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Thursday, 11 February 2016

WRITERS ON WRITING #77: Elizabeth Jane Howard


I have a power, a little beyond me, to design a certain type of communication for people who have not got this power.  I can show them a certain sense of proportion – give them some balance – which is all that a design is for – to put something in its right place in relation to whatever lies on either side of it.  Proportion is always beautiful: beauty is always significant; therefore design is always necessary, and I am one of the thousands of designers…He was warm and smiling from the centre of his heart and he kept his head very still until the glow had spread to it, as he had learned long ago not to fly to a piece of paper with the first little vestige of an idea, which merely blunts the memory and renders it indiscriminate.  He remembered an argument with Jimmy about this, because not immediately recording them meant that one forgot some of the idea, and Jimmy had thought this lazy and wasteful.  He couldn’t make Jimmy understand that it wasn’t: that it was wasteful and lazy not to make one’s memory work for one; it had to select what was worth remembering and then wait for it – instead of premature explosions of paper.

The Sea Change (1959)



Click HERE to read an interview with UK novelist ELIZABETH JANE HOWARD (1923-2014) by ELIZABETH DAY published in the online archive of The Guardian.

You might also enjoy:
KINGSLEY AMIS That Uncertain Feeling (1955)
WRITERS ON WRITING #52: Sarah Waters
WRITERS ON WRITING #48: Hilary Mantel

Thursday, 4 February 2016

ROCKERS & MODS #1: Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps


GENE VINCENT & HIS BLUE CAPS, c. 1957




Be-Bop-A-Lula
GENE VINCENT & HIS BLUE CAPS
Capitol Single, 1956



The Rocker:  The following biography by RICHIE UNTERBERGER is taken from the AllMusic website.  [It is re-posted here for recommendation purposes only and, like the material displayed above, remains its author's exclusive copyright-protected intellectual property.]

Gene Vincent only had one really big hit, Be-Bop-a-Lula, which epitomized rockabilly at its prime in 1956 with its sharp guitar breaks, spare snare drums, fluttering echo, and Vincent's breathless, sexy vocals. Yet his place as one of the great early rock and roll singers is secure, backed up by a wealth of fine smaller hits and non-hits that rate among the best rockabilly of all time. The leather-clad, limping, greasy-haired singer was also one of rock's original bad boys, lionized by romanticists of past and present generations attracted to his primitive, sometimes savage style and indomitable spirit.

Vincent was bucking the odds by entering professional music in the first place.  As a 20-year-old in the Navy, he suffered a severe motorcycle accident that almost resulted in the amputation of his leg, and left him with a permanent limp and considerable chronic pain for the rest of his life. After the accident he began to concentrate on building a musical career, playing with country bands around the Norfolk, Virginia area. Demos cut at a local radio station, fronting a band assembled around Gene by his management, landed Gene Vincent & the Blue Caps a contract at Capitol, which hoped they'd found competition for Elvis Presley.

Indeed it had, as by this time Vincent had plunged into all-out rockabilly, capable of both fast-paced exuberance and whispery, almost sensitive ballads. The Blue Caps were one of the greatest rock bands of the '50s, anchored at first by the stunning silvery, faster-than-light guitar leads of Cliff Gallup. The slap-back echo of Be-Bop-a-Lula, combined with Gene's swooping vocals, led many to mistake the singer for Elvis when the record first hit the airwaves in mid-1956, on its way to the Top Ten. The Elvis comparison wasn't entirely fair; Vincent had a gentler, less melodramatic style, capable of both whipping up a storm or winding down to a hush.

Brilliant follow-ups like Race With the Devil, Bluejean Bop and B-i-Bickey, Bi, Bo-Bo-Go failed to click in nearly as big a way, although these too are emblematic of rockabilly at its most exuberant and powerful. By the end of 1956, The Blue Caps were beginning to undergo the first of constant personnel changes that would continue throughout the 50s, the most crucial loss being the departure of Gallup. The 35 or so tracks he cut with the band -- many of which showed up only on albums or b-sides -- were unquestionably Vincent's greatest work, as his subsequent recordings would never again capture their pristine clarity and uninhibited spontaneity.

Vincent had his second and final Top Twenty hit in 1957 with Lotta Lovin', which reflected his increasingly tamer approach to production and vocals, the wildness and live atmosphere toned down in favor of poppier material, more subdued guitars, and conventional-sounding backup singers. He recorded often for Capitol throughout the rest of the '50s, and it's unfair to dismiss those sides out of hand; they were respectable, occasionally exciting rockabilly, only a marked disappointment in comparison with his earliest work. His act was captured for posterity in one of the best scenes of one of the first Hollywood films to feature rock & roll stars, The Girl Can't Help It.

Live, Vincent continued to rock the house with reckless intensity and showmanship, and he became particularly popular overseas. A 1960 tour of Britain, though, brought tragedy when his friend Eddie Cochran, who shared the bill on Vincent's U.K. shows, died in a car accident that he was also involved in, though Vincent survived. By the early '60s, his recordings had become much more sporadic and lower in quality, and his chief audience was in Europe, particularly in England (where he lived for a while) and France.

His Capitol contract expired in 1963, and he spent the rest of his life recording for several other labels, none of which got him close to that comeback hit. Vincent never stopped trying to resurrect his career, appearing at a 1969 Toronto rock festival on the same bill as John Lennon, though his medical, drinking, and marital problems were making his life a mess, and diminishing his stage presence as well. He died at the age of 36 from a ruptured stomach ulcer, one of rock's first mythic figures.

