I thought I’d write a verse, my dear, explain just why you’d like it here. This beach is one I know you’d like. It’s shingle, mainly. Still, its nice. An ice cream stall squats near the pier, but you can’t get rum and raisin here. Cracked steps lead wobbly to the beach, with deckchairs stacked just out of reach. I know you’d love the irony, you’d lap it up quite happily. Perversely, too, you’d love the beach. It’s wide, with sea just out of reach. And the ocean’s also not much cop, just toxic bubbling, grey-green pop. The rockpool’s bleak, with not a sign, of life, apart from mirrored mine. Escape to town is harder still. The path back is a long, steep hill. And back in town, there’s just one caffie, one that’s dirty, bleak and scruffy! I’ve been here lots without you, dear. You never wanted to come near. But, can you see just why I claim. You’ll like it here, you’d lay no blame. You’d get such a chance to moan. Complain and threaten to go home. Then once back home you’ll tell our friends, you wished our break would never end. So here’s my little verse, my dear, I really think you’ll like it here.
Having just completed the reading of three books which meant nothing, and which irritated and which annoyed me, I was thankful that ‘The Sunday Philosophy Club’ had arrived at the top of my reading list.
It is the story of Isabel, who lives in genteel comfort with her daily housekeeper Grace. Isabel experiences the unfortunate falling of a young man from the top tier of a concert hall. When the young man dies, she can’t help wanting to know more, given that she was likely the last person to have eye contact with him before he hit the ground.
The book’s name comes about because Isabel is editor of a philosophy journal, and the book regularly refers to the ‘Sunday Philosophy Club’. As in ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ snippets of everyday life are interspersed with philosophical considerations and wonderings, both academic and everyday. We also get inside the head of Isabel. She’s intense, interesting and popular, but harbours a secret crush on her niece’s ex-boyfriend.
Having been encouraged to read quite a few of Alexander McCall-Smith’s other works, I came to this book with a preconceived idea of what TSPC might offer.
In general, I was pleasantly surprised. There were inevitably a few issues – for example, where the writing indicates the POV of more than one character. It is something I’ve worked hard to remove from my writing, so am ultra-aware.
But, as a philosophy graduate and a fan of music-related writing, a book featuring not only a philosopher but also a musician meant I was happy to continue reading this enjoyable and relaxing book. Though there was no real depth, no real character development, and no real plot, I did enjoy reading this rambling, ambling thought process and musings on everyday events.
It’s been a few years since I read a McCall-Smith book. I think I’ll read some more.
Have you ever walked into a gig and felt calm and inspired, even before the music begins? Even when you’re an ancient prog-folk-rocker like me, and even before you’ve sat down? Well, that’s what happened when I went to see Ivan Campo at Preston’s Harris Art Gallery on Valentines Day 2020.
Firstly, the location was gorgeous. I’ve been to the Harris many times before but never to an event, so my assumption was that the concert would be held in a suite deep within the building: somewhere dull and bland with flat acoustics and plenty of audience space. I couldn’t have been more wrong. When we arrived, the band were setting up in the space just behind the lobby’s glass doors. In front of the small stage we could see a chic collection of bistro style chairs and tables.
It was then that I realised this was to be an intimate gig of maybe 50 attendees, yet the space was vertically massive. The ‘concert hall’ was three storeys high, and the band’s tuning-up sounds floated around the tables and up, through the art galleries, into the stunning ceiling cavity. When the doors opened, we accepted a free glass of Prosecco, then sat ourselves directly in front of the stage.
Ivan Campo has a seemingly simple set up: Adam on lead vocals and guitar, Will on keyboard, guitars, backing vocals and glockenspiel, and Ben on guitars, bass, percussion, clarinet and backing vocals. But Ivan Campo’s sound is anything but simple. Of course, they utilise many elements of folk music, particularly in the vocal harmonies, but the band exhibit elements of pop and choral music too, as the band’s musical influences are multiple and complex.
