Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Hyper Critical Hypocrite

 Newcastle United 1 Norwich City 1; I was there, surprisingly enough...


The last time I wrote about Newcastle United, I voiced the opinion that if the club were to have a realistic chance of staying up this season, then maximum points needed to be harvested from the trio of successive home games against: Brentford, Norwich and Burnley. As I write this, only the Burnley game remains and the other two games resulted in zero wins. Indeed, as the first date on the Advent Calendar is revealed, Newcastle United have not, as yet, recorded a win of any kind in the opening 14 league games, plus a limp League Cup loss on penalties to Burnley. Unsurprisingly, with a record of 7 draws and 7 losses and the unforgiving prospect of fixtures against Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Everton before the turn of the year, Newcastle United are languishing in last place in the Premier League, a mere 6 points from safety. How’s the takeover did you say?

It is a moot point whether the infuriating, unending series of individual blunders that have seen vast swathes of unnecessary goals conceded, or the alarming incompetence of the fawning lickspittles acting as the sanitised face of the theocratic Saudi despots who now own the club, is the more malign influence on the future direction of Newcastle United. Without a doubt, the former will get the club relegated, unless Nice Guy Eddie proves himself a miracle worker, while the latter will be liable to the kind of summary injustices meted out round Riyadh way when the whole takeover unravels in an explosion of recriminations and bilious invective. Ever felt you’ve been cheated?

It must have been around 7pm on Friday November 19th when news of Nice Guy Eddie’s positive PCR test. Despite the swivel eyed lunacy spewed across social media about the Scamdemic by the likes of Jamie Tinfoil and TMWNFHJOP, the vast majority of NUFC fans accepted the news with a kind of stoic resignation that hinted at a hitherto undiscovered maturity in the face of adversity. You simply had to make the best of a bad job. If the bloke who relegated Bournemouth wasn’t available, his successor who got the boot after 7 months in the big chair, assisted by someone fella relieved of his duties at Luton when it looked like they were going down, would have to make do and mend.  The eventual outcome wasn’t a surprise; Ivan Toney, a player that the sainted El Fraudio Benitez contemptuously tossed to one side in order to fritter away the best part of £12m on the dubious talents of the indescribably awful Muto, showed exactly why he’s one of the hottest attacking properties outside the top 6. Admittedly a draw was an improvement on the Algarve-Bruce days which would have seen a 4-0 tanking after the players collectively chucked it once they’d gone behind, rather than the decent team effort we saw.

However, we all know why we didn’t win that game; one of Karl Darlow’s all too frequent bouts of nerves did for him, with a pair of terrible misjudgements. While Herr Tinfoil and pals may disagree, I suspect Darlow’s symptoms of long COVID manifest themselves in an inability to keep the ball out the net when someone shoots at him. Like Woodman at the start of the season, Darlow’s fragile sense of self-worth means he just isn’t up to the mark when it comes to playing in the top flight. Of course all that pales into insignificance when the story of a female Asian Newcastle fan being racially abused by some numbskull knuckle dragger in the Gallowgate. This, along with the vile image of someone making a Nazi salute to the Spurs support, is probably even more of an indictment of our club than the murderous regime who currently own us. How can such behaviour be allowed to happen? Scum like this don’t just need to be kicked out of the ground, they need to be eradicated from the gene pool.

Meanwhile, what of the club at a corporate level I hear you ask. How are Amanda and pals getting on with transforming the careworn husk of a club that was devoid of all sense of direction and purpose under the previous ownership? Well, they’ve got shot of Lee Charnley, which I suppose is a bit of a step forward, but that really is it. No Director of Football has been appointed and no other outward signs of any forward momentum can be discerned at all. Perhaps they’re trying to pretend that they’re still digesting Tracy Crouch’s uncontentious and sensible report following her fan-led review of the English game. I’d imagine that such a document will rank below even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the must read pile at the House of Saud. In all seriousness, the lack of a Director of Football and the associated utter absence of direction or strategy will be the undoing of this takeover and, quite possibly, this club. We won’t sign anyone in January because there’s nobody in charge who has the remotest idea what is going on. Are you still singing “we’ve got our club back?”

The sorry second half disintegration at Arsenal put the tin hat on a weekend wrecked by wintry weather. Storms and gales put paid to the entire local grassroots programme while, probably uniquely, Newcastle, Middlesbrough, sunderland, Hartlepool, Gateshead, South Shields and Blyth were all away. Carlisle United and Carlisle City both got their games on, but there was no public transport to speak of, so I couldn’t get there. Instead, I was stuck indoors with the Arsenal v Newcastle game. As is always the case, the plucky underdog gained a ripple of patronising applause for their tenacity in holding on for almost an hour, but as soon as Arsenal scored, that was game over. As my mate Cola tweeted afterwards; the main positives to take from the game were that Lascelles and Ritchie were both suspended for the Norwich game.  Bearing that in mind, never for one second did I believe Clark would get the nod for the vacant centre back position.

 


And so, for the first time since a 4-1 win over Rochdale in an FA Cup third round replay on January 14th 2020, I entered St James’ Park. Partly out of curiosity, but mainly because of the fact my mate John was over from County Kildare for the first time since January 18th 2020, when we beat Chelsea 1-0 with a Hayden goal in the 95th minute. Imagine that; beating Chelsea… Imagine beating anyone; I stopped doing so on 10 minutes when Clark’s incompetence followed by idiocy saw us a man down and facing a hell of a struggle. Thankfully, Norwich are as bad as us and didn’t really threaten, partly because of an immaculate performance by Fernandez. It was nice of VAR to offer up a penalty for something I couldn’t see, perched in Leazes East Corner as I was. What I did see was a team who worked hard and obeyed the manager’s sensible tactics to the letter in the last 80 minutes. I didn’t see any blame for Dubravka for the goal; just a decent save and an unstoppable finish from Pukki.  And so, after a brilliant block in injury time by Dubravka, we gained a valuable point from a must-win game that we’d looked likely to lose.

For me, the plus points, other than some determined defensive work, included an utter absence of fancy dress Arabs, songs in support of the regime or another bloody flag display. Precisely where we go from here will partly be decided by Saturday’s result, but more crucially by any sense of urgency or, perish the thought, signs of progress from within the boardroom.


Monday, 22 November 2021

Terrace Anthems

 Issue #7 of Ireland's only football periodical Póg Mo Goal is out now. You should buy a copy from   https://pogmogoal.com and not just because I've got this article about Adrian Sherwood, Tackhead, Barmy Army and other On-U Sounds musical legends in there...


The late, lamented genius that was Mark E Smith never made any secret of his affection for Manchester City, though one suspects the great contrarian was more at home with the Peter Swales era than the unimagined success of his last years. Back in 1983, The Fall released the menacing, fractured terrace tirade that was Kicker Conspiracy. Written from an unapologetic and uncompromising fan’s perspective, with a video filmed at Turf Moor, it takes the authorities to task for assuming criminality is rife among ordinary football supporters. Later MES returned to the subject, addressing the asset stripping that caused the demise of Halifax Town in The Chisellers and, most notably in Theme from Sparta FC that the BBC used as backing music on Final Score, resulting in Smith once reading the full time results, while simultaneously humiliating the oleaginous Ray Stubbs. The Fall were the main inspiration for obscure outsiders I Ludicrous, whose Three English Football Grounds is a nostalgic tribute to Burnden Park, Craven Cottage and The Den, for all you completists out there.

