What a fantastic programme on BBC1 tonight, and it had nothing to do with watching the quite wonderful Fiona Bruce in a yellow summer dress drinking white wine in Florence. It was more to do with an even more beautiful woman, da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” Cecilia Gallerani, who is starring in an exhibition at the National Gallery from November.
I remember seeing the “Lady” in Krakow in 2004. The fact that I didn’t know the city was home to the most stunning da Vinci of them all shows just how little I knew at the time of the history of what I thought was a provincial capital. It was my first visit to Poland, and had a profound effect on me because I realised that my father’s homeland wasn’t some far off, uncultured backwater that was only worth fighting over for coal and farmland, as school history books had always led me to believe: it was the very Heart of Europe.
The Lady was housed in the The Czartoryskis Museum, a tiny place compared to the great museums of Paris or London or Rome. And, as it was November, the museum was pretty much deserted. So my time with her was relatively intimate, and she utterly dazzled me. It’s one of only two paintings that have made me breathlessly weak at the knees and given me heart palpitations: the other, Caravaggio’s “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist” in St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, is the type of painting that bludgeons you with its audacious use of empty space, its utter inhumanity and its sheer bloody size. The “Lady” is different: tiny, elegant, seductive. I love her. I can’t wait to see her again. I’ve booked my ticket.
There will be other da Vinci delights, including the newly rediscovered “Salvator Mundi” featured in the programme. It looks ethereal, odd, wonderful. I’d like to see the Oxford copy of the Last Supper too. It’s going to be a ground breaking event because never before have so many da Vincis been under one roof together. And I’m going to be there and, despite the crowds, I’m going to say a little private hello to Cecilia and hope she remembers me. I’m odd that way…
Whoo hoo! My favourite festival, Celtic Connections, has just announced its (partial) lineup for 2012. It’s not quite complete and I think a few big names will be added, but there’s enough to keep me interested.
I’ve already booked Bonnie Prince Billy at The Fruitmarket: Will Oldham is a bit of an cult oddball, but he produces some of the finest Americana around and makes some gorgeous sounds. Anyone with a hankering for Bon Iver or Ray Lamontaigne or Wilco should get themselves down there.
There’s a wide variety of folky stuff from around the world, such as Madison Violet (USA), Russian Red (Spain) and the terrific Kathryn Tickell and The Unthanks (England): I’ll try one of them, but haven’t decided which.
Two Scottish bands make a welcome return: Colin MacIntyre’s The Mull Historical Society are back after a few years and, most satisfyingly, Stephen Lindsay’s The Big Dish reform after – oohh – yonks. I love Lindsay’s voice: his solo albums – especially “Exit Music” – are utterly beautiful. However, the huge problem is that their gig clashes with Portuguese fado star Ana Moura’s concert. Moura is one of those fadistas I want to see before I pop my clogs (I’ve racked up Mariza – twice – and Deolinda, which isn’t nearly enough); this may be a once in a decade chance to see her in cabaret at the Fruitmarket. I reckon I might have to rely on The Big Dish touring like Love and Money did after last year’s festival. Oh, decisions, decisions! Moura and Mull – probably go for that.
Other possibilities: Lau are back, as are The Paul McKenna Band. Thea Gilmore is doing a night with Kris Drever (the guitarist from Lau) and his band – that might be a two birds with one stone opportunity. Luka Bloom might be worth a go – I love his “The Acoustic Motorbike” album from years ago and saw him at the Fleadh on Glasgow Green in 1991 – and the beautiful Julie Fowlis is a possibility. New performers like the excellent cellist Natalie Haas might be interesting too. And I’ll try to catch a couple of late night sessions.
Oooh, I’m so excited!
Indiana-born Delta-blues guitarist Catfish Keith is an unknown quantity to me, but I’m delighted my pal Kenny thought this would be up my street; it’s so up my street, it’s parked outside.
Catfish is dapper in brown suit, brown felt hat, tan loafers and cool tie, and he’s gracious and charming: when he opens his mouth to sing, though, his voice has tremendous power and richness and versatility. What’s great is the undercurrent of menace he imbues every growl and holler and bellow with, giving his singing a charismatic edge like the snarl of the 1930s bootlegger he may well have been in a previous life.
And holy shit, can he play the guitar. He switches between three. I’m no guitarist so I have no idea how he does it, but what is noticeable to me is how much work his left hand does to create the sound. Whether on slide or picking or blocking or bending the strings halfway back to Mississippi, the fretboard is frequently a blur. His steel-bodied National is used for songs that are steeped in the slide work of the likes of Blind Willie Johnson, and he’s easily the best slide guitarist I’ve ever heard. His six string, too, is similarly brilliant; his version of Jessie Mae Hemphill’s “Eagle Bird”, with its fractured and staccato accompaniment, beautifully conveys the heat and sweat and torpor of a Delta summer.
