#HeadSpace: culture in lockdown: Part Two

Welcome to a wintry second episode of our new feature, #HeadSpace, sharing ideas for cultural activities during these challenging times; from great reads to gripping TV, binge-worthy boxed-sets to stream and ideas for listening (from music you might know to music you might not and some Slow Radio), aiming to keep you engaged, entertained and maybe even amused whether you’re isolating, in lockdown, or simply looking for ways to keep occupied.

Book cover
Dare you take a look…

Riveting Reads: winter is a great time to read a ghost story or two; when the nights are dark and cold and the past seems to rise to the surface and be within touching-distance, somehow a ghost story fits the season – perhaps as an antidote to all the jollity and over-indulgence of Christmas… Two short novellas by Susan Hill, The Mist in the Mirror and The Man in the Picture fit perfectly into winter-night reading, written by the author of The Woman in Black. Hill’s stories sit firmly within the tradition of the great MR James, suitably atmospheric and told at one remove to create a sense of I-heard-it-from-someone-who-heard-it-from. She writes evocatively – fog-shrouded Gothic houses, menacing Viennese carnival – although, for me, there was something slightly underwhelming about the ending to each story, a sort of ‘Wait, was that IT ?’ that left me somewhat confused, as though I’d misread them. But that might just be me; and the atmosphere permeating each book is worth the read alone.

Top TV: not for Dickens purists, and even though Christmas is over (or if you don’t want to let it go quite yet…), take a walk through the dark Victorian streets of the 2019 BBC three-part adaptation of another ghost story, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Made by the creator of Peaky Blinders (which may or may not put you off…), it’s a darkly fascinating take on the classic seasonal tale starring Guy Pearce as the curmudgeonly Scrooge, and includes Andy Serkis as a truly menacing Ghost of Christmas Past. There’s a lot of back-story building explaining how Scrooge and Marley made their fortune at the expense of others, and an interesting shift where (without giving too much away), women have a critical, more powerful role than in the book; but there are some fabulous conceits, and the image of a terrifying Ghost of Christmas Part burning all the Christmas trees, decorations and toys of previous years in a huge bonfire in a a desolate, wintry landscape is striking and memorable. Not for those who prefer faithful adaptations of Dickens’ masterpiece, but for an engaging re-imagining, this is worth watching – on iPlayer for the next few weeks.


Our second Lockdown Listening recommendation is a late period Chet Baker album, No Problem, a mellow, relaxed, middle-of-the-road disc featuring the great Danish bassist, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, with all the tracks written by pianist Duke Jordan.

Admittedly, the album doesn’t push any boundaries or take any great risks – it’s more of a ‘comfortable’ listen, with all the players well inside their comfort-zones. Chet is by now over his brash, vigorous post-bop days – perhaps he never really recovered after his teeth were knocked out in a brawl in the mid-60s – and is into the last stage of his career (he would die nine years later, in 1988.) The opening track mixes Latin and swing; Sultry Eve is a gentle ballad, Chet blowing in a fragile state through a harmon mute; Glad I Met Pat is a graceful jazz waltz; The Fuzz is a gentle nod to the post-Bop era; and the final track features Chet’s inimtable, love-it-or-hate-it scat singing. If you’re looking for a jazz album that’s a classic masterpiece, you won’t find it here; but if you are looking for a comfortable, easy listen, you can’t go far wrong with this one. On Spotify here.

Wintry words, a chilling retake on a classic tale, relaxed swing; happy New Year, stay tuned for the next in the series; hope you’ve found something new.


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…