Reading Burgess

19731973_10154812324647291_4850089015476714974_nAs my dear reader will know, Anthony Burgess is a constant presence in my life, so it was a pleasure to provide this little guide to some of my favourites among his works for the latest Shiny New Books. As ever, Shiny has lots to offer the discerning reader. The photo is of me spouting nonsense (surely ‘delivering a magisterial exegesis’? Ed.) at the recent Burgess 100 conference in Manchester.

David Hewson: Sleep Baby Sleep

This is the fourth in David Hewson‘s series featuring Amsterdam-based detective Pieter Vos, and old fans will not be disappointed. In this complex, and swift-moving narrative, Vos is personally involved in a case involving the abduction of a young woman, in circumstances which recall another case from some years before. Vos is troubled by the thought that the loose ends on the other case weren’t fully tied up, and what’s more the bossy new female Commissaris is gunning for him. He’s also edging nervously into a relationship with Marly Kloosterman, the prison doctor. But mostly, he’s being given the runaround by someone who knows his every move, and taunts him via notes and phone calls.
Vos and his assistant Laura Bakker have to battle not only a serial killer, but also to work out the connection to the old case, whilst avoiding the wrath of Jillian Chandra, the publicity-hungry new boss. Hewson deftly handles the various threads, moving in cinematic style between the different story lines, and building a believable cast of characters, including the family of Bert Schrijver, the flower seller whose daughter’s abduction sparks the action. Hewson is good at distinguishing characters through dialogue, giving them all distinctive speech mannerisms and vocabulary.
As with the previous Vos novels, the role of Amsterdam cannot be overstated. Hewson’s spare, direct style evokes the dark side of the city vividly, and provides some memorable locations for the action, from the Zorgvlied cemetery to the hipster bars of De Pijp, to the Albert Cuyp flower market or the snazzy houseboat of Marly Kloosterman. The action is rooted in the city, and the reader feels very much immersed, as the descriptions are so specific and immediate. Vos himself is very appropriately located in his shabby houseboat in the Jordaan, just down from his favourite bar, the Drie Vaten, where he is often to be found with his dog Sam, who is instrumental in this case.
Brilliant and evocative local colour is no use without an excellent plot, and this novel certainly has just that. The reader, along with Vos, remains pretty much in a fog as the seemingly unconnected elements slowly and relentlessly come together before a stunning denouement that is superbly orchestrated, and completely unexpected. The dogged police work and the flashes of insight that lead Vos to the solution, at some personal cost, are laid out for us in traditional style, but I’m confident that very few readers would predict the outcome.
Vos – it means “Fox” – takes his place now in the canon of fictional detectives whose adventures demand the crime fiction fan’s attention. This is an excellent, credible novel, which had me gripped from start to finish. Published on June 1st, 2017 by Macmillan. Available from Wordery.

Edward Petherbridge and Bloomsbury

iuEdward Petherbridge is probably best known now as the definitive Lord Peter Wimsey in the BBC adaptations of the late eighties, opposite Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane. He brought a wounded sensitivity to the part, presenting a more complex figure than his predecessor Ian Carmichael, who remained largely in Bertie Wooster mode. Any casual viewer of those programmes now can see what an accomplished actor he was — and indeed still is — but might not be aware of his considerable background in the theatre, where his distinguished career over forty-odd years has taken in everything from Shakespeare to Stoppard (he was the first Guildenstern) and beyond. My favourite Petherbridge moment was his Faulkland in Peter Wood’s National Theatre production of The Rivals in the early eighties, with an absolutely world-class cast: Michael Hordern, Tim Curry, Geraldine McEwan, Patrick Ryecart, Fiona Shaw… Petherbridge was perfect as the endlessly prevaricating Faulkland, showing real comic timing and exquisite judgement. This production was one of the highlights of my theatre-going experience, and the starting point for my interest in Edward Petherbridge’s career.

