Warren Vache/Alan Barnes


The Cobbler’s Waltz

Jazz musicians will concede that a studio is often an unforgiving place, a sort of colourless Eden, where sensitive souls metaphorically view themselves in an unflattering light.

Why is this? Loneliness and isolation is exacerbated by the suspicion that the freedom to improvise is considerably reduced.

These are not my thoughts, but those of cornetist and vocalist Warren Vache on the eve of recording eleven tracks with a quintet of stellar musicians, including, on clarinet, alto and baritone sax, Alan Barnes.

The offspring of their week long labour, The Cobbler’s Waltz, is something of a rare egg: the majority of the tracks were done in one take. The chemistry in the studio transfers seamlessly to the CD.

For the listener, the accomplishment of listening to two veterans like Vache and Barnes literally operating from the same hymn sheet is scintillating.

The Cobbler’s Waltz is bookended by the bluesy Swingin Til the Girls Get Home by Oscar Pettiford and the valedictory We’ll Be Together Again.

In between, the emphasis is on gaiety and frivolity, with A Man With a Million Dollars (a groaning and delightful vocal from Vache) and Too Phat Blues epitomising the spirit of the occasion.

Outstanding musicianship unfolds throughout, with graceful sax from Barnes and piano from John Pearce on Tuesdayscool, a Vache number which allows Steve Brown on drums and Dave Green on double bass to let rip.

Vache is the first to admit that occasionally a band gets lucky laying down tracks, and a minor miracle occurs with the luminous The Very Thought of You, again with wonderful and restrained bass by Green, around which Barnes’ clarinet adds finishing touches.

If I had to single out one track where the imperturbable approach of Barnes and Vache reaps alchemical dividends, it would be a toss between a glorious interpretation of Ben Webster’s Walkin’ the Frog or Just A Mood, awash with clarinet overdubbing and another Green solo. Put away your weed, and listen to The Cobbler’s Waltz instead

Fiona McFarlane


The Night Guest

About 15 years ago The Hunter was published, a surprising and outstanding debut by the Australian novelist Julia Leigh, who was praised for her masterful evocation of time and place.

The Hunter, since badly adapted for a film, is about an unnamed man who has been sent into the wild to retrieve the DNA of the last Tasmanian tiger, and Leigh’s control over language, metaphor and atmosphere continues to make the book resonate, even after all these years.

The Night Guest has parallels with The Hunter: it is also the first novel by an Australian writer, Fiona McFarlane, and the presence of a tiger is deployed to cement a brilliantly wrought story of intrigue and deception, and I have a feeling in won’t be out of print anytime soon.

After the death of her husband, and with sons who have departed the nest, Ruth is more or less left on her own in an isolated house on the edge of town, close to a beach, with only her cats to keep her company.

Though elderly, Ruth is sound of mind and body, an independent and blithe spirit whose nocturnal harmony is disturbed in the early  hours by her suspicion that a tiger is roaming the house.

The government has sent Frida, a carer, to look after Ruth, or so she is told, and a relationship quickly develops between the two women: at first, Frida is a paragon of selfless devotion to a woman who may, or may not, be slipping into dementia.

Frida, of course, is not what she seems, but as a character, fully fleshed out by McFarlane, she is the ideal foil for Ruth, who is energized by her carer’s vigour: though oblivious at first to changes under her roof, Ruth gets in contact with Richard, a widower, the one who got away fifty years earlier. McFarlane brings great tenderness to the scenes involving both, one of the many creative achievements of the novel.

Double bind is a device in literature where the inequality between two characters evolves slowly, and in The Night Guest, chillingly, where one does the binding, like a spider, and the other is bound. Enough said. If you come a cross a better fictional debut than The Night Guest in 2014, it will be an exceptional read indeed.