Each person listening to their music would be aware of different influences, but I found myself hearing Nick Drake, early Crosby Stills, Nash and Young, The Beatles, The Trees, Mellow Candle and even early Genesis. I even detected elements of The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, though these are rare! In ‘Darling Diva’ , there’s definitely a Bonzo feeling to the enunciation and of the verses in particular, and with its near-muted backing voices, the lead voice floats.Whatever their influences, Ivan Campo’s musical talents blend together in a cohesive whirl of gorgeous sounds.
I didn’t stop smiling the entire time, as watching and listening to Ivan Campo transcended pleasure and became unaccustomed joy. Yes, it was certainly connected with the quality of the musical performance, but also with the music’s feel. It exuded positivity and optimism – particularly ‘The Bloodhound and the Fox’ with its gentle organ sound and powerful lyrics, and in the bouncy harmonies of ‘Roll On’ with its staccato guitar and enticing foot-tapping rhythm.
This gig showcased some great music that moved between genres. ‘Forgetful Fredrick’ had a great reggae/calypso sound with its snappy, syncopated guitar and jolly glockenspiel. Incidentally, the whistling in this and in other tunes is an unexpected pleasure that’s simple but so effective. More jolliness arises in ‘Lotus Eater’ – a feel-good song with an early-Beatles skiffle feel, that changes to The Everly Brothers when they sing ‘Every day, gets a little stronger’. Taking a totally different tack, ‘A Chancer’ incorporates reggae-sounding rhythm guitar and a gorgeous lead guitar in this understated piece. Taking another direction, ‘Roller Disco’ tells of waking up in 1959 wanting to go to a roller disco. With its delightful hand shaker, doo-wop backing vocals sound and bass, it is funny, sweet and very feel-good. Weirdly, ‘Local Dealer’s catchy piano reminds me of Billy Bragg’s ‘Waiting for the Great Leap Forward’!
Ivan Campo have a wonderful percussive sound, especially as there is no drum kit. Everything is percussive! Consider ‘Season of the King’ with its gorgeous, rolling piano and motifs, with a tune that particularly suits Adam’s voice, and is brought into another dimension with the clicked-fingers percussion, shakers and syncopated rhythms. Also, in ‘The Mirror’ , amidst the gorgeous seemingly-complex harmonies of a tune that seems too pure to have arisen in our cynical times, the timings are satisfying and tight, assisted by sonorous clarinet notes and the clicking of clarinet keys for percussive effect.
The harmonies and the way the voices merge together are just mild-melting. In ‘The B&B’ the lyrics are great ‘ I know I’ll survive only if I try’, ‘A real reverie.’. ‘Wouldn’t you agree?’ ‘Was it all just a dream?’ My particular favourite part is the ‘It’s difficult. Impossible to see.’ There’s something astonishing about how those harmonies are delivered and how the words are articulated with a beautiful use of silence. In ‘Invisible Man’, the simple effective guitar picking is topped with almost-whispered singing of ethereal harmonies, and the simplest of keyboard accompaniments. ‘Crome Yellow’ presents us with such a Kinks-like feel at the beginning (Kinks but darker), with rich folk harmonies, and syncopated rhythm guitar. In ‘One Minute War’, the articulation of the word ‘Suddenly’ is gorgeous.
Not every band is able to use sparsity to the best effect, but Ivan Campo does. They use a chugging guitar sound on ‘Hurricane Ivan’ to start, and this is reflected by the singing style. As the song progresses, the tune becomes more lyrical, though the sparseness of the arrangement is effective. In ‘Blind Spot’ the harmonies and lyrics are exceptional especially on the lead up to the chorus. Even the chorus is pretty sparse, but so beautiful as a result.
It’s as if the band has fully orchestrated, then stripped right down to only what was essential.
