Monday, 3 November 2014

New Music: James Varda - Chance And Time

If last year’s The River And The Stars was the sound of James Varda’s artistic reawakening, the new album Chance And Time (2014) - released today on Small Things Records - finds him playing with the grace and flavour of an English Elliot Smith. On every level, this is an extraordinary piece of work.
Varda has said that things have ‘fallen into place’ on this album. Always a great guitar player, he's on virtuoso form. Every careful arpeggio and minimal lick gives the song what it needs and no more. To paraphrase Townes Van Zandt, Varda has always had to ‘sing for the sake of the song’. Bringing together many of the musicians who played on The River And The Stars, there’s a powerful sense of a band coming together who buy into that ethos. Special mention to Johanna Herron whose vocals melt perfectly into Varda’s on Our Love Will Never End, Fliss Jones whose piano on Beside The Sea is a piece of understated brilliance, and Nick Harper who makes an appearance with some great playing on One Thing After Another.
Chance And Time carries a sense of things that need saying: from the sweet melodies and rare moments of May This Moment Ever Glow and Let My Place, to the cold reality of The Doctor Spoke and Only Love, Varda creates series of exquisite and unique soundscapes. Pass It On delivers a love song to England, to love, to life and everything that is precious – the natural landscapes of East Anglia and the coast, and the music that sustains him. Varda spins a universal truth from the intensely personal and there are moments on this record that come back to you long after the last note’s echo.

Writing and recording entirely on his own terms with little, if any, recognition from the mainstream music media – it was something of a minor victory for Mark Radcliffe to play Our Love Will Never End on the Radio 2 Folk Show a few weeks back – Varda remains the acoustic outsider with indie sensibility.
Chance And Time is an astonishing album. As a chronicler of life, landscape, love and pain, Varda is unmatched among British songwriters. His writing has never been more precise or delivered a more telling emotional punch; as always taking on the broadest of influences – New York new wave to Dylan and Philip Glass, the poetry of Jane Kenyon, the photography of Robert Adams, and dozens more besides. He’s always made very good, thoughtful records with well-crafted lyrics and great guitar. But here’s the skinny: 26 years on from the John Leckie-produced Hunger, the lyrics, melodies and musicianship on Chance And Time are as good as you'll hear. James Varda plays, writes and sings better than ever and, in doing so, has produced the most powerful work of his career.

This is a kosher, solid gold, five-star record.

Chance And Time is available from: or via amazon and other outlets.
For more info, news and updates, follow @JamesVardaMusic on twitter or the James Varda facebook page.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Ted Lewis at the BBC Written Archive

BBC Written Archives Centre - 'bigger on the inside'

You feel the BBC Written Archives Centre ought to have some kind of grand entrance, an archway in the shape of a 1940s wireless, something deco to welcome the visitor with hushed reverence. Then again, a bungalow just off the B481 near Reading is as good as anywhere. What matters are the treasures within. Somewhat ironically, it’s bigger on the inside than it appears from the outside.
Researching and writing a book about Ted Lewis, I’ve long realised there is no complete record of anything, anywhere. It is a process of assembling fragments; holding onto clues and pursuing leads. Verification and connection. A file in the BBC archive is as close as I’ve come to documenting a thread of Lewis’s life in a single place – dates, times, official letters on flimsy corporate memo paper.
And that's the wonder of such a comprehensive archive; as a writer/researcher there is nothing that quite compares to primary source material and new discovery. And this during a period in Lewis’s life where I think his writing for television equalled, if not exceeded, his fiction output for quality and relevance. What I find in the archive certainly wears its badge of truth in some striking ways.
Add to the experience the interest and support from staff who go above and beyond to help – for which many thanks – to locate documents, files and microfilms of scripts. The archivists and researchers are genuinely interested – shortly after a conversation explaining which programmes I was researching and who Ted Lewis was, I hear Roy Budd's Get Carter theme from a distant computer speaker.
The work continues.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The Jack Carter novels by Ted Lewis - Reissued by Syndicate Books

