Friday, May 25, 2007

Chris Wilson @ Basement Discs

Yet another fine lunchtime performance today at Basement Discs in the person of Chris Wilson, with Shane O’Mara providing superb guitar backing to Chris’s vocals and harmonica.

Chris is yet another Melbourne singer/songwriter who has been around for many years. I first came across him when I was a patron of the Dan O’Connell Hotel in the 1980s and Chris was a resident player there.

His music is a blend of blues, roots and rock, and he has a truly remarkable voice – a powerful alto tenor that has heaps of soul. He is also a master of the harmonica and plays great bluesy blasts on it.

Today’s performance was exceptionally good and a bigger than normal crowd was there to witness it. I managed to get my usual good position for photographs. Chris was a joy to photograph, with his habit of unconsciously striking dramatic poses. These make for classic musician photos, something that is hard to come by with some artists.

As well as being a fine singer and musician Chris is also a great songwriter. Unfortunately I can’t provide an example, as his lyrics are not generally available on the Internet. You will have to take my word for it

The photo below is of Shane O’Mara - I like the red, black and cream effect with the orange-red steel guitar and the red rope in the background with the shadow cast on the cream wall. (click photos for larger versions)

The Basement Discs stage is bedecked with purple curtains draped in red cords and chrome baubles. It’s only very small, but a host of superb musicians have played there over the years, some quite famous like Donovan, Richard Thompson, Tony Joe White and Fairport Convention to name a few.

There is only one in-store show scheduled for June, but as it is old Melbourne rock band Spectrum, it should be pretty sensational as well.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy

After the mesmerising experience of reading John Crowley’s Aegypt quartet, following that with his collection of short stories “Novelties & Souvenirs”, I was in the mood for something completely different, so I plucked from my shelves The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning, guaranteed to keep me going for some time, as I also intend to read her related Levant Trilogy in due course. Together, the two trilogies are known as The Fortunes of War

It is about 17 years since I first read these books, so they have surprised and delighted me all over again, as I had forgotten that Olivia Manning writes extremely well. She’s certainly a neglected writer and deserves to be better known. Anthony Burgess described the novels as ‘the finest fictional record of the war produced by a British writer.’

The Balkan Trilogy is set during the Second World War in Rumania and follows the fortunes of Guy and Harriet Pringle. It is based largely on Olivia Manning’s own experiences of the time, when she and her husband, newly married, travelled to Rumania and spent part of the war there, and after being forced to flee the Balkans, the Middle East.

I am only into the first volume, “The Great Fortune”, so far, but I have been very impressed with Manning’s dry ironic observations on the people, places and politics during a time of war. The character of Guy Pringle is a masterly drawn portrait of an incorrigible and passionate socialist and socialiser. We all know someone like him, irritating but well meaning, more concerned about other people than those close to him. A lot of the observations on Guy are from Harriet’s point of view and she is a great character as well, reserved and quiet, mostly, but by no means a fool. Among the cast of extraordinary characters there are the various members of the press corps, the old, down on his luck, bon viveur Prince Yakimov, Inchcape leader of the English Teachers fraternity, Sophie the Rumanian student besotted with Guy and many others.

Here is a sharp character sketch typical of Manning’s style.

“When the dressing case slipped, one of the porters snatched at it. Yakimov dodged him with a skilled sidestep, then wandered on, his shoulders drooping, his coat sweeping the dirty platform, his check suit and yellow cardigan sagging and fluttering as though carried on a coat hanger. His shirt, changed on the train, was clean. His other clothes were not. His tie, bought for him years before by Dollie, who admired its ‘angelic blue,’ was now so blotched and be-yellowed by spilt food, it was no colour at all. His head, with its thin pale hair, its nose that, long and delicate, widened suddenly at the nostrils, its thin clown’s mouth, was remote and mild as the head of a giraffe. On top of it he wore a shabby cloth cap. His whole sad aspect was made sadder by the fact that he had not eaten for forty-eight hours”
There was a very good cinematic version of The Fortunes of War on a BBC series televised in the late 1980s. I notice that it is available on DVD and you can get it from Amazon. It stars, the then married actors, Kenneth Branagh as Guy Pringle and Emma Thompson as Harriet and is pretty faithful to the books, though naturally compressed. I saw this series a couple of times before I read the novels. In fact it was the tele drama drew me to them.