Note the stunning guitar work of Cliff Gallup - one of the most underrated and, along with Elvis' first guitarist Scotty Moore, most influential rock 'n roll guitarists of all time.  Like Moore, Cliff Gallup would become a profound influence on later generations of rock musicians including Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Brian Setzer (of The Stray Cats) to name just a few.



Click HERE to discover more about the life, work and legacy of the great GENE VINCENT.  You can also click HERE to listen to more great music by GENE VINCENT on YouTube and view his performance of Be-Bop-A-Lula in the classic 1956 rock 'n roll movie The Girl Can't Help It.


Special thanks to everyone who takes the time to upload music to YouTube.  Your efforts are appreciated by music lovers everywhere.


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Thursday, 28 January 2016

THINK ABOUT IT #9: Liz Jensen


What no one ever tells you is that you’ll always be alone, trapped inside yourself forever.  It’s like a house you were born in, and some of the furniture belonged to your mum and dad but you can chuck that out if you want to, or if you can.  But you’ve got to bloody well live in this house, that’s the thing.  Even if it’s a hole and you prefer the look of other people’s.  Nobody tells you how it’s going to be, living inside yourself.  How grey things’ll look from the window, if that’s the mood you’re in.  But when you close the curtains it’s worse.

War Crimes for the Home (2002)


Click HERE to visit the website of award-winning UK novelist LIZ JENSEN.

You might also enjoy:
THINK ABOUT IT #6: Marcus Aurelius
THINK ABOUT IT #5: Simone de Beauvoir
THINK ABOUT IT #3: Phyllis Rose 

Thursday, 21 January 2016

THE LATE GREAT...Paul Bley





PAUL BLEY
1932-2016


Ida Lupino
PAUL BLEY (solo piano)
from the 1972 ECM LP Open, To Love




You Go To My Head
CHET BAKER [trumpet, vocal]; PAUL BLEY [piano]
from the 1985 Danish LP Diane 





Canadian born jazz pianist and composer Paul Bley died at his home in Florida on 3 January 2016.  He was eighty-three years old.

Bley began playing professionally as a high school senior, taking over from Oscar Peterson at the Alberta Lounge in his hometown of Montréal.  This marked the beginning of a seven decade career which saw the adventurous pianist perform and record with many a jazz legend including Lester Young, Ben Webster, Charlie 'Bird' Parker, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Lee Konitz, Jaco Pastorius, Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny among many others. 

Bley was best known, however, for his idiosyncratic and sometimes meditative solo and trio work which frequently featured the compositions of his first wife Carla Bley (who wrote Ida Lupino) and saw him successfully collaborate with his second wife, the singer/composer Annette Peacock, on several albums released in the early to mid 1970s.  The latter phase of his career often saw Bley perform and record as a solo artist - a period which produced many outstanding albums including The Sankt-Gerold Variations (1996), the hypnotic Solo in Mondsee (2009) and Play Blue: Oslo Concert (2014).

The following is an excerpt from his memoir Stopping Time: Paul Bley and the Transformation of Jazz, co-authored with musician and critic David Lee and published by the Véhicule Press in 1999.  (Sadly, the book is now out of print.)

Chapter 3:  PARKER, MINGUS, YOUNG, ARMSTRONG, TRISTANO

I was working with Pete Brown in Brooklyn on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, until midnight. Dick Garcia asked me if I'd come Saturday night and play with Bird in an armory up in Harlem beginning at one a.m. So I worked until 11:30 and then went up to play with Bird

Bird was nowhere to be found at two a.m. We played the second set. At three a.m., exactly, Bird walked into the Armory, unpacked as if it was midnight, and of course no one said a thing, because sixteen bars into his first chart, it was midnight. Nobody remembered that he was late.

That was the kind of self-test that the great musicians gave themselves in that period. They always came very late to gigs. Other than the fact that they might have had trouble getting to the job on time, that was a test of their abilities: to play so well when they began that the audience forgot that they were two hours late. Just as several decades later, you could be allowed a hostile attitude about yourself and your work and everyone around you, provided that your great playing justified your attitude. But if your playing did not justify the attitude then you were dismissed as being a fake. In short, you have to be able to afford your attitude.

With Bird's concept, he would be playing a thirty-two bar tune and in the second eight, he would already be starting something that was going to get him into the bridge. Meanwhile, I was busy on bar three-and-a-half of the second eight, and in my conception of it, the bridge was a long way off.

That was a very important lesson to learn. You never play where you are. You play where you're going. Thinking ahead. Some could think ahead 16 bars, some could think ahead four choruses. Now I've gotten to the point where I can hear a whole solo in advance - not note for note, but structurally. I get an idea, facing a rhythm section or a particular instrument in a particular environment, of what can be done in what length of time.

In hearing Bird's ability to anticipate what was coming and always thinking ahead, I've tried to extend the idea to listening to three things before I start playing a phrase:

One: What was the last phrase that was played, and what was the last note of the last phrase that was played, and what should follow that?

Two: What music has been played throughout the history of jazz that has to be avoided, leaving me only what's left as material for the next phrase?

Three: Where would I like to get to by the time my playing is finished?

All that in a split second during a pause in my phrasing.

Paul Bley is survived by his third wife Carol Goss, his three daughters and his two grandchildren.  Thankfully, much of his fine and challenging music remains widely available on CD, Spotify and iTunes.



