Friday, 29 December 2017


I wrote this piece for the Daily Telegraph back in 1999. 'Not Jazzy Phil' their photo caption ran. This morning Kevin Jackson was having a bit of a discussion about the modernists and their reactions to jazz music, so I decided to dig it out and republish it here.  I use the Telegraph's title below:


Philip Larkin may or may not have believed that ‘sex began in 1963’, but he certainly believed jazz had already died long before the Beatles issued their first LP.  In his words it was “as dead as Elizabethan madrigal singing.” This collection seeks to rebut the received view of Larkin as musical arch-conservative, but actually manages to reinforce strongly that judgement, thus suggesting a terrible paradox. How does a man who feels music so deeply and writes about it so well become so tone deaf?

Larkin discovered jazz through dance music, the pop of his youth. It became part of his “private joke of existence”. He relished the escape it provided. “I can live a week without poetry but not a day without jazz,” he said. He disliked anything that took jazz away from its roots in American folk blues, as if he begrudged jazz musicians their own aspirations to more self-conscious art. There is of course a racial element; but Larkin has been attacked enough for his retroactive affronts to political correctness. Yet while it would be churlish to use these reviews as further ammunition against his prejudice, it’s impossible to see this collection as in any way disproving it.

His complaints about be-bop taking jazz out of the realms of popular music echo those of rock fans who complain the music hasn’t been the same since Buddy Holly died. He never realised that pop music was already moving away from his sort of jazz by the time he became a fan, and it was inevitable that jazz itself would change. One may prefer Johnny Hodges to Charlie Parker, Henry Allen to Miles Davis, but would you feel comfortable asserting Hodges and Allen blew the others “out of the room”? When, eventually, he acknowledges Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane in his “year’s best” choices, he does it only out of a grudging sense of responsibility to reality. 

Larkin writes precisely, so it’s hard to grant him leeway. He even has the chutzpah to criticize others for “dragging in culture references”, while himself using the adjective “Henchardian". Amusingly, the editors have culled Larkin’s poetic phrases and listed them in the book’s introduction. This has the effect, like a well-produced trailer for a bad movie, of suggesting that’s all there is on offer. Fortunately, that isn’t the case. 

While not revealing a kinder, gentler Jazzy Phil, this is still a valuable collection. Yet it's most revealing when Larkin reviews, not music, but a fellow writer, the New Yorker's jazz critic Whitney Balliett. He admires Balliet, but is also almost haughtily suspicious of his catholic enthusiasms. And there is the crux of the matter. Larkin’s inability to gain pleasure from anything but the music that first gave him that exciting release when he was young is the very definition of a fetishist, and reveals him as someone more intent on recapitulating that pleasure than making a fan's progress through the seasons of jazz.

Balliett once wrote “it is a compliment to jazz that nine-tenths of the writing about it is bad.” Larkin’s writing falls into that precious one-tenth. If only he could have shared one-tenth of Balliett’s eclectic enthusiasm.

REFERENCE BACK: Philip Larkin’s Uncollected Jazz Writings 1940-84

Edited by Richard Palmer and John White

University of Hull Press, 191pp, 19.99

Wednesday, 27 December 2017


Johnny Bower with the Maple Leafs. Glenn Hall in Chicago. Terry Sawchuk of the Red Wings. Eddie Johnston in Boston. Gump Worsley in New York. And Jacques Plante with les Habitants in Montreal.

Six names, six teams, and a rush of memories. It was a simpler time. When I read that Johnny Bower had died aged 93, I almost immediately recited those six names, like some shamanistic incantation. I can't say for sure when all six of those guys played on those teams, but I am assuming they were all together in that alignment for a least a few of my youthful years.

Beyond that, I remember Sawchuk wound up in Toronto splitting time with Bower, an innovation which went against conventional wisdom that one goalie had to play every game to stay sharp. After all, goalies were supposed to wear number 1, and two guys couldn't do that. It was, of course, a move both goalies hated, though it likely helped both immensely. Of course every team was quickly using two goalies, if only to rest their better one occasionally.