Billy Roche

The Diary of Maynard Perdu   Looking back in years to come, The Diary of Maynard Perdu might be perceived as the odd man out in the considerable oeuvre of Billy Roche, but this would be a mistake. When you consider his plays, from The Wexford Trilogy to On Such as We, the short stories, songs, screenplays and early novel, The Diary of Maynard Perdu is the orphan on the storm, almost un-Roche like. Perhaps it is the genesis: The Diary of Maynard Perdu is a commissioned work, its unveiling timed to coincide with the second revisiting of the Spiegeltent to Wexford in 2013. And yet, taking Roche out of his comfort zone, the world which connects The Wexford Trilogy with the Homeric sagas of Tales from Rainwater Pond, has not diminished the muse or diluted his craft. The Diary of Maynard Perdu is quite brilliant, all the more so when it is performed, as opposed to merely read, by the author, which he has done quite successfully in intimate Berlin-style cafes: The Cotton Tree in Enniscorthy and Fusion in Wexford.   The Diary of Maynard Perdu finds Roche on unfamiliar terrain at the outset: Maynard Perru is a cross between Byron and Don Giovanni, a wanderer through Europe in the grand tradition of another enfant terrible, a Marrakech-attired Rimbaud, a diary composed in the manner of Bram Stoker’s Jonathan Harker, a journey of all the senses which, like any great odyssey, concludes with a visit home by boat. The Don Juan persona is ever present: ‘They looked at me as one might gaze at an impressive work of art. And who could blame them, for I am a beautiful man, sculpted by God from skin and blood and bone. Yes, I am Adonis.’ Though the mood darkens towards the end like a brooding storm, the levity and joie de vive are never dispensed with.  The Diary of Maynard Perdu is also a conduit for the physical presence of Wexford, with some beautifully descriptive passages,  none more so than the following: ‘I am walking along the Quayfront, nipping up a medieval side street to the main drag that snakes its way through the centre of this strange little Viking town…I have walked these streets before – in the sun and the rain. I have seen these faces and heard these voices and witnessed their sad refrains. Yes, I was someone’s son, somebody’s brother, some lover’s lover, in another life perhaps, in another incarnation.’

John Sheppard

Sacred Choral Music

Choir of St Marys’ Cathedral, Edinburgh


Driving toward Wells outside Bath one summer, I first happened upon the Choir of St Marys’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, on the BBC, which was advantageous as a mood setter, as the eponymous town was once a medieval Camelot, and the choir, I subsequently learned, was and is unique in Scotland for maintaining daily choral services in the Anglican tradition.

The subject of this recording, John Sheppard, bears comparison with his near contemporary, William Shakespeare, as his biographical details are punctuated by question marks: however, unlike the bard, it is believed that Sheppard composed more than we shall ever know, and that his legacy to us might just be the tip of an ice berg.

Which renders the achievement of the Choir of St Marys’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, all the more remarkable in this recording, which – taken as a whole – bequeaths 70 minutes of scared choral music to relish, as fresh today as when it was composed at a time of unprecedented religious and societal change in Reformation England.

Gaude virgo Christiphera is rarely recorded because of a missing section, and the adapted version here is new: it is also the only surviving Marian antiphon by Shepherd, so the naturally brief sentences reinstate the fierce and passionate connection between the choir, conducted by Duncan Ferguson, and the half dozen verses.

Though I mention it first, it is by no means the pick of the crop: the opening and popular antiphon, Libera nos, salva nos, is a gilded opportunity to begin a thorough appreciation of Sheppard’s oeuvre from the outset: the range and breadth of what follows is relished throughout by a choir unafraid to be full toned and well drilled.

Sacris solemniis is auspicious as written, with three of the seven verses set polyphonically, and dramatic use of soaring plainsong, augmented by, as it were, different music.

Too often with the modern recording of choral work there is a sameness which can allow us to forget that the origins of the composition was a contemplative testament of faith, essential for an appreciation of  Sheppard because he lived in dangerous times, with the Tudors playing ping pong with Catholicism and Protestantism.

