Thursday, December 6, 2018

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Lee Child

my interview with Lee Child for the Sydney Morning Herald...
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I’m running late to interview Lee Child at the Viand Café on New York’s Upper West Side. It’s the day after the US mid-term elections and I get caught up in some kind of protest outside Donald Trump’s building on Columbus Circle ten blocks to the south.

I’m actually glad that I’ll be a little tardy because every single interview with Lee Child begins with the same hackneyed lines about the author’s height. He’s six foot five and because he’s so thin he looks even taller. If he’s already here, I’ll tell him not to get up, I’ll never actually have to see him standing, and we can get this article going without any hack work.

Unfortunately, I arrive first and Lee comes in behind me looking like a Big Friendly Giant amongst the little old ladies who seem to be this place’s primary clientele.

We find a booth and Lee says that he’s starving. He’s in the middle of a promotion blitz for Jack Reacher #23, Past Tense. Bill Clinton interviewed him about the book on Monday and he’s just back from TV gigs in New Hampshire. It’s the BBC later in the week. Such is the hectic life of a man who has sold 100 million copies of his thrillers. Despite all the pressure Lee seems relaxed and happy with his lot.

He orders a large strawberry milkshake and a grilled cheese sandwich with bacon and French fries.

“Do you eat like this all the time?” I ask him.

“On the road, yeah,” he says.

“And you never put on weight?”

“Nope. And I don’t even work out,” he quips.

I get a coffee and help him with the fries.

Child at 64 is well preserved. He’s tanned and lean and with his trench coat there’s a passing resemblance to Cary Grant in Stanley Donen’s Charade. Child, of course, was christened Jim Grant although everyone now calls him Lee. Cary Grant (then

humble Archie Leach) and Jim Grant both came to America to make their fortune after England rejected them.

In Jim’s case he had just returned from a holiday in Spain to a message on his answer machine from his boss at Granada Television telling him he had been fired because of company restructuring. Jim Grant was 40 years old, he’d been in TV since leaving Sheffield University with a law degree 19 years earlier, and knew no other type of work.

He liked to read and he considered a job as a night security guard in a warehouse where, presumably, he could sit at a desk and while away the hours with a good book. But then he decided that maybe he should try writing a novel instead. He invented US Army Military Policeman, Jack Reacher, set him travelling through Georgia (somewhere Child himself didn’t visit until many years later) called the book Killing Floor, adopted the name Lee Child, and the rest is history. In 1997 Child and his wife moved to New York City and he bought an apartment with a view of the Empire State Building.

We chat about the new book. In Past Tense Jack Reacher is hitch-hiking through New Hampshire when trouble, as it usually does, finds him. I like how the seeds planted in the first act of the narrative all pay off at the end. The talk starts to get technical. Lee is famous for saying that he never redrafts but I don’t see how this is possible in Past Tense. “Surely when the book was done you went back and reworked the early chapters to lay the groundwork for the ending?”

Lee denies it. He says that he wrote the book, the way he does all the others, seat-of-the-pants-style finding out what’s happening in the story as he goes along. There was no rewriting or second draft. I shake my head in amazement. “Don’t you ever write yourself in a corner and can’t get out?”

“That’s part of the fun of the whole thing,” Lee explains.

We talk about dialogue. “Realistic dialogue has ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and pointless repetitions. Mine gets to the point quickly,” he says.

“And no swearing,” I say.

“Exactly. I decided early on that either I would have the characters swear all the time or not at all.”

“Do Americans get the fact that Reacher is actually quite dry and sardonic? I was chuckling reading this book on the subway.”

“I think Americans might miss some of that. I’m not a fan of comedy thrillers but I think you can slip some humour into dialogue here and there.”

We talk about Lee’s early life. His very first memories are of playing in the bombsites in and around Coventry Cathedral which was destroyed by the Luftwaffe on November 14 1940. After Coventry, Lee’s father, a civil servant, moved the family to Birmingham where Lee attended the prestigious King Edward School. The KES was where JRR Tolkien, Jonathan Coe and Kenneth Tynan, amongst others, learned to write and Lee remembers his time there mostly with affection, though he is a bit dismissive of Coe’s novel The Rotters Club about those school years.

“It’s one of the things that annoys me most about British contemporary fiction. So many sentimental novels written by middle aged blokes about the halcyon days of the lower sixth.”

