This blog does NOT provide unauthorized eBOOK downloads of the books I recommend. Nor does it offer unauthorized music downloads (MP3, FLAC etc) of any kind. The ONLY downloads it provides are free eBOOK downloads of MY OWN copyright-protected work.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

WRITERS ON WRITING #53: Mohammad Hassan Alwan

Censorship’s worst side is that it makes writers overly self-conscious during the process of writing.  However, it is a permanent fact in writing that is not likely to go away.  If you are not being censored by the state, you are going to be censored by either social sensitivities or the audience’s expectations.  I therefore learned not to waste my time complaining about censorship and rather look at it as the playing boundaries of the field.  No player wants to be out of bounds, and such is also the case for writers.

Looking at the Longlist: Nine Questions with Saudi Writer Mohammad Hassan Alwan (14 December 2012)

Click HERE to read the full interview with Saudi novelist MOHAMMAD HASSAN ALWAN on the excellent Wordpress blog Arabic Literature (In English) created and maintained by M. LYNX QUALEY. 

You might also enjoy:
WRITERS ON WRITING #31: Jana El Hassan
WRITERS ON WRITING #27: Tahar Ben Jelloun
POET OF THE MONTH #17: Caasha Lul Mohamud Yusuf

Thursday, 21 August 2014

POET OF THE MONTH #19: Townes Van Zandt



At my window
Watching the sun go
Hoping the stars know
It's time to shine

Aloft on dark wings
Soft as the sun streams
At day's decline

Living is laughing
And dying says nothing at all
Baby and I lying here
Watching the evening fall

Time flows
Through brave beginnings
And she leaves her endings
Beneath our feet

Walk lightly
Upon their faces
Leave gentle traces
Upon their sleep

Living is dancing
Dying does nothing at all
Baby and I lying here
Watching the evening fall

Three dimes
Hard luck and good times
Fast lines and low rhymes
Ain't much to say

Feel fine
Feel low and lazy
Feel gray and hazy
Feel far away

Living is sighing
Dying ain't flying so high
Baby and I lying here
Watching the day go by

At My Window (1987)
The Poet:   The following biographical statement is taken from Wikipedia.  [It is re-posted here for recommendation purposes only and, like the material quoted above, remains its author's exclusive copyright-protected intellectual property.]

John Townes Van Zandt I (March 7, 1944 – January 1, 1997), best known as Townes Van Zandt, was an American singer-songwriter. Many of his songs, including If I Needed You and To Live Is to Fly, are considered standards of their genre. 

While alive, Van Zandt had a small and devoted fanbase, but he never had a successful album or single and even had difficulty keeping his recordings in print.  In 1983, six years after Emmylou Harris had first popularized it, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard covered his song Pancho and Lefty, scoring a number one hit on the Billboard country music charts. Despite achievements like these, the bulk of his life was spent touring various dive bars, often living in cheap motel rooms, backwoods cabins, and on friends' couches.  Van Zandt was notorious for his drug addictions, alcoholism, and his tendency to tell tall tales.  When young, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and insulin shock therapy erased much of his long-term memory.

Van Zandt died on New Years Day 1997 from health problems stemming from years of substance abuse. The 2000s saw a resurgence of interest in Van Zandt. During the decade, two books, a documentary film, and a number of magazine articles about the singer were created.  Van Zandt's music has been covered by such notable and varied musicians as Bob Dylan, Nanci Griffith, Norah Jones, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Cowboy Junkies, Andrew Bird, Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, Laura Marling, The Avett Brothers, and Devendra Banhart.

The music of Townes Van Zandt was and remains that of a true American troubador, as beautiful as it is haunting and, in its own way, inimitable.  His is music from the heart that speaks directly to the heart, music that, despite its apparent simplicity, still manages to express the profound and sometimes very bitter truth of what it means to be human and alive.

Click HERE to visit the official website of US singer/songwriter TOWNES VAN ZANDT.  Many more songs by him can by found on YouTube by clicking HERE.  To read his full Wikipedia entry, please click HERE.

You might also enjoy:
POET OF THE MONTH #18: Lawrence Ferlinghetti
POET OF THE MONTH #10: David Bowie
POET OF THE MONTH #2: Marianne Moore

Thursday, 14 August 2014

BENTLEY RUMBLE Early Reading (2013)

Little Golden Books/Random House US, c. 1942
Marvel Comics Group, 1975
Sphere Books UK, 1981

The first book I have a clear memory of reading and feeling in any way affected by was a Little Golden Book called The Saggy Baggy Elephant.  Its plot – or at least the little of it that my unreliable memory now permits me to recall – related the adventures of a cute if somewhat mawkish baby elephant who was teased by all the other animals he knew because his skin hung so loosely on his puny, under-developed body.  It was a tale of an individual being unjustly singled out and persecuted by a mob for being ‘different’ and ‘ugly’ and, for that reason alone, was bound to appeal to a child whose sense of empathy was as strongly developed as mine happened to be.

