photo © Andrea Orlandi

I've added four November UK dates to my tour: in Inverness and on the Isle of Man on "Bob Dylan, Literature & the Poetry of the Blues" and two on "Searching For Blind Willie McTell: A Biographer in the Deep South": one in Peel, Isle of Man and the other in London. Here's the current list:

Tuesday October 30, 7.45pm

Riverfront Arts Centre
Bristol Packet Wharf
Newport NP20 1HG South Wales
box office: 01633 656757
tickets £13 (includes £1 booking fee) on sale now

Thursday Nov 1, 7.30pm
Queens Hall Theatre & Arts Centre
Beaumont Street, Hexham NE46 3LS
box office: 01434 652477, or online here:
tickets £10 (£8 concessions) on sale now

Sunday Nov 4, 5pm
Byres Rd,
Glasgow, G12 8QX
box office: 0141 357 6200
, or online here:
tickets £10 (+ £1.50 fee) on sale now

Monday Nov 5, 7.30pm

Bishops Road, Inverness, IV3 5SA

Box Office: 01463 234 234
or online: details tba
tickets £10 (+ £1 fee) on sale soon
Thursday Nov 8, 9pm

28 Thomas Street
D08 VF83 Dublin
(01) 402 0914


for tickets in advance:
tickets €15

Saturday Nov 10, 6pm
Edge Hill University, St Helens Rd
Ormskirk Lancs. L39 4QP
box office:
01695 584480 or https://tinyurl.com/edgehilldylan
tickets £5 (free to EHU students) on sale now

Sunday Nov 11, 7.30pm

New Road, Laxey, Isle of Man IM4 7BD
07624 414299

but for tickets phone
07624 204320 or e-mail

online booking details to come
tickets £12

Monday Nov 12, 7.30pm

SEARCHING FOR BLIND WILLIE McTELL:A Biographer in the Deep South (incl. tracks & possibly footage)
plus guest artist John Gregory performing selected McTell songs (guitar & vocals)
(The Atholl Room) 22 Atholl St, Peel IM5 1BD
but for tickets phone 07624 204320 or e-mail
online booking details to come
tickets £10

Wednesday Nov 14, 5pm
A Biographer in the Deep South
(possibly including audio gems)

GoldsmithsCollege, University of London
New Cross, London SE14 6NW
room details tba in September
free admission

a tour of talks by Michael Gray with surprising tracks and rare footage
one or two more dates may be added

Tuesday October 30, 7.45pm

Riverfront Arts Centre
Bristol Packet Wharf
Newport NP20 1HG South Wales
box office: 01633 656757

tickets £13 (includes £1 booking fee)
on sale now

Thursday Nov 1, 7.30pm
Queens Hall Theatre & Arts Centre
Beaumont Street, Hexham NE46 3LS
 box office: 01434 652477, or online here:
tickets £10 (£8 concessions) on sale now

Sunday Nov 4, 5pm
Byres Rd,
Glasgow, G12 8QX
box office: 0141 357 6200
, or online here:

tickets £10 (+ £1.50 fee) on sale now
Thursday Nov 8, 9pm

28 Thomas Street
D08 VF83 Dublin
(01) 402 0914


for tickets in advance:
tickets €15
Saturday Nov 10, 6pm
Edge Hill University, St Helens Rd
Ormskirk Lancs. L39 4QP
box office:
01695 584480 or
tickets £5 (free to EHU students) on sale now

Sunday Nov 11, 7.30pm

New Road, Laxey, Isle of Man IM4 7BD
07624 414299


for tickets phone 07624 204320 or e-mail

online booking details to come
tickets £12


It's not often I review a book, but I have to review this one: "EUROPE BY RAIL: The Definitive Guide" by Nicky Gardner & Susanne Kries, 15th edition, Nov. 2017.

This is a beautifully produced paperback, with inside cover flaps you can use as bookmarks, clearly not made on the cheap.

It offers 50 suggested routes you might not have considered yourself, each taking you through striking parts of Europe, and each properly rail-tested by the authors, from 'Exploring the French Riviera' to 'Through Balkan Byways to Greece', and from 'Through Poland to Ukraine' to 'Across the Alps: Bavaria to Northern Italy'.

In every case there's up-to-date info on how to take the slow route; where to break your journey overnight; how long each section will take... and which side of the train to sit for the significant views. There are also quite substantial asides (on pink backgrounds) on, for example, Kosovo, languages of Vojvodina, the Alps by bus, orthodoxy in Finland, the Aland Islands ("Although part of the European Union, this scatter of islands lies outside the EU's fiscal regime - a little accounting curiosity..."), "the wandering Arctic Circle", and Rhine versus Moselle.

At the back there's a 60+ page gazeteer covering 48 European countries and telling you about their currencies, time zones, languages, types of electric socket and more; and at the front there are glossy photographs showing, for example, that "enthusiasm for Soviet-style memorials has not waned in Belarus" and that "steam-hauled trains are still seen every day in the Harz Mountains in eastern Germany". There are also maps, thoughtful advice about tickets and rail-passes, stations worth a visit in their own rights, and an enormous amount more besides. And an index.

One of the great virtues of this book, and a key to its being so enjoyable to read (even when no real journey is planned), is that it's well written - which makes it a rarity among practical guidebooks. It reminds me, in this way, of the Cadogan Guides of the 1980s-90s written by Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls. They too had a relish for alert, vivid prose free of travel-hack cliche and addressed with generosity of spirit to readers assumed to be open-minded and interested.