The star guitar, though, is a big twelve string he’s recently acquired from Ralph Bown in York. It’s a beast of an instrument: on “When I was a Cowboy”, it’s utterly mesmerising, creating complex rhythms and deep rumbles like thunder on the plains. It’s a fucking Howitzer, and every time he picks it up, the audience delightedly hunkers down behind their sandbags waiting for the next glorious onslaught.
Of course, his performance is full of the pain of the Deep South, but the wit too, full of big fat mommas and gallons of moonshine and far, far too many reefers: not surprisingly, he’s incredibly knowledgable and every song is an education about the people and history of the blues.
This gig was sparsely attended, but at least there were lots of real fans there. Kenny is hoping to negotiate Catfish Keith’s appearance at the Lanark Music Connections Festival next year; if he pulls it off, anyone with a penchant for Seasick Steve to Tom Waits, from Lucinda Williams to Bonnie Raitt, should get tickets and give the guy a sell out crowd. He’s a genuinely nice guy who’s obviously devoted to his lovely wife Penny, and he’s an awesome, awesome musician.
Much kudos to Occupy Wall Street for bringing the spirit of the so-called “Arab Dawn” to the temples of Western corruption.
There has been much sniping at the demonstrators, mainly from the right-wing media which accuses it of having no focus. This, of course, is the same media that feted the Tea Party, with its keep-our-guns, no-taxes, end-state-healthcare, reduce-welfare, end-immigration, sack-our-Kenyan-President-for-daring-to-be-black agenda. How focussed was that? Of course, the left will always have its principles knocked, because the right doesn’t have any.
And there’s the usual nonsense about disruption: clean up after yourselves and then we’ll take you seriously, cry the doubters. Of course, they wouldn’t, but they’re much more happy to see assault rifles at a Tea Party demonstration than discarded coffee cups at an OWS bash.
And, of course, the police are doing their bit too, pepper-spraying freely; and even having been denied the use of a megaphone to get their message across, these dastardly subversives have come up with the fiendish ploy of repeating everything that’s been said to them in a rather ingenious version of Chinese Whispers.
They’re also attracting some heavyweight support in the form of the likes of Naomi Klein, a writer I admire very much. I doubt this will amount to much, but as long as it’s going, I’ll be cheering them on. Good for them.
Many congratulations to John Burnside, who has just won the Forward Prize for his poetry collection “Black Cat Bone“.
John is a truly gorgeous writer. All his poetry collections, his memoir “A Lie About My Father” and his fiction are must-have additions to any bookshelf.
He gave me advice a few years ago on starting out on my novel, and I’ve always been proud to know him. He’s great company: he was very gracious when we bumped into each other at the very swanky Mayor’s reception at the Gothenburg Book Far in 2004, and has always been very supportive of my work whenever we’ve met, which isn’t often enough for my liking.
I’m delighted by his success; he deserves much, much more. If he values such baubles as Poet Laureate or Scottish Makar, then he should be a shoe-in for those titles. I love his work.
James Grant swears a lot, but he’s allowed to because he’s a fucking genius.
I don’t think I can have a favourite Scottish band because then I’d have to pick between Love and Money and The Blue Nile – and I couldn’t make that choice. “Dogs in the Traffic”, L&M’s third album, is, however, my favourite Scottish album, and perhaps my favourite album ever. Released in 1991, it sounds absolutely fresh and relevant twenty years later, and I still play it regularly.
Having reformed at last year’s Celtic Connections, L&M have been on tour and are bringing out a new album next year. Grant is joined by co-founder Paul McGeechan and ex-members Gordon Wilson and Douglas MacIntyre, with Ewen Vernal on bass, vocalist Monica Queen and Fraser Spiers on harmonica. It’s a tight band, the funk rock honed to perfection.
They kick off in fine style with “My Love Lives in a Dead House”, and Grant’s guitar work is fantastic on “Shape of Things to Come”. “Johnny’s Not Here” and “Winter” are impeccable. “Looking for Angeline” has me roaring along at the top of my voice too. In the second half, the gig drives towards a massive funk finish with numbers like “Up Escalator”, “Avalanche” and “Jocelyn Square”; much dancing did occur. The only slight mishit was “You’re Not The Only One”, performed as a duet with Queen; she has a lovely, lovely voice, but it doesn’t quite work for me.
However, what does work is “Lips Like Ether”, a song that would be on my Desert Island Discs list; how could anyone resist lyrics like, “You slipped into my bloodstream through a severed vein / anesthetized the pain in a heart of lead…”? It’s the most emotionally truthful love song I’ve ever encountered, and makes me yearn for an experience summed up in a line like “then you came and kicked down my door / and I saw you shining like a lighthouse on the shore.”
