Kader Abdolah


The King

William Dalrymple has notably hailed Kader Abdolah’s The King as fabulous in both senses of the word: a knowing fable full of charm and deceptively simple in its storytelling.

The King may indeed read like one of the late Angela Carter’s fairy tales transposed into the 19th century Qajar Persian court, told by a masterful and addictive storyteller.

Abdolah’s gift is to keep the slow fire burning in the midst of a maelstrom, to unveil a matrix of plots which simmer patiently on the back burner until their time has come, at the heart of which is Naser Muhammad Fatali Mozafar, a Persian prince born into the royal court of Tehran. The young shah has 374 iffy brothers, a mother as Machiavellian as Livia in I Claudius and a harem of 230 wives, which requires servicing beyond his stamina, continuously drained by the tendency of the modern world to encroach across the borders of his medieval kingdom to sieve his country’s subterranean resources

The King – as a sepulchral fairy tale – has many plots within plots as a stray dog has fleas, a tattered web of etiolated silk, at the centre of which is the apparently omniscient Shah Naser, kept in tune with the changing world outside by the tributary of knowledge that is his personal grand vizier, plying his trade like Arachne in the shadow of Minerva

In this constellation, each star will have its day, and though Shah Naser is introduced as a pampered crown prince, he metamorphoses into a tyrant ably disposed to severing a limb or two to save the corporeal kingdom.

Abdolah – a pen name created in memoriam to friends who died from persecution in Iran – has lived in political exile in Holland for quarter of a century, and you don’t need to tax the imagination to draw parallels between The King and the tortured history of modern Iran: the Shah is both gilded lily and despot, cat loving and trigger happy, brooding lover and blood thirsty megalomaniac, a lanceolate monarch with an ingot for a heart. But above all, as the crimson tide ebbs and flows and the cast list diminishes, a born survivor, who learns to stand on his own two feet but always, you suspect, a victim in waiting to his hubristic arrogance.

Abdolah, who joined a secret leftist party that fought against the dictatorship of the Shah and the subsequent reign of the ayatollahs,  is an impeccable, almost detached writer, with the pulse of his engagement just about audible, but with The King he has unearthed the best modern fairly tale in the tradition of 1001 Nights since Craig Thompson’s Habibi.

Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic

Norwegian Woods


ACT Music has released the second live recording from its Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic concert series, re-establishing a tradition begun by American jazz impresario Norman Granz.  Norwegian Woods brings together some of the finest Norwegian jazz musicians including pianist Bugge Wesseltoft, singer Solveig Slettahjell, guitarist Knut Reiersrud and cutting edge piano trio In The Country, in a unique collaboration featuring interpretations of traditional Nordic music, John Hiatt and Tom Waits.

A blues guitar introduces Norwegian Woods, restrained, elegiac and yet full of energy. A clear, female voice takes over, its power potentiated by its uncanny serenity. A piano gathers together the theme one more time before all of them, joined by an additional trio, take it through a mightily dynamic loop until it tapers out to almost nothing in the end.

Ingen Vinner Frem Til Den Evige Ro is the name of the old Norwegian church song that Knut Reiersrud, Solveig Slettahjell and In The Country transform so fascinatingly into a modern Nordic hymn in the Chamber Music Hall of the Berlin Philharmonic.

It was another one of those magic moments that the Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic series so reliably produces. Founded in 2012 and curated by Siggi Loch, the idea was to craft inimitable evenings by means of thematic concentration, but most of all with stirring, often first-time encounters between outstanding musicians. And so it was on the fourth evening documented on this recording, which went under the heading of Norwegian Woods.

This concert demonstrated the reasons for the almost mystical success of Norwegian jazz not only in the aforementioned introduction, but also, for example, in the contemplation of its roots in Norwegian folk and classical music.

That Norway was quite simply too far off the beaten track for touring American jazz musicians seventy years ago helped it develop its own vocabulary – the “Nordic sound” made popular by Jan Garbarek et al  – and that sound today is part of the DNA of Norwegian jazz, whether through the multi-stylistic electronic pioneer Bugge Wesseltoft, Solveig Slettahjell, or by young guns like Morten Qvenild.

It is a sound that is inconceivable without an almost unconditional openness to influences of all kinds: in the none-too-large Norwegian music scene, jazzers have no qualms about working together with classical musicians and colleagues from the world of pop and rock, which leads to compelling outcomes, such as those of the JABP tryst of the blues musician Knut Reiersrud and various jazz icons, be they in the adapted traditional, Nordic-expanse-breathing Sæterjentens Søndag or in surprising interpretations like Tom Waits’ Take it With Me.

