The Red Dirt Road as a dark Wizard of Oz: Amity and Sorrow by Peggy Riley

The first novel from Kent-based American author, Peggy Riley, Amity and Sorrow is a mesmerising exploration of the tension between the familiar and the unknown, of extremes of faith and the lengths to which people can be caught up in the fantasies of others.

The central figure, Amaranth, escapes with her two daughters from a cult, a fiercely isolated community led by her husband and his forty-nine other wives, and literally crashes into a world where they are confronted by an unfamiliar modernity. One daughter, Amity, embraces the flight, tentatively grasping the new-found opportunities offered by Bradley, the farmer who offers them refuge; the other, Sorrow, wants to return to her father, for reasons that slowly become clear as the book unfolds.

There are many good things about the novel, which is couched in a beautifully-wrought prose that seems to chime and dance with the same care for language manifest in Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood or the novels of Joanne Harris. The beguiling triple-metre of the opening – ‘Amity watches what looks like the sun’ – typically sets the tone for the way it unfolds, part poem, part prose, part vision. Indeed, the prose so often treads the boundary of poetry that it’s easy to forget that it’s still a novel; ‘…to check that her daughters are safe in their blankets, all flung limbs and linen.’ Or the almost-musical cadences of ‘the white horse and red horse, the black horse and pale horse, the martyrs and saints and the stars crashing down.’

Sometimes, with its evocation of the arid dustscape of Oklahoma, the prose speaks in the voice of Joni Mitchell blowing in across the desert, a literary Hejira. ‘The land was hard and the people harder, but the sounds of the night were of sand switchbacking beneath snake-bellies, the cries of coyotes, the lonesome who-who-who of a horned owl from a Joshua tree.’ The atmosphere is painted in short, deft strokes that say much with little and hint at further darkness, with assonance, alliteration and rhythm all busily working together beneath the surface of the prose, yet in a way that never becomes intrusive.

At other times, it is not what’s said, but what is left missing that gives so much of the prose its gentle yet unbearable weight. ‘He hums his way into the kitchen with a tune she can almost remember, from long ago, something about love and dancing.’

Riley never lets the reader forget about the essential human fable unfolding against the scenery, though. The way the focus pulls from a panoramic sweep across dusty crop-fields to reflections framed in a window makes the reader aware, all the time, of context, of the human saga unfolding against the wider landscape. ‘Let us remember that every child can change the world,’ a glimpse of a Universal Truth beneath the horror.

At one point, the book becomes delightfully Hitchcockian. ‘Amaranth carries a bowl of plain cooked rice up the stairs. She does not know what she will find behind the locked door. She can almost picture Bradley’s wife there, imprisoned for threatening to leave, now deranged and knocking, wasting away.’

For all the bleakness, there are occasional moments of real humour, which provide wonderful moments of contrast.

“Ain’t you hot with that thing on your head? It’s makin’ me hot.”
She leans on the threshold. “It’s for Saint Paul.”
“Patron saint of hats? ”

Elsewhere, passages dip and lilt with the half-memory of nursery-rhyme: ‘She isn’t in the bathroom, isn’t splashing at the sink. She runs past the pump to the red dirt road but there is no Sorrow, no dust cloud of her running.’  And some passages hiss with sibilance, pop with consonants: ‘Her clogs totter over furrows between bristle-topped grasses, yellowing, crisp and whispery on her skirts as she brushes past.’

The further the reader is drawn into the book, the more it becomes less a novel than an extended incantation. Often, a real sense of menace hovers above the rhythmic step of the prose:

‘Amaranth holds a paring knife, bone-handled and sharp from a kitchen drawer.’…

a sensation which Riley draws out over much of the book; in fact, it  takes just over three hundred pages for the latent menace which hangs over the novel to manifest itself – and when it does, the effect is utterly terrifying.

