Gates of Fear, Barnaby Conrad

th-1Every now and then, I choose to read an out of print book about an esoteric subject. Of course it has to be recommended – life’s too short for random choices. I’ve just read Gates of Fear by Barnaby Conrad. The author worked for the American consulate in Spain during the 1950’s. During his posting there, he became an aficionado and his afición was bullfighting. He even took it up himself.

My life is sedentary and easy. I play a sitting down instrument. That’s why I admire physical courage. There is a kind of courage in performing in public but it’s not physical. In a world where police officers refused to rescue a drowning boy, I find myself inspired by men and women who put their bodies and lives in danger.

During the middle part of the twentieth century you could say there was a bullfighting craze. This was largely thanks to Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), Death in the Afternoon (1936). Such was Hemingway’s stature, bullfighting became a topic of literary interest.

This book’s book’s 550 pages include photographs and drawings as well as extensive passages from other writers making it a type of anthology. The cost of permissions must have dented the author’s earnings.

We learn about tauromachy’s ancient roots and the feeling of the Roman amphitheatre is never far away – the sand, the animal versus man contests, the cruelty, blood, death and the braying crowd.

Bullfighting spread throughout the Spanish-speaking world. It crossed the Pyrennes into the amphitheatres at Nimes, Arles and Frejus. And the Portuguese developed a version with mounted matadors.

Conrad conjured up the excitement and terror that was unleashed when the gates of fear were unbolted to allow a huge, angry bull into the arena. Bullfighting comes with a history of famous names and stories. Many were killed and even more suffered life-changing injuries. My favourite was Josellitto who became so successful, the crowds became bored and started to boo him. Soon after he lost concentration and was killed. His bull had poor eyesight so didn’t fall for the matador’s visual trickery.

There were a few female matadors notably the American, Bette Ford. And she fought bulls, not cows. Alas, the glass ceiling is still an integral part of bovine life.

But after a while I tired of matadors and their silly tight trousers and glad the book came to an end. The passage I enjoyed the most was written by Lysander Kemp. It was a contrarian piece about how he didn’t care for the spectacle and probably best reflected my own views.

Nowadays I hear very little of bullfighting. It never troubles the British sporting press and doesn’t seem to try to spread its appeal outside the Spanish-speaking world. Corporate sponsors have stayed away though this has allowed the sport to maintain its integrity as a spectacle.

But I’m writing this after reading a report on the Wilder-Fury fight and watching the press conference after. Now that’s the kind of physical courage I prefer. The match might be in London.Bring it on!

Advertisements

Clockers, Richard Price

Clockers CoverIf you happen to be looking for a drug to take up, crack cocaine has a lot to offer. It’s attractions aren’t just the intense thirty minute high but also the paraphernalia that goes with it. This type of pipe smoking lends the pastime a hobby aspect. It also creates career opportunities among vulnerable groups. However, despite these benefits, I think I’ll give the drug a miss because after reading Clockers by Richard Price, I discovered crack cocaine has a fatal downside: it’s a bit morish.

Crime fiction doesn’t feature high in my reading. There is no particular reason for this and I’m sure I’m missing out on a lot. The trouble with genre fiction is that it exists on its own. There are few references from other books which lead me to this remote but happy valley. So it takes an exceptional crime novel to gain my attention.

According to the blurb, Clockers is the inspiration behind The Wire. In fact Richard Price was one of the writers of this TV series. I’ve never got round to watching it because I’ve never warmed to the American big-tough-guy-in-a-big-tough-city thing. But Clockers is different. Here, nobody is tough, or sexy, or witty, or handsome, or charismatic. It’s a little like real life in that way. And real life is what happens in the projects of a New York suburb called Dempsey, most of whose denizens have succumbed to the pleasures of the pipe.

The book is set, and was first published, in 1992. The dealers communicate by call boxes and pagers. The action is primarily in the dialogue which explains why Clockers transferred to television as The Wire so successfully. 

The story centres on Strike, a nineteen year old crack cocaine dealer called Ronald Dunham but is known through most of the story by his street name, Strike. On the streets of Dempsey, there are no surnames. Throughout the story there is little reference to the outside. It’s as if nothing else matters.

Banks offer us consolidation loans. These put all your card debts into one so there is only one debt to worry about. Addiction to crack cocaine does something similar. Instead of worrying about work, money, health and relationships the addict worries about just one thing: the next fix. In this complex world, the addict has a much simplified life.

Strike occupies a lowly, customer-facing position known as a ‘clocker’. His boss Rodney, is pleased with Strike’s work especially his innovative marketing ideas such as Happy Hour and Starter Kits. Strike also keeps the three golden rules of drug dealing. If dear reader, you happen to be contemplating such a career you may wish to make a note of them: 1) trust no-one 2) maintain good quality and 3) don’t do the product.