In the end, taking in "Europe By Rail" without taking myself around Europe by rail, it's hard not to be mournfully wistful about all the places I've never been, all the rails not travelled. (It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry, perhaps.) But it's also a powerful reminder of the cacophanous splendour of Europe itself - a continent so compact yet so riddled with infinitely varied quirks, beauty, age and elan. This book replenishes the feeling those of us who've spent time in Los Angeles or Newfoundland always tend to harbour: thank god for Europe.
Here's the list of  books I read last year, and what I felt about them:

THE WOMAN IN WHITE, Wilkie Collins, 1860 long and wonderful, its suspense maintained very vividly across most of the novel.
THE SEED COLLECTORS, Scarlett Thomas, 2015 pretentious & self-regarding.
THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY, Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows, 2008 despite the awful title, dual authorship & horribly perky first 20 pages or so, this becomes a wonderful, moving book that works as fiction and as a documentary portrait of wartime occupied Guernsey; exceptional.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE BRIDGE, Mary Lawson, 2006 an even more admirably clear-sighted and deeply affecting novel than her "Crow Lake"; too short, though.
THE CROSSING, Andrew Miller, 2015 vital, poetic prose & a compelling heroine.
CHARLES DICKENS: A CRITICAL STUDY, George Gissing, 1898 to my surprise (since I loved "Grub Street" and love a lot of Dickens) I had to give this up after five chapters; far too stuck in the agonies of late-Victorian moralising.
GRAY MOUNTAIN, John Grisham, 2014 many GoodReadsers have moaned about it being an "issue book", but it's deeply researched about strip mining, black lung disease & the corporate trashing of the Appalachians; commendable & timely
ROAD ENDS, Mary Lawson, 2013 a lesser work & even shorter, but recommended; I wish there were more of her work - three novels aren't enough from this great writer (though there's another one written in French, which I wouldn't be able to tackle; there seems to be no English translation).
THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL, Anne Bronte, 1848 both narrators (speaking as letter & diary writers plagued by total recall) seem foolish early on, and the ending is too pat, but the portraint of the heroine's dissolute husband is absorbing. The book never explores or questions reliance on and exploitation of faithful servants, but it does examine the double standards in law & marriage between men and women.
THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, Philip K. Dick, 1962 patchiest book ever read; fresh sentences, long tedious passages, improbable characters, one great character.
GEORGE GISSING: A LIFE, Paul Delaney, 2008 diligently researched sympathetic study of an affecting, hopelessly wretched life & of a fascinating literary novelist; few people can ever have shot themselves in the feet as repeatedly as Gissing did.
THE ABORTIONIST'S DAUGHTER, Elisabeth Hyde, 2006 third-rate crime novel with implausible plot detail; manages to be both glib and clunky at the same time.
TRAVELS WITH A DONKEY In The Cevennes, R L Stevenson, 1879 a rare delight.
MRS. DALLOWAY, Virginia Woolf, 1925 an absolute masterpiece.
THIS SIDE OF BRIGHTNESS, Colum McCann, 1998 a gruelling read: such sordid lives, such compelling & tragic characters, such powerful prose.
TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES, Thomas Hardy, 1891 passionately written tale of tragic characters; a then-progressive foregrounding of the rural working-class (though hardly Zola).
THE LAST DETECTIVE, Peter Lovesey, 1991 superior whodunit of original construction and decent prose, though the culprit perhaps too easy to guess.
THE PACT, Jodi Picoult, 1998 gives readers no sense of whether her cringeworthy adults are meant to be seen as awful; riddled with creativewritingschoolitis; but when it becomes a courtroom drama it gets moderately compelling sub-Grisham.
DISSIDENT GARDENS, Jonathan Lethem, 2013 a great novel: of wide-ranging genius & lapidary intelligence; historical accuracy fused with alert imagination.
THE DIVIDE, Nicholas Evans, 2005 nature well described, people almost entirely one-dimensional & self-regarding, as promised crime novel becomes long, tedious family-agonies story; humourless & witless throughout.
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, Paula Hawkins, 2015 mystifyingly compelling page-turner early on, when the two main narrators seem creepy yet not sinister; develops into something extraordinarily clever as the tension is racked up. Brilliantly plotted. No wonder it was such a mega bestseller. Finest thriller I've read since Gone Girl, but so beautifully English instead of American.
PLOT 29, Allan Jenkins, 2017 a beautiful, sad book about the agonies of his unknown antecedents & his & his brother's abandonment, and of trying to uncover it all and adjust to it, interspersed with a journal of his cathartic life planting & growing veg, fruit and flowers. The first non-fiction book I've read for months.
THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES, Kate Tempest, 2016 probably in the top ten greatest novels I've ever read; truly contemporary, wide-ranging yet concentrated, wholly distinctive voice, moving & funny & impassioned & so shrewdly observant, and pins down situations we've all lived yet have never found in fiction before.
MR. NICHOLAS, Thomas Hinde, 1952 at first I thought it just a very inferior Elizabeth Bowen, but it grew on me. A bit.
THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNETS' NEST, Stieg Larsson, 2007; English translation 2009 my first read from Larsson; mind-bogglingly well-planned & plotted; an intelligent, substantial page-turner; and it reads well in English. One oddity: it's set in Sweden yet there's never any weather...
LOVE AMONG THE RUINS: A Memoir of Life & Love in Hamburg 1945, Harry Leslie Smith, 2012 & 2015 should be interesting re life for a British soldier staying on in Germany when WWII has ended - but he's no writer so it isn't. I gave it up.
WHEN WE WERE YOUNG: A Compendium of Childhood, ed. John Burningham, 2004 a fresh, tremendously well-chosen range of childhood memoir pieces with an admirable literary bent & no dumbing down; full of quotable moments.
ENGLEBY, Sebastian Faulks, 2007 compelling story, dark humour, intellectually sharp; near total-recall of 1970s minutiae; crucially, the tranparently unreliable narrator (an almost common current device) comes within a highly inventive form of the novel that is ingenious without postmodernism (ie without being irritating).
ROBINSON CRUSOE, The Life and Strange & Surprising Adventures of, Daniel Defoe, 1719 [1808 edition] I'd read it as a child, but had no idea how ruthlessly this immensely long book had been abridged for children; in this edition he doesn't see the footprint till 27% of the way through, doesn't meet Friday till almost 40% of the way through and has returned to Europe by 50%, after several hundred pages. I gave up after that; the edition I read (on Kindle) seems to have added in all Defoe's far less popular follow-up novels. The original full-length novel, interesting & skilfully done, was enough.
AGAINST MISERABILISM, David Widgery, 2017 posthumous collection of his brilliantly prescient, wide-ranging essays written 1968-92: admirably relevant on politics and soberingly good (and affecting) on his experience as an NHS doctor in London.
A LESSON BEFORE DYING, Ernest J. Gaines, 1993 a short, likeable novel compelling through its detail as well as its quiet humanity; a portrait of racial injustice in the Deep South of the 1940s, set in a rural black community full of its own tensions; but told calmly.
WINTER IN MADRID, C.J.Sansom, 2006 a highly researched historical-adventure novel of politics & intrigue set in 1930s-early '40s Spain; a page-turner through accretion of detail long before it becomes one through tensions and twists of plot.
IN COLD BLOOD, Truman Capote, 1966 what a book! The perfect template for a historical crime non-fiction case, inspirationally structured from its calm, detailed, intelligent and humane beginning to its forgiveably sweetened end.
THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE, Stephen Crane, 1895 uncanny maturity of tone & humour from a 21-year-old writer, and so innovative: the first Civil War novel about ordinary soldiers instead of great generals. An easy read too.
THE VINYL DETECTIVE, Andrew Cartmel, 2016 goes on too long, many implausibilities but great fun for anyone who's ever been or befriended a hi-fi freak or obsessive record collector.
A RIVER TOWN, Thomas Keneally, 1995 admirable, vivid, unhurried novel from a major writer, and one of those rare authors whose books truly differ from each other & are unified only by his robust, engaged imagination. His adjectives dance but are never showy.
HERE I AM, Jonathan Safran Foer, 2016 provoking in both senses, this unfunny "hilarious" novel is so wearingly clever, so delighted by its own cutesy introspection and by its self-absorbed main characters (a drippy couple and their precocious children). It's also far too long, but that's another outcome of its shouty self-indulgence. (And boo to Penguin for a UK paperback with such a small typeface that they don't even admit what it is on the copyright page.)
THE HOUSE IN PARIS, Elizabeth Bowen, 1935 a re-balancing after the horrors of "Here I Am": forensic quiet intelligence in place of clever shouting, and that rare but special pleasure, a striking child character (Leopold).