File Size: 
21 pages (.pdf) / 7593 words / 4 MB

eBOOK Formats: 

.azw3, .epub, .mobi & .pdf

Mediafire eBook/Zip File Download Link: 

BR-Early Reading (2013)-eBOOKx4

You might also enjoy:

BENTLEY RUMBLE Blues for Eddie Clay (2014) 
BENTLEY RUMBLE Recognition: A Novel (2009, revised 2013)
BENTLEY RUMBLE Layover (2012)

Thursday, 7 August 2014

DOROTHY WHIPPLE Someone at a Distance (1953)

Persephone Classics UK, 1999

As for his wife, thought Louise, hearing Ellen hurrying downstairs to make breakfast, the foolish creature didn't seem to realise that it was necessary to fight.  The battle was joined and would be over before she knew there was one.  But Louise had no compunction.  The woman didn't deserve what she had if she couldn't keep it.  Besides, why should other people always have everything and Louise Lanier nothing?  It was time for a change.

The Book:  Ellen and Avery North are a happily married middle class English couple, no longer passionate about each other but still affectionate and very much devoted to their children, fifteen year old schoolgirl Anne and eighteen year old Hugh, the son whom Avery hopes to take into his publishing business once the boy completes his mandatory National Service.  World War Two has only recently ended and the Norths - along with everyone of their generation who endured air raids, food rationing and enforced separation for six miserable years - can hardly believe their luck at having survived the conflict relatively unscathed.  They still have 'Netherfold' - their comfortable home in the semi-rural village of Newington, only an hour by train from London - and the sort of settled, family-oriented life they both want and enjoy, even if that enjoyment is occasionally dampened by the presence of Avery's mother, a cantankerous, difficult to please woman who lives nearby in her own, even larger house known simply as 'The Cedars.'

Old Mrs North's most frequent complaint is that she isn't visited enough by her daughter-in-law and grandchildren, to whom she remains an exasperating figure they nevertheless can't help feeling sorry for because she has a heart condition and is obviously lonely, living in such a grand house with only her housekeeper, the ever-devoted Miss Daley, to keep her company.  Mrs North's loneliness prompts her to answer a newspaper advertisement, placed by a French girl seeking a 'position' in an English home for the summer where she will offer 'French conversation' and 'light domestic duties' in exchange for her room and board.  Ellen and Avery are skeptical, dismissing the idea as one of the old woman's attention-seeking whims, but Mrs North is adamant that the girl must come and spend the summer with her as her companion, whether they approve of the idea or not.  Letters are exchanged and the arrival of Mademoiselle Lanier - who lives at home with her parents in the small provincial town of Amigny - is eagerly awaited.

Louise Lanier has reasons of her own for seeking a summer job in England.  A spoilt, imperious girl who thinks nothing of bullying her adoring mother and father if doing so will get her what she wants, she's just been jilted by her lover, Paul Devoisy, so he can marry a girl more suitable to his position as the favoured eldest son of the wealthiest, most respectable family in town.  Louise can't stand Paul's prim and proper fiancée Germaine and has no desire to marry any of Amigny's currently eligible bachelors, all of whom bore her to distraction and, worse, have no prospects of earning or inheriting the kind of wealth that Paul is poised to inherit upon his father's death.  

Expecting little from her trip to England, Louise is surprised to find something of a kindred spirit in her new employer - a woman not averse to speaking bluntly when she feels the situation warrants it and criticizing others, especially her virtuous and well-meaning daughter-in-law, behind their backs.  Although Louise initially fails to make a favourable impression on Avery, Ellen or the girlishly innocent Anne, she makes a very favourable impression on Mrs North who, as the summer progresses, begins to treat her more like a confidante than an employee, further alienating the already suspicious and disgruntled Miss Daley.

