Clive James: Occupation: Housewife

I’ve a working Sunday tomorrow, so I’m making the most of relaxing as much as I can. At the moment, I’m listening to the second of a two-CD set of Clive James and Pete Atkin live in Australia in 2003. It’s a record of a set they took on tear, a mixing of musings,music and readings.

The previous year, we saw them perform this set at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, and afterwards my wife bought and had autographed a copy of the only book I didn’t then have anyway. Funnily enough, Clive misheard her name and signed it to a different one, the funny bit being that it was her mother’s name: of course he corrected it.

It was a great evening out, but the highlight was somehing that took both of us by surprise. It was a poem neither of us had seen or heard, introduced at length, as being about Australia during and after the Waar, and about his mother, left to bring him up alone when the plane bringing her husband back from imprisonment in Japan crashed in Hong Kong harbour: he had never seen his son.

At first the poem had all the audience in fits of laughter, especially when read in Clive’s dry tones. But gradually the laughter faded and the tone changed. Read it for yourself below, it deserves to be known by everyone, both from the skill that makes such a thing draw your emotions from comedy to something that is it’s opposite, until the killing final line that left few eyes dry.


Advertisements asked “Which twin has the Toni?”
Our mothers were supposed to be non-plussed.
Dense paragraphs of technical baloney
Explained the close resemblance of the phoney
To the Expensive Perm. It worked on trust.

The barber tried to tell me the same sheila
With the same Expensive Perm was pictured twice.
He said the Toni treatment was paint-sealer
Re-bottled by a second-hand car dealer
And did to hair what strychnine did to mice.

Our mothers all survived, but not the perms.
Two hours at most the Toni bobbed and dazzled
Before the waves were back on level terms,
Limp as the spear-points of the household germs
An avalanche of Vim left looking frazzled.

Another false economy, home brew
Seethed after nightfall in the laundry copper.
Bought on the sly, the hops were left to stew
Into a mulch that grunted as it grew.
You had to sample it with an eye-dropper,

Not stir it with a stick as one mum did.
She piled housebricks on top, thinking the gas
Would have nowhere to go. Lucky she hid
Inside the house. The copper blew its lid
Like Krakatoa to emit a mass

Of foam. The laundry window bulged and broke.
The prodigy invaded the back yard.
Spreading across the lawn like evil smoke
It murdered her hydrangeas at a stroke
And long before the dawn it had set hard.

On a world scale, one hardly needs to note,
Those Aussie battlers barely had a taste
Of deprivation. Reeling from the boat
Came reffo women who had eaten goat
Only on feast days. Still, it is the waste

I think of, the long years without our men,
And only the Yanks to offer luxuries
At a price no decent woman thought of then
As one she could afford, waiting for when
The Man Himself came back from Overseas.

And then I think of those whose men did not:
My mother one of them. She who had kept
Herself for him for so long, and for what?
To creep, when I had splinters, to my cot
With tweezers and a needle while I slept?

Now comes the time I fly to sit with her
Where she lies waiting, to what end we know.
We trade our stories of the way things were,
The home brew and the perm like rabbit fur.
How sad, she says, the heart is last to go.

The heart, the heart. I still can hear it break.
She asked for nothing except his return.
To pay so great a debt, what does it take?
My books, degrees, the money that I make?
Proud of a son who never seems to learn,

​She can’t forget I lost my good pen-knife.
Those memories of waste do not grow dim
When you, for Occupation, write: Housewife.
Out of this world, God grant them both the life
She gave me and I had instead of him.

The Infinite Jukebox: Pete Atkin’s ‘The Faded Mansion on the Hill’

The only other time thus far that I have featured a Pete Atkin track was from his relaunched career, that began, in effect, in 1998. Since the Monyash Folk Festival that established the existence of a still loyal audience, eager to hear more music from Pete, and more words from Clive James, there have been four new collections, of music written but never released in the Seventies, and music newly written in that so welcome revival.
Before that, we had to rely upon six albums recorded between 1970 and 1975, which really ought to be numbered as five, since the last of these was the classic Contractual Obligation Album, a collection of all those comic songs that relieved the intensity at gigs but didn’t necessarily hang together as a group to be experienced all at once.
There are many tracks spread over those first five albums, not all of them of the standard of the most impressive tracks, but every one is one fan’s favourite or another, and the least you can say is that there is nothing that is not at minimum interesting.
There’s at least a half dozen tracks I could have chosen as a first subject, but ‘The Faded Mansion on the Hill’, from Atkin’s third album, A King at Nightfall, has always been a particularly evocative track, despite the limitations of the recording process: not the equipment or the session musicians, who were always drawn from the finest of the period, but the minimalist budget afforded to Atkin’s albums.
It’s unfair to call this a sprawling song, but both musically and lyrically it goes through changes. And the words have a dark aspect to them, ameliorated by the musical setting chosen by Atkin, a deliberate tempo, electric piano-based melody to begin with, contrasting to the determined oblique angle of the words. When you see what can’t be helped, Atkin opens, go by with bloody murder in its eye. The couplet evokes an unspecified horror, which is amplified by a matching pair of lines, a man on a rack, a voice about to crack.
From here, James broadens the scene, surveying… well, it has to be seen as people in general, a mass leading ordinary, unfulfilled (litter of) lives, with stupid children and bitter wives, bereft of self-esteem, and and the urge of every observer to climb away from these dispiriting scenes of decay.
The temptation is to think this just a trick played by fate, these sick, hate days that might, if we think it so, just be a phase, but the mind is ground down by a thick weight.
And then we see the culmination of this miasma of lines, the faded mansion of the song’s title, out of whose gateways comes an aged car, carrying a single passenger, an old man, old because time has not yet found the time to kill.
The music shifts, a percussion track matches it stride for stride, Atkin shifts into a different, smoother melody, singing of the yachts in Sydney Harbour, the yachts of James’ childhood and youth, fleeing for the open sea, the freedom of the Pacific, their sails white and blinding, like driven snow, through the metaphor is unexpected. Outward they go, escaping from what we’ve already seen, with the ease of dolphins and seabirds, on the edges of their separate domains. They are alive, and living their days, as if the cemetery of home can be wished away, be left for dead.
Another turn. The hope is vain. Atkin sings with anger and desperation, an anger that desperation is all there is or can be. Where they are is still the graveyard of tall ships, just as surely as the grass that yearly breaks up more of the driveway in the mansion left so far away. Nor do they have more than this illusion, James once again producing a matching couplet, the beach the poor men never reach, the shore the rich men never leave, a contrast that is plain and inescapable and forever.
In an echo of their departure, returning to what holds even them in place, the homing yachts return between the headlands, lowering their sails, calling to one another, intent no doubt upon the bar where beers and wines and spirits will be drunk and spirits maintained unrealistically high. But all the while behind them, the avenue leads back up the hill, into the hill, back to the crumpled old man.
And in a line that turns back upon itself and evokes the weariness of inevitability, writer and singer come together upon the understanding that time, tonight, might find the time to kill.
Lyrically, melodically, this is an epic of regret. At each turn, Atkin finds the music, the melody, the tempo to match each phase of this story. None of this can be helped, it is how things are for the majority of men (and women), and even the yachts can only escape for a time. Time will, in time, find the time, and we are none of us immune. All that is left are a few chords of piano, falling into silence.
And the remembrance of where we have been.