And it is this musical self-awareness that made the band so special. These guys were not afraid of using their instruments and voices unpretentiously. ‘Liquor Mountain’ was sweet and reminiscent of something in the long ago past, and ‘Obscene Dream’ was glorious with its descending and ascending sweetness, and of silence. And again, reminiscent of a time gone by with its gentle, almost-whispered singing, ‘Rat Race’ begins in the manner of one of those brilliant busking tunes that cheers you as you walk past. But soon it becomes a hush little baby style version of something Beatles-like. How could such a thing be described in mere words? In ‘Could the Devil be a Gentleman’ I was instantly reminded of the Orkney and Shetland folk I adored in my teen years. I love the clarity of the fingerpicked guitar and the sound of the voices, especially the line ‘By the thoughts of a restless day’ which gives me tummyache and brings tears to my eyes.
This was one of the best gigs I have ever attended. Perhaps the best.
Acoustic music is often considered to have less breadth and depth. Not so. Of course, the grandeur and echo-chamber effects of the venue added to the atmosphere. But it was all about the band and their pure music. I purchased Purchased four Ivan Campo EPs on my way out – and have been listening to them ever since. This will definitely not be my final Campo gig.
‘I only wanted what was best for you,’ she whimpered. ‘What was best for us all.’
The man’s expression darkened with each word. His eyes flashed bright green as she spoke, and he knew that she could not be allowed to win. Not again.
‘What’s best for us all,’ he whispered with venom, ‘is a world without you.’
He thrust his hidden knife towards the breast pocket of her jacket, and pierced her right in the heart.
The woman clutched the invading weapon and fell to her knees, then to the floor. Her final words ‘This is not for the greater good. This is…’
But a stab in the heart was not enough. For this to work and for her evil to truly be eradicated, she must be symbolically thrown to the wolves. Hence their location on the roof garden of a trendy office block. He dragged her still-alive body to the edge wall and hauled it to rest on the thick glass security pane. Into her pocket he placed a carefully folded piece of paper, then with a final energetic spasm, heaved her body over the glass.
‘Goodbye Mother,’ he said, and immediately began his brisk walk back to the office block’s ground floor. If he kept his speed up and used the emergency stairs, he knew he would be unseen and out of the door in less than five minutes. It took just under three minutes, and with latex-clad hands he opened the rear door and made his way out.
Fortunately for Ben, his black hooded sweatshirt and black joggers – the uniform of house-breakers and car-thieves everywhere – provided sufficient anonymity. Add to that the additional padding he’d sewn into the clothes, a fake blonde beard, a shoulder length blonde wig and tinted contact lenses, and he’d ensured that his own mother hadn’t recognised him till her final moment.
Ben thought back to the events of earlier that day, and what had been required to ensure his own peace and the peace of mankind. Truly, he was working for the greater good. Holy Wars had proved that any act, even murder, could be justified providing one’s motives were true and were for the greater good.
Ben’s mission to kill his mother had been four months in the planning. Four months of scheming and sucking up to the people around him. Four months of ensuring that each and every piece of the puzzle fitted. Of secreting items away, of careful observation and, in the end, of targeted violence.
All because he finally realised that his estranged mother had been responsible for the death of his wife, for the smuggling and distribution of illegal firearms, and for the most blatant of benefit scams which defrauded the government of millions. Those misdemeanours were bad enough, but what of the innocent lives who’d taken a wrong turn and been sucked into her drug trafficking and provision?
Well away from the back entrance, Ben stopped behind a large van to remove his wig, beard, hoodie and tracksuit bottoms, stashing them into his rucksack. The person who emerged was an anonymous-looking dark-haired man who had barely broken into a sweat during his mission. He strolled around the corner, feigned dismay at the growing crowd who had already gathered around the fallen woman, and disappeared into the crowd. He stood behind two indistinguishable young women.
‘I’ve just been out to get my lunch,’ the slightly taller girl said. ‘And then I get back to the front door and this sound happens behind me. I turn around and there’s my boss on the pavement, covered in blood. And she was dead!’