Of course, everything revolves around Grant and his perfect voice and his huge charisma (and ego). He’s a natural in front of an adoring audience, with a gallus Glesca curmudgeonliness: “I’ll buy you a drink,” someone shouts; “Well thank you,” he replies, “but it’s unlikely we’ll ever meet.” He could also do stand up or make a fortune out of after dinner speaking if he wanted to slum it; his stories of Dixie the whistling budgie and BB King’s ill-advised wardrobe choices are a hoot.
It’s late (1.45am) and I’ve just driven back from a long day in Edinburgh, so I know I’m not doing the gig justice; suffice to say it was a real see-your-heroes type of night that ranks as one of the best concerts of the year.
The Glasgow Writers’ anthology in support of the Japanese Red Cross earthquake relief efforts was published today, with a reception at the Japanese Consul General’s house in Edinburgh. The CG himself, Mr Tarahara, is a warm, welcoming gentleman who sings “Annie Laurie” in a sonorous baritone. A nice afternoon.
The anthology – entitled “A Thousand Cranes” – is published by Cargo Publishing at £11.99. It’s beautifully produced and contains some fine writing (though I will confess to being miffed at a biography that ignores the two most important things I’ve ever written!).
The story I contributed, “Bellflowers”, actually began life as a workshop activity at last year’s “Northern Writes” conference: I read the story at yesterday’s event, and felt happy with the sound of it. Here’s the opening:
“Kikyo still makes tea in the traditional way, just as Lyle enjoyed it. Her chabako is old, and the glaze on the thin tea bowls is cracked. It is her mother’s mother’s mother’s, all she brought from Japan in 1952 when she came as his wife to a new land where everyone drank coffee, the black, bitter drink that made you feel strung tight like a biwa, and kept you awake when you needed sleep. Lyle preferred her tea, even the usucha which was all she could approximate in America, a thin stuff her father would have used to wash his socks.
She has been told gently not to perform the ceremony in the day room, a sparse expanse of caramel-coloured vinyl floor where many of the others watch court TV and argue over checkers. Other residents, the Kind Nurse has told her, might trip on her mat or break her bowls. Sometimes she forgets, and sets her chabako in the middle of the floor, cooled by draughts from the French windows that open onto the patio where many of the old women sleep their days away wrapped in blankets, whatever the heat. At times like these, the Kind Nurse will help her back to her room, her bowls and tea whisk and caddy on a tray she has brought for that purpose. Sometimes, before the Kind Nurse comes, the old man who wears the golf shirts and elasticated slacks shouts at her.
Lyle Jnr. visits her often, but he has never liked tea. Once, she suspected it was because he wanted so much to be all American, and that his classmates teased him for the shape of his eyes and the colour of his skin. But he has grown strong and tall, and served in the Army, and no-one calls him names any more. She is proud of him, but he is not her son; she never had her son, who died in her womb three days after her husband was killed at Iwo Jima. Lyle Jnr. is a good boy, though, and brings her Pocky Chocolates, especially the strawberry which she enjoys so much, and occasionally he finds maju with anko filling.
She tells him about her days. Many people visit her, like Betty, Lyle’s sister, who died in her Edsel. Betty sits with her, and they talk about Ma, who was so angry at Lyle for marrying a Japanese woman and who never called Kikyo anything but “Nip”. Betty argued with her mother, told her how well Kikyo cared for her son, so much better than the trailer trash and pan-pan girls he dated before he joined the Army; but the old woman, fat and with heavy breasts, never forgave Kikyo for starting that damned war, and Lyle eventually moved them to California so they could be free of her.
“Mom, Aunt Betty died,” says Lyle Jnr.
“I know, silly boy,” says Kikyo. “She says she’ll come again tomorrow.”
Lyle Jnr. talks a lot to the Kind Nurse, and to Doctor Chamberlain who gives her tiles to play with and asks her questions about who the President is and the day of the week. She thinks these are a waste of his time, but not hers, because time is what she has. The days move slowly. The Kind Nurse smiles. Her MMSE indicates severe impairment. Lyle Jnr. tuts and shakes his head.”
All profits will go to disaster relief in Japan. It will be available in Waterstone’s; if you are a retailer who’d like to help, books can be ordered from The Book Source on a sale or return basis. It can also be purcheased directly from Cargo HERE.
Thanks and congratulations to Iain Paton and the editorial team, and to Cargo for supporting it. A second edition – with a foreword by Alex Salmond – is already planned, so this first edition may become a collector’s item! Please buy it – it’s for a very, very good cause.