This is the list of books I read last year, with brief comments:

SWANN’S WAY, Marcel Proust, 1913 heavy going; acute; far too wordy; unique
THE CORRECTIONS, Jonathan Franzen, 2001 intelligent, funny, dark, cheering, depressing, fresh, humane
BOB DYLAN DREAM: My Life With Bob, Roy Kelly, 2015 touching, beautiful, intelligent memoir of an ordinary life roughly contemporary with mine & Dylan’s
EMOTIONALLY WEIRD, Kate Atkinson, 2000 sometimes very funny, sometimes too silly (improbability not counteracted by enough comic success), but the main character is likeable & it’s the only postmodern novel I’ve read that works, so that it ends up clever rather than irritatingly clever-clever
VANITY FAIR:A Novel Without a Hero, William Makepeace Thackeray, 1847-8
fascinating in its mix of modernity - pioneering C19 realism & an anti-heroine yet using C18 literary devices (which have a touch of postmodernism, we’d feel now); a sweeping satire on money, the class system and snobbery (a word he coined)... BUT! he’s not as deep or heartfelt as Dickens and his characters are mostly less vivid
DOWNHILL ALL THE WAY, Leonard Woolf, 1967 upper/upper-middle class man of letters and politics, Virginia’s husband, writing this in his 80s; clear and conscientious prose from a very fair-minded man acutely aware of both others’ even greater privilege and the great majority’s lack of it; a real socialist with servants
FUGITIVE PIECES, Anne Michaels, 1997 irksomely opaque start but opens into one of the most articulately heartfelt, intelligent, beautiful & distinctive of books
THE THUNDERBOLT KID, The Life & Times of, Bill Bryson, 2003 auto-Bryson with clunky research padding out a very superficial account of his upbringing
THE LIE, Helen Dunmore, 2014 moving and vivid on rural Cornwall life in 1920 & on the horrors of WWI trench warfare and its afterlife in the narrator’s mind; an intelligent novel yet comfortingly English & traditional
THE INVENTION OF WINGS, Sue Monk Kidd, 2014 potboiler with a heart, but with none of the originality of "The Secret Life of Bees"
FLUSH, Virginia Woolf, 1933 rather good: her language is very alive and without showiness
SLANG OF HANDS, Bernhard Widder, 2009 Austrian poems about northern UK; ok
JOY IN THE MORNING, Betty Smith, 1963 sister of the more famous “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn”; had to give up on it. Too cute, sprightly, implausible & 1950s-sordid: all virginity & sweet-little-woman & manly cigarettes & plucky struggle
THE JOKE, Milan Kundera, 1967 [1992 translation] gloom-inducing portrait of mid-C20 Czechoslovakia & by extension general Eastern European gloom; it may linger, but it was sententious, with terrible attitudes to women, and mostly a pain in the arse to read
THE MOONSTONE, Wilkie Collins, 1868 seldom resorts to dodgy melodrama and overall a work of near-genius; pioneering detective novel, and for the first half, very funny thanks to a captivating narrator figure, old servant Betteredge
NOBODY MOVE, Denis Johnson, 2009 an indifferent contemporary Chandler, or perhaps a pale imitation of Cormac McCarthy
ANGEL, Elizabeth Taylor, 1957 quiet, superior page-turner about the power of vanity & self-deception, spanning a lifetime; it deepens into pathos as it goes
THE MILL ON THE FLOSS, George Eliot, 1860 tremendous, and so substantial. Early on, its pastorality (if that’s a word) strongly prefigures Hardy; but Maggie Tulliver the child and Maggie the adult seem too much like different people, which is its real flaw
TO THE LIGHTHOUSE, Virginia Woolf, 1927 lapidary, powerful modernism yet with strongly drawn characters and their vivid interaction (with the Chapter17 dinner party as fine as any I know in literature); lively, intensive prose, great clarity and wit. A triumph
KNOTS AND CROSSES, Ian Rankin, 1987 first Rebus novel; surprisingly badly written; every character a cliché with a quirk; less than thrilling story; pallid suspense
EARTH, Emile Zola, 1887 good C19 solidity, vivid characters & uncompromising portrait of wretched French peasant life, in which degradation cheats just desserts
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, Cormac McCarthy, 2005 addictive, violent, very modern; sometimes so stripped-down you can't work out what's happening; but always saved by its brilliant dialogue
A SEASON IN SINJI, J.L. Carr, 1967 a very English & appealing personality well rendered, but lacking either some essential depth or else some rapier thrust of asperity
CIRCLES IN A FOREST, Dalene Matthee, 1984 it took me 100 pages to like this, the first of her four "forest novels" (too much on poor-noble-Afrikaans-woodcutters) but it became an intensely detailed imaginative achievement and thoroughly absorbing story
MURDER ON A SUMMER'S DAY, Frances Brody, 2013 a 1924 setting allows for massive snobbery & conveniently primitive evidence standards, but it's also a setting that recalls the English atmosphere still prevalent in my 1950s childhood, and it's a satisfyingly lengthy read & a satisfyingly Christiesque trad detective story
BERTOLT BRECHT: A Literary Life, Stephen Parker, 2014 encyclopaedic uber-detail, and using newly available post-Cold War archives, sewn into a readable, attentive narrative... but I had to give it up on realising, after long immersion in his adolescent tics, maladies & hypochondria, that I still have absolutely no interest in Brecht or his work
DYING IN THE WOOL, Frances Brody, 2009 the first in the series (I was given a set as a present); very readable but an arch, over-confident heroine-narrator sorting out shorthand characters
CHARLES DARWIN: VOYAGING, Janet Browne, 1995 The first of her 2-volume biography. I've never read a better non-fiction book in my life (except, possibly, 'The Road To Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination' by John Livingston Lowes, 1927, about Coleridge & his notebooks)
GONE GIRL, Gillian Flynn, 2012 Exceptionally sharp-minded (in a very American way), electrifying page-turner, dazzlingly well plotted; a let-down ending, though not everyone will think so
MOBY-DICK, Herman Melville, 1851 lively start, then tediously garrulous for several hundred pages; a hard, grim voyage for this reader, which surprised and disappointed him
CHARLES DARWIN: THE POWER OF PLACE, Janet Browne, 2002 The second volume: a book I'm so grateful to have read and sorry to have finished
FLIGHT BEHAVIOUR, Barbara Kingsolver, 2012 Terrific; strong, convincingly detailed and sympathetic portrait of today's deprived, Appalachian rural life
SIGNS FOR LOST CHILDREN, Sarah Moss, 2015 half the book extremely gruelling, the other half boring; a powerful writer but with such talent, why do this? And the story's resolution isn't one, because the man in it never exists
MIKE AND PSMITH, P G Wodehouse, 1953 light jollity there's no point objecting to on political/class-snobbery grounds; a much needed balm after "Signs for Lost Children"
THE DOG: A LADYBIRD BOOK, 2016 even funnier: perfect Christmas trivia



As already noted, Bob Dylan wasn't Terry Kelly's only interest. Thanks to Val Kelly via Roy Kelly, I've been sent this, written by James Booth and just published by the journal of the Philip Larkin Society:


I'm extremely sorry to be saying that longterm Bobcat Terry Kelly has died, aged 57. I've written more about this here on my Facebook page, but here on this blog post I hand over to guest writer Roy Kelly (no relation), who knew Terry better than I did and who, especially, kept abreast of Terry's wide knowledge of, and writing about, poetry:

Terry knew and read a tremendous amount of poetry, and had much wider interests than me, even though I write poems.  He was particularly interested in Ian Hamilton, and poetry associated with his circle, and was really pleased when a posthumous big collected volume of him came out and he got a chance to review it in London Magazine, where over the last at least four years, and possibly more, he had had become a regular.  He liked too Craig Raine, Derek Mahon, Seamus Heaney and Hugo Williams, and was able to review his then latest volume (I Knew The Bride), weaving into it a skilful, knowledgeable round up of Hugo's whole career and technique and development. Recently he had reviewed Clive James The Kid From Kogarah, and poetry by David Harsent and Robin Robertson, and the big T S Eliot collected volume so eagerly awaited by aficionados. In his early reporter life he worked with and later championed a poet called Barry McSweeney, also a huge Bob fan, who had a difficult life but produced a lot of poetry. Terry was involved in a memorial type volume for him, including essays. He really did know an awful lot and liked an awful lot. 