The strange thing about Strike is that he never expresses emotion. So we neither like nor dislike him. If he does feel anything it is fear but this is suppressed. There doesn’t even seem to me much lust or yearning for friendship or greed. Dealers cannot bank their earnings and they cannot draw attention to their wealth so it’s all in the form of cash ‘rolls’. These are either in their pockets or stashed in an elaborate system of hiding places.

And yet the dealers never have the courage or imagination to escape. America is a big country. Couldn’t they get a bus somewhere and start afresh? This thought does occur to Strike but he feels an irresistible force pushing him to return to his life as a clocker.

There is one other character crucial to the story and that is Rocco, a Homicide cop or as he’s referred to throughout, a Homicide. Rocco is investigating a murder which is at the centre of the story. Drug dealing is outside his domain so he pays no attention to it unless it directly relates to a murder.

A good story has to have the main character go through a change. And this happens in Clockers, but not until the last few of the 360 pages. 

In London we also have crack cocaine and gang crime. But it somehow seems different here. The projects occupy whole swathes of cities whereas in London, council estates are interspersed with private housing so council tenants don’t feel such a sense of isolation. But the US has the advantage of offering a huge hinterland in which to escape and start again. It is the land of reinvention. Strike realises this at the end. But what took him so long?

Gig On The Coast

Last summer, Chico Chica played a function gig in Folkestone, Kent. Barbara and I, as we walked along the Sandgate Esplanade to where her car was parked, noticed that the Sandgate Hotel hosted live music on Sundays. So we popped in and left a card. The result of that small action was a gig yesterday.

It was Remembrance Sunday and Barbara had a Last Post to play in the morning. Walking to Shepherd’s Bush station with my guitar and cavaquinho, I stopped to watch the remembrance parade. There was a brass band to my right and a bagpiper to my left and I wished one of them would stop. To avoid offence I won’t say which one.

 

The Sandgate overlooks the English Channel. When we arrived, the westering sun was to our right and we looked out at the sea. That’s what people do when they travel to the coast. For some reason I thought of the Russian aircraft carrier which had passed a couple of weeks ago on its way to Syria and wondered if the great plume of black smoke emitting from its funnel  had been visible form Sandgate. Probably not.

 

But we were pushed for time so quickly set the PA up, ordered two glasses of water (one still, one fizzy) and, after ensuring all the cables were in the right sockets and the knobs at the right levels, started playing. The room overlooked the channel and we had our backs to France. There was a log fire and a warm appreciative audience. As the evening progressed the drinkers became drunker and louder and one man wanted to play Barbara’s bongo drums. We ploughed on through the Chico Chica set because that’s what we do. The journeyman musician is often tempted to change according to the room and in the past I would have done this. But Chico Chica is different – we do what we do and that’s it.

 

The show finished at 6pm by which time I was hungry and began to think about what I’d eaten that day – one bowl of porridge and a service station tuna sandwich plus coffees but they don’t count.  There was no rider at the gig so we went in search of fish and chips which I only ever eat when I’m at the seaside. We drove slowly and found a shop. We ordered a portion. Barbara had the fish and I had the chips which reminded me of Mr and Mrs Spratt. We ate in the car and it was a most satisfying repast.

 

Driving back to London after distant gigs gives us an excellent chance to talk and reflect. We chat about our families and then move on to Chico Chica – how to improve the performance, the best way to deal with drunks who want to play the bongos, business matters and the overall artistic direction. On this occasion we decided that getting signed to a record label is our highest priority and we resolved to approach certain individuals over this.

 

But the journey was long and at around the Maidstone turn-off, the conversation lulled. On these occasions I talk about the book I’m reading which happens to be The Story of O by Pauline Reage. I bought a copy the previous day. It was in the Romance section at Foyles, a shelf which I usually ignore.  The story is indeed about love , at least it is so far – I have read ninety pages.  I started describing the story and quickly realised it could prove embarrassing and awkward. It’s not the kind of book to bring up in conversation and I was thankful the M25 junction came into view and we had to concentrate on reading road signs instead. We fell silent again and I reflected on The Story of O and how suffering can be an expression of love and how Christianity and indeed Western civilisation are based on that very idea. And then we discussed next week’s mixing session at Porcupine Studio.

 

Chico Chica’s next show is at Bull’s Head, Barnes, 8.30pm, Thursday 17th November 2016.