Her friend shook her head. ‘I know! I was only a few steps behind you. Are you sure it’s Joyce? Why would anyone kill Joyce? She’s just the sweetest and kindest…’ ‘I know. Proper old school. Very real.’
‘Does Joyce, I mean, did Joyce have a family?’
The young woman shrugged. ‘Her husband died. She just had a son, Ben, but he’s been in a mental home since he was a teenager. He was always seeing things that weren’t there, and thinking the world was out to get him. A proper uncurable headcase if you ask me, but Joyce didn’t give up hope for him. He was why she started working in mental health.’
‘Is he the next of kin?’
‘Yeah, but I don’t know how they’ll tell him the news. He broke out from his ward a couple of days back, killed two of the nurses and set fire to everything. Proper psycho, I reckon. He even raided the creative room’s dressing up box on his way out!’
The other girl mouthed ‘Wow’ and both fell silent as they watched the body of Joyce Mackenzie,founder of the charity, Mental Health Support UK, being removed from the scene and taken away in the waiting ambulance.
And Ben watched too, delighted that Mission Stage 1 was now accomplished. He wished he could have been there when the police found the paper in Joyce’s pocket. Never mind, the deed was done, and it was all for the greater good. Stage 2 next.
Once upon a time, high in the locked tower of a castle on a hill, there existed a young man who believed himself to have once been called Alexander. His days could hardly be called living since he had been imprisoned within the confines of his locked landing and suite of rooms for the previous seven years.
Each meal arrived through a hatch in a locked door. His few brief conversations arrived through the whispers of the wind, the scurries of the rats, and the occasional overheard chatter of kitchen lads and lasses who would run through the courtyards shrieking on the way to their errands. He’d reply, but was never heard.
Alexander had been locked away, not owing to some terrible crime, nor to the curse of a spurned witch. No. Alexander believed he had been imprisoned for protection against a world that was not yet ready for his peculiarity. Though he felt it would not last forever, it mattered not, for he knew not when it would end.
Every day, he prayed for release, and on no day had release yet come. The young boy had grown to be a young man, and, following years of acceptance, he suddenly knew that he must leave his prison, come what may. He had passed 15 summers and his heart was breaking with what he suspected was loneliness. He’d read of it within his room’s library, just as he had read of valour, of love, of friendship, of work and of the ideas of great thinkers since printing began.
But book knowledge, though important, did not equip him with the skills to remove himself from the only existence he remembered. Even had he discovered a physical method of escape, he knew he would struggle with life on the outside, it being a place that was full to the brim with confident souls accustomed to the outside’s vagaries, and that that would not accept hi for all he was.
Books assisted in passing the time, but only his dreams brought true relief from the tedium. They provided faint memories of the life he’d had before this place, and of walking in the forest when, from a gap in the bracken, a woodland creature had emerged, with head cocked. The creature had been curious at Alexander’s approach, and he had greeted the young boy with a nod of his head and a lifting of his leafy green hat. He held out his hand to Alexander, and being a well brought up boy, Alexander extended his own to meet it.
But, once their skin touched, Alexander regretted all friendliness, as half his boy-ness disappeared into the creature, and half the creature-ness seeped into him. The young man and woodland creature were both transformed, two into two, and each half of the other, and Alexander’s mother, with whom he’d been strolling, fell into a dead faint at the vision of her creature-son.
Both were discovered by an elderly gentleman riding within a carriage, who bundled the creature-boy and his mother into the carriage. Then, the elderly gentleman’s coach had carried the unfortunate pair to the man’s manor house, where the man had locked the boy into his secret hidden bedroom, having told the boy’s mother that he died from his transforming. He had soon married her as she had become weak and vulnerable through her grief.
So, what remained for the young man? Only two people knew of his existence – the elderly gentleman and the butler who brought all his meals, though the boy had never espied the butler.
Still, the boy had matured to a strong young man whose brain was full of thoughts arrived through his enormous supply of books, and somehow or other, he believed fervently that he would discover the means to escape. Only then would he know for certain how the world viewed his creatureness.