Of course, angular guitars, sparse drumming and declamatory singing don’t have sole ownership of football as a totem for underground music, as dub, electronica and repetitive beats have long been at the heart of some of the finest songs about the game. Witness the eclectic Colourbox, whose 1986 single The Official Colourbox World Cup Theme was one of the standout tracks of that year, though it was eclipsed by the work that would be released soon after by a fierce studio amalgam of the legendary Sugar Hill Records house rhythm section, a polymath dub mixologist and the occasional presence of a slightly deranged toaster and sound system MC. The fact that the work of Tackhead and related projects on the impeccable On-U Sounds label has fallen into obscurity is a crying shame, especially as their football-themed output is some of the strongest material they ever made.

In the early 80s, second only to the stellar duo of Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, the go-to session musicians in the funk, soul and disco arena, were the backing band of Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel; Skip McDonald (guitar), Doug Wimbish (bass) and Keith LeBlanc (drums). Such was their ubiquity, only the reggae superpowers Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare could possibly have produced such a mammoth body of work. The thing with the Sugar Hill blokes was that they were always experimenting, always changing and always producing their own sounds. Wimbish formed Living Color, an African American heavy rock band, while McDonald moved on to production duties at Tommy Boy Records and LeBlanc created stunning slabs of  his own studio wizardry 

LeBlanc’s groundbreaking Malcolm X: No Sell Out 12” in late 1983 combined thudding beats with sampled speech from Malcolm X to make a profound political statement of uncompromising opposition to state terrorism and institutional racism. It was a seminal moment in the history of dance music, as it caused On-U Sounds founder Adrian Sherwood to make contact and then music with LeBlanc. Their first notable public pronouncement was the shuddering power of the empowering, agitational Support The Miners, released under the moniker The Enemy Within, which sampled Arthur Scargill’s uncompromising rhetoric, welded to earth shattering funk beats and basslines; almost 40 years on, it remains part of the Holy Trinity of early collaborations that climaxed with Hard Left, where Bristolian MC Gary Clail took over the mic, though the cut includes voice samples from characteristically brutal speeches by the Great Satan herself, Thatcher.

One of the key elements of the On-U Sounds modus operandi is the use of a baffling array of names for the various projects releasing music. In 1987, the Tackhead brand was used for the one and only time, as Tackhead Sound System, for the Sherwood, LeBlanc, McDonald and Wimbish debut football release, The Game; an anthemic, slow paced amalgam of dub, funk, crowd samples and football specific lyrics. Brushing the top 40, it didn’t include Clail on MC duties but, almost incredibly, ITV commentator Brian Moore, who gave permission for pieces of his previous game chat to be looped, spliced and generally manipulated by Sherwood. The song is a classic, though typical of the On-U philosophy, it would be the last time the Tackhead moniker would be used in such circumstances, being reserved for Gary Clail’s Tackhead Sound System’s Mind at the End of the Tether album in 1989.  By 1991’s Human Nature set, which provided him with a top 20 hit, Clail was going by his own name.

 


There was no way Adrian Sherwood was going to use his own name; instead, he adopted the moniker Barmy Army for all his subsequent football related music. Sherwood is a West Ham United fan and two of the cuts he made under the Barmy Army name, namely Billy Bonds MBE and Leroy’s Boots (a tribute to Rosenior senior) were given away as single sided flexis with the Irons fanzine, On the Terraces. Obviously, such releases are as rare as hen’s teeth these days, but they were vital in establishing a link between underground sounds and terrace culture, especially at a club more infamous for alleged musical supporters such as the vile Cockney Rejects and cartoon metallers Iron Maiden. Somewhat surprisingly, Sherwood also cut a version of Blue Moon for the Manchester City fanzine Blue Print, though it was a track about a Liverpool legend that is probably the most famous piece of Sherwood sporting genius.

Unsurprisingly, Sherwood and John Peel were a mutual appreciation society and so the mixologist’s tribute to Kenny Dalglish, Sharp as a Needle, was warmly received by the DJ and lifelong Liverpool fan, who described the cut as one of his all-time favourite pieces of music, commenting in 2002; It doesn’t really get much better than this classic Barmy Army track. Incongruously, there is a West Ham reference – Sherwood is a Hammers fan – but the music relates otherwise to Kenny Dalglish, with a sideways nod to Ian Rush… Years after its release, I still can’t hear it without a lump in my throat.

Truly it is a deeply uplifting and emotional track, which deserves the praise Peel gave it and a place on Sherwood’s 1989 football agglomeration, The English Disease, along with Leroy’s Boots and several other tracks, utilising terrace chants from the Boleyn Ground, as well as Ewood Park, Old Trafford and, strangely, St Johnstone’s former home of Muirton Park. As well as LeBlanc, McDonald and Wimbish, other musicians include Al Jorgensen, who I’d never figured as a football fan, and fellow Hammer Jah Wobble, who no doubt approved of the Italian house style piano-driven anthem Devo, dedicated to Alan Devonshire.

Obviously, the subjects for each track on the album are very much of their time, so the long, forgotten travails of the late Bobby Robson when England manager are a surprising memory on Bobby Just Can’t Win, while downright dirty bass driven drudge of Psycho pays tribute to Vinny Jones, Sam Hamman and all those other members of the Plough Lane Crazy Gang. Skip McDonald’s ironic FM poodle rock stylings on Stadium Rock make it an amusing instrumental, followed by the bitter, frustrated words of then Blackburn Rovers manager Don Mackay, decrying his bad luck in a post-match press conference on Mind the Gap.

The album was released in 1989, the year of Hillsborough and the Thatcher government’s kneejerk ID card scheme. After a season when Man United and Chelsea fans proved supporter resistance to the European Super League will be listened to, Civil Liberties is a strong rejection of the proposed, and subsequently dropped, legislation of 1989.  My favourite number is Brian Clout, a hilarious examination of Cloughy biffing a load of Forest fans round the lugs when they invaded the pitch after a 4-1 win over QPR in the League Cup. Combining Old Big ‘Ead’s ambiguously contrite interview with adverts and other snatches of dialogue, the repeated chorus of Clough declaring I don’t want to get physically involved with you is both surreal and hilarious. The English Disease is a certified lost classic.

What needs to be remembered about this album is that, in common with all of On-U Sounds’ output, the musicianship and mixology make these tracks not simply one-trick curios, but vital slices of late 80s dub and funk; Clail and other sound systems would often mix Barmy Army tracks alongside cuts by Lee “Scratch” Perry and Augustus Pablo in dense and smoky basements at late night sessions. Serious fun; music with a purpose.





 

 



Wednesday, 17 November 2021

What A Mess!!

 As predicted, the PIF takeover of Newcastle United is proving to be a disaster...


