Tag Archives: Elbow

Hail Mary, Full of Grace…and Mary…………………..Book Review of Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg

………………………..Like the Cumbrian landscape in which it takes place, this is a book which overcomes its rather serious and bleak subject matter about a son’s last attempts to head off the full onset of his mother’s crippling dementia, with a narrative that rises way above any grim clouds and that inevitable fading of the light to become quite simply, a beautiful love story. There’s something very special, and very soothing about the way in which the book seems to summon up some of our darkest fears about growing old, lay them out starkly before us and then seems to say ‘don’t worry, – however difficult it might be, you’ll be with peopole who love you…..so it’ll be alright’.

Dawn over Coniston Water
Dawn over Coniston Water

John is a 71 year old, retired businessman making regular visits from his home in London to visit Mary, his mother, who is in a care home in Wigton in his native Cumbria. Despite his mothers increasing dementia and the distance, these visits become John’s lifeline to his mother and eventually to his own past. Mary’s recognition and awareness of John varies as the dementia takes hold and so after she calls out in distress one evening for her mother, Grace, John tries to help his mothers failing memory by reaching back to the past, recreating the story of her childhood and that of her mother Grace. His account of Mary and Grace’s history is lovingly reconstructed to try and engage Mary. But it’s almost entirely imagined, for alternating with the present day story of John and Mary, is Grace’s real story of the past, a woman who neither John nor Mary really knew. What unfolds is the heartbreaking contrast between the real and the imagined, for Mary was an illegitimate child born to Grace at a time when a single unmarried woman bringing up a child outside of marriage was simply unthinkable. Grace and Mary never have that mother-daughter relationship in the way John later describes it and yet the real and the imagined stories of Grace and Mary do have something in common – Grace’s love for her daughter which is unquenchable and unbreakable. The tragic difference is that in real life it was a love from afar, as a visiting family friend rather than the mother Grace longs to be at the time and which Mary craves decades later.

Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg
Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg

As John makes frequent trips to his mother’s bedside, the book unfolds John’s love for his mother as an only child, his reflections on his life now, in the past and to come, and the story he weaves as he tries to imagine what Grace and Mary’s relationship would have been. Grace’s story is of her own mother who she barely knew and her child, lost to the narrow moral values of the time in which she lived. As the book progresses John charts more and more of his mother’s illness, her surroundings and their history together. The present is there of course but it’s as much for it to be a trigger for a special memory or as a reference point to their past more than anything else – it’s noticeable that throughout the book you learn much about John’s thoughts and feelings about his past but his present and his immediate family are scarcely mentioned.

Melvyn Bragg has managed to take the fairly heavy storyline and turn it into something which has a continually light and gentle feel – almost tender. It’s a wonderful achievement when you think about the main character being a woman living out her final years in a care home, suffering the rapid onset of dementia. And of course, for me and no doubt for many others, that fear of dementia is an increasingly common and increasingly real fear too. But as dark and grim as the subject sometimes is, the book is anything but, because it’s just so beautifully balanced. So for example the awfulness of that dementia for Mary and John is balanced with the care in the home, the engagement of the care staff, and John’s patient recreation of the childhood Mary never actually had. Equally there’s a lovely balance between the story of Grace’s past and Mary’s present. For all that there is such tragedy and lost potential in Grace’s actual life story, with such a feel of ‘what might have been’, the sheer depth of the love between John and his mother in a sense actually makes up for it – as if ‘what might have been’ between Grace and Mary, is somehow compensated for in part by the ‘what it became’ between Mary and John.

It’s a book that has at its core that very unique relationship between a mother and her child. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with such a strong feel for that mother-child bond. Grace’s love for Mary is all-consuming and years later, John’s care of his mother is exactly the same. And yet it avoids becoming all a bit too ‘nice’ by giving the contrast of John’s relationships with his own family – they’re pretty much bit-part players throughout the novel. And as an almost two-fingered gesture to that monster dementia, it’s a novel which perversely seems to celebrate the power of simple everyday memories. I loved John’s recollections of his father, of their childhood home, of the way old photographs sparked reminiscing, of the way hearing snippets of music set John and Mary off remebering dancing, or singing much loved songs ( at one point John and Mary literally perform an all-action Hokey Cokey – and as ludicrous as it sounds it’s actually very moving!). So much of the book reminded me of the beautiful Elbow song ‘Scattered Black and Whites”.