The Infinite Jukebox: Pete Atkin’s ‘Canoe’

There are few enough songs by Pete Atkin and Clive James that are known outside the charmed circle of we privileged fans as it is, and sometimes it feels that the later ones, the Twenty-First Century additions to that rich but obscure canon are known even less well. At least the likes of ‘The Master of the Revels’, or ‘The Flowers and the Wine’, or ‘Thirty-Year Man’, or ‘The Faded Mansion on the Hill’ have the advantage of history, the resonance of time.
‘Canoe’ comes somewhere between the old and the new. It was written in the Seventies, in that time when Atkin and James were so prolific that the songs outran the albums on which they could be recorded. Listening to it, you wonder how on earth it could have been ignored then, but the same thing happened to ‘History and Geography’, and other classics known only to those lucky few who got to gigs, before the contract with RCA was used up by the jokey Live Libel at the same time that the music business exploded, destroying the expectation of a seventh album.
The song finally saw daylight twenty years later, in the unexpected second act made possible by an Internet to connect the dots between the memories of the fans from then, and the later arrivals who found something that made complete sense to them.
A new wave of interest. An interest on Atkin’s part in dealing with that backlog. Sessions in his local studio, laying down demos, until he realised that these were not demos after all, but the basis of a seventh album, aye, and an eighth simultaneously. The ground being cleared before the reinvigorated urge to write anew.
‘Canoe’ is a dazzlingly simple song, played on on electric piano with minimal percussion: rich, calm notes and Atkin’s voice, clear in its Englishness. The melody is delicate yet rounded, framing a story that, once you begin to understand it, is immense in its implications. The song was inspired by the Apollo 13 mission, the one that went wrong, the one where the world held its breath over the days it took before the Bird could be negotiated back to Earth, its crew alive and well.
Clive James built the song upon the recognition that so modern a story was nevertheless one of the oldest stories of all. What, in essence, was the difference between Apollo 13’s venture into that terrifying, empty, trackless place, and the journeys of the canoes of Pacific islanders, guided only by the skies as they sought routes across the pathless water to their trading islands?
It’s the gift of this simplicity, and James’ refusal to wrap his story in the ornate language he was proud of, that introduces us to the three in the canoe, the lucky three who, under a perfect moon, on easy seas, slide across the reef in search of the island where they trade the shells their island holds for feathers.
But they are not the lucky three. They don’t find the island, they never return, they row under the sun’s reflected glare.
And imperceptibly the song crosses vast gulfs and times, as the singer tells his friends the time has come for all of them to die. But now the singer is one of Lovell, Swigert and Haise, checking navigation readouts and warning they are out a whole degree.
The same fate awaits them, death by frying. But the astronauts are the lucky three, flying the mission with their hands, and on a path for home. The astronauts returned, where their earlier counterparts were lost, drifting down in silence to the ocean the missions shared.
Clive James found the words to bring these two far-separated things together, and Pete Atkin the melody to bind them in your thoughts as the piano plays out. They produced a song that, like so many of their other creations, yet for far bigger reasons, ought to be far better known than it is. No other writer, I believe, of either words or music, could have told that story without the elaboration to dull it, in a way that would make us feel less for the ones who went out there for all of us, for the ones who returned with gifts and giving, and the ones who remained in their unknowingness.
And though this aspect of the Apollo 13 is little known, no other humans have travelled further away from our planet than Lovell, Swigert and Haise. They are the ones who truly went where no man has been before. ‘Canoe’ is a worthy token of their safe return from that distance.

Farewell a Friend: Clive James R.I.P.

In these recent years when the famous and the meaningful seem to have been leaving us with a frequency that’s been painful, one of the few things to cheer me has been the unfailing regularity with which I have woken up every day to find that the death of Clive James has not been announced. But everything comes to an end and, after many years in which Clive has been expected to die of his leukeamia, that unbroken record has ended.

I first encountered Clive James, unknowing, in 1970. There was a single, ‘The Master of the Revels’, by Pete Atkin, an odd, jaunty little tune with unusual instruments, crisp lyrics and an indefinable air of melancholy that seemed odd in amongst all the professional jauntiness. The sing was much beloved by Kenny Everett, and played every Saturday morning until he was sacked from the BBC for an unfortunate joke that, in those years of greater deference, was not to be tolerated. I did not know then that the lyrics to the song were written by Clive James.

I was more aware of him in 1973, when he hosted Granada TV’s Cinema, but my real real introduction came in the Eighties, when I borrowed the second collection of his Observer TV column from the Library. From then on, I was hooked. And nearly ruptured one Friday night, reading one of these books in my bedroom whilst my sister in her bedroom was trying to sleep: have you ever tried to laugh hysterically in silence?