“It’s not just a current ailment. George Orwell made that point reviewing his friend’s Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise. He thought it a defect in the English character to feel that your life somehow peaked at seventeen.”

“Yes!” Lee replies with animation and he wonders out loud how contemporary British literary fiction got so introverted and dull.

“Crime fiction though seems to be in rude health these days though?” I ask.

“Definitely. And it’s good to see the women back in charge the way they were in the 1930’s.”

We talk about writers we like and then I change tack. “There’s an in memorium to your parents at the start of Past Tense and one of the major themes is Reacher’s

quest to visit his father’s house. Your dad is originally from Belfast. Did you ever attempt such a quest?”

“I have a story about that. My father was born just off Cyprus Avenue in East Belfast and when they moved to Birmingham they sold the house to the Morrison family whose first son Ivan became pretty famous.”

“Wow! Have you ever met Van and told him that?”

Lee hasn’t in fact met Van Morrison but his other celebrity stories are fantastic: as a teenager he helps move a drum kit for John Bonham; outside an awards show Charlize Theron bums a cigarette; Paul McCartney and he discuss song lyrics; Bill Clinton bugs him for novel writing advice late at night. . .

This is all great stuff but I can see that Lee is maybe getting bored with his own schtick. I ask him about Aston Villa and his eyes light up again. We talk football for a long time. I tell him the story of how I once scored a goal at Villa Park. (Too complicated to go into here.)

“I always got picked first for football because of my height,” Lee says.

“Let me guess: a lanky, intimidating central defender?”

“Yes,” Lee laughs. “But if I couldn’t be a footballer or a musician I always sort of wanted to be a story teller.” He credits his Irish background for that. “Everybody in Ireland seems to be a natural teller of tales; I wonder if that’s some kind of oral bardic tradition that has survived into the present?”

I put to him a few questions from Twitter and that’s pretty much our time.

“What’s next for you?” I ask as he puts his coat back on.

“Two more interviews tonight and tomorrow, European TV and then I’m off to Australia, I think. What are you working on next, Adrian?” he asks.

“I’m doing a standalone called The Chain.”

“Standalones are great. You never know if the protagonist is going to live or die right to the final page!” Lee says.

I thank him and he slips out. The newspaper is picking up the tab for this so I leave a generous tip.

When I get back to the apartment that night I throw away my intricate book plan and try some seat-of-the-pants writing. But two hours later I have, predictably, prosed myself into a corner with no way out. Adrian McKinty is at a complete loss, but I know that the peripatetic, ever resourceful Lee Child and his creation Jack Reacher would definitely know what to do next. I resist the urge to email Lee in the wee hours asking for he

Monday, November 26, 2018

Kafka's Old Office

a LitHub piece from last November...
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At the beginning of November I found myself in Prague with enough loyalty points at the Accor Chain to get myself a room in a fancy hotel way out of my usual league. There was one particular room in one particular hotel that I had been eyeing for years and much to my amazement I found that it was available.
             
The hotel was the Sofitel Century Old Town and the room was the Franz Kafka Suite. The Century Old Town occupied the former Austro-Hungarian Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute and a second floor office of this building was the place where Kafka had toiled as a lawyer from 1908 - 1922. This office and the room behind it had been converted into the Kafka Suite.
            
Kafka’s childhood home was long gone but for Kafka fans like me it was incredibly thrilling that for enough cash or Accor Reward Points you could spend the night in his old office.
             
I checked into the Century Old Town at two o’clock on a brisk November Tuesday in Prague to find that the room was not quite ready. Housekeeping was doing a quick final vacuuming I was told and I was given a voucher for a free beer at the bar which suited me just fine.
             
When the room was all set I walked up the wide, restored nineteenth century stair-case and found myself outside the Franz Kafka Suite where a little plaque confirmed me that this was indeed Kafka’s actual place of work. I put the key card in and opened the door.
             
The first thing that confronted me inside the room itself was pitch blackness. The outer door closed behind me and rather like – I fancied –Gregor Samsa I too was trapped in a bourgeoisie hell of the indoors.
             
“Aha!” I thought, you need to find the little slot to put your card in to get the lights to come on. I fumbled around and I did find the slot, but when I inserted my card the blackness remained.
            