His theatrical output may have diminished in recent years, though he still tours, most notably in his one man show A Perfect Mind, which is based on his own experience as the victim of a stroke. Rather unusually for an actor of his generation, he took to the internet enthusiastically, maintaining a website which chronicled his activities, and often featured his poems and paintings. The poems are impressive: traditional, formal, but sensitive and inventive. The paintings are attractively naive, showing a fair degree of talent – good enough to be exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition at any rate. More recently, he has begun to produce little documentary films, and the most recent of these is a very interesting two-parter on Bloomsbury and its artistic inhabitants: Rooms of One’s Own. His oblique, personal approach is a welcome antidote to the normal lit-crit style accounts. There are some lovely little vignettes and anecdotes of theatrical life and the lives of the Bloomsberries, the Camden Town group, and others who passed through these London squares in the first half of the last century, such as Wyndham Lewis, also a particular interest of mine.

The films are well worth a look: intelligent, unhurried, informative and, of course, beautifully narrated in that distinctive voice. The website, Peth’s Staging Post, is a model of how to present yourself professionally and personally on the net. He is one of our finest actors, of a generation that is sadly shrinking year by year. Long may he continue to delight us.

Neil Campbell: Sky Hooks


As a Mancunian, for me one of the immediate delights of this novel by Neil Campbell is the authenticity of the detail. The topography of the city, its street names, pubs and landmarks are all chronicled faithfully, so that you can trace the physical wanderings of the protagonist as he makes his picaresque way from promising young footballer to dead-end job to something better. We first encounter him working in a warehouse, resenting the injury that cut short his career at City and wondering what to do with his life. And his existence is certainly grim, a procession of dodgy encounters with the prostitutes and crooks who live and work around the high-rise flat he lives in, interspersed with drunken pub-crawls with the blokes from work. He’s fuelled by resentment, and a sense that he could he could have been somebody or something, but quite what he doesn’t know. Campbell evokes the sordid urban milieu very adroitly, his deadpan style perfectly appropriate to convey the sense of lives wasted in the tatty underbelly of the city.

The nameless narrator tells his tale baldly, almost without emotion., working against the usual convention of first-person tales, and almost, but not quite, making the reader indifferent to his fate. The novel progresses through a seemingly endless series of short scenes, almost self-contained, in which typically the central character finds himself in some sort of conflict with a co-worker, someone on the street, or an authority figure. These vignettes tend not to be related, so there is an ever-changing cast of characters, with just a few figures, like the menacingly psychotic Riggers, present throughout. These fleeting characters seem to perhaps represent versions of what our narrator might have become: the cynical manual labourer, manipulating the system; the bitter middle-aged man trapped in an arid marriage; the alcoholic young man who antagonises everyone he meets. Occasionally, we are given an insight into childhood of our hero, with some hints at the source of his alienation, but mostly the focus is on the rootless life of this young man in the urban jungle of contemporary Manchester.

An unexpected circumstance leads to his channelling his creativity into writing, and that becomes his obsession. In the second and third parts of this shortish narrative, the hero develops a career of sorts on the fringes of the Manchester contemporary literature scene. Amusingly, he populates this arena with recognisable figures, many of them carrying their real names, though one obnoxious writer, in a nice Manchester in-joke, is given the name of an old-established textile firm. To anyone who knows Manchester, the descriptions are pitch-perfect. Here is our hero on the trendier parts of the leafy southern suburbs:

It made me laugh when I went out in places like West Didsbury and Chorlton. The men had moisturised beards and spotless retro trainers and skinny jeans. And they rode around on expensive bicycles made by Dawes, and wore horn-rimmed specs they didn’t need for seeing, and they never got drunk.

When he develops an interest in writing, our hero reads Hemingway, and there’s something of that writer’s laconic sparseness in Campbell’s prose. But Campbell is not a slavish imitator – he has his own distinctive voice, which uses a colloquial, demotic tone, quite sweary in places, that sounds grittily authentic. In addition, he isn’t afraid to use symbolism to enrich the reading experience. In particular, animals and birds often make unexpected appearances – a peregrine hovering over Albert Square, foxes running across urban wasteland, and herons on the canal and the river, all of them defying the relentless imposition of a man-made landscape. The man dreams of some kind of escape, and makes various attempts to realise it, in trips to New York and San Francisco, in the songs of Bruce Springsteen, and in the Scottish countryside.

This is a very promising first novel by a writer who shares quite a few characteristics with his protagonist. Campbell has published poetry and short stories, and an early, shorter version of this book. I look forward to reading more of his work. And the title? Well, sky hooks don’t exist, do they?

