My aesthetic refuge in fine music and writing


For as long as I can remember, I’ve taken refuge in music and reading. Thanks to my mother (for the books) and two sisters (for the music), my early childhood was partially populated by characters from the works of authors such as Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson and soundtracked by the likes of Hank Williams, Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison.

With companions such as those to call upon, the daily grind of honest poverty was a lot easier to bear. Soon, I progressed to Emile Zola, DH Lawrence and Mark Twain; and by my early teens, to The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and (the original) Fleetwood Mac.

My search for good authors and musicians has continued to this day. It is impossible to describe the emotions unleashed and mental images evoked by perfectly aligned written words and sublime musical compositions.

Ready access to good music and good writing gives greater satisfaction and is a more complete (not to mention healthier) escape from reality than alcohol or drugs. Nowadays, an inability to keep pace is my main frustration. The list of authors I really must read is growing all the time.

Joseph O’Connor, who had been hovering about the lower reaches of my list for quite a while, rocketed to near the top of it the other week on the strength of a book review he wrote for this newspaper. That I am already a fan of well-written book reviews, and O’Connor happened to be reviewing the autobiography of Neil Young, a favourite musician of mine, was entirely incidental to the impression his piece of writing made upon me.

It was exceptionally good: so beautifully balanced, rhythmic and descriptive, and replete with such finely turned phraseology, it wouldn’t have mattered what O’Connor had been writing about, the impact would have been the same.

As a journeyman at this writing game, who oscillates between hating and loving words – the first when I am wrestling with them, and the second upon discovering them aligned in perfect symphony – I can only admire the craftsmanship of a real writer like Joseph O’Connor.

Moreover, as a reader who is baffled by the enormous popularity of the mostly ill-written, semi-coherent books that regularly top bestseller lists around the English-speaking world, I take great heart from the fact that his ilk still exists and has a ready market.

If good writers have become progressively scarcer in recent times, the opposite is true of good musicians. There are so many excellent bands and vocalists around, it is difficult to keep track.

The explanation for this, I believe, is quite simple. There is so little money to be made from recording these days, the vast majority of bands must tour constantly to make a decent living. In front of an audience, unlike in a recording studio, there is no hiding place, no room for multiple takes: if a band can’t play, they don’t survive for long.

Just as in my younger days when I benefited from a mother who steered me in the direction of good authors, so my children now keep me updated on decent music – they and Jools Holland.

A recent BBC Later . . . with Jools Holland included a band called Rudimental, with guest vocalist John Newman. Newman, a young white man, has by far the most soulful voice I have heard for years (check out the video for Feel the Love. It is a marvellous pastiche of The Magnificent Seven film, with the all-black cast a rebuttal of traditional American historical narratives). Another band I am very fond of is Mumford and Sons, despite them being dismissed as unthreatening on these pages recently. Frankly, if I want to feel threatened, I’ll take a stroll down the Falls Road wearing a Glasgow Rangers football shirt. But if I just want to listen to a very accomplished, modern English folk-rock band, I’ll stick with Mumford and Sons.

Admittedly, room for musical progression appears limited where Mumford and Sons are concerned, but for now they are excellent. If their few albums are anything to go by, Noah and the Whale are another decent group to emerge from the London folk scene. Their lyrics alone are exquisite.

Locally, Dublin’s Little Green Cars (who, incidentally, are playing at Whelan’s in Dublin tonight) are an extremely good alternative-country/folk-rock outfit. If they retain their musical integrity, Little Green Cars are destined for big things.

Speaking of alternative country, about four years ago, while in the process of changing to a new computer, I lost my entire computer-based music collection. I managed to replace it, except for one valued compilation album: Sounds of the New West: the Best of Alternative Country. This came free with the September 1998 issue of Uncut, so cannot be bought, nor could I find the original CD at home.

To date, I have never found the equal of that particular refuge from life’s occasional storms. But no matter, the search for others never ends.

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