I began to feel a little buzz of excitement. The Kafka Suite was deliciously Kafkaesque already. What fresh thrills and terrors lay ahead? The exhilaration began to dissipate when I turned my phone light on and realized that I wasn’t in a fiendishly difficult psychological maze partly of my own making, no, I was in an ordinary hallway and there was a problem with the electricity.
            
After a bit more fumbling I discovered the fuse box and although everything was in Czech it was pretty obvious which circuit had been blown by the vacuum cleaner. I flipped the switch and hey presto the lights came back on.
             
Out of the hallway I discovered that the Kafka Suite was gorgeous. The back room contained a generously proportioned bed, a huge bath, a luxurious shower and dual washbasins. But the front of the suite was definitely where the action was. The front room was an enormous light filled chamber with a sofa, a dining table and a writing desk that looked out onto the street.
             
This had been Kafka’s actual writing office. He had mostly prepared legal briefs here (the book to read on this is Franz Kafka: The Office Writings edited by Stanley Corngold) but you could imagine him working on short stories and letters in his lunch break or doodling away at ideas in the margins of his jotter.
             
The room was minimalist and contemporary, painted a bright umber with a portrait of Kafka himself lying against the wall in one corner. There was a bookcase containing mostly French hardbacks by second tier novelists of the first half of the twentieth century, but there were also a few modern paperbacks as well presumably left there by previous guests. I had no qualms at all about leaving a copy of my novel Rain Dogs on a high shelf where hopefully it will remain unnoticed for years.
             
I unpacked, showered and then made a beeline for the writing desk. I had been to Prague as a student backpacker years ago so I wasn’t that interested in sight-seeing, rather, I had come here to work.
             
The theory of literary osmosis is dubious at best but for a writer it is hard to resist the lure of attempting to compose something in the place where great literary icons did their thing.
             
 I have tried this game before and it hasn’t exactly worked out. In the old British Museum Reading Room I found what was allegedly Karl Marx’s seat while I was studying philosophy at University College London. The Marxian seat didn’t help me at all with my essays which were uninspired and generally terrible. A couple of years later at Oxford I frequented the Eagle and Child pub where JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis used to read and write. The epic fantasy novel I began there mercifully disappeared into a crashed hard drive never to be retrieved. 
             
A few years after that in Paris I toiled as a plongeur during the day while spending my evenings at the Deux Magots café. I was trying to emulate Sartre, Camus and De Beauvoir’s philosophizing while drinking enormous bowls of coffee and attempting to smoke Gitanes; but all I got from that experience was a massive jittery headache and a hacking cough.  
             
My most notorious attempt at literary osmosis was in the piano bar of the Ambos Mundos hotel in Havana in 2008. For most of that year I’d had writer’s block and with a deadline looming I took the drastic step of flying to Havana via Mexico City so I could work in the place where Hemingway supposedly wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls. Maybe I too could write my magnum opus here I thought and initially things went quite well. I got a notepad and paper and the ideas flowed. Half a dozen mojitos later I was writing gibberish and after a couple more cuba libres and mojitos I was attempting to push the deft piano player off his stool so that I could give the well heeled clientele my version of All The Little Puffer Trains Down By The Station.
            
I wasn’t going to let that happen again. This time I was going to write at Kafka’s desk (sort of) in Kafka’s office over looking the bustling Na Porici Street.
            
The Kafka Suite had generously provided its visitors with paper, pens and a rather nice mechanical pencil.
           
I took out the pencil and a sheet of paper and stared at the blank page for a long, long time.
            
Then I did a little Kafka portrait in the corner of the page, then another little doodle of a cockroach. I did a pretty good drawing of myself scoring the winning goal in the World Cup Final. Then I went to the book shelf and tried to read Georges Bernanos’s Journal d'un curé de campagne for a bit but found it pretty hard to get into.
             
Back to the dreaded blank page. I wrote a couple of opening lines and crossed them out and got a fresh sheet of paper and stared at that for a while.
            
I looked through the window at the building opposite. This must have been Franz’s view when he was writing those bloody insurance reports. It was an attractive building and on the third floor there was a large, peculiar sheep bas relief highlighted in gold paint. If it was there back then Kafka must have stared at that sheep for hundreds of hours. He did in fact write one short story about a sheep: ‘A Crossbreed’ which is a story about an animal that is half-cat, half-sheep with odd eating habits and dietary restrictions. It’s not his best work if I’m honest.
             
