Nightmares and Dreams

(We have a Facebook page now – do come and “like” us and say hi)

Sometimes everything about a gig goes absolutely smoothly, everything aligns to create perfection and the audience goes away knowing they’ve had a really good time.

Other times things get out of control. You’re not quite sure what’s happening when, and whether you’ll make it through the night, and it’s out of that sprawling anarchy that moments you’ll never forget are born. Nightmaring Spires was one of those nights.

On the page it was straightforward. I’d read some piece about Oxford – a bit of Company of Fellows and Photo Fit, Anna would introduce her new book, Tales of Unrequited Love, eight cuts newbies Rebecca Burton and Joe Briggs would be fabulous. And the evening would be rounded off in brilliant style by Karen Head, winner of the 2010 Oxford International Women’s Festival Poetry Prize, who was with us all the way from the States.

But I was a little concerned. People like short readings. And if we all gave short readings, that wouldn’t give much of an evening. Then there was the fact it’s the middle of the summer vacation – would anyone be in town? The idea of letting Karen down with numbers didn’t bear thinking about.

So we added open mic to the schedule, hoping someone would turn up. And then I had an e-mail out of the blue from Dennis Hamley, author of a host of other great young adult books, who is part of one of my online communities, Kindle UK Authors, and who had just found out I we were both in Oxford. And it turns out he’d written Hell’s Kitchen, a book set in medieval Oxford.

Then there was the music. Only there wasn’t any and I was feeling a littleinsecure – were we cheating the audience? But on the other hand, there was a jazz group turning up afteerwards to jam. Maybe they’d get there early. And the timing – 8 o’clock, because we discovered last time that starting at 6 in summer makes you boil alive – would people really come out for an 8pm start?

My mind was settled a little by meeting up with Sean MacLachlan beforehand to talk about Kindle. Sean’s a lovely guy, and a successful travel writer who’s now turning his hand to US Civil War horror – something we very much like the sound of here! Talking is great. There’s no time to worry. Even if it’s in a darkened store with a locked door because the delightful Dennis (the other Denns, not Hamley), Albion Beatnik impresario, owner and salonista supreme was in a flap.

I was heartened a little when I spotted the impromptu poet known as Dot standing outside with a rollie. Old hands will remember Dot – he came to Lilith Burning last year and sat in the audience writing a poem that he then performed at the evening’s close. And Dennis perked up to say someone was coming with a guitar. Super! Music – and open mic!

By the time I’d got my head back to worrying if anyone would turn up, I looked around and it was clear the more pertinent worry was where to put people. And by this time not only Dot but the person sitting next to him as well, who turned out to be the artist Martine Votvik, were scribbling away. Which meant Dennis’ kind scrambling around to get the jazz guys to turn up early was suddenly looking like it might make us overrun rather than stopping us underrunning.

Against all of which hubbub and muddle, with the running order still in flux and a path to any remaining spaces blocked off leaving people to huddle in the doorway, the evening began. It’s a cliché that raw and unrehearsed gives a night energy. It’s also not strictly true – it’s something Jack White, one of my absolute heroes, loves to say, but I’ve been to enough of his concerts to know that the chaos is skin deep. It masks a professionalism that goes down many layers, and it’s that level of professionalism that lets you leave the actual details to the flow. Which sounds like I’m saying we’re professional, which we’re not, but Anna and I at least are beginning to build up an understanding, to be able to read each others’ signals. We’ve been gigging for almost a year now. That’s the kind of period of time where if you perfect running orders you grow stale. Yes, you think about your set list to make sure you’re leading the audience through the night in a satisfying way that suits the night and the venue, but you also need to let your audience lead you. And that’s sort of what happened. Mark Atherton, the guy with the guitar who looked unnervingly like Apprentice superhero Tom,  sang a fabulous piece about the river south of Oxford, at the end of which Dot was almost ready but only almost so I segued in with Photo Fit, and its towpath imagery. Martine didn’t have a last line, but the crowd cheered her on, and by the time she’d reached the end of a beautiful poem full of optimism amongst the blazing riots engulfing the country, she’d found one. Dennis (Hamley) captivated us with his reading from Hell’s Kitchen and scene-setting of a Name of the Rose style novel embedding in the nightmaring spires of early Oxford.