Click HERE to visit the website of PAUL BLEY and HERE to read his obituary published in The New York Times on 5 January 2016.  You can listen to more great music by PAUL BLEY on YouTube by clicking HERE.

Special thanks to those who took the time to upload this music to YouTube.  Your efforts are appreciated by music lovers everywhere.



PAUL BLEY, c. 2014

 

Thursday, 14 January 2016

WATCH THAT MAN Remembering David Bowie


DAVID BOWIE
1973


The number of performers whose work has extended the boundaries of post-modern Western pop culture can be counted on the fingers of one hand.  David Bowie was one such performer and his death on 11 January 2016, following a long and unpublicized battle with cancer, marks the passing of an era and the closing of a crucial chapter in the history of twentieth century music.  Bowie's achievements as a songwriter, performer and genre-defying iconoclast were so vast that they succeeded in making him an irreplaceable figure, an artist whose far-reaching influence will continue to be felt and absorbed by future generations for years if not decades to come.

DAVID JONES, c. 1958
David Bowie was born 'David Robert Haywood Jones' in the London suburb of Brixton on 8 January 1947 (a birthday he shares with Elvis Presley, one of his earliest childhood influences but someone he preferred not to meet when offered the chance to do so in the early 1970s).  After performing as a saxophonist/vocalist in various school and local bands throughout his teen years, he began his professional career in 1963 with the formation of a rhythm and blues outfit called Davie Jones & The King Bees which would go on to release an unsuccessful debut single, Liza Jane, in June 1964.  This was the first of three groups - The Manish Boys and Davy Jones and The Lower Third being the others - he would form and lead during the next two years, none of which caught on with the public or brought him to the attention of those with the power to make him a star.


 Liza Jane
DAVIE JONES & THE KING BEES
Debut single, June 1964 
 


DAVID BOWIE, c. 1971
In 1966, eager to find an audience for his growing catalogue of original material, he went solo and adopted the stage name 'David Bowie' to differentiate himself from the 'other' Davy Jones, then at the height of his fame as a member of the popular American television band The Monkees.  Bowie's self-titled debut album - a hybrid of Mod-pop and the kind of family friendly variety-style music popularized by Anthony Newley - appeared on the British Deram label in 1967.  (The fact that it was released on the same day as The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was an unfortunate coincidence that did not see it widely reviewed or help to boost its sales.)  It was not until 1969, however, with the release of his single Space Oddity - launched just weeks before the Apollo II moon landings - that Bowie began to be appreciated as a singer/songwriter with a sound that, while clearly indebted to its influences, nevertheless managed to be uniquely and unmistakably his own.


 The Laughing Gnome
DAVID BOWIE
from the 1967 Deram LP, David Bowie

Although he made several landmark albums over the next six years it was not until 1972 - and the release of his audacious fifth solo album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars - that Bowie found the recognition and mainstream commercial success which had previously eluded him.  The phenomenon this LP became quickly established him as the most original and, by the time the decade ended, most influential recording artist of the 1970s.  His decision to 'play' the Ziggy Stardust character, on-stage as well as off, also made him the leading figure of Britain's emerging glam rock movement - a label that, while never harmful to his career, tended to overshadow his achievements as a composer and as a witty, often highly insightful lyricist.  He also found time to produce and add his distinctive backing vocals to Lou Reed's 1972 breakthrough LP Transformer, gaining the former Velvet Underground frontman his biggest-ever hit in Walk On The Wild Side in the processHe would later go on to produce three albums for Iggy Pop, another American friend whose early work with The Stooges he greatly admired and who asked him, in 1973, to produce what proved to be that band's third and final LP Raw Power.  Four years later he would also produce, arrange, perform and sing on what are now generally regarded to be Iggy Pop's two solo masterpieces, The Idiot and Lust for Life (both 1977).



Drive-In Saturday
DAVID BOWIE
from the 1973 RCA LP, Aladdin Sane



DAVID BOWIE, ANGIE BOWIE and DUNCAN JONES, c. 1973
Abandoning the Ziggy persona in 1973, Bowie went on to record the equally adventurous albums Aladdin Sane (1973), Pin Ups (also 1973, consisting entirely of cover versions of songs originally performed by Them, The Who, The Kinks, The Yardbirds and other UK bands he had seen at The Marquee and other London clubs as a teenager) and Diamond Dogs (1974, loosely based on George Orwell's dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four) before confounding the critics and his fans, yet again, by abandoning rock music altogether for the smooth 'plastic soul' of Young Americans (1975). 

The album's second single Fame (co-written and performed with ex-Beatle John Lennon) handed Bowie his first US #1 while the album itself went on to become one of his biggest sellers, with a punchy, radio-friendly title track that confronts the listener with an extraordinary outsider's vision of what was then post-Watergate America, packed with up-to-the-minute references that are as trenchant as they are cannily observed.  In a little over five minutes, Bowie gives you the story of a young American couple - their wedding and honeymoon, their disappointment and eventual alienation from each other and the safe suburban middle class life they've been raised to expect to lead together.  The fact that it's all backed up by an infectious beat which looks ahead to disco while completely avoiding that genre's sometimes ludicrous banality only emphasizes what a thought provoking, brilliantly conceived dissection of the American dream Young Americans is and remains forty-one years after it was written.