Of late he was really proud of the London Magazine work because at first I think it was for nothing but developed into him being a rated and paid reviewer. He knew the whole modern British and American poetry scene very well. He liked what was the Hamilton template, the short, slightly obtuse lyric, but was also way open to modern American forms. He was endlessly getting books and telling you of his haul, either as review freebies or what he'd bought. Poetry totally engaged him. In some ways the literary life seemed more real to him than actual life, which was probably a help in the trial of his last fourteen months. He had also recently starting reviewing for a newish thing called The Next Review and was very pleased about that.
A major poetic interest, too, was the work of Philip Larkin. He wrote articles for About Larkin, the journal concerned with Larkin's work and life, reviewing there and elsewhere new Collected editions, and writing knowledgeably about the choices different editors of the volumes made. One of his most recent reviews was of the new book of photographs taken by Philip Larkin, and the connection that could be made with his poems.

I should say too he was always very kind. I think that was a big aspect of his character. He was a networker and a giver, and, that old-fashioned word, a gentleman. Unasked for and unexpected at different times he gave me various books that he knew I would like. He did love Bob Dylan and his work and thought he was a genius, and probably didn't think plagiarism was relevant to whether he was or not, unlike me, but he knew and was interested in everything poetic really. I mean everything. He was much more than someone who was crucial to a Bob Dylan magazine [The Bridge]. Though of course he was always that.


I seem to have read more books this year than last - and far more than in any recent year before that. I haven't included here the Dylan-related books I've also read or skimmed through during 2015:

THE 8.55 TO BAGHDAD, Andrew Eames, 2004 so badly written it’s absurd that it won an award from the British Guild of Travel Writers, but good subject-matter
LET THE DEVIL SPEAK: Articles, Essays, & Incitements, Steven Hart, 2014 some substantial, brilliantly sleuthed essays
CHATTERTON, Peter Ackroyd, 1987 vivid, absorbing, but the insistent wackiness of every  character is over the top, & really he says nothing about plagiarism, which is his theme
CROW LAKE, Mary Lawson, 2002 completely wonderful novel, fresh and true
THE DOCTOR & MR. DYLAN, Rick Novak, 2014 good on Hibbing, hopeless on humans; it's not about Bob Dylan, and it's a novel
THE ASSASSINATION OF MARGARET THATCHER, Hilary Mantel, 2014 short stories, with a whiff of using up old rejects; 2nd-rate by her standards
HISTORY OF MADNESS, Michel Foulcault, 1961 I gave it up: it's far too clever for me
GREAT APES, Will Self, 1997 I gave this up too: couldn’t stand his interminable showing off or his brutish arsehole-obsessing modernism
REVALUATION, F.R. Leavis, 1936 his least readable book
THE NIGGER OF THE NARCISSUS, Joseph Conrad, 1897 a slim volume but very demanding: intensive and poetical, with echoes of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner
JOURNEYS: An Anthology, ed Robyn Davidson, 2001 snotty intro, sloppy edits, and a wayward selection of pieces, in that many aren’t really travel pieces at all
THE HUNGER GAMES [Bk 1], Suzanne Collins, 2008 clever, strongly plotted, decently-written dystopian-world page-turner; understandably a cult best-seller
TO FOLLOW THE LEAD, Annie S. Swan, c1911 appealing simplicity till the regrettable crescendo of god-bothering
THE SAFFRON KITCHEN, Yasmin Crowther, 2006 boring till p60, then a great central patch of affecting drama, and then a long ending of tiresome didactic hokum
THE OUTCAST, Sadie Jones, 2007 strikingly clear prose describing a slew of terrible events; compelling, sensitive, touching, and with strong characters
PRECIOUS BANE, Mary Webb, 1924 I was bereft at finishing this wonderful, beautiful, forcefully-written, unique book: so vivid, poetic, touching, sustained, humbling, sweet-natured - all without any cuteness or arch self-consciousness
THE GOLDFINCH, Donna Tartt, 2013 couldn’t be more different from ‘Precious Bane’ but its equal or better: phenomenally good - vast canvas (centred on a small one...)
FRANKIE & STANKIE, Barbara Trapido, 2003 terrible title and a bit shallow, but funny, fresh and quirky
WRITERS IN HOLLYWOOD 1915-1951, Ian Hamilton, 1990 very solid but afraid to be anything but studious, so too few Hollywood Babylonian anecdotes
THE EDWARDIANS, Vita Sackville-West, 1930 patchy writing; some implausible plot twists & characters; poor dialogue; fascinating material; glad I read it
DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE, Amanda Petrusich, 2014 loved it: a necessary look into the avid world of the 78rpm rare record collector; intelligent & humane