Ellen, however, has no time to dwell on what's happening at The Cedars.  She has her own house to run and her civic duty to perform which, in her case, means paying regular visits to Somerton, a former manor house converted into a residential hotel (a polite English pseudonym for a nursing home) and occupied, for the most part, by elderly widows like her friend Mrs Brockington.  The ladies are always as delighted to see Ellen as she is to see them, finding in her unselfish kindness a welcome respite from the unpredictable, sometimes abrasive personality of the hotel manager, the formidable Mrs Beard.  Ellen and her children also have a sentimental attachment to Somerton, having spent a lot of time there during the war while Avery was off serving in the Army.  It's these visits, along with preparing for Anne's impending return to school, which occupy Ellen's severely limited spare time - so much so that Louise's return to France is barely noticed by her despite the fact that Avery has now been won over by the visitor to a certain degree, so glad has he been to see the positive effect the girl's presence has had on his mother's health and fractious disposition.

The same cannot be said of Louise, who faces the same frustration when she returns to Amigny, compounded now by her former lover's marriage and the disturbing news that his mealy-mouthed bride is now pregnant with his child.  Insult is added to injury when Germaine begs her help to run the annual church charity bazaar but Louise, eager as always to humiliate her rival, uses their meetings as a means of impressing everybody with her firsthand knowledge of exotic 'English ways,' taking pleasure in the thought that news of her recently acquired sophistication must inevitably find its way back to Paul.  But her plan backfires.  Being in Paul's house without being able to see or touch him proves too much for her to bear and when a letter from Ellen arrives, begging her to return to England because Mrs North has fallen ill and is desperate to see her again, she writes back immediately, promising to return by the very first boat.

This time, Louise pursues a different approach with the Norths.  She makes more of an effort to make herself agreeable to them and especially to the handsome, often befuddled Avery, who's again relieved and pleased to see his mother's health improve as a direct consequence of her arrival.  So dependent on Louise's dubious affection does Mrs North become that she persuades Avery to speak to the girl on her behalf, asking her to consider the idea of remaining in Newington indefinitely.  This, of course, proves to Louise how indispensable she's become to her employer and, to a lesser extent, to the much friendlier, almost completely won-over Avery.  This knowledge gives her power, which she exercises by immediately returning to France and the home of her timid shopkeeping parents.  Here she plans to wait, biding her time until Mrs North's need for her - and her son's clearly growing attraction to her - become too strong for either party to successfully resist.  

Louise is still biding her time in Amigny, silently despising everyone and everything around her, when a letter brings the news that Mrs North has died and left her the sum of £1000 in her will - a legacy, her father soon informs her, equivalent to nine hundred thousand French francs.  Better still, she must return to England to collect her inheritance, where she will stay at Netherfold as the North's guest, not as anyone's employee, until the details of the old lady's will have been scrutinized and her estate finally settled.

Louise's presence at Netherfold soon becomes a nuisance to Ellen, who finds her reluctance to help around the house irritating but is too polite - and too dejected by the death of her mother-in-law and the wearying business of clearing out her house - to say so.  Yet this is not enough to encourage Louise to return to France.  She remains at Netherfold well past the time she was expected to remain there - ostensibly to help Anne improve her poor French during the girl's summer holidays - flirting with Hugh and, when that fails to produce the desired result, flirting openly with Avery, who finds himself flummoxed at the sight of her stretched out on his back lawn one Saturday afternoon, sunbathing in a bikini.  Finding himself physically attracted to Louise, his initial reaction is to blame his entirely innocent wife for what he's feeling.  'Avery felt a stab of anger.  Really Ellen shouldn't...she should realise...She shouldn't take it for granted that he was as safe as all that.  Damn it all, he was a man like any other, and whether she knew it or not, this girl was more provocative than any he had come across.'  Safe or not, his attraction to Louise becomes impossible to deny and sees him pay a nocturnal visit to her room one night where nature quickly and unsurprisingly takes its inevitable course. 

Ellen, however, trusts her husband implicitly, never believing him capable of adultery, let alone of betraying her with a remote, immaculately groomed creature like the haughty Louise.  This is what makes it so shattering to discover him making love to Louise on their living room sofa one afternoon - a sight she witnesses only because she decided to accompany Anne on a shopping trip to the village and thoughtlessly left some letters she needed to post behind on the hall table, letters she automatically and unthinkingly returned to the house to fetch.  Anne also sees everything her mother sees, destroying forever her illusion of Avery as the loving and indulgent father she had, up till that moment, unconditionally respected and adored.  Anne can't bear the sight of her father's shame and flees from it, but Ellen remains behind, demanding that Louise leave at once and still trusting, in her innocence, to Avery to take charge of the situation just as he's done during every other crisis they've encountered during their marriage.  