DAVID BOWIE, 1976
Unwilling as ever to repeat himself, Bowie shifted direction yet again with Station to Station (1976), combining some elements of his 'plastic soul' sound with a new, distinctively European elegance which nevertheless saw him invited to perform its first single Golden Years on the black-oriented music program Soul Train.  (The LP concludes with a stunningly restrained version of Wild Is The Wind, the theme song for a 1957 film starring Anthony Quinn and Anna Magnani that was previously recorded by Johnny Mathis and Nina Simone among others.)  He could easily have jumped aboard the disco bandwagon after this, churning out hits in the enormously popular style of The Bee-Gees or KC and the Sunshine Band, but he characteristically preferred to re-confound everyone's expectations by starring in Nicolas Roeg's 1976 film adaptation of Walter Tevis's existential sci-fi masterpiece The Man Who Fell To Earth, giving a memorably unsettling performance as Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien from the planet Anthea who finds himself unwillingly stranded on Earth.  It was neither Bowie's first nor last appearance in front of the cameras, although his work in Just a Gigolo (1978) - an atrocious flop set in 1920s Germany - left a lot to be desired in terms of showcasing his acting ability.  Thankfully, his performances in the play The Elephant Man (1981) and later films like The Hunger (1982), Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983) and as Andy Warhol in the biopic Basquiat (1996) proved he was not mistaken in referring to himself, as he did on the back cover of his classic 1971 LP Hunky Dory, as 'The Actor.' 



Always Crashing In The Same Car
DAVID BOWIE
from the 1977 RCA LP, Low


In late 1976 Bowie decided to leave Los Angeles - the city in which he'd been living since 1974 and in which he'd also developed a major addiction to cocaine - and relocate to what was still the very much divided city of Berlin.  He described Low, the first LP he made here with his longtime producer Tony Visconti and his new collaborator Brian Eno, as 'a reaction to having gone through that dull greeny-grey limelight of American rock and roll and its repercussions: pulling myself out of it and getting to Europe and saying for God's sake re-evaulate why you wanted to get into this in the first place?  Do you really do it just to clown around in LA?  Retire.  What you need is to look at yourself a bit more accurately.  Find some people you don't understand and some place you don't want to be and just put yourself into it.  Force yourself to buy your own groceries...And that's exactly what I do...I have an apartment on top of an auto shop.'

Low and its successor "Heroes" were arguably his two most influential albums.  Not only did they serve as the perfect soundtrack for a disenfranchised generation confronted by what had become a bleak post-industrial society, they almost singlehandedly introduced it to electronic music and laid the foundation for pioneering post-punk bands like Joy Division (who originally called themselves Warszawa after a track on Low) and others, like Ultravox, who would go on to define the 'New Romantic' movement of the early 1980s.  Both albums contain lengthy instrumental pieces, several of which feature wordless singing, while the songs themselves saw Bowie adopt a new minimalist approach to his writing which, again, would prove to be highly influential and inspire at least one direct imitator in the form of Gary Numan (about whom he was heard to make several disparaging remarks at the time).  The title track of "Heroes" also handed Bowie his biggest hit since Fame - a hypnotic, unabashedly romantic tale of two young lovers who meet each day by the Berlin Wall in defiance of the partitioned city's restrictive social and political circumstances.  "Heroes" touched a chord in people, especially in the alienated and frustrated youth of late 1970s Britain, and remains one of his most iconic, ironic and frequently covered tunes.


 Boys Keep Swinging
DAVID BOWIE
from the 1979 RCA LP, Lodger
 

1979 saw Bowie living in New York and collaborating for the third time with Brian Eno on a new LP called Lodger.  Its first single, the catchy ersatz rocker Boys Keep Swinging, featured him in drag and became notorious in its own right as it introduced audiences to what would become, by the mid-1980s, the new era of music television - another artform at which he excelled and quickly established himself as an important innovator.  Nowhere was this more evident than in the clip he offered for his 1980 single Ashes To AshesThis song, a kind of sequel to his 1969 hit Space Oddity, saw Bowie adopt the personas of a Pierrot wandering through a surreal pink-tinged landscape and a paralysed marionette, while its lyrics contained, as one observer noted, 'more messages per second than any other single this year.'  It was a smash and, as another critic noted, marked the point at which he stopped being just another rockstar and became a genre unto himself.  The album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) proved to be his last for RCA, the label he'd been signed to since 1971, and served as a fitting finale to phase one of what, by anybody's standards, had been a fascinating and remarkably consistent career.




Teenage Wildlife
DAVID BOWIE
from the 1980 RCA LP, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)



DAVID BOWIE and his 2nd wife IMAN, c. 1992
Bowie did not release a new LP until 1983, when Let's Dance saw him once again top the charts, largely thanks to a video clip (shot in Australia) which received high rotation airplay on MTV courtesy of his new label EMI and soon saw him become a major stadium attraction throughout the US and most of the Western world.  Mainstream success, while enjoyable financially, seemed (as it so often does with certain types of artists) to cause him to lose his way, with his next album Tonight (1984) receiving disappointing reviews despite the presence of another hit single in Blue Jean which, once again, became a high rotation favourite on MTV.  Like so much of the music Bowie wrote and released over the next nine years, Let's Dance and Blue Jean alienated many of his older fans, leading some critics to prematurely dismiss him as a has-been - a judgement apparently confirmed by 1987's ludicrously over-elaborate Glass Spider Tour and so-called 'vanity' projects like his guitar-noise band Tin Machine.  

