Bargain book: Not tied in

Evening Post, 23 Mar 2006

I, Robot Isaac Asimov, The Works (Broadmarsh), £1.99

Films are rarely faithful to their source material. Nor should they be. So what lurks beneath the cover of a film tie-in edition can be surprising. My all-time favourite is the tie-in for the Coen brothers' musical romp O Brother, Where Art Thou? - an elderly translation of Homer's Odyssey. This runs it a close second, however. To tie in with Will Smith's scary-robot movie, an edition of Asimov’s cool, classic stories written as a riposte to the idea of "robot as menace". No wonder you can now pick it up so cheap.

Signs and Wonders 28: Catching a shadow

Evening Post, 23 Mar 06

WHERE: Outside Nottingham Magistrates' Court, Castle Wharf.

WHAT: Most things discussed in this series have been in place for decades and, with a following wind, will be there decades more. This week's subject is different. If you have a very efficient paperboy, and you're reading this at noon today, you have another 36 hours to see it.

Under Scan, by Rafael Lorenzo-Hemmer, claims to be "the world's largest interactive video art installation". It cost the Arts Council and the East Midlands Development Agency nearly £1m, but it's free to wander around. It comes on at dusk.

As you pass through, a super-bright projector flicks on. Then a computer guides another 14 robot-controlled projectors to cast images where it thinks you are about to walk. Stay and let your shadow fall over one, and it will begin to move.

There are 1,000 possibilities. Each film shows a person from the East Midlands making a brief loop of movement - many of them were filmed at the Broadway in the city last July. It's a beguiling effect, although disturbing when played out on these deserted courthouse steps.

And that points to the great strangeness of Under Scan in Nottingham, for now its final stop.

In its four previous visits to East Midlands cities, it has had spots with plenty of passers-by - the market places in Derby and Lincoln, to take two.

But with our square shut, it has landed where few walk at night. The only pedestrians here after dark are rushing for their trains, and not to be distracted by the wonders of contemporary art.

Those enjoying it then, are those in the know - you now included, I hope. And a court courtyard is certainly a fertile place for the imagination. Are these ghosts flickering in your path? Animated chalk outlines? I suggest you go and decide for yourself.

Under Scan is operating tonight from dusk until the small hours, and tomorrow from dusk until midnight.

Signs and Wonders 27: The craftiest clock

Evening Post, 16 Mar 2006

WHERE: Pit and Pendulum pub, Victoria Street

WHAT: This is one of those buildings that rewards a long look.

Robert Evans, who built it in 1870, and Evans and Jolley, who expanded it in 1873, have packed in plenty of details, some more fitting than others for its overall Italianate style. Watch out for the three decorative panels, depicting "agriculture", "trade" and "commerce".

But the star turn is the magnificent clock. This announces the name of Lewis & Grundy, the firm based here from 1869 until 1971. And the little blacksmiths on the top show you what they did: ironmongery, although that seems too narrow a term.

In Industries of Nottingham (1889), their list of specialist stock includes "all kinds of colliery equipment", silver goods, gas lamps and cutlery. They were also the only shop in Notts or Derbyshire that could sell you a Remington typewriter.

By 1949, when they commissioned this clock from G & F Cope, another famous old Nottingham firm, they were "architectural ironmongers", with a range from door handles to spiral staircases.The bronze for the stairs at the old Co-op department store was cast in their Lace Market works.

Such a firm wanted a clock that showed their "workmanship and originality" - and they certainly got it.

Back when it was fully working, the two smiths would each strike every 15 minutes. On the hour, they struck four times each, and the grey-haired senior smith hammered out the time.

Five bulbs lit the forge behind them - it went from a flicker to a fierce orange glow - and a customised steel gong concealed under the forge canopy gave out the loud clinks of a blacksmith at work. The smiths also had rubber aprons, which flapped slightly in the wind.

When Lewis & Grundy moved out to Lenton in 1971, they gave the clock to the city council, which kept it in the Brewhouse Yard museum and then had it repaired and put back in place in 1981. It needed further repairs in 1983, and I can find no record of it working since.

The mechanism would doubtless be fiendish to repair and maintain, but wouldn't it be wonderful to see that forge lit again?

Classic book: Another day

Evening Post, 9 Mar 2006

Another Day of Life Ryszard Kapuscinski, Penguin, £7.99

From the moment of its independence in 1975, the African country of Angola was in a state of civil war - one that was to last, in all, for 27 years, and rank among the world's dirtiest secrets. Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski was there from the beginning; he caught one of the last imperial flights in. He describes the hollowing out of a city, the collapse of a country, with the calm simplicity of the man telling a fairytale - and, beneath that, the rage and bewilderment of someone who has seen it for real. Kapuscinski has had a remarkable career, and consistently produces remarkable books, but this is his most intense.

Signs and Wonders 26: The mentor's corner

Evening Post, 9 Mar 2006

WHERE: Yorkshire Bank branch, corner of High Street and Smithy Row

WHAT: This corner of the Council House differs from all the others - most of all, it differs in architect.

Where the rest of the building is the work of T. Cecil Howitt, this corner belongs to Albert Nelson Bromley, the classically-inclined Nottingham architect who had once trained and employed him.

Bromley had built a National Provincial Bank on the site in 1911. It had to stay, with its front matched in, when the new Council House went up in the late twenties - although in fact, as Ken Brand and John Beckett explain in their book on the Council House and Old Market Square, it was demolished and rebuilt.

While Bromley may not be as much written about as Watson Fothergill, T.C. Hine, or even his pupil Howitt, his mark is certainly still visible in the city - especially this part of it.

As part of his frequent work for Boots, he built their first department store - now Zara and Monsoon - across the road in the High Street. He also remodelled the front of T.C. Hine's building for Griffin and Spalding (now Debenhams), and designed the smart white Lloyds Bank in Beastmarket Hill.

A walk around the edge of the Yorkshire bank will show how well his style blended with Howitt's.

But there was a touch of rivalry.

In August 1929, when he gave his verdict on the Council House to the old Nottingham Daily Guardian, his letter appeared under the ominous heading "Well-known architect's constructive criticism".

Although it begins with a volley of praise, the letter's chief "constructive" idea is a reworking of the front of the building, to include a portico with the city arms over it - to be done at "comparatively small cost".

"The want of a leading feature at the front entrance has been a matter of universal remark," he concludes.

Bromley's own contribution to the Council House, you'll note, carries its full complement of crests - as do the Boots and Griffin and Spalding buildings.

Evening Post, 3 Mar 2006

The Helmet of Horror Victor Pelevin, Canongate, £12

In myth of the Labyrinth, a hero is thrown into a maze in which there lurks an 'orrible monster, escaping because a princess gives him a thread to find the route out. (The princess is also the monster's sister, but that's by the by.) In this self-consciously contemporary retelling, one of a series, the reader follows an internet chatroom thread, the monster is a rumour or a dream, and the hero appears to be biding his time. It's quite as tricksy as it sounds, but much more readable -- Pelevin has a flair for characterisation through dialogue.

Evening Post, 3 Mar 2006

A Very British Coup Chris Mullin, Politico’s, £7.99

Nothing dates quicker than prophecy. Take this thriller, which envisions the late 1980s from the left-hand side of 1982. Industry has vanished (not a bad guess, that) and North Sea oil has run out. The collapse of British Leyland has propelled Labour back into power under Harry Perkins, a straight-talking Sheffield radical who may then have seemed reminiscent of David Blunkett, and who pitches at once into a death-battle with the establishment. The novel doesn't match the later TV series - Alan Plater writes much better dialogue than Chris Mullin ever could - but the picture of a lost political world is absorbing.

Signs and Wonders 25: A hidden heritage

Evening Post, 2 Mar 2006

WHERE: North Sherwood Street, south of Forest Road junction

WHAT: Behind this door is a tiny plot of land with a big history. It was rented from the town in 1822, on a 999-year lease, to serve as Nottingham's first Jewish burial ground.

And according to Eight Hundred Years by Nelson Fisher, the impressive history of Nottingham's Jews, published in 1998, it also represents "the first recorded activity of the fledgling community".

There had been Jews in Nottingham in Medieval times. Fisher and his team list official records that mainly reflect persecution: the receipts of special taxes (about £5 out of £1,000 from England's Jews in 1204); a gallows reserved for Jews off what is now Shakespeare Street. But they also find mentions of a synagogue, and a Jewish population allowed more freedom to choose where they lived than in many Medieval cities.

Little of this population remained after the official expulsion of all Jews from England in 1290.

Jewish life did not begin to thrive again in Nottingham until the turn of the 18th Century.

The man who was responsible for the cemetery was David Solomon, who was born in Poland in 1770 and fought in the Russian army. His 1845 Nottingham Review obituary said he was "supposed to have resided in Nottingham longer than any other Jew" - more than 45 years.

When he helped petition the town for a cemetery, in 1821, the nearest place Nottingham Jews could be buried was Birmingham, and the municipal cemeteries were decades in the future.

It's said he was offered a square mile off Mansfield Road, at a penny a square yard, but felt the community could only afford to rent 175 square yards at that rate.

The lease eventually signed was for 144 yards - and some of the names on it are from Bedford, where burial land was even harder to come by.

Nottingham Jewish Congregation obtained the freehold in 1846. Indeed, it may have formed officially for that purpose, because individual Jews were banned from buying land until 1870. But they soon outgrew it: a larger Jewish cemetery, off Hardy Street, was started in the 1860s, and this one closed in 1869.

I'm indebted to reader Ray Teece, who first pointed the site out to me, and took the inset photo over the cemetery wall. It's pleasant to see the place so well looked after, so long after burials there came to an end.

Signs and Wonders 24: The Scouts' sacrifice

Evening Post, 23 Feb 2006

WHERE: Hucknall Road, opposite HM Prison Nottingham

WHAT: The first Boy Scouts were reaching military age as the First World War broke out.

Boer War hero Robert Baden-Powell ran what is now thought of as the first Scout camp in 1907. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, of the 22 boys with him on Brownsea Island in Dorset that summer, six died on the Western Front. Many others - the movement had over 100,000 members by 1910 - will have joined them.

That is the story behind one of the most surprising and touching war memorials in Notts, which reader Peter Turner of Sherwood first drew to my attention and R. Nelson, also from Sherwood, has supplied further details of.

