Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

A Cuban Poet in Manchester: Victor Rodriguez Nuñez (and of course The Smiths)

Victor and Kate enjoy a drink at Manchester's Cuba Cafe

Spent many happy hours this week with my friends Victor and Kate. Victor Rodriguez Nuñez is a leading Cuban poet, and his wife Kate Hedeen is a gifted translator of Latin American poetry.

 

Victor was here for the Manchester International Literature festival last autumn, and liked it so much that he wanted to show Kate around. Plus, Kate is a huge fan of The Smiths, who provided the soundtrack to her early life in Portland, Oregon. So naturally we had to take the Smiths Tour of Manchester, expertly provided by Craig of Manchester Music Tours.

Kate and Craig: a visit to the Shrine!

We had a wonderful morning exploring everything from the Free Trade Hall to the Salford Lads’ Club and the famous Iron Bridge of the song. Craig was a fine, friendly guide (as well as being drummer with the renowned Inspiral Carpets) and we came away fully educated about Morrissey, the Smiths and the whole Manchester music scene.

We also enjoyed a few other quintessentially Mancunian delights – dinner at Mr Thomas’s Chop House, drinks at the Peveril of the Peak pub, and (of course) I couldn’t resist taking Victor and Kate on Friday night up to the amazing Cuba Cafe, in Port Street, Manchester’s small but glittering Cuban bar and club, where we had a couple of Cuba Libres made with real Havana Club rum and watched one of Michal’s excellent bachata classes. I must get along there and improve my bachata dancing next week.

 

The famous Iron Bridge: to think I drove past it every day and never knew...

 

Kate paid Manchester what I take to be the ultimate compliment, saying that to her it felt like a Latin American city – gritty but friendly, hugely mixed and cosmopolitan, creative and non-touristy. A thoroughly happy few days with two close friends who are also great literary artists and a link back to my beloved Cuba. They’ve gone now but they’ll definitely be back for more. I miss them already.

A Feelgood Night with Wilko Johnson

Had a great night out on Saturday – good old rock and roll with one of Britain’s legendary guitarists.

We went to see Wilko Johnson at the Manchester Academy. Wilko has a unique guitar style that blends what used to be called ‘lead’ and ‘rhythm’ – basically, he plays both at once in a percussive, economical way that owes something to Chuck Berry (and before her to Sister Rosetta Tharpe – see my post on her from way back) but is really all his own.

Wilko’s name may not mean much to you if you’re under 40 but he is still remembered as the star attraction of a sensational rhythm and blues band called Dr Feelgood back in the 1970s – just before the punk era dawned. Wilko was famous for the way he would go whizzing around the stage while he played – he never seemed to keep still and he would slide and tear around as if he was on skates, with a weird hypnotic glare on his face.

More recently the band – and Wilko above all – have been the subject of a fascinating film by Julien Temple called Oil City Confidential about the band, its history and the highly individual Wilko, who is a natural star – quoting Shakespeare and Milton fluently (he read English at Newcastle under my old friend Robert Woof, later curator of Dove Cottage – another crazy genius), demonstrating his highly personal guitar technique, and climbing onto the roof of his house in Canvey Island, Essex, where he has a high-grade astronomical telescope. In fact, he’s such an expert that there’s a Facebook group campaigning for him to take over on The Sky at Night when Patrick Moore finally has to retire!

Amanda and I had a quick chat with Wilko in the dressing room and he told us that he’s now got a solar telescope, which has darkened lenses so you can look directly at the sun, so he’s able to watch the solar flares erupting.

But mainly we listened to Wilko and his band performing a classic set of blues numbers and Dr Feelgood songs. Exciting, energising and great fun. And if you want to meet one of British rock’s great characters, or learn about a key episode in British popular culture, or just see a fine documentary film which I guarantee you’ll enjoy, do get hold of Oil City Confidential .

A Visit to Green Knowe

The Manor and one corner of the gardens

The Manor and one corner of the gardens

One of the things I love most is the connection between places and writing, so it was a treat yesterday to visit The Manor at Hemingford Grey, near Huntingdon, which is the setting for Lucy M. Boston’s Green Knowe series of children’s books.

The weather was awful – it rained and rained – and it was a 162-mile drive each way, but it was worth it. The occasion was a family party held at occasional, irregular intervals every few years: my grandfather was the brother of Lucy Boston’s mother (to put it another way, my mother’s Aunt Polly was Lucy Boston’s mother), which I think makes us second cousins, though I’m not sure. So there we were with a crowd of other relatives, close and distant, to explore the house, and talk, and just be in a magical place.

The Knight's Room: built about 1130 and alive with atmosphere (picture from the Green Knowe website)

The Manor was Lucy Boston’s home, and it figures in her beautiful series of books beginning with The Children of Green Knowe. All of the stories have magical ingredients, in particular the group of children who used to live in the house centuries ago and still make their presence felt (it seems too heavy-handed to call them ghosts); but they also involve time travel, animals, patchwork, music and above all the magic of place.