From then on, I have bought practically every book Clive James has published. A friend lent me the six albums by Pete Atkin, then long-deleted, and I taped and played them in the car, incesssantly, and slowly built up my own collection. And I joined Midnight Voices, then an internet mailing list for fans of Pete and Clive. I got to see Pete Atkin at Buxton Opera House, and unexpectedly Clive James had joined him.

But it all comes back to the words, to the things being said and the way in which they are being said, and whilst I am in awe of how they are being said, for I love words and the ways they can be put together, this would be meaningless without the content. Clive James always wrote about something, not merely for the sake of writing. And he wrote things that I recognised and understood and that I could, given a higher degree of ability, have written myself. I like that.

And it’s come on a day when the celebrity chef, Gary Rhodes, and Jonathan Miller have preceded him into that twilight. Goodnight, Clive, you made this life wonderful with your writings, your lyrics and your poems. Somewhere in the beyond, you will be sitting in an outdoor cafe overlooking Circular Quay, the typewriter full of shells, the sky full of sun and the blue water, your notebook open, forever.

Farewell a Friend.

Time has finally found the time.

Film 2018: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

The last animated film of 2018.

I missed A Grand Day Out, Wallace and Gromit’s debut. A year later, you couldn’t move for trailers for The Wrong Trousers and we watched it together at Xmas and everybody howled with laughter. It was perfect in every respect, the sort of thing that happens when you let a genius do his thing, and surround him with the perfect support. I’d decades, literally, of Peter Sallis in Last of the Summer Wine, but ever since then, he was Wallace, to a T (not to mention a U, V, W, X, Y and Z).

There were the three Xmas shorts and then there was Curse of the Were Rabbit, the only full-length feature, and with Sallis gone there can be no more. Nothing comes close to the perfection of The Wrong Trousers, but the film is a wonderful creation, 78 minutes of 14 carat, industrial strength silliness, full of enough ingenuity, inspiration and plain British whimsy to make a film twice its length feel exhustingly funny.

The Curse of the Were-Rabbit was the third and last to be made under Ardman’s link with Dreamworks. Nick Park has spoken about the problems during the film’s making with production notes from Dreamworks all trying to get him to alter the film to make it more attuned to the expectations of American children, and whilst I can easily understand their concerns, Wallace and Gromit is British to its core, and Northern British at that.

That is the film’s genius, to place Wallace, Gromit and their absurd concerns firmly in the context of a late Forties/early Fifties British northern working classs milieu, the very height – or is that depth? – of placid, uneventful inertia. Wallace’s madcap inventions may be as bang-up-to-date and about five-minutes-into-the-future, but they’re constructed from the most ramshackle, ordinary and ridiculous components, borrowing heavily from Heath Robinson in their unnecessary complexity (the Anti-Pesto alarm is a gem) that combines implausible contrast with the uttermost fidelity to the times.

Ardman agreed to clean up the soundtrack to make the dialect much less concentratedly British, but I can’t say that I noticed any softening on my DVD, unlike the Edinburgh version of last week’s That Sinking Feeling. There’s certainly no let-up on the humour, be it visual (Wallace reading a celebrity magazine called Ay-Up) or verbal, which in a lot of cases is put together in a way that suggests the story being contrived to put a silly, and often rude line in place by building a cenarion around its punch-line being a completely reasonable comment. The enormously large rabbit dropping is made trebly funny by being completely accurate.

What’s the film about, for those so unenlightened as to not have seen this? Wallace, our gloriously daft inventor, and Gronit, his pragmatic and sensible dog, have become pest-controllers, much in demand as the annual Vegetable Prize Show at Tottington Hall draw nears. They are humane pest-controllers, meaning that after they capture the vegetable-eating rabbits, they keep them safe and feed them sliced carrots.

The plasticene bunnies are miracles of hilarity in themselves. They look ridiculous, with the chubby cheeks and the two front teeth, and there is this scene where dozens of them are whirling around in anti-gravity, placid and serene, which is goofy to the power of a million. Clive James once praised the high-speed editing of a video on The Kenny Everett Show by suggesting the editor must have the patience to pick up spilled mercury but whoever put that bit together makes the Everett editor look like a fumble-fingered slowpoke.

Wallace then uses one of his inventions to brainwash the bunnies into rejecting vegetables. Unfortunately, (I love that word), something goes wrong, there’s a blowback and Wallace gets his brain merged with a rabbit that they name Hutch. Hutch now hates carrots. He goes on to develop a fixation for horrible sleeveless knitwear, carpet slippers and cheese, whilst Wallace turns into a giant Were-Rabbit at the full of the moon (complete with extended change sequence that parodies the one from An American Werewolf in London).

Throw in the Aristocratic Lady Tottington (‘call me Totty’), voiced wonderfully by Helena Bonham-Carter, her would-be husband and fortune-hunter, hunter Lord Victor Quartermaine, an equally perfectly judged OTT performance from Ralph Fiennes, and familiar British voices like Peter Kay, Liz Smith and Nicholas Smith, ex-of Are You Being Served?, and the whole thing is a parcel of eccentricity. There’s even a small role for one Pete Atkin, former carpenter, former BBC producer and of course majorly overlooked singer and songwriter (honest admission: I can’t tell which villager he is).

The Curse of the Were-Rabbit contains, I think, more plain laugh-out-loud moments than any other film I’ve seen this year, and I’m counting Chicken Run in that. And yet it’s still no The Wrong Trousers. Imagine that…

Uncollected Thoughts: Clive James – Injury Time

A new poetry collection from Clive James, unexpected by author and audience, has been published today. Like its acclaimed predecessor, Sentenced to Life, it is a very hard book to read in extended spells: a half a dozen poems is about as much as I can cope with at a time, before James’ theme – once again his imminent but now six-years-postponed death – overwhelms me and I can’t carry on.