The sooner came earlier than he’d expected, and later than he’d hoped, when one fine and warm morning, a bell tolled in the courtyard. It rang once then, following a count of ten, would ring once more. Alexander watched as flags were erected – three black cloths on three tall flagposts. Black. He knew well enough that it signified a death of importance within the house. As the day went by, Alexander heard enough to know for certain that a wasting disease had taken the old man, and his successor had been fully primed of all his duties within the manor.
That was all very well, but would Alexander’s life continue as it had? Would he be remembered? Would his meals arrive as they had? And what had become of his mother?
All was quiet in the rooms of Alexander for one day, two days, three days. And, towards the end of the third, the young man, requiring much sustenance for his growing, had made the decision that his only way to live was to break out of his confines that very moment.
Though no knives were provided on his food trays – he ate only food he could hold, and chopped food using a spoon – on one occasion he’d mistakenly been provided with a tiny, rounded end palette knife. He’d stashed it, of course, and now was the time to use it.
Hunger dictated the urgency.
He knew that there were wooden barriers over his window, and that they had been attached by means of what he believed were screws. The tops of the screws were some straight and some crossed, and he set to work to turn these. His learning was all through books, so it took a few efforts to make even the smallest amount of loosening, but once the first screw fell to the floor of his room, he was energised enough to continue.
Unscrewing took the whole rest of the day, until the light ended and he was forced to sleep.
He woke early and immediately walked to the window. How marvelous the view was. How vibrant and colourful. How cheery were the people.
And next to his bed was a bunch of flowers in a small jar.
And a sheet of paper. It read ‘My Darling Son, I too have been locked up all these years, though free on the outside, the old man kept me in such torment of my own grief at having lost you. Yesterday I discovered from the person who brings you meals, that you were still alive. He led me here as you slept. I saw the wooden bars you’d removed from the windows. I will be preparing our belongings for leaving this place. So, when you wake, come to me’.
The young man lay back on his bed. Relief. Escape! It was all going to happen. He was to return to his mother, and perhaps even to the rest of his family. And he would get healed.
He smelled the flowers next to him and noticed a small round item – silver and shiny and looking so fragile and delicate that he didn’t like to touch. But, as he brought it up to his face, Alexander remembered. The item was a mirror. He hadn’t seen himself for so long and his heart beat with speed and excitement as he held it in front of his face. He was no longer the boy he had been before the imprisonment. He was no longer the creature that he’d seen in the bracken. He was a young and handsome man, with long dark hair, skin as white as snow and lips as red as blood.
He was the image of the mother he remembered, and he could no longer stop his feet from carrying him to her.
‘Mother,’ he shouted as he opened the always-locked door, and left the hated and loved prison and shelter for the final time.
One day I tried to write ten short stories inspired by fictionalised detectives and solvers of crime. You see, crime has always been my preferred television genre –
I adored the relentless surliness of Morse, Tom Barnaby the family man, the astonishing prim Miss Marple, and Hercules Poirot with his neat squares of breakfast toast.
I sat at my computer and began to type – but, despite all my interest in the genre, I couldn’t make it work.
Perhaps I was getting hung up on technicalities and legalities: all the problems of copyright and the like. But I couldn’t help but wonder.
How would one go about creating the perfect character?
Perhaps the detective would be Bergerac-like, though less smooth.
Perhaps he would now be retired and back in Jersey, ready to meet up with an old flame – a retired ex-jewel thief?
Or perhaps my hero might be more like ex-police detective, Henry Crabbe, now running his own restaurant, who would be found cooking up something amazing when Tony Hill, criminal profiler and psychologist arrives for a meal. Crabbe and Hill might discuss whodunnits and Tommy Cooper, and over the course of the meal and a couple of after-dinner drinks, the crime would be solved. Or perhaps my detective would be more like Inspector Rebus – a rough-around-the-edges Scot, set apart from society, but who eats, drinks and sleeps crime.