At the novel’s conclusion, the reader is left somehow with the sense that this has been a darker Wizard of Oz; sepia-tinged grasslands, the Red Dirt Road instead of the Yellow Brick one leading to a more menacing place than the Emerald City, although ultmately there is hope. It is a riveting tale, woven in a way that dances and spins across the page, part-prose, part-poetry, hovering like a nursery-rhyme, panoramic in scope and delivered almost cinematically but with the fragility of fraught human relationships at its heart. Riley fords the Red Dirt Road; readers who follow are in for a memorable experience.

Amity and Sorrow was published by Tinder Press in 2013.

Breaking bread with monsters: a dark Immorality Play from Lisa Cutts

The world is, alas, not straightforward – choices are hard, mistakes are made, doubts are cast and events in the past shape and often warp the future; all elements captured in Mercy Killing, by crime writer and real-life detective, Lisa Cutts. Centred around the murder of a known paedophile, Cutts deliberately muddies the waters throughout the novel, crafting a story that makes the reader’s reactions to characters less than straightforward, playing on our unease.

What Cutts is exploring in the novel, a gritty, urban police procedural informed by her own experiences as an investigating detective, is the idea that bad things can come from good intentions, a concept which affects all the characters involved in the drama, and which sees each of them grappling with their own conflicts and making uncomfortable liaisons. At the head of the case, DI Powell is fully aware that, to solve the case, he must ‘break bread with a monster,’ and knows precisely the moment when he crosses the line.  His personal dance with the devil involves a meeting with the less than wholesome Martha, who leads the Volunteer Army,  a group of local people which at first seems to have a positive mandate –  those involved are ‘trying to make it as safe for people as they can about living with sex offenders around them and we want to work with the police. We’re trying to do our bit to help.’ Yet urban vigilantes taking the law into their own hands is never a good idea, and later in the book the reason for the creation of the group is revealed, arising as it does from yet another evil beginning.

DC Sophia Ireland’s own stance on pursuing criminals neatly outlines the whole moral dilemma of the book: ‘we can’t live in a society that thinks it’s ok to kill them off without so much as a trial.’ She has a firm grasp of the the crux of the book right there – the battle between justice and righteousness. But she in turn has an internal conflict: she is not convinced that DC Gabrielle Royston is suited to investigating the case, but does not want to betray a colleague – and Royston’s own situation is not clear-cut, either…

Writing from experience: Lisa Cutts

For all the grim issues the novel confronts, they are balanced by touches of humour throughout the story. One of the threads running through the plot is Powell’s slowly unravelling marriage – a situation arising, it becomes clear, again out of the best of intentions; in one scene, he returns late from work yet again, and undresses next to his wife in the hope that there might be an amorous encounter. ‘ ‘Don’t roll your bloody socks into a ball.’ Her words were accompanied by the sound of her turning over, and the click of the light switch…Sex was certainly off.’

From the outset, Cutts creates a series of characters, none of whom has a clear-cut status that is morally right or wrong. The reader is left unsure where to place their sympathies, and is thereby drawn into the depths of a web of moral ambiguity. Each suspect – and some of the police, too – has a stain on their character, which only becomes clear as the novel unfolds, but each has some element of their background, some aspect to their story, that means a straight and outright condemnation by the reader is not possible. It’s an effective device that pulls the reader onwards, leading them through what might be called an ‘immorality play,’ a darkly intricate tale where, as one of the characters observes early in the novel, even though the case may be solved and justice brought, there can be no winners.

Mercy Killing is the first in Cutts’ East Rise Incident Room series,  published by Simon and Schuster in 2016

Crabbed Age and Youth: a slow maturing of style in Murder on the Pilgrims Way

The fourth book in the developing Whitstable Pearl series of crime novels by Julie Wassmer, Murder on the Pilgrims Way, is a meditation on age, as perhaps is fitting for an evolving canon that, in this its fourth instalment, reaches a new level of maturity and literary accomplishment.