THE PAYING GUESTS, Sarah Waters, 2014 riveting, richly imaginative, a tense major work: nearly as good as ‘Fingersmith’ (high praise); so admirable
THE VERSIONS OF US, Laura Barnett, 2015 alluring premise, crap book: all so calculated instead of imagined; in shaming contrast to the Sarah Waters
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Harper Lee, 1960 a book almost everyone read at school but I never did; lovely, though read now - in retrospect - a bit apologist about the very southern racism the book deplores
SKIOS, Michael Frayn, 2012 this is Wodehouse Lite (with similarly ingenious plotting)
THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS, John Boyne, 2006 a clever, touching, unusual, good novel by no means only for Young Readers
WHEN WE WERE THIN, C.P. Lee, 2007 a really interesting social history of the UK music biz 1968-1980s - and a great title
THE MAN IN THE QUEUE, Josephine Tey, 1929 engaging and well-written, except for the purple prose paragraphs designed to prove she’s a Real Writer; the usual whodunit cheat: introducing a surprise relationship we couldn’t have guessed at
SMALL CEREMONIES, Carol Shields, 1976 at times piercing observation in taut, captivating prose; at times I felt oh-for-fuck’s-sake-you-precious-twee-middle-class-wimp
THE TERRIBLE PRIVACY OF MAXWELL SIM, Jonathan Coe, 2010 the terrible title, the awful postmodern ending - both indicative of garrulousness - and in between, a deflating, depressing book; Time Out found it “hugely enjoyable”...
PURPLE HIBISCUS, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2004 completely absorbing novel from a justifiably confident writer creating a refreshing, convincing Africa
THE TRAVELLING HORNPLAYER, Barbara Trapido, 1998 substantial, fiercely intelligent, dexterously plotted but with a horrible and improbable end section
BUDDY HOLLY, Dave Laing, 1971 captivating, modest, refreshing to read again now, full of acute small observations & quite right in its analysis of his influence [I wrote an earlier blogpost about this book]
THE MILLSTONE, Margaret Drabble, 1965 a slim volume in the best sense as well as literally; light touch, swift intelligence, subtlety & gaiety & delicacy of feeling and, now, a fascinating glimpse into pre-Carnaby St 1960s London life
STRAIGHT LIFE, Art & Laurie Pepper, 1994 edn mammoth oral autobiography + others’ testimony, of & to a very contradictory life: rich yet impoverished, creative yet sunk in addiction & its gruesome degradation; and vivid, espically about violent prison life; a hugely more candid autobiography than most
THE END OF THE AFFAIR, Graham Greene, 1951 occasional moments of sharp interest sticking out of the blancmange of dated Catholic hooey
THE L-SHAPED ROOM, Lynne Reid Banks, 1960 marvellous to find so belatedly: brilliantly plotted, vivid characters but subtly drawn, a glorious opinionatedness and such robust intelligence about human feeling and behaviour
THE BACKWARD SHADOW, Lynne Reid Banks, 1970 so very disappointing: contrived, ricketty plotting, shallowed characters who become hard to care about; a plunge into what would now be called Chick Lit
UNDER MILK WOOD, Dylan Thomas, 1954 [posthumous] pioneering but now a smaller thing than its reputation
BHOWANI JUNCTION, John Masters, 1954 powerful, compelling, brave, compassionate book it would be all too easy to dismiss today for its political incorrectness, yet in some ways ahead of its time, and from a really individual writer
THE LAST SEPTEMBER, Elizabeth Bowen, 1929 full of her exceptional brilliance, yet an oddly muted depiction of a crucial period in Irish history and the uncomfortable Anglo-Irish life clung to within it
SKATING TO ANTARCTICA, Jenny Diski, 1997 abiff with intelligence and self-indulgent pawing at the wounds of her appalling childhood; and brilliant, if brief, about penguins
A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD, Anne Tyler, 2015 much lauded; I was left wondering why
THE DEATH OF THE HEART, Elizabeth Bowen, 1938 another piercing scrutiny
CANADA, Richard Ford, 2012 not a pleasurable  read but a highly compelling and original novel
TIPPING THE VELVET, Sarah Waters, 1998 not a patch on ‘Fingersmith’: far too and-then-this-happened-and-then-this-happened, and too heavily playing the lesbian card - where ‘Fingersmith’ was a masterpiece of plot, character and prose
MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT, Charles Dickens, 1843-4 a great start but then filler and comparative failure: the least solid Dickens novel I've read
LONG BEFORE THE STARS WERE TORN DOWN, J.A. Wainwright, 2015 very readable cowboyish novel with a deft structure, though weak on women characters and with an unsatisfying semi-postmodern ending (aren’t they always?)