In some ways Grace and Mary is about coming to terms with ageing, dying and our pasts. As I read it I kept thinking about Dylan Thomas’ ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ – it’s as if the novel says that Dylan is partly right and we ought not to go too gently and meekly, but that he’s also partly wrong, for there’s no need to ‘rage against the dying of the light’ either! Instead it seems to suggest we take up a position somewhere between the two!

And even though Grace and Mary is a very quiet, gentle read, it’s neither lightweight nor predictable. Far from it. It’s painful to read in some places for there’s a harsh, almost raw feel to the way that John reflects on his life now and as it was when he was a child, and of course if you do consider that spectre of dementia as I know I do, then it’s effect on Mary, and on her relationship with John and with everything else around her is both distressing and frightening. But ultimately it’s just so beautifully written. The characters are wonderfully drawn, engaging, interesting and real – and even their flaws have something gorgeously real-life about them. It’s also one of those rare books where the setting is almost a character in itself – Wigton might be dark, cold and bleak at times, but there’s a real sense of affection in the way Melvyn Bragg has also given beauty to both its scenery and its inhabitants – for this is a Northern England of big hearts and open arms.

I’ve long been a fan of Melvyn Bragg, ever since I stumbled across his novel Crystal Rooms many years ago. Now of course he’s a Lord, much heralded critic and broadcaster and what a work colleague once described for me as the most perfect combination of sex appeal and intellect. (………..I won’t comment on that beyond the fact that I didn’t share her opinion then and I don’t now – I think it’s me rather than Melvyn who is that perfect combination but that’s a debate for another day!) But setting all that to one side he is, amidst all his other talents,  a great writer. At the time of publication for Grace and Mary some reviews compared it to Thomas Hardy – and its a comparison that for me Grace and Mary thoroughly deserves. I loved it so much that for me, this is the best Melvyn Bragg novel I’ve read….and a very last minute contender for the best book I’ve read in 2014!

Melvyn trying harder to look more handsome and more intellectual than me - get in line old boy!
Melvyn trying hard to look more handsome and more intellectual than me – get in line old boy!

Book Info

My copy of ‘Grace and Mary’ by Melvyn Bragg was published by Sceptre in 2013. I bought it with my own hard-earned cash and well worth every penny it was too!

Surprisingly there aren’t a huge number of other blog reviews of Grace and Mary out there that I could find, but if you want to read what someone else thought of it, I liked this one at Dove Grey Reader.

After finishing the book I found out that Melvyn Bragg wrote the novel in the wake of his own mothers death from dementia. There’s an interesting article from May 2013 at Bryan Appleyard and an interview he did with the Guardian back in 2013

And if you don’t already know it, here’s a snippet of that Elbow track ‘Scattered Black and Whites’ in case you’re interested enough to give it a listen – you should – it’s wonderful!

Book Rating Out of Ten (You can find info on my book rating scale here)



Can You Get Too Much Of A Good Thing? – Elbow Live In Liverpool

Bucharest(Why did the Romanian stop reading for night? To give his Bucharest!!! And moving swiftly on from that corniest of book jokes, this is yet another post where I give my book a rest!)

…………..Over the years I’ve been in some pretty odd pubs – the oddness makes them memorable! Usually. However, I remember one pub I visited about 15 years ago near Kings Cross. In my memory it Elbow 2was part kasbah-type “lounge” and part some sort of table-dancing establishment. It was odd – but hey it sold beer and we were desperate! But I don’t remember it for its odd decor or feel – I remember it because me and three friends shared it with only one other group of people – the members of the band Elbow. We’d gone to see them playing at Scala in Kings Cross and they’d obviously gone looking for a pub before they played because I guess back then, when they weren’t known by many people other than their friends and immediate family, they could! My journey with Elbow started then – Scala was hot, sweaty, loud and vibrant – and Elbow were brilliant. I was hooked!

Forward 15 years to last Saturday and I am seeing Elbow for the umpteenth time, at the cavernous, appropriately named “Echo Arena” in Liverpool. Musically they are as wonderful as ever. Beautiful produced waves of sound and atmospherics, especially in the gentler sounds of songs like “Lippy Kids”. And Guy Garvey’s voice is warm and mellow and still sounds as effortless as it did all those years ago. But something’s missing. Like a comfortable old jacket, Elbow still fit, they still feel good to put on but there isn’t quite the same buzz, the same tingle of excitement.

