Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

I kept picking up this novel in charity shops, my eye caught by the font on the spine every time (very suggestive of the 1920s, to me), reading the back and thinking Maybe. Then I stopped seeing it and after a while I spotted it again and immediately bought it in case I missed my chance. I’m so glad I did.

There was this jazz band in Berlin between the wars, mixed white, black, Jewish, German, American but what was important was the music. They loved to play music together. They gelled. Hiero Falk their young trumpet-player went missing in Paris in 1940, but not before they’d recorded enough to allow them a small following in years to come. Fifty-two years later Hiero’s two American band-mates have been invited to a Berlin jazz festival, the first time they’ve returned to the city. It brings a lot of memories and secrets bubbling to the surface and tests their seventy-year friendship to the limit.

I normally avoid second world war books. When I was little the black and white films on TV in an afternoon were heroic war adventures (when they weren’t either Cliff Richard or an Ealing comedy), and I had my fill of Biggles, The Silver Sword and The Machine Gunners, and repeated talk of Hitler in school history lessons, so by the time I started reading grown-up books at age 11 or 12, I made a conscious decision not to go there. Much as I love Evelyn Waugh, I have never read the Sword of Honour trilogy. The fact that this novel had its roots in pre-war Berlin and occupied Paris was the main reason for my hesitation in buying it in the first place. Though the narrative moves back and forth a little between 1992 and the late 30s/1940, it is predominantly a novel set in wartime and the build-up to war, but it’s the music that is the focus.

I’m not particularly knowledgeable about jazz though I recognised a few real names Edugyan introduced to the mix. However, I do understand the importance of music, I could relate to the drive, the brotherhood of true fans, the way they clung to it through everything that was happening, and the euphoria when the band was playing at its best. All that is conjured brilliantly, as is the nervy claustrophobia as the tension mounts. I found I was just as tense (if not more so) about whether they would get to cut the disc with the Big Name as about the imminent invasion of France. That is testament, I think, to the way this novel is about a few vivid characters rather than a time, a place or a movement.

All in all a powerful novel that leaves you thinking for a while afterwards, mainly about facing up to the past, and living with consequences. It did take me a few pages to get into the rhythm of the first-person narrative (one of the black American jazz musicians, using slang and with a tendency to say ‘a orange’ rather than ‘an orange’, for instance) but once I had, it seemed perfectly natural and easy to read. Definitely one for the music fans, genre not important – if you can take or leave the radio yourself I suspect you’ll struggle to understand some of the motives in the book.

Flash fiction, fresh out today

I have a new flash fiction offering available at The Flash Fiction Press, it’s called Breakfast in Bradford (no prizes for guessing where it’s set). It’s about the death of romance the morning after a one night stand (and the lack of appreciation of Bradford by people from other cities). Less than 500 words long, you can read it while the kettle’s boiling for your next cup of tea. Enjoy…

Educating girls: have we come as far as we think?

I have a great passion for education, as long-standing readers of this blog will know. I also have ready access to a university library, so I pick up things like A History of Women’s Education in England by June Purvis (Open University Press, 1991) to while away the commute. An interesting overview of the situation between 1800-1914, it touches on some things I didn’t know about and some (like the Bradford Female Institute) that I did but haven’t often seen anyone else write about.

Two passages in chapter 4 (Education and Middle-class Girls) made me wonder how far we’ve really come, however. In 1864 Emily Davies (later co-founder of Girton College, Cambridge) wrote a paper about the poor state of secondary education for girls for the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, in which she commented that since ladies are left ‘in a state of wholesome rust’ as she put it, they have little to talk about except ‘children, servants, dress and summer tours’ and if you hand them The Times they’ll turn straight to the adverts and the family notices.

Since I neither have children nor go on holidays I often find myself adrift in a female environment as conversation (even among women I know to have engaged in higher education) frequently centres around children, fashion and soft furnishings. There are, I should point out before my female friends revolt, a few honourable exceptions. However, glance at a few magazines aimed at women and you’ll find the content largely revolves around those subjects as well, with some celebrity gossip thrown in. Perhaps the progress we’ve made in that area lies in the fact that some men are eager to talk about their children or their GBBO-inspired attempts at cakes too.

The other passage that struck me was in a section about the fear of educated girls becoming ‘unfeminine’ and ‘unmarriageable’, leading pioneering headmistresses to promote both academic subjects and the old code of ladylike behaviour. In 1994 I was about to move up into sixth form in just such a pioneering school (founded 1878 as the girls’ offshoot of a 16th century school for boys). The headmistress gave a motivating talk in which we were generally exhorted to work hard and become career women – medicine, dentistry and law being the main acceptable professions to aim at. In the same talk, however, she mentioned dress and appearance for the final two years of school: a suit, court shoes, small pearl earrings and we would be permitted a single ring, to allow for that solitaire diamond. The actual reference at the time may have been tongue in cheek – though I remember being aghast at what she was saying I don’t clearly remember the tone – but the fact that even half-jokingly you would suggest to a roomful of teenagers that a desirable outcome to their many years of undoubtedly expensive (if not on an assisted place) education would be to get engaged by the age of eighteen! It still leaves me at something of a loss for words (is that a sigh of relief I hear?). Presumably attitudes like this contribute to the so-called leaky pipeline (women drifting away from science in particular, as you progress further up the academic hierarchy). It’s twenty years since I left school (this week exactly, I think) and I hope things have changed, but sadly in schools like that I fear not.

Fathers Day, a note of thanks


My dad’s leather-patched elbow, with which he has nudged me into all sorts of literary and musical exploration

Sometimes I’m too tired to avoid the cliche up ahead, so here’s a Fathers’ Day post about my dad, without whom… (well, without whom I wouldn’t be here, obviously, but I mean apart from that).