I've written before of my admiration for Roy Kelly's writing about Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan fandom and the past and its impingement on the present, so it's no surprise that I should be glad to see, published at long last, Roy's book!:

As you may barely be able to see, I've written one of the endorsements for it - the one in the white ghetto by the barcode at the bottom of the back. But that aside, I like the whole cover - the very Woody Guthriesque Bob figure on the front, the pale blue, Roy's own very skilful blurb on the back, and the splendid quote from Nigel Hinton quite rightly there on the front.

It's available as a paperback and as an e-book, and the link to the paperback is here. Get it and read it. A Christmas present to yourself.


Before Bob comes on and starts the main and lengthy part of this exceptional concert with 'Gotta Serve Somebody', things begin with a still unpalatable, hopelessly corny godbothering "story" from Regina McCrary. Then comes some beautifully sung, very ordinary gospel fare - though with gorgeous keyboards, and the pleasure of seeing the wondrous Clydie King and the others so clearly. But Bob arrives to offer a really forceful performance of many gems. He gives out so much energy and yet takes so much vocal care - and of a kind only Dylan can. Now this whole concert has been made available with hugely improved footage and audio quality. My thanks go to Andrea Orlandi for posting it on Facebook today.

I thought it might be useful to add the approximate start times of each Bob song performance. They are:

18:00 - Gotta Serve Somebody
24:36 - I Believe In You
29:30 - When He Returns [Bob on piano]
35:20 - talks about Ronnie Hawkins
36:15 - Ain't Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody
40:43 - Cover Down, Break Through [brief remarks at end]
45:20 - Man Gave Names To All The Animals
50:59 - Precious Angel
56:06 - instrumental twiddling, feeding into...
57:03 - Slow Train
1.03:30 - introduces 2 solo song performances by women singers
1.13:42 - Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)
1.18:23 - rambling, opaque, preachy speech eventually leading into...
1.25:00 - Solid Rock
1.29:10 - Saving Grace
1.34:17 - Saved [no pause at end]; straight into...
1.39:06 - What Can I Do For You?
1.45:52 - speech
1.46:48 - In The Garden
1.53:00 - introduces band & singers & goes preachy again
1.56:20 - Are You Ready?
2.01:10 - Pressing On.