But Avery, too wracked with guilt to do much more than preen and bluster, has one more surprise in store for his heartbroken wife.  While Ellen goes out to search for Anne, who has taken her horse and ridden away from the house in order to put as much distance as possible between herself and the day's shattering events, he packs his bags and leaves for London with Louise, who, as might be expected, is far from dissatisfied with her day's handiwork.  She has Avery to herself and winning him away from Ellen, awkward though things were for a time, was much easier than she'd expected it to be.  Her only regret is that the hotel he finds for them in London isn't The Ritz or The Savoy.  This will change though, she assures herself, once she persuades him to divorce his naïve fool of a wife and marry her.

With this previously unthinkable chain of events set in motion, it hardly takes any time at all for the secure if  mundane life the Norths have lived together to begin to unravel.  Avery, stung to the core by the powerful combination of guilt and pride, refuses to consider the option of returning to Ellen, preferring to make a 'quick clean break of it' to the dismal prospect of 'eating humble pie' for the rest of his life.  He soon turns to brandy for solace, having found none in the distant and self-centred Louise, whom he soon comes to realize he doesn't even like, much less love.  His actions have a similarly devastating effect on his children, with Hugh vowing to reenlist in the army once his National Service has been completed rather than work for the man who so callously betrayed his mother, while Anne, formerly a happy and vivacious girl, becomes quiet and withdrawn, shunning the company of her school friends to the point where her behaviour begins to be of genuine concern to her teachers and headmistress.  

In the meantime Ellen, her world as she previously knew it  literally destroyed overnight, is forced to face the harsh reality of being a divorced middle-aged woman with nothing but the income from a very small personal annuity to support herself and her children.  (She refuses to accept any alimony from Avery, taking only what's necessary to pay for Anne's education.)  Her only option is to ask Mrs Beard for an assistant manager's job at Somerton, where her housekeeping skills can be put to some use and she and the children can live in the disused stable she's eventually given permission to convert into a house.  Gradually, she emerges from her depression and begins to build a new life for herself while Avery, who's persuaded by his partner to quit his job so that Hugh can take his place, is dragged to New York and then to France by the increasingly shrewish Louise, who intends to repay him for his months of slothful silent drunkenness by bleeding him dry of every cent he possesses.  But not even the coldly calculating Louise gets everything her own way.  Taking Avery home to meet her parents, she's shocked to discover that they want nothing more to do with her after realizing that it was she, acting purely out of selfishness, who destroyed the North's marriage, bringing shame not only upon herself but upon their good name as well.

Yet, despite it all, Ellen can't stop loving her ex-husband, the man who stayed by her side the night their son was born and she came so perilously close to dying.  A chance meeting at Somerton, where Louise has unknowingly insisted is the ideal place for herself and Avery to stop and eat lunch one day, brings about, not a reconciliation, but an understanding and even a tiny glimmer of hope for the future.  'Ellen,' Avery realizes as the unfed Louise waits for him to drive them away from what, to her, is now a grim and hateful place, 'had forgiven him.  His children never would, he knew; but Ellen had forgiven him.  In those few moments, she had given him hope and purpose.  He would redeem himself.  He could, now that he had something to work for.  She was the harmony of his life.  What a disordered existence he had led without her.  If it took years - and it would, until Anne had settled in a life of her own - he would wait and hope to get back to Ellen.'

Persephone Books UK first reprint edition, 1999
The power of a novel like Someone at a Distance lies in its subtlety, in its muted yet profoundly engaging depiction of a middle-aged couple coming to terms with an unthinkable calamity in their humdrum lives and responding to it - not with hate, recrimination and teams of writ-serving divorce lawyers - but with dignity, restraint and a mutual desire to secure a decent future for their children.  If it's a novel about adultery and betrayal, then it's also a novel about forgiveness and the possibility of redemption.  Some may be put off by its perhaps too hopeful ending, but to be disappointed by it is to deny the book's real purpose, which is to suggest how everything we take for granted in life can be stolen from us in the blink of an eye, given the right opportunity and the right combination of insidious or merely unforeseen circumstances.  

The book also addresses the idea of human evil in the same allusively understated way that Henry James addressed it in novels like The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and The Wings of the Dove (1902).  Like James, Whipple understood that evil begins in giving way to emotions like envy, greed and vanity and, as such, often reveals itself as the attractive and glamorous alternative to what we perceive as being 'good' and therefore dismissible and worthy of nothing but our scorn.  Louise is everything the devoted, eager to please Ellen is not - dark rather than fair, striking rather than plain, lewdly French rather than modestly and unprotestingly English.  She's also a woman incapable of thinking of anyone but herself, unwilling to spare a moment's thought for her parents, her employer, Ellen, Anne, Hugh or the man she so cunningly and, to his lasting regret, so efficiently seduces.  At no time does she express even the slightest remorse over what she's done to Ellen and Avery, suffer even the mildest pang of guilt over the catalytic role she's played in ruining what, until her arrival, had been their happy if unexciting marriage.  