It was not until 1995 and the release of Outside, his fourth project with Brian Eno, that he began to regain credibility in the eyes of the music press and the fans who still revered his RCA work but had, by now, almost completely lost faith in his ability to create relevant, exciting, cutting edge music.  This album was followed by the techno/jungle-based Earthling (1997), the more 'organic' Hours... (1999), and two well-received 'reunion' LPs produced by Tony Visconti, Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003). 


I'm Afraid of Americans
DAVID BOWIE
co-written with BRIAN ENO
from the 1997 Virgin/Warner LP, Earthling

It was while touring to promote Reality that the singer suffered a heart attack and was rushed to a Hamburg hospital to undergo an emergency angioplasty - an event which initiated a ten year withdrawal from the music industry which only ended in January 2013 with the unexpected (and virtually unpromoted) release of a new single, Where Are We Now?, again produced by Tony Visconti.  It was Visconti - an American who had played with him in a band called Hype back in 1967 - who would go on to produce what were to be his final two LPs The Next Day (2013) and Blackstar (2016) - albums which saw him reflect on his old work even as he appeared to deconstruct and make some effort to contextualize it for the Twitter and Snapchat generation.

Bowie was, more than anything, a great survivor - a performer who managed to negotiate his way from 60s R 'n B through Mod, the dying world of British variety, hippiedom, glam/punk, post-punk, electronica, stadium rock and into the digital era without permanently damaging his reputation as a game-changing legend.  He would still be as revered (and as widely mourned) as he is today had he never released another album after Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) - an artist who was, in many ways, a pop music prophet who had the courage to pursue his own vision in an industry where the idea of 'sticking with what sells' has long been an inviolable rule.  Few artists ever manage to release one perfect album in their careers.  Between 1969 and 1980 David Bowie somehow managed to release thirteen of them, one after the other, changing tastes, creating movements and redefining what 'rock music' is, should and could be along the way.  He is to post-Beatles pop what Louis Armstrong is to jazz and Ludwig van Beethoven is to the Classical tradition - someone who seemed to appear out nowhere and made the world pay attention by offering it sounds it had never heard before and only discovered it needed when it did.
  


 Lazarus
DAVID BOWIE
from the 2016 ISO LP, Blackstar
 


DAVID BOWIE released his twenty-fifth album, Blackstar, on 8 January 2016.  It followed the release of the critically acclaimed The Next Day in March 2013 - an album which marked the end of a decade long absence from the music industry.  Click HERE to listen to tracks from these albums and more great music by DAVID BOWIE on YouTube. 

You can also click HERE to read a list of DAVID BOWIE's 100 favourite books and HERE to read all his lyrics at the A-Z LYRICS UNIVERSE website.

I also recommend this BOWIE-related post from the excellent music blog Anorak Thing which can be read by clicking HERE.  The same blog also features some rarely heard tracks from MR JONES'S pre-BOWIE and early BOWIE years which can be explored by clicking HERE.  (Click on the link displayed below each section to view the featured song on YouTube.)

Special thanks to those who took the time to upload this music to YouTube.  Your efforts are appreciated by music lovers everywhere.


You might also enjoy:
SOME BOOKS ABOUT...Mods!
WORDS FOR THE MUSIC #1: David Bowie
UNE VIE INTENSE Remembering Jacques Brel

Thursday, 7 January 2016

JESSICA ANDERSON The Commandant (1975)


 
Penguin Books Australia, c. 1985




Frances murmured an excuse and got up, gathering her shawl tightly around her, and went to the side.  Mrs Bulwer's warning voice followed her.  'It does not do to be opinionated.'  She pretended not to hear.  On the bay were amazing stretches of turquoise and violet, and the sky was empty of everything except a dandelion of sun, mildly blazing, and a meek white crescent of moon.  From beneath the frill on the back of her bonnet a strand of dark hair dropped and was caught and extended by the wind.  The sun, the boom of sails and the race of water, would have held her there at the side, in a dream or a trance, as had happened so often on the voyage out, had not Mrs Bulwer, small and black and compact in her side vision, waited.  And with a sense of facing something lately evaded, Frances admitted that also waiting, the more insistent because only inwardly visible, was the commandant.  Deliberately, she set herself to visualise him, in five hours or so, descending the river bank to meet the Regent Bird.


The Book:  Frances O'Beirne is the seventeen year old sister of Laetitia 'Letty' Logan, wife of Captain Patrick Logan, Commandant of the Moreton Bay penal settlement located in a remote part of northeastern Australia.  An innocent and idealistic girl lacking in neither wit nor intelligence, Frances is on her way to the settlement from Sydney (via Ireland and England) to serve as companion and helpmate to her sister, who is recovering from a miscarriage and already has two small children to care for in what is a very inhospitable environment far removed from the familiar comforts of home.  

Although delighted at the prospect of being reunited with Letty, Frances has mixed emotions about being reunited with Letty's husband - a man she hasn't seen since childhood and whose reputation for harsh discipline and needless brutality were much discussed during the time she spent in Sydney before boarding the Regent Bird to complete her journey north.  Nor is the girl alone in harbouring these misgivings about her brother-in-law.  The Commandant is also a controversial figure in the eyes of his fellow colonists, a prime target for the reforming Sydney newspaper editor Edward Smith-Hall against whom he has recently filed a suit for libel.