It's been a long time coming, but Syndicate Books is about to re-publish the three Ted Lewis novels featuring Jack Carter. The first, originally published as Jack's Return Home in 1970, was later re-titled Carter, then Get Carter, in the wake of the 1971 film, adapted from Lewis's novel and directed by Mike Hodges. Notably, the film substituted Newcastle for Scunthorpe, Lewis's unnamed 'frontier town'.
With Carter dead at the end of the movie, Lewis returned to his main character in 1974 and 1977 for the prequels Jack Carter's Law (retitled Jack Carter and the Law in the USA) and Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon.
Syndicate has created a must-have package with great design and excellent layout. I was pleased to contribute a biographical afterword for Mafia Pigeon - the novel which, in essence, brings the story to the point at which Get Carter begins. Lewis's style - his prose is unremittingly bleak and brutal - has influenced generations of crime authors, many of whom, most notably David Peace, have lined up to offer their appreciation in book jacket comments. Mike Hodges has written a new foreword for the novel that launched his feature film career.
The books are gaining momentum with some great coverage, the most recent - a piece written by David L Ulin in the LA Times - marks Get Carter as the point at which contemporary 'British noir begins'. It's hard to argue otherwise. Ulin maintains that Get Carter 'sums up the hard boiled ethos' as well as anything he's ever read. What is certain is that, after Get Carter, the British crime novel darkened; TV crime became tougher and, for  Lewis, nothing would ever be the same again. 


Friday, 8 August 2014

Water's Edge on an August Morning

Waking early this morning, I walked the route I used to take with the dogs. 

The river and the Water's Edge lakes were still, the sun just breaking through a bank of cloud.
Sometimes, we need time to think, an uncluttered space to resolve the things that woke us early in the first place.
Or to think of nothing at all, just let the film play.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

A Farewell to Dora Bryan

Something about Dora Bryan's appearance in a film was a guarantee of a particular kind of authenticity. Her performances in films like The Blue Lamp and A Taste of Honey  added colour and character in the days of black and white.
In THE WOMEN THEY LEFT BEHIND (2009) we told the story of Rita, the wife of a Grimsby fisherman. An offer of a trip to London in the Grimsby Evening Telegraph in 1969 had given George and Rita their first chance of a weekend away.  
'The lady over the road said she’d look after my kids and we went to London. It was the first time George and I had been away together without the kids and it was the first time I’d been to London. We went down on the train and stayed at the Green Park Hotel. I remember going to Petticoat Lane and walking around Piccadilly Circus on the Friday evening; I wanted to see the lights and the ladies of the night. On the Saturday we went to a show with Dora Bryan at the Prince of Wales Theatre. We went into this pub for a drink and a sandwich afterwards and she was behind us talking and she saw us. Well, we’d been sat near the front and I’d laughed so much that when George said something I nearly wet myself. She heard my laugh and came over and said, “You were on the second row, I’d recognise that laugh anywhere.” She shoved my husband along the bench and sat talking to us. She was lovely, ordinary, like us.'

Wednesday, 9 July 2014


With Syndicate Books taking on the re-publication of Ted Lewis's novels, beginning with the three Carter novels, there's a very good chance this overlooked British crime author will, at last, get some of the credit he deserves.
As Syndicate's Paul Oliver says, Lewis's influence on popular culture is to the second half of the 20th century 'what Hammett and Chandler’s was to the first half.' The full text of Paul's piece is available on the SOHO PRESS WEBSITE. It's a great pen picture of Lewis's significance to crime writing.
Get Carter is re-published in September, 2014. Click HERE for further information. 

Thursday, 29 May 2014

TED LEWIS - Oxford Dictionary of National Biography


The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) first approached me shortly after Lewis's Return Home, 2012's Radio 4 documentary about Ted Lewis. Today sees the publication of the latest update of the ODNB, which adds biographies of 99 men and women who shaped British history from the 13th to late-20th century.
The May update includes a special focus on the history of British cinema, from the silent films of the 1910s to 1970s thrillers such as Get Carter. The update marks the fiftieth anniversary of three celebrated British films, Mary Poppins, Zulu, and Becket with biographies of the actors, directors, and cinematographers involved with these works.
It includes, for the first time, an entry for Ted Lewis which I wrote last year. On the road to greater recognition for one of Britain's literary innovators and author of arguably the best crime novel of its era, it's a signpost. But in context with the beginning of the re-publication of Lewis's novels by Soho Press later this year, it seems that things are moving in the right direction.
Highlights and extracts from the update, along with an introduction to the new content, are freely available at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography website from Thursday 29 May.