If you like a BIG read, you really can’t go past these novels. They are absorbing, entertaining and quite unique. They portray the time during which they are set, vividly, with great style, and simply wonderful pictorial prose.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Rainy Day Music

For a change, it’s raining in Melbourne today. That doesn’t by any means indicate that the drought is over, but it is a hopeful sign that things might improve in the future.

Despite the rain, I went down to Basement Discs at lunchtime today to catch another live In-Store performance. Today New Buffalo was performing. New Buffalo is the alias of Melbourne artist, Sally Seltmann who has made a name for herself as a fine singer/songwriter both here and abroad.

This was the first time I had seen her perform. As a matter of fact, I hadn’t heard of her until this performance was announced.

As you can see, she is very photogenic and has a charming stage presence. Her songs are whimsical musings on life and love and she sings them in a sweet ethereal voice. You can listen to her music on her My Space web page. I particularly liked the songs “Cheer Me Up Thank You” and “Misery and Mountains”.

She accompanied herself on piano alternated with guitar. It was an enjoyable show and although her sort of music is not really my cup of tea, it was a pleasant interlude in an otherwise dull and dreary (weatherwise) day.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I've just read The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It recently won the Pulitzer Prize and it surely deserves the accolades it has been receiving.

I was a bit late getting around to reading The Road, and now having done so, I feel haunted by the novel. It's certainly very bleak, but there is a light shining through the grey landscape of the book, in the relationship between the father and his child. The father keeps telling the child "we're carrying the fire". It is a brave cry of hope and decency in a brutal world that impresses itself on the son. The book is very easy to read - I whipped through it in a couple of hours - the writing style being very simple and stark like the landscape. There is a total lack of sentimentality but you end up being very moved by the story, emerging from the novel with a sense of having journeyed somewhere strange and frightening and chillingly possible.

I was interested to read a comment by Michael Dirda, book reviewer for the Washington Post, about The Road. He recommended reading Russell Hoban's wonderful post apocalypse novel Riddley Walker and also The Mouse and his Child as well as/along with The Road.

The Road
actually reminded me most of all of The Mouse and his Child, and though the latter is a quite different book, the relationship of the mouse father with his child strikes a chord when reading The Road.

Many years ago (in the 1970s) when I worked in a Science Fiction bookshop called Space Age Books, I wrote a review of it for the shop's monthly catalogue/newsletter. My review caused The Mouse and His Child to become a best seller for the shop. Some years after I had written the review, I met Russell Hoban in person and he kindly signed my copy of the book (he'd heard about my review!). My edition of The Mouse and his Child is an old Faber paperback published in 1972. Russell Hoban signed it on 16 March 1984.

Anyway, below for your delectation is my review:

Russell Hoban (Pictures by Lillian Hoban)

This novel has been hailed as one of the most brilliant books to emerge in recent years. I would certainly agree, and although I cannot hope to do it justice within the scope of this review, here goes :

THE MOUSE AND HIS CHILD is a story of extraordinary quality and richness, a haunting and moving story of two clockwork mice - a mouse father and his child - forever linked by their clockwork design and mechanism; the child forever doomed to walk backwards, his father forever dependent on outside assistance for them to move at all.

Originally designed to dance in a circle, the mouse and his child eventually break and are thrown out as obsolete toys. A passing tramp partially mends them, so they can at least move forwards, and they are thrust into a cruel and violent world, falling into the hands of Manny Rat, crime king of the rubbish dump - mechanical wizard and exploiter of all unfortunates - an extremely nasty customer. From then on the mouse and his child are driven by fate through a number of strange and often terrifying adventures.

The mouse child is perhaps the most memorable of all the characters, for he possesses a dream and a quest, and somehow his dream affects everyone he encounters, and each character finds himself bound up and inextricably linked to the fate of the mouse and his child. Throughout the book the mouse child never loses the quality that is essentially his - an innocence and absurd optimism that never in any way becomes tarnished, but only grows deeper and more enriching to the creatures who befriend him.

Besides the mouse and his child there is an astonishing array of unusual characters, ranging from the despicable Manny Rat through to the clairvoyant Frog, the philosophical Muskrat, C. Serpentina, the poetic turtle - author of an outrageously surreal play called THE LAST VISIBLE DOG - and the microscopic Miss Mudd, who helps the mouse child and his father solve the problems posed by the aforementioned play.