Frances also has something of the reformer in her - an attitude encouraged by her would-be suitor Edmund Joyce during the arduous voyage they shared from England to the new colony.  Having grown accustomed to Edmund's society and to that of his outspoken sisters during her stopover in Sydney, Frances has now become a little too free in expressing her opinions to those - the officers' wives Amelia Bulwer and Louisa Harbin, the alcoholic and faintly comical surgeon Henry Cowper, Logan's new second-in-command Captain Clunie - who are accompanying her on the final leg of her journey to what will one day become Brisbane Town and eventually just Brisbane, capital city of the Australian state of Queensland.  Frances combines this unpopular attitude with a romantic view of life which often sees her give way to 'elated trances' in which she imagines herself remaining permanently in Australia at the side of her own dashing (but as yet unidentified) 'beloved husband.'  

But these girlish dreams are tested by her arrival in what is, at best, a rudimentary township built to serve and shelter the troops and officers charged with the grim task of overseeing and doling out punishment to convicts whose incorrigible natures and unrepentant recidivism have seen them transferred to this barbaric prison on the edge of what remains a hostile, largely unexplored wilderness.  Frances's youthful idealism soon brings her into conflict with her brother-in-law - a taciturn, difficult-to-fathom man whose moods swing between conviviality, stern dismissal of her humanitarian ideals and black despair as he seeks to impose his will on the settlement by having any prisoner who flouts the law he feels himself to personally embody brutally flogged.  And Logan's job is not made easier by the arrival of Clunie, an officer of the same rank whom he suspects of having been sent by Governor Darling - a man he fears neither likes him nor approves of his methods of maintaining law and order - to replace him.  

Logan and his sister-in-law tolerate what they see as being each other's moral weaknesses as a 'kindness' to Letty, still recovering from her miscarriage and filled with trepidation at the thought of her husband being transferred to India to rejoin his regiment and what such a transfer will mean to his career, their children's futures and to the libel action he's shortly due to pursue against the currently imprisoned but increasingly popular Mr Smith-Hall.  While Letty remains determined to accompany her husband should he suddenly be packed off to India, she's understandably saddened at the thought of being parted from Robert and Lucy who, for their own safety, will have to be sent back to Ireland should they leave Australia to avoid diseases like cholera and typhus which run rampant in the unhealthier climate of the subcontinent.

Frances's arrival only escalates the tensions which already dominate the lives of those obliged by military necessity or the rule of law to reside in Moreton Bay.  Something must break and eventually it does, with Frances becoming hysterical after a young convict named Martin - a boy roughly her own age whom she's often noticed working in the Commandant's garden - impulsively throws his arms round her while they're helping Madge Noakes, Letty's horribly scarred convict servant, to hang mosquito nets on all the family beds.  'She had already turned to leave the room, so that it was a collision, breast to breast, his furious mouth jabbering hatred into hers and his thin arms clamping both hers to her sides.  In her first shock she thought of the knife he used on the sash cords, and fearing it in her back, sucked inwards a breath of fear, a soft scream; and when, in the next moment, the fury in his face became a sort of blind besottedness, and his imprecations a burble of love, she only screamed louder...and continued to scream, and did not know why.'  

Macmillan Publishing first UK edition, 1975
The incident, soon over, creates an impossible situation, with Frances fully conscious of the fact that her hysterical overreaction to Martin's advances has placed the boy, formerly a model prisoner, in a potentially lethal situation.  She pleads with Logan to be lenient in punishing him but the Commandant is contemptuous of her pleas, his anger at what her 'Yankee talk' has led to causing him to denounce her as an interfering troublemaker who would do well to return to Sydney and marry Edmund Joyce if that young man is foolish enough to want her.

Desperate to spare Martin pain and salve her own tormented conscience, Frances turns to her sister for help, begging Letty to intercede with her husband on the boy's behalf - a plea that leads Logan to promise his wife that Martin will receive only the punishment the law deems it fit he should receive and not a single stroke more.  This statement, conveyed to Frances by her sister, relieves the headstrong girl of some of the guilt she feels at having responded so disastrously to Martin's unsought declaration of love.  She even takes pleasure in the thought of becoming mistress of the house for the evening while Letty pays a call - her first since recovering from her miscarriage - on Mrs Bulwer.

But all does not go well.  Soon after her sister leaves the house, Frances is disturbed by the sounds of shouting coming the garden and rushes outside to investigate, only to discover that Robert has cut his leg open on a piece of rusty metal - the remnants of an old convict leg-iron hidden in the uncut grass - and is now bleeding profusely from his severe and probably infected wound.  Remaining clear-headed despite the danger to her nephew, Frances decides to fetch James Murray - the new associate of Dr Cowper, managing the dispensary while Cowper pays his regular monthly visit to an outlying settlement - in person.  Leaving Robert and Lucy in the care of Madge Noakes, whom she stumbles upon in the bath, she sets off on foot for the hospital, arriving there shortly afterwards, breathless and exhausted.  

Another shock awaits her at the hospital - the bloody, severely lacerated back of the groaning, barely conscious Martin, who's lying on a table having his wounds dressed by Murray after receiving the one hundred lashes the Commandant ordered he be given.  Overcoming her horror  by recalling her reason for coming to find the surgeon in the first place, Frances tells Murray of Robert's accident, urging him to return to the house without her while she finds Letty and tells her what's happened to her son.