In Louise's jaded eyes, Avery and Ellen are nothing more than ridiculous figures ripe for exploitation, as are her petit bourgeois shopkeeping parents, small people of small means whose nervous love for her is exceeded only by their constant fear of incurring her endlessly simmering wrath.  She doesn't care about destroying love because the shabby treatment she received at the hands of her former lover, Paul Devoisy, has robbed her of the capacity to feel anything but contempt, resentment and an all-consuming envy for those whom fate has chosen to bless with wealth, position and the power which, to her mind, is their natural concomitant.  What she wants is not Avery, but what she thinks, mistakenly, that a man like Avery is capable of giving her provided she nags him for it often enough and doesn't let him stray too far off the leash.  She's an extraordinary creation and a testament to Dorothy Whipple's uncanny ability to take what, in the hands of a less gifted, less emotionally insightful novelist, might only have been another standard love triangle plot and transform it into something that remains a thought-provoking and genuinely moving work of art.

The Author:  Once described as 'the Jane Austen of the twentieth century' by her contemporary JB Priestley, Dorothy Whipple suffered the same fate as many of her fellow 'women novelists' whose work had been popular during the 1930s and 1940s only to find itself falling out of favour as the vogue for books featuring sex and scandal came to dominate publishing during the latter half of the 1950s and on into the 'swinging' 1960s.  Although she published nine popular and well-received novels between 1927 and 1953, it was as a writer of children's fiction that Whipple was best remembered until her work began to be reprinted by UK publisher Persephone Books in 1999.  She's now the company's most popular author, her books selling steadily and gaining her the new readership she was unjustly denied for so many years.

Whipple was born in the Lancashire city of Blackburn in 1893, one of a family of eight children sired by local architect William Stirrup.  Her family were what the English call 'middle class' (and the rest of us call rich) and she was encouraged to pursue her literary interests by her mother Ada, herself the daughter of a well-to-do man whose company specialized in providing the engraving and gilding for many of Blackburn's stateliest homes and public buildings.  Young Dorothy was also close to her grandmother and to the family servant, a harsh-talking but softhearted woman named Kate.  Hers was a happy and secure childhood, free from the financial worries which beset her less privileged contemporaries in what was known as 'Cotton Town' thanks to its abundance of highly profitable cotton mills.  She was educated privately and then at the city's high school before completing her education at the Convent of Notre Dame.  In 1905, at the age of twelve, she made her first appearance in print when a story she had written for a school assignment was published in the Blackburn Times.

Following the death of her friend (possibly her fiancee?) George Owen in the trenches of France in the very first week of World War One, twenty-one year old Miss Stirrup took a job as secretary to the city's current Director of Education.  His name was Henry Whipple and the fact that he was a widower who was also twenty-four years her senior did not deter her from falling in love with him and agreeing to become his wife in 1917.  Henry Whipple's job took him to Nottingham in 1925 and this was where the childless couple remained until 1939, when they moved to the East Midlands manufacturing town of Kettering.  Kettering would remain their home until Henry Whipple's death in 1958, when Dorothy returned once more to Blackburn.

Jonathan Cape Limited first UK edition, 1930
The English firm of Jonathon Cape published her first novel, Young Anne, in 1927.  It sold moderately well and was followed in 1930 by High Wages, a female variant on HG Wells' Kipps (1905) which told the tale of a lowly draper's assistant who aspires to the seemingly impossible goal of opening her own dress shop.  Whipple's second novel became a bestseller, as did every one of her succeeding novels - Greenbanks (1932), They Knew Mr Knight (1934, filmed in 1946 starring Mervyn Johns and Nora Swinburne), The Priory (1939), They Were Sisters (1943, also filmed in 1945 starring Phyllis Calvert and James Mason), Because of the Lockwoods (1949) and Every Good Deed (1950).  Her final novel, Someone at a Distance, appeared in 1953 but failed to duplicate her previous success, being entirely ignored by the critics and a reading public who, as her editor put it, were all 'going mad for passion and action.'  