THE MOUSE AND HIS CHILD is a most unusual book that deserves to be more widely known. It has the quality to enrich your lives ... as well as your bookshelves.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

John Crowley’s AEGYPT – further along

Just discovered - this excellent article on Crowley and his novels by James Hynes, who explains, far better than I can, just how special the Aegypt series is and why John Crowley should be regarded as a great modern writer, and why he still remains relatively unknown.

Well worth reading if you want to know more about John Crowley's novels.

WARNING: May contain spoilers if you have not read the books.

Friday, May 04, 2007

One Year On

Today, the 4th May, is the first birthday of Cat Politics blogspot.

I’m astounded that I’ve managed to keep it going for that long. But when you think of it, blogging is awfully addictive, to the detriment of work and other activities. It is fun though, and I certainly will continue to keep it up. Life is more interesting with a blog than without. I always seem to be thinking about what to write, and actively seeking blogging opportunities.

To mark this occasion I have a book to give away.

I have meant to blog about Cyclamens and Swords and other poems about the land of Israel, by
Helen Bar-Lev and Johnmichael Simon, so this entry is timely.

Helen and Johnmichael both live in Israel, though they originally came from other lands. They are partners in life as in poetry. This book is their first collective poetry book.

Almond Tree - In Safed - Helen Bar-Lev

Cyclamens and Swords is a beautifully designed book, lavishly illustrated with Helen’s paintings and sketches of Jerusalem and its environs. The poetry is very fine as well, eg:

Cyclamens and Swords
by Helen Bar-Lev

Life should be sunflowers and poetry
symphonies and four o’clock tea
instead it’s entangled
like necklaces in a drawer
when you reach in for cyclamens
you pull out swords.
This is a country
which devours its inhabitants,
spits them out hollow like the shells of seeds,
defies them to survive
despite the peacelessness,
promises them cyclamens
but rewards them with swords
It is here we live with
symphonies and sunflowers,
poetry and four o’clock tea,
enmeshed in an absurd
passion for this land
entangled as we are in its history,
like butterflies in a net
or sheep in a barbed wire fence
Where we are forbidden
to pick cyclamens
but are obliged
to wield our swords.


Driving Up to Jerusalem
by Johnmichael Simon

As we round the corner
rows of trees etched
serrated on the hilltops
against the setting sun
blackly comb their carrot hair
before their nightly sleep

into the next bend
we enter a world of gloom
the other side of the moon,
dark craters blink at us
an owl hoots, flaps somewhere
brushes the branches of a pine

We come out, reach the bottom
start to climb, our golden maidens
have retired, switched off the sun
and then the lights come out distantly
candles on the hills pinprick into the eiderdown
of folds, the city above emerges
and in sudden synchronicity the classic music
station bursts into the Halleluja chorus and as
we warm into the glowing words the trees,
the stars, the lamps, the holy candles
all merge, singing Jerusalem in our eyes

Looking Down St David St - Old City, Jerusalem - Helen Bar-Lev

This book gives a unique portrait of life in Israel, the beauty of the landscape, the timeless majesty of the city of Jerusalem, the stress of living in a suspended state of danger. The poems present a personal interpretation of the land that is illuminating and homespun simultaneously.

Helen, whom I may have mentioned before, lived with Edward Whittemore in Jerusalem for several years in the1980s. She kindly sent me her poems about, and sketches of Whittemore for the Jerusalem Dreaming site a few years ago.
Check them out here.

Cyclamens and Swords can be ordered by emailing Helen
directly at or Johnmichael at

The first person to post a comment below, requesting it, will score a copy for free.

There is a catch. The copy I am giving away has been mispaginated at the beginning of the book, but is otherwise complete. In fact you get pages 64 to 75 twice!!

I will work out a way to get the book to the winner if and when there is a winner.

Dave Steel at Basement Discs

Today’s In-Store performance at Basement Discs featured Dave Steel, a local singer/songwriter and master musician. He was peforming songs off his latest CD, Blues & Ballads.

They sounded pretty good. Dave has a great voice for the Blues and can play Blues guitar with the best of them. He is much in demand as a guitarist, but has a solid solo career as well.

I have seen him perform many times before, so it was, as usual, a good way to spend the lunch hour with fine musical entertainment.