But my plans didn’t turn out. I realised that all I was doing was listing and exaggerating. I was collecting the detectives.
Being an aficionado of televised crime fiction (with Columbo being a personal favourite) I accidentally began writing a short story about the rain-coated, cigar smoking wonder. It led to some experimentation and has been interesting to say the least.
My composite detective is dysfunctional, non-family oriented, and his tale began as ‘The Flag, the Arm and the Chestnut Brown Hair’. Inspector Derek Jones (or Cal Durham, or Vern Smith) scratches his fingers against his chin’s stubble.
Four days now without the flick of the razor, and people were beginning to notice, and to comment. His latest work mission, to infiltrate an unusual outwardly pagan group with links to organised person trafficking, was a total nightmare. The people he met in the group were great and he found it extremely hard to mistrust, dislike or even retain any scepticism about them. They were simply decent people. Sometimes his work was a pain.
The Flag was scruffy and dated bar, and the Inspector fitted in pretty well with the old and dated clientele.
One woman in particular he had his eye on, not for the usual reasons – though he wouldn’t have said no. Her hair was chestnut brown and as wavy as his had been as a child. It shone like the outside of a newly polished conker.
It was simply the most beautiful hair he’d ever seen. His own, once wiry and wayward, was now almost gone.
That which clung on for dear life was shaved to a millimetre’s length and usually hidden under one of a collection of flat caps.
On this particular mission he had chosen to wear a bandana. God, he felt a prat. In fact, he couldn’t believe his ‘mates’ hadn’t seen through his plain clothes policeman disguise. What a fraud he was.
The woman turned slightly to look towards the doorway, and he realised with a shock to his system that he knew her. He hadn’t nicked her, and he hadn’t slept with her… but he had sat beside her on an evening course.
You know the kind of thing. It was Predictable with a capital P.
That’s what happened on the day I tried to piece together a composite detective.
Even from the double doorway, its clear that the room that smells of sawdust and electrical current, or perhaps ancient floor polish combined with brand new dust. Just the aroma was enough to release a weight into the pit of my stomach, and its name was social anxiety. Social fear, to be precise. Or to be even more precise, the dislike of leaving the house after dark and the even stranger dislike of attending school meetings without a child in tow.
I enter the school hall and find myself a chair at the side, half way back. As I sit I realise that turquoise spray paint decorates each brown chair’s rear. Presumably intended as a blob of identification, the paint has dripped and dropped like the liquid plastic it is.
With aching stomach and creaking back, I watch as the Amazonian in front of me sweats profusely. She wiggles her feet with skin yellow-dry and scaly, and for a second I’m sure that she’s an entirely different form of creature than human. Still, she seems very nice – smiley, chatty and sociable – so she’s better than I am.
As the hall fills with the white noise of other peoples’ unintelligible chatter, I feel as though I’m the only person alone. The only person resentful at this time imposition, and this weird return to high school education that all parents must tolerate. But, I’m not tolerating.
A man gesticulates in front of the projector screen. His black jacket with red arms makes him look like a superhero. I realise I’ve forgotten my glasses and know I’ll need a superhero to see the PowerPoint’s text. It isn’t just the blindness that makes me feel out of it. I’m just lost. Dazed. Unseeing. Unhearing. I want to go home.
A beautiful tattooed woman takes the seat next to me and I am temporarily distracted by her punky purple hair and multitude of silver rings. The youngest child of two snuggles contently on her lap and I hear him telling his mummy that he loves her.
My eyes blur as I look at the school’s handout. None of the words make sense.
I look again at the Amazonian as she presses her feet onto her soles, and for the first time I notice her ankle tattoo – a lizard climbing. I’m grateful when a latecomer takes the seat next to her as it enables me to concentrate instead on the smoothness of the young lad’s fuzzy scalp. He’s a little lad, but big too – on the verge of adolescence or perhaps just past it. He rests his head on her shoulder and she kisses the top of his head.
My heart melts and the school presentation begins.