Thanks to Salt for the review copy.

Neil Campbell, Sky Hooks (Salt, 2016) ISBN: 9781784630379

The Kronos Quartet at the RNCM

Kronos_QuartetFor over forty years now, the Kronos Quartet have been pushing the boundaries of what’s musically possible for four classically trained string players to do. Along the way, they have covered not just the classic twentieth-century western repertoire of quartet music by such giants as Webern, Bartók and Schnittke, but have continually expanded their range to take in contemporary work, to rework rock, jazz and pop in new contexts, and to develop whole new sound palettes through a series of collaborations with artists such as Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith and Sigur Rós.

For their concert at the RNCM, this eclecticism was well represented in the programme choices, with the world premiere of a new piece by Martin Green of folk group Lau, as well as pieces written for them by Terry Riley and Mary Kouyoumdjian. The programme also strongly highlighted the quartet’s determination to encourage new music through its “Fifty for the Future” initiative, by which young composers are commissioned to write pieces for them. Three of these new pieces were featured here.

The group’s instrumentation is conventional — two violins, viola and cello – but all are amplified, and a serious mixing desk is deployed at the back of the auditorium, rock style. Working with recorded sounds as well as their instruments, which are sometimes given a fearful going over in the course of the performance, the group project a sensibility not often encountered in classical circles. The rock band feel is further enhanced by the use of a lighting rig, still an unusual sight in a classical concert.

The performance started with two of the newly composed pieces, by Alexander Vrebalov and Garth Knox. Vrebalov’s “My Desert, My Rose” was dreamily atmospheric, whereas Knox’s work Satellites, from which we heard two excerpts, seemed to rely too much on plucked strings and even airily waved bows. It was followed by one of the quartet’s best-known works, Terry Riley’s “One Earth, One People, One Love” from his Sun Rings. This was marvellously solemn, highlighting the recorded voice of Alice Walker speaking the words that form the title recorded the day after the 9/11 atrocities. Another newly commissioned piece, by Malian composer Fodé Lassana Diabaté was almost traditionally conventional, and highlighted Sunny Yang’s lightness of touch on the cello. She was also featured in the Indian composer N. Rajam’s “Dadra in Raga Bhairavi” when she attached a pickup to the body of her instrument and played to make a tabla-like accompaniment to the melody.

Martin Green, known for his work with alt-folk group Lau, has written an extraordinary piece called “Seiche” which means, apparently, a standing wave oscillating in a body of water. For this, the group augmented their instrumentation with a bizarre item, invented by Green and called the Kronoscillator. Imagine one of those kids’ Slinky toys, stretched out for yards and fixed at either end to a post, on which is an electronic pick up. Two of these were hit, bashed with violin bows and plucked by hand to create a strange and mesmerising backdrop to some urgent and rhythmic playing. The first half finished with a rousing version of the old Who favourite “Baba O’Riley” which was played absolutely straight, and with flair and dynamism.

The second half featured “Groung”, based on a song by the 19th-century Armenian composer Komitas, in a version by contemporary Armenian-American Mary Kouyoumdjian. A brief, reflective piece, “Flow” by Laurie Anderson followed, and then the climactic finale was Kouyoumdjian’s “Bombs of Beirut”, part recorded oral history, part wartime soundscape, with some devastating recordings of explosions from the civil war in the Lebanon. The sound of the bombs was reverberating around the hall when the group came back for the first of a generous four encores. These final pieces once again demonstrated the breadth of their music-making. We were treated to a rendition of the sublime “The Beatitudes” by Martynov , followed by a version of the thirties blues song “Last Kind Words” originally recorded by Geeshie Wiley. Then more Americana in the shape of the old fiddle tune “Orange Blossom Special” here given an absolutely frantic treatment, and finally more sublimity with“Lux Aeterna” by Clint Mansell from the film Requiem for a Dream.

The concert was received rapturously by a pretty full house, and rightly so. The virtuosity of the players, the range, and the sense of engagement was palpable from the start. This is a group at the peak of its power, offering an immersive and challenging experience to its audience. A memorable night!
This review was originally written for North West End

Brand New Orchestra

This review was originally written for North West End and is available here.