Elbow 1It’s partly the venue. Liverpudlians can sing and they certainly make a noise but somehow it never quite generates the tingle on the back your neck that I’d feel if I watched them at say Scala or Brixton Academy or up at the Junction in Cambridge. Its a vast arena, and as arenas go it certainly outstrips the truly awful O2 arena for atmosphere – but it’s the very opposite of everything Scala is – it’s not sweaty, it’s not dirty, it’s not a bit dog-eared, and it’s not a seething, heaving, entwined mass of bodies all moving together – and somehow I miss all that.

Elbow3But it’s also Elbow themselves. If anything it’s all a bit too clean, a bit too neat. It lacks edge and it lacks personality in some ways. Guy Garvey’s the most wonderful showman, an erudite raconteur in many ways. His ability to engage and hold an audience in the palm of his hand is among the best I’ve ever seen. But tonight he looks and indeed sounds tired – there’s a hint of going through the motions in his interaction with the crowd – somehow I got the feel this wasn’t the spontaneous banter of old but a series of rehearsed routines that Elbow trailed from Glasgow, to London, to Manchester, to Liverpool to wherever! And so much of Elbow’s personality live depends on Guy Garvey – the others dont really step up to the plate in the way they used to either.

I feel shite having written all this. I love Elbow – they are simply my favourite band ever, ever, ever, ever! It feels like a betrayal, like an act of heresy to say anything critical. But while it was really good, it wasn’t great, magnificent, overwhelming. And that’s what I’ve come to expect from Elbow over the last 15 years – so perhaps both them and me were a victim of my own expectations this time around.

But of course like all great love affairs – it isn’t over. Nothing will ever lure me away from the wonderfully crafted lyrics of Garvey and his mates – the songs are genuine stories in my view and absolutely belong here on my book blog! And nothing will ever get in the way of the swell in my heart every time I hear the melody of One Day Like This or the rolling piano intro to Scattered Black and Whites! I hear they are due to play the V Festival this year just along the road from where I live  – I’ll hope to go and look forward to it – though there’s a bit of me that would like to go back full circle and start again in that bizarre little pub in Kings Cross…………….!


“I Don’t Deserve This Award – But Then I Have Arthritis And I Don’t Deserve That Either!”………..My Book Of The Year Awards!……….

……….Jack Benny I hope you noticed the nice mix in the titles for this post – the classic false modesty from the comedian Jack Benny followed by my own unlimited arrogance and vanity in announcing “my book of the year awards!!!!”

In a way though starting this post with Jack Benny is rather appropriate – his first words on Ed Sullivan’s radio show in the US in the early thirties was supposed to have been “This is Jack Benny talking. There will now be a short pause while you sit at home thinking –  ‘who cares?!”.

It just fits perfectly for:-

“This is my Book Of The Year Awards” post and there will now be a gap of at least two lines…

……….while you have a chance to think  – who the hell cares!!!!!

But if you reached this line you must be intrigued, so stick with it till the end  – you won’t be disappointed!

Well…..actually….. you might be disappointed at the end, but I’ll leave a couple more empty lines so I can think “So you’re disappointed! What the hell do I care?!”

And so my awards! I’ve read a lot of good books this year, heard some great music, seen some great gigs – and eaten some lovely pies! So here are my awards for 2012!

1. TV Programme Location of the Year

Waterloo Road
Memories – like the Corridors of My Mind!

The award goes to BBC’s “Waterloo Road” which is now filmed at “Greenock Academy”, my old school in Scotland. It allows me to indulge in spotting familiar walls, corridors and pupil toilets – which instead of impressing my daughter actually bores her rigid!

If you can get over the fact that they moved the school from England to Scotland and took all the kids with them into a sort of cult-cum-boarding unit, then the best of all is that while the BBC have tarted the building up for the fictional school, the quality of the teaching in the fictional school looks just as shite as I remember it being in the real school!!!

2. Book Week Of The Year

Much as I enjoyed the Muriel Spark Reading Week, the award for me goes to the Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week, which Annabel’s House of Books hosted back in June of this year. I’d not read any of Beryl Bainbridge’s stuff before-hand – I loved it – quirky and sharp and just wonderful. It turned me from a Beryl-virgin to a Beryl-lover almost overnight!

3. The ‘Well Bugger Me I Didn’t Know That!’ Award for 2012

Birdie BowersThanks to book blogs I read quite a bit about the centenary of Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1912. And through that I discovered that Birdie Bowers, who accompanied Captain Scott and was one of those who died alongside him at the end, originally came from my home town of Greenock in Scotland. We seem to make little of the connection which is odd to say the least as Greenock isn’t exactly bustling with well known explorers, actors, sportsmen, politicians or well known anythings! Anyway it led me to read a bit about his life – truly amazing man!

