Saturday 18 July 2020

Remembered America

At the beginning of my summer holiday, I drove down to Preston to try and sort out my dad's house ready for sale. It's been the family home for over fifty years and Dad was never one to throw things away. It was an emotional and a very physical experience and one I don't want to have to repeat. It helped that he's still with us, in a care home that is looks after him well, though is quickly draining the coffers (hence the sale). It was also made better because I was doing it with my brother Geoff. Apart from being good company, he's also put forward a programme idea for Radio 4 that's working its way through the commissioning rounds and has one hurdle to climb before being made. The idea is simple and effective - imagine what roads are travelled when a house is being cleared for sale. To collect material, he recorded things at various points and this gave us time to reflect on memories spanning a spectrum of feelings. 

Geoff's a very successful radio producer and podcast maker. Not only that, he helps his wife to run a family festival, a film festival and a forest festival among other things. He get to work with an befriend an amazing host of talented and creative folk and I can be proud that he's part of my family. Hopefully the mention of this will become clear later. 

I returned from Preston with several boxes of things I'd like to keep. Some are sentimental, some practical and some I have no idea why I couldn't find it in me to just chuck during the first purge. My own house is already full of life and stuff and there's not much room for more, so I took a trip into the attic to have a bit of a clear out myself. 

While I was up there, I came across a couple of boxes of books and magazines Geoff and I produced between 1998 and 2004. There are some wonderful collections in there, ranging from the up-and-coming to the well established poet. I believe were were the first to publish work by one Ben Myers, which gives me a buzz - it may have only been a small thing, but I do believe that collecting small things together is the way to make bigger things. 

The fact that I still have boxes full of the old copies says something about my vision at the time. I guess, as is often the case with me, it was slightly blurred with hope and enthusiasm and seen through a lens of OCD. We did a good job and the magazine grew in terms of reputation bigger than we could have imagined. Like many others before, however, we were to be reminded that poetry doesn't sell and being involved in it has to be a labour of love before it is anything else. 

By 2003, things were changing for us. As I recall, Geoff was cutting his teeth in journalism and radio production. He had also become a father and had many fish to fry. His pockets were getting smaller and the balance of funding tipped even more heavily to my side until the amount of time and money involved to keep it going stretched my enthusiasm beyond breaking point.

Looking back, there are many ifs and buts. If we'd been more savvy, perhaps we might still be going today. 

Only we're not. 

Remembered America was our last hurrah. Dick McBride had done the rounds. He'd worked in City Lights and been at the hub of the Beat poetry movement from its birth. Like the Rue Bella itself, he wasn't one of the biggest fish, but he did have teeth and heart. 

As much as it was our final effort, it was also destined to be his. I think he had a desperate urge to publish one more grand work and we were the people who were able to grant him that. 

When initially released Remembered America, we had a quote to use:

'I'm glad to see you're still going strong, there's hardly any of us left!...Ciao baby.' Lawrence Ferlinghetti 

We can't use that anymore as Dick sadly died a few years ago. 

Back to the point. I was up in my attic with these books and realised (I'm slow at many things) that I could put this out as an ebook. Unlike the paperback, which we went to the trouble of having designed for once and which has very high quality production values, it would cost nothing to do bar a day's typing and a bit of work around the edges. 

And so I can introduce you to it once more. Remembered America by Dick McBride in it's Kindle reincarnation. 

Should you feel like a shot of poetry to brighten your days, it's free today (Saturday, 18th July) at Amazon and is already the #1 freebie in love poetry, American poetry and a few other categories. Mr McBride would have liked that.