Taking her heroine out of both her seaside town of Whitstable and her usual haunt of Canterbury, Wassmer instead opts to place her in an idyllic rural retreat near Chartham, setting the scene for that classic of the crime genre, the Country House Murder. It is a bold move, placing the book directly in the lineage of a British literay tradition reaching from Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and J Jefferson Farjeon to later luminaries such as PD James and Reginald Hill. This affords plenty of opportunities for vivid description of rural scenes and lakeside trysts which perfectly capture the lazy haze of an English countryside lulled by summer’s warmth, as well as giving Wassmer the opportunity to explore a more focused arena.

The preoccupation with age and the impact of growing older is an element which operates beneath the novel’s surface, but underpins the narrative, in particular the gradual evolution of the character of its heroine, private detective-cum-restaurant owner, Pearl Nolan. This time, we see her struggling to come to terms with her own growing redundancy both to her restaurant, which is increasingly able to manage without her, and to her son, Charlie, who is living an independent life studying at university, but who returns occasionally to work at the restaurant, thereby bringing together and magnifying those two elements which are the focus of Pearl’s life, but which are able to function without her involvement. Pearl is acutely aware of this herself, at one point reflecting that ‘having turned forty she felt as if she was entering a new era, the second act of a play in which she was the main character, but unsure of her role.’ Elsewhere, other characters reflect that ‘that’s the nature of growing older, isn’t it ? Somehow our roles are always reversed.’ The central playboy character, Nico Caruso, is a celebrity chef who trades on his youthful good looks, contrasting with Marshall, the godfather to the lady who owns the country house at which the story unfolds, who is elderly and walks with a cane. The mill at Chartham, visible from the gardens of the estate, is ‘old enough to be mentioned in the Domesday Book;’ later in the novel, Old Harry, ‘the oldest bell in the Cathedral,’ is heard to ring. Excavations at a local field connected with medieval shipping unearth ‘an ancient boat…but apparently it disintegrated on contact with the air.’ The fragility of age, and of history, lies like the buried boat not far below the prose’s summer-hued surface as the world ‘old’ tolls like the cathedral bell throughout the novel.

Pearls of wisdom: author Julie Wassmer

The character who could provide meaningful focus for an increasingly isolated Pearl, but with whom she cannot quite make things happen, is DCI McGuire, with whom she has been fencing romantically since the first novel. McGuire is still wrestling with his status as an outsider, as a Down From Londoner, since his relocation to Canterbury, although for him this is ‘something behind which he could hide.’ The constant conflict between the local and the outsider is a recurrent theme throughout the books, and a useful means of generating tension both on the larger, social, scale, as well as between Pearl and McGuire themselves. McGuire, too, cannot escape the issue of aging, as he nostalgically reflects on ‘the lyrics to an old pop song’ and his floundering relationship with Pearl.

The classic plot device of assembling all the suspects together in one place for the final denouement, arising in a pleasingly organic manner from the nature of the novel’s central theme of a week-long cookery course, builds the tension nicely  towards the end and allows Pearl a dramatic moment to examine the motives, means and opportunity of all the suspects before solving the case, in a fashion reminiscent of Poirot wrapping things up on the Nile or the Orient Express.

Overall, this is a deeply satisfying novel that boldly positions itself in a classic crime fiction sub-genre, and which works all the better for it, giving it a unified concept and identity away from the hymnody in praise of Whitstable and its environs, a strong feature of the preceding books. Wassmer can’t quite resist celebrating her home-town, though (and why not); ‘one of the town’s greatest successes was its ability to adapt without sacrificing its inherently quirky nature,’ an observation which can also apply to Wassmer’s series of novels itself and which highlights what is proving to be one of its greatest strengths.

Murder on the Pilgrims Way is published by Constable / Little Brown Books.