The sheep did not inspire me. I wrote a spoof Raymond Chandler short story once set in Ireland called The Big Sheep. It wasn't a great story and The Big Sheep Part 2 didn’t seem like a very good idea.
             
Unlike a lot of fancy hotel rooms in the Kafka Suite it is possible to open the window and let the city smells and street noise come pouring in. I pulled a chair close to the window ledge and watched the trams, cars and tourists go by for a while. There were more tourists and cars than the Prague of a hundred years ago but I imagine the citizenry riding the #26 tram was much the same.
             
It began to get dark. I noticed a beer cellar across the street called La Republica. I found my laptop and Googled it and discovered that it served liter steins of Czech beer and pre war staples of Czech cuisine such as pork ribs, schnitzel and pretzels.
             
“Maybe I’ll just go over and have one stein and a pretzel and then I’ll come back and do some serious work,” I thought.
            
Unfortunately that decision put an end to the possibility of the McKinty Magnum Opus getting started in Kafka’s office, for La Republica was a very amenable beer cellar indeed. It was full of Irish people, one of whom, as is the way of such things, knew my sister.
            
I had a very good night with a bunch of new friends. The bar wasn’t that far away from the salon where Kafka, Max Brod and Albert Einstein used to hang out, booze and chat, so I think they would have approved. When I got back to the Kafka Suite I was in no fit state to write anything at all.
             
But eventually the room did stop spinning which was nice and I settled down in the enormous, ridiculously comfortable bed.

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After a night of peculiar dreams I woke up next morning transformed into a middle aged bibliophile who had written nothing at all in Kafka’s room but who was maybe finally over his literary osmosis addiction and was sort of ok with that.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Mad, Bad, Dangerous To Know

my review of Colm Toibin's Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know from The Australian..
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Colm Tóibín’s latest book Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know is a slim stocking-filler treat for anyone who is interested in the golden age of modern Irish literature. The book’s subtitle – The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce – and the author’s reputation will be sufficient incentive for many readers. Fortunately Tóibín neither coasts on his repute nor stints on the research. This book may be short and fun but it is also a serious addition to literary scholarship.
            Taking as his model the late Richard Ellman’s equally slim but equally rigorous Four Dubliners: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett Tóibín delves deep into the mores, the times and the psychology of Sir William Wilde, John B Yeats and John Stanislaus Joyce. It’s somewhat heretical to say this but Tóibín may be a better biographer than Ellman because he has a lighter touch and he feels no obligation to tell us everything.
            Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know begins with an entertaining walk through the streets of Dublin with Tóibín as our tour guide. The new iPhones come with something called “enhanced reality” which sounds like a nightmare out of a William Gibson novel. One can think of no person less in need of such a device than Colm Tóibín. Mad, Bad, Dangerous has two maps and we can follow along as Tóibín points out the place where Nora Barnacle stood up Joyce on a date, where Samuel Beckett’s father (alas not a character in the rest of the book) ran a quantity surveying business. We pass the famous house at 1 Merrion Square where the Wildes held court and the bit in Ulysses where Leopold Bloom gazes through the window of the Belfast and Oriental Tea Company.
            Iain Sinclair has got London sewn up for this kind of thing. Sinclair’s dense, vastly entertaining literary walks through the Big Smoke’s “psychogeography” have yielded eight or nine books and Tóibín could definitely do the same for Dublin if he wanted to. (Tóibín’s Bad Blood : A Walk along the Irish Border remains my favourite of his books.)
            After the delightful introduction we go more or less into straight biography.
            Sir William Wilde (1815 – 1876) the son of a doctor, through hard work and an ability to make connections rises up the middle class pecking order of Dublin to become one of the most important eye and ear surgeons of the British Empire. He marries the brilliant and beautiful poet Jane Elgee (by far the most glamorous and interesting all six parents under consideration here and perhaps a flaw in this book’s structure is why the focus on fathers only?) Both father and mother are writers of note and everything is going swimmingly until a former patient, the deranged Mary Travers, writes a pamphlet insinuating that Sir William has raped her. A libel case damages Sir William’s reputation and he dies soon thereafter. The fact that his son’s career is also destroyed by a libel action and his life taken by an ear disorder William could probably have cured is certainly one of history’s crueler ironies.
            John B Yeats (1839 – 1922) was a noted Irish painter and engraver. He was no businessman and the Yeats children grew up, if not in penury, certainly with limited means. We do get some tales about John Yeats from Tóibín  but for me he is the dullest of the fathers on offer here. It’s not until he goes to America and starts slagging off the locals (especially Bostonians) that his narrative sparks into dyspeptic life.
Tóibín is very good here at explaining that most of the famous writers we think of in this era (Wilde, Shaw, Beckett, Synge, Bram Stoker, Lady Gregory, Sean O’Casey) were all Protestants and it’s not until James Joyce comes along that Ireland’s majority population gets its Homer and Shakespeare rolled into one. But finally we do get to John Stanislaus Joyce (1849 – 1931) a Cork man, the only son of an only son who becomes a customs officer in Dublin. Gifted with a fine tenor voice and a love of politics and literature John is something of a dreamer and spendthrift who squanders an inheritance and pension managing to outlive his long suffering wife Mary by 28 years. Charming and maddening by turns John is clearly the model for Simon Dedalus in Ulysses.
            At 176 pages Mad Bad and Dangerous to Know is a delicious hors d’oeuvre of a book illuminating many a dark corner of geography and biography with consummate skill. More Mr Tóibín please.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Astral Weeks