I recall too the shock trade when the Canadiens sent Plante to the Rangers for Worsley (there were other players involved—Dave Balon and Phil Goyette among others) Plante who had come up with the goalie's mask, which was originally seen as a sign of weakness, if not fear, was perceived as the sport's mercurial genius, but at odds variously with coach Toe Blake and GM Frank Selke, who would soon be gone himself. Worsley, a native Montrealer, was seen as a steady plugger (despite being one of North American sport's most prodigious drinking men).

But Johnny Bower's was probably the most interesting career of them all. He was born John Kiszkan, and at 15 enlisted in the Army, serving in England during the war until he was discharged because of arthritis in his hands. When his parents divorced he took his mother's name, though later he claimed it was easier for sportswriters to spell.He was already 20 when he played a year of junior hockey in Prince Albert in 1944, then turned pro in the minor league AHL. He played eight seasons for the Cleveland Barons, and was generally considered the league's best goalie, before he got a shot in 1953 with the New York Rangers, where he replaced Worsley, who'd been the NHL Rookie of the Year in 1952. For the next three years he was in effect Worsley's backup, playing most of the time in Vancouver of the WHL or Providence of the AHL. When the Rangers let him go he returned to Cleveland for a year, before Punch Imlach talked him into giving the NHL one more chance.

Bower was 34 when he finally settled into the nets for the Maple Leafs, where he would play for 11 more seasons, his career no doubt extended by sharing time with his fellow Ukranian Sawchuk. He backstopped the Leafs to four Stanley Cups, the first three in a row in 1962-4. After playing just one game in the 1969-70 season, he retired, and at age 45 he was at the time the oldest player to have played in an NHL game.

Nobody looked less like an athlete than Gump Worsley (well, maybe baseball's Smokey Burgess) but Bower was another guy who you would pass in the street never thinking you'd seen a great. Six decades later, most of those six names still appear regularly in arguments about the best goaltenders ever.

Ssx decades on, thinking of Johnny Bower made me nostalgic for those days when you knew the names, and the faces (no masks, no helmets) of all the goalies (if not all the players) in the six-team NHL. Even though you didn't see them much on TV (though I was lucky, being able to pick up Rangers' games out of New York—and falling in love with Montreal as a result). My dad played hockey, so we followed it a bit. I saw the Providence Reds (post-Bower) play in New Haven when the city finally got an AHL team--I had seen the AHL's Baltimore Clippers play the EHL Blades in the old New Haven Arena). Hockey was what first drew me to Montreal; Evelyne, whom I met on the beach in Woodmont, may have been another factor). In many ways my life has balanced itself on the fulcrum of Montreal; had I not wanted to live there I would not have gone to McGill; had I not gone to McGill I would not have met Theresa; had I not met her I would never have moved to Britain. 

Perhaps it was the Christmas season, or the snow that fell this morning, that helped me spin a hockey player's death into un petit coup de nostalgie, but these were very pleasant memories. RIP Johnny Bower.

Friday, 15 December 2017


My obituary of the writer William Gass is online at the Guardian; you can link to it here. It should appear in the paper paper soon.

Gass' was an unusual one to write, mostly because I felt I had to explain what it was that defined his writing, and why a writer of such immense reputation was so little known among the wider public. I could not escape the sense that much of his writing was in a sense academic; written by a professor, though I really should have mentioned that he taught philosophy, not English or creative writing (he did offer seminars at various points), and it's important to note also how crucial his essays were considered.

Perhaps the fact that his major novel, The Tunnel, one of those big Great American Novels, was so difficult is part of the reason why he is so cherished among some critics, and some writers in the post-modern, meta-fictional spheres, while being dismissed by other critics (I really would have liked to include extracts of some reviews, but space did not allow) and passed-over by much of the general public.

He's often linked with John Barth, whom I both studied and read for pleasure in my college days. I have to confess I liked the 'post-modern' Barth, of The Sot Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy more than the increasingly dense 'metafictions' that followed them. Perhaps the deconstruction of language and the demands of narration are more exclusive than theorists suggest, perhaps the novel wants to extend beyond itself. Gass' special talent was in being able to do that while bringing his story out, so that the work became a metaphor of the story. "Form is never more than an extension of content", Robert Creeley said. Where many would reverse the aphorism for Gass, I think it rings true as it is.