It may sound alarmist, but Newcastle United’s next three home games, namely: Brentford 20/11, Norwich 30/11 and Burnley 4/12, could go a long way towards framing the medium-term destiny of the club. Premature talk by young hotheads of European glory may be overtaken by sullen greybeards bemoaning a third relegation in less than a decade and a half. With the club sitting one off the bottom of the Premier League, courtesy of a slightly less terrible negative goal difference than Norwich, six points from safety and looking at a Christmas period offering gloomier prospects than new born boys had in King Herod’s time, the mettle of the newly installed head coach and ownership is about to be tested. Thus far, the theocratic psychopaths and their running dog lackeys in the boardroom have made a complete and utter arse of things. Whether it be appointing a manager, where the Unai Emery fiasco will long be used as a stick to beat them with, dispensing with discredited coaching staff or issuing an agreed statement about the idiots in cod Arab fancy dress on match days, there is never an unequivocal straight answer issued first time. However, I will concede that at least they do communicate with the general public, even if the messages are convoluted, muddled and inadequate.

With potentially the most important transfer window in history on the horizon, I have little or no faith that the Saudi Arabian Royal Family, or whoever will write the cheques, is ready to allow Eddie Howe to get on with the vital job of coaching the team, while they have someone of greater competence than Lee Charnley in place to drive the recruitment process that is so obviously needed. Frankly, it’s a fairly safe bet that Newcastle United will be the most hated club in the Championship next season, unless the crippling inaction that has been the hallmark of PIF so far, is conquered. For those of us with long memories, the appointment of Howe reminded me of the pitiful and painful transition from McFaul to Smith back in 88, and we all know how that turned out.  Still, at least if we do go down, we still won’t be playing the Mackems.

In their defence, if the butchers from Riyadh held off from giving the gig to someone (anyone?) until the international break, so only the sensible and articulate Jones copped the flak for the Chelsea defeat and first half shit show at Brighton, even if their penalty was a terrible stain upon the integrity of the VAR system and how it is used, regardless of whether Clark fouled him or not, then fair play to them. They may be learning the art of public relations at last, which is certainly a step up from hacking dissidents to pieces at least.

It was good to see Howe watching our triumphant escape from the foot of the table at Brighton, as well as hearing he felt the squad was collectively underachieving, poorly coached, lacking fitness and tactically shambolic. Then again, if such analysis was a prerequisite for getting the job, there would have been 50,000 other suitable candidates in the ground every home game. It is probably important to note the last time we played Bournemouth, in June 2020, Algarve-Bruce and Howe were in their respective dugouts and Newcastle battered the Cherries out of sight that day. Of most pressing concern, now we’ve appointed someone who I expect to be able to competently coach the majority of our existing players, is the appointment of a Director of Football who is prepared to do what is necessary to recruit appropriately. This will not be someone called Lee Charnley. I hope.

 

As you all know, I am completely against this takeover, as I have serious objections to a bloodthirsty theocracy owning my club. However, I am not against the Ruben Brothers expanding their property portfolio in Newcastle; for a start the city centre is looking decidedly shabby post pandemic and for another thing, any new builds or refurbs will provide thousands of jobs for construction workers initially and leisure sector employees eventually. I am, of course, available for nuanced, philosophical and practical debate regarding the future of cities in the post-Covid, post-industrial era, but that’s probably something best kept for another day.

Can it really only be a month since the patently unprepared PIF were presented with a fait accompli takeover of Newcastle United for the small matter of £305 million? Was it a mere 5 weeks ago that fans dispensed with their consciences to get unironically bladdered on Barrack Road, leaving the Milburn Stand forecourt and environs looking like Glastonbury after the festival? How can any of us forget the touching sight of a completely wasted Sam Fender babbling and drooling on breakfast telly, yet still making more sense than his climate change denying, anti vaxxer, Covid conspiracy espousing uncle, Jamie Tinfoil? Did we really see oafs in tea towel headdresses belting out endless choruses of we’ve got our club back, oblivious to the new reality of NUFC’s situation? Are any of us likely to forget those deluded superfans accepting congratulations on social media from cretinous simpletons with Saudi flag avatars, for being the real movers and shakers behind the scenes who got the deal done?

How well I remember that first game under the new regime, when Steve Algarve-Bruce selected a side with a suicidally high back 4, meaning Harry Kane’s farcical goal will act as the forever epitaph for the ill-remembered administration of our man in the queue outside Gorman’s at half eleven every morning. Already there were those whining, even in advance of kick-off, that PIF had “let the fans down” by not bulleting Algarve-Bruce before a ball was kicked. Was that more idiotic than the swathes of buffoons in faux Arab dress? Or previously intelligent fans becoming brainwashed saps for their new overlords? I’ve no time for mendacious hypocrisy by members of the Fourth Estate or ill-informed followers of other clubs, nor do I appreciate the endless, defensive whataboutery so many of our fans fall back upon. However, we’d all better get used to this.

Consider, please, the probable effects of a rabid national media in full-on self-righteous assault mode, intent on blaming Jimmy from Prudhoe or Stu from Blyth for the human rights abuses of the Saudi regime. You know, I know, everyone knows that if you continue to aggressively prod a bad-tempered dog, it will eventually attack. Newcastle fans, regardless of what they really think, though many of them may not be capable of complex cognitive activity, are fiercely loyal to their club; if someone attacks the Magpies, they’ll defend the team and the institution to the death. Any attacks on the ownership, regardless of source, will be furiously rebuffed; some with articulacy and others with profanity or fists. Those of us denouncing the deal from the inside are probably most at risk, but I’m used to it. This bunker mentality will win the supporters few friends, but it may be inevitable. Then again, when NUFC.com seem insistent on disparaging Graeme Jones at every given opportunity, and true faith has run a hateful, misogynistic series of attacks on Amanda Staveley, who knows what to expect from the Barrack Road Brains Trust. Certainly, it was a surprise to me that the best written and most nuanced response to the whole affair was a press release by the FSA the day after the takeover.

Incidentally, I would point out that attacks upon Staveley because of how she looks are particularly distasteful when one considers her diagnosis, and the eventual prognosis, of Huntington’s Disease. Yet it must be recognised that it isn’t just journalists or other fans having a go (Everton supporters digging at Geordies, minutes after losing 5-2 at home to Watford; Man United followers focusing their ire on Tyneside in the run up to their ritual disembowelling by Liverpool; Boro, I ask you, Boro’s banner in a deserted Riverside on the day Warnock got the shove or Crystal Palace’s righteous words of wisdom in the Holmesdale Road end on the day we got a welcome point after riding our luck), but the big hitters in the boardrooms at other clubs as well.  We’ll have to wait a while until we get the unexpurgated Tales from Hoffman after the latest PL chief exec has cleared his desk, but if the other 18 clubs (City are our pals now, it seems) think that stopping PIF from sponsoring Newcastle, when the House of Saud, or Kate Stewart as they’re more commonly known, managed to get the takeover through, then they’ve a nasty surprise coming. Money talks and there’s nothing that will guarantee servile devotion from the vast majority of the unsophisticated ranks of NUFC’s support more than endless, vulgar and scattergun spending of billions of petrodollars.

And they need to do that very thing the second the final chorus of Auld Lang Syne has been sung, as the opening 10 games have shown, where only 5 points have been collected and only Watford, where the finishing was rank, and Southampton, where the defending stank, should have seen victories. Newcastle United need several new players, because some of the decent ones we’ve got are shot to shit; the last couple of years has seen their confidence and tactical acumen disappear, perhaps forever.