It takes the form of black wooden gates in a brick arch at the entrance to "Blackwoods", the home of the 24th Nottingham Cavendish Scout Troop, and it is a relative latecomer among memorials to the First World War - it was dedicated with full civic and Scouting ceremony in 1927.

The Duke of Newcastle, who gave "Blackwoods" to the Scouts on a 99-year lease, was there to speak. So was P. B. Nevill, head of the Rover Scouts in England - "Rover" then being the name for older Scouts, and Rover Scouts having helped build the gate. It's said the wood came from the old Trent Bridge, and the bricks from a derelict house in Friar Lane.

"Countless memorials have been erected to those who died in the Great War," Mr Nevill told the troops, "but few can be more appropriate or better placed".

And few inscriptions could be more appropriate than the one over the gates, now on a functional-looking white replacement plaque: "Scouts of this place, let this of you be said, That you who live, are worthy of your dead, These gave their lives that you who live may reap, A richer harvest, ere you fall asleep."

Bargain book: Harris and Harris

Evening Post, 16 Feb 2006

Engima/Archangel Robert Harris, The Works (Long Row), £1.99

The Works has taken a leaf from our last featured bargain and begun offering double-volumes: perhaps a smaller selection than at Publishers’ Book Warehouse, but with some excellent titles, and all of them a quid cheaper. Our recommendation contains two excellent thrillers from former Nottingham lad Robert Harris — Enigma, his romantic account of Second World War codebreakers at Bletchley Park, which you may remember from the movie version; and Archangel, the follow-up, in which a present-day academic finds himself drawn into the horrors of Stalin’s Russia.

Signs and Wonders 23: The ultimate busy bee

Evening Post, 16 Feb 2006

WHERE: Broadway, Lace Market.

WHAT: The other week’s story about Plumptre House rang a peal of bells for reader D. Allen.

He began work at Birkin’s warehouse, which replaced the house, in 1943, aged 14, and stayed with Birkin firms for another 51 years. He writes to point out several other notable details around the arch that holds the Plumptre “relics”.

The chief one is the scroll over the arch, which gives a wealth of information. Top right is an architect’s dividers and square, with the initials TCH — for T.C. Hine, perhaps Victorian Nottingham’s defining architect. He built this warehouse, and Adams’s yet more magnificent one, restored the castle and masterminded The Park.

Below it is a builder’s hammer and trowel and “GH”: for Garland and Holland, the firm that put up the warehouse.

On the right is Richard Birkin’s emblem, a bee, for industry. His initials and the date, 1855, flank that. Then there’s another (far right) RB and a TB for his sons Richard and Thomas, who were to take over running of the firm in 1856.

Richard, the father, as Stanley Chapman’s recent piece for Notts Historian spells out, was the scariest sort of Victorian self-made man. He began work at a mill in Belper, aged seven, moved to Nottingham at 17, and quickly gained such a mastery of lace machines that his employer, Thomas Biddle, took him into partnership.

The two rode the lace boom of the 1830s, then became dominant players in the 1840s, when they were the first to exploit the more sophisticated Jacquard loom.

By 1851, Birkin was senior enough to be a lace judge at the Great Exhibition. Five years later, still in his 50s, he bought himself a manor (Aspley Hall) in which to retire. Then he began a second career as one of the town’s great and good: three times mayor, leading magistrate, Midland Railway director. His business legacy was solid enough to endure 150 years.

Cycle Rage

Evening Post Motoring, 8 Feb 2006 - a holiday substitute for the section editor's "Road Rage" column

THE best place to make friends with Notts cyclists is between the electronic "No Cycling" signs on Beeston High Road. Aim to be there at 3pm Saturday. New targets will be along every minute, and the press of shoppers should prevent them achieving escape velocity.

So, what lessons should you draw from the size of your new friendship group? They have done wrong, yes. They have ignored a message flashed at them clearly in bright white bulbs. They are an irritation to pedestrians - although not nearly as dangerous as a pavement cyclist somewhere quiet, where he or she's not expected and can build up speed.

But they may also help explain why, every time I hear a howl of outrage against us cyclists, or someone makes a gesture, like these signs, towards tougher law enforcement, my heart leaps a little.

It means there are enough of us to be worth caring about.

It means that some planner, somewhere, may decide it's worth his while to make cycling legally as safe and intuitive as cycling illegally.

This is not a natural thought for many planners. They know you have to put in some cycle routes - targets, and all that - but they believe you can create them by painting white lines down the middle of the pavement and sticking "CYCLISTS DISMOUNT" signs on the narrow bits. These command about as much respect as would a "GET OUT AND PUSH" sign suspended above the M1, but while there aren't many cyclists, that's not the planners' problem.

Many cyclists, moreover, is something you can avoid. You can make sure the pavement cycle lanes vanish abruptly into non-cycle-lane pavement - most of us don't like getting in people’s way, even on a bike. Your on-road cycle lanes should double as parking, to ensure plenty of thrilling swerves into the middle of the road. The few riders that remain will feel like corpses on sticks, which encourages an outlaw mentality, but that is, again, not your problem. Everyone hates cyclists already.

Fifty thousand students, and a certain amount of foresight, have moved Nottingham beyond that bone-headed approach. "CYCLISTS DISMOUNT" is becoming a collectors' item. Cycle routes increasingly turn out to lead somewhere. Soon it may be possible to distinguish between poor riding and poor street layout.

And if everyone still hates us, we cyclists will have to find a new excuse.

Bargain book: Second novel syndrome

Evening Post, 9 Feb 2006

The Autograph Man Zadie Smith, Fopp, £3

When you see the American hardback edition of a novel on sale over here for about a sixth of the cover price, you know something's gone badly wrong. In this case, that something may have been White Teeth, which prompted huge print runs and thick hype for this trickier follow-up. The main character, a Chinese-Jewish chancer who yearns for his lost father and the signature of an obtainable film star, is not sympathetic. Learning is piled on. It's the kind of thing destined to be loved by a few thousand people. Thanks to the publishers' error, however, it's now cheaper to find out if you're one of them.

Signs and Wonders 22: Heads for controversy

Evening Post, 9 Feb 2006

WHERE: Express buildings, 29 Upper Parliament Street

WHAT: The tower on the side of this 1876 work by Fothergill Watson - the great Notts architect who later renamed himself Watson Fothergill - bears three carved heads.

But the faces staring out amid the words "EXPRESS OFFICES" are not gargoyles. They are political giants.

In the centre is William Gladstone, the former Liberal Prime Minister who had apparently left public life a few years before and was storming back with a passionate campaign about Turkish atrocities in Bulgaria.

Tories already disliked him, because he used to be one of them. But now he was holding huge public meetings that they thought smacked of populism, or even democracy.

Either side of Gladstone are Richard Cobden and John Bright, the double act closest to the hearts of Victorian radical Liberals.

They had campaigned together to end the Corn Laws - which kept crop prices high for the sake of landowners - to oppose war in the Crimea and to reform the voting system.

These heroes guarded the doorway of the proudly partisan Nottingham Daily Express, the town's first real daily newspaper.

The Express had begun in 1860 with a promise that it would be "neutral and independent", stressing: "This journal is not, and will not be, the organ of any sect or party."

Within a year, however, the last major tax on newspapers had gone. And within four years, the town's two Tory weeklies, the Journal and the Guardian, had begun daily editions.

The Express became a strong advocate the other way, swallowing a radical weekly, the Nottingham Review, in 1870. By the time it found itself needing this building, the battle lines were clear.

The Express thrived, taking in the long-established Journal in 1887. But the First World War hit it hard. The local businessmen who owned it - with Jesse Boot leading - finally sold in 1918 to a national consortium designed to keep Liberal papers alive.

The new owners changed the title from Nottingham Express and Journal to Nottingham Journal and Express. At the next revamp, in the early Twenties, it became the plain Nottingham Journal. The idea was to restore an ancient name - the Journal had roots in the 18th Century. Only Fothergill's lettering was left to mark the paper's other history.

Signs and Wonders 21: The last of the last great houses

Evening Post, 2 Feb 2006

WHERE: Broadway (the street, not the cinema), inside archway by "Faces".

WHAT: This stone crest was once part of an urban stately home - one of the last relics of the days before the Lace Market became the Lace Market, when these streets were home to the county's grandest families.

We're talking, once again, about the Plumptres, whose charity was the subject of Signs and Wonders 18. They lived in several places around town: in Poultry, on the site of the Flying Horse; on Drury Hill. But their most famous residence was Plumptre House, which stood here. It faced into Stoney Street, covered both sides of what's now Broadway, and had grounds as far as Kayes Walk.

Henry Plumptre bought the land in 1507 or 1508. This Plumptre House came two centuries later, and was largely the work of his great-grandson John Plumptre, an MP for the town, who sketched out an Italian-style mansion with the help of architect Colen Campbell. It had a symmetrical front that writers later called "a great ornament to the town" and a flat roof surrounded by balustrades, from which guests could catch one of the best views in Nottingham.

The next John Plumptre found love in Kent, and moved to his wife's village of Fredville. A few years after his death, most of the hall's land was sold.

The building became at various times a school and the home of a civic dignitary - Alderman White, who managed to become acting mayor in 1831 just in time for the burning of Nottingham Castle. Meanwhile, the homes around it disappeared or become warehouses.

There was an attempt to auction Plumptre House in 1841, but it did not reach the £4,000 reserve. A second attempt, in 1853, saw a final price of £8,410. The buyer, lace magnate Richard Birkin, had the house demolished that year to make way for his great warehouse, by T.C. Hine and itself a landmark.

Our second relic, the stone window, is more of a mystery. It appears to date from the 12th Century, and J. Holland Walker, who writes about both curiosities, reckons it's either a fragment of St Mary's rectory house, on this site, or of the Norman version of St Mary's, which was wrecked by fires in 1141 and 1171. Plumptre's builders may have rescued it just as Birkin's later did.

Signs and Wonders 20: Answers and questions

Evening Post, 26 Jan 2006

EVERY ten weeks, Signs and Wonders comes in from the street to answer its letters and e-mails.

Of course, this feature steals most of its best ideas from you lot every week - it has relied on reader suggestions in five of its past six outings - so I shall also be taking the chance to pick your brains on mysteries that have stumped me.

First, a quick apology. Mrs M. P. Cockayne, of Burton Joyce, has written a very pleasant note asking, gently, if it's right that we've had two Signs and Wonders number 10 and no number 13. Yes, it is, and no, it wasn't superstition - the explanation is a holiday mix-up, followed by a scramble to get back in order.
Mrs Cockayne also asked for some columns she missed - they're on their way.
Memorials remain the most emotive subject.