The art of crime-writing: Murder Most Female at the Beaney

There was a series of horrendous murders in the Beaney last night. Not, thankfully, in real life, but in the minds and the words of crime writers Lisa Cutts and Julie Wassmer, in a wide-ranging and fascinating panel discussion entitled Murder Most Female. Women in crime fiction – both as characters and as authors – is a topic currently en vogue in the lead up to the Staunch Book Prize, launched back in January and for which the inaugural prize in November “will be awarded to the author of a novel in the thriller genre in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.” Created in response to what Cutts recognised last night as the progressive darkening in tone of the genre, the prize has caused some controversy in its desire to combat what it sees as ‘an overload of violence towards women in modern fiction.’

Pearls of wisdom: Julie Wassmer

Cutts and Wassmer write in contrasting styles; the former in the Police Procedurals genre, the latter in what has been called ‘Cosy Crime,’ a sub-genre which avoids graphic violent or sexual content; interestingly, last night both writers declared that they had not set out specifically to write in these styles, it was only after publication that they each found they had been labelled as such, in order to position their novels in the huge sea of fiction for the ease both of marketing departments and readers alike. Cutts, who also works as a full-time police detective, observed that “it is men who are more likely to meet a violent end,” and that the progressively darker tone of recent crime fiction will  appeal to some but not all readers. Wassmer replied by that perhaps this reflects readers exploring more gruesome aspects of society from the security of their own home: “they feel safe reading about horrendous crimes sat in bed with a cup of hot cocoa!”

Prize Cutts: Lisa Cutts

As for the labels under which each writer works, Wassmer revealed that she had to look up precisely what ‘Cosy Crime’ meant after seeing it applied to her books on Amazon, but in fact it challenges her to push her writing beyond the bounds such a label imposes. In contrast, Cutts is comfortable working within hers – for now, at least – as it is useful for marketing and helping readers, but not necessarily a priority for writers themselves.

Both women stressed the importance of research to their writing. Cutts attended an autopsy in order to inform part of one of her novels; she came away, she says, awed by the amount of work and commitment which goes in to them. “They’re not as clean and quick as they are on TV; they take hours!” she declared, whilst ruefully admitting to having worn the ‘wrong sort of shoes’ as she hadn’t anticipated standing for so long. For her Whitstable-based series featuring private detective-cum–restaurant-owner, Pearl Nolan, Wassmer spent last summer exploring locations including Reculver, Sheppey and Oare in order to widen the scope of her character’s travels. “Details are important,” Wassmer stated: “you don’t want a sackful of mail criticising a point in your book!” Although she balanced this by admitting that, for her, it is important to remember that, after all, it is the writer’s own world, one that they have created, and that on one level they can do what they like. Wassmer has had reviews where readers take issue with the geography of Whitstable as it appears in her books, with particular roads not leading to exactly the right road. Cutts says she often ends up shouting at television programmes; “No, no, no; you didn’t caution him!” before adding reflectively “it’s why I don’t really watch much crime drama on TV…”

Both writers also emphasised the hard graft required in writing, the need for self-discipline in order to see a work through to its conclusion. Cutts sits at the laptop each day, even when not enthused about the prospect. “Sometimes it feels like housework, and nobody wants to do housework!” Wassmer in turn referred to her experience writing for television’s Eastenders for twenty years, which has stood her in good stead in its relentless expectation that she would deliver to a regular deadline.

The work of both writers is unified by the idea of familiarity; “We both write what we know” Wassmer observed incisively, with her work projecting a strong love for the community of Whitstable, where she has lived for twenty years, and Cutts’ series starring Nina Foster informed by her work as a real-life detective, drawing on her experiences investigating murder and the protocols that are a part of the investigative process. Cutts made it clear, though, that her books do not simply draw on genuine cases, transplanting them into her work with the odd change of name and geographical details – “Not only would it be incredibly disrespectful,” she acknowledged, “it would also drag families through something horrendous that happened in their lives. And that’s what people perhaps don’t realise – the far-reaching effects on people and families that murder has.”

