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No dying of this light: All the Rage by A L Kennedy

The 12 stories in A L Kennedy’s latest collection revolve around ordinary people trying to cope with the emotional debris from break-ups, accidents, violence and betrayal.

All the Rage
A L Kennedy
Jonathan Cape, 224pp, £16.99

One of the best films of 2013 was the Chilean comedy-drama Gloria. It tells the story of a 58-year-old divorcee, cloaked in cherry lip gloss and Deirdre Barlow specs, who finds herself untethered, late in life, frequenting frisky Santiago night spots, yoga classes and catalogue-perfect seaside resorts, driven by the prospect of a second chance of love.

In “The Practice of Mercy”, one of 12 new stories by A L Kennedy – arguably Britain’s most industrious writer – Gloria is bequeathed a kindred spirit. Dorothy is a lonely sexagenarian, at sea among the strange trees, misshapen doorways and “contagious-looking biscuits” of the European continent. She has been deceived: “The current generation of over-sixties were mainly occupied with internet shopping, exotic holidays, divorce and unprotected sex,” she has read in glossy magazines, “perhaps in that order, perhaps not.”

Kennedy, whose novels include So I Am Glad (1995) and the Costa Award-winning Day (2007), has now published seven collections of short fiction. She also performs stand-up comedy, writes plays, and between 2009 and 2013 maintained a blog for the Guardian about the writing life. Her narrative style is easily recognisable. She presses closely on her characters, occluding plot points in favour of sensation, interruption and reflection, drip-feeding context to the reader as her stories unfold.

Unlike Gloria, who begins to take joy in herself and her situation, Dorothy’s is a state of ongoing malaise. She is irritated by the tourists, poor produce and pandering locals on her holiday abroad. After finishing a “foreign-tasting coffee”, she returns to her hotel room, where she reconciles with the partner we had not known was there. “Unexpected damage had occurred, and they’d thought they would have managed better after their years of practice, but they hadn’t.” Dorothy’s relationship endures on a knife edge. Others are not so lucky.

Throughout All the Rage, struggle with the emotional debris from break-ups, accidents, violence and betrayal. In “Knocked”, a young boy wakes in hospital with a cracked skull after being trodden on by a horse, uncannily wise to the pain that will define his adult life. In “Takes You Home” the reverse occurs – a grieving widower is undone, made childlike, reduced to facing basic questions of origin, class and identity as he empties the house he shared with his wife.

At times, Kennedy’s virtuosity takes over. “The Effects of Good Government on the City” and “A Thing Unheard-of” are overstocked with breathless interjections, displaced dialogue, parallel narratives and jumpy, single-sentence paragraphs. The title story recalls the 2011 anti-cuts marches in London. When a loud, fast-moving train rips past him and his wife, Mark is tempted to suicide, “an alternative to marriage”, unable as he is to let go of his angsty protester girlfriend. A more effective depiction of rage comes in “Baby Blue”, in which the narrator, a professional, middle-aged woman, finds herself lost in a French city, gazing on falling snow. “We’re an odd species,” she observes, “embracing ruined water, a gradually sifting possibility of disappearance.”

Only this isn’t true. Unlike Mark, she confesses her need for self-deception and rejects the literary setting. “Sod that,” she says, “it’s all nonsense,” turning from the Joycean snowfall to an irritating assistant in the shop where she is purchasing a dildo. The need to invent a language in which to convey one’s disappointment cedes to “a setting unsuitable for rage” – the real world, a sex shop – where she is still lost and where “uninterrupted fury is a constant”. In time, Kennedy reveals a little more about her narrator, who recently ended a relationship and has undergone surgery (possibly a mastectomy) alone at a nearby hospital. Like Kennedy, she cannot help but tell stories. To her, they represent a thing worth cherishing: “an appetite for miracles promised”.

A L Kennedy will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 4 and 5 April, in association with the New Statesman. More information: (tel: 01223 300 085). Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State