If these timings don't exactly correspond to what you find when you try them, it'll be because (a) my computer is elderly and (b) everything digital is inherently unstable and unreliable. But anyway, an extraordinary concert.


You may be busy at a Dylan Days type event next May - specially around May 24th, a Tuesday, when Dylan turns 75 - but if you'd like to be involved a bit earlier, why not take part in our first Bob Dylan Discussion Weekend since 2014?

It's happening on the first weekend in April - Friday the 1st to Sunday the 3rd - and there are places for just six people.

Come to our home in beautiful rural southwest France - specifically in département 32, the Gers - the département with the cleanest air and the emptiest roads in France.

the house
garden, pool & other side of the road

All the details are here on my website and this is what some of our previous guests have written to say afterwards:

"We really enjoyed it, thanks to both of you. The setting was wonderful (as was the weather), the food sublime, and the discussions were great."
Martin and Michele

"A special thank you for a gem of a weekend. Wonderful food, warm hospitality and an amazing giving of knowledge."
Jill and Louise

"We thoroughly enjoyed our visit in every respect and we offer our thanks to your good self and to Sarah for making our stay so  memorable."
Dave and Irene

"Thank you again for this excellent weekend. Sarah's cooking was brilliant and both Dylan Evenings are engraved in my mind. It was an unforgettable weekend. It's sometimes so easily said or written, but it really, really was. We're wallowing in pleasure. May you stay forever young."
Lukas and Saskia

"Thank you so very much. Everything was just perfect, Sarah's fantastic food and the great new insights into Bob Dylan's life gained through Michael's incredible knowledge which he so enthusiastically shared with his guests. I really loved the chosen tracks too, how different they are from the ones on commercial CDs..."

"Many thanks from the three of us for a great weekend. Lovely food and wine (our thanks to Sarah of course) and terrific conversation. All highly recommended!"

"I look back at a wonderful weekend. Thank you very much for your hospitality and inspiring sessions. Thanks too to Sarah for the delicious meals."

"Michael, we had a wonderful time and it was a privilege to spend some time with the two of you."
Irwin & Erica

"The house is in a beautiful part of France, and the food cooked and served by Michael's wife Sarah is absolutely outstanding, as is the wine ! It's by no means all about Bob, and we met some very interesting guests, but it was wonderful to have the opportunity to chat with other people who are equally enthralled by Bob's work, and to hear at first hand Michael's extensive knowledge of Dylan's work. A truly marvellous weekend!!"

"Thank you to both you and Sarah for a lovely weekend: we both enjoyed it immensely."

"Can I just thank you once again for the weekend? We both had a fantastic time. Please pass on our thanks to Sarah as well, not least for her truly outstanding cooking."
Daniel & Ruth

"You made me and everyone feel very welcome and I couldn't really think of anything to improve the weekend. The food was divine and it was great to be able to indulge our Bob Dylan interest (I'm avoiding using the word obsession!) in an unfettered way!"


This is a look back over my October-November tour of talks, now that I'm home again in the southwest of France.

I gave talks on BOB DYLAN & THE HISTORY OF ROCK'N'ROLL at Cape Breton University, Nova Scotia, Canada; at the University of Texas at Austin; at Arkansas State University at Jonesboro AR; and at the University of Oslo. And I gave talks on BOB DYLAN & THE POETRY OF THE BLUES at Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, Canada; at the University of Chicago; at Southwestern University, Georgetown TX; at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln NE; at the University of Nebraska at Kearney; and at Goldsmiths College, London.
The quirky, surprisingly classy-roomed Royal Hotel, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Aside from the talks themselves, and the people who made up my audiences and hosts, and others met along the way, the most memorable episodes for me were encountering US Customs & Immigration on the way in  to Chicago from Canada, and the 29-hour train ride I took out  of Chicago all the way down south to Austin Texas.

I'd expected to meet US Customs & Immigration when I reached  Chicago, but no, they occupy a whole portion of the main airport in Montreal - and a vast acreage of corridors and checkpoints it is too. And instead of granting me the Visa Waiver Business stamp for my passport straight away, as always in the past, they made me wait, and then pulled me aside - "Is there a problem?" "No, no problem: just go and take a seat over there, sir, please"... and so I had to sit and fret in a special waiting area while a gathering of these officers discussed me. None seemed able to dare be responsible for simply letting me in. Time passed. Then one of them, who looked more like a lapsed Amish in fancy dress than an immigration officer, called me over to his small cubicle ("Michael, just step in here a moment...") and grilled me for the longest time, making me show him all the university letters of invitation I had with me, peering through my 7-page printed itinerary like a man who could hardly read, and then sending me back to the forlorn and deserted waiting area while he went off once more to consult . . . while I sweated away and the time ticked by right up to my the gate-closing time for my flight - and beyond. Then he called me back int one more time (and it was "Mr Gray" now, which sounded worse) - and finally gave me the passport stamp thtree minutes before my flight was leaving from a long way away down the airport. "There are plenty of flights to Chicago," he smirked. Mine, of course, was of the cheap, non-transferable type, valid for that flight only. Luckily, Air Canada were kind and gave me a boarding pass for the flight a couple of hours later. Not my favourite part of the trip.

But ah, Chicago. The parts of the university I saw - the music department lecture theatre and the quadrangle you reach it from -  are elegant Victoriana, with ivy climbing stone walls and mullioned gothic windows: all this in sharp contrast to the soaring drama of the city's skyscrapers, which cluster together gleam with far more panache than New York's. I didn't have enough time here, really, to enjoy the zing of the city, before I set off in a cab to Union Station.