My Last Duchess and Other Poems, Robert Browning

One increasingly important component of Chico Chica shows is the dramatic monologue. In the spoken word sections of the songs such as A Scientific Fact, Nice Guy with an Edge and Private Hands, I adopt a character speaking to an imaginary audience. The format gives my imagination greater scope and is meant as an antidote to the overly serious singer-songwriter ‘this is all about me’ output which has been with us since the early seventies. The greatest exponent of this technique is Robert Browning so it’s important for me to get an insight to the mind of a master. I have been dipping in and out of this book all year but have recently finished it so, in accordance with my blogging tradition, I give it a post.

Robert Browning is considered one of the great 19th Century writers – right up there with Dickens and Eliot – but is rarely read nowadays. This is partly because the poems are dense and difficult. Some took several reads for me to get an idea of what they were about. It usually came in a flash of inspiration. On some occasions the flash never came so I had to move on to the next, baffled.

Dickens towers above Browning in the modern imagination also because you cannot easily turn a poem into a play, film or musical. Browning’s influence lives on in Chico Chica’s shows but we need to do more to keep the spirit alive. Now here’s an idea: how about turning My Last Duchess or Fra Lippo Lippi into a computer game? Are there any game developers reading this?

This is the last post of 2014 and these are the books I read during the year:

Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens
Unpopular Essays, Bertrand Russell
The Trial, Franz Kafka
The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
The Comedians, Graham Greene
First Love and Other Stories, Ivan Turgenev
Silas Marner, George Eliot
To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway
The Sound and the Fury, William Falconer
Fathers and Children, Ivan Turgenev
The Honorary Consul, Graham Greene
The Great Terror, Robert Conquest
Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy
Hard Times, Charles Dickens
Romola, George Eliot
Game Of Thrones, George R.R. Martin (abandoned halfway)
Eugene Onegin, Alexander Pushkin
My Last Duchess and Other Poems, Robert Browning.

You will find posts on all of them. However, I have been reflecting on my blogging and made the decision to discontinue posts on the books I read. The readership is just too limited so the posts in 2015 will be more frequent and touch on more topics. Thank you for reading and, on behalf of Chico Chica, I’d like to wish you a most exciting and prosperous new year.

Romola, George Eliot

It’s six weeks since my last post. The idea of only posting after I have finished a novel (in this case, well after) would work well but if I didn’t insist on reading classic novels which are much longer, and I’m a slow reader to boot. So this literary necrophilia for me means fewer blog posts, which may not seem a problem. Oh but it is. You see, I am not a proper book blogger – I shamelessly use mine as a way to sell tickets to Chico Chica shows. So I need to find other excuses to burden the world with my unimportant views. I have resolved to look for more excuses to post in 2015, and to buy a camera so I can add some visuals to my wordy posts.

As with bubble gum cards and Pokomon cards, a lot of us have pleasure in completing a set – it doesn’t matter what it is, just something that we can own with a pleasurable sense of achievement. There’s a literary form of this malaise. I’ve often heard it said that someone has read ‘all Proust’ or ‘all Stendhal. This requires a great deal of commitment and a a zealous academic approach. Dickens is almost manageable but Balzac less so.

George Eliot only wrote seven which makes her canon an attractive proposition for nerdy literary types especially when she happens to be England’s greatest novelist. There are the big five (in the order in which I read them): Mill On The Floss, Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, Adam Bede and Silas Marner. But there are two others which get far less attention: Romola which I completed very recently. There is also Scenes of Clerical Life. One day I will read that, not so much to complete the set, but to find out if it’s as dull as it sounds. After that, in the mahogany-veneered bookshelf of my memory bank, I will place my George Eliot Box Set. It’s terribly sad, I know.

Romola, being outside Eliot’s big five, was, I presumed, a lesser work. But it isn’t. It’s just different in that it takes place in 1490s Florence rather than the usual rural nineteenth century England. The period, being at the cusp of the modern era, was momentous. Printing, gunpowder and America were recently discovered and the book outlines the beginnings of challenges to papal authority. Michaevelli is a minor character so to is Fra Lippi (who I’d come across in one of Robert Browning’s dramatic dialogues). Michaelangelo and da Vinci are casually mentioned and even Mona Lisa gets a cameo role as an old woman.

The plot is full of political scheming so it’s a bit like a Hilary Mantel novel except Romola has immeasurably more depth and beauty. The novel finishes with an epilogue which shows Eliot’s true voice in the form of Romola speaking to an infant:

It is only a poor sort of happiness that could ever come by caring very much about our own narrow pleasures. We can only have the highest happiness, such as goes along with being a great man, by having wide thoughts, and much feeling for the rest of the world as well as ourselves; and this sort of happiness often brings so much pain with it, that we can only tell it from pain by its being what we would choose before everything else, because our souls see it is good. There are so many things wrong and difficult in the world, that no man can be great unless he gives up thinking much about pleasure or rewards, and gets strength to endure what is hard and painful.