I’ve been a fan of Clive James for over forty years ago, since he used to present Granada TV’s Cinema in the early Seventies. I found his reviews hilarious and perceptive, though I didn’t remember how many of the films on which he commented I actually went to see, or whether he and I shared the same opinions.

I was also aware that he wrote lyrics for Pete Atkin, who was releasing albums through the first half of the decade. I only heard occasional songs by Atkin, which I generally liked because I liked his voice, and whose lyrics were certainly clever. But I only really began to follow James’ work the following decade when, initially from the library and then with my own copies, I read the collected columns of TV criticism from the Observer.

There were two books then, and I read the second first, and I remember reading this late at night and trying to have silent hysterics because my sister, in her bedroom, was trying to sleep and I wasn’t helping her. I remember the third book coming out.

I remember deciding to explore the Pete Atkin connection more deeply, first by borrowing the six albums from my mate John and copying them onto three C90 cassettes, which I would play on rotation in the car, enough that certain songs remind me of the places I was driving through when I was singing along with the song.

I loved the music, I loved Atkin’s voice, and I loved James’ lyrics, for their wit, their rhythm and the insight they displayed. And I started to collect his other books, with varying degrees of enjoyment (the literary criticism could sometimes be overwhelming because the high culture it dealt with was higher that I usually liked to go, and the reviews correspondingly long and involved). The novels were funny and involving, and I took different things from the four of them. There is a scene near the end of Brilliant Creatures that resonates so much, that culminates with a line so true and rueful that it slid backwards in time to inform my earlier experience, as if I had coined it myself for a moment I really did not want to go through.

That was the thing: one of the reasons I enjoyed Clive James so much was that not only did I agree with most of what he said, so much of it was something I could and might have said myself, if I were a little bit more intelligent, or creative. I was always behind him, and could never have written what he wrote, but once it was written, it was in my wheelhouse.

Would that he had influenced me more! I just wasn’t smart enough, the big influence on my writing style turned out to be Douglas Adams, even though I went off The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy years ago. But I still fell on everything he published, even to the extent of buying essay collections in hardback, and hunting out those older books, the long narrative poems from the Seventies, etc.

And there was the Pete Atkin revival, and twice I’ve seen the pair performing, Atkin singing and playing, James talking and reciting, and bringing me close to tears in public once, when he read his poem Occupation:Housewife, which began so funny and which slid so imperceptibly into heartbreaking regret for a father lost before he ever knew him, a situation that always moves me deeply.

Funnily enough, I wasn’t too bothered with the television series. I regularly watched On TV, enough so to continue enjoying it when it went to Chris Tarrant. But the other shows, the variety shows, the Saturday and Sunday Night Clive’s were always that bit too populist for my tastes, too diluted in James’ real abilities. Never did like the Japanese Game Show bit.

So I can’t be objective about Clive James, and given the subject of the poetry in this and Sentenced to Life before it, I can’t be objective about this book, and I can’t even finish yet, because after so many poems I have to take a long break. So these thoughts are more collected than uncollected, but they’re thoughts about Clive James, not Injury Time, which I suspect I’ll never really be able to analyse.

Injury Time

Throughout that last, dreadful year, when famous and noticeable people seemed to be dying wantonly, ripping apart our cultural background, I lived daily expecting the next name to be Clive James, who has been terminally ill since 2010.

But the Kid from Kogarah keeps doing it. And he keeps writing. Last year, he published another TV book, Play All, about box-sets. Now, sure, it lacked the depth and intensity of a decade ago, but it’s still there. And it doesn’t look as if the sixth and final book of autobiography – the one about the Atkin revival, Midnight Voices, the part of his story where I have a minuscule part to play – is going to arrive.

But Clive James’ first and last love is poetry, and here he still writes, about his condition, about his life. Thoughtfully, intensely, movingly. His collection, Sentenced to Life, is a wonderful book, and everyone, James included, expected it to be his last.

And expectations are once again confounded, this time joyfully, for there is to be another volume, Injury Time, dealing with this further lease of life he is enjoying.

I will be waiting, like all the rest of us. There has never been enough Clive James, and when he does at last leave this place, there will still not be enough, were he to live to a thousand, which, on current form, is not an option that can be wholly discounted.

The Infinite Jukebox: Pete Atkin’s ‘The Eye of the Universe’