The key indicator of this, once Algarve-Bruce had decided to spend more time with his Just Eat app, was the Chelsea game. After a valiant hour of desperate defending, Newcastle were swamped by the current Champions’ League holders and front runners for the title. It was a hopeless mismatch, with our ill-prepared, inadequate squad steamrolled once the first one had gone in. This is the real legacy of the Ashley’s refusal to adequately finance the running of the club and further condemnation of Algarve-Bruce’s lazy, hands-off approach; inadequate players terrified to make a mistake and the adequate ones, bar a couple of notable exceptions, lacking in commitment, with a cut price coaching set-up devoid of ideas and inspiration.

Nice Guy Eddie is in charge now. I’ll let you know how he’s getting on after the Norwich game as I’m actually going.


Friday, 12 November 2021

The Exclusive Brethren

 Reading is a solitary pleasure; it's almost getting that way with gigs these days...


Music:

Having reacted to the new Alex Rex album Paradise with feelings adjacent to hysteria, I was equally agog at the prospect of catching a live performance on his latest tour, at The Cumberland natch. The shame was that Lavinia Blackwall had to postpone her tour, which would have seen her pitching up at Bobik’s two days later. Instead, we will wait patiently until April for that one

The realisation drew on me that Alex, with neither Lavinia nor Marco Rea accompanying him, was going back to basics. Just like in the old Tight Meat days with him and David Keenan, this would be a duo; Alex on drums and Rory Haye on guitar. However, I thoughtfully didn’t suggest they could possibly rename themselves Loose Vegetables when I ran into the great man, bearded and resplendent in a tweed jacket and high polo neck sweater, coming out of The Cumberland bogs. How different he looked when contrasted with the outfit of Harrington, DMs, Fred Perry and suede cut on his last visit. Despite his travails with digestive issues on his previous two visits, Alex had still eaten at Al Baik, though Rory assured me he’d stuck with vegetarian options. Loose vegetables are preferable to loose stools I suppose.

Support was provided by the immensely entertaining Spanish guitarist and singer Victor Herrero, of whom more lately; and the passionate and beguiling Yakka Doon, with a set of plaintive, self-written regional ballads.  When the main act took the stage, there was no hint that being reduced to a duo would limit Alex Rex’s power. For a start, Rory’s guitar was like the rebirth of That Fucking Tank and for another thing, the less cluttered, punishing sound gave further space to Alex’s self-immolatory lyrics.  Is he the most confessional lyricist ever? While that may be the case, he managed to find a cover, Man in the Tree by Pearls before Swine, which outdid the great man himself for misery.

One of the main effects of being a duo was the fewer than expected numbers from Paradise that got an airing; only 5, including The Great Experiment, dedicated to Faustino Asprilla and Scandalise the Birds, because I asked for it, which meant in return that I missed the last encore getting him and Victor a pint. Small beer eh? However, Alex is nothing if not creative and he debuted a minimum of 4 new songs in the set that, as ever raised the bar on his art. The bloke is a genius and quite why the turnout was so depressingly low is a mystery to me.

 


One very cheering element was Victor Herrero’s set; I’m not sure if the eccentric troubadour was playing classical guitar, Flamenco flourishes or what, but I loved what he did. Standouts included a song about a horse and a final improvised number with Alex and Rory had reminded me of a Velvets rehearsal or a NEU! demo, adorned perfectly by Alex’s anti-Motorik drumming.  Victor’s performance was so good, I invested in a copy of his 2020 album, Hermana, which means Sister, but has little in common with the Sonic Youth album of that name.  Accompanied only by his own playing, Victor has 10 beguiling tracks that vary between complex yet gentle instrumentals and insistent vocal numbers where his voice complements and challenges the fluent guitar work. A thoroughly engaging album and one I’m glad I bought.

As mentioned above, Lavinia Blackwall has postponed her tour until next April, though this has not put paid to her releasing music, as the very beautiful, self-titled Wyndow album that she made remotely with Laura J Martin has seen the light of day. Their partnership was forged by a mutual love of Robert Wyatt, which is writ large by their sensitive and soothing version of his Free Will and Testament. I first saw Laura supporting Euros Child, who had the wonderful Marco Rea and Stu Kidd as his Roogie Boogie backing band. No doubt this helped forge links between the two angelic voiced singer / songwriters who have produced a female duo folk-ish album as seminal as Silly Sisters by Maddy Prior and June Tabor. Throughout the piece their superb voices complement each other and are augmented by Laura’s subtle, but brilliant keyboard work and some superb guitar from Marco. The whole 11 tracks are of the highest quality, building a stronger and perceptible dream like atmosphere as the record progresses, which is possibly why I feel the closing two tracks When Winter Comes Shadowing In and Tidal Range are the strongest and most powerful on here. I’ve no idea if Wyndow will prove to be a samizdat lockdown project, or if there’s a niche second string to their bows, but the album will last long on regular repeat in this house.



Another of the Byres Road cognoscenti to regularly collaborate with an array of sympathetic souls is the storied Alasdair Roberts, who last played here in October 2019 as a bandleader, with a certain Alex Neilson on drums. Now he returned, after an 18 month Covid delay, as part of the Green Ribbons unaccompanied singing project, along with Debbie Armour (better known as Burd Ellen, who I shamefully missed at Bobik’s a while back) and Benjamin Webb (aka Jinnwoo and Bird in the Belly), though there was no sign or mention of the fourth member of the recorded output, Frankie Armstrong. The 62 bus never showed up, so I had to get the 63, which meant I arrived in the middle of a very brave set by Cath & Phil Tyler. Cat hasn’t been well of late, but she really put her heart and soul into a set of Northumbrian Americana; great to see you back. The 5 performers were slightly outnumbered by a simply appalling turn out of 6 punters, but even if the room was almost bare, the standard of performance was stunning. The three of them, individually and severally, were absolutely outstanding, from Alasdair’s opening Geordie to the collective closer of Sheila Stewart’s The Parting Song, by way of an Aberdonian skipping song Debbie learned from Isla St Clair, of all people. Great gig, wonderful people and a late night listening back to the CD with a couple of beers. Well worth Friday’s hangover, even if it made me hors de combat for The Blue Orchids the night after. Ah well…

 

One of the things I missed most during lockdown was popping out to a midweek gig alone on a school night, sipping on soft drinks and heading home, entertained and ready for bed, soon as the last encore finished. This was situation I found myself in when going to see the glorious Burning Hell at The Cumberland. I’d seen them twice before at The Cluny 2 and Cobalt Studios, so I knew exactly what to expect. They don’t disappoint. They never let you down. Their songs are wonderful and nourishing.  If you ever wanted to know what a cross between Yo La Tengo and King Missile would sound like, then check this lot out.  Touring as a four piece, the sound was superbly beefed up, with the emphasis more on out rock’n’roll than whimsy.  Fantastically, this was a sell-out, because Newcastle loves the Burning Hell and the Burning Hell love Newcastle.

Paul Flanagan has been my mate for 35 years now. I met him in 1986 and in 1990, he started playing live gigs and recording songs, firstly with Puppy Fat, whose baggy and indie grooves I loved, then with the slightly recondite Nancy Bone, who sometimes hit the spot with their creative Lee and Nancy style updates. At the end of the previous millennium, he called time on his musical career, save for a single Nancy Bone support slot with Penetration at The Cluny in 2013 as far as I can remember. However, just before lockdown, he told me of the existence of a new band he was playing with; Emergency Librarian. They’ve played a few gigs, but I hadn’t managed to see them until I caught the first date of their winter 2021 mini tour (Friday October 29th, Newcastle and Saturday October 30th, Salford) at the Cobalt Studios.