The Brand New Orchestra is a thrice-yearly showcase event at the RNCM, where the student composers are given the chance to have their work performed by their colleagues on the instrumental side. Given the huge number of talented musicians studying at the RNCM, the forces available to the composers are immense, and they make full use of them, in the generous space of the RNCM’s main hall.
The event was free, and very informal, which was fine, but to be so laid-back as to not even bother with a programme made it a reviewer’s nightmare. With so many family and friends among the audience, a programme would have been a great souvenir. One side of A4 is all it takes! Instead, we had a spoken introduction to the evening by someone – an academic, I assume, but he didn’t say who he was – who told us that there would be nine pieces, each to be introduced by the composer.  So before each piece the composer stepped up to the microphone and did just that. Naturally, some of them were quite nervous, and several were clearly rather diffident about speaking in public – which meant that their names were not always easy to catch, especially as some of them had rather exotic monikers. This review will therefore break the first commandment of reviewing by not getting all the names, and probably getting some wrong. My kingdom for a programme!
The pieces premiered at this warm and upbeat event were very varied, suggesting that the future of classical music composition in this country is in safe hands. In an eclectic programme of short orchestral pieces, played by a very large band, the audience was treated to a really wide-ranging array of sounds, rehearsed, if I understood our MC correctly, in just two days, which made the ensuing excellence all the more remarkable.
We started with a piece by (probably) Phillipos, who was interested in translating electronic soundscapes into orchestral mode, using strings. The piece, which had a seascape theme was dreamily evocative at times, though some passages sounded like they might have accompanied Janet Lee in the shower.  A student who introduced himself as Peter from Italy presented us with a remarkably cinematic piece, which began with the percussionists whirling tubes (they’re called bloogle resonators) around their heads to produce an eerily unworldly noise, taken up by the violins, and eventually developing into a big orchestral sound. Lushly romantic at times, and stridently brassy at others, it faded to almost silence as the whirly tubes, defying health and safety regulations, took over again.
The third piece, possibly by someone called Charlotte, was quite different in tone from anything else we heard. The composer is working on a musical version of one of Terry Pratchett’s novels, and presented four songs from it. This was probably the most mainstream item of the night. I was reminded of Sondheim, and then of Lloyd Webber. The female singers were excellent, and convincingly in character. Don’t be surprised to see this hit the West End in the not-too-distant future.
Alex Simcox was one of two composers who presented a piece based on a poem. In his case the poem was by a colleague, and he was really inspired by just the final line, which gave him his title ‘Loops of Letting Go.’ This used the full forces of the orchestra, as well as the RNCM organ. The dense texture of the piece was relieved by sparkly lighter passages with woodwind and xylophone prominent. The other poetically-inspired piece was by William Marshall, and his starting point was Yeats’s well-known ‘The Second Coming’ whose first line gave him his title, ‘Turning in the Widening Gyre.’  The mysterious nature of the poem was evoked well in a piece that was slow and rather mesmeric, punctuated by the ominous tolling of the bell.
Daniel Ryan’s piece ‘Amygdala’ is named after the part of the brain that looks after emotions, survival instincts, and memory. It explores the subconscious through a series of often quite unsettling and heavily percussive passages, which then modulate into more sprightly, jaunty sounds. In contrast, Denis introduced his piece ‘Paris 13.11.15’ as his personal response to the terrorist attacks. This was adapted from a string quartet, and this time used the massed ranks of the strings to evoke the sadness of the theme. This was delicate, atmospheric and meditative, creating exquisitely the devastation wrought on that day.
Nevada (I think) offered a bright, lively springtime piece, which wore its heart on its sleeve. ‘A New Spring’ was quite traditional, and none the worse for that, making subtle use of the orchestral palate to suggest the regenerative powers of the season.
We finished with a remarkable piece which combined the full orchestra with the choir of the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist temple. Entitled ‘Pāramitā’ from the Sanskrit, and meaning the state of perfection or completeness that Buddhists aim for in their journey of spiritual development, the piece used brass, woodwind, strings and percussion to create a wall of sound verging on cacophony before the voices of the fifteen-strong choir broke in, quietly at first, and then increasing in volume until they had dominated the orchestra, which fell silent at the end, leaving us with just the chants of the choir. It was an unusual and memorable end to an excellent evening of new music by some very talented composers and players. But please let’s have a programme next time!

