christopher james

Poems and prattle

Month: December, 2012

Down the Road with Ralph McTell

To the Apex, Bury St Edmunds with my father to see the great Ralph McTell; it’s a cold Remembrance Sunday night. We are both serious fans since becoming addicted to his Right Side Up album, which is genuinely one of the great albums of the 70s – London Irish flavoured ballads mixed in with inspired covers, including a devastating version of Tom Waits’ San Diego Serenade. We are delighted to discover that through accident rather than design we are seated in the front row, giving us a close up of three beautiful guitars, waiting patiently for instruction.

The building itself is extraordinary – a sort of high tech barn. We are almost completely enveloped in wood which gives the odd impression that we are actually inside a guitar. It smells good too. When Ralph appears, a little shambling, he gazes around in wonder. ‘What an amazing place,’ he mutters, before adding: ‘but you know that because you live here.’

He’s in contemplative mood this evening, explaining how Remembrance Day has almost meant a lot to him – and treats us to memories of all kinds, including a powerful, haunting version of England 1914. There are reminiscences of his own army days, as well as long ago trips to the beach with his uncles and aunts. The past is a rich seam he returns to, exploring a sort of personal mythology of post war Britain. But he is far from a nostalgia act; this tour is not as extreme as the one in support of Somewhere Down the Road, where he played almost entirely new material – albeit with great power and conviction. Tonight old and new sit comfortably alongside each other, informing and enriching, while the unity of tone comes from his guitar playing – precise, intricate and melodic.

He shows off the guitar he’s owned since he was 19, while explaining how easy it is to covet others. ‘If you’re a guitar player,’ he confesses, ‘you’ll know you can never have too many guitars.’ He’s promoting a new album of instrumentals: Sofa Noodlings, his first all instrumental album, including re-workings of old favourites, alongside new tunes. A highlight is Housewives’ Choice, a kissing cousin of Blind Blake’s Rag, a jaunty jazz inflected rag (inspired by music he heard on the BBC’s Light Programme as a child, which ‘played cheerful music to keep the housewives cheerful. Please tell me I’m not the only one in here old enough to remember it!’) It’s also an excuse to essay his delightful and possibly unconscious hip shimmy while he plays.

Streets of London is received gratefully and inspires a hushed audience sing along. Although he must be sick to the back teeth of it by now, he still treats it with respect – perhaps acknowledging that it has allowed him a life of creative freedom and given him a following wider than some of his folk contemporaries have enjoyed.

Melodies still seem to come easily to him; The Girl on the Jersey Ferry (from his last album) is a lesson in classic song writing – using a single image well as exploration of memory and regret, while using a sophisticated double narrative. It sits comfortably alongside Naomi – his beautiful peon to love in old age, played in stately fashion on the gleaming grand piano. His introduction is typically enlightening, funny and poetic too – how a visit to an elderly couple for tea sparks his imagination.

But it is then guitar he returns to as his enduring love; he plays us hard edge blues alongside Reverend Thunder and The Ghost of Robert Johnson, both tributes to the great bluesmen whose shadows still hang across his work. A spirited Around the Wild Cape Horn also points towards this becoming something of a modern classic. Despite so many years on the road, Ralph still seems in awe at the love and acclaim he inspires. But he deserves every bit of it – as a living link to a valuable tradition of folk and blues and as a great English musician and poet. The past is something to be understood and unravelled over time, but this evening proves that music – the space between the six strings – remains the greatest mystery of all.

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Chasing the phantoms – Review of Dust Sheet by Luke Heeley (Salt, 2012)

There is a strong sense of absence in Luke Heeley’s mellifluous, beguiling first collection. The Decorator’s dust sheet ‘has severed its ghost.’  In Piero di Cosimo ‘no one knows for sure’ and in the Pink Floyd inspired You’re All Door and I’m All Mirror there is ‘a tremor that wants to be a word.’ Like the absence of Syd Barrett that haunted Pink Floyd’s seminal 70’s work, this emptiness charges the collection with a strange, haunting power – phantoms that refuse to commit to a shape. Like Leonardo in Dragon, he ‘didn’t study this beast, he saw it in the half light.’

But if these ghosts and shadows suggest imprecision, the opposite is true in their rendering. Heeley has a feather-light, pin sharp touch that gives images both delicacy and a vivid clarity. In Second Delivery, the single occupant of an otherwise empty house watches as ‘gas burns with a sapphire flame.’ He feels the acute emptiness of each room as ‘the phone rings, and then the phone is silent.’ Each poem reveals multiple layers and their meaning is often deceptive: ‘squares of grey turn out to be/from a  distance, the face of Abraham Lincoln.’

But if this all sounds rather grey and unsettling, then that is to do Heeley an injustice. His leaning are towards film noir, a sort of south London as drawn by Raymond Chandler, certainly, but like Chandler, his work is leavened with a sly humour.  The Hobbies of Cowboys is already widely known, and is a case in point: ‘One deals himself a hand of patience; the other puffs through the empty chambers of his gun.’ There is a constant, Beckett-like sense of waiting for something to happen, if Beckett in the wild west is not pushing things too far. Fun is certainly permissible while we wait – even if the end destination remains an unsavoury prospect.     

Like all good collections, it’s eminently quotable. The Contrarian is a key poem in the sequence, with its ‘thrifty drifter, clad in biker’s black’. He warns: ‘the contrarian must never be consistent/in his contrariness.’ There is great control here as well as an ambiguous playfulness. It’s difficult to lock down, and yet it’s all done with such conviction and deliberation – a quality that inspires multiple readings and a paradox that seems to define Heeley’s approach. 

Dust SheetLuke HeeleyHardback2012   198 x 129 mm   64pp

There are many lines that demonstrate his finely wrought lyricism. Episodes from the History of Bees feels like major work. The stylish, oxymoronic flair in the address of the first line of Swammerdan’s Prayer is magnificent: ‘Miniscule god, this is my devotion.’ It is the equal of anything in Carol Ann Duffy’s equally enjoyable collection, The Bees. 

Individual metaphors are minor triumphs in themselves: fellow poets (and he is widely respected by his peers) will both admire and envy the ‘storm-drain’ of an eye or how ‘the sun’s yolk trembles in its translucent sac’ and this book is full of them. Heeley’s collection has been a long time coming, but the time has allowed him to finely-tune these small, well- engineered poems. Each feels potent with stored up potential; each narrative feels like a small tear in the world’s fabric, revealing glimpses of light, indicating bright worlds beyond. 

If there are criticisms, they are light and subjective – I could have lost the last three stanzas of Operation, which, for me, veers too close to Fantasia with its ‘row of surgical gloves/pouring spirits.’ Perhaps Cold Call, for all its qualities, is one too many poems about a phone ringing in an empty house. 

But this is a book that will stay with you – lines will announce themselves disconcerting in your inner ear and then challenge your first reading of them. Like something from a grainy Eastern European film there is constant sense that something has just happened of significance that cannot easily be explained.

I hope we will not wait so long for Heeley’s follow up, but regardless of its eta, I feel sure that poems here (posterity: watch out for ‘To a Disused Phone Box’ and ‘Time for an Imaginary Smoke’) have already booked their place in the anthologies of the future, not just for their eulogising subject matter but for their, mercurial otherworldly glow. And they will continue to delight then as they do now.