With a spring in my step I’d walked from home to Newcastle Cricket Club for Peter and Gillian’s 60th birthday then, after a couple of free pints, headed on down to Cobalt. Not only was I delighted to be seeing Emergency Librarian in the flesh, but also running into my old mate Knaggsy for the first time in far too long, was a highlight. Anyway, Emergency Librarian were the support act to some mixed media doo dah called Marra, which was supposedly a rumination on life in West Cumbria. I’ve no idea what the denizens of Workington and Whitehaven would have made of a performance piece that consisted of a load of straw scattered over the venue floor, and a malfunctioning PC, but it was enough to send me away down to The Lodge in an Uber.

However, Emergency Librarian were worth the price of admission. I found their combination of atmospheric drone and strident local folk to be particularly endearing. Like a cross between Fairport Convention, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Hawkwind, they fused brief vocal parts with lengthy proggy workouts. I liked almost everything about them, save for the slightly too strident percussive parts that dominated the latter part of their set. I’d certainly go and see them again, even when the bespectacled bassist becomes a sexy sexagenarian.

Books:

Perhaps one of my most incompetent on-line purchases was my dealing with Roddy Doyle’s latest novel, Love. Published in June 2020, I immediately ordered it as a click and collect from Waterstone’s, not realising, in my attempt to save pennies, I’d bought the paperback edition that didn’t come out until this year. It was worth waiting for, but a bloody frustrating salutary lesson nevertheless. So, when learning of the imminent publication of a collection of his short stories, Life without Children, this October, I bit the bullet and bought the hardback. I must say I’m very glad I did too. This is Doyle’s third collection of short stories; first there was 2007’s The Deportees, in which all the stories were specifically written for Metro Éireann, as an attempt, not always successfully, to reach out to Ireland's immigrant population and explore their experiences. The stories were written in 800 word chapters and published monthly; as Doyle explains in the foreword:-

The stories have never been carefully planned. I send off a chapter to the Metro Eireann editor Chinedu Onyejelem, and, often, I haven't a clue what's going to happen next.  And I don't care too much, until the deadline begins to tap me on the shoulder. It's a fresh, small terror, once a month. I live a very quiet life; I love that monthly terror.

 Such circumstances made for some pretty uneven writing. In contrast, 2011’s Bullfighting, acting almost as a precursor to 2013’s The Guts, is when Doyle starts exploring middle age in a serious way, rather than simply using Jimmy Rabbitte Sr as a figure of fun and the butt of most of the jokes going around Barrytown. Bullfighting sees men turning 40, losing it at the temples, gaining it round the waist and failing to understand why. It’s a sobering collection and it paved the way for Jimmy Rabbitte Jr’s bowel cancer, Victor Forde’s examination of his abusive childhood and Joe saying goodbye to his auld fella after a day on the batter.

 In Life without Children, the Fir na hÉireann, or at least ones who live in the nice bits of da Nort Soide, are really getting on. They’d love to retire, if only the crash hadn’t knocked the bollox out of them and their money back in 2008. They’re drinking too much, or not enough. They’re at daggers drawn with the missus, or falling head over heels in love with her all over again.  This lockdown is the worst thing ever, or perhaps it’s the best. Doyle gives us ten glorious stories where your sympathy is always with the main character, whether he’s a hero or a terrible bastard. As ever, Doyle turns the ordinary into the extraordinary; the unelected voice of modern Ireland’s moral conscience focuses on the pandemic from a dozen different angles and hits the bullseye with every poison arrow and popgun floater he fires off.

 It’s a long time since I read any Graham Swift. Back in the mid-80s, my old school pal Anna Dodd gifted me a copy of Waterland, which she’d read when domiciled in East Anglia. I remember finding it thoroughly depressing from start to finish. A load of bourgeois navel gazing dressed up as philosophical import, causing clenched teeth revulsion in the same way as I respond to the thoroughly detestable Ian McEwan’s writing. Being the charitable sort, I gave Swift another go when Last Orders won the Booker Prize, finding it a much more conducive read, as I’m a sucker for character based fiction. Some 25 years after finishing Last Orders, I found myself changing trains at Carlisle station, on route to Motherwell v Ross County, which formed part of the blog http://payaso-de-mierda.blogspot.com/2021/09/ian-paisley.html If you’ll remember the problems I’d had with starting Monument Maker by David Keenan, as I was intimidated by the sheer size of it, as alluded  to in another fairly recent blog, http://payaso-de-mierda.blogspot.com/2021/09/unmade-bedside.html then you’ll appreciate why I’d travelled without a book to keep me company. Thankfully, Carlisle station has a British Heart Foundation charity book stall that operates on trust, with an honesty box. All books are 50p, but only one appealed to me. Amidst the Grishams and Clancys and other such detritus, I was amazed to find Swift’s debut novel The Sweet Shop Owner.

 Of course I bought it and thoroughly appreciated my charitable act as I travelled to Motherwell, then Glasgow, then Paisley and back again the next day. Published as long ago as 1980, it is an enjoyable and controlled debut, where characters and the passage of time, an obsession throughout Swift’s works, vie for equal importance. The plot, replete throughout with flashbacks and memories, describes the routine events of what turns out to be the last day in the life of Willy Chapman, the eponymous owner of a South London sweet shop, who dies of heart failure on a sunny Friday in June 1974. Central to the book is his relationship with his beautiful and yet distant late wife Irene, who bore him a daughter on the unspoken agreement that no love would be expressed between them. Interspersed with flashbacks to his earlier life, Willy attempts to justify his meek surrender of all ambition and independence, to his estranged, unforgiving daughter Dorry via an internal monologue. It is a vaguely sentimental portrait of the dying man, craving reconciliation with his headstrong daughter, who appears to have inherited all her mother’s cruel traits. Yet Willy dies fulfilled, knowing that Dorry will inherit the three bedroomed suburban semi-detached she recoiled from when leaving for the semi-bohemian attractions of University, as well as the eponymous, decaying sweet shop that stands as a modest memorial to Willy’s modest life. A damn fine read for ten bob I must say.

 Incidentally, I’ve got to page 364 of Monument Maker; only another 450 to go. It’s not bad actually…


Monday, 1 November 2021

The People's Game

 AFC Newbiggin Central 3 Blaydon Community 5 saw me complete my Northern Alliance set. Until the club inexplicably moves grounds that is...


While I’m very pleased that Percy Main Amateurs are the side I’ll watch the most this season, it doesn’t automatically follow that I’ll take in all their away games. For instance, on Saturday 23 October they were away to Newcastle Blue Star. As everyone with a keen eye on local football knows, the resurgent Scotswood-based outfit don’t need much in the way of support or publicity, so I decided to give this one a swerve. The subsequent 4-0 win for the home side was probably one of the least surprising results of the weekend, so I felt vindicated in keeping away.