4. Best Bit Of Poetry Learned Off By Heart This Year Award

I’ve loved several new collections this year but my favourite was Seamus Heaney’s “Human Chain!”. And from the poem ‘Route 101’ I loved learning the following lines (and love boring people to death reciting them!)

“In a stained front-buttoned shopcoat / Sere brown piped with crimson / Out of the Classics bay into an aisle /  Smelling of dry rot and disinfectant / She emerges, absorbed in her coin count / Eyes front, right hand at work / In the slack marsupial vent / Of her change – pocket, thinking what to charge / For a used copy of Aeneid VI. / Dustbreath bestirred in the cubicle mouth / I inhaled as she slid my purchase / Into a deckle edged brown paper bag”

5. The “Terrific” Award (for books that aren’t my book of the year but came bloody close and so deserve again the accolade of my favourite word!)

Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller and The Museum Of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk were both

Terrific 1

A Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell and A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry were both

Terrific 2

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro and 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (Books One, Two and Three) were all

Terrific 3

HHhH by Laurent Binet and If This Is A Man by Primo Levi were both

Terrific 4

Heartburn by Norah Ephron and The Art Of Fielding by Chad Harbach were both

Terrific 5

6. The “I’m Really Sorry But I Thought This Was Bloody Awful” Book Of The Year Award

Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit From The Goon Squad”. I just didn’t get it! I guess I’m not clever enough. Sorry Jen!

7. The ‘I Love Guy Garvey Of Elbow More Than Anyone Else Does’ Award

Guy GarveyWith apologies to my mate Steve Smith in Thailand, who fancies himself as a big Elbow fan but can’t be taken seriously as he chose to desert Guy and go live the life of Riley on the beaches of Thailand teaching people to dive (get a proper job you old fart!) and with my apologies to Guy Garvey’s girlfriend, the writer Emma Unsworth,  the award for the person who loves Guy Garvey more than anyone else does, goes to – ME!

8. The Album Of The Year

Dead easy – the beautiful, wonderful, gorgeous “Mid Air” by Paul Buchanan – have a quick listen!

9. Gig Of The Year

This is harder – I’ve seen Elbow a couple of times this year but I have to say we were absolutely awe-struck by the magnificent Bruce Springsteen at the Isle of Wight festival – we watched it knee deep in mud and didn’t give a shit! Truly wonderful!


10. Dive Of The Year

Suarez1This is a special category for my partner, my daughter and her family who are all Liverpool fans. The award goes to the Suarez2Olympic medal-winning last gasp effort from Tom Daley!

But for the runner-up you can choose any of half a dozen or more spectacular dives from that muppet Luiz Suarez!

11. Pie Of The Year

MandS pieThere’s nothing to beat Marks and Spencers! They have the gorgeous Twiggy in their ads, the fabulous sound of Dervla Kirwen doing the voiceover for the food commercials and their pies are great. This year my favourite was the individual Steak and Cornish IPA Ale pies – so fantastic if you gave me a choice between Twiggy, Dervla or the pie, it would be the pie every time!!!!!!!!!!!!!

12. Shite Gig But Chilli Con Carne Of The Year Award

We were unfortunate enough to see Coldplay at the Emirates earlier in the year – bloody awful! I should have known. I saw Coldplay when they were starting out, just after the Yellow album was released – they were at a lovely intimate venue at Brixton Academy – and yet they were bloody awful then as well! However we left the gig early and discovered the Chilli of The Year, washed down with Guinness, at a lovely little pub in Finsbury Park!

13. Comeback Of The Year

Roy 1This is a close run thing between two of my favourite men of books – the mercurial genius that is Roy Race, scourge of every team on the planet in his role as Roy Of The Rovers – and the mercurial genius that is Detective Inspector John Rebus, scourge of every criminal and low-life in Edinburgh and it’s environs in Iain Rankin’s novels- and as a Glaswegian it’s my job to say disparaging things about the good folk of Edinburgh! But since I thought Iain Rankin’s ‘Standing In Another Man’s Grave’ was brilliant, the winner for me is John Rebus! Plus as he has won it allows me to have a couple of pints and a couple of whiskies to honour his achievement! If Roy Of The Rovers had won I’d have been forced to go down the park, beat all the kids at “3 and you’re in!” and then do at least 100 on keepie-uppie – and I’m much more of a five beers than a five-a-side man these days!