Harry Clifton

The Holding Centre

Selected Poems

(Bloodaxe Poems)


The painter Sean Scully, born in Dublin, raised in London, adopted by New York, defines beauty as anything that moves and engages him: beauty, however, is not singularly a question of appearance, and at the very least, ought to be affirmative.

Harry Clifton equally is drawn to that which is moving and engaging, but otherwise, as this collection demonstrates, with poems from 1974 to 2004, it is next to impossible to categorise him. Just when you think you have the measure of Clifton, he surprises you.

Take a poem like MacNeice’s London which, on the surface is a reflection about a time and a place in the foreign country of the past, suffused with nostalgia, a time when MacNeice and his contemporaries, Spender and Thomas, conjured magic across the airwaves, with a diction inspired by Yeats, commuting colour and remoteness.

On another level, MacNeice’s London, is a portal to Clifton’s beloved hall of memories, which  he revisits with the palette of a John Betjemen, that enthusiastic willingness to be enchanted and seduced, the voyeur for whom no experience is incapable of stimulating the muse, for Clifton is one curious cat.

MacNeice’s London is also a stage for the compulsion of Clifton the writer to vicariously assume or deduce the consequence of being isolated in a radio bunker as the Blitz rages overhead: he vividly captures the existential, Camus-like void of the time with a single line: ‘What better place than London, to mirror the lonely self regard of a stateless person?

If poets are fortunate to have sufficient time to develop their craft, they will admit that, on reflection, poems are, in the deduction of MacNeice, either forced or given. A casual reading of Clifton’s oeuvre, spanning three decades, is that while the menu doesn’t seem to alter much, the poems rarely read as forced. They are as natural in their quotidian endeavour as the sun.

He writes memorably and with an empirical finesse of both love and passion (‘After hours, in a tangle of legs and juices, a world turned upside down, and I feed on the lotus flower of your delicate sex’ from Monsoon Girl) and poems of humanity jostled into shape and form by the acute incisiveness of reportage, with metre (The Zone).

It would be remiss not to mention two poems, Friesian Herds, with an instantly engaging opening quartet, like transmuting a Constable landscape into Braille, and The Poet Sandra Penna, in Old Age, so moving it encouraged me to discover more about the source, another parting gift of Clifton. He can turn the greyest awning into an azure sky

Karol Szymanowski

12 Etudes/Masques/4Etudes/Metopes

Cedric Tiberghien


To indulge Szymanowski is to engage a world within a world, with much overlapping of ideas and sources, of senses and responses, an aesthetic carnival often with its roots in the artistic milieu with which he is familiar, a composer open to the new and the contemporary, which in part explains his enduring appeal.

It is also true that you cannot listen to Szymanowski without tracing the influence of Wagner, Reger and Scriabin, but there is a peculiarity to the origin of his compositions that is, frankly, all his. Szymanowski had his roots in both the Romanticism of Western literature (the examination of the self in the context of nature) and the Romanticism of Polish literature (visionary power of the artist in response to the loss of national independence).

However, as a stylist he neither favoured the West over the East, but absorbed the tumultuous changes going on around him: he admired Stravinsky’s personal revolution and experimentation as much as Bizet’s deadly passion. But it is the shadow of Beethoven which is longest in the Metopes, an anthropomorphic mise en scene explored by the travails of Ulysses, and which I enjoyed most via the pianism of Cedric Tiberghien.

The meshing of the land and the sea in Homer’s Odyssey is replicated by Szymanowski’s  melismatic adornment and arpeggi as if sponsored by warring Gods, coalescing into a moveable feast of sound, and this audible relishing of the plight of Ulysses, who is always between worlds, is manifest in a Ravel-like repetitiveness in Calypso, though the suffocation of the latter is replaced by the hedonistic and sinuous Nausicaa.

The audible relishing of the chameleonic Szymanowski is a picnic with Masques: because he composed habitually at the keyboard, he is accused of often playing hostage to his whims, like a writer bent over a blank page with a hangover in need of a good editor. Yet Sheherazade and Tantris le Bouffon have their moments, though I was more at home with the third movement of Masques, La Seranade de Don Juan, because I am partial to a rondo, adequately deployed here by Szymanowski, as Don Juan is like a dog chasing a tail, his own and others. There are memories of Ravel from which the rondo is drawn. A soundtrack for the night, no less.