But the hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck standout moment of pure electricity came when Joe Briggs stood up. Rather nervously. Fluffed his first line, made a joke of it and got the crowd instantly onside, and launched into the most extraordinarily erudite, energetic, passionate piece of musical criticism I’ve heard:

We love music played with the hard-fought authority of the terminally ill, the fearlessness of the damned, the fuckyouprick attitude of condemned souls marching sloppily through the gates of hell and nudging each other and joking at the sight of the warnings daubed infernal above the drawbridge and grating grafted from bone and sulphur and sin. Abandon hope? Yeah, sure, it was just weighing me down, but you’ve got another thing coming if you think you’re taking my piss and vinegar.
    The song crosses us like anaconda bandoliers, squeezing our chests as they make us look cool. Like warped mullions on dirty glass. Giving a deformed structure to these translucent faded openings that are our murky unclean lives but despite their deformities and cracks they are still the support we require, without them we’d tumble and shatter.
    So when we spell it out, in marker and fire and madness, on stone and linoleum, we know it that deep down we are the dreams we can hear in the high notes, the struggles we can hear in the riff, whipped and crushed into the chords, the bridges we burn in the bridge. The messy throatburst of the final chorus, a conflagration of voices, burning this fucker to the ground. Thermite mighty.
    If you burn it they will come. If you rip up the tarmac with tank tracks and pickaxe then they’ll spring up from the mud. If you throw yourself under a steamroller they will take a rhythm from the bones cracking and pop their fingers and click their tongues in mimicry til the air is a susurrus of imitation cricket calls and they hum their way through another hot languid afternoon here in the end of the world. If you deconstruct the rock songs and strip them all the way back, then play it faster, hit it harder, shout it louder, then they will dance before you in spastic release. If you can scream deranged degradations and sordid sweetness until throat polyps grow upon your vocal cords like fleshy fruit from drooping boughs then you can make a select few fellow feckless wastrels pick some psychosomatic salvations from your shanties and you can get them to cult it up and cut it up and live from note to note and song to song, from sin to shining sin.
After that the crowd, the store, the whole shebang was alive in the most glorious way and by the time Karen came on to read her stunning set, we were all awhirl with the headiness of it all and the took us over the edge with a delirious piece about riding naked into the desert on a motorcycle.
Some nights will stay with you long after the sun has risen, and this is one.

The Milk Round by Rebecca Burton

A milkman dropped a crate of empty bottles

in the early morning, over a flower bed in the garden

in spring before flowers had arrived.

One shattered into, lets say, 19 pieces.

A black bird observed with one yellow rimmed eye.

Three days later a little girl

was drawn to the rising sun

glinting off a few of the pieces.

She considered them treasure and sat down to play.

In a week the milkman, missing

his missing bottle came back.

He asked the little girl about it.

She’d seen only treasure, and finders being keepers,

she didn’t tell him about it

(she was wise in the ways of treasure theft).

The blackbird blew on the other pieces

and they formed an almost bottle;

breaks where the missing pieces might have been.

It held a special kind of rain.

The blackbird drank it with his blackbird buddies.

Later that spring some pansies grew in the flowerbed.

In the roots were powdery bits of milk-bottle glass

which travelled up, right into the stem

and the leaves and the petals and the stamen

of the flower.

When the milkman cam back on his final round he found:

a little girl made of glass

a wet blackbird

and some golden pansies.

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2 Responses to Nightmares and Dreams

  1. JBriggs says:

    Thanks, Dan. Both for putting me on and the amazingly complimentary write-up. Anna was great as usual and Karen Head was fantastic but the highlight of the evening for me was meeting Dennis and remembering that I’d actually met him 14 years ago when he came to my middle school and that I’d read and reread one of his books many times as a kid.

  2. danholloway says:

    It’s extraordinary how coincidences like that can happen!

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