Her visit to the hospital disgusts and overwhelms Frances, causing her to collapse when she returns to her sister's house as the knowledge of what she's seen and, in another sense, failed to prevent combine to rob her of her final illusions about life, mercy, the Commandant and, perhaps most distressingly of all, herself.  Later that evening, Letty and Dr Murray find her in a semi-conscious state in her room, lying on her bed in a puddle of her own vomit but unable, or unwilling, to get up and clean herself.  Dr Cowper is soon called in and with him comes her brother-in-law, eager to express his gratitude for the swift action she took to preserve Robert's leg and probably save his life.  Logan also uses his visit to express his regret at what Frances witnessed at the hospital, adding that it could have been much worse had Letty's intervention not persuaded him to let Martin off 'lightly' with only one hundred lashes instead of the two hundred he originally decided he should have.

It's at this point, the shrewd Dr Cowper notices, that Frances's incredulity finally 'gives way to hopelessness.'  Nor is the change in her vision of the Commandant and what would seem to be his true nature confined exclusively to herself.  Letty has also seen a new side of her husband and asks him, when they find themselves alone in their children's nursery, if he's been misleading her all these years as to what sort of man he really is - a challenge made all the more urgent by the fact that he's shortly due to depart for the bush on an exploratory expedition without having received confirmation from the Governor if he's to be replaced by Captain Clunie in the meantime.  Logan leaves the settlement soon after with neither question answered, scornful as ever of warnings that the local aborigines have been joined by several convict runaways who are eager to take revenge on him for having subjected them to such cruel and ruthless treatment.

The settlement soon receives word, via one of the exhausted soldiers who accompanied Logan into the bush, that he's gone missing after breaking away from the main party to search for one of its precious lost horses.  Clunie, nominally in command of the settlement since Logan's departure, is obliged to send a party out to search for him - a party which contains, in addition to Cowper, the convict Lewis Lazarus whose friend Boylan is one of the runaways suspected of having joined the aborigines.  

Many convicts, the surgeon informs Clunie, already believe that Logan is dead - a belief it does not take long to confirm.  A few days after leaving Moreton Bay the search party discovers the Commandant's naked corpse, stuffed face-downwards in a shallow grave where it was left by those who killed him - a group which clearly included at least one white man because the blacks, as a soldier soon reminds Cowper, never bother to bury the dead.  The convicts in the party are delighted, barely able to conceal their glee at seeing their tormentor receive what they unanimously feel to have been his just reward.  They refuse to carry or even touch his rotting flyblown corpse, prompting a soldier to suggest that it might be best, given the sub-tropical climate, to bury the Captain where he is.  But Cowper will not permit this.  He insists on returning Logan's body to his widow for a proper Christian burial and, in the ultimate irony, it is Logan's sworn enemy Lazarus who agrees to transport his corpse back to the settlement after being promised a remission of his sentence for having done something no other prisoner has the will, the stomach or the physical strength to do.

The return of Logan's body to Moreton Bay coincides with the arrival of Governor Darling's long-awaited letter, officially relieving him of his command and ordering him to India.  But neither Letty nor her children will now be forced to undertake this journey, with the widow choosing to return to Ireland - and an uncertain social and financial future given her husband's unpopularity and his many unpaid debts - rather than remain in the colony where it seems Frances will remain, perhaps to marry Edmund Joyce provided he agrees to her condition that they must never employ convicts as servants in their home.  Although Frances makes the expected show of grieving for her brother-in-law, it is really for his dead horse - a grey pony named Fatima that she was fond of and was given permission to ride a few times - that she finds herself shedding her bitterest tears for.  'She was shocked that she could grieve for the mare, and not for the man, and it was this shock, and her self-condemnation, that made her compose herself at last.'  

The Text Publishing Company Australia, 2012
But the last word belongs to Captain Clunie who, when Frances asks him if Martin will be allowed to resume working in the garden now that her brother-in-law is no longer in command, tells him this will be impossible as the boy has become incorrigible and fallen into the company of the settlement's worst, most unrepentant prisoners.  When Frances asks if he blames her for this, Clunie replies that she must accept part of the blame for it, just as Martin himself must accept his share of blame as well.  'Then let me take mine,' she tells the reproachful officer, 'and let him take his.  But let King George take his share, too.'  Clunie, who has never liked Frances since they travelled to Moreton Bay together so many months earlier, then asks her if she would have everyone take a share.  'I should, sir,' she calmly answers him.  'It is the whole of my argument.  Except my sister...I don't blame my sister.'  

It is for Letty's sake that Governor Darling sends the colony's best ship to carry herself, her children and her husband's body in its lead-lined coffin away from the settlement - a gesture that seems to suggest she'll now receive the Civil List pension she'd been doubtful of receiving prior to this.  Clunie spends the day of their departure writing a report to his superiors about the death of Logan and the role the soon-to-be released Lazarus played in the recovery of his body, his work accompanied by the sound of convicts building a gallows to hang two of their number whose death sentences his predecessor refused to commute to life imprisonment.

Historical fiction is one of the most difficult genres to master, particularly when the narrative requires the author to re-imagine real people as fictional characters in an 'invented' story.  Captain Patrick Logan was a real British Army officer who served as Commandant of the Moreton Bay penal settlement from March 1826 until October 1830, when he was murdered - most historians believe by aborigines rather than by convicts - while leading a routine cartographical expedition into the surrounding countryside.  Like his fictional counterpart, he had a wife named Laetitia (or Lititia, sources disagree) and was renowned for his brutality, punishing men with up to a hundred strokes of the lash for the most trifling infractions.  Jessica Anderson's genius allowed her to take these bald historical facts and use them to create something that takes us beyond history into an entirely convincing nineteenth century world that is, as it must have seemed to those who inhabited it, an unsettling mixture of the beautiful and the abhorrent, the liberal and the dogmatically tyrannical.  That she does this largely through dialogue - much of it of the sparkling Jane Austenish variety - only makes The Commandant that much more remarkable and, for me, one of the greatest historical novels ever written by an Australian or, for that matter, anybody else.   
  

