Paul Murray’s “Skippy Dies”

There is no mystery regarding the fate of the main character in Paul Murray’s second novel, Skippy Dies. Skippy (Daniel Juster to his parents), is a 14 year-old dreamer, MMRPG addict and boarder at Seabrook College for Boys, a private Catholic boarding school in Dublin. Inside the first 5 pages of the book, Skippy, er, dies.

Having first described (in lurid, technicolor detail) the death scene of the young teenager, the rest of Skippy Dies is structured around the back-story and consequences of Skippy’s spectacular demise.

For a 600+ page post-modern comic novel, which leaps between multiple narrators and encompasses multiverse theory, early 20th century esotericism, video games, the Decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland, teenage love, the 2008 financial crisis and the poetry of Robert Graves, Skippy Dies hangs together remarkably well.

I found it, by moments, deeply funny, and despite the disjointed narrative, you grow to deeply care for the characters.

Ruprecht van Doren, for example, is a true 21st Century original: Skippy’s obese room-mate and Seabrook’s resident genius, he spends his days munching through doughnuts, building devices in the school basement for multi-dimensional travel and dreaming of the day when he will be taken up unto Stanford to work alongside the World-Famous Physicist Hideo Tamashi.

Father Green, the school’s French teacher, is in search of some kind of redemption for past sins – despite his formidable classroom reputation – while Howard, (the principal adult voice in the novel), is a failed stockbroker who tries to teach history to uninterested adolescents while struggling with his own twentysomething mid-life crisis.

Paul Murray deserves particular respect for finding authentic voices for his teenage characters. He manages to illustrate their worldview – distracted, hormonal and video-and-internet-infused – without ever slipping up. The dialogue is never overwritten. His teenagers are by turns cruel, confused and cocksure, and never sound fake.

Likewise, the occasional transition into second-person narrative – a risky device at the best of times – feels natural and unforced, and works well to expresses that certain self-centredness that is perhaps a necessary part of adolescence.

Skippy Dies is Irish, ironic, immensely good fun, and contains the Best High School Halloween Disco Scene in the History of Literature. A novel on this scale could have easily choked on its own pink frosting, but this book works well. Really, really well.

Highly recommended are Edward Champion’s two podcast interviews with Paul Murray on the Bat Segundo Show:

Paul Murray Part I

Paul Murray Part II

Sonny Rollins in London

Sonny Rollins Quintet
Barbican, London
20th November 2010

Sonny Rollins, tenor saxophone; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Kobie Watkins, drums; Russell Malone, guitar; Sammy Figueroa, percussion

Age has not wearied Sonny Rollins, but it has reduced his gait to a slow, cautious waddle. Draped in a generous red silk shirt, crowned with a halo of grey frizz that recalled Arthur Rubenstein, Sonny Rollins emerged from behind a black curtain and swayed his way slowly to the front of the stage and the Barbican Theatre gave the man and his band a warm, heartfelt welcome.

Here, in front of us, stood a true mythic figure of music, one of the last men left standing from that famous generation of American musicians who defined modern jazz.  And this guy was going to play. For us. The expectation in the room was almost overwhelming.

Sonny Rollins – North Sea Jazz Festival, July 2010 – Evert-Jan (Creative Commons)

Despite the rapturous ovation that greeted the band, the gig started slowly. The quintet, slightly adrift on the wide Barbican stage, searched in vain for its mojo.  The opening tune, an 8-bar two chord vamp, had all the charm of a raucous soundcheck, and it took fully three songs, (half an hour), for the engineers to find a proper balance, allowing Bob Cranshaw’s bass and Russell Malone’s guitar to finally emerge from the murk.

Riding over the top of the band was Mr Rollin’s enormous, vocalised tenor saxophone. Sonny Rollins may no longer be able to outrun an advancing wall of lava, but his sound is still volcanic: broad, rough-hewn, scratchy as scoria.

His solos reminded me of a saxophone-playing friend of mine, who once commented to me “The best thing about Sonny Rollins is he doesn’t have any licks you can copy.” Even if the first third of the concert lacked inspiration, you got the impression that Rollins and his collaborators never gave up searching, grasping for the moment when everything would come together.

The “click” finally happened on the fourth tune: an unnamed funk groove, Russell Malone laying out an unexpected line worthy of a James Brown rhythm section. Watkin and Cranshaw obliged by accelerating the tempo ever-so-slightly, and finally the taper was lit.

Rollins waddled along the line of footlights, pouring out notes, quoting show-tunes and Pop Goes the Weasel, stopping in front of audience members to dedicate a phrase or two to each, before moving on, his saxophone swaying like a cradle in the storm, waiting for the bough to break. The gig was on.