There are three versions of this song, but unfortunately the one I want to talk about exists only in the recesses of my memories of a concert almost twenty years ago.
As I’ve mentioned before, Pete Atkin’s music career reached a premature end in 1976, with the release of the contract-fulfilling album, Live Libel. The near-simultaneous arrival of punk, closely followed by New Wave, changed the zeitgeist, not to mention the commercial concerns, of the British music industry to push the likes of Atkin – already an unclassifiable singer – off the edge.
Atkin and James were always well-stocked with songs, and were still writing more. In preparation for a seventh album, Atkin pulled a dozen or so together and began to put together demo versions of these, before it became apparent that it was to be a redundant exercise.
One of these tracks was ‘The Eye of the Universe’, then shorn of the definite article. The Smash Flops website features audio clips of these demos, giving an indication of how Atkin’s thoughts were then running as to the arrangement and instrumentation. ‘Eye of the Universe’ 1977 would have been an guitar based, midtempo song.
But of course that never happened.
Move forward twenty years, to 1998, and a sunny, late Sunday afternoon drive from Hyde to Buxton, visiting the Opera House for the altogether unanticipated pleasure of seeing Pete Atkin play live on stage. A pleasure compounded by the unadvertised presence of Clive James, joining him on stage.
It was a nostalgic pleasure, never mind that, for the most part, it was nostalgia for something I had failed to experience the first time round. There were old songs I’d never expected to hear on stage, and ‘new’ songs I’d never suspected the existence of. One such was ‘Eye of the Universe’.
Atkin was switching between instruments according to the demands of each song. Acoustic guitar, grand piano, electric piano. Had I known of ‘Eye of the Universe’s prior half-life, I would have been surprised to see Atkin sit himself down behind the electric piano, whilst James expanded on the inspiration for the lyrics, which lay in poetry: I no longer recall the details.
Then Atkin started to play, a driving, attacking arrangement, the piano pounded rhythmically, his voice full of anger and passion. The PA was so clear, his voice so distinct, that I didn’t miss, or misunderstand a word of these hitherto unheard lyrics. In a single bound, ‘Eye of the Universe’ became one of my five favourite Atkin songs, an instant classic.
After the concert, whilst I was getting an autograph, I mentioned how impressed I’d been by this song. Being always happy to talk music, Atkin said that he’d want to record it with a full band, that it needed that full-bore treatment. The idea suited me.
It took three years from then for Atkin to get around to tackling the backlog of Seventies songs, two dozen of which appeared as The Lakeside Sessions double CD. Not until this was a finished product were we faithful fans of Midnight Voices let in on this and, though he wasn’t intending to start listing tracks etc. at that point, my instant, eager plea for confirmation he’d included ‘Eye of the Universe’ was answered. Yes, it was on the CD.
And in due course, the CDs arrived. I eagerly scanned the track listings, discovered ‘The Eye of the Universe’ as track 3 on the second CD, A Dream of Fair Women, and hustled it into the CD player. And sat back and listened in shock and dismay as a light, smooth, dreamy, almost jazzy and floaty electric piano intro led to Atkin singing the song with an easy, languid air, in a similar tempo to the old demo. The passion of the song at Buxton, the anger and drive, the pace he put into it, all of it gone.
Pete Atkin has spoken about how a song is never really finished, that no matter how many times he has played it, he is reassessing it. Over time, his music has changed. And to my considerable disappointment, in respect of this song, it changed dramatically in the three years that separated the stage at Buxton and the studio at Bristol.
The song exists. The words exist. All that has happened is that everything that made the song so alive to me, that made me want to have it, to repeat it, to fully absorb it into my ears and my head in the way the best of music, the music that fills the Infinite Jukebox always has, was refiltered through the songwriter’s ears and removed from consideration.
I can listen to the soft jazz version. I can listen to the guitar snippet. I only have a near twenty-year old memory to provide me with the version of the song that I loved. This is a particularly ethereal element of the Infinite Jukebox.

Atkin and James: How to discover erudition in music and words

This began as background to an Infinite Jukebox piece, but rapidly began to outgrow the dimensions of that theme, so I decided upon a full-length reminiscence, about the strange ways in which you find the music that defines you.

As I’ve mentioned before, due to my parents’ aversion to pop, I missed out on practically the whole of the Sixties, musically, hearing only what percolated onto Ed Stewart’s Junior Choice on Saturday and Sunday morning. Until the last ten days of the decade, when I woke up on the first day of the School Xmas holidays, automatically switched my little bedside cabinet radio on, and discovered Radio 1, which I began to devour daily.

For much of 1970, Radio 1 Saturday mornings followed Junior Choice with Kenny Everett, a two hour slot full of Everett’s zaniness and unpredictability – which amused me enough then – which extended to a playlist that, whilst playing lip-service to the top 30 rotation, enabled Everett enough of a free hand to include records of his own choice that no-one else was playing during the week.

One such was “The Master of the Revels”, an odd, slightly rumbly song, sung by a singer with a distinctly English sound to his voice, that used a slightly arrhythmic beat to drive forward a complex, yet defiantly simple melody to words about someone who, if I properly understood it then, seemed to be about organising amusements. It was piano-led, and supported by an instrument I didn’t then recognise as being a clarinet, an unusual combination for that year, when the ‘Underground’ was the big thing. It stood out.

The singer was a former Cambridge University student from Bristol, named Pete Atkin. The lyrics were by a mature student from Sydney, Australia, whose identity as a lyricist would go on to surprise a lot of people (though far from enough) once he became famous for being Clive James. Back in 1970, the name, even if it had been mentioned, which I doubt, would have meant nothing to me, and would stay that way until he started presenting Granada’s Cinema, three years later.

“The Master of the Revels” got played most Saturdays, I liked the sound of it, and it was reportedly starting to get some commercial transaction when Everett made that joke, the silly, irreverent, meaningless one that got him abruptly sacked by the forever hidebound, authority-beholden BBC, and the nascent pop career of Pete Atkin vanished, never to return. That was forty-six years ago.

There was more to Atkin and James’ career in popular music than just that, but the only other Atkin song I heard for several years was “Girl on a Train”, a song from his first album, performed on a very early version of a video for The Dave Cash Radio Programme, a brief and unsuccessful 1971 attempt to put a pre-teatime pop half hour onto TV, in the slot later more successfully occupied by Lift-Off with Ayshea.

I was next reminded of Pete Atkin in 1973. I can’t remember the order in which such things happened but, variously, I saw adverts in the New Musical Express for the re-issue, on RCA, of Atkin’s first albums, Beware of the Beautiful Stranger and Driving Through Mythical America (in very drab and dull sleeves, replacing the rather more attractive covers of the original Fontana releases), Noel Edmunds, on his Sunday morning show, began featuring Atkin’s third album, A King at Nightfall on a near weekly basis, and “The Master of the Revels” was reissued as a single.

It didn’t get any more airplay than it had in 1970, but this time round I bought it, with the 50p record token I received from the BBC for my losing appearance on Johnnie Walker’s ‘Pop the Question’ (that was my second day: I received a £5 token for my winning appearance on the Tuesday: it’s significant that whilst I remember choosing to spend the smaller token on the Atkin single, I have absolutely no recollection of what I bought with my Champion day winnings).

The song Edmunds mostly favoured from the album was the uptempo, aggressive song Atkin made of James’s elegiac words for “The Last Hill That Shows You All The Valley”. I wanted to tape it, but the last time Edmunds featured the album, I ended up getting the song “Carnations on the Roof”, a rather drabber and duller affair lyrically, but whose words came closer than many others before or since to touching my own life, and the still-raw loss of my father.