Here's what it says in the blurb in case you need any more persuasion:



As grass grows

So ceases sorrow

Madness welcomes sanity

Anger burns out

Hearts open again

Like roses rising in

The ashes of memory

So ceases sorrow

As the rubber of the sun

Erases the blackboard fog

Of desperate blindness

So ceases sorrow

Iron hands

Ties knots of

Bound joy

Released as

The grass grows again

After the noise

Of hungry blades

Swift clocks brightening

Smiles of daisies in

Recently mown lawns

Softening the claws

In soft paws

Of sleep

Wounds heal

So ceases the

Sorrow of muddy rain

Erupting like glue

On palm-tree sands

And yet the grass grows again

Still the sun shines

As tall green blades

Surgically remove doors

Of halls and

Cupboards hiding old taboos

As the grass grows

So ceases sorrow

And the grass grows again

About the poet

Dick McBride was born in 1928 in Washington, Indiana. After years of travelling around Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Illinois and Nebraska working in radio, Dick hit San Francisco and City Lights, where he worked for sixteen years and lived at the centre of the Beat movement. He moved to England in 1969 and more ears in the book trade, selling American independents to Europe. Then on to Australia in the eighties, and back to England once again.

Dick died in 2012 and Remembered America (US) was to be his final collection.

“I have long admired his energy and his stubbornly hopeful vision against all the odds…I am especially taken with ‘Grass’, its haunting refrain running through what is both an elegy and a rhapsody. In general, I am gladden by writing that can be wild like Ginsberg and is never far from ecstasy.”  Phillip Callow

The Rue Bella

The Rue Bella magazine was considered to be at the cutting edge of poetry during its production years between 1998 and 1993. Not only did it have some of the biggest names around (Benjamin Myers, Benjamin Zephaniah, Brian Patten, Ruth Padel, Michael Horovitz, John Kinsella, Alan Brownjohn, Peter Knaggs, Ed Mycue, Jan Oskar Hansen and Virgil Suarez, all included here) but offered a stage for the most exciting up-and-coming talent of the period.

'Keep up the good work. Literature needs more people like you.' John Martin, Black Sparrow Press

'The best presented publication on the small press market by far.' John Allan Hirst

'A maverick minded enterprise.' City Life

'May I, apropos of nothing, recommend the Rue Bella.' Roger McGough

'I do look forward to reading the Rue Bella.' Nicholas Royle, Time Out

'Some really good work.' Brian Patten

'This is happening now.' Martin Carr, 'The Boo Radleys'

A compilation of some of the finest poems they published can be found on kindle in the collection Where The Wild Things Were.

Friday 17 July 2020


John lives in a small house that has nothing in it, bar the absolute essentials and his boss's wife, Mary. She likes to get under the covers with her lover, a Geordie who has appeared on the scene from nowhere like some mythical beast, whenever she can. He's big and hard and scared of nobody.

There’s a job on soon and the tensions are mounting. Mary’s husband gathers his crew and warns them to keep a low profile. John isn’t one who finds that easy to do. He goes out with his mate and ends up in a bar brawl that gets terribly out of hand (no pun intended). A quick visit to the local underworld doctor and things are back to normal. Well, almost normal. The driver for the heist is now incapacitated and Jock is brought into the team by Mary’s father who oversees everything.  Jock and John are cut from the same kilt and their testosterone and pride ensure that there’s an edge between them that could only be settled in a fight to work out who is the top dog.

The ripples caused by the tensions within the group soon turn into waves when not everyone is happy with the outcome of the job. To complicate things further, we soon realise that the main motivation for the whole thing has been something else entirely. Revenge becomes the new thrust of the story and we know that there’s going to be nowhere to hide. For some of those involved, the world is about to come crashing down with fists of thunder and not all of them are going to be able to survive the pounding.

I really enjoyed this read. The prose is stripped bare just like John’s flat. The characters feel very genuine and their motivations are rooted in their histories as much as in their circumstances. There’s an edge of menace throughout and when action is called for, it’s as strong and powerful as those involved. The Newcastle setting really works and there’s a terrific seventies feel which is all the more authentic because the detail is kept to a minimum. I also liked the way the dialect comes through in the conversation – it might take a while for some to get used to, but the meaning is always clear.