My choice of game was dictated by the need to complete the Northern Alliance, as it is currently constituted. While Ponteland are due to move into their new home soon, and other teams may move at the drop of a hat, as it stood on that Saturday morning, the only ground I’d yet to visit was Ashington’s People’s Park; the current home of AFC Newbiggin (formerly based at Newbiggin Sports Centre) and AFC Newbiggin Central (previously at Newbiggin Welfare). The fixtures had Newbiggin Central at home to Blaydon Community and so a trip on the X22 was in order.

I headed off around noon, took the Metro to town, picked up the new Roddy Doyle from Waterstone’s and caught the 12.50 bus that dropped me off an hour later, after a totally forgettable trip on a near deserted double decker, on Park Road. One regular problem on adventures like these is the frequent inaccessibility of hot drink vendors; hence, I get a coffee where I can, sometimes benefitting from the growing number of shops that have basic barista facilities. Just by the bus stop, I spied Park Stores, with a sign proudly boasting that it is “open 7 days a week;” we’re out in the sticks remember. Could they have a Costa machine? I intended to find out. However, my progress stalled when I realised I’d lost my wallet. Frantic searches of every pocket confirmed the bad news. It must have fallen from my unzipped coat pocket during the journey.

My immediate thought was to call Arriva and get them to radio the driver to secure my property.  After frantic googling, it became clear that, unlike Park Stores, Arriva customer support was only open 5 days a week. Not only that, lost property reporting protocols required you to fill out an extensively detailed on-line pro forma, or send an email. I wasn’t really in any frame of mind to do that. In terms of this customer’s experience, things could not have been any less convenient, so it was no surprise that the phone number for Ashington Bus Station was shrouded in secrecy. In short, I was stranded about 30 miles, as the bus flies, from home, with about ten bob’s worth of slingy in my pocket, facing the prospect of a highly expensive Uber home and a Saturday evening on hold to a myriad collection of call centres, attempting to cancel my cards. Having lost both my Instagram and Twitter (@PayasoDeMiera2) accounts to hackers in the previous fortnight, the digital world was no longer a place I wished to inhabit.

In American football, a Hail Mary is a very long forward pass, typically made in desperation, with an exceptionally small chance of achieving a completion. Due to the difficulty involved, it references a prayer for divine intervention. Now, as an atheist there was no way I was going to issue imprecations to celestial entities, but I did detect that fleeting sensation of hope when I saw the X22 returning from Ashington bus station to the Haymarket. I thrust out my hand and the bus stopped. This was my last chance.

The same driver who’d borne my northwards peered quizzically at me; “The game can’t have been that bad surely?” he inquired, only for me to respond with a garbled account of my misfortune. He invited me on board; luckily, the upper deck was as deserted as it had been earlier. Incredibly, my wallet sat where I’d sat. Third from the back on the passenger side. It was untouched, amazingly. As I went to alight I offered the driver a £5 for his help, but he waved it away telling me not to be daft, though encouraging me to be more careful in future. Indeed, I will and I’m sure it is time to break the old thermos flask out of hibernation as the Park Stores coffee machine was out of order, so a big bottle of water it was, which I slugged from then stashed as I made my way across People’s Park to the football pitches. On the farthest of them, a North Northumberland League encounter between Newbiggin Reserves and a side from Berwick, attired in a Partick Thistle kit. This had kicked off at 1.30, so by the time I arrived it was in to first half injury time. I caught a few minutes, but not enough to form an opinion on the standard of play. Despite being an open public park, bedevilled by ignorant dog walkers allowing their beasts to shit everywhere and at risk of damage caused by motocross morons on trails bikes, the playing surface of both pitches looked pretty good; well grassed, flat and drained. Really, it’s better than almost anything I got to play on in my career, though I must admit I was crap.

So preoccupied had I been with the saga of my wallet that I’d failed to notice a DM to my @GloveLitZine Twitter account, from Newbiggin Central, asking if I’d be blogging about my visit. Thankfully, the fella who’d sent it to me, Ben, a sociable and informed bloke, soon made contact and we watched the first half together. It turns out that Newbiggin Sports Centre is having a complete overhaul; re-laid pitches, small sided 4G courts and, crucially, a protective fence round the whole development. That should be enough to keep the localised plague of horses out, unless they are proper show jumping equines of course.

As far as this game was concerned, having seen Newbiggin butcher Morpeth Town Reserves last year about this time, and Blaydon edge past Gosforth Bohemian Reserves in a truly awful contest at the end of April, I was convinced I’d see a comprehensive home win. I wouldn’t say I was amazed, but I was highly impressed by the massive improvements shown by Blaydon. Newbiggin Central were of a similar standard today, as they were last year, but they came up against a rejuvenated outfit that showed, yet again, that the quality of football played in the Alliance third division is often far better than in the divisions above. The curse, as ever, is teams folding, meaning limited outfits avoid relegation and others unprepared for higher standards are unjustly promoted. Meanwhile, new and vibrant teams come in at the bottom rung and demonstrate the ability to play neat possession football, mainly on the deck, with young lads new to the senior game showing an array of tricks and skills quite out of place in their surroundings.

And so it was today; I saw the best Alliance Division 3 game ever. Blaydon started off like a team possessed and took the lead from a superb volley on the turn within 5 minutes. Newbiggin were not fazed and drew level soon after from their first dangerous attack. Until half time, things were nip and tuck as the sides played good football, but failed to take their chances. I had a quick chat with ref Barry Sweeney at the break, who was thoroughly enjoying the contest, which is always the sign of a quality game.

Things went off the scale in the second period. Within 5 minutes of the restart, it was 2-3. Blaydon took the lead with a neat finish into the bottom corner, then doubled it a minute later when an isolated away player tapped in after a header hit the bar with the home defence absent without leave. Newbiggin roared back with a venomous finish that showed how much pent up aggression was coursing through their red and black shirts.  Despite renewed and redoubled efforts, it was Blaydon who restored their 2 goal advantage on the hour with the goal of the game. A short corner routine saw an attacker bear down on goal and finish intelligently from a tight angle. Soon after, the big bottle of Evian began to make its presence felt and I took off for the cubicle bogs outside the adjacent Covid testing centre, missing Newbiggin’s third goal. Again they plugged away, but couldn’t get level. Instead, Blaydon wrapped up the scoring after 83 minutes with a very soft penalty, making the final score 3-5.

As I caught the bus, I could see Newbiggin players taking down the nets and collecting the corner flags. This was a fitting conclusion to pair of proper community teams providing 90 minutes of top drawer entertainment. I saw my first ever Alliance game in August 1998, when Heaton Stan beat Berwick Highfields 2-0. I was immediately impressed by the skill, passion and sense of community the league showed back then and it is still the same now. Other than my trips to Scotland, I really can’t see me watching football at any other level any time soon.

P.S. Just to update things, Blaydon lost 6-1 at Walker Central in their next game, while Newbiggin were without a game because the referee cried off. What I love about football is how predictable it is...


Thursday, 21 October 2021

Dark, Sardonic Mills

 Magnus Mills is a national treasure. Read my blog if you must, but make damn sure you read his books. All of them. 


I suppose it was the sense of guilt provoked by my furtive glances cast at the unopened copy of David Keenan’s gigantic Monument Maker on the bedside bookcase that told me I needed to get back into reading. Having so far failed to even peer inside Keenan’s masterpiece, I decided it was time to plug a few bibliophilic holes with low hanging fruit, so to speak. Over the last couple of years, I’ve completed the entire works of Michel Houellebecq, BS Johnson and Harry Pearson, so I decided that specialist of short novels, Magnus Mills, would be my next target.