Peter Turner, from Sherwood, called to mention the city Scouts' war memorial, in Hucknall Road, which I hope to cover soon. And Ray Teece, who pointed me at Terrace Royal the other week, sends photographs of the small, separate Jewish cemetery off Sherwood Street, another fascinating subject that's on the list. Several of you have mentioned Bendigo's Lion, one with a fascinating family connection — that will be a little longer in coming, because one of the suggesters is out of the country, and I'm awaiting his return.
Now for the ones I want to ask you about.

The braves either side of this text come from what is now the Wollaton Street side of The Stage pub. From what the gentleman on the left is holding, they probably belonged to a cigar shop - but was it here? Old city street directories put no obvious suspects at the scene.

And the cherubs above? They frolic in Exchange Arcade. They're kin to the ones along the front of the Council House, and they're similarly industrious, but the usual guidebooks don't mention them, or what their overall theme is meant to be. Any light you can shed will be greedily welcomed.

Evening Post, Jan 19

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness Richard Yates, Methuen, £7.99

These stories hail from the drab parts of post-war New York. Their action is uniformly small-scale and tends towards the grim: a raggedy new boy at primary school fails to lie his way to popularity; the grouchy residents of a TB sanatorium scrabble for some kind of cheer on New Year’s Eve. What makes them a treasure, though, and has brought them back into print after 40 years, is Richard Yates’s power of close observation. There’s little obviously showy here, but every third sentence brings on a glow of recognition.

Evening Post, 19 Jan 2006

The Diviners Rick Moody, Faber, £12.99

Harassed by their doughnut-guzzling boss, two outsiders at a fringe film company concoct a joke epic script about water-dowsing. Then it ceases to be a joke, and the stir it creates brings them into all manner of new patterns. The scope of this mostly-satirical novel is impressive. Its caricature cast are entertaining and sometimes convincing. But Moody’s style is hard to ignore and easy to dislike. If you can cope with the opening, in which the sun takes 11 pages to rise, you’ll probably enjoy this.

Bargain book: Double deal

Evening Post, 19 Jan 2006

Sick Puppy/Skin Tight Carl Hiaasen, Publishers’ Book Warehouse, £2.99

We haven’t featured this Victoria Centre shop before — it was temporarily shut when we began covering bargains — but that doesn’t mean there aren’t good deals to be found there, particularly at the more popular end of the market. This is a double-volume from Florida’s funniest crime writer, the first of the pair led by his regular eco-psycho character Twilly Spree. Omnibuses from a hatful of other big names are on the back wall with the same price tag.

Signs and Wonders 19: The city's grandest council terrace

Evening Post, 19 Jan 2006

WHERE: Canning Circus, around General Cemetery gates

WHAT: This row isn't just a lovely piece of Georgian architecture (by S. Sutton Rawlinson, since you ask). It's a relic of one of the 19th Century's longest political battles.

It was built by the Freemen's Rights Committee, for "senior freemen of Nottingham and their widows", starting from 1837.

The freemen were the ancient citizen body of Nottingham: the status was passed from father to eldest son, or earned by apprenticeship or, sometimes, bought from the corporation.

The committee formed in 1836, a year after freemen lost their exclusive right to vote for the town corporation and MPs.
Even after that, freemen had rights over common lands from Mapperley Plains to what's now The Meadows: to graze flocks, and to stop anyone else building.

They fought hard to keep the common - Parliamentary candidates against it were burnt in effigy - but the pressure for land gave birth to slums.

And that did not benefit even many of the freemen. There were about 3,000 of them, from a population of 50,000, but most were poor framework knitters with no flocks to graze.

Consider these cottages an argument the rights were worth keeping. They went to freemen earning less than £5 a year from common land, and the rules suggest a poor clientele: "No stocking-frame or lace machine to be kept on the premises".

Enclosure of the common land still went ahead, however, with a big slice in 1845. The freemen managed to turn their rights into ownership and cash payments.
The town took control of the Freemen's estate, Canning Terrace and all, in 1882. But it promised to pay annuities to every freeman and eldest son then alive, and their widows.

The last freeman, Thomas Sewell, died in 1980 at the age of 98, still getting his £20 a year; several widows lived on longer.

The terrace, meanwhile, became a run-down piece of council housing. In the Sixties, its tower — probably a later addition — was judged structurally unsafe and looked set to come down.

It had a £150,000 renovation in 1978, but the small homes haven't attracted tenants. This Thursday they go up for auction at a guide price of £600,000.
The Post’s Theo Usherwood has already covered the story. But I should have been there first. Reader Wendy Pavlidis of Chilwell pointed me at the terrace months ago.

Evening Post, 12 Jan 2006

Nostromo Joseph Conrad, Penguin Modern Classics, £7.99

If you wonder why big, comfortable Victorian novels are no longer written, Nostromo is one reason. This tale of revolution and betrayal in a South American silver-mining town has the scope and confidence of any three-decker classic, and even a fairly conventional ending — four-fifths of the way through. After that, the forces that seemed to have balanced continue on their inevitable paths, and the high ideals meet the fate you fear they really would. This is not an easy read; it’s slow and tangled at the beginning, and breathtakingly grim at the end. But it will set a new test for every other book you pick up, and deepen your pleasure in those that pass.

Signs and Wonders 18: 599 years of charity

WHERE: Plumptre Square, off London Road

WHAT: Some while ago, Terry Keane of Wollaton called to mention an old building he’d spotted near the BBC offices. It had a plaque giving its history, he said, and it seemed quite interesting. Turns out that’s an understatement.

This is Plumptre Hospital, home of Nottingham’s oldest private charity from 1392 until 1991, a year shy of its 600th anniversary.

It was more almshouse than hospital. John de Plumptre, a merchant and Mayor of Nottingham, founded it to support two priests and 13 poor widows. He endowed it with 13 properties around the city. The priests were told to pray for John, his wife Emma, the king, the people of Notts, and all the Christian dead — especially those who gave to the hospital.

This fund-raising come-on seems to have flopped, because in 1414 John cut the number of widows to seven and gave the hospital his house, on the site that would later become the Flying Horse pub.

At the Reformation, Plumptre Hospital was found to be supporting two priests and no poor. John’s descendants rescued it, however. And in 1650, Huntingdon Plumptre — a sharp-witted doctor accused of atheism — renovated the building, raised rents, and gave the widows a proper allowance: five shillings a month, with sixpence extra at New Year.

In the 1750s, another John Plumptre expanded the hospital so it could at last take the full 13 widows. They now received £1 2s 6d a month, a gown and a tonne of coal every year, and the New Year sixpence.

The family moved to Kent in 1756, but they kept up the charity, rebuilding the hospital again in 1825 and supporting extra “outpatients”. A second set of almshouses went up in Canal Street in 1956.

By 1991, the charity could not afford to bring Plumptre Hospital up to standard and its residents were moved to the other almshouses — themselves shut in 1998 — and it sat vacant until taken on by the Royal National Institute for the Blind in 2001.

Even without its buildings, Plumptre Hospital is still giving alms — and its trustees are still members of the founding family.

Evening Post, 5 Jan 2006

On Literature Umberto Eco, Vintage, £8.99

In his day job, the author of The Name of the Rose is a professor of semiotics. This collection of criticism is far from the thicket that would lead you to expect, but neither is it as much fun as his other writing might lead you to hope. His favoured writers are Dante, Joyce, and Borges; his favoured tone is the kind of heavy academic twinkliness you find in ceremonial lectures — which, indeed, many of these pieces once were.

Classic book: Thornton's

Evening Post, 5 Jan 2006

The Bridge of San Luis Rey Thornton Wilder, Penguin Modern Classics, £6.99

The bridge snaps in the first sentence, and five people die: every character you are meant to care for. But a delicate sort of suspense still grips the reader all the way through this short, self-consciously exquisite tale. You see, a Franciscan friar has witnessed the disaster, and he wants to know why God took this particular five. We follow his investigations, learning the stories of the victims from the decidedly more sympathetic perspective of Thornton Wilder, before discovering his conclusions. A bit precious by today’s standard, but the balance is perfectly held.

Bargain book: Poets going cheap

Evening Post, 5 Jan 2006

Kid Simon Armitage, Nottingham Bargain Bookshop, £1

We don’t normally feature poetry on these pages, but come on — a quid? You can take the risk. This is Armitage’s second collection, from 1992, and marks the moment he moved from being a relative unknown to appearing in your children’s English lessons. It shows off his style fully formed: northern, conversational, even blunt-seeming, but heading off in surprising directions and growing out of surprising places. The title poem is Robin’s reply to Batman, after being dumped, and another highlight is in the voice of a football-ground pickpocket. Try it and see.

Signs and Wonders 17: Behind the Council House

Evening Post, 5 Jan 2006

WHERE: Old Market Square

WHAT: The natural way to think of Nottingham Council House is as a town hall with some shops tacked on at the back. But the natural way is wrong.

As explained in Ken Brand and John Beckett’s excellent 2004 Civic Trust guide, our Council House is really a high-class shopping arcade with civic facilities stapled to the front.

When T. Cecil Howitt, then the Nottingham Corporation’s housing architect, was invited to think about a replacement for his city’s unfashionable and uneconomic Exchange building, he proposed a grand arcade modelled on the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, the inspiration for many an Edwardian shopping palace.

But councillors - and particularly Liberal leader Edmund Huntsman - were not keen.

It was too grand for mere retail, and too big a project to pair with an expanded Guildhall for the council, as the idea seemed to be. And so Howitt returned with a truncated arcade, its front end plugged by civic chambers.

The Exchange Arcade, however, remains in the grand style; and the honeyish Bath Stone used inside feels more welcoming than the prestige Portland Stone of the exterior.

It also features what is now my favourite local secret, again from the Civic Trust guide. Those four murals underneath the dome? Well, the artist Denholm Davis took the chance of including a few then-familiar faces. So Cecil Howitt appears as William the Conqueror’s surveyor, near the site of the castle; and Little John is Albert Iremonger, Notts County’s giant goalkeeper.

Any reader who spots a relative around Charles I as he raises his standard, or among the Saxons conquering the city - the subjects of the other two murals - is more than welcome to get in touch.

