LP to play on Sister Number One’s hand-me-down record player, and I’m nineteen and clinging to Born in the USA when my peers are telling me it’s not cool, and I’m thirty-five and BB’s handing over the Springsteen tapes he’s replaced on CD and I’m rediscovering that feeling of gritty bluesy rock n roll, and I want to phone BB and tell him how glad I am that he let me rifle through his record collection, and how much joy and catharsis all that music has brought me over the years, a liferaft and a battle cry and a manifesto. But I can’t, because I’m British and reserved, and what is more I’m a gruff northerner. Nevertheless… Nevertheless.