50 Poems from Five Decades at Southbank Centre

This April the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room on the South Bank reopened at last after extensive renovations.

I arrived there early, after a lovely lunch and chat with a writer friend, Carmen Bugan, who was over from the US for a series of readings and lectures in Oxford and Liverpool. To my delight, in the foyer I got to tap along to school jazz bands taking part in a national competition.

A school band from Manchester.

As part of these celebrations there was a rather fantastic poetry reading: ten poets reading fifty poems offering a picture of roughly 50 years of life in Britain since the original opening of the music and poetry venue in 1967. Over the years poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Seamus Heaney, Anne Sexton, Anne Carson, Sharon Olds and many others have read in this building. And now it was the turn of established poets such as Fleur Adcock (who has translated a lot of poetry from Romanian, so a big thank you to her), Simon Armitage, Malika Booker, Imtiaz Dharker, Lavinia Greenlaw, Peter Finch, as well as relative youngsters, Jay Bernard and Caleb Femi, whose mellifluous readings belied their hard-hitting words and topics. Additional delight: Welsh poet Ifor ap Glyn and Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi reading in their original languages (with translations being projected on the screen behind them).

The poems were mostly on the lighter and more colourful side of the spectrum, capturing certain moments in time (Imtiaz Dharker – ‘1977 (I am quite sure of this’ or Caleb Femi’s ‘Man of the People: Labour 1997 & 2017’) or the colours, sounds and smells of a particular place (Malika Booker’s ‘Brixton Market’ or Peter Finch’s ‘Spending Money in Soviet Russia’, Fleur Adcock’s ‘Summer in Bucharest’). Best of all, I liked seeing the joy in the other poets’ faces when one of them recited a particularly good verse or finish a challenging poem. Love of words bound all of us and a representation of the multicultural Britain I always admired and believed in.

Of course, I forgot to take a picture of the actual poets at the end, bowing. I was far too busy clapping!

 

Hardboiled with a soft core: crime fiction from the North

It’s not just the capital cities in Europe which provide a photogenic noir backdrop to hardboiled crime fiction. Gunnar Staalesen’s lone wolf detective Varg Veum operates in the northern climes of Bergen in Norway, while John Harvey’s DI Charlie Resnick battles increasingly violent incidents in … well, maybe Nottingham is not quite that far north, if I’m to be honest, only about 130 miles north of London. Both of these strong, silent types are now nearing retirement, so they are showing a more sensitive (or perhaps just more vulnerable) side of themselves.

inheritwindGunnar Staalesen: We Shall Inherit the Wind (transl. Don Bartlett)

Who’d have thought that wind farms and ecology can lead to murderous intent? An ageing Varg Veum proposes to his girlfriend but shows no signs of slowing down otherwise. He still seems able to run and fight his way out of trouble along with the rest of them, while his ability to outsmart his adversary, his tendency to make irreverent quips and cheeky retorts, his talent for getting into trouble remain undiminished. But he is also more self-aware, more likely to recognise his mistakes and try to repair them. And he blames himself for the events and actions which led to his girlfriend being in a coma at the start of the book.

However, despite the thrills and plot twists, the novel is not all about action: readers will find thoughtful characterisation and topical social and economic concerns which are so often linked to Scandinavian crime fiction.

vargveumNot all of the Varg Veum novels have been translated into English, and certainly not in the right order, but I remember reading Staalesen a few years back and thinking his stubborn, wisecrack-filled hero reminded me of Arjouni’s Kayankaya or Harry Bosch. A well-paced, thrilling plot, the usual topical social concerns we have come to expect from Staalesen’s confident pen. The author is a classic in his own country: there is even a statue of Varg Veum leaning against a wall and staring moodily into the distance in Bergen. And I can imagine Varg attending the Bergen Jazz Festival, perhaps together with the detective featured below…

CiHandJohn Harvey: Cold in Hand

John Harvey is an immensely prolific writer, and his jazz-influenced Charlie Resnick series has received numerous awards and high critical praise. I am a newcomer to his work, but I could not help admiring his strong, muscular, lean and yet very poetic prose. A detective of Polish origin who loves cats, Billie Holiday and Thelonious Monk? Count me in!

Charlie gets pulled back into frontline policing as gang violence with smuggled weapons escalates in Nottingham. Fellow police officer (and lover/nearly fiancée) Lynn tries to break up a street fight and gets caught in a shooting, in which one teenage girl dies. The girl’s father publicly accuses her of putting his daughter’s life at risk and Charlie and Lynn find themselves struggling to reconcile their personal beliefs with their professional lives.

Life happens – sometimes it is cosy and everyday, sometimes it is brutal and painful, just like real life. Harvey is a master at rendering both the comfort of the common-place and the shudder of deep grief. I am full of admiration for the economy of his prose, capable of conveying so much emotion.

I don’t know why it took me so long to discover John Harvey as a crime writer. I was a regular reader of his old blog (now closed) and his poetry, but he still blogs occasionally here about poetry, music and various other book-related themes.

 

Jazz and Java

Frost1When rhythm kicks

when rhythm hits

I

feel the heat

wrap up in it

why

music fills all spaces in me

never claim to see          just wonder and be

but

no denying its power-grip

heart does a tock-salto-tick

it blends its dazzle into my soul

feel all the tension

feel all the edges

soften         making me whole.

The irresistible syncopation of the Claude Nougaro song ‘Le Jazz et la Java’ (see the link below) inspired this poem, which I am offering up with my best Christmas wishes to the last Open Link Night of the year. Let’s celebrate in style with dVerse Poets!

Billie Holiday Jazz Blues

Billie Holiday, 23 March 1949
Billie Holiday, 23 March 1949 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lady sings the blues.  Her haunting voice and heart-breaking rendition of love-songs (and abuse songs) have marked me for life.  This is for that marvellous combination of jazz and poetry proposed by us tonight at dVerse Poets Pub.

Come in, sit down,

Your head just so

In weary pose.

Abstract yourself –

If you can –

From war-mongering news.

Turn your eyes away,

Shutter your mind.

And see me only

For I only have eyes for you.

May your questions fall shallow.

Pebbles barely breaking

The surface of our contentment.

Love we dare not probe

Nor look too far ahead.

For tonight is all we are given

and twinkly eyes all that are left.

We cannot search

To understand

Why I am yours and yours alone.