Shiny New Books 9

The new edition of Shiny New Books is now available online, containing reviews of many exciting and intriguing books.  A few of my reviews are in there, including the entertaining and scholarly account of the British in Malaya, Out in the Midday Sun, by Margaret Shennan; Laura Feigel’s fascinating follow-up to The Love-Charm of Bombs, this time investigating artistic life in Germany after the war in The Bitter Taste of Victory; and Howard Jacobson’s latest novel, a volume in Hogarth’s reinterpretations of Shakespeare series, in which the Mancunian author tackles The Merchant of Venice in Shylock is my Name.

There’s lots more, including a new literary guide to Venice that is definitely accompanying me next time I go; Volker Weidemann’s book about Zweig and Roth; the latest Julian Barnes biofiction, this time on Shostakovich; a new-to-me detective in Elly Griffiths’s The Woman in Blue; and a book to feed my recently-acquired taste for espionage fiction, Helen Dunmore’s Exposure.

As always with SNB, lots to read, lots to explore. Once again, a pleasing mix of the familiar and the new. Have a browse, why don’t you?

Così Fan Tutte



The title of Mozart’s opera is one of the few that are never rendered into English when the piece is performed. “Women—they’re all like that” would be a close translation, and that maybe grates on twenty-first century ears. It also suggests that the comedic tone will be coarser than it actually is. Opera North’s lively production, now touring, steers a clever course, avoiding slapstick on the one hand, and sentimentality on the other.

The visually startling set, designed by Thomas Hoheisel, is a key element in establishing this production’s atmosphere. As the curtain rises, we are presented with what seems to be a giant wooden box, with huge cutout lenses, which we soon realise is a camera obscura. This opens out to reveal a monochrome interior, which is where all the action takes place. At the beginning, Don Alfonso, played with wry humour by William Dazeley, stands outside the construction, and invites the orchestra to play: he is the detached observer of the mind games that will be played out within the box.

The two sisters, Fiordiligi (Máire Flavin) and Dorabella (Helen Sharman) are indistinguishable when we first see them, but soon we note their differing personalities as they find themselves the unknowing guinea-pigs in Don Alfonso’s experiment to prove the fickle nature of women. Their soldier lovers, Gugliemo (Gavan Ring) and Ferrando (Nicholas Watts) are nicely distinguished too, with Ring giving Gugliemo a brash bravado, and Watts providing Ferrando with a plaintive vulnerability. The role of the maid Despina was brilliantly handled by Ellie Laugharne, whose energy and humour drove the action forward, particularly when she is disguised as the doctor as part of Don Alfonso’s deception. In her maid’s outfit, she wears a red hairpin, sticking out like horns, and hinting at the devilment she urges on her employers.

With Mozart’s glorious tunes, and Da Ponte’s witty libretto (here sung in English, in an equally witty version by an uncredited translator), it’s difficult to see how Così Fan Tutte can fail. That it succeeds as well as it does here is tribute to a sparkling cast, directed with vigour by Tim Albery, working hard for each other in a series of vibrant set pieces, particularly the sextet in the first act, where the disguised soldiers return to woo the women, and the finale, where all of them agree to accept the vicissitudes of life.

Tim Albery’s production, whilst providing many comic moments, nonetheless manages to explore the darker recesses of human nature hinted at in Don Alfonso’s philosophy. Fiordiligi’s second act aria in which she begs forgiveness is rendered with real poignancy by Máire Flavin, and Ferrando’s despair when he discovers that Dorabella has been tempted is invested with genuine emotion by Nicholas Watts.

The Opera North orchestra, conducted by Anthony Kraus, performed with plenty of attack, complementing the busyness of the action.  Charlotte Forrest’s fortepiano in the recitative was a delight, really highlighting the characters’ words, and helping to propel the narrative.

The sublime pairing of Mozart and Da Ponte will always provide marvellous entertainment, but this production works well on every level, helped by a consistent and highly original vision of the late eighteenth-century world. This is a genuine treat for any fan, and would surely convert many who find opera too remote.

This review was originally written for North West End.

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