Sunday, 23 March 2014


Lightstain 3 - Gill Hobson 2014

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

T S Eliot, The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock

‘You’re looking for a place to live, a new home. You write down a list of the things you need – the essentials mainly, then the things you’d like. You see a few places, none of which fit the bill. Reluctantly, you agree to view a house which, on paper, has none of the things you wanted. The moment you walk in, you feel you know this place and it knows you. It’s like an embrace. There is an instinctive sense that speaks of home.’
Lightlines, Gill Hobson’s new exhibition, sets out to explore the intuitive resonances at play between us and the spaces we live in. Developed from a project comprising more than 5,000 photographs of her own home taken over a three-year period, Lightlines includes photographic, film and installation approaches which tease out some of the complexities of our relationships with our spaces of dwelling. The work is profoundly affecting, and as unsettling as it is thought-provoking. The works, says Gill, ‘are about making the familiar strange’.

In the world of the Lightlines images, light is dark and darkness becomes light. A towel hangs drying across a radiator. A shadow filters from beneath a door. Someone was here and we walk a voyeuristic path through that person’s home, sensing their absence, feeling the space not as they have felt it, but in our own way. The scenes are not staged: beds aren’t made; cushions are un-plumped. This is, above all, a lived-in domestic space.

I found myself drawn to odd angles, juxtapositions of doors, mirrors, stairwells and reverse light coincidences – sinister splashes of red in a glass door pane are heavy with a sense of foreboding, suggesting some kind of twisted noir dénouement waiting to happen. But that’s just me. Gill recognises the images are open to different readings. ‘It's not always apparent what is happening; there's an intellectual uncertainty at work that invites the viewer to explore and draw their own conclusions. Sometimes an image suggests a link with something or triggers a half-remembered recollection. They have this capacity to transport the viewer to other times and places.’

That’s not to say all the images are open to such literal narrative interpretation. Some wilfully refuse to give up their secrets without close attention. ‘They’re less readable, more abstracted, playing with ideas of how we read space, and provoking notions of the canny and the uncanny, the homely and unhomely.’ In that, they are seductive, a little weird, and quite beautiful.

There’s also something hauntingly poetic about them. In Eliot’s often quoted sense that ‘genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood’, you become involved on an instinctive level before coming close to any sort of understanding. And even then, these ordinary, domestic, compellingly other-worldly photographs make meaning elusive. You establish a connection, only for it to be undone when a shadow or a corner of the image reveals itself to the eye.
Lightstain 9 - Gill Hobson 2014

In examining how the strange becomes familiar and familiar can become strange in our own living environments, Gill talks about the influence of Walter Benjamin’s ideas of the optical unconscious. ‘We believe that our eyes capture reality, that what we see is what there is, but it’s more information than our perception can process (and we choose the way we wish to see things anyway). The photograph captures more than the eye can see automatically, without filtering out the parts it doesn't care for, so when the eye looks at a photograph, so much more is revealed. It's as if we see the scene anew and in doing so consciously find echoes of what we had unconsciously seen.’

It’s a quality equally present in the installation piece Mnemonic. Gill says, ‘In the moving image work, still images are mirrored, layered and cut through, referencing each other in a kind of feedback loop that suggests different associations, different configurations. Flickering references disrupt the ease of viewing, bringing moments of uncertainty and placing the work in direct dialogue with the stills. Our recollection of the static image becomes absorbed into a new way of seeing and remembering which combines what we know and what we are still discovering. A mnemonic is a device which helps a person remember something. The work plays with this idea by proposing new memory configurations: the viewer becomes the third point in a triangulation, a call and response between artworks, moving image and themselves. When we encounter space we’re constantly in this feedback loop, Mnemonic plays with ideas that these resonances are in motion, either coming into being or dissipating to create new configurations of memory.’