My only reservation comes in relation to the structure. We begin in 1978, shift back to a couple of years earlier and then back to 1978 to where the opening left off. The first difficulty I had with this is one relating to my memory (mine isn’t great) and I found myself rushing back to the start to remind myself when it was set (sure, it was clear, but I don’t think I registered it at the time and just placed it in the seventies). The second is that it was so well put together that a lot of the middle section adds a layer of back-story that I don’t feel was entirely necessary. I’d like to read it again and simply go with the opening and final parts to see if that would work alone – I reckon it would stand up nicely and.

The ending here is as satisfying as it was unexpected. Its a perfect fit and somewhere lurking amidst the surprise and the elements of disappointment was a pleasing burst of triumph.

Cutthroat(US)is top quality noir fiction of the Brit Grit variety. Sparse, dark, tense and action-packed, there are no heroes, no frills and no dull moments. Another belter from All Due Respect - put it to the top of your list.

Wednesday 15 July 2020

One Man's Opinion: The EMPTY HOURS by ED McBAIN

The Empty Hours consists of three stories featuring the usual cast from the 87th Precinct. As the development of plot and character are important within the series, a part of me was concerned that the shorter works might not grab me in the usual way. I can say with total conviction that I needn't have worried. Each morsel is more a substantial meal than a snack. In many ways this is because the characters are so well-formed from their other outings that they don't need to be expanded, so the cases become more central to the enjoyment. Having said that, if this was your first encounter with either Carella or Myer or Hawes, I think you'd still feel totally satisfied by this collection. 

The Empty Hours tells of a wealthy loner who turns up dead in her apartment. The case leads the detectives to a boating accident and a safe-deposit box and there's plenty of gratification to be found if you like to work things out just before the detectives because of  McBain's excellent navigation. 

J involves the murder of a Rabbi spattered in paint and left to die below the graffiti of the letter in the title. It takes the detectives into the word of anti-Semites and racist thugs and has Meyer thinking about his own Jewishness.

Storm sees our loveable giant, Cotton Hawes, the man who had a Mallen streak long before Catherine Cookson got there taking a beautiful dancer up the mountains for the weekend and winding up becoming involved in a murder when a young instructor is stabbed with a ski pole. This one's a particularly atmospheric piece and the conflict between the big city detective and the local sheriff is a treat. 

I loved each of these. They're long enough to give a lot of satisfaction and short enough to get through them at a pace. Having finished them, I'm hoping that I'll come across more of a similar length in due course. The first story is strong, the second better still and the best is saved till last.

Terrific stuff and a great reminder that small really can be very beautiful indeed.   

More information and fun can be found at the excellent Hark podcast here

Monday 13 July 2020

One Man's Opinion: LADY, LADY, I DID IT by ED McBAIN

This one opens with some horseplay at the station. The detectives are pulling Kling’s leg about receiving a call at the station from his fiancĂ©e. Though it’s no crime to be in love, they make him feel as though it might be. Regardless, he manages to arrange their date for later on and he’s particularly excited because of the revelation about her new bra, teasingly named Abundance.

‘Abundance’ is the final word he hears her say, for the next time he gets to see Claire, she’ll be the victim of a shooting in a local bookstore. Steve Carella and Kling take the call. There are three dead and two wounded. Kling walks into the back of the shop to see a lady sprawled before him. It slowly dawns on him that she’s the lady he was having a conversation with in the squad room, the lady who just happened to be the love of his life.

It’s a hugely charged and emotional moment for the reader. There’s been an uneasy sense that something is about to go wrong from the off. For those of us who’ve been reading in order, there’s the double whammy of a shared history. When we met Kling, we also met Claire. It wasn’t an easy start for them as a couple, but I was willing them along back then. As Kling falls apart, he takes us back to those early days and reminds us of their beginnings. The lump in my throat was big as an ostrich egg.