The train was just great. 29 hours with no wifi available (and in my case no American mobile phone): 29 hours throughout which no-one could demand anything from me. So rare a thing today. Just the innate glamour of the epic ride, the dining-car sociability - they put you together with strangers at shared tables - the changing landscape, the sleeping compartment, and the sheer olde worlde physicality of it: all iron and steel and rattling tracks and big old bridges taking you high up over muddy rivers and through woods with little wooden houses and mules and rusting 1940s pick-up trucks. We'd pulled out of Chicago at 1.45pm, and rolled on through the afternoon and evening, and all through the night. When I woke in the early morning we were crossing into Texas, and it took all that second day to clatter down through that enormous state; and after I disembarked at Austin, at 6.35pm, it was going to go head on further south, still in Texas, for a number of hours more.

And then at the end of my trip, the flight back to France from Montreal, and a quick side trip to London for an especially enjoyable talk at Goldsmiths College in New Cross (where I used to live, not especially happily, once upon a time) and on to Oslo on Norwegian Air, which had wi-fi on the flight (!).
flying out of Montreal, November 1st
flying in towards Paris next morning

My first visit to Norway, and an unexpected pleasure from first to last - from the elegant airport with its beautiful wood-floored corridors and the highly congenial, efficient train into the good-looking city centre to the university and my reception there. Texas is well over twice the size of Norway, but a good deal less civilised.

Back again via London, and home to beautiful weather: days of 25+ degrees Celsius (77+ Fahrenheit), and the keen anticipation of receiving Bob Dylan's most essential Bootleg Series issue, The Cutting Edge. Altogether this trip I was away for 26 days.

I calculated my mileage totals this morning:

By road: 891
By rail: 1,780
By air: 15,829

TOTAL = 18,500 miles.



I’ve been reading - for the first time since it was new - Dave Laing’s fine little book Buddy Holly, published by Rock Books/November Books in the UK in 1971.

Its atmosphere is, savoured today, soaked in the modesty of the pre-Google age: when we knew we had access to limited knowledge and that finding things out meant taking pains to explore around a subject. Laing’s personal style tends to the beguilingly tentative in any case, but this sense of limitation, of there being room for doubt, of learning being something demanding care and time, is also a symptom of the era.

Perhaps too there was a special compatibility between subject and book because back then there were only a very small number of books about rock music, a subject still regarded with disdain by broadsheet newspapers and the vast majority of publishers. The rock writing of the early 1970s was as far from mainstream as rock’n’roll when The Crickets cut ‘That’ll Be The Day’.

So we may know more about Buddy Holly’s life and work now - and of course we have easy access to hearing every aspirated glottal stop he ever put on tape; but the spirit of the book gets us closer to Holly’s own. It was published only 12 years after that plane crash, and when Dave Laing was only 24: hardly older than Buddy had been. Book and subject occupy a more similar world than ours can do, and comparable niches within it.

One of Laing’s observations, which I’ve not encountered elsewhere, is that Holly differed from the other major rock’n’roll stars in having a long, slow route to success whereas the others found stardom more or less from the start. He failed to get anywhere with the ‘Buddy and Bob’ Nesman Studio sessions at Wichita Falls, and again with the 1956 sessions for Decca in Nashville, returning to Lubbock still an unknown both times:
            “In this Holly is unique, for the first records of most of the young white rock’n’roll singers were their first hits.”
            He could have omitted the word “white”, since the same virtually instant success happened for rock’n’roll’s biggest black stars too, Little Richard and Chuck Berry.

It may be an obvious thing to say, too, as Laing does, that “in most rock’n’roll records...sound dominates meaning” - and that typically a Holly record exemplifies this: “the themes of the words on the page need not necessarily relate to the way the words are sung on the record.” But if this seems obvious, it is at least usefully specific. To say “sound dominates meaning” is a brilliantly economical statement of a truth that applies not just to 1950s rock’n’roll but throughout the whole of pop. I’m drawn towards words, and always have been, and find them infinitely easier to write about than music, yet when I listen back now to 1959-1963 records I bought and thought were great, not only do the words make me cringe but they show me that I never absorbed the verbal import of the words at all then.

I heard them as sounds, and as a kind of expressive colouring for the singer. Only by doing so could I not have found them risible. The last thing the teenage me would have said to my girlfriend was “Bless you - bless every breath that you take”, and yet it splashed through me cheerily enough on the hit single by Tony Orlando, himself only sixteen when he made the record.

(It’s a charming quirk of this book, then, that having insisted on the secondary importance of Holly’s lyrics on his records, Laing pays quite close attention to those lyrics.)

The exception was Elvis, whose records before he came out of the army tended to have lyrics that were either so striking as to break through the sound (‘Heartbreak Hotel’ - and what a sound the lyric had to break through!) or they had meaning that impinged because it augmented and played upon his smouldering image of the dangerous, rebellious sexpot.

Which was, of course, the last thing you could say of Buddy Holly. What he and the Crickets did instead, more significantly, was, as Dave Laing summed up long before most, to open up “new possibilities for guitar-based rock’n’roll groups, and directly [foreshadow] the way many groups of the mid-’60s came to function as self-contained composing and performing units.”

That’s one hell of a prototype to have offered the music, in the early years of rock’n’roll and ever since.


To declare an interest - I've known Dave Laing off and on since about the same time this book was published. He was editor of Let It Rock  when we were members of the Let It Rock Writers' Co-operative; he took me in, and we ate toast together a lot, to save me being homeless in London at some point in the 1980s, and in the late 1990s he organised the first Robert Shelton Memorial Conference at Liverpool University at which I was a speaker.