Two writers……

Two writers….

“Then he set off with his new master through the steep slanting forests of the mountain isle, through the leaves and the shadows of bright autumn”. So ends the first chapter of ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ by Ursula K. Le Guin. The young boy Ged sets off to learn to be a wizard and so fulfil his destiny and his world opens up in front of him with all its light and all its darkness. I was saddened to learn of the death of Le Guin at the age of 88 and it is hard to think that there will be no more books from her far reaching imagination. She was one of the many writers I started to read in my late teens and twenties as I was hoovering up science fiction like the nerd I have always been. For classic space opera it was Robert Heinlein and James Blish, Thomas Disch, Philip K. Dick and Samuel Delany’s novel ‘Dhalgren’ provided the experimental stuff but for sheer poetry it was always Ray Bradbury and UKLG.

My trends in reading have come and gone, and my tastes have changed but Le Guin’s stories have always entranced me. I think of the world of Winter that she created for her novel ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, with its ambisexual inhabitants who only assume a gender in order to reproduce, the horror of totalitarianism and the striking love story at the heart of the book. Then there is her chilling allegory for environmental degradation and the Vietnam War ‘The Word for World is Forest’, and ‘The Dispossessed’ (subtitled ‘An Ambiguous Utopia’), a marvellous political story about science, community and the ways that very different societies interact. Or there are her short stories she recently collected in two volumes (‘The Unreal and the Real’). It really is difficult to choose which books to recommend because her vision is so deep and so rich. My copy of the novella ‘Forest’ is included in Harlan Ellison’s ground-breaking 1976 anthology ‘Again, Dangerous Visions’ and Ellison’s affectionate foreword to the story refers to Le Guin’s kindness to her fellow writers and her fearlessness as a female writer in a (mainly) masculine world. The musician Sting once recounted meeting the great Gil Evans and singing with his orchestra in a small New York club – he said it was a bit like meeting a wise and benevolent being from Star Trek. I think of Le Guin a bit like that, her poise and imagination contains a wisdom that is both here and also beyond.

I also remember an interview she gave to the writer China Mieville on BBC Radio 4 on the occasion of her 80th birthday where she was revealed as gracious and witty and someone whose vision remained vital and undimmed by age. I taped the programme when it first came out and hearing of her death I was digging through my shoe-boxes to find the tape and enjoy it again. Out of the many stories she wrote Le Guin knew above all that science fiction could be a way to tell a good story and reflect of issues of race, gender and technology and as Margaret Atwood recently observed “Science fiction is always really about now. What else could it be about?”

Another of my favourite writers passed away recently; in the overcrowded world of crime fiction Sue Grafton is known principally for her series of ‘alphabet’ novels featuring the private investigator Kinsey Millhone. Ms Millhone is an individual and determinedly independent detective who takes no prisoners in her scrupulous investigations. A series with continuing characters can be prone to routine and formula but because Sue Grafton set these books just as determinedly in the pre- internet and mobile age so Kinsey has to solve her cases the old fashioned way, this perspective makes these stories individual and compelling because the reader has to enter that almost forgotten time before technology ruled our lives. Given a cast of a characters and a sympathetic heroine you have a near perfect formula.

In my opinion Kinsey is as near to an old fashioned gumshoe as you can get since the age of Chandler and Hammett. She doggedly follows every lead and works hard to bring justice to her clients. Every book from ‘A is for Alibi’ to ‘Y is for Yesterday’ has its fair share of thrills and spills and the darkness that inevitably comes with dealing with crime. But now the series is over, and the saddest words I read in the statement made by Sue Grafton’s family were that, apart from the passing of a great writer, in her case, the alphabet would end with ‘Y’ as nobody else would finish the sequence!

Two voices stilled, but the books remain. Rest in peace.

Music, music, music…..


Music, music, music…..

“Put another nickel in, in the nickelodeon/ All I want is loving you/ And music, music, music”.

I remember my mother singing this song when I was a child. I think it was a chart song in the 1950’s sung by Teresa Brewer. I include it here not simply out of nostalgia but because it gives me a way into this post which is about my recent adventures in music; this starts with a recording I have been revisiting lately. The album ‘Come On Home’ recorded by Boz Scaggs in 1997. I first heard Boz singing his big hit ‘Lowdown’ which came at the height of his fame and the album it came from (Silk Degrees) led to a series of quite similar recordings for the Columbia label and propelled Boz from relative obscurity to pop stardom.