14. And finally, my Book Of The Year

I’ve read so many that have been terrific but one just noses ahead – not by much, but by enough to be the read of the year for me – the beautiful story of Jack and Mabel in The Snow Girl by Eowyn Ivey.

The Snow Child

Now I’d said earlier in the year that I would choose a book of the year – and in my own version of the Costa Prize, that I’d buy the winning author a coffee. And I’d like to be true to my word – so if Eowyn Ivey ever reads this and fancies collecting this illustrious prize, I’ll meet her any week day by the Cafe Nero coffee stall in Victoria Station – I’m in the queue most mornings around half past seven – the lattes are on me Eowyn!

And having started with the acerbic wit of Jack Benny on awards, I’d like to end with the acerbic wit of my partner. On the day that the New Year Honours were announced she initially amazed me by saying she’d love to be nominated for an award – and when I expressed astonishment as this didn’t fit with her strong principles and said “Really???????????????????” she replied – “Yeah! So I could then tell them to stick their award up their arse!!!!!!” – That’s my girl!

So if Eowyn Ivey tells me where to put my offer of a free latte as my Book Of The Year, I’ll understand completely!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Music In The Mud – Isle Of Wight Festival Round-Up……….

………..These are just random thoughts, photos and links to other blogs and sites about the Isle Of Wight Festival 2012

1. “I Make My Generals Out Of Mud!”……………….

……….So said Napoleon! Well, he’d have found plenty of raw material to work with at the IOW this year. Below are some of our photos. If you want to see more there are several on the great Every Record Tells A Story blog.

2. They’re Bouncy, Bouncy, Bouncy, Bouncy, Fun, Fun, Fun, Fun, Fun, But By Far The Most Wonderful Thing About Feeder ………..

Here are Feeder, who were first up on the Main Stage on the Friday, playing “Buck Rogers”. Altogether now – “He’s got a brand new car, looks like a Jaguar, it’s got leather seats, it’s got a CD PLAYER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

3. If You Want To Get Ahead In Life, Get A Hat……………………

…………The second best hat of the weekend was worn by Springsteen (you can see it over at Every Record Tells a Story!). He got a young woman up to dance during his set and she was wearing one of these woolen pig tail and ear muff inclusive hats – which ended up on him. However, my beautiful partner never does anything without a touch of style and class and, even though I’m just a little biased, I thought she wore the best hat of the weekend! So, here she is in full “bring on the mud and the sunshine” garb for Sunday – with suitably stylish hat accessory of course!!! (Note how the pharmacy has been put in a metal container – festival goers get their priorities right – even if nothing else survives the weather, we can’t survive without somewhere to buy Nurofen or Resolve for the morning after!!!)

4. An Unexpected Little Gem, Stumbled Upon By Accident!

The surprise find of the festival for us was Charley Macaulay. We came across them in the Hipshaker tent – we’d only gone in there for a beer but became intrigued by the number of musicians setting up – we checked the schedule to find the name Charley Macaulay and we decided to stay and have a look – and we were so glad we did. Charley Macaulay has a truly brilliant voice and one of those intriguing mixes of real stage presence mixed with a gentle manner – almost shy! But boy can she sing! She was backed up by an absolutely brilliant 8 piece band, including what we thought was a brilliant rhythm section – the three guys on drums, percussion and bass can really play – but to be fair everyone else in the band was just as talented. Since coming back we’ve checked them out on MySpace and the internet. I thoroughly recommend having a listen if you get the chance. We even bought their CD EP which was getting sold at the gig (by Charley’s mum if I remember correctly!) – and we bought it on the strength of the music and not because we’d had a few scoops (at that point we were still sober!)

If you’d like to check out the music of Charley Macaulay for yourself, there are previews of a number of her tracks on MySpace.

You can also find more info about her and her music at Charley Macaulay’s site, including dates when you might be able to see her and her band live if you are interested. We’ve noticed they are due to play at the Troubador in London on July 18th and if we can make it, we’ll go along.

5. The Boss

I’ve already written about Bruce Springsteen’s set. It was brilliant. He was voted the best act at the festival on NME and I’m not in the least surprised! (I was more surprised to see Elbow 6th in that poll – they were an easy second to me!) We weren’t too far from the front of Springsteen but our iPhone photos aren’t the best as you can see. However there are great pictures of his set on everyrecordtellsastory – well worth a look – including Springsteen dancing in that hat!