There is superb detailed playing from Tiberghien on this Hyperion recording, and extensive and informative notes. Szymanowski is an acquired taste but as dispatched here by Tiberghien and explored by Hyperion, the fervour spills over. The recording opens with 12 Etudes Op 33, memorable for the brevity of each, rather like an abstract painting on a trolley, viewed through a microscope



Life to Everything

Borrowing a quote from Plato for an album of nine original tracks, recorded over three concerts during the London Jazz Festival, is a tall order to measure up to, but not if you are as  tight a unit as Phronesis, with music credits shared equally by Danish bassist Jasper Hoiby, British pianist Ivo Neame and Swedish drummer Anton Eger.

Urban Control is quintessential Phronesis: a blank canvas prepared by Hoiby’s attacking bass, mimicked by Eger’s rapid fire bursts and rounded by Neame’s circumambulations.

It was another ancient Greek, Homer, who pioneered a feature of writing that lends itself to jazz, ring-composition, which fuses disparity after a walkabout, and Phronesis excel at it. Hoiby delivers Nine Lives from the darkness and is at hand toward the end of the digression.

However, listen to Deep Space Dance repeatedly and what you assumed was primarily a mano a mano between the fluent bass and the acquisitive drumming is turned on its head by the soaring piano: Icarus destined for the sun.

There is much to savour in this recording, and it depends on the bias of your ear as to what instrumental delectation takes your fancy: Herne Hill is almost un- Phronesis like at the beginning, but stunning interplay between Neame and Eger propel the music into sensory overload.

I couldn’t quite escape the lure of  Hoiby’s bass, like a lone stallion in a brood of mares, with meteoric  ostinatos, when quite suddenly the interaction of the instruments is brought to a close by a shocking coda.

The recording seems a bit too polished to be entirely down and dirty live, but that doesn’t matter because there isn’t a redundant track here and the addiction is constant: there is never less than a spirited rhythm in Eger’s percussive shots, and they elicit the music’s individuality.

And because of what Eger does, and the variegated beat, you can relish the accelerating tempo of Hoiby’s extremes, from manic plucking to occasional cello-like strokes, almost in a heated debate with Neame’s finger work, intoxicated toccatas which, like the Dylan Thomas line, are the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.

Michael Coady

Oven Lane and Other Poems


I love the abandon

Of abandoned things

(from Letting Go)

Elegies tend to be a lament, and they occur frequently throughout this memorable volume, a revisiting of a collection first published in 1987, or, as described by Gallery, an ‘amplified’ edition, which is accurate, because Coady is best read aloud, all the better to indulge the phonic range of the Tipperary vernacular .

It appears to me that Coady’s first lines flow easily, and then he allows the theme and the structure to unfold of themselves, independent of himself, bequeathing to the reader the pleasure of encountering many styles, so that the collection is one of contrasts, and the voice can alter from one poem to the next.

You will be struck by the subterranean coursing of an elegiac stream in poems such as Sally Edmonds, Job Wilks And the River and Assembling the Parts, where the poet familiarises himself with the untimely passing, invariably tragic, of young people, such as the girl in Abandoned Churchyard.

Shattered is the stone

    Above a girl made mad by

Unrequited love.

The only haiku in the volume, Coady lays the framework with the forceful progression of syllables from the emphatic ‘shattered’, and in that word is the essence of the poem’s impact. It’s a rare thing indeed, when a poet knows it is time to stop.

It would be misleading to package the poet’s empathy with the dead of his poems as mere observations on mortality: in rushed poems, alliteration can become vitiated through indiscipline, but Coady has nailed the art in The Fruit (stiff in ledgered certainties, scripted in the hedge school of suppurating fields) and again in Job Wilks And the River with the same consonant, a poem which unashamedly plunders the emotional booty of A.E. Housman.

Job Wilks, a 28- year -old English soldier, accidentally drowned at Carrick-on-Suir in 1868, and the ever observant Coady is moved by a commemorative stone erected in his memory by his comrades. The concluding verse contains the pathos of a grieving parent:

On a July day of imperial sun

Did your deluged eyes find

Vision of Wessex, as Suir water

Sang in your brain?

To spend some time in the company of Coady is to unmask the detonated seed of a fresh awareness.