Tolly's Bedroom, complete with rocking horse (picture from the Green Knowe website)

The central point about the books is the sense they give of people living in a place over the centuries, layering it deeper and deeper with the richness of their experience. Certainly standing in the Knight’s Room at Hemingford Grey, in the part of the house which is almost a thousand years old, you can feel the vibration of time and life resonating like music from the warm, metre-thick stone walls. The Manor is said to be perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited house in Britain.

The rain stopped long enough for us to explore the beautiful gardens with their old scented roses, mock-orange and wonderful topiary, and to wander by the river that flows past with its swans floating calmly on the green current.

St Christopher - the statue is at the side of the house

The rooms are just as depicted in the books, with the toys, the rocking horse, the witch-ball, the quilts and a galaxy of drawings and paintings and other art works, including the beautiful original illustrations and cover-paintings for the books, which were done by the late Peter Boston, son of Lucy Boston and husband of Diana Boston who lives there now.

The house and gardens are open to the public quite often: for details and other information about the house, the books and their story, you can go to www.greenknowe.co.uk

Literary Goalies…

Not quite my usual topic of expertise, football goalkeeping, but it is a little known fact that many a great literary / political figure has played in the position of goalkeeper. A disproportionately high number indeed. The interesting argument has in fact recently been advanced that of any position on the football field, a history of having played in the position of goalkeeper, as the most cerebral and strategic of them all, is much more highly correlated with a literary and creative career than any other.

Albert Camus: goalkeeper. In fact played in Algeria at a high level as a youngster before revolutionising the world of Philosophy with the French Existentialist movement. The classic Camus quote: “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football.”

Pope John Paul II: goalkeeper. Obviously not while holding the position of head of the Catholic Church, but apparently played in goal at university.

Luciano Pavarotti: yes, a bit hard to believe, but perhaps the big man wasn’t always so big… Reported to have had a shot at a professional career with Italian football side Modena. Had to settle for performing at the World Cup during half time instead!

This goalkeeping blog (http://ministryofglove.wordpress.com/2011/01/19/famous-goalkeepers/) even claims that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a goalkeeper, but I’m not sure if I buy that…
A fan of both Camus and goalkeeping – it is a friend of mine, who runs a website that sells goalkeeper gloves and kit, TheGoalkeeperCo.com, who makes these claims about goalkeepers being cleverer than the average footballer. As a goalkeeper, he may be slightly biased. So does anybody know of any other good examples of famous non-professional goalkeepers?

Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Chorlton’s Rock’n’Roll History

Sister Rosetta, pioneer of rock'n'roll

BBC4 continues to put out some of the best music programmes on any channel. But last Friday’s offering, ‘Godmother of Rock’n’Roll: Sister Rosetta Tharpe’ was one of the all-time greats.

Sister Rosetta, who started as a 1930s Gospel singer from the USA’s deep South, graduated by way of nightclub singing at the Cotton Club and touring work as a jazz, blues and gospel soloist, to being a pioneer of Rock’n’Roll and one of the all-time great figures. yet she’s been almost forgotten.

Listening to her wonderfully percussive guitar style you could hear at once how much Chuck Berry learned from her; and the archive footage of her hugely energetic performances, full of movement, power and infectious delight, made it quite clear that she was a – if not the – key figure in the transition from Black gospel music to Rock. Popular music history needs to be rewritten to put this lady at the centre!

But the most amazing thing for me was to learn that, when her career (like that of many blues musicians in the US) had stalled in the early ’60s, she was invited to the UK by Chris Barber of all people – and that Granada TV invited her to perform at the disused Chorlton-cum-Hardy railway station about five minutes from where I live in Manchester. Just take a look at the clips! And more important, listen!

The rationale was something to do with freight trains and all that – the vague mythology of train tracks and the Blues. Whatever. Granada decked the old station out as a kind of Wild West scene, with a fake ‘Chorltonville’ sign which they must have thought sounded American. They put the band on one platform and the audience on the other, and delivered Sister Rosetta in a horse-drawn carriage. The horse is a typical piebald cob – a ‘gypsy horse’ of the kind you can see by the hundred at Appleby Fair every year. Her affection for the horse is typical of this immensely sweet and loving woman who seems to radiate kindness and warmth with every ounce of her being. Good to know, then, that the UK tour put Sister Rosetta back on the map and she remained a big star in Europe at least until her death.

We all knew Chorlton was special (Quentin Crisp died here, Badly Drawn Boy lives here, and of course it’s full of wonderful creative people) – but now we know it has a place in Rock’n’Roll history too. The station is about to reopen as a Metrolink stop. Maybe there ought to be a blue plaque on that platform.