6. Napoleon May Well Make His Generals Out Of Mud – But Wellington Comes To The Rescue Every Time!!!

The epic proportions of the mud made this one of those festivals where the wellies aren’t just the fashion accessories of the young and stylish – it was the only way of avoiding contracting something like swamp fever or trenchfoot!!!!! Nevertheless there were huge variations in how we measure up when we are all in wellies – it seems to me it’s a real testimony of the stylish if they can look good in wellies. I’ll spare you any views of my own wellies – suffice to say my £12 specials from Asda aren’t likely to get me on the cover of any magazines sometime soon. And though I am of course again biased, I thought the most stylish wellies of the weekend were my beautiful partners’ Ted Baker wellies!

7.In Spite Of What You All Think You Know About Anatomy, There’s Actually Only One Elbow!!!!

My love and enjoyment of all things Elbow is well documented throughout my blog – and their set at the IOW confirmed that they are as good as I thought they were!

I was surprised in talking to people at the festival and around the island that few have heard of Elbow – I would have expected that years ago when I was watching them in barely filled small places like Scala at Kings Cross in London. However these days, Guy Garvey has a show on Radio 6, their music is used on virtually every sport montage on TV and I’m pretty sure it was also used during some of the image montages on TV about the Royal Jubilee celebrations! But it would seem they still have some way to go in search of world domination! But I don’t care! They have domination over the music in our house!

Their set at IOW was absolutely brilliant. We loved every song, every chat Guy Garvey had with the crowd and every note. Here are our photos of Sir Guy of Garvey and a little sample of how good they were at IOW!

8. And Finally……….The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Of The Isle Of Wight Festival

I’ll start with the bad bits so I can finish on the good – because in spite of the odd, not-so-good bits, it was a brilliant weekend!

The Ugly

The smell! The loos at festivals are never exactly palatial and the IOW was no different! You kind of expect the smell to pervade around those areas but at the IOW I think the general swamp conditions meant most of the site stunk pretty badly! But it was survivable thanks to these good people!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The Bad

The hassles as a result of the weather were in some ways beyond the control of the people organising the festival so I don’t think they are at fault for the mud and at least some of the ensuing chaos. However there were other things that weren’t that well organised. The bus shuttle from Newport to the site at Seaclose Park was a walk of around ten minutes – it was a bus ride of 25 minutes because of detours around closed roads! Bloody irritating.

Similarly the chaos of getting the specially laid on buses from the site to other parts of the IOW at night time was pretty horrendous – we heard stories of people waiting till 3 and 4 in the morning! And last niggle, The Garden Stage had a dance music tent directly opposite blaring out heavy bass tracks while we were trying to listen to singer songwriters like Matt Cardle – The Christians actually commented on it during their set and they really did have a point. Needs sorting for next year!

The Good

In spite of the niggles there was so much that was good about this festival. However I’ve written elsewhere about the great music and the terrific atmosphere among those at the festival. So here I’ll finish with a thank you to the lovely people of the Isle Of Wight who made us feel so welcome! From people in the pubs in Shanklin, to people forced to wait in long queues for service buses with all of us for buses that they catch every day, to people in shops, to the lovely waitress at Morgans in Shanklin where we had dinner one night, to the really nice Italian who served us fabulous tea and scones in the Village Teashop in Shanklin, to the taxi drivers, to the people who ran the great Ferndale Hotel in Shanklin where we were lucky enough to get a late cancellation, which led to a lovely bed every night and warm showers followed by a great breakfast every morning!!! Everybody was kind, patient, engaged in conversation with us, talked about the festival, went out of their way to help us and generally accepted with humour and good grace legions of the great unwashed shedding dried mud and smelling not at our best all over their shops and pavements and buses and cafes for three days!!!

The festival was great in its own right but the people we met on the IOW made it a little extra special. We will definitely be back again next year – even if the mud is back too!

Music In The Mud – Day 1 Of The Isle Of Wight Festival………..