Chico Chica have been recording their second album with Joe Keach at Cowshed Studio where performances are recorded onto old-fashioned tape. It’s a process that recognises that nearly all technological advances are victories of power over pleasure. Chico Chica do things gradually, starting with four songs: Private Hands, A Scientific Fact, Nice Guy With an Edge and I’m a Playgirl. We used a salsa rhythm section so chose those songs that would most benefit form such a treatment. They also happened to be the songs with the strongest spoken word component. The overdubs, mixing and mastering will be done in January 2015 so the download-only EP will be launched soon after. By the end of 2015, we should have recorded the twelve (maybe sixteen) songs needed for a CD release.

Chico Chica will be performing at:

Brasserie Toulouse Lautrec
140 Newington Butts, Kennington
London SE11 4RN
9.00pm Friday 5th December 2014
Tickets: £7.00 (£5.00 diners)
Bookings: 020 7582 6800
info@btlrestaurant.com

All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities Of The Plain (The Border Trilogy) Cormac McCarthy

ImageA cowboy’s life is simple. He doesn’t philosophise much, not out loud anyway.  He shows very little emotion. A cowboy’s life is much like Cormac McCarthy’s prose style. Sentences without verbs. No colons and no semi colons.  Very few commas. So lists use ‘and’ a lot as in ‘red and blue and black and…’ Poets use this trick to make a list iambic but McCarthy just wants to eliminate punctuation clutter. There are no speech marks but the reader can tell the difference between dialogue and narrative. One is grammatically correct the other not. I’m not a regular reader of modern american fiction so I found the style drew a little too much attention to itself. It took me a while to get used to it. After a while I got to kind of like it. I’m even thinking of adopting some of its aspects in my own writing.

Cormac McCarthy is one of the big literary names of the day and these books are reputed to be among his best. I bought it as a compendium. This saves money but the book wouldn’t fit in my pocket so I had to carry it around in a man bag which just didn’t seem the kind of thing a cowboy would do.

The tales take place in the borderlands between New Mexico and Mexico. A lot of the dialogue is in spanish. The cowboys speak spanish but the vaqueros never speak english. This is annoying because there’s no translation. But McCarthy hints at the meaning through the context. He did this often but but by no means always, so I still had to look up a lot of the words and let others remain a mystery. Since many of Chico Chica’s songs are in spanish it’s about time I learnt the language. Reading these books is a good way of for a near beginner to improve it.

In these three books, I never got a real sense of character. McCarthy doesn’t bother with descriptions so I had no idea what the cowboys looked like. Most importantly McCarthy never describes emotion,  after all, cowboys don’t discuss emotion. After one character discovers his younger brother had been killed the narrator describes a cowboy riding a horse. In the distance, a happy cowboy looks much the same as a sad one.

I was expecting the cowboys to be hot. Truman Capote would have made this landscape sizzle. But here the cowboys didn’t sweat or yearn for shade or have a raging thirst. The only vegetation he mentions is the juniper tree.

But the narrative was full of meticulously recorded actions such as making coffee, taking off a hat, mending a puncture or removing a bullet from a body. McCarthy draws the reader into the cowboy psyche. The narrator may not sound like a cowboy but he certainly thinks like one. Cowboys are simple and practical folk.

But cowboys have a spirit of adventure. In Mexico the wages are much lower, the cowboys have no friends or family and there is no rule of law. Yet, driven by a creeping modernity which threatens the old way and attracted by the simple welcome of the peasants, these cowboys feel compelled to make the crossing.  Everywhere they go they are be greeted with tortillas and beans but these people are scarred by memories of unimaginable poverty and brutality of Mexico’s civil wars.

In these three novels I often found myself disengaged by the overly-detached style. I was pulled along by the momentum of a lifelong reading habit sometimes having to keep my interest by playing spot-the-comma.

Out of the three I found The Crossing was the most powerful story. Teenage cowboy Billy Parham traps a wolf that had been marauding the family farm but rather than killing it, he takes it back to its native Mexico. I’m not sure if this was out of a sentimental attachment to the wolf or he was looking for any excuse to cross the border. The wolf eventually dies on him before he was able to release it to the wild. So he returns and from then on life is a series of heart-wrenching misfortunes, first his parents are murdered, then his brother and then his beloved horse.  At the very end a stray dogs tries to befriend him. He shoos it away. And then, no doubt thinking of the wolf, he tries to find it again but can’t. The book finishes with Billy breaking down and weeping. It is the only time anyone cries in the whole Border Trilogy.