But though Edmunds’ patronage was more intense than that of Everett, in practice it was equally brief. Atkin faded back into the static, so far as I was concerned. There was another single, in 1974, from the album The Road of Silk, that I heard maybe twice, and a bit more airplay for another single the following year, off Secret Drinker, which I heard often enough to distinguish that there were album and single versions, with a slightly dubious line of lyrics ‘cleaned-up’ for the latter (you do not include lines like ‘this city has been ours since Christ knows when’ in songs you expected Radio 1, or even worse, Commercial Radio to play. Not in 1975 you didn’t).

Five albums by this point. I’m stepping out of my personal time-line for a moment here, as I wouldn’t learn these things for nearly another decade. Five albums: two on Fontana, re-issued on RCA (with a sight change of track-listing on the first album re-issue). All named after title-tracks, though curiously these were never prominently placed on their albums, with only one of the five coming from side 1, and even then it was the last track on that side, and three of them in the back half of side 2.

By 1976, Atkin and James were unhappy at their management by RCA: by the lack of promotion, by the lack of pressings. Tours would create a demand for albums that then went begging because copies weren’t in the shops. To complete their four album deal, Atkin and James put together Live Libel, a somewhat lumpy album collecting in one place a dozen of the lightweight, spoof, parodistic songs Atkin would toss in here and there, to lighten his act. It’s uneven, at best, but it got RCA off their back.

Except that this was 1976. Punk was the coming thing. The musical tide was changing. And a singer/lyricist combo whose musical roots included Tin Pan Alley, French Chanson and heavily allusive, dense literary words were the wrong act to go looking for a new recording deal that year.

So the Atkin/James pair went their separate ways, James into his writing and his slowly-growing television career, Atkin into carpentry and, a decade or so later, Radio production, first for BBC Bristol, latterly Radio 4, where he was the Producer for the epic and highly-regarded This Sceptred Isle series.

That takes care of Atkin and James for the next twenty-odd years, but what of my personal progress towards their career?

Between 1978 and 1980, I was simultaneously living in Nottingham and being mainly enthused by punk and new wave music and its various offshoots. I was beginning my turn as part of that floating array of John Peel show listeners, those who listened along for the years in which his eternal search for the new and the interesting coincided with your own ability to stretch parameters. Had I been of a mind in the early to middle Seventies, I would have been exposed to half a dozen Pete Atkin sessions, but that wasn’t the case.

But I was a member of Nottingham Library and, unlike Manchester when I left it, there was a music section, and whilst most of it was undiluted crap, that wasn’t always the case. For instance, in 1979 there was The Master of the Revels, a Pete Atkin album, a compilation. This was my first extended exposure to Pete’s voice and music, and Clive’s lyrics and I ended up recording the whole album, bar one track (which one I found not up to my aural standards I can no longer remember, nor even guess which it might have been).

It was not until I returned to Manchester in 1980 that I first began to investigate Clive James’ writing. Inevitably, it was a library copy of the second of his collections of Observer TV reviews, rapidly followed by its purchase as a
Picador paperback, not to mention that of its predecessor and, as soon as it was published, the third and final volume. Really, the story starts here: having discovered how much I liked James’s work, for its wit, for the underlying erudition, indeed for the worldview that lay beneath it, much of which I found I shared, although my aphoristic encapsulations of such beliefs were never as pithy as his, I turned back to the Pete Atkin albums.

They were, of course, deleted. However, my interest in comics led to my tentative introduction to MAD – Manchester and District – an informal group of SF/Fantasy/comics fans who met Tuesday and Thursdays nights in the Crown & Anchor, a real, old-fashioned, Real Ale, spit’n’sawdust pub back of Piccadilly, though in reality it was more spit’n’holes in the floorboards. And John, who introduced me, turned out to have all the Atkin albums and be perfectly happy for me to borrow and tape these. Three C90 cassettes, which lived in my car and which accompanied many a long drive I took on behalf of my firm.

Gradually – it took over a decade – I got the vinyl myself. The first three, or rather the last three, came easy and cheap, but it took a long time, and a bit more cash, to get hold of A King at Nightfall. And the first two took longer still, with Driving Through Mythical America only available as an RCA re-issue. Both these last two came through mail order lists, which was what we had to do before the internet, and eBay.

But that was the end of the story. I had all the albums now, myself, and the cassettes for the car, and I knew all the words. Car journeys were sing-alongs, unconsciously echoing Atkin’s phrasing, intonation and even accent, to the best of my limited ability to duplicate a note. And I had it on the authority of a music teacher mate that I was not tone-deaf, as most people would have assumed from hearing me, but rather tone-dumb, as in I knew the sound I wanted to make, I just couldn’t hit it. Not consistently. Far from always. But sometimes.

Six albums. A fair deal, lots of other artists don’t get that many. But of course it was an ended story. I was lucky enough to make a Clive James signing session at Sherratt & Hughes (Manchester’s pre-Waterstone’s premier bookshop, though personally I always preferred Willshaw’s on John Dalton Street) one workday lunch. I took along the gatefold sleeve to Live Libel, with the sleeve notes of its collection of ‘insufficiently underappreciated artists’, got that signed, asked if Clive was still in touch with Pete, learned he’d become a carpenter.

Clive James kept writing books. And appearing on television. I don’t listen to Radio 4 more than occasionally, to comedy shows, so I never knew about Pete Atkin’s involvement in This Sceptred Isle. This time, more than a decade went by.

Fittingly, it happened in Waterstone’s. I was in there a lot during the Nineties. I was working for a firm I loathed but couldn’t leave, and I had a Friday ritual of heading for the bookshop straight from work, wandering around in a civilised atmosphere for an hour, releasing some of the tensions, then hitting the nearby Pizza Hut for their Buy-One-Get-One-Half-Price offer on takeaways. It would be neat to assert that this was one of those Friday evenings in the summer of 1996 but I really don’t recall. Either way, I was tripping down the stairs to the ground floor when my eyes were distracted by a name on a poster: Pete Atkin.