……….The first day of the festival typified what I think we call the indomitable spirit of music fans going to outdoor gigs in the UK!!!!
The problems at the start of the festival were well documented on the national news – flooded car parks, tractors dragging cars out of quagmires, people sleeping in cars, the islands traffic so gridlocked that at one point the traffic jam went all the way back to the ferry terminal, leaving one ferry stranded in the Solent in a Force 7 gale!!!! But eventually, the stages opened – and we had a great time!
The mud is everywhere of course – in the good bits it’s ankle deep, in the bad bits it’s calf deep and in the really bad bits – you don’t want to know!!! But bizarrely it doesn’t bother you after 5 mins – you just get on with wallowing in it, wading through it and even sinking in it!
The three best bits for us yesterday were Example, Tom Petty and Elbow.
The surprise was Example. I’d not heard much of him before but I thought he was great. He worked the crowd brilliantly and the atmosphere was so energetic and almost frenetic! It’s amazing how much fun you can have jumping up and down in the mud with tens of thousands of others!
Tom Petty was the headline on the Main Stage last night. He was very good, the sound was great and it was particularly good to notice that after some of the stuff we saw here for the Diamond Jubilee, here was an older rock star whose voice had survived really well!
But of course the highlight was Elbow. We wormed and ducked and weaved to about 5-6 rows from the front – so not only did we hear it brilliantly, we saw it up close, which is always best! The set was great and the music was as I’d expect from the best band in the world. Bloody magnificent! We think Sir Guy of Garvey is STILL the greatest thing since sliced bread!
Fortunately for us we are doing the festival the more luxurious way! We’re staying in the lovely Fernbank Hotel in Shanklin – it was a bit of a trek back from the site but worth it for a comfy bed, clean sheets and a shower this morning! What an old git I’ve become!
Anyway – on with the wellies for Day Two!!!!!

Joining the dots from Coronation Street to Elbow to great Edinburgh pubs…..

……………………..it’s quite logical really!!

My family was watching Coronation Street the other night (they have a soap opera routine which flits from Emmerdale to Corrie to East Enders and then back to one or the other – from night to night the order might change but the purgatory of this stuff is relentless!!!!) and I guess I was half listening and half tuned in when, as part of the story line, I heard one of the characters explain that he had managed to get two tickets for an Elbow gig in Manchester!!!! I should be clear from the outset that rather than it being a compliment for Elbow being name checked on Corrie, in my opinion the compliment is the other way round – Coronation Street finally gets some credibility by linking itself with Elbow!

Now for me there is good music – stuff like Coldplay and Radiohead and Arcade Fire and Arctic Monkeys –  and then there’s music I adore – stuff like Two Door Cinema Club and Doves and I Am Kloot and Guillemots – and then “aboon them a’ (as the wonderful Robert Burns lauded the haggis!) for me come Elbow!! Guy Garvey – or as he’s referred to in our house – Sir Guy of Garvey (somehow I think he needs a name or title to raise him above that of any other artist/musician!) – is for me the most talented individual in music today  – lyrically I think his work is wonderful (in evidence I offer a line from the beautiful song “Starlings” – “You are the only thing in any room you are ever in” – the work of a genius!) – in addition their melodies and harmonies are great, the production is always breathtaking and when you see them live they are simply better than anyone else I have ever seen!

Now all this may sound utter hyperbole – it probably is utter hyperbole – but to me it’s as true as the three other deeply personal facts that I hold to be absolutely true – firstly that brown Smarties are the best, secondly that Scotland as a country invented the modern world (and there is a great little book bearing broadly that title which is proof enough for me!) and thirdly that my partner is the most beautiful woman ever. And I hold these are absolutely correct – I now have Elbow being referenced on Coronation Street to prove they are as good as I think they are – the book I referred to can prove the second of my facts – I’m currently looking for the evidence to prove the first personal fact and frankly I don’t need any proof on the third personal fact!

This referencing of popular music in a mainstream soap opera watched by millions every week got me musing about popular music being referenced in books – either playing in the background or linked into the personal tastes of book characters – and that led me to conclude that I think the books which do that most in my experience are the wonderful Detective Inspector Rebus books by Ian Rankin. I love the books, I love the way they are written, I love the setting (Edinburgh is a great city) and of course I like Rebus’s taste in music! (I think Rebus does reference Elbow in one of the books but I can’t remember and when I skimmed through them I couldn’t find it – if someone knows the answer put me out of my misery!)

And that led me to also reflect that perhaps more than even his taste in music, I love his taste in Edinburgh pubs! The main drinking establishment referred to in Rebus is of course the Ox – and I’ve been to the Oxford Bar – indeed I think it’s so closely linked with the books that it is oft referred to as Rebus’s bar! But to be honest it isn’t my favourite – for me the best pub in Edinburgh is a tie between “Mathers” and the “Athletic Arms”! I used to love Mathers openness and atmosphere, sitting or standing by the bar in Mathers is a joy – and as it was in a great location at one end of Princes Street it was a common haunt for me in my student and post-student days. The Athletic Arms is known to all and sundry as Diggers – obvious enough when you know it’s placed in between two large cemeteries! It’s a great traditional pub – back when I frequented it mind you, there was little chance of sitting at the bar as the place was always rammed. But it sold  great beer – McEwans 80 Shilling was the beer of choice then – and the barmen wore these old style maroon coloured jackets and had a caustic line in wit for anyone unfortunate enough to be ordering something they didn’t approve of (I remember one mate getting a tongue lashing for having the temerity / stupidity to ask for whisky – with coke in it!!!! Sacrilege!)