Signs and Wonders 16: On the terraces

Evening Post, 31 Dec 2005

WHERE: Corner of Clarendon Street and Shakespeare Street

WHAT: Terrace Royal is a survivor. It was built in 1863 as a row of eight two-bedroom houses, for the likes of surgeons and lace merchants. But over the next couple of decades it found itself at the heart of a civic district — the Guildhall, University College and the College of Art all sprang up around it — and today it’s part of a virtual university campus. You’ll look hard around here for a building not connected to Nottingham Trent.

The key to its survival — and the reason for mentioning it here — is the beautiful carvings on its arched door and window frames, which stand comparison with anything on nearby official landmarks.

According to an 1863 article in The Builder, these are by “Mr Smith of Nottingham, late of Oxford”. A picture-caption with the same piece names the architects as Wilson and Dutton-Walker.

The street names inspire some of the carvings: on Clarendon Street we have the great historian the Earl of Clarendon, and a parade of kings and queens that includes Elizabeth I and Edward VI. Shakespeare Street heads are meant to include King Lear and his daughter Cordelia, as well as Queen Victoria and most of her family.

(This was Terrace Royal, incidentally, to mark the marriage of her eldest son: the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. You can see his feathered crest on the nameplate.)

All this is now offices for Nottingham Trent University, who have won awards for how well they keep it, but it appears only to have come to them relatively recently. Kind reader Ray Teece, who prompted me to write this, remembers childhood visits to the family GP here. It must have been almost worth a dose of the flu just to look at the carvings.

Classic of the week: A Bronte Christmas

Evening Post, 22 Dec 2005

Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte, Oxford World's Classics, £5.99

There's one upside to a miserable Christmas ... it makes an ideal time to start on Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece. We begin in grim November, with plain, quiet Jane an unwanted spare part at the house of her merciless aunt. We hear her loneliness as the family crow over their presents the next month. And then we set off on a social trajectory her Victorian readers must have found shocking: through a grim school to a rackety job as a governess, to romance with her irresistible thug of an employer. It's the template for several thousand romantic novels, but the original remains compelling, fresh and strange.


Evening Post, 15 Dec 2005

Seven Men and Two Others Max Beerbohm, Prion, £8.99

Max Beerbohm made his name writing graceful, funny essays; these seem much the same, until sudden turns into fantasy - deals with the devil, astonishing coincidences, freakish runs of luck - make it clear that the eight friends he’s writing about aren't real. The ninth man, if you’ve been counting, is Beerbohm himself, a gentle and confused presence in all the stories. You’ll struggle to find comic writing more perfectly executed.

Bargain of the week: Ten book bloke

Evening Post, 15 Dec 2005

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Susanna Clarke, Fopp, £5

Fopp call their target customer Fifty Quid Bloke. The idea is that he comes in looking for one CD and leaves with eight, each of which seemed dirt cheap on its own. And while most of their books are high-class end-of-line stuff, they occasionally try the £50 trick with cult novels. A fiver is what Ms Clarke's absorbing historical fantasy, a past Post Book of the Week, would cost you as part of a Waterstone’s three-for-two. Fopp give you the price up front, trusting it will become part of a 12-for-12. It's infuriating how often they're right.

Signs and Wonders 15: Walking the line

Evening Post, 15 Dec 2005

WHERE: This one by Castle Lodge, Hounds Gate; others further down Castle Street and across canal

WHAT: These little cast-iron posts mark the boundary of the Parish of Standard Hill, just as they say. But they also mark the end of an ancient tax loophole, and a series of miserable spring mornings 136 years ago.

For information on the tax loophole, I’m indebted again to Geoffrey Oldfield, who explains that Standard Hill was considered “extra-parochial”. As former royal land, it was off the map of church parishes, and hence off the hook for county rates and the upkeep of the poor.

A series of law changes over the course of the 19th Century gradually closed the loophole; and in 1868, Standard Hill became part of the system for poor rates.

This is where the miserable spring Mondays come in. The local Poor Law overseers marked the change by “perambulation”: ceremonially walking the boundary of the parish.

There’s no sign that they did the full, semi-pagan version, which involves beating the boundary-line with birch twigs. But a reprint of their proceedings makes it clear they walked the line thoroughly: the retinue includes “laddermen”. And assistant overseer Thomas Godfrey says “the time-honoured custom of inverting some of the juveniles present” would be followed. (They were apparently held upside down at points where several parishes met.)

The group first gathered at Castle Lodge at 10am on the last Monday in April. But “April was determined on vindicating a claim to her old character of ‘smiles and tears together’, only that the smiles were exceedingly rare”.

They tried again on May 4. But “the goddess of the season was watering her flowers with more profusion than could be endured, even with the aid of waterproofs and umbrellas”.

On May 10, after a speech by Godfrey tracing the history of perambulation back to Roman times, they managed to set off.

The record has Godfrey telling overseer Samuel Parr that one of his duties would be “to decide where the permanent boundary marks are to be set down and where they are to be”.

Parr replies: “I should recommend cast-iron. I think it is the least expense.”

It’s hard to know now whether he was right. But it has certainly lasted well.

Signs and Wonders 14: Heads for heritage

Evening Post, 8 December 2005

WHERE: Behind Broadmarsh Centre at the bottom of Garners Hill

WHAT: Do you remember the ten carved heads on a brick pillar that were mentioned here a few weeks ago? They depict great British heroes — poets, generals and the like — and I was under the impression they came from the old Milton’s Head hotel.

I was wrong. Two readers, John William Matthews, of Clifton, and Geoffrey Oldfield, of West Bridgford, have set me straight. These heads came from the corner of Carrington Street and Broad Marsh, where the front of the shopping centre is today. They are all that remains of what must have been a spectacular shop: pictures show a white three-tier wedding cake of a building, which encompassed at least five street numbers and sported a decorative bell-tower. For over 40 years, it was home to a branch of Montague Burton, the Tailors of Taste.

Burton came to England in 1900, a Jew escaping the ever more anti-Semitic Russian empire. He opened his first shop in Chesterfield in 1906, and his second in Mansfield soon after, but the south of the county was less of a priority. He did not reach Nottingham until the mid-twenties, by which time he had hundreds of shops and a network of factories in Leeds.

The Carrington Road store — one of three opened in quick succession — may not have been built for him, but it fitted his formula like a bespoke suit. An impressive front in a dominant location; plenty of space to rent to other chains; and a billiard hall upstairs. Burton liked billiard halls, as his biographer Eric Sigsworth explains: they kept young men away from pubs and close to his shop windows.

Mr Oldfield, as the author of Curiosities of Nottinghamshire, keeps a weather eye on architecture. And Mr Matthews, who worked on the Broadmarsh, helped to demolish the shop. He even saw the nose of one face chipped off by a builder.

Class act, but don't think of a toilet break

Evening Post, 14 Nov 2005

RICH HALL Playhouse

How to watch stand-up comedy, lesson one: If you’re in the front row, try to make sure you won’t have to step out to go to the toilet.

When a woman made that mistake in front of Rich Hall last night, she returned to discover he had questioned her boyfriend and was now composing a song about her. A serenade, rather. He’d got as far as the discovery that “Sarah” backwards was “harass”.

However — lesson two — if you must walk out from the front row, and risk coming back, there are many worse people to try it on than Hall.

He brings to wayward audience members the same mixture of good nature, confusion and controlled rage that he applies to sexual politics, actual politics (“I don’t have any answers. It’s not like I’m a folk singer”), London transport and camping in his native Montana. And his songs are pretty good, even when he’s improvising.

He can spend ten minutes building to an outraged comic realisation, as here in an elaborate routine on the building of the Hubble Space Telescope; and he can spot a chance for the same effect in the crowd, or the set, and grab it with the same force. This is a class act on peak form.

Signs and Wonders 10: Answers and questions

Evening Post, 10 Nov 2005

SINCE the first week, this column has had “You know more than us…” printed at its base. And since the first week, you’ve proved it again and again.

Sometimes people at the Post give me a response. After the article on the Dog and Bear pub, one of our librarians remembered seeing an ashtray thrown at a policeman in there. But the best stuff is always from outside the building.

Take the monkey on Fothergill’s bank, featured as the result of a reader’s suggestion. That brought an e-mail from Andrew Henderson of Clifton, explaining it was a mark of respect to the building foreman: “He was an eccentric and used to take his pet monkey to work every day.” (There was a photo of the topping-out ceremony, with foreman and monkey, but Mr Henderson no longer has it.)

Readers have also presented intriguing new mysteries. Keith Buckeridge wrote to point out the collection of marble heads behind the Broadmarsh, at the base of Garner’s Hill, saying they were rescued from the old Milton’s Head hotel. But photos and newspaper clippings from there don’t seem to feature them. Can anyone shed light?

(Another mystery, while I’m at it: the iron “Parish of Standard Hill” markers that start by the castle and extend out around the canal. They’re dated 1869, but that doesn’t seem to correspond to any parish reorganisation. Any ideas?)

Many of you wrote in after last week’s column on war memorials, and some of those letters will turn up in future columns. Two points seemed worth mentioning now, though. One was from Doreen Allison of Radcliffe-on-Trent, who pointed out an unusual feature of her church’s First World War memorial. It lists nine men who died from illness while on active service — an aspect of the war once often overlooked.

The other was from Dave Smith, whose grandfather Arthur Barson escaped German captivity in the Second World War and fled through France and Spain to Gibraltar. While he was doing this, one of the Nottingham papers (there were four then) ran a story on him, headlined “Cinderhill man missing”. We can’t find it, but if any of you have come across it…

Finally, a confession about the very first response this column received.

It was a nice man from Arnold pointing out that the fasces, the axe-and-bundle symbol found on the Shire Hall, also appeared on coins minted in the city. I was so pleased at hearing from a reader, and such a learned one, that I failed to note his name. I’m sorry. And if you call in again, I’ll make sure you receive due credit.

Signs and Wonders 9: The memorial trail

Evening Post, 3 Nov 2005

WHERE: St Mary’s Church, St Mary’s Gate; Galleries of Justice, High Pavement; Midland Station, Midland Station, Carrington Street; NatWest, Old Market Square

WHAT: They say that if you want to understand the depth of the wound England sustained in the First World War, you should walk to the smallest village you know and seek out its memorial.

In Nottingham, you do not need to walk so far for the effect: by a memorial cross outside St Mary’s Church there stand plaques listing the dead of each Notts settlement. Still-rural Clifton lost ten men, West Bridgford 208.