Listen to Hodie nobis caelorum rex as just one of many examples of the superb balance and appreciation achieved in these sacred vocal works by the Choir of St Marys’ Cathedral



Stephen Grosz


The Examined Life


Stephen Grosz may not be the best known psychoanalyst in Britain, though that might change, but he certainly appears to be the most read, courtesy of a weekly magazine column and a new book, The Examined Life, How We Lose and Fine Ourselves.

He is well known with readers of probably the finest daily newspaper in the world, The Financial Times, for whom Grosz contributed his erudite but reader-friendly analyses to its Saturday magazine for a number of years.

The book therefore, for someone who has been smitten by his style for some time, contains few surprises, though I suspect the individual chapters are extensions of the original articles in most cases.

However, Grosz is always a pleasure to read, and he wisely arranges the chapters as follows: Beginnings, Telling Lies, Loving, Changing and Leaving.

Grosz’s approach is disarming: he doesn’t ask too many questions, or rather he asks only the most relevant and, week after week, or month after month, people from all walks of life, with all manner of neurosis, spill the beans on their past.

Grosz has said that his book of 30 essays is about the desire of people to talk about themselves, and to be understood. Analysis comes across as a magical process. ‘We tap, we listen.’ A recommendable read, especially if your mum is buried beneath the floorboards.

Fuminori Nakamura


The Thief

The Thief is a 16 chapter novel of the tightest prose imaginable, where not a single word is wasted, with the first chapter the shortest and the last the longest, a book you will finish in a day if you have it to spare.

It doesn’t appear on the most sought after or borrowed list of any library, you are unlikely to find it in a book shop, the author Fuminori Nakamura will not ring a bell, but The Thief should become essential reading for anyone with a discernible interest in the craft of writing.

What little we know of Nakamura is that his first novel, A Gun, was written two years after he left college and it won a bag load of awards. His precocity was no flash in the pan, and he won one of Japan’s most important literary awards, the Akutagawa prize, for his follow up three years later, The Boy in the Earth.

Long before The Thief was translated into English by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates, it ran away with Japan’s equivalent of the Booker prize, the Oe. Between 2002 and 209, Fuminori Nakamura’s first three books have been critically acclaimed in Japan and laden with garlands of one hue or another.

The eponymous thief is the Artful Dodger of the criminal underbelly of Tokyo, at times a child in a man’s body, a compulsive pickpocket swamped by existential gloom: he has little need for his rich pickings.

Nakamura’s skill is in his development of the layered architecture of the thief’s displacement as a parasite in a squalid society. You could argue that it is a novel without emotional depth for, with the exception of a young boy the thief semi-adopts,  the son of a prostitute whose boyfriends beats him, it is a book populated by shadows.

The temperature only rises whenever Nakamura uses sex to add to the psychological profile of the thief or his nemesis, a ruthless Yakusa boss, who guides him through a Dantesque parody of an orgy. Superbly written, however.

Characters are purposefully one dimensional – heartless gangsters  not dissimilar to a manga portrait – but the story is never less than intriguing, especially when our protagonist is drawn into a web not of his own making. The story tails of as coldly as it began.

The Thief has the mood of a sorrowful winter grisaille, and while there is nothing to admire among the cast, the same cannot be said of the writing, as taut and parsed as Hemingway or Chandler.

Sebastian Barker



The Land of Gold

For all our dexterity with the language, we just don’t produce poets with the voice of Sebastian Barker in Ireland, whose death coincided with the publication of this  outstanding volume, a hymn to life, to death, to Greece and, above all, to love.

The key to the distillation of this immense work, (with frequent revisiting, if not the metre, then the themes), is Barker’s illustrious predecessors, two English poets who straddle both the first and second Romantic movements, Byron and Blake,  rarely in history appearing in the same sentence – having so little in common.

The magic in Barker’s poetry, which often mists into and out of prose, has roots in both – though not exclusively – with the visionary Blake complimenting the empirical Byron: if you concocted a child that was half-Byron and half-Blake, the result would be either a prosaist like Patrick Leigh Fermor or a poet like Barker.