I was enormously delighted to learn that the man was not only still playing, but that he was headlining a small folk festival at Monyash in Derbyshire, not a million miles away for a man with a decent car. But delight was short-lived when I checked the date, which confirmed that this event was scheduled for the previous weekend. Nevertheless, there was a contact number which I copied down, and rang the following day. And thus I learned of Smash Flops and Midnight Voices.

The one was a Pete Atkin web-site, the other a mailing list, both the creation of Steve Birkill, a recording engineer and long-term Atkin fan who’d brought Pete to Monyash in the first place after learning he still played occasional gigs, and who obtained permission to create an official web-site. Birkill attracted the lost legions – well, not legions, but lost anyway – who’d loved Atkin/James in the Seventies, the appreciative minority that clung to their half dozen albums and still played them. Sometimes they’d found fellow aficianados, had shared the love and the arguments about what Clive James was actually saying here. Many of them had, most improbably in all the circumstances, turned their children onto Atkin/James. Now, they had somewhere to gather, to share memories and, in a way that was still small but which was firmly based, revive a career.

It was, in short, a fan club in all but name. I have always been chary of fan clubs: every fan club’s welcome pack should include an absolutely massive pair of perspective-broadening glasses: but this was an intelligent, thoughtful bunch. What else could you be if you loved Pete Atkin’s music and Clive James’s words.

I might have missed Monyash, but by joining Midnight Voices I became entitled to purchase a very limited double-CD recording of Atkin’s performance, 100 copies of which only a handful remained. It was a delight, not least for the fact that there were performances of over half a dozen songs unrecorded in the Seventies. And some of those songs – ‘History and Geography’ and the startlingly enormous ‘Canoe’ stood out – were as good as and better than anything that Fontana or RCA had seen fit to issue.

It was the purest expression of what the internet can be. In reality, Atkin and James’ audience was barely bigger than it had been twenty years earlier, when the pair had earned more in royalties from a single Val Doonican cover of a single song than they had from the entirety of their recording career. But it was a focused audience, invested in the music in a way that RCA could never have been.

There were more gigs by Atkin and, because I was now inside the circle, I learned about the one at Buxton Opera House in plenty of time to buy a ticket.

It was a Sunday evening, of a day when United were on Sky, playing away somewhere, so I went to my Aunt and Uncle’s to watch the game, then drove across unfamiliar routes to join the A6 south to Buxton, taking with me my copy of Live Libel, hoping to get Atkin’s signature to pair up with that of James that I’d secured a dozen years previously.

At the Opera House, I got a very pleasant surprise. Atkin wasn’t alone: Clive James was also on stage, mostly sat in an easy chair whilst Atkin played, switching between acoustic guitar, electric piano and grand piano, chatting to the audience between songs. There were Midvodians there, identifying each other, putting faces to mailing list names. I wasn’t an active part of Midnight Voices yet, still feeling lost and overwhelmed by such intelligence and literary interpretation, so I was left alone, but I was there for the music, and to be able to sit and listen, so long after the fact, after the era, was simply delightful.

There was at least one more ‘new’ song, that is, one of the many written but never recorded, but that I’ll come to under the Infinite Jukebox.

After the gig, I waited at the Stage Door, among another dozen or so determined figures, got my signature, had a brief but friendly chat.

The following year, Atkin played another Monyash festival. I missed it: it clashed with one of the days of the Old Trafford Test against the Australians and I had tickets for all five days.

In the meantime, Pete Atkin once again had a music career.

With a demonstrable audience behind him, the first step was making the albums available again, this time on CD. The first two were easy, and SeeforMiles records released them on a single CD, but the other four were contracted to RCA, who proved uncooperative. Their attitude, as was reported back to us, was: “Why should we licence you to reissue these albums when we could do it ourselves and keep all the money?” “Are you going to reissue these albums?” “No, we won’t make any money.”

But eventually, after another couple of years, RCA bent, and the other four were released. Since then, this set has been deleted as SeeforMiles went into administration in 2007, but another, and better curated set, including demos and a couple of single versions, plus the last two Live Libel tracks that got squeezed out for space reasons (one of them Clive James’ own vocal on a wicked parody of the Telly Savalas version of “If”) restored.

Once the back catalogue had been thus resolved, Atkin was free to think of new music. There had been a big build-up of songs in the Seventies that had never been recorded. Smash Flops had snippets from the demos made for the sadly-mythical seventh album, and the revival of interest had seen the duo come up with a couple of brand new songs. Atkin, who sidelined as pianist in the Bristol-based alt-country band, The Shrinks, had access to Lakeside Studios, and began privately putting together some demos, trying to order the material.

Partway through this process, Atkin began to realise that these works were not demos and that, subconsciously, he had been collating the backlog in order to clear the ground for a future in which there could be new songs. Forming his own, mail-order label, Hillside Music, Atkin broke the news to Midnight Voices that there would not just be a seventh album after all, but simultaneously an eighth: The Lakeside Sessions: Vol 1. History and Geography and Vol 2. A Dream of Fair Women.

I have them in that format, jumping in quickly to buy them. Not all that long after, they were collapsed into a double CD, though at present they’re once again available as single CDs via the Hillside shop page on Smash Flops.

There was still more. Pete and Clive undertook a national tour, which included Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall. The size of the venues depended more on Clive’s name than Pete’s and it was the same as Buxton: songs alternating with readings. My wife and I attended the Bridgewater Hall and had a great time. Among Clive’s readings was a very powerful poem about his mother, ‘Occupation: Housewife’ which began by inducing tears of laughter at great, witty lines, and slid with precision and balance into emotions of such depths as to induce very different tears. Afterwards, my wife got Clive’s Collected Poems autographed for herself.