And there is a better method still: seek out an old and paternalistic employer.

The plaque at Nottingham Station lists 46 names — for that one station, when the city had a second running at its commercial peak.

A plaque at the central Post Office in Queen Street listed a similar toll; it was removed a while ago for building work and is due to go up again on November 11.

The former Smiths bank in Old Market Square has a plaque commemorating 415 unnamed dead from what became one half of NatWest; and another commemorating one man from the branch, Wallis Widdowson, who died in the Second World War.

Nor does the employer have to survive on site: Capital One now occupies Boots’ old printworks, but a plaque on the side still lists the men killed by a Second World War bomb — one, Derek Needham, just 16.

Perhaps the richest site for this kind of workplace plaque is the old Shire Hall, where the county council remembered its dead.

Sixteen of its teachers died in the Second World War, ten in the RAF; one man from Weights and Measures was wounded.

The more ornate Great War plaque does not carry such detail. But it has one rarer feature: one name, Percy Mears, marked “has since returned”.

I learned about some of this on a guided stroll of the Lace Market with Bill Shaw. Look out for the next one in EG’s "Events” listing, or call him on 0115 925 9388 to check when he’s out.

Signs and Wonders No 6: Monkeys and other animals

WHERE: Pelham Street/Thurland Street
WHAT: I said last week that I'd write about an unusual feature of the old Nottingham and Notts Bank head office, the amazing display of Old English eccentricity that architect Watson Fothergill built between 1877 and 1882. And so I will. But it turns out I also have the chance to introduce you to the feature's family.
We are talking, of course, about the famous stone monkey (above, far right), which reader Sonya Rudd pointed me at. It perches by a brick chimney at the far end of the building's Thurland Street side -- you need to be the other side of the road before you can catch a glimpse of its tail. The joke, supposedly, is that "monkey" was a Victorian term for mortgage; it means either that Fothergill had a mortgage "on" the bank, or (in expert Ken Brand's version) that debt was a monkey on your back.
This week, however, for the first time since NatWest moved out five years ago, it became possible to enter the main banking hall, where a second, chained monkey lurks on a column. Underwear shop Bravissimo opened the old cashiers' area a while back; now swish fashion retailer All Saints has let us back into the rest of the ground floor.
Things have changed: the space is split, the windows are larger, and there's a giant crucifix of lightbulbs that doesn’t seem exactly Fothergill's style. But a great deal of his detailing can now be seen again. The rest of the stone menagerie shown above is all from the main hall. I wonder if "owl" or "pig" were slang for financial products?
There is much more to discover around this remarkable place, starting with the plaques of Notts industries and the crests of Notts towns. But those are subjects for other columns -- or your own explorations.
The Digested Read
John Crace, Guardian Books, £9.99
It's a simple formula: 500 words to summarise a book of perhaps 500 pages, with a single-sentence summary of the summary. But in the 120 or so examples collected here, John Crace makes it something more. He's both a tart critic and a confident parodist. He can also pack an astounding amount in: short story collections, many-threaded novels, fat and rambling autobiographies. Nor does all that smother his jokes. Worth a place by any literary loo.

Classic of the week: All the world

Invisible Cities
Italo Calvino, Vintage, £6.99
Nominally Marco Polo's descriptions of his travels to Kubla Khan, and with a few strange interleaved conversations to prove it, this beautiful one-off is less a novel than a field guide to nonexistent places. Each Invisible City bears a woman's name, and is described within perhaps two pages; each reveals an aspect of real cities. One is two places, depending whether you look up or down. Another is an inescapable network of chain shops linked by airports. You can read this in a long evening. And if, when you walk out the next day, the streets do not seem different, you weren't paying attention.

Bargain of the week: A mug's eyeful

The Letters of Kingsley Amis
Kingsley Amis, The Works, Victoria Centre, £2.99
It's generally assumed that hardbacks are always worth more than paperbacks; and that the bigger the hardback, the more it's worth. Not so. This tomb-size collection of mischief from one of post-war Britain's most influential novelists is still available as a paperback. It costs £15, for which you get something that with difficulty can be read on a bus. This hardback is far too unwieldy an item for trips out of home, and has a correspondingly lower second-hand value. But it can offer a great many fun evenings in, and it doesn't half look nice on the shelf…

Poets reviewed

Council House
Earlier in the day, Brian Patten performed verse to 600 schoolchildren. Before a few dozen politely expectant adults in the Council House ballroom, he showed charm and zest that could warm a crowd of kids to poetry, and meaning they might discover with enjoyment years later.
This was Growing Up Before Your Very Eyes. We began with a childhood of rhymes and jokes -- having sworn to let ourselves be "single figures, agewise" -- and ended in an old age of Sufi riddles. (Not that Patten is old, yet: he was leaving his teens when he found Sixties fame as a Liverpool Poet.)
But there was no similar order in the age of the poems, and fresh work gave some of the most memorable images at both ends of the show. In childhood, a memory of his granny's fading tattoos, "as mysterious as rules"; in middle age, a shock of despair on seeing young women in a pub, a new thing announced as "still very rough" but sounding sharp.
Derrick Buttress, as "supporting poet", had a tighter focus: his wartime childhood in Broxtowe estate. Without flash or self-pity, he brought the chill of a poor Forties winter into this grand room.

Ian McMillan's catchphrase for nights like this is: "You won't feel daft." He needs it.
Where traditional poetry evenings might ask you to suspend your disbelief, his Big Family Show, honed to a scalpel edge on the schools circuit, asks instead that you hang up your dignity for a while. Your reward is choreographed, joyful chaos and - more grandly - a part in the creative process.
Remember the old routine where you're asked to repeat an ever-longer chorus? We had (in the authentic rush): "Doorknobs ay tiddly ay tie tie oh yes where's your jelly in my belly hedgehogs ay tiddly ay tie tie oh no what's your goldfish called Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob."
It made a sort of sense at the time. So did the young volunteer gamely following an instruction to "Wave like a swimming pool attendant."
Another lad jumped up for the grand finale, an "epic" of Nottingham speech that McMillan composed on the spot using a flipchart and shouts from the audience.
This volunteer played the True Voice of Nottingham, which said: "Gerrout!" Impressively, he always gorrin early enough to milk the laugh. Given another couple of decades, he might make a poetry performer himself.

Signs and Wonders No 5: Sugar and spice

Where: Corner of Upper Parliament Street and Clinton Street West
What: Any column about buildings in Nottingham is going to spend time in the company of the architect Watson Fothergill. He designed less than you'd think, and hardly a thing outside Notts, but his flamboyant late-19th Century Gothic style -- brick with stripes of colour, towers, fancy roofs, rich sculptural detail -- flavours the city like a spice.
His surviving masterpiece is probably the old NatWest bank in Thurland Street. One of its more unusual points, which reader Sonya Rudd kindly e-mailed to point out, will feature next week. But I wanted to start with somewhere easier to ignore.
The Lloyds TSB in Parliament Street went up in 1896 as a shop and warehouse for Furley's the grocer, a local firm that Industries of Nottingham declared seven years earlier was "clearly entitled to take a foremost rank in the tea, provision and grocery trade" in the city. It went on to talk of Furley's international links.
The shop's decorations show a similar emphasis on the glamorous, imperial end of the provisions biz. Just above the ground floor, terracotta panels -- cheaper than the Thurland Street building's carved stone ones -- depict growing and trading tea, cutting and boiling cane sugar.
To judge by the similar panels on his office around the corner, Fothergill probably had them made by Creswick's of Birmingham. Daniel Laurence Golberg, who researched the matter in the 1970s, reckons he would have given general ideas for the designs, rather than detailed drawings, and then tweaked models before manufacture. But however they were created, the end result is all Fothergill.

Classic of the week: Just say yes

The Warden
Anthony Trollope, Oxford World's Classics, £4.99
The Warden is, as police say of cannabis, a gateway drug. You begin on a gentle, frolicsome short novel, always willing to break with realism if there's a chance to mock Charles Dickens, and you end up addicted to the Barchester Chronicles, thousands of pages of ecclesiastical soap opera. The secret is Trollope's ability to create sympathetic characters -- the genial old Warden, Septimus Harding; his starched son-in-law, Archdeacon Grantly; his boat-rocking potential son-in-law, John Bold -- while delighting in their delusions. Try it. You can give up any time you like.

Bargain of the week: When the gimmick goes

Down and Out in Paris and London
George Orwell, Fopp, £3
The Penguin Essentials were a marketing idea of great cunning and some success. They are repackaged classics and good steady sellers -- which publishers will tell you are tantamount to the same thing -- in a cute small format with designer covers. A few years later they've become an oddity that bookshops return, and so Orwell's bitter, eye-opening early work on life as a tramp is available at an almost tramp-friendly price. You have to do without scholarly notes, but you'll survive.

Previewed poets

NATIONAL Poetry Day has gone, but the biggest noises in this year's Poetry in the City Festival are yet to come. This week sees visits from three "name" poets -- Benjamin Zephaniah, Brian Patten and Ian McMillan -- as well as a dense programme of events featuring Notts writers and performers.
Perhaps the most well-known of all is Benjamin Zephaniah, dub poet, children’s novelist, Rasta, activist, and OBE refusenik. He's the featured poet at an event on Sunday to mark the second anniversary of open-mic night Black Drop -- a serious coup for an all-volunteer set-up with no outside funding.
Zephaniah has an international following (he was in China while this was being written) and an energy and enthusiasm that can sometimes overshadow just how radical he is. That's less likely to be a problem here. He'll be supported by favourites from Black Drop's monthly events.
Brian Patten, who reads at the Council House on Thursday, has developed a double audience. There's those who might have discovered him as a Liverpool poet, with Roger McGough and Adrian Henri, and followed him to later books like Storm Damage and Armada, which display the same wit and emotional kick.
Then there's a younger audience who know him as the author of Gargling with Jelly and Juggling with Gerbils, books that helped change schools poetry. "Poetry used to be something you would threaten children with," he said. "Now you'd be more likely to say, 'If you're bad, you can't come to the poetry reading'."
Growing Up Before Your Very Eyes aims to unite the two crowds. "It's a journey through a life, really," he says -- starting with a few poems for children that also have adult appeal, and heading on through adolescence and middle-aged rebellion. It also includes unpublished work. (Patten reckons he probably has enough material for a new collection, although it's not happening at once.)
Then there's the physics-defying Ian McMillan. They have yet to discover a particle that can be "in residence" at so many places: his portfolio includes Barnsley FC, Yorkshire Television, UK Trade and Industry and the entire East Midlands (he's our laureate).
It makes sense in every non-physics way. He has charm, style, a big friendly Barnsley accent and a wicked sense of rhythm. He also has a genius for quick-turnaround topical verse -- "It's kind of a bizarre skill," he told us -- and is shortly to appear on Radio 4 with a poem on the death of Ronnie Barker.
His Big Family Show, here next Friday, takes that a step on. "I read poems and tell stories," he said. "And then as a climax, using my flipchart, I ask the audience to help me create an interactive Nottingham epic." He supplies a line, we supply rhymes and he heads off in some unexpected directions. It's for his benefit, too. "I'd get bored just doing the same thing," he says.
If you'd care to mark Poetry in the City by helping to create a poem, this is your chance.