As the event drew to a close, what was clear was the passion, enthusiasm and the dedication both writers have for writing crime fiction, underpinned by the sheer hard graft of getting the words down on the page. There was a clear friendship between them – both live and work in the local area – which was extended to embrace a fascinated audience, and both were happy to chat afterwards about their work.

Crime writing aficionados can catch both women in action again at Murderous Medway, part of the Rochester Literary Festival, with panel discussions and writing workshops on the weekends of the 6th and 13th of October.

A hymn to a Whitstable Christmas: Murder on Sea by Julie Wassmer

There’s a hidden protagonist at the heart of Murder on Sea, the second book in the developing Whitstable-based series of crime novels by Julie Wassmer, whose identity becomes apparent as the book unfolds; and I’m not giving away anything to do with the novel’s tricksy plot when I reveal that it’s actually the weather. Set against the backdrop of a December-shrouded seaside town, the weather plays a crucial and distinctive role in giving the book its seasonal qualities, creating a suitably wintry atmosphere against which the action unfolds. There’s a wonderfully magical touch right at the very end of the book, too, which reveals the story’s true romantic heart – well, it’s Christmas (in the book), isn’t it ?!

As usual, the novel is deeply rooted in its depiction of Whitstable itself, the book really a hymn to the town’s distinctive qualities; windswept beaches, boutique shops, a decorous high street, and wonderfully-titled alleyways. Forays into Canterbury are equally grounded in the real geography of the city, littered with streets and places which will be familiar to local readers (there’s quite a pleasurable feeling to be able to recognise places you know well in books, somehow…).

The best touch in the novel, which become apparent towards the end, concerns a greater level of meaning behind a series of bitter postcards which have been sent to various residents in Whitstable; suddenly, the antagonistic missives assume a greater significance, and the atmosphere ratchets up a notch; the reader finds themselves suddenly thrust into the world akin to David Fincher’s Se7en (for those who know the film), although without the same gruesome episodes. But this gathering-together of the mysterious postcards and elevating them to such heightened overtones is one of the many pleasures the book offers.

Admittedly, having just finished the novel, it’s not the right season in which to be reading it (especially given the current heatwave), but the book conveys both the atmosphere and the spirit of a suitably wintry Chrismastime, evocatively creating scenic touches of a town bedecked for the festive season, and using the weather as a valuable ally. There are some deft musical touches to enhance the flavour – carolling voices and the chime of church bells filling the town’s high street, Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy piping at the church fundraising evening, the Salvation Army band playing Once In Royal (‘the horns sounded suitably mournful as though in respect of another death in the town’ is a deft and cheeky touch). It doesn’t matter in what season of the year you read Murder on Sea; like an Advent calendar, its chapters open onto suitably Christmas vistas that will evoke the season no matter when you read it.

Fascinatin’ Rhythm: dancing with Joanne Harris’ ‘The Lollipop Shoes’

Some books call to you from a shelf; that silent yet persuasive voice that gets inside your head and tells you that you want, nay, need, to read them. Right now.

lollipop_shoesThis happens to me quite often – as a compulsive book-buyer, this voice doesn’t need to shout any more, it just nudges me in the right direction and knows that I’ll comply, rolling its eyes (mixed metaphor, but you know what I mean) at the inevitability of it all – but not quite so compulsively as with Joanne HarrisThe Lollipop Shoes. I’m late to the Joanne Harris party; the book came out in 2007, and follows Chocolat, written in 2001 (which I hadn’t read either), so I have some catching up to do. The siren-call of The Lollipop Shoes isn’t hard to fathom – a heady blend of the front cover’s design, the heft of the book in the hand, the feel of the pages – and I succumbed instantly.

What beguiled me about the book from fairly early on was the rise and fall of the rhythm of the prose, the cadences, the dance between duple and triple metre – as a musician, it’s hard not to notice this aspect of any sound that reaches the ear – but this was the first time it had been so striking. It wasn’t just telling a story; the words were more akin to a kind of invocation, entirely appropriate for a story concerning the power of spells, of magic.