To balance the sadness, there’s the beauty of the 87th. The whole squad come together. The file in the office is labelled the Kling case. Patrolmen and detectives alike rally round, keeping ears open and focussing on the bookshop murders while everything else takes a back seat. It’s moving to observe and, because these are old friends rather than just fictional characters, it’s wonderful to behold.

Carella and Meyer lead this one, but Kling insists on doing the work. He pulled the call, after all, and has every right to do so. Problem is, the way the investigation is carried out there’s an assumption that the killer was after one of the victims. In order to pursue the case, each of them needs to be investigated in turn and it might be that any guilty secrets in Claire's life will be exposed in the process. 

The layers are peeled away with great craft. Each becomes a story in its own right, though not all of them add anything to the investigation.  

I loved it for many different reasons. It felt personal. The cops deserve a break. Whatever Claire has been hiding, we know she did it for the best of reasons. Each set piece is a treat (take Claire's father's reaction as a prime example). By the time we come to the end of the story, the killer has almost been forgotten, but when the threads are taken up for one last push, the knots re tied perfectly.

A top-notch crime story that I reckon will have any fan of fiction hooked.

 This one was published in 1961. Some of the language and terminology reflects that and I find it easy to get along with it because of the sentiments at its core. I was struck in this one by a passage about Detective Brown.  Remember that it was almost sixty years ago and then consider what’s changed.

“He turned on the radio very softly and listened to the news broadcast as he shaved. Race riots in the Congo. Sit-in demonstrations in the South. Apartheid in South Africa.

He wondered why he was black.

He often wondered this. He wondered it idly, and with no real conviction that he was black. That was the strange part of it. When Arthur Brown looked in the mirror, he saw only himself. Now he knew he was a Negro, yes. But he was also a Democrat, and a detective, and a husband, and a father and he read The New York Times – he was a lot of things, and so he wondered why he was black. He wondered why, being this variety of things besides being black, people would look at him and see Arthur Brown, Negro – and not Arthur Brown, detective, or Arthur Brown, husband, or any of the other Arthur Browns who had nothing to do with the fact that he was black. This was not a simple concept, and Brown did not equate it in simple Shakespearean-Shylock terms, which the world had long outgrown.

When Brown looked into the mirror, he saw a person.

It was the world who had decided that this man was a black man. 

Being this person was an extremely difficult thing, because it meant living a life the world had decided upon, and not the life he – Arthur Brown – would particularly have chosen. He, Arthur Brown, did not see a black man or a white man or a yellow man or a chartreuse man when he looked into the mirror.

He saw Arthur Brown.

He saw himself.

But superimposed upon this image of himself was the external concept of black man-white man, a concept which existed and which Brown was forced to accept. He became a person playing a complicated role. He looked at himself and saw Arthur Brown, Man. That’s all he wanted to be. He had no desire to be white. In fact, he rather liked the warm, burnished colour of his own skin. He had no desire to go to bed with a creamy-skinned blonde. He had heard coloured friends of his state that white men had bigger sex organs than Negroes, but he didn’t believe it, and he felt no envy. He had encountered prejudice in a hundred and one subtle and unsubtle ways from the moment he was old enough to understand what was being said and done around him, but the intolerance never left him feeling angry, it only confused him.

You see, he thought, I am me, Arthur Brown. Now what is all this white man-black man crap? I don’t understand what you want me to be. You are saying I’m a Negro, you are telling me this is so, but I don’t know what Negro means. I don’t know that this whole discussion is all about. What do you want from me exactly? If I say, why yes, that’s right, I’m a Negro, well then what? What the hell is it you want? That’s what I’d like to know. Arthur Brown finished shaving, rinsed his face, and looked into the mirror.

As usual, he saw himself.”

Sixty years ago. My word.

Lady, Lady, I Did It.

Mr McBain, you certainly did.  

And if you need another opinion, why not check out Hark the 87th Precinct Podcast here?