Mills was born in Birmingham in 1954 and raised in Bristol. After a degree at Wolverhampton Poly, he put his classical education to good use, erecting high tensile wire fences for a living, before moving to London in 1986 to become a bus driver. His debut book, The Restraint of Beasts, was shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and Whitbread First Novel Award on its publication in 1998, allowing Mills to quit his job and become a full time writer. If you’re looking for points of reference to draw comparisons with his work, I suggest looking in the place where Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Flann O’Brien and Kurt Vonnegut intersect.

I first became aware of Mills in the late of autumn of 1999, when my good mate Paul Webb loaned me his copy of The Restraint of Beasts soon after I’d first moved to Bratislava. I loved it from the first page; the elusive, allegorical depiction of the baffling, surreal world of the itinerant fence builder, combined with the deadpan naiveté of the unnamed narrator’s version of events, had me howling out loud repeatedly. And yet, the madcap, inexplicable adventures of Tam, Ritchie and their unnamed foreman seemed to me to be of far more import than simple, uproarious comedy. Their repeated inability to complete tasks, establish human relationships and to interact with the world in general suggested to me some kind of an underlying, deliberate Marxist critique of the futility of work and the inevitability of alienation. Tam and Ritchie’s failure to build fences reminded me of Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil and the Rolling Stones’ serial failure to complete a satisfactory version of the title song. However, for the apolitical reader, Thomas Pynchon offered the opinion that the book was merely "a demented, deadpan comic wonder.” I don’t buy that judgement as a stand-alone review; there is far greater philosophical depth than mere surreal humour in all of Mills’ books. Especially the unsuccessful ones.

By the time I became aware of Magnus Mills, his second novel, All Quiet on the Orient Express, had already been published. I caught up with it the following summer and adored it even more than his first one. Again, and this was to become a staple of almost all his books, an unnamed narrator finds himself away from home, out of his depth and completely at a loss when searching for a way out. This time, we find ourselves on a campsite in the Lake District, observing the narrator attempting and failing to complete a seemingly straightforward job of work, on account of ever more ludicrous and labyrinthine external factors and pressures on his time. Initially he is supposed to paint the entrance gate, but soon he ends up distracted from his primary task by the need to write A Level coursework essays and the intractable problem of an ice cream van’s jammed jingle. Amidst this pastoral absurdity, a sinister realisation occurs to the reader; unlike in The Restraint of Beasts where gory episodes pepper the pages, nothing grotesque happens in All Quiet on the Orient Express, but the mood perceptibly darkens until it’s clear that nobody is ever going to leave this Cumbrian dystopia.

Having left my Slovak utopia for the reality of England in June 2001, I found my return coincided with the publication of Mills’ third novel, Three to See the King, which I have to confess is the one I’ve enjoyed the least, both back then and recently, when I briefly revisited it as part of my preparations for writing this piece. Unlike his first two novels, this has no pretensions of reality; it is more of a parable than a novel, with the comic content reduced to absolute zero. The nameless narrator lives in an isolated tin house situated on a windswept sandy plain, miles from his nearest neighbours whom he meets infrequently. He is quite happy with his lonely self-sufficient existence, until a woman comes to live with him. Unsettled at first, the narrator gradually gets used to the companionship. Then news comes of a new community being established on the edge of the plain by a charismatic, yet enigmatic figure who is digging a canyon and gaining more and more followers to his revolutionary cause. One by one, the narrator’s neighbours join the canyon project, moving their tin houses to the new community as the narrator feels under increasing pressure to join them. It transpires that the end-goal for the project is not for there to be a city of tin houses, but a city of clay houses. Many of the previously convinced citizens of the plain and beyond are frustrated by this news, and decide to return to their previous existences… And that’s about it; while I eagerly flicked the pages, hoping to come across a trademark episode of thigh-slapping insanity, instead I found suggestions of an elusive examination of the notion of a communal society and a vague critique of mass hysteria. Perhaps my expectations were wrong, but I found Three to See the King profoundly unsatisfying. Mills himself said the writing of the book was a "project" to prove to himself that he could be a full-time writer.

Thankfully, this minor aberration was soon swept aside by his next book; 2003’s superb The Scheme for Full Employment, which refers to the seemingly fool proof plan to provide thousands of jobs, driving UniVans from depot to depot, picking up and unloading cargo. The absurdity behind the scheme is that the cargo consists solely of replacement parts for UniVans. As Mills observes, "gloriously self-perpetuating, the scheme was designed to give an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s labour. It was intended to be the envy of the world: the greatest undertaking ever conceived by man.” As the novel unfolds, it reveals itself to be a satire of labour relations, as the scheme is brought to the brink of disaster by a workforce that is partly Stakhanovite and partly infested by shirkers. We are back in The Restraint of Beasts territory in terms of the clash between workers and bosses, which Mills addressed even more profoundly in 2009’s The Maintenance of Headway.

Based upon his experiences as a bus driver in London, Mills shows public transport to be a giant game of cops and robbers, or snakes and ladders, in which the drivers are the good guys and the inspectors are the baddies. The title refers to the concept, to which the inspectors are devoted, that "a fixed interval between buses on a regular service can be attained and adhered to by the maintenance of headway". The novel examines the generally farcical tension and conflict between the officious inspectors and the drivers themselves who aim to arrive early. In this novel, Mills adroitly exploits the comic potential of speech, especially the management-speak of the inflexible, robotic inspectors. Unlike the subtle philosophy behind The Scheme for Full Employment, here the reader is left in no doubt who is ultimately responsible for all strife and alienation in the work place.

In between The Scheme for Full Employment and The Maintenance of Headway, Mills published his only third-person narrative novel, Explorers of the New Century. Framed loosely on the contest between Amundsen and Scott to reach the South Pole first, it tells the story of two rival expeditions mapping a hitherto uninhabited wilderness from the coast to "the Agreed Furthest Point." They adopt two different routes, both of which are exacting and inhospitable, losing men and the “mules” who carry the supplies along the way. Dextrously interspersing accounts of the two expeditions, Mills slowly reveals the book not to be merely an account of stubborn folly in the face of hostile environmental factors, but a thoughtful examination of the nature of imperialism when it suddenly becomes alarmingly clear to the reader that the “mules” are not equine, but human. It is the single most chilling revelation in all of his novels and one that marks Explorers of the New Century as the first, non-comic triumph in Mills’ career.

Early in his career, Mills published two jolly collections of his short, almost flash, fiction; 1999’s Only When the Sun Shines Brightly and 2003’s Once in a Blue Moon. I bought the pair of them in 2004 from a bookshop in York and had read both by the time my train pulled into Central Station, finding them to be very funny indeed. Then, in 2010, the two slim collections were reprinted in one volume, with 3 extra, previously unseen stories, under the title Screwtop Thompson. This still reasonably slim volume brings together eleven short stories that "trundle gently between the ordinary, absurd and the outright surreal." As in almost all his novels, the stories are recounted by an unnamed narrator.