Signs and Wonders No 4: Buses with trailers

WHERE: Bus stops in Old Market Square and Upper Parliament Street
WHAT: Would you be prepared to leave a customised combination of a DVD player and a computer at a bus stop overnight?
Street furniture company JC Decaux is. For seven years, Decaux has maintained Nottingham's bus shelters in return for the right to put adverts on them, and for three months it has had "showscreens" -- interactive displays -- at two city stops.
They play film trailers and other video clips if you press buttons. It dreamed them up with film distributor Buena Vista, and we’re one of only five cities to have them (the others are London, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow).
There have been more spectacular advertising gimmicks -- you may remember a Mini hanging from the Plaza hotel, and there's a giant 3D mobile phone on one of the other Old Market Square bus stops at the moment -- but these screens are relatively permanent installations, hanging around to promote several different films.
The vote of confidence in our streets seems justified so far. Remarkably, they claim to have had no vandalism at all, and say 43,000 punters in Nottingham played with the buttons during promotions for Sin City and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
"The important thing is to be an asset rather than an irritation," says the firm's marketing director, David McEvoy. Although it may also help that the billboards carry built-in CCTV cameras.
The screens are already booked for another couple of films. Technology-wise, the next big development is likely to be mobile-phone promotions, encouraging those who play with the screens to sign up for ringtones, special offers and the like. It's one thing making bus stops talk to passers-by -- the real trick is persuading the passers-by to talk back.

Classic of the week: Blurb heaven

At Swim-two-birds
Flann O’Brien, Penguin, £8.99
Try these for quotes on a book jacket: "That's a real writer with the true comic spirit" - James Joyce; "Just the book to give your sister, if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl" - Dylan Thomas. Flann attracted them because this is a once-only collision of ageless comic blather -- he has a genius ear for dialogue -- and high modernist technique. Relatively realistic passages about a young lodger mix with pitch-perfect parodies of ancient Irish poetry and accounts of a novelist who lives with his characters, and is finding them ever less obedient. As difficult to explain as it is to forget.

Bargain of the week: Just you wait

The Lovely Bones/Lucky
Alice Sebold, £3.99 each, The Works (Broadmarsh)
You can buy the books that everybody is talking about, and cheap -- just providing you wait until they've all shut up. The Lovely Bones is a touching fantasia from the perspective of a murdered girl; it's one of those quiet, literary-looking novels that go on to sell in the hundreds of thousands, and are discussed by every book group in the land. And if your nearest book-group member no longer cares to discuss it, there's always Lucky, Sebold's steady-eyed memoir of the real trauma that inspired her bestseller.

Signs and Wonders No 3: The Old Bill

Where: Weekday Cross
What: “First-class London” suggests a railway ad, but step closer — close enough to see the faded “Theatre Royal” above. Then it becomes a promise about the quality of touring productions.
The man promising, in smaller letters, is “Managing Director: Mr Robert Taylor”. And he seems to have kept his word, at least at first.
Taylor was a middle-ranking impresario. He started out at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, and came to control theatres in Dundee, Aberdeen, Wolverhampton, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Liverpool, as well as in suburban London.
He took on the Royal around 1897, after local management failed, and got prolific theatre architect Frank Matcham, then building a music hall next door for the much bigger Moss Empires chain, to do an expansion: up to 3,000 seats, from 2,500. It’s 1,100 or so today. In his first year, Taylor booked Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, his era’s biggest stars, and Janet Achurch, producer of scandalous new plays by the likes of Bernard Shaw.
Later on, top names did still visit: 1908 brought the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt (a student called D.H. Lawrence was in the audience). But day-to-day quality seems to have slipped. In 1920, “An Old Playgoer” wrote in the Weekly Guardian: “It would entail a long search to find the date when a Shakespeare play was last staged here.” In 1924, Moss Empires took control.

Bargain of the week: Clough cut

Walking on Water: My Life
Brian Clough, Nottingham Discount Bookshop, £2.99
How could a large pile of Cloughie’s autobiography end up being knocked off cheap in the city that loves him most? Is it possible that everyone in Nottingham who wants to read Walking on Water has already done so? Perhaps, but it’s also an update thing. This is a 2003 version, with the great man’s thoughts on Arsene Wenger heavily promoted, rather than the posthumous-tribute 2005 edition. It also looks to have been sold on from the publisher to a discounter, so money is unlikely to find its way back to the Clough estate.
Fathers and Sons
Alexander Waugh, Review, £8.99
The distinguished opera critic (son of Auberon, grandson of Evelyn) attempts once and for all to rid himself of family comparisons by bundling them into a single book and hauling them out to sea. The exercise is also meant to provide general insights into father-son relations, which seems unlikely given the status and eccentricity of the Waughs. The accounts remain honest even in the autobiographical sections -- but the family smugness hangs around, too.

Classic of the week: Gentlemen and players

Vanity Fair
William Thackeray, Penguin Classics, £6.99
The West Indian writer CLR James read Vanity Fair every three months from the age of eight, and says it taught him to be a gentleman. But if any Victorian novel offers a greater concentration of bounders, I don't know it. The heroine is Becky Sharp, an irresistible and unscrupulous social climber, who is matched off with Amelia Sedley, a ladylike wet hen. They take part in a brutal, sentimental Punch-and-Judy show against the background of the Napoleonic wars. This was already a history lesson when it was written, but it still seethes with life.
The Blackpool Highflyer
Andrew Martin, Faber, £7.99
The second in what looks like a series of steam-driven thrillers takes us to Edwardian Halifax, where the streets empty for Wakes Week and the phone numbers run from one to four. Someone has placed a millstone in the way of an excursion train, and stoker Jim Stringer won’t rest easy until he knows who. Martin is pleasingly non-twee and, though his pacing is more tank engine than Highflyer, he knows how to keep his passengers on board.

Bargain of the week: Booker losers

Cloud Atlas
David Mitchell, Fopp, £3
When a novel goes on the Booker shortlist, the publisher delays thoughts of the paperback and reprints the hardback. When it’s a hot favourite, as Cloud Atlas was last year, they reprint heavily; and when it doesn’t win, they are left with a problem from which we can benefit. Missing out to Alan Hollinghurst hasn’t made this six-story extravaganza any less intriguing — or any less dense. And this year’s Booker shortlist only came out last week, so you have at least a year before the next big wave of literary discounts hits.

Signs and Wonders No 2: A Dog's life

Where: Starbucks and Whittard’s, Bridlesmith Gate
What: You can shut an old pub easily enough. Erasing it is another matter.
Take the sculpture on this building. It tells you what the place used to sell (the products of grapes and hops), what it was called (the Dog and Bear), when (1876) it was last rebuilt. It even gives the monogram of its landlord at the time: TS, for Thomas Smith.
When Smith commissioned architect John Collyer, the Dog was already more than a century old. Gordon Wright and Bryan Curtis, in their Inns and Pubs of Nottinghamshire, find a reference to it in borough records in 1733; and they find bear-baiting, the source of its name, in Weekday Cross the century before. (The faces at the top of two arches are most likely “champions”, the men who tried their dogs against the chained bear.)
Bear-baiting left Nottingham in the 1840s, shortly before being outlawed, but the pub is a more recent death. It hit trouble in the late eighties, when it lost its licence for a year, and fatal trouble in the early nineties, when then owners Bass decided to move the licence round the corner to the old county court.
The Dog shut in 1993; The Court, its St Peter’s Gate replacement, went through several incarnations before ending up as a Hugo Boss shop. You have to look rather harder for traces of a pub there.
That We Might Never Meet Again
Philip Robinson, Faber, £10.99
The artist, his wife, her lover (who is also the gardener), the childlike probably-daughter of the lord of the manor; oh, and the cook -- That We Might Never Meet Again is the work of an Irishman, and is set on what seems to be a Scottish estate, but it feels as English and as mannered as a film by Peter Greenaway. The elaborately sculpted, sometimes overworked prose makes enigmatic a sequence of betrayals that in any plainer handling would read like melodrama.
Kensington Gardens
Roderigo Fresan, Faber, £12.99
A couple of decades ago, every second or third-rate English literary novelist was writing "magic realism" set in the jungles of Latin America. Well, Latin America has decided to get its own back. This is an Argentinian novel set in exotic west London, where memories of Peter Pan and the swinging Sixties form a psychotic cocktail in the mind of a Harry Potter-meets-Michael Jackson children's author. It's far from note-perfect -- Fresan thinks British trains are proverbially punctual -- but the view of ourselves from outside is fascinating.