Having published The Tale of the Very Little Tortoise, her first book for children, in 1962, it was in this genre that Whipple worked until her death, in her beloved Blackburn, four years later.  She also published an autobiography, The Other Day, in 1950 and two volumes of short stories, the last of which, Wednesday and Other Stories, was described as 'illuminating and startling' by Anthony Burgess when it originally appeared in 1961.  But it was another critic, reviewing her first volume of stories in The Times Literary Supplement twenty years before that, who perhaps best described what made Dorothy Whipple such a clever and, for so many years, undervalued writer: 'Nobody is more shrewd than Mrs Whipple in hitting off domestic relations or the small foibles of everyday life.'  

Click HERE to visit the DOROTHY WHIPPLE page at the PERSEPHONE CLASSICS website.  In addition to publishing Someone at a Distance in both traditional and eBOOK formats, the company also publishes many of her other novels and a selection of her short fiction titled The Closed Door and Other Stories.

You can also click HERE to read reviews of Someone at a Distance and other novels by DOROTHY WHIPPLE on the entertaining Wordpress blog Book Snob.

You might also enjoy:
BARBARA PYM Excellent Women (1952)
ELIZABETH TAYLOR A Wreath of Roses (1949)
DAWN POWELL Come Back to Sorrento (1932)

Thursday, 31 July 2014

WRITERS ON WRITING #52: Sarah Waters

I write a synopsis for myself really, to get my ideas organised – but I might never refer to it again.  I usually start at the beginning of a book and just work my way slowly through it, several chapters at a time, annotate them, then rewrite them and print them out again – I might do that three or four times per section.  It's quite a laborious way to do it – going over and over sections that will probably change later on, when I come to rewrite the book as a whole.  I sometimes wish I could work in a different way – be a bit looser about it.

Interview from the Mslexia: For Women Who Write website [date unspecified]

Click HERE to read the full interview with SARAH WATERS at the MSLEXIA: FOR WOMEN WHO WRITE website.  Her own website can be visited by clicking HERE.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

JAZZ ICONS #10: Bernie McGann


Bernie McGann is one of the greatest of all jazz musicians, either here or anywhere...He represents the essence of the music; uncompromising and thoroughly schooled in the tradition, while creating his own response to it...He’s like a great painter who’s developed this style, and then refines it and refines it.  But everything that he does is unmistakable because of the style.
Pianist/Composer & McGann collaborator

The death of alto saxophonist Bernie McGann (who preferred to be known as 'Bern') on 17 September 2013 robbed Australian jazz of one of its true pioneers, a brilliant self-effacing giant whose career spanned more than five decades and saw him create and perfect a unique, instantly identifiable sound that was, by turns, dark, dry, angular, chaotic and, when the occasion called for it, achingly romantic.  For many jazz fans he was the preeminent figure in Australian improvised music, a musician who never stopped stretching his own boundaries and those of everyone he played with despite being almost totally ignored by the mainstream media and achieving what can only be described as an 'extremely modest' degree of commercial if not critical success.

McGann was born Bernard Francis McGann in the southern Sydney suburb of Kogarah on 22 June 1937.  His father, who was a semi-professional drummer employed by day as a sheetmetal worker, moved the family west to Granville when he was two years old.  It was in Granville, in a house that faced the perpetually busy Parramatta Road, that he grew up, immersed in the music of Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Mary Lou Williams and other prominent American jazz and swing artists of the time.  (He also attended Marist Brothers High School in Parramatta, where he was a classmate of my father's, before leaving in his early teens to start working as an apprentice fitter and turner.)  He took piano lessons as a child, then switched to drums before finally taking up the saxophone at the age of eighteen, influenced - as were aspiring musicians all over the world at the time - by the smooth, ultra-modern sound of Paul Desmond, then at the peak of his popularity as the alto saxophonist of the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

The Breeze and I
Bernie McGann Quartet
Bernie McGann [alto sax]; Warwick Alder [trumpet];
Brendan Clarke [bass]; Andrew Dickeson [drums]
Recorded live, 28 June 2011 

McGann was playing well enough by the late 1950s to take his place alongside other emerging Australian jazz talents like drummer John Pochée and trumpeter Errol Buddle at a late night Sydney venue called 'El Rocco' - really a cellar with a neon sign proclaiming it a 'jazz club' - located in the Sydney 'red light' district better known as King's Cross.  El Rocco, which had opened in 1955 as a café serving instant coffee to the city's bohemian elite, soon became the city's premier jazz venue, home to virtually every great musician - Judy Bailey, Don Burrows, Bobby Gebert, George Golla, Mike Nock, the list is seriously impressive - who would go on to make his or her mark in the 1960s, the 1970s and beyond.  