There are, upon a first reading, immensely rich pickings in The Land of Gold by Barker, who at least lived almost twice as long as Byron, and with whom he shared a fascination with Greece – modern and old – and a capacity to look upon love anew.

The Land of Gold is divided into four sections: ecstasy and impending loss; poems through the prism of southern France; despair and existence and, finally and gloriously, redemption in Greece. Barker is incapable of writing a boring line because life never seems to be less than infectious. He is a master of all styles and, apropos of my opening line, he can summon the ghosts of Blake and Rimbaud to add the archaic to his palette, with a nod to the architecture behind Ginsberg’s Howl, constructing gloriously ripe versets which, in the hands of anyone but a master, would fade after an initial flowering.

A leaning monk looks over a porphyry front, and there is a body floating.

Propped on beds of amaranth and moly, the Lotos Eaters sing the song of melancholy.

Clouds die in the blueness. The curious vine climbs the yellow trellis to watch.’

(from The Tablets of the Bread)

The lines have the zeal and the drive of a modern O Wild West Wind: Barker is a poet not content to be obsessed with nature, but charged with a joy to revisit and re-invent. And yet, for all of the colour and the lightness and the giddy rhyming, The Land of Gold is a paen to melancholy. The poet, who died from lung cancer, never shied from contemplating mortality (‘the waves of the sea hurry in one direction’) but, fortunately for us, he brought to the page, as a noted Hellenophile, his love affair with life, which never, in these pages, wavers.


‘Here is the garden of the poem,

The place where love and language meet,

What was language of us and them

Has become the contemplative seat.’   (from The Garden of the Poem)


Helge Lien Trio





Badgers and Other Beings


The Helge Lien Trio, with Badgers and Other Beings, as a unit circumnavigate the searching piano of Helge Lien, sustaining a mood throughout the ten tracks, each morphing seamlessly into the other.

Mor and Joe consolidate the laid back tempo of the recording, with the latter embellished by a terrific solo by Frode Berg on bass; from the beginning you know you are in the company of a superb trio, with the subtle percussion of Per Oddvar Johansen connecting the bass and the piano.

Around for 14 years, the Helge Lien Trio had a change in personnel in 2013 when Knut Aalefjaer sought pastures new, and was replaced by Johansen: Badgers and Other Beings is the first recording of the new trio, which has a loyal fan base in their native Norway,  Japan and Germany.

Johansen had to fill big shoes, as Aalefjaer was a long term mooring for the trio, with steady beats and endless innovation, contributing handsomely to the Helge Lien Trio sound, not surprisingly defined by Lien’s instinctive composure. The pianist, and this comes across evidently on Early Bird and Hoggormen, has carved his own distinguishable niche in chamber jazz, with what he refers to as ‘harmonically complex’ tone colours.

Previous recordings, specifically Hello Troll and Kattenslager (Lien solo) bear testimony to his range, again all released by Ozella Music, whose recordings are based on a single premise: musicians are encouraged to express their musical idiosyncrasies.

So far, so promising.

On this CD, one of the shortest tracks, Knut, is a beautiful demonstration of Helge Lien Trio’s tone colours: Berg and Johansen keep their fingers on the pulse, allowing Lien to make something extraordinary out of the ordinary, whilst anchoring his flight.

With classic-impressionistic patterns and rhythmical-melodic jazz, their resourcefulness is fathomless, and Badger’s Lullaby is a good example of the influence of Bill Evans’s lyrical power and the melancholy of Esbjorn Svensson on Lien.

If you have seven minutes to spare, try The New Black, a change in mood from what has gone before, but revealing of Lien at his most cinematic, the striving for the epic, but more Brad Mehldau than Evans. Helge Lien doing Radiohead’s Exit Music (for a Film), now there’s a thought.





Tomas Bannerhead

The Ravens

This novel, all 400 pages of it, from the latest Swedish wunderkind on the block, comes well flagged: the reviews in England and throughout Europe have been, on balance, quite favourable, though I haven’t read any in Ireland yet.