  • When I had measles, aged 9 or 10, he read a good chunk of The Lord of the Rings to me, because he’s not one for taking age into account (thankfully). I struggled with it when he handed it over once I was feeling better, and it took me another few years to go back and finish it, but the spark of interest was there.
  • He likes Douglas Adams, and Terry Pratchett, and he thought I might too (and as we now know, my entire writing career such as it is can be blamed on Douglas Adams)
  • He likes Anthony Trollope, and he thought I might too (can you see a pattern emerging here?)
  • He assiduously collected PKD novels in the years when they were hard to come by, scouring the second hand bookshops of West Yorkshire and Cumbria, and shared them. When I’m finally happy with my SF noir novel, Sunrise Over Centrified City, he’ll get to see where all that ended up.
  • He let me read the Maigret novels he got out of the library, when I was still on a children’s ticket (it’s that not accounting for age thing again. That also got me using big words quite early on – learn fast or have no idea what he’s talking about…)

If you’ve been around here for a while you can see the shape of my reading habits in this list. And if you really have been around for a while you probably know some of the musical ones too (all the bits that aren’t Big Brother’s fault. Both of them deny all responsibility for the hair metal). I am still resistant to Roxy Music, however.

Thanks today to all the dads that read to their kids, take them to libraries, buy them books (whether or not that involves keeping a list tucked in their wallet of which books exist in a series and which ones said child hasn’t read yet) and generally enthuse them about reading. Better than a kickabout in the park any day.

An enjoyable performance in York

Last night Alice Courvoisier and I presented an evening of stories and lectures on the theme of time, as part of York Festival of Ideas. We did something similar about this time last year, but whereas that was a pure storytelling session, this year we mixed it up a bit by including short lectures on relativity and Newton’s concept of absolute time, among other things.


Alice gets quantum

Despite the hard science, the audience generally seemed to enjoy themselves and applauded loudly at times, laughing at appropriate junctures (the room was much more populated than the photo suggests – the front row is never first choice), and Alice had them spellbound as she told myths and fairytales she’d memorised for the occasion. One soon-to-be-graduate told Alice it was the best lecture she’d attended in her entire time at university (we were at York University for the evening), and while that was undoubtedly excited hyperbole, it was nice to think someone got so much out of it.

I’d written a story specially for the evening, called Lancelot Names the Day. It’s set just before the calendar change in 1752 and is about a sneaky but stupid merchant called Lancelot Busby (who was a real man in 18th century Tynemouth as I recall, whose marvellous name I spotted in a parish register. I wish to cast no aspersions on the real Mr Busby who I’m sure was an upstanding pillar of the community).


Calendars and time zones can be fun, just bear with me

I also wrote an essay on standardised time as opposed to solar time, and the introduction of international time zones, which was fascinating to research and by the reaction in the room, some people learnt some stuff from it (and it generated a bit of discussion afterwards).

If you were one of our live audience, thanks once again for missing a warm sunny evening to sit in a seminar room with us. Should you wish to relive at least part of the evening, here are recordings of me reading first the lecture, then Lancelot Names the Day.

One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson


Bill Bryson’s eminently readable style makes this doorstopper of a book about one spectacular summer most enjoyable. It was much more focused than At Home and I learnt all kinds of fascinating things. Mainly about early aircraft.

He managed to highlight the web of connections between all the big players at the time – politicians, newspaper men, aviators, inventors, sports stars. He also used the summer of 1927 as a gateway to other history (this laid the foundations for that or was the culmination of this) though it does seem to have been a particularly packed season. I wondered if you could get a similar book out of any year or if there really was something special about this one.

Charles Lindbergh and various attempts at long-distance flights are the unifying thread to the book but even though I’m not especially interested in that, Bill Bryson made it captivating. It’s the baseball sections that mystified me – he did throw in the odd explanation but I’m so unfamiliar with baseball that it didn’t help. I’m afraid I sort of skimmed them in the same way I do the hunting interludes in Anthony Trollope, or cricket matches in PG Wodehouse.

All in all though, an entertaining book about an age and a place that much has been written about. Certainly read it if you’ve enjoyed Bryson’s previous books regardless of subject matter, and give it a go if (like me) you have a certain fascination for 1920s America.

Morrissey’s infamous novel List of the Lost

I wavered for a while but in the end I couldn’t resist List of the Lost, Morrissey’s 2015 novel, particularly after enjoying his autobiography so much. I’d heard a lot about it but not what it was about, everyone had been so busy writing about the author and his style, and there was no synopsis on the paperback cover. For the first 42 of its 118 pages (that being where I gave up on it) List of the Lost is ostensibly about four young men in a relay team in 1975, in America. What it might really be about is a love of words, a hymn to lost youth, a regret for inexpert fumblings both in the arena of lust (physical) and love (mental).

It’s not so much a novel as one long (no chapters), melancholy (naturally) Morrissey song, supply your own music. There are flashes of lyrical brilliance, there’s some good imagery but as a piece of prose it’s overblown and hard to read, you end up breathless. It kind of wants to be a poem, and it spreads its poetic wordage like weeds across the pages, becoming uncontrolled and a touch repetitive. The dialogue is far from realistic but I didn’t get the impression that it was meant to be.

I have a feeling that if it was written by some lauded writer it would be nodded sagely over and dissected by undergraduates, whereas from Morrissey (a mere pop singer) it’s dismissed (and I veer towards the latter as the correct response in both cases). Either way I couldn’t finish it, but that’s at least as much to do with my complete lack of interest in narcissistic young American athletes as the way it’s written.

Approach with caution (borrow it from your local library, as I did, rather than buying a copy) but it may hold interest both for the Morrissey fans and the melancholy poets.