‘Death grins out from the woodcut design; jealous, joyless, hollow-eyed, hungry – Death the insatiable; Death the implacable; Death the debt we owe to the gods.’

It’s not just the sound of the words operating here – assonance, alliteration – it’s the way they are struck, too; the triplet-metre feel that moves to a duple-metre feel at the same time as the alliterative passage ‘jealous, joyless.’ The metric change imparts, quite deliberately, a more leaden tread to the manner in which the passages steps, in contrast to the 6/8 metre that surrounds it.

‘So many lives just there for the taking; there for the tasting, for someone like me.’

Again, it’s that mixture of sound and rhythm, the subtle shift from ‘taking’ to ‘tasting’ and the rhythm of the sentence that has me hearing it sung in haunting tones by someone like folk-singer, Mary Hampton. Whole passages seem to pass by in a stately dance; it’s impossible not to be hypnotised. Joanne’s prose does this a lot – in fact, it was difficult to read the whole of chapter Four without hearing the prose’s inner music and rhythm pulling the ear.

And that, perhaps, is what the book is all about; not just telling the reader about the power of magic, but actually working its own enchantment, too. With this novel, it’s not only about where the story takes you – it’s about the how, the way in which it does so, too. The excitement about contemporary music is very similar; not just ending up in a new landscape, but being taken there in an unexpected fashion, with new encounters along the way. Joanne’s book has this same appeal; sometimes dancing with the Puckish feel of a Tippett string quartet, elsewhen stepping with the poise of a stately gavotte.

 

Its bewitchment was such that I went out in a daze and binge-bought five more, helpless in the grip of a need to read further. I can never enter a bookshop without weeping in sheer frustration ‘But there’s so much to READ!’ No matter how much I read, more books are coming out all the time, and I’ll never be able to keep up. But that’s part of the attraction, the unattainable goal that you know you can never reach but one towards which you’re always being driven. My daughter needs a book for a Year 8 project this term: needless to say, I pressed this into her hand crying ‘This one! THIS ONE! You’ll love it; there’s love, magic, chocolate, and an inner music…’ I hope she does.

I’m late to the Joanne Harris party, it’s true; but I’m excited to be here…

Manet’s Execution: still shocking

The four pieces of canvas which comprise the reconstructed Execution of Maximilian by Manet currently hang on the wall in the Special Exhibitions room of Canterbury’s The Beaney. I’d seen the painting before, many years ago, in the National Gallery, but on visiting it recently in the walled city, I was struck anew by its power.

manet_execution
Manet: The Execution of Emperor Maximilian; c.1867-8

Large enough to make the viewer an implicit spectator at the scene, what shocks the most even after all this time is the matter-of-fact approach of the figure on the right, the soldier preparing his rifle for the finishing coup-de-grace. The collision of the act of violence – somehow made all the more vibrant because the pieces on which the emperor was painted have been lost, and only his hand remains to clasp that of one of his comrades, also facing execution – and the practicality of the soldier readying his rifle serves to heighten the tension in the painting.

the-execution-of-the-emperor-maximilian-of-mexico-1868An earlier lithograph of the same scene renders the commonplace even more apparent, as Manet depicts a ragged bunch of street-urchins looking over the wall behind the scene, like everyday gawkers or the tricoteuse, those women who would sit and knit beside the guillotines.

By dressing the Mexican army in French uniform, Manet caused the painting to be too controversial to be displayed during his lifetime. Even now, over one hundred and forty years later, the painting still has an explosive quality.

The painting is on display at the Beaney until Sunday 16 March.

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Dan Harding is the Deputy Director of Music at the University. Follow Dan on Twitter.