Story aside, and it is set in the mind of a young but maturing fast boy, Klas, who shares a farm with his small family under the tyrannical control of his fast on the road to becoming mad as a bag of cats in the mating season father, what is an astonishing achievement for this first time novelist, is the epic scope of Bannerhed’s ambition and indeed his achievement.

For a book of 400 pages where incidents are short on the ground, it is imperative that young Klas holds your attention from the off, and Bannerhead achieves this by the simple device of making you part of his world.

In this respect, rituals are important. To offset the imminent and transparent disintegration of his psyche, Agne, the head of the household, an obsessive compulsive with a fastidious interest in the weather and the manifestation of omens that nobody else sees, is also borderline paranoid, the son too of a man who lost his head after a lifetime of indentured toil to an unforgiving terrain.

As the narrator, Klas is the heartbeat of the novel and very much his father’s son, though from the off that he is acutely aware of the accruing madness from living on the farm on the edge of town.

With a novel of Biblical themes and proportions, the mood is essentially both light and dark, with unforced humour, but not a single line is deployed for cosmetic effect. Also admirable about Bannerhed is his discipline in maintaining the credulity of a world teetering on an etherealized abyss.

The observations of Klas, from the off, are brilliantly wrought: a spy in the undergrowth, he is an ornithologist with a deep understanding of the behaviour of nature outside his window, and this sensitivity, and sensuality when he encounters a blow in, Veronika, with a fidelity to the function of lists, opens not one but many windows to what otherwise might have been a stultifying and introspective world Scandinavian-clad in noir without end.

The Ravens is an astonishing feat by Bannerhed, a Swedish Moby Dick for our time, inimitable, and unlike anything you will read again for along time.

Rachael Boast


Pilgrim’s Flower


A first encounter with Pilgrim’s Flower, the second anthology from the Bristol-based but Suffolk-born poet Rachael Boast, will not do justice to the merits of its contents. Like the memory of a first love, it invites revisiting.

Divided into two, Pilgrim’s Flower recalls the highly original voice behind Sidereal which won the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry Prize, and to this ear anyway, will remain memorable for the vicarious explorations by Boast of quotidian themes – love and journeys – viewed through the prism of time past and present, and a visual jukebox of influences.

This is not to bottle the volume: its sources are indeed many, but what stands out for me, having visited places where he worked and lived in the South of France, is the shadow of Jean Cocteau, looming large, but never eclipsing the poet’s voice.

Cocteau was the Leonardo da Vinci of his time – poet, screenwriter, artist, theatre and film director – admired hugely by many, including Picasso, Truffaut and his lover/collaborator Jean Marais, with whom he made the oft referenced here, La Belle et la Bete, a significant film for the early architects of La Nouvelle Vague.

What Boast does in Pilgrim’s Flower, almost from the off in The Place of Five Secrets, is both review a cultural milestone like La Belle et la Bete and interpret it through the eyes of a Jungian analyst, although her language is anything but analytical.

Her interest in Cocteau, Coleridge, Akhmatova and Sappho is as practical as, one imagines, a primer on a new canvas: they are springboards, and what arises are brilliant passages from Boast, whose eye is not simply curious, but is concerned with the pathology of a thing.

From The Flowers, with the acerbity of Baudelaire, Boast closes with the observer’s recollection of a man who buys two different bouquets: ‘..never was it said with more bravado, that there’s nothing to lament, when she has the rose while I smell the scent.’ I expect too Balmerino Abbey to be anthologised in the future.

Admirably, at a time when it is in and out of fashion, Boast is quite happy to allow internal rhyme to have its day, almost as if the lyric finds its perch before the sentence is completed, and almost always with a joie de vivre. Often, her lines are remarkably beautiful:


Understand this, it’s easy:

A thousand ships in pursuit of a woman –

Who only wanted to hide her face

In one man’s embrace –

Stood no chance against the undertow.


(from After Sappho)