The Politics Show

Nottingham Castle
There is a problem common to most activist comics. Their acts are both funny and political -- but the parts which are funny are not political and the parts which are political are not funny. You get a Stop The War talking point, then a bodily fluid gag, then two talking points, then a children’s TV reference, then another talking point in a funny voice.
You might expect this to particularly affect Rob Newman, who since leaving The Mary Whitehouse Experience and splitting with David Baddiel has increasingly focused on revolutionary causes. Newman is on the polysyllabic wing of the anti-globalisation movement, and no matter how good your Johnny Rotten impression is -- his is brilliant, by the way -- it's not going to sugar a phrase like "nexus of multiple causation".
He solves the problem, and raises many of his best laughs, through sharp, poised self-awareness. The "nexus" clunker he follows with a genial "that's my new catchphrase". When discussing the role of an American called Kermit Roosevelt in installing the Shah of Iran, he pauses to point out the Kermit the Frog gag he has avoided, sketching briefly the seventies-TV-and-dictatorships routine he could have built from it and, at greater length, the sense of dissatisfaction it would have left us with.
Last night's show, titled Apocalypso and with a subtitle that would take up most of my remaining word-count, included formidable-sounding doses of history and economics, but held a packed and not particularly political-rallyish marquee with scarcely a waver. It may seem tough, when you read it in cold print, to imagine a tentful of comedy fans laughing through a case that the Iraq war was partly caused by the switching of oil trades from dollars to euros, but you must also imagine the grace with which Newman manages to dance around his wandering thoughts, the power of his enthusiasm and his skill and imagination as a mimic.
That routine, the first-half climax, builds to a sustained one-man play of world politics as a Brooklyn slum, with the US as "the biggest crack dealer on the block", being taunted by a sarky little Venezuela and a hulking, Darth Vader-ish China. It comes complete with sound-effects and Tannoy announcements from Iraq. You could have a cartoon version on to BBC Four by this time next year and it'd be a hit.
He also had a ukelele, which is less easy to defend. Well, it's about the simplest way to generate a musical backing and, on the plus side, he did keep forgetting to plug it in. The songs it accompanies put across maximum lyrical wit with minimum vocal ambition: his version of Bob Dylan is oddly akin to Dead Ringers' Robin Cook.
In the second half, after a successful attempt to connect William Wordsworth and ID cards, we came to a subject even Newman finds difficult to make funny: peak oil, or the certainty of a coming energy crisis. He drove home his message -- "there is no way out" -- like the best teacher you never had, but had to segue back into observational comedy about green groups to end it on a laugh.
After that, a searingly funny encore about a sinister-voiced landlord demonstrated the art Newman has muffled to suffer for his politics. His "serious" routines are a tightrope walked with style, if not always without wobbles. But this was a reminder that they are also a real sacrifice of money and fame for principle.
Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince
J.K. Rowling, Bloomsbury, £16.99
Has she still got it? Well, when I was handed the Post’s copy of Half-blood Prince, I took it to a pub, meaning to glance at a chapter or so. I stopped on page 282, after a friend had been trying to catch my eye for an hour. Harry is no longer doing an impression of Kevin the Teenager; he’s venturing into the past of megabaddy Voldemort with headmaster Dumbledore, and starting on a dodgily written romance. Patchy, but the sense of danger is impressive.
1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare
James Shapiro, Faber, £16.99
Most general-audience books on Shakespeare are full of the grandest hot air. This one sets the plays of a single year -- Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Hamlet -- against events at the time of their composition and performance. The results are still speculative, but they are closely enough argued to be both compelling and convincing: how a change of cast (and theatre) affected Shakespeare’s style; how a failing war in Ireland and an ageing, paranoid queen seeped into his stage politics. Illuminating.
Mobius Dick
Andrew Crumey, Picador, £7.99
It’s said that if you think quantum physics makes sense, you haven’t understood it. The same may be true of Mobius Dick, in which a physicist’s love-life undergoes quantum entanglement. Is the journalist he runs into at a nuclear power station the same as the young academic he once romanced? What about the two patients we meet in a mysterious hospital? And why are we also being given extracts from nonexistent German novels? Crumey’s neat, simple style makes the answers as clear as could be expected, and much odder.

It was quiet... too quiet

Rescue Rooms
She asks for the lights to be turned down,"so I don't feel like I'm about to be run over". Her merchandise stall, which offers embroidered T-shirts and her own paintings, could pass as a miniature craft fair. But Kathryn Williams is not wholly above showing off.
Her encore last night, as the audience requested, was Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah -- every syllable weighed and timed for meaning, the power obvious but held in reserve. It's not something to attempt unless you're sure you can do it, and she can.
When she performs her own works, you have to listen closer for the fireworks. They're short, crafty things about settled love, unease and irritation, the product of two guitars, a cello and a foot-operated tambourine.
Old songs, like the lovely Flicker, are nudged back to life with a smile to the cellist. New ones, like the oddly cheery Indifference or the sweet, as-yet-unrecorded When, see a marked upping of energy. Williams may be a modest performer, but she has much not to be modest about.
Chuck Palahniuk, Cape, £12.99
A group of would-be writers are locked in an old theatre for three months. While they wait for something saleable to happen, they tell each other Chuck Palahniuk stories: gory new urban myths about sex and death in alternative therapy, cooking, the art world. Few of the characters have much character, and none has a voice distinguishable from the author’s, which heightens the impact to the point of kitsch. More a horror movie than a modern Canterbury Tales, but it’s okay horror.

Classic of the week: Hidden package

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Robert Louis Stevenson, Zulma, £6.99
One in a series of snazzy, if overpriced, English classics being issued by a French publishing house, this is one of those books you only think you know. In the original, you encounter the evil Edward Hyde long before Dr Henry Jekyll; and when Jekyll does open up, the theme of hypocrisy is more strongly stressed than any version has dared to make it since. A handful of Stevenson’s critical essays serve to take this edition over the psychologically important 100-page mark.

You are what you donate

The shelves of any charity shop offer a group portrait of those who give to it. The bookshelves of a dozen can give you a literary map of Notts. Between last Thursday and this Tuesday, I visited 11 branches of Oxfam; I now have that map, and I am printing it below.
Sticking to Oxfam should have made the survey fairer. They claim to be the largest retailer of second-hand books in Europe, and they handle these things consistently well. It still won’t be completely fair, though.
The notes on what each area is into or not into are adjusted for size of shop; it took more for West Bridgford to be into something than for Sutton-in-Ashfield to be. Although I have resisted snaffling the volumes listed as "coolest", any item mentioned may be gone. Ditto any special offer. Impressions may reflect store managers’ biases, as well as mine. I have ignored Arnold’s second branch (the Nottingham Road one) because it seemed to be reorganising its books. And you have my apologies if your Proust-loving neighbourhood happens to be Oxfam-free.
That said, if it does have an Oxfam, and my comments offend you, the solution is simple. Buy up the bad books. Donate some good ones. Your honour is at stake.
Oxfam Books and Music, Goose Gate
Space for books: Three-quarters of swish new shop
Into: Comics; trendy crime novels; TV nostalgia; leather sofas; bare wood floors
Not into: Mills and Boon; God
Coolest: Awopbopaloobop Awopbamboom, by Nik Cohn. 1969 classic on rock ’n’ roll in funky 1972 paperback, with photos, £9.99
Naffest: Gremlins, the book of the film. Three copies, £1.99 each
West Bridgford (I)
Oxfam Books and Music, Central Avenue
Space for books: Two floors stuffed to the gills
Into: Cooking; left politics; military history; alternative health; highbrow fiction
Not into: Not much (this is the flagship bookshop)
Coolest: Guy Burgess, by Tom Driberg. Rare biography of Soviet double-agent by gay Communist gossip columnist, £9.99
Naffest: Millionnaire Moments, by Chris Tarrant. Dear God, why? £2.49
West Bridgford (II)
Oxfam, Tudor Square
Space for books: A wall and two spinner thingies
Into: Gardening; Jilly Cooper; science fiction; Victorian novels
Not into: Poetry
Coolest: Once in a House on Fire, by Andrea Ashworth. First edition of the only well-written abuse memoir, 99p
Naffest: Love at First Sight, by Barbara Cartland. Author’s name in pale pink. 59p
Oxfam, Littleworth
Space for books: Five or six narrow shelves
Into: Beatrix Potter; Danielle Steel; Patricia Cornwell
Not into: Novels without embossed lettering
Coolest: The Way It Was, by Stanley Matthews. Fat paperback autobiography of football legend, 99p
Naffest: The World's Most Fantastic Freaks, by Mike Parker. Creepy (the publishers, that is). Unpriced
Oxfam Super Savings, Outram Street
Space for books: A spinner and a long, low wall unit
Into: Bargains (“ALL books 20p!”); battered bonkbusters; highbrow surprises (Virago Modern Classics, anyone?)
Not into: Non-fiction
Coolest: Stories My Mother Never Told Me, by Alfred Hitchcock. Sixties pulp in fake Saul Bass cover, 20p
Naffest: An Introduction to Comparative Biochemistry, by Ernest Baldwin. Forty-year-old textbook, 20p
Oxfam, Front Street
Space for books: Half a wall; spinner; low-slung unit
Into: Royalty; travel; hobbies of all kinds
Not into: Show-off fiction; poetry; plays
Coolest: Sarah Bernhardt, by Joanna Richardson. 1959 biography of big-league Victorian actress, £19.99
Naffest: Haynes Workshop Manual for Lada 1200, 1300, 1500 and 1600 (1974 to 1981), 49p
Oxfam, Plains Road
Space for books: About half of a large shop
Into: Literary fiction; animals (pets especially); travel guides
Not into: Romance (there’s a shelf, but Fay Weldon's on it); travel writing
Coolest: The Politics of Ecstasy, by Timothy Leary. Hippie testament, with psychedelic cover — and a blurb quote from the author’s wife, £1.49
Naffest: How to Live With a Neurotic Cat, by Stephen Baker, £1.49
Oxfam, Mansfield Road
Space for books: Front of shop plus chunk of children’s section at back
Into: Children’s books; collectables; things that ought to be collectable
Not into: Cooking (small section with a suspicious number of books about drink)
Coolest: Another Country, by James Baldwin. Book club hardback of modern classic in nice jacket, £1.99
Naffest: The Fight for Canada, by David Orchard, £1.49
Oxfam, High Road
Space for books: Half to two-thirds of a shop
Into: Being an English student (literature, poetry, criticism); feminism; thrillers
Not into: Danielle Steel — the only shop in this survey with none
Coolest: Dip the Puppy, by Spike Milligan. Insane children’s book with
hand-drawn text, £19.99
Naffest: Mr Thrifty’s How to Save Money on Absolutely Everything, by Jane Furnival. Tip one: Don’t give books away. 99p
Oxfam Books, Carter Gate
Space for books: Almost whole of smallish shop
Into: Old bindings; maps; nature; science fiction; Catherine Cookson
Not into: Politics
Coolest: Travels in Tartary, by Peter Fleming. Double volume from the James Bond author’s cleverer brother, £2.49
Naffest: Home Dairying, by Katie Thear. Find the right cow for your house, £1.99
Long Eaton
Oxfam, Market Place
Space for books: Half a wall and two spinners
Into: Large photo-heavy volumes of the kind that turn up in Booksale; Agatha Christie
Not into: Travel guides; dictionaries
Coolest: The Principles of Mathematics, Bertrand Russell. Heavyweight philosophical work, 99p
Naffest: The Best Platinum Tips Book Ever! Formerly free with PlayStation Tips magazine, now 39p

Classic of the week: Newsflash

John Hersey, Penguin, £7.99
It feels as if the knowledge has always existed: there is a weapon powerful enough to destroy civilisation. But when the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, on August 6, 1945, no one knew what it was. (A petrol device, perhaps?) The doctors did not know the slow death coming to “survivors” was radiation sickness. Hersey’s calm, clear, humane account follows six people through the aftermath of that day. What they discover is already in the back of your mind; but that doesn’t make it any less shocking, or less necessary.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth
Malcolm Pryce, Bloomsbury, £9.99
Private eye Louie Knight has a monkey on his back. She’s called Cleopatra, and she wants to know what’s happened to her son. Her organ-grinder, meanwhile, needs a 100-year-old murder solving. And Myfanwy, Louie’s comatose girlfriend, has been kidnapped in a scam involving drugged raspberry ripple. Like the others in the series, this is hard-boiled, cracked, and intermittently hilarious.
The Normals
David Gilbert, Faber, £10.99
Billy Schine is a Harvard graduate temping at 28; his student loan company has mentioned violence. So he runs off to become a medical guinea-pig, and enters the world of hip literary fiction, where the people are mysterious, the conversation is intricately but stiffly patterned, and the rumble of intellectual machinery can be sensed through the floor. Stylish, but contains no one you’re meant to feel for.