JESSICA ANDERSON, c. 1978
The Author:  Jessica Anderson was born 'Jessica Margaret Queale' on 25 September 1916 in the small country town of Gayndah in south-eastern Queensland.  Her father Charles Queale was the only member of his large Irish Catholic family to be born in Australia while her mother Alice Hibbert had emigrated to the new colony of Queensland with her English Anglican family when she was three years old.  Alice's mother, shocked by her daughter's decision to marry an Irish Catholic, refused to see her again following her marriage and consequently never met Anderson or her three elder siblings.

In 1921 the Queales left the farm of Charles's father for the Brisbane suburb of Annerley in the belief that a move to the city would enhance their children's educational prospects.  Brisbane was to remain Anderson's home for the next thirteen years.  Following a brief period of home schooling necessitated by what was deemed to be an incurable stammer - an impediment that was to remain with her, in varying degrees, for the rest of her life and gave her speech, in the ears of some listeners, 'a careful and deliberate air' - she would go on to attend and graduate from the city's Yeronga State Primary School, its State High School and its Technical College Art School. 

Although she wished to become an architect, this was not a practical career choice for a young woman living in the parochial and still semi-colonial Brisbane of the 1920s and early Depression years - years made harder for the family by the death of Charles Queale from emphysema and related respiratory ailments in 1932.  Anderson left the Queensland capital in 1935, bound for Sydney and what would be several years of odd-jobbing that saw her work in shops and factories and also as a slide painter and, briefly, as a designer of electric signs while she shared what she later described as 'big seedy mansions with gardens running right down to the harbour' with friends in eastern city suburbs like Potts Point and Rushcutters Bay.  During this period she also began to write and publish articles and stories under a variety of pseudonyms - a practice that makes it impossible to know how much she published and in which newspapers, magazines and periodicals her early work appeared in.  By the end of the 1930s she'd gained enough confidence to write under her own name, producing a variety of half-hour radio plays for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that allowed her to hone her skills as a masterful writer of dialogue.  

In 1940 Anderson married Ross McGill, a painter she'd met in 1937 and had travelled to London with that same year in the belief that doing so would be beneficial to their respective careers.  This did not prove to be the case, with Anderson doing what she described as 'donkey work' as a typist and magazine researcher while McGill worked in advertising and struggled to find the time to create the serious art he yearned to create.  The couple's return to Australia - not an easy journey to undertake during wartime - saw them resettle in Sydney, with Anderson volunteering for the Australian Women's Land Army soon afterwards.  In 1946 she became a mother, giving birth to a daughter named Laura who, under her married name Laura Jones, would go on to become one of Australia's most respected screenwriters whose credits include the adaptations of An Angel at My Table (1990), Oscar and Lucinda (1997) and Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady (1996).

Anderson's marriage to McGill ended in 1954 and a year later she married Leonard Anderson, a Sydney businessman.  The change in her financial circumstances meant she was now free to devote herself to the novel she had begun to write in her late thirties, work on which had been sporadic up till this point as the need to earn money from her radio writing had taken precedence over her 'literary' projects.  In 1960 she and her new husband bought a small home in the northern Sydney suburb of Hornsby and it was here - living what her eulogist described as being 'a calm, domestic, isolated life' - that she completed An Ordinary Lunacy, her debut novel published by the UK firm of Macmillan in 1963 when she was forty-seven years old.  

JESSICA ANDERSON, c. 1994
The book, while not a commercial success, was well received by the critics - a reception that did not help when it came to trying to publish her second novel, A Question of Money.  The book was rejected and remains unpublished to this day despite Anderson's lifelong belief that it deserved to find an audience.  She would not publish again until 1970, when the detective tale The Last Man's Head was accepted by Macmillan who chose to market it as a cheap thriller rather than as the psychologically complex work of literature it was.  The company made the same mistake with Anderson's third published novel The Commandant, which was issued in 1975 with a cover which gave the impression that it was a bodice-ripping romance rather than a subtle, exquisitely written historical tale with much to say about the nature of innocence and evil and their sometimes inexplicable intertwining.

In 1978, two years after her divorce from her second husband, Anderson published Tirra Lirra By The River - her greatest commercial success and the novel she's now best remembered for.  Originally starting life as a short story, she expanded it to novel length on the advice of her publisher and later adapted it for radio.  When asked to explain its popularity - it was a bestseller and became a set text in many Australian schools - Anderson offered the typically modest answer that it was 'easier to read' than all her other books.  Although she went on to publish four more books - The Impersonators (1980), Stories from the Warm Zone and Sydney Stories (1987), Taking Shelter (1989) and One of the Wattle Birds (1994) - it was the only one of her seven published titles to remain in print until The Commandant was reissued by the Text Publishing Company in 2012, two years after her death from a stroke at the age of ninety-three.


Click HERE to read more about the life and work of Australian novelist JESSICA ANDERSON on Wikipedia.  You can also click HERE to read her obituary by journalist CATHERINE KEENAN, published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 9 August 2010.  


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