McGann's professional relationship with many of these musicians would be strong, but none more so than that the partnership he developed with John Pochée, whose flawlessly in-the-groove drumming would become crucial to the sound of both the Bernie McGann Trio and the Bernie McGann Quartet.  It was with Pochée, as a member of a band called Heads, that he earned his first residency at a Melbourne club called the Fat Black Pussycat in 1964.  Their stay in Victoria was brief, however, and they were back in New South Wales the following year, gigging regularly in Sydney venues like Club Eleven, the Taxi Club and the Mocambo in what was then the highly unfashionable and still very working class suburb of Newtown.  In later years, McGann would feature prominently in Pochée's own mini orchestra Ten Part Invention, frequently performing and recording with the goup as well as in the smaller group, The Last Straw, they co-founded in 1974. 

Spirit Song
Ten Part Invention
Recorded live, 1993

McGann, who made his first jazz recordings in 1967 for a compilation LP titled Jazz Australia, supplemented his income during the late 1960s and early 1970s by working as a session musician and performing as a member of the rock/soul group Southern Comfort.  Around this time he also moved to the small bushland community of Bundeena south of the city, working by day as its postman and often taking his saxophone deep into the bush of the nearby Royal National Park to conduct his daily practice sessions.  At the Sydney benefit concert held for him in September 2013, immediately following the heart surgery which unbeknownst to everyone would shortly cost him his life, John Pochée remembered being sent off to find him one day, only to discover 'a solitary chiselled figure atop a large rock platform blowing out across the vast expanses of bush.'  This habit of honing his sound alone in the bush, far from where anyone but the occasional possum or wallaby could hear him, was crucial to its development and helped prepare him for what became his most productive decade, with his trio and quartet producing several internationally acclaimed recordings and backing top-notch visiting US musicians such as Freddie Hubbard, Lester Bowie, Dave Liebman, Sonny Stitt and Dewey Redman.  In addition to touring extensively both in Australia and overseas throughout the 1980s - including successful visits to the UK, the USA, Czechoslovakia, Poland, India and Malaysia - McGann also found time to play himself in the 1988 Kevin Lucas docu-drama Beyond El Rocco.  By 1990 he was arguably the most famous 'unknown' jazz musician in Australia, with another successful tour of the USSR helping to cement his international reputation as a player of astonishing depth, power and sometimes staggering individuality.  

Rufus Records, 1998 (reissue)

The ensuing decade saw McGann further consolidate his position as Australia's leading alto saxophonist with the 1991 release of Ugly Beauty, his first new trio album for many years and one which featured several of his own strikingly angular compositions in addition to a selection of sympathetic and thoughtfully chosen standards.  The album gained him an ARIA award and the 1992 Mo Award for 'Jazz Group of the Year,' awards he would win again in 1994, 1995 and 1997 for his albums McGann, McGann and Playground before becoming the first non-classical performer to win the prestigious Don Banks Award in 1998, an annual $60,000 prize given to 'a senior artist of high distinction who has made an outstanding and sustained contribution to music in Australia.'  The same year saw the publication of a biography, written by poet, novelist and social historian Geoff Page, titled Bernie McGann: A Life in Jazz by the Armidale-based Kardoorair Press (a book which, sadly, no longer appears to be in print). 

Bernie McGann: Australian National Treasure
Short film about McGann 

Despite his originality and his often breathtaking technique - a technique I can vouch for, as I heard him in person at venues like the Strawberry Hills Hotel and Soup Plus many times throughout the 1990s - McGann was at heart an old school musician who believed in playing wherever and whenever he could, making as little fuss about himself as he seemed to make about his music.  He was quintessentially Australian in his personal attitudes and, by all accounts, in his personal likes and dislikes, which included a fondness for the game of pool and the lifelong habit of rolling his own cigarettes.  He was, according to his friends, laconic, modest and 'capably self-reliant,' a man who once quipped, after attending yet another award ceremony, 'Win an ARIA Award and you can't get a gig.'  He was, above all, a survivor, someone who obviously possessed the talent and ability required to transform him into an international superstar had he chosen to relocate to New York or Paris instead of continuing to ply his trade in a jazz backwater like Australia.  