Four laptops and more guitars

Rock City
Frontman Jeff Tweedy is anxious, or pretending to be.
"Did that sound all right?" he asks, gesturing to the pile of kit behind him. "We just picked these up off the streets. We're still figuring out how to work them."
If that's so, Wilco must walk some very expensive streets.
This was a four-laptop gig: one on stage by the keyboards, three back in the sound booth to control tasteful, if sometimes obvious, projected visuals. (A great, joyously received version of the sweet Hummingbird gets the inevitable nature images.)
Wilco used to be an alt-country band, straightforward enough to back Billy Bragg in recording the lost lyrics of folk legend Woody Guthrie. But since their album before last, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, they have become a more complicated proposition, rich with electronics and noise.
Last night's show leant heavily on this newer material: they opened with the delicately spooky Hell is Chrome, one of the most memorable tracks on new album A Ghost is Born, taking in almost all the rest of it over the night.
It's still guitars, however -- up to three at a time, swapped frequently -- that provide the dominant note. Songs often disappear into a swirl of feedback or, as with Spiders, a long, loud instrumental workout.
I was wondering how some of their ambitious material would come across on stage -- and they are equipped to do every bleep. But the shift from electronics only makes them more accessible. Live, they sound less like a shortwave radio being detuned, and more like a rock band.

Solo Rutle

Palace Theatre, Newark
There are some things a wise musician will not attempt. And there were some points during the first half of this show when it felt like Neil Innes was working through a list of them.
He performed My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies without the aid of sound effects. He asked a not-yet-warmed-up crowd to sing along with the line "I'm all alone" and then thanked us, seeming not to notice how little noise was coming back. (This was followed up with another audience participation routine in which we recited "I will not recite, parrot-fashion…")
But Innes has too much guile, too much showbiz experience, and too many witty, skilful songs not to win out. By the second half, he had us going through three call-and-response routines in a single, rapid chorus, and was sounding much more invigorated himself.
Some quick career notes: Neil Innes began in the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, a bunch of 1960s art students who mixed elderly music-hall numbers with adroit contemporary stuff; he was the songwriterly foil to Vivian Stanshall, the plummy-voiced anarchist who fronted the group. (It was the Bonzos who recorded I'm the Urban Spaceman, which Innes now introduces as his "medley of hit".) He went on to become a sort of musical consultant to Monty Python (that's him singing to "Brave Sir Robin" in …and the Holy Grail) and to form the Rutles, spoof Beatles whose songs come close to matching the originals.
Last night's performance covered most of this CV, and confirmed him as both a brilliant parodist -- he can get Bob Dylan's dreadful wheezy harmonica playing to a squeak -- and something of an old hippie. His most recent musical target was Elton John. There was lots of new material, pleasant and melodic and with dextrous lyrics, but these days he is writing about what he knows, without putting on disguises. A touching piece about hearing of the deaths of friends; a whole series on irritations of modern life, from lousy TV to computers. These draw murmurs of assent, as well as laughs.
Not all the satire is on target. A series of "sponsors' jingles" (for which Innes and band put on dark glasses) come across as nostalgic rather than threatening. But this is an act that continues to develop, by a man willing to follow his instincts. It isn’t always successful; but it is still alive.
In The Company of Cheerful Ladies
Alexander McCall Smith, Abacus, £6.99
Mma Ramotswe, Botswana's No1 lady detective, is safely married and has plenty of work. But then she knocks down a nice man with her tiny van, and her dreadful ex turns up, and suddenly there is enough going on -- but not too much -- for a gentle comic narrative. Sixth in the series and no big shocks (that's the appeal).

Classic of the week

Alasdair Gray, Canongate, £8.99
Old joke. Two Scotsmen meet in the afterlife. One says: "Call this heaven? It's very little better than Glasgow." And the other replies: "What made you think this was heaven?" In Alasdair Gray's Lanark, hell -- a dark city called Unthank -- heaven and most places in between are versions of Glasgow. His hero, sometimes called Lanark and sometimes Duncan Thaw, travels between them in search of the good life. His author, meanwhile, flits between the mundane and the visionary. A strange, wonderful novel.
The Final Solution
Michael Chabon, Fourth Estate, £10
Think of this as Sherlock Holmes vs The Nazis. But bear in mind that, by 1944, Holmes is 89 and keeping bees in Sussex, and only ever named as “the old man”. And his only contact with the evils across the channel is a ten-year-old German Jewish refugee whose pet parrot recites secrets. Good faith and intelligent pastiche style redeem what could have been a sick joke.
So Now Who Do We Vote For?
John Harris, Faber, £7.99
At the coming election, Labour supporters face an unattractive choice. They can have a pro-war PM and the most right-wing home affairs policy in decades, or they can have the Tories. John Harris talks to potential alternatives from Charles Kennedy (who he can’t stand) to George Galloway (who he likes, sort of). No real answers, but it’s briskly written.
Love Me
Garrison Keillor, Faber, £7.99
Larry Wyler, not-quite-hero of Love Me, writes humourless novels full of unspeakable dialogue. That’s not a problem Keillor has to worry about. But while this skit on the self-regarding author’s memoir can be wonderfully silly, it’s a bit close to the real thing. Keillor may be moaning about the New Yorker being taken over by the Mafia, but he’s still moaning about the New Yorker. Read his other stuff first.

A fine vintage

Sideways is a stag-night comedy. That doesn’t mean it’s about binge-drinking in Cracow for 37, or even cocktails in the Lace Market for 20; only the groom and best man are invited, and they are spending a full week touring wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley, California. But the smell of testosterone and desperation should be familiar all the same.
The best man, and the star, is Miles (Paul Giametti), a painfully divorced teacher with a novel in some in-tray at the last publisher yet to reject it. Miles is a wine buff. He thinks of himself as a pinot noir — thin-skinned, delicate, potentially exceptional — and his aim for the week is to introduce the groom to a world of refined pleasure, and maybe show off a little.
The groom, though, is his college room-mate Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a plastic-handsome actor who once played a doctor on a daytime soap and now does voiceovers for drug ads. His aim for the week is to get laid.
Their wishes are granted. Miles gets Maya (Virginia Madsen), a beautiful waitress as divorced and earnest as he is. Jack gets Stephanie, a single-mum wine salesman who would qualify as feisty if she hadn’t fallen for such an obvious fake. And when the nature of their trip becomes clear, both men get trouble.
There are any number of ways this film could have gone wrong. When you have a director as acidic as Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt), setting up romances for two loser-ish blokes, onlookers may wonder what the women see in them (Virginia Madsen, radiating goodness and intelligence, has provoked a particularly protective reaction from some critics). Indeed, you may wonder what the two blokes see in each other. Payne, without seeming to try, gives you all their crotchets and character flaws within about the first half-hour.
Two things make it work. First, there’s the skill of the performances. Giametti is the most charismatic bearded whiny guy since Ricky Jay; he can make you identify with self-pity, and convince you there’s something behind it. And Church makes Jack’s dumb lechery seem sincere, almost good-natured.
Second, there’s the skill of the construction. I won’t give away the ending, but it refuses the characters happiness to an extent almost unbelievable in a Hollywood movie; and then relents without turning entirely sweet. Take the whole wedding party.

Gag reel

When most comedians ask the audience a question, they are looking for a murmur of recognition -- some sign of warmth to ease them into the joke.
Milton Jones sounds as if he’s after the same effect. That is, until you register what he's saying.
"Awkward, isn’t it," runs a typical opener, "being both a moth and a sea-captain? In charge of a ship, and yet when you see a lighthouse…"
His appearance could have primed you for something odd -- he's in a sweater the charity shop wouldn't want back and sports who-woke-me-up hair. There is an apparent sleepiness in his delivery, too: he trails off mid-sentence as soon as his quicker listeners can be expected to guess the rest.
Then he glances around for a few seconds as the rest of us catch up, and starts brightly on another topic of common interest.
Say: "Have you ever fallen asleep while eating a plate of aubergines?" Or: "Farmers -- they take a lot of heroin."
If the pay-off is a little more obvious than normal -- as with the farmers, who are preparation for a "needle in a haystack" gag -- he may not even have to say it. He just stops, waits for the realisation and the laugh, then moves on. This is the king of the one-and-a-half-liner.
The bareness of his act, all short sections, no linking material, might seem limiting. There are plenty of comedians who reveal more of themselves in ten minutes than Jones has in several series of radio shows.
But he gives expert flashes of other techniques -- mimicry, visual humour -- suggesting tight focus has more to do with his style than any lack of talent. He simply wanders on stage and is funny, no complications. And among stand-ups this clever, that’s starting to seem unorthodox.
The Longshoreman
Richard Shelton, Atlantic Books, £8.99
A love letter to the hunter-gatherer instinct, full of shootin' and fishin', from a clear-eyed scientist with a passion for the cycles of nature. His sharpness wavers when he’s off his specialist subjects -- there were times when I found myself waiting for the next lobster to appear -- but his gusto never flags, and could carry you through almost anything.