But to cut a very long story short William Royce Scaggs had a long career before the ‘big time’ (this ‘dues paying’ on various albums is amply demonstrated by the great compilation ‘My Time’ on the Columbia Legacy label). After the fame of the Columbia years he decided on a short hiatus before he was encouraged back into the studio by executives at Virgin Records in the USA who were fans of his music. This led to the recording of the album ‘Some Change’ with ex Beach Boys drummer Ricky Fataar, and this was followed by ‘Come On Home’. It is not really a ‘comeback’ album but its readings of classic blues and soul songs with a crack band really struck a chord with me – and nerd that I am I can even remember the record shop in Poulton in Fylde in Lancashire where I bought the CD!!

These versions could easily be a sort of karaoke but in the hands of this singer and this band they both find a new voice and send the listener back to the originals. For example; the reading of T- Bone Walker’s ‘T- Bone Shuffle’ on this album sent me back to the exemplary 4 CD set of Walker’s early recordings ‘The Original Source’ which was available on Proper Music. But back to Come On Home; there are the understated horns (some arranged by Willie Mitchell), great guitar by the leader himself and the catalogue of songs from ‘Tell Me Nothin’ But The Blues’ and Jimmy Reed’s ‘Found Love’ to a reading of the song ‘Love Letters’ (which I’m sure I remember in a version by Ketty Lester from 1962!). I would recommend anything that Boz has done (his two jazz albums ‘But Beautiful’ and ‘Speak Low’ are also worth seeking out!). He is a fine musician still recording and touring in his own right and with Donald Fagen and Michael McDonald in the Dukes of September touring band.

Now, from a fine American musician to English jazz rock of a particular vintage. I have admired Neil Ardley’s album ‘Kaleidoscope of Rainbows’ ever since I owned a vinyl copy back in the 1970s when it came out. I have recently discovered two of his earlier recordings ‘A Symphony of Amaranths’ and ‘Harmony of the Spheres’. Both recordings are symphonic jazz of a high order, the first featuring the eccentric poet Ivor Cutler reading one of Edward Lear’s ‘nonsense’ poems (‘The Dong with the Luminous Nose’) over a richly textured backing, Norma Winstone’s winsome vocals and fast boppish sections. The novelist Jonathan Coe (also a fan of this record) described it in a recent article in the New Statesman as music that recalls “Vaughan Williams more than Duke Ellington”. The second is a smaller group affair (with Ian Carr’s Nucleus) mixing electronic and acoustic instruments and voices, and featuring John Martyn showing a (for me) undiscovered power as an electric guitarist.

I have always thought that American jazz rock fusion had strong urban roots influenced as it is by musicians like Sly Stone whereas the English variety has a much more classical/ pastoral root. This is shown by Neil Ardley’s music but also by Ian Carr’s recordings both with Nucleus and after – particularly on the album ‘Old Heartland’ where an electric/ acoustic small group is augmented by a string ensemble. In the 1970’s jazz fusion was my way into the riches of jazz in general, there was something about its muscular power and speedy improvisational facility that moved me, and you could dance to it (at a pinch!). It may have turned out to be then, in the words of one critic “a cul de sac on a road that did not need to be resurfaced” but it has remained remarkably durable in terms of musical power and invention. Notable players like John McLaughlin and the excellent Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith have recorded in fusion settings, and there is master drummer Billy Cobham, the Brazilian composer Eumir Deodato, Bob James and David Sanborn – all of whom came to prominence in the jazz rock era and whose recordings have worn really well indeed.

Maybe it is the fate of people of my age that they return to the music they listened to as young people, whilst that may be true I have found that the best music travels with you, constantly renewing itself and revealing fresh insights and enjoyment. This applies equally to Bessie Smith and Blood, Sweat and Tears, to Duke Ellington and Labi Siffre, to Bach, Bruch and The Beatles. Whether in the grooves of a vinyl, or read from a disc or heard from somewhere in the cloud music is a reliable companion. As someone once said a long time ago “let those who have ears, listen”!


Religious language – the language of life or just another jargon?

Religious language – the language of life or just another jargon?