Sonny Rollins – New York, September 2010 – Mr Mystery (Creative Commons)

As the evening progressed, the man’s purpose become clear – he was here to play music, and to play as much music as he could.  Only a musician of Rollins’ stature could flick off a rendition of Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood without ever bothering to play the melody. The climax came on the penultimate tune: a swinging version of Why Was I Born? where Rollins paced the width of the stage while engineering a solo of uncommon beauty.

There were some unusual choices of settings for his sidemen to take the spotlight: a slow, early-set ballad was the moment for Mr Rollins to trade fours with Sammy Figueroa’s congas, while the 3/4 tempo of Some Day I’ll Find You provided the frame for Kobie Watkins to let loose on drums. Russell Malone’s guitar was consistently tasteful, and occasionally audacious – he even permitted himself an extended reconstruction of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on a middle chorus.

The gig closed with a few words of wisdom from the man himself, who recalled with humility his younger days gigging in London with Ronnie Scott and friends.  The band stretched out for a rollicking calypso finale on Don’t Stop the Carnival, and the groove bounced in our heads all the way home along the Northern Line and through the foggy streets of Islington.

This was a gig that, if only momentarily transcendant, was all the more special for those rare, precious minutes when Sonny Rollins – stately, majestic and deliberate in his ninth decade – made the stage positively glow.

Image: Evert-Jan (Creative Commons)

EDIT: 22/11/2010 Corrected name of guitarist (Russell Malone) and spelling of Sammy Figueroa

O’Spada: From Stockholm with Love

In May 2009, I remixed a track by O’Spada, and this Swedish band haven’t looked back since. They’ve now released their first album, Pay Off, a disc that is poised to furnish lounges and clubs around the world. It’s out now on Despotz.

O’Spada‘s debut album is chock-full of spiky, swaggering funk tunes, built around the in-your-face vocals of singer and principal songwriter Julia. Here’s a taste:

If I called their music “bulletproof prog-disco assembled by an unholy alliance of astromech droids and the Daleks “, then I would be guilty of using too many ridiculous metaphors, but I will have come close to describing the O’Spada sound.

The tone of the album tends towards darkness but there are bright moments. The shuffle-time Rainbow (with its ooo-wah vocals) edges towards Motown and provides a respite from the brain-freezing grooves that dominate the rest of the disc.

Most of all, O’Spada comes across as fresh, and rather unlike any other band I know. There’s a Swedish accent in the vocals, jangly rhythm guitar, irony-free slap bass, and ferocious sawtooth synthesizer licks that sound like they’re played by a dude with a Patrick Swayze haircut.

What more could you wish for?

Well, a tour maybe. O’Spada are in London in mid-June to promote the album. If you’re in town make sure you catch them before they’re Bigger than Bieber-Hur.

London city tour dates:

14 Jun Hoxton Bar And Kitchen
15 Jun Dublin Castle
17 Jun St. Pancras International
17 Jun YoYo @ Nottinghill Arts Club
18 Jun Last FM presents… @ Big Chill House
20 Jun The Luxe


I don’t write much about food here, which seems strange since I live in a city famous for restaurants. However, this week has involved visits to a couple of notable Parisian eateries. So I thought I’d recount our experiences.

Image: Stephen Rees (Creative Commons)

Saturday night I suggested the Polidor, of which I had heard good things. It’s just down the road from me, behind the Odéon. It’s one of the oldest traditional bistrots in Paris, and regular customers included James Joyce, Boris Vian, Rimbaud and Verlaine. Despite its illustrious connections, it is not overrun with tourists and hence offers a menu at suitably reasonable prices.

Having not booked, we thought we’d arrive at the stereotypically Anglo-Saxon hour of 7.30pm – the theory being that we would not have to compete with locals for a seats.  As it was, the place was almost full already, and we got places on a long table in the front room, next to a talkative French couple.  Everyone at the Polidor shares tables, and this is part of the fun.

The place makes the most of its humble bistrot beginnings, and is everything a Paris bistrot should be – mirrored walls, wood panelling and red-and-white checked tablecloths.  It’s noisy and the service is unfussy and rapid: it’s worth remembering that the bistrot was 19th century Paris’ equivalent of McDonalds.

Image: Ed Swierk (Creative Commons)

We all chose the menu fixe at 25EUR. For entrée I had a rather stunning blonde lentil and foie gras soup, which came served in a brown stoneware bowl. In case you’ve never thought of putting foie gras in soup before – trust me, it works, and it’s delicious.