My summer with Caitlin Moran

I spent my summer with Caitlin Moran. Two heady weeks in a cottage in Sussex, in which she talked – she talked a lot – and I simply listened. I didn’t have to say anything, just had to sit there and listen as she poured out her heart. We bonded over a shared incredulity at Downton Abbey, a passion for libraries, and a mistrust of David Cameron. I found myself careening between emotional extremes, of asthma-inducing laughter and heart-stopping sorrow.

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Wolverhampton wanderer

As we sat there, Caitlin and I, time seemed to pass us by. My two young children were busy exploring new and exciting ways to injure themselves on the garden play-equipment; the cats were expiring through the suspension of their customary feeding ritual; phones were left unanswered; my wife took to her bed with a digital version of Scrabble in a desperate call for attention. None of it mattered; Caitlin and I had only each other, her needing to talk, my needing simply to listen.

Because that’s what reading the collection of articles that makes up her recent book, Moranthology, is like; it’s like chatting to a newly-discovered best friend. And not just that; a friend who’s funny, honest, brazen, unafraid of candid revelations, open about their moments of life-lunacy, and who writes from the hip.

Given its heart-on-sleeve admission of love for Sherlock, I have no qualms as an asthma-sufferer in declaring the book a Three-Inhaler Problem. The dispensary at the local Asda couldn’t issue me with new ones fast enough; I had my own parking-space, and was on first-name terms with the guy who sits in the entrance, watching the CCTV footage of people entering and leaving the store. It’s no understatement to describe the book as something of a roller-coaster; one minute, you’re giggling with sheer delight at the fearlessly inventive wit – the ‘And My Nanny Agress With Me Too’ put-down of George Osborne is going to become my default reaction to posh idiots – the next minute, you’re gasping as she devastatingly breaks your heart. Whether lamenting the cross-country closure of libraries, regaling you with the multitudinous ways in which she has Let Herself Down In Front of Celebrities, or campaigning for the rights of society’s down-trodden, her vigorous, no-holds-barred, attitude-busting prose is merciless in its scrutiny. Even, commendably, when that object of scrutiny is the writer herself. It’s like a very English incarnation of Hunter S Thompson’s Gonzo Journalism, with its wry attack on television soap-opera plotlines or the Welsh-o-centric nature of the latest incarnation of the Dr Who franchise, or its staunch championing of the Welfare State. And it’s the type of book that throws your assumptions back at you and makes you consider them anew; you come out a better person for reading it.

So forgive the cheap sensationalism of my title; under its same conditions, I’ve just spent several similar weeks with Tony Hawks (A Piano in the Pyrenees), Peter F Hamilton (Pandora’s Star), and am furthering my literary bigamy in being heavily involved with Humphrey Carpenter (Benjamin Britten). As Martin Amis said of Tom Wolfe’s A Man In Full (that’s just the sort of ghastly, navel-contemplating literary referencing that, after our weeks of companionship, I feel confident in declaring she would hate); this book will be a good friend to you. In fact, it won’t: Moranthology will be your best friend. Read it. Soon.

Dan Harding is the Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. He writes about music on the blog Music Matters. Follow Dan on Twitter.

Dealing with a dilemma: focus and concision in art

I have a dilemma. I find that Downton Abbey gets on my nerves, yet I love The Paradise. The operas of Wagner drive me mad, yet Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande is one of my favourite pieces. Mahler drives me mad, but Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians remains the sole piece I would pluck from a blazing conflagration of classical music.

Image credit: BBC

As I assess my lists of likes and can’t-stands, trying to work out why I both love and loathe examples of period drama, opera and music, I have come to realise that, for me, it’s a question of scale, of concision in utterance and narrative focus.