McGann never lost the power to astound and dazzle audiences or, more significantly, his fellow musicians.  As John Pochée said of him when asked what it had been like to play with him for over forty years:  'Bernie can still raise the hairs on the back of my neck.'  That's the kind of praise that would have mattered to a man for whom the pursuit of the human and the personal was infinitely more important than any accolade he received from the critics or those responsible for handing out prizes and grant money.   The last word perhaps belongs to pianist Paul Grabowsky, with whom McGann recorded the stunning ballad album Always in October 2005.  It was an unusual project for both musicians, but one well worth the time and effort required to bring it to fruition, given the beautiful but still unmistakably McGannesque music they created together.
It was Dale Barlow who in about 1982 first made me think about Bernie.  How he was the true original, the swingin' postie, the Australian Bird, more kookaburra than nightingale, how he sang his own song.  You can hear echoes from across the pond:  Parker, of course, Ornette, especially Sonny Rollins, but I've heard him sound cooler as well, almost like Lee Konitz.  What really matters is that here is Australian jazz's Fred Williams, its Patrick White, a poet who evokes a dry, brittle and shimmering Australian landscape off the back of Tin Pan Alley and Vera Lynn...Something for always.

Bernie McGann Quartet
Bernie McGann [alto sax]; Warwick Alder [trumpet];
Brendan Clarke [bass]; Andrew Dickeson [drums]
Recorded live, 28 June 2011

Click HERE to listen to more great music by BERNIE McGANN.  To read his full obituary (from which much of the biographical information required for this post was obtained), published in The Australian on 23 September 2013, please click HERE.  A short clip from the 1988 film Beyond El Rocco can be viewed by clicking HERE.  

Many fine recordings by BERNIE McGANN and his various bands can be purchased online by visiting the website of Sydney-based jazz label Rufus Records and its Bandcamp page

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

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Thursday, 17 July 2014

POET OF THE MONTH #18: Lawrence Ferlinghetti




Constantly risking absurdity
                                           and death
    whenever he performs
                                      above the heads
                                                             of his audience
the poet like an acrobat
                          climbs on rime
                                      to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
                                            above a sea of faces
    paces his way
                         to the other side of day
  performing entrechats
                                and sleight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics
                                   and all without mistaking
        any thing
                        for what it may not be
    For he's the super realist
                                       who must perforce perceive
           taut truth
                       before the taking of each stance or step
    in his supposed advance
                       toward that still higher perch
where Beauty stands and waits
                                                 with gravity
                                            to start her death-defying leap
And he
      a little charleychaplin man
                                 who may or may not catch
      her fair eternal form
                              spreadeagled in the empty air
        of existence


 A Coney Island of the Mind (1958)

The Poet:  Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers, New York on 24 March 1919.  His French-born Jewish mother was committed to an insane asylum shortly after his birth, while his Italian father died when he was barely six months old.  Ferlinghetti spent his early childhood in the French city of Strasbourg, where he was raised by his maternal aunt Emily, who later brought him back to New York where he was placed in an orphanage until she found work as a governess, caring for the only daughter of the wealthy Bisland family.  Her nephew was left in the care of the Bislands after 1926 and attended local schools in Bronxville, New York before graduating with a BA in Journalism from the University of North Carolina in 1941.

Ferlinghetti enlisted in the US Navy following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and served in both the European and Pacific theaters of war.  (He also visited the Japanese city of Nagasaki six weeks after the atomic bomb was dropped on it - an experience which turned him into a committed lifelong pacifist or, as he describes it, 'a philosophical anarchist.')  He enrolled at Columbia University after the war and lived in Paris between 1947 and 1951, where he earned his PhD at the Sorbonne.  Following his return to America, he married and moved to San Francisco, where he taught French and wrote art criticism while working on translations of poems by the French surrealist Jacques Prévert.  Many of these were later published in the magazine City Lights owned by Peter D Martin.  In 1953, he and Martin joined forces to open the City Lights Bookstore - the first all-paperback bookstore in the USA and a place that would loom large in the mythos of the emerging Beat movement which included (but did not necessarily define) writers like Jack Kerouac, William S Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso.  

Ferlinghetti went on to found City Lights Publishing, which published the work of many of these 'new' poets and writers in its groundbreaking 'Pocket Poets' series.  Allen Ginsberg's Howl - the fourth book in the series - was seized by officers of the San Francisco Police Department in 1956 on the grounds that it was an obscene publication.  Ferlinghetti was arrested for selling an obscene book to a police officer and stood trial for this alleged offence in municipal court, only to be acquitted by the presiding judge in October 1957 in what became a landmark decision in the fight to uphold every American citizen's constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech.  The poet remained highly active in the fight for social justice and the anti-war movement during the 1960s and remains, at ninety-five, an outspoken critic of US foreign policy.  The author of over thirty books, Ferlinghetti is also a well-respected painter who held a one-man exhibition, titled 60 Years of Painting, in the Italian cities of Rome and Reggio in 2010.

Click HERE to read more poetry by LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI at  

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POET OF THE MONTH #12: Clementine von Radics
POET OF THE MONTH #5: François Villon