The main course was a rich and satisfying boeuf bourgignon – with chunky carrots. If some of the meat was a tad dry in the middle, the situation was rapidly resolved with application of the oodles of sauce that accompanied it.

For some reason I chose a bottle of Madiran to accompany the meal. It may be the wine with the highest level of antioxidants in the world (one glass makes you cancer-proof for a week), but it was a little heavy-going as a food wine. My theory was that its southwestern origins might have complemented the foie gras soup. However I should have stuck with my first intinct and chosen a Burgundy: more subtle as an accompaniment to the boeuf bourguignon.

Dessert was also simple, understated and divine – a rasberry bavarois in a red berry coulis. Enough said.

Overall: eat fast, eat well. Polidor was excellent value with very good food, good service and an “authentic” bustling atmosphere. For 30EUR a head including wine, you can do a lot worse in Paris.

41 Rue Monsieur le Prince
75006 Paris
Menu 25EUR (or à la carte)

Open 7 days

Note – Polidor does not accept credit cards, a policy it has proudly maintained since it opened its doors in 1845.

Boys’ Lives

Image: Ben Harris-Roxas (Creative Commons)

On a recommendation, I recently ploughed through Robert McCammon‘s Boy’s Life. McCammon is not normally the sort of author that appeals to me, (not being a big fan of horror/fantasy). However Boy’s Life really worked. I loved its uncomplicated melding of magic and mundanity, its vivid descriptive tone and unforced evocation of life in smalltown Alabama in the 1960s.

Ostensibly a murder mystery, Boy’s Life is really a collection of episodes in the life of Cory, a 12 year-old kid who is discovering his calling as a storyteller. The book never loses this sense of wonder, slipping with ease between tales of summer days on the baseball diamond and back-yard conversations with ghosts. Cory’s Zephyr is a Harper Lee-style smalltown, refracted through a funhouse mirror: ineffectual sheriffs, snarling Klansmen and shotgun-wielding junk collectors share the stage with a ferocious river monster, flying dogs, an ancient voodoo witch and (of course) a dinosaur.

The suspense is occasionally stunning: some events in the novel are so completely unexpected that they strike with near-physical force.   Sometimes it seems that McCammon can’t resolve or propel the narrative forward without summoning hideous dei ex machina at the last minute. But this is barely a failing: it is in these moments of crisis that McCammon’s writing is strongest.

As a semi-autobiographical novel of a child growing into the world and confronting the gift and necessity of writing, Boy’s Life bears some comparison to David Mitchell‘s Black Swan Green.   Mitchell’s story of a year in the life of Worcestershire lad Jason Taylor is darker and more tightly-woven. But in both novels the boys’ imaginative universe is a small town, populated by near-mythical characters, presented against a backdrop of real-world outside events (in Zephyr it’s the civil rights movement and Vietnam; in Black Swan Green it’s 1980s Thatcherism and the Falklands War).

In an endearingly English way, Black Swan Green thrives on loose ends, ambiguity and Jason’s unease with his role in the world. The novel orbits around a dissolving marriage and inevitable divorce.

By contrast, Cory rides roughshod into danger and mystery, calls things as he sees them and seems implausibly unperturbed by frequent physical injuries. Boy’s Life possesses an almost conservative concern for family unity, culminating in a clunky epilogue in which the narrator returns to Zephyr 25 years later and we discover what’s happened to the main characters in the interim (basically: college, wedlock and socially respectable jobs).

Black Swan Green is, as a piece of art, more far subtle and definitely more interesting (I own an autographed hardback copy, ’nuff said). But Boy’s Life is immediately satisfying: a heartfelt romp through boyhood. In its best moments it’s dizzyingly good. Just watch out for dinosaurs.

Image: whateverthing (Creative Commons)

Extra Golden

Extra Golden – Anyango
From Thank You Very Quickly: Thrill Jockey [Released March 2009]

Download free 320kbps mp3 of “Anyango” from Thrill Jockey Records

Extra Golden is a band that, on paper, displays all the hallmarks of an experiment: “A unique blend of Kenyan Benga music with American Rock and other, assorted African guitar stylings“. And yet on headphones it all sounds like the most natural thing in the world.

Perhaps these two musical streams sit together so well because both rock and benga are primarily guitar-based genres. The band is made up of American D.C.-based guitarists Alex Minoff and Ian Eagleson (whose experience doing doctoral research into benga was the ursprung of the band); alongside monster drummer Onyango Wuod Omari and guitarist Onyango Jagwasi.

If anything, Extra Golden leans further towards East Africa than the Eastern Seaboard – most lyrics are sung in Luo, and the only time (to my ears) when the music sounds somewhat dépaysé is when the odd verse is sung in English.