The overblown hyperbole that is opera, where it can take anywhere between two and five tiresome hours for consumptive maidens to expire, giants and demons to fight over treasure or someone’s soul, and for jealous lovers to work their revenge, means that generally, the genre has few recordings in my listening library. But Pelléas, and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges are present in more than one recorded incarnation and appear on my Recently Played lists quite often. How can this be, when normally opera sends me screaming into the comfort of John Adams or Nico Muhly ? Similarly, how can the yawn-inducing tedium of Downton Abbey be equated with my sheer and utter delight in the story of the evolution of England’s first department store that is The Paradise ? How can I rationalise both standpoints ?

As I said before, it’s a question of scope, of scale. Titanic myth-making in Wagner calls for similarly titanic music, and grand time-scale, the sort where the opera is so long that you have to have dinner in between acts simply to fortify yourself for what is still to come. But Pelléas concentrates instead on the dynamic between three characters wrapped in a love-triangle – Goloud, Pelléas and the object of their affections, Melisande – and is set often in small-scale situations: a room, a secluded garden, a cave, settings which are a geographical manifestation of the claustrophobic romantic tangle in which the three characters are entwined. Likewise, Ravel’s one-act opera is concerned with a single character, the mischievous child, whose wayward misbehaviour sparks off the magical episodes which follow, and which is similarly set in a room in the first half and a garden in the second.

And while Mahler’s view of the symphony was that it should ’embrace the world,’ (his first symphonic outing is called ‘The Titan,’ which should give you some idea of its lofty ambitions), this also requires musical gestures built on a grand scale, sustained by a musical architecture that needs to be epic in size. The music of someone like Reich, for instance, and to a certain extent the early works of John Adams and recent pieces by Nico Muhly, is much more about concise musical gestures, small-scale motivic thinking that may yield a piece lasting near to an hour (in the case of Music for Eighteen Musicians), but sustains its large-scale forms through the gradual unfolding of initially small ideas, into which can be condensed a range of harmonic and rhythmic expression.

Image credit: BBC

The epic narrative sweep in Downton takes on such themes as social hierarchy and the re-defining of class divisions in the wake of the First World War, the troubles in Ireland, and the minutiae of upstairs/downstairs relationships in the Grantham household with plodding tedium and lashings of cliche, painted in great swathes of block colour that don’t require the viewer to have to think too much for themselves about what’s going on, or what’s coming next. In contrast, The Paradise concentrates on a particular stretch of street, on one store in particular, and the characters within both; the focus is on a smaller scale, and as such it doesn’t need to make glib, sweeping gestures to allow large themes to be depicted in a small amount of on-screen time.

In his second volume of autobiography, ‘The Fry Chronicles,’ Stephen Fry recognises his own penchant for verbosity, for taking one hundred words to write what could be said in ten. But the book reads like an effortless conversation with Fry, and pages turn almost of themselves before you realise that many hours have gone by and you’ve read more than you intended, your wife and children have moved out and the dog is starving. Whilst the object of Fry’s book may be the re-telling of thirty year’s worth of life, the focus is again small-scale; himself, and what makes him tick.

So I have no compunction about dismissing endless hours of operatic bilge whilst secretly loving some examples of it, of casually being scathing about the tedium of Downton Abbey whilst revelling in the puff-pastry delight of The Paradise, and no sense of self-contradiction in writing off epic symphonic yawnathons whilst delighting in works of Minimalism that may last just as long as a piece by Mahler or Beethoven. It’s simply a question of focus.

Whatever floats your boat

As people all over the world gather to celebrate the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, a remarkable boat will set sail on its maiden voyage. The boat will be made from the lives and memories of people across the South East.

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We want your wood: but not just any old wood, we want something that’s a part of you, something with a story to tell. Come and tell us that story – your donated wood will be used along with donations from thousands of others to build this unique 30ft sailing boat, a living archive of our lives.

Donations will be accepted in the foyer of the Gulbenkian Theatre between 1- 7pm this Wednesday.

www.theboatproject.com

The Boat Project is part of Artists Taking the Lead, a series of 12 public art commissions across the UK to celebrate the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. The Boat Project is the winning commission for the South East region and is funded by Arts Council England.