In "Only When the Sun Shines Brightly", the narrator watches as a large plastic sheet is caught on a viaduct above a joiner’s workshop in strong wind. "At Your Service" involves his attempts to help his diminutive Chinese friend cut branches from a tree that is obscuring the light entering his flat, but also growing in a neighbour’s garden. "The Comforter" presents an architect narrator who meets an archdeacon on the way to an interminable cathedral meeting. In "Hark the Herald", the storyteller spends his first night and day at a West Country guesthouse over Christmas, but repeatedly fails to meet the other residents, which is extremely creepy and superbly funny, but not as insane as "Once in a Blue Moon", when he acts as negotiator in an armed siege between the police and his mother. "The Good Cop" sees him interrogated by one or possibly two identical policemen.

The titular "Screwtop Thompson" tells of when he was a child and received as a present a toy whose head unscrews and which came in several guises. The narrator wanted a policeman but received a schoolmaster, without a head. In "They Drive by Night" he is picked up hitch-hiking by a large lorry. He sits in the noisy cab between the driver and his mate and attempts to make sense of the conversation. The three previously unpublished stories begin with "Half as Nice", which tells how his Auntie Pat had enjoyed four hit singles in the 1960s with an all-girl vocal group, and had married their producer, Dwight. "Vacant Possession" sees Noz and the narrator employed to fit a cattle grid at a large, but empty country house, staying there for three days while they complete the work; soon, the house begins to feel more than a little sinister. Finally, "A Public Performance.” In Bristol in 1970 a sixth former, more than possibly based on the author, buys a Russian great coat but it doesn't have the desired effect of establishing his countercultural credentials as he attends a Pink Floyd concert at Colston Hall.

Having read that collection, I secreted the book at the appropriate place in my library and promptly forgot about Magnus Mills for more than a decade, until David Keenan inspired guilt sent me back to him, where I discovered that I had 5 novels to catch up on. A quick scoot around Amazon and Ebay provided me with the missing parts of the Magnus Mills jigsaw and I was away.

Looking at the 5 novels I’ve just read, I’ve the feeling that 3 of them are amongst his finest work, while the other 2 don’t advance his reputation one iota. Thankfully, the first of these, 2011’s A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked in, is as imaginative as Explorers of the New Century and as funny as The Maintenance of Headway. We’re on allegorical territory here; the uncrowned ruler of the Empire of Greater Fallowfield has dropped out of University and gone missing, leaving eight nominated commoners, all of whom are inexplicably named after obscure birds, to act as a kind of War Cabinet. While they manage to change the clocks so that tea can be taken in the Imperial Drawing Room at 5pm every day, they fail abysmally in their main task, that of preventing the disintegration of the Empire. In time, the neighbouring economic powerhouse of the City of Scoffers bankrupts the fey and indolent Fallowfieldian realm. The cabinet find themselves to be economic migrants, working at backbreaking tasks in a foreign land to earn a crust. Needless to say, throughout the book, insane and hilarious events beset every character.

While the book could be construed as a reflection on the nature of leadership and human dignity, it is also a very satisfying riff on the primacy of aesthetics over industry. Who can truly say a railway line is of greater benefit to humanity than an oil painting or a string quartet? I think we can tell whose side Mills is on in the war against utilitarian tyranny.  Sadly, Mills followed this triumph with the book of his I like the least; The Field of the Cloth of Gold takes its name from a summit meeting between King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France from 7 to 24 June 1520, held at Balinghem, between Ardres in France and Guînes in the then English Pale of Calais. The summit was arranged to increase the bond of friendship between the two kings following the Anglo-French treaty of 1514.

From such a minor point in history, Mills takes his inspiration for his account of the events surrounding the fate of nomadic, rootless drifters who live in tents in a huge field, setting the action in an era long before the Agrarian Revolution. Where they come from, what they eat, how they sustain themselves is not explained; nor are the reasons behind successive, non-violent invasions by tribes from elsewhere. The whole atmosphere is one of passive aggression, but so unlikeable are the narrator’s neighbours, the reclusive Hen, the aloof Thomas and the intimidating Isabella for instance, that we do not feel compassion for them. Nor does the reader judge the narrator for accidentally collaborating with the incomers to construct a drainage ditch and accidental ha-ha that hides the size of the new encampment from the inquisitive eyes of the original dwellers. Instead, when the novel dribbles to its end, if not conclusion, there is a sense of being nonplussed by events and characters with whom it is impossible to forge any meaningful connection. Then again, knowing Mills, that could have been his intention.

If I had to recommend one Magnus Mills novel for you to read, then The Forensic Records Society just breasts the tape ahead of The Maintenance of Headway and Tales of Muffled Oars. Two social inadequate blokes, the narrator and his pal, meet up every Monday night in the back room of The Half Moon under the guise of the Forensic Records Society, which has been established for the express purpose of listening to records closely, in detail and without comment; forensically if you like. The rules, including a proviso of 7” singles only, titles but no reference to artists, and finishing in time for last orders,  are strictly enforced which leads to friction within the fledgling society and the forming of an alternative Confessional Records Society meeting on Tuesdays with the contrasting invitation to "Bring a record of your choice and confess!". Tensions increase between the rival societies, as well as a short-lived scion the New Forensic Records Society, leading to hilarious and disproportionate 'bickering, desertion, subterfuge and rivalry.’

Mills could be ruminating on the nature of male obsessions, the Russian Revolution, the Sunni / Shia schism or any great falling out in human history, with the added benefit of a glorious soundtrack that can be found on Spotify. Seriously, this book is an absolute corker and I defy any middle-aged, anal retentive, borderline OCD bloke not to see himself in its pages.

Incredibly, bearing in mind he had just produced the book of his career, Mills lost his deal with Bloomsbury after that. I don’t know who his agent is, but they can’t have been worth employing, as it was to be another 3 years before Mills was published again. In fact 2020 saw the appearance of two novels, Tales of Muffled Oars and The Trouble with Sunbathers; the latter isn’t bad. Two blokes employed as gate keepers for an enormous gateway to the wilderness central England has become once everyone moved to the sea, to spend every daylight hour sunbathing, don’t do much and meet a load of people on a superficial and inconsequential level. Yes, it’s amusing, but while he isn’t quite phoning it in, there is an element of Mills by numbers at work here.





In contrast, Tales of Muffled Oars is an absolute tour-de-force and may well be my third favourite of his books. Again two blokes, who could be the Forensic Record Society chaps in false beards and moustaches, meet in their local pub to drink Guinness and engage in discussions about England’s history, piloted by the erudite if eccentric Macaulay. His theory is the natural state of the nation is “England at peace,” going back to Edgar the Peaceable being rowed down the Dee by eight tributary princes in 943AD. Consequently, all his lectures avoid reference to anything remotely violent, whether that is the Battle of Hastings or the Wars of the Roses. It makes for an extremely funny, highly inventive take on our past. Considering Mills’ quintessentially English style that could almost be a pastiche of PG Wodehouse meets Look and Learn magazine, that is very fitting.

The sad thing is that these last 2 novels were produced in paperback form by Quoqs Publishing, having only been Kindle releases before then. With evidence that Mills has ideas by the bucket load and undimmed talent for the correct phrase or surreal flight of fancy, it would be a crying shame if his subsequent works do not receive the attention of mainstream publishers as he is a genuine jewel in the contemporary literary crown.