Memory and recollection are intimately bound up with photography and Lightlines possesses a haunting elegiac quality. A reminder that living spaces surrendered to the must-have tech and décor desirables of our age are now places from which we explore other dimensions. Homes are reduced to vessels of connectivity. We sleep, we eat, we hook up. In that sense, the collection is a frozen moment, connecting it to the history of photography and technology. ‘The scenes in The Lightstain Series are purposefully empty of people,’ Gill says, ‘they look a little like stage sets and could be read like narrative scenes. Similar to Atget's photographs of Paris streets, there is a forensic quality: we see the scene more clearly for not being in it, and it becomes a setting where something has or is about to happen - the photograph is a suspended moment which represents the particular conditions of where life takes place.’

I suggest it would be interesting to see the still images on a larger scale. For Gill, there’s something about the intensity of the smaller image. ‘Scale is an important dynamic: the size affects how the image may be read. The increased scale and manipulation of the moving image work proposes a more theatrical reading – like a staged backdrop to activity. It speaks of a more constructed visual idea, and allows the images to operate in different ways. Through the smaller size, the intensity of the images is enhanced; they speak of intimacy. Using the imagery at different scales sets up different dialogues.’ The framing too acts to domesticate these striking images: each frame has been individually selected and painted to compliment the particular image. Their separation from the moving image work and from each other makes each a discreet and particular statement in direct contrast to the multiple and layered imagery of Mnemonic.

What is certain is that the works which comprise Lightlines document a way of living. Intensely personal, yet commonplace enough to propose ideas about our own living spaces and the feelings they generate, replete with all that entails.

With plans to show Lightlines at Red Gallery in Hull, 20:21 Gallery in Scunthorpe and The Ropewalk in Barton over the next year at an advanced stage, Gill is certain the work will develop and change. She’ll also be setting up discussions and developing a publication for the project.  ‘I want to look at different ways these ideas can be mobilised with other people, other places, that’s why I’ve developed it in this particular way, about one person, one place. To research and make art about environment in this way allows you as an artist to experiment, to take risks, to elaborate in personal ways. It sets up ways to explore the capacities for action available to the individual free from considerations of wider cultural space. Traditional conceptions of home, with its’ ideas of safety, of privacy, of retreat is being re-configured, eroded at an astonishing rate by technologies of communication and surveillance. Lightlines is a contemplation of creativity and agency in the increasing time–space compression of the everyday.’

I came home to my own familiar space and caught myself glancing at corners of rooms, the unstuck curl of a wallpaper edge, the way the light fell and cast shadows. Lightlines has a remarkable capacity to make us think about the way we perceive our living spaces. To notice and re-notice the traces and reminders. As Philip Larkin wrote, ‘Home is so sad. It stays as it was left/shaped in the comfort of the last to go/as if to win them back.’ But the more you find yourself drawn into these images and the ideas that underpin them, the greater the realisation of how little we know of what ‘home’ in the 21st century genuinely means.

Lightlines@Abbey Walk Gallery previews on 25 March. The exhibition is open to the public 26 March – 4 May, Gallery opening times: Tuesday to Saturday 9-5pm. For further information about Gill Hobson and her work:


Wednesday, 5 February 2014

SHORT STORY COURSE - Grimsby Minster, February/March 2014

It's taken a while to get together, but things are finally sorted for the first of what I hope will be a series of creative writing courses at Grimsby Minster.
This six week programme is aimed at anyone with an interest in writing short fiction and looks to build on some of the ideas tested in last year's 'story lab' sessions. The focus here will be on participants’ own work. Although writing experience isn’t essential, a commitment to write and read short stories is.
Over the six weeks, I'll introduce various aspects of contemporary short fiction, creative nonfiction and flash fiction through reading, discussion and a range of writing exercises.
Each participant will have the option to have their work read and critiqued as part of the course, as well as receiving up to date information on writing competitions and routes towards publication. 

The course costs £60 and takes place: Thursday  20th Feb, 27th Feb, 6th March, 13th March, 20th March, 27th March between 7-9pm in the Community Room at Grimsby Minster. 

It's advisable to book in advance as places are limited. To book or for further information, drop me a line at