They took the show to Australia. It’s currently out of print, but Hillside preserved it with a double CD. We saw Atkin one more time, this time on a Midnight Voices event, in Hebden Bridge, without Clive James but still every bit as good. I haven’t seen him since, and it wasn’t that much longer before I drifted away from Midnight Voices: musically, I shared very little else with the rest of the audience, though the flashpoint ended up being more or less about football, oddly enough.

The mailing list operated in two forms: you could opt to have every e-mail forwarded as soon as it was posted, or subscribe to the weekly digest, a week’s worth of postings on a Sunday afternoon. I started on the digest, progressed to individual mails. Somehow or other, football cropped up, and for a brief spell, maybe half an hour, half a dozen of us shared our passions. It brought the roof down, stern warnings about off-topic, apparently people were threatening to resign in droves.

And ultimately, the mailing list was pulled in favour of a Message Board format, where people could pursue what interested them and ignore what didn’t. I was in a minority that didn’t like that: the inclusivity, the sense of a shared audience, was destroyed in an instant, as was the serendipity. You no longer saw everything, you only saw what you wanted to.

Between this, and a couple of run-ins where I was pulled up for off-topic digressions whereas other, more egregious diversions went without comment, I began to feel alienated, and I drifted away.

From Midnight Voices only. There was another CD in 2003, Winter, Spring, this time consisting entirely of brand new songs, with the exception of the painful, and sad beyond belief Holocaust song, “A Hill of Little Shoes”. But when Atkin next came to commit himself to CD, it was in the form of a retread. Midnight Voices, sub-titled ‘The Clive James – Pete Atkin Songbook volume 1’, contained nothing new. It was a revisit of 15 songs from the original sextet (well, quintet: Live Libel‘s songs weren’t touched), rearranged, re-recorded.

It wasn’t what I wanted. Though the post MV albums contained some stunningly brilliant songs, overall I found them less impressive than the original set. Some of it was the production, too dry, too flat for my taste, a lot was the lack of tonal balance (nearly everything was piano based, with little or no guitar to balance it out), even more was how Atkin’s musical sensibilities had developed as against mine. He was a big Steely Dan fan, especially of the later albums, the jazz-oriented ones, whose aural perfection I found stifling and uninvolving. I wasn’t interested in hearing songs I loved as they were reinterpreted in Pete’s contemporary style. Not on record, anyway.

So that was almost that, the story coming to a second end. Clive James’ health issues have come to the fore in the near decade since. In this year of death, it has been a sole consolation that the most expected one of all hasn’t happened yet: it came closer for Atkin, who was hit by a bus in January this year and has consequently lost the sight in one eye. He has since returned to performing.

But there’s a coda. Though I’d long since drifted away from the world pertaining to Pete Atkin, I discovered last year that the muse was not yet stilled. There was one more CD, The Colours of the Night, ten more brand new songs, three old numbers, not previously recorded. It’s been more or less officially billed as the last album.

Of course I bought it. Though it lacks anything that stands out the way certain songs, even after all this time, are points on the album for which you wait each time you play it, I can’t quibble with the production nor the tonal quality, for the instruments are in balance, and no one instrument dominates. And Pete Atkin’s voice is still there, that wonderfully clear, distinct, so-unAmerican, so-unRock’n’Roll, still after forty-five years. Some people just don’t lose it, even after they turn seventy.

I call it a coda. But it’s only a coda if the main thing is over, be it a song or a story. According to Smash Flops, there are still enough unrecorded Atkin/James songs to fill at least four more CDs, if Pete should ever want to. That audience is still there, where it always has been. I don’t know how many of the fans of the Seventies may have gone on ahead, nor how many may have come along to regenerate the love. I just know that the music was brilliant, and the lyrics compelling, and though there may never have been enough of us to make an Army, we were the lucky few who knew and understood, who were touched and charmed and had that unexpected second act.

So maybe there’s a third act? This story has been going for forty-six years and we’re none of us, Pete, Clive or me, dead yet. In a world in which hope and optimism is hard to find and even harder to believe, we look to the dream of more. We were surprised once. Please surprise us again.

Sentenced to Life

There’s already been too much death this year, both public and private. On Thursday, I will be attending the funeral of the mother of one of my closest friends. He came to my mother’s funeral, twenty-four years ago, at this same time of year, and I will be the only one of this little circle of friends who can stand with him.

Unless there’s going to be more luck in this year than I dream possible, there’s going to be more deaths, more mournings. Not among the people I know, nor their loved ones, that much may be hoped for, but there will be people out there, in the wider world who, like Bowie and Rickman, aye and Lemmy, though I was never into his music, will leave the world less palatable than it’s sometimes been.

One of those names I expect will be Clive James. I remember him from as far back as Granada’s Cinema, back in 1973. I remember him from the lyrics to Pete Atkin’s songs, from the collections of television criticism, from the novels, the essays, the memoirs, the wit, the wisdom, the overt cleverness and the sentence that glitters and dances, over and over again.

Today, courtesy of e-Bay, a copy of his most recent poetry collection, Sentenced to Life, has arrived through my door, and I’ve wrestled the package open and I’ve begun to read, and I’ve stopped reading after only a handful of pages, because these poems have the same thing at the heart of them, because James is looking back and into himself with every line. Loss and regret and yet the determination still to say things, say things in a way no-one else has or ever could. How the memory of the Sydney sun on the bay still burns in his mind, rendering it unnecessary to rue that he will never see it again with his eyes.

I’ve had to stop because I don’t dare hope that Clive James may yet prove to be quasi-immortal, and that there might still be more, that the loneliness of losing the people you respect, you admire, that you take knowledge from might still be postponed throughout the entirety of 2016. It’s already got too many good ones, is there any chance it will hold back and we’ll get to hang on to this one a time longer.

It’s going to take me all week to read a slim book, because I can’t read it all at once, or more than just short fragments that lead me into too much empathy, too quickly. I have a real funeral, for someone I know, to attend. I donn’t think I can afford to be too prepared.