The music is Kenyan in focus, so are the bands’s politics and lyrical interest. Ukimwi deals with the scourge of AIDS sweeping through the country, and Thank You Very Quickly is an acknowledgement of the friends and fans who helped protect band members during the post-election violence in Kenya last year.

Thank You Very Quickly is Extra Golden’s third album, and it sounds like the band has solidified through touring. While their previous effort Hera Ma Nono, revelled in reverb and melody, (including a tribute to then-candidate Obama), TYVQ seems to groove more. The track Gimakiny Akia is effortlessly funky, its insistent and relentless bass guitar recalling Michael Henderson on Miles’s early 70s albums.

When talking about current indie bands that gain sustenance from the great sinkholes of African pop, perhaps some comparison to Vampire Weekend is inevitable. But Vampire Weekend’s whole schtick is that they’re gawky white college kids appropriating somebody elses’ music – ironic artifice is part of that band’s appeal.

By contrast, Extra Golden is rooted firmly in a single tradition and sounds like a more honest musical effort. The band are touring the UK in March with Senegal’s Baaba Maal and Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi. But I’m thinking that some scintillating benga guitar would got down well in the heat of the 2009 festival circuit in Europe…


Cricket at Van Cortland Park in the Bronx (Image: kptyson)

Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland has been described as a ‘great American novel’.  I’m not quite sure Netherland carries the  thematic weight to grant it such immortality. But in its essential retelling of the story of an outsider’s insider whose pursuit of a Manhattan Dream is rendered hollow by corruption, Joseph O’Neill’s novel bears comparison to The Great Gatsby (I’m pretty chuffed I spotted the parallels before I read James Wood’s review in The New Yorker).

O’Neill’s Gatsby is Chuck Ramsikoon, a lyrically gifted Trinidadian-Indian whose grand scheme is to build a cricket stadium – “Bald Eagle Field” – in New York.  It is his friendship with the narrator, Dutch-born oil industry analyst Hans van den Broek, that drives the novel.  Instead of jazz-age Long Island, we find ourselves in a present day New York of immigrants – peopled by Indian bankers, Ukrainian real estate agents, Pakistani restauranteurs and Turkish angels.

Among this population of expatriated characters, cricket is a perfect metaphor for the lives of outsiders in America, played out on the boundaries of society. As Chuck says early in the novel: “You want a tast of how it feels to be a black man in this country? Put on the white clothes of a cricketer. Put on white to feel black.

Image: caribb

The book is a skilfully written travelogue of linked memories, leaping from pre-Credit Crunch London to post-9/11 New York; from beach holidays in Kerala to childhood in well-ordered suburbs of The Hague. Jumps of place and time occur suddenly inside chapters and within paragraphs and sentences, and yet not once does the reader get lost. Everything hangs together.

The thing that prevents Netherland being a great novel is the numb self-obsession of the first person narrator. Although you see everything through his eyes and recollections, Hans as a person remains (for me) too cold and distant to feel real.  (Although O’Neill’s depiction of the often limpid life of the bachelor abroad is accurate enough !)

Netherland is undoubtedly a novel of its time: the touchstone moments of the pre-Obama age (the fall of the twin towers, the invasion of Iraq and the Indian Ocean tsunami)  are all present, exerting influence without ever being overplayed.  If humanity survives in good enough shape to produce literary critics in 50 years time, it may well be to Netherland that these critics turn to work out what the heck we were all thinking in the first decade of the 21st century.

Image: catface3

What the Heck is Kenny Wheeler up to these days?

This is a question I’ve been asking recently, since I haven’t seen any gigs advertised around the UK (and I’d really like to hear Kenny Wheeler live, one day). Also, KW is 78 years old, and so we like to keep an eye on his health and wellbeing.

Kenny Wheeler

Kenny Wheeler in 2007. Photo by Andy Newcombe

The good news is that Kenny Wheeler has a new album out, called Other People, which you can get through emusic, Amazon or the other usual outlets.

Other People is an outing with a string quartet, and the first time KW has written for or recorded with strings. Despite the new sonic context, all the expected navigational marks in the “univers wheelerien” remain in place – inventive use of minor keys, a sense of melancholy and Wheeler’s plaintive and distinct trumpet voice. With less improvisation than most jazz dates, the emphasis is on composition and it’s all very, very good.

There’s not much Kenny Wheeler on Youtube, but the track below, “Aye Aye That’s Your Lot” is outstanding. Recorded in Taunton, England in 1991, KW’s playing alongside some great musicians including Tony Oxley (d), Stan Sulzmann (ts) and Gordon Beck (pn).