So in going from Coronation Street to Elbow to Edinburgh pubs, the moral and message of this ramble is simple.

If you get a chance to hear Elbow – take it! – If you are ever in Edinburgh and get the chance to drink in Diggers or Mathers – take it! – And if you are ever in Edinburgh and ever hear of Guy Garvey drinking in, or Elbow playing in, either Mathers or Diggers  – then let me know of this chance……………..and I’ll take it!

Love At First Sight In A Greenock Library

“I claim there ain’t / Another Saint / As great as Valentine!” wrote Ogden Nash. These days I think Valentine might be less than keen on the rampant commercialism of this celebration and demonstration of love in his name – I saw cards yesterday inscribed “Happy Valentines Day to Our Son”!!! What’s that about?

I started my Valentines Day early this morning reading Seamus Heaney’s wonderful poetry in Human Chain and went back again to my favourite poem in the collection, Route 101, in which Heaney traces his journey through life in a series of moments laid over Virgil’s Aeneid and the move to the underworld. But it was the fantastic beginning which brought me to remember my first love – books!

Heaney’s poem begins with this scene of him buying a book as an adolescent “In a stained front-buttoned shopcoat / Sere brown piped with crimson / Out of the Classics bay into an aisle /  Smelling of dry rot and disinfectant / She emerges, absorbed in her coin count / Eyes front, right hand at work / In the slack marsupial vent / Of her change – pocket, thinking what to charge / For a used copy of Aeneid VI. / Dustbreath bestirred in the cubicle mouth / I inhaled as she slid my purchase / Into a deckle edged brown paper bag”. If anything captures the beauty and the preciousness in the hum-drum, everyday, ordinariness of buying a book, then this is it for me.

Book love began at first sight in Bawhirely Road library in Greenock where I grew up. In my memories it is the most beautiful, the most grand and the most imposing of buildings! In reality it’s not any of those things as you can see!!

But to my seven-year-old eyes it was a rite of passage becoming a member – but nothing on the exterior prepared me for falling instantly in love with row upon row of books, most spine out but some with that tantalising “come and try me” look as they were displayed front on. The counter was solid and smelt of varnish, but it had a crenellated section for kids – it was hewn I think rather than cut – a bit more heavy axe than refined jigsaw had created I’d guess! I’d linger and dally over choosing so long I’d frequently be “encouraged” to choose and get out with the words “If you don’t get a move on you’ll be sleeping here!”. And I’d have loved to! And years later I did finally sleep with books – I was the Headteacher of a school in Essex when the local library tried to promote books by running  a sleepover in the library – I immediately signed up and it was great – I still feel warmed by the memory of sliding into my sleeping bag surrounded by words!

And in the same way that I can reflect back over the years of being in love with my beautiful partner, I can also reflect on moments in my love affair with books, reading and stories. I remember the joy of getting a multiple book library ticket, staying up all night for the first time to finish “The Count of Monte Cristo”, being asked to leave a bookshop after collapsing into an uncontrollable fit of giggling on reading the blurb on the back of Spike Milligan’s “Adolf Hitler, My Part In His Downfall!”, discovering the world of Arthur and the Round Table emerging with my favourite hero of all time Sir Gawain, (even more than Eric Cantona and Guy Garvey from Elbow), waiting with endless plays of Genesis “Wind and Wuthering” in the background on my O Level /  GCSE results and yet being more worried about Prince Andrei and Natasha in War and Peace than the results, sitting as a hitch-hiking student by a flea-ridden hotel pool in Greece crying with laughter at the antics of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote and then 25 years later crying by the edge of a stunningly beautiful hotel pool in Greece at the end of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s “The Angel Game” (I’d come a long way in hotel quality but the story quality had been constant throughout!) and re-discovering the majestic Simon Armitage version of Gawain and The Green Knight! These and many more have filled so many minutes, hours and days for me over the years – but today I was grateful to Seamus Heaney for reminding me that my book journey began in that library 43 years ago!

If you’d like to share the moments that mark your book journey I’d love to hear what they are!