I must admit Dave Steel is looking a little older these days. Apparently the last year has been hard on him with death in the family and the suicide of a close friend. One of the songs “Goodbye Traveller” on his new CD was written as a tribute to this friend.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

John Crowley’ s ÆGYPT

“ There were angels in the glass, two four six many of them, each one shuffling into his place in line like an alderman at the Lord Mayor’s show. None was dressed in white, some wore fillets or wreaths of flowers and green leaves in their loose hair; all their eyes were strangely gay. They kept pressing in by one and two, always room for more, they linked arms or clasped their hands behind them, they looked out smiling at the two mortals who looked in at them. All their names began with A.” ~ from Aegypt

"Once the world was not as it has since become”
~ from Love and Sleep

Thus begin the first paragraphs of the first two novels in John Crowley’s Aegypt Quartet.

When I read those paragraphs I experience a certain frisson in my mind as if it awakens something already unconsciously known. John Crowley’s prose does that to you. It has a grace and beauty that is rare in modern literature. It is mesmerising, uncanny and a joy to read.

I have been re-reading the first volumes of Crowley’s Aegypt sequence preparatory to the publication – finally! – of the last volume of the quartet early in May. It has been a long time coming as were all the previous parts. Aegypt the first volume was published in 1987, Love and Sleep followed in 1994 and Daemonomania appeared in 2000. The last book is called Endless Things. All up, it has been 20 years in the making, so I have been priming myself to be up to date for the last instalment. So far I’ve got to half way into Daemonomania. From there I can go straight onto Endless Things as my pre-ordered copy arrived last week. It’s a very handsome hard covered book. Much to my surprise, it was signed by the author, which instantly makes it more valuable and precious to me. John Crowley is one of my all time favourite writers, so to have a signed edition of one of his novels is really special.

John Crowley has produced several other books during the hiatus, The Translator in 2002 and Lord Byron’s Novel - The Evening Land in 2005, as well as several short story collections.

I discovered John Crowley’s writings in the mid 1970s, first reading his Science Fiction novels The Deep, Beasts and Engine Summer. When Little, Big – Crowley’s best loved and most well known novel-was published in 1981, I became a dedicated reader and have followed his career ever since. Little, Big is a sublime, almost perfect novel, but the Aegypt sequence may be Crowley’s masterpiece.

These books are about many things - magic, history, memory and other worlds both physical and mental - and, as professed by Crowley, involve many other books. There is a fictitious author, Fellowes Kraft, whose legacy of books is of overall importance in the series, there is Doctor Dee, the Elizabethan magician and Giordano Bruno the remarkable Italian philosopher and occultist. The hero/anti hero, Pierce Moffett, is a history teacher who is planning to write a book on magic, which will try to answer such questions as “Why do people believe Gypsies can tell fortunes”, and speculates on the idea that the world is not as it once was, but may have a secret alternative history. The 16th and 20th Centuries reflect upon each other as the action of the novels switches between them. The idea that the world was other than it has since become, is fascinating to contemplate. You only have to consider how the world has been irrevocably changed since September 11 2001. One can remember what it used to be like before 9/11, but those born or grown up since that date may think the world has always been as it has since become, having no memory of before to compare it with.

Crowley’s novels don’t appear to have that much action, as such. I can well imagine that his gently rambling erudite style would irritate some people. But, they are worth the effort (if you could call it that) for the subtle unravelling of plot, which unfolds, amid well-planned digressions, in a narrative that is always interesting and engaging. Crowley writes with such seductive beauty, one could just read the books for his prose and nothing else.

The Aegypt sequence, like Little, Big chiefly takes place in an otherwhere called the Faraway Hills, which Crowley indicates, is a short bus ride from New York. The characters are unaware of who they truly are or what destiny awaits them, though they may have a suspicion that something is going on of which they are an integral part.

It is hard to describe these books; you really have to read them, and in sequence.

Unfortunately the earlier books in the Aegypt Quartet are out of print, but you should be able to find them on second hand book sites like Alibris and ABE or even Amazon. Overlook Press will be republishing the whole series in Trade paperback in August this year. Aegypt (volume 1) will be renamed The Solitudes in this edition. It is the original name preferred by Crowley.

In a way, the Aegypt sequence reminds me of Whittemore’s Jerusalem Quartet. Crowley and Whittemore are maximalists in style and each of them is well read in history, world literature and esoterica. Both also explore the idea that the world has a secret history and both employ repetitive motifs – objects, ideas and characters that pop up at odd times throughout the narrative. The writing style and subject matter of both series is naturally quite different, but the similarity is there in the way the novels are structured.