As a religious ‘professional’, I have been using religious language for years. I have been forever mindful of the words of the late playwright Dennis Potter who suggested that “the trouble with words is that you do not know whose mouth they’ve been in”. Some of these words about ‘religious’ subjects like salvation, redemption, faith, judgement have been worn so smooth I wonder what use they really are, except within what some like to call the ‘household of faith’. But if language is to communicate it has to be accessible to all and not be reduced to just another jargon. Clearly when Christians (or members of any faith community) want to communicate something of what they believe language is important, but so are the actions which we are told speaker louder than words. In the Christian context there are clearly more ways to give a reason for the hope we have (1 Peter 3: 15) than trotting out worn out phrases long past their sell by date. I am struck by the translation of that verse in the Jerusalem Bible; “Simply reverence the Lord Christ in your hearts, and always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have”. This suggests that reverence for that of God we have discovered in Christ should lead to a practical expression of that discovery. Indeed, one of the most trenchant criticisms of the church is that it is full of people who can talk the talk but who cannot walk the walk. That is, simply live out the faith they advocate. Of course this must take into account the mistaken idea current among some that ‘religious’ people are hypocrites from the start. I have known some deeply committed Christians who have offered their ‘witness’ from the very crucible of their fallible humanity – the proper target for this criticism is those who pretend to be what they are not!

Sometimes when I listen to other Christians talk I get the feeling that signals are being exchanged because this dialogue is not for everyone. You listen carefully for the signals that convey just where the speaker is; liberal or evangelical, ordained or lay – we sometimes moan that politicians say a lot without really saying anything, but religious people can be just the same. If liberals hedge what they say with phrases like “well it all depends on what you mean” then evangelicals are equally to blame when they depend on cliché and jargon. We all know how to play the pious games that Jesus loathed! And the world looks on longing to know what we are on about without having to jump through the many hoops that salvation seems to consist of. As the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas suggests in a sermon learning to ‘speak Christian’ means “looking and believing”, I take it that this is about what we see in Christ and then what we do about what we see. Even though I have said my own fair share of religious words through the years I know in my heart that it was what I did that made the real difference, especially in those situations where there was nothing to say and I was just there. In my teens I first encountered Jesus in the lives of people I knew, there were words it is true but who those people are and what they do counts for much more!

It is a no brainer to suggest that we can escape the proper use of language to share what we believe if invited, but surely our practical expression of faith and the altruism that springs from what we say will always speak louder. Indeed, in a world that is over loaded with often toxic language both are needed if we are to repair the ailing church and bear witness in the world. As Francis of Assisi is reputed to have said “Preach the gospel always if necessary use words”.

The new Doctor Who….



The new Doctor Who….

The new Doctor Who……

One of the biggest clichés in British cultural history is the number of people who will tell you how they hid behind the sofa while Doctor Who was on, usually on a Saturday tea time. Like many of my generation I watched this programme every week at a certain age and, whilst I never watched from behind the sofa, the Daleks and The Cybermen entered my imagination along with all the other stuff I was hoovering up in my adolescence. Of all of the Doctor’s adversaries my favourite was The Master who was nefarious to the max (and he could control people’s minds!) but even he comes a close second to watching Cybermen crossing Westminster Bridge in populating my nightmares!! At that age I loved every part of this imagined – and somehow very British – universe and in those days I left the discussions about whether it was really ‘science fiction’ to others. I just enjoyed the ideas, the characters and, of course the central conceit of time travel itself.

The Doctor’s regular regeneration also fascinated me from the first time William Hartnell became Patrick Troughton back in whenever. I have just watched the latest episode of this programme, which now has its own ‘Christmas Special’ and I found it enjoyable and unusually thought provoking.

Looking through the obvious device of allowing actors to move on, and the part to be refreshed and contrasted (for example, Jon Pertwee’s dandified Doctor (lace sleeves and that little yellow car called ‘Bessie’!) and Tom Baker’s interstellar Harpo Marx!!), this feature has become, in the latest episode this past Christmas Day, the place for a powerful meditation on memory, regret and mortality itself. The climax of the episode at Christmas 1914 also introduced something that I had not noticed, namely the idea of The Doctor as a saviour; almost dare I say it, as a Christ figure! This is not to say that Christianity has a monopoly on values like sacrifice, respect and courage, but it is to say that these values derive a strange power from their place in the Christian story and in its expression at Christmas. The double meaning of the word Doctor was given full reign here as scientist and as healer, and the striking insight that healing demands something of the healer. As the Doctor gives in to regeneration so something new is created, in one sense the renewal of a franchise, but in another the notion, also expressed in the script, that it is better to be good than to be bad and to save some lives from the battlefield. Now to me that sounds like another story where the central character dies and is mysteriously reborn, but hey, Doctor Who is just a long running television programme isn’t it?

A Midwinter Mishmash.