its the 50th anniversary of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. here's a little essay I wrote for Radio Silence on the album about 6 or 7 years ago...
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Thirty-three years after its initial release, Van Morrison’s album Astral Weeks finally went gold in the United States in 2001. Success was a long time coming for a record that produced no hit singles and never got close to the top of any of the Billboard Album Charts.

It was Van Morrison’s second solo project and his first since getting released from a troubled contract with Bang Records. Born in Belfast in 1945, Ivan “Van” Morrison had grown up listening to soul music, jazz, and R&B. His first successful band, however, was the tight pop ensemble Them, who had two Top 10 hits in the U.K. and U.S.

Eventually Van Morrison left Them and moved to the United States in 1968, playing solo gigs in coffee shops and clubs in and around Boston. Liberated from U.K. tours, his contract and the constraints of writing three-minute pop songs, Morrison entered the most creative stage of his career. He invented a highly original Celtic-fusion sound of lush strings, acoustic guitars, brush drums, double bass, flute, and a singing voice whose geographic locus seemed to exist somewhere between Motown and East Belfast.

Astral Weeks was recorded in autumn of 1968 with experienced New York session musicians. The players were given no lead sheets but instead were expected to improvise along with Morrison as he crafted melodies and sometimes lyrics on the spot.

The resulting album was lush, jazzy, discursive, with a heart-on-sleeve sentimentality and an un-ironic nostalgia for the Belfast of Van Morrison’s childhood. It certainly wasn’t what America or Britain wanted to hear in the turbulent year of 1968-69. Van Morrison moved on to more R&B-inspired material that brought him commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic.

Astral Weeks was very much the background music of my early childhood growing up in a sprawling council estate north of Belfast in the 1970s. My older brother played the record constantly, and as further torment taught himself to play many of its songs on his guitar. I was not impressed. I had little time for an album that to me was a dreary hangover from a hippie era that had now been mercifully euthanized by punk rock. The first record I bought was the Undertones’ eponymous debut, and close on its heels came records from the Specials, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, and the Buzzcocks.

It was only in the 1990s, after I too had exiled myself across the Atlantic, first in Boston and then New York, that I began to appreciate Astral Weeks for the masterpiece that it so clearly is.

Something happens to an Irishman or woman when they’re away from their green, sodden homeland, and this can manifest itself in a mawkish love of nineteenth-century rebel songs or the dodgy poems from Yeats’ fairy phase. Fortunately Van Morrison’s deep musical knowledge meant that his homesickness album was going to be of a different order of magnitude. Yes, there would be Yeats and the Celtic Twilight, but there would also be Huddie Ledbetter and Jackie Wilson, Ralph Vaughn Williams and Phil Spector.

The album begins with the title track, “Astral Weeks,” a beautifully orchestrated string-heavy song that eschews the pop structure of verse-chorus-verse. Morrison sounds as if he is free-associating memories and images of his past in dense, lyrically rich stanzas. “Astral Weeks” bleeds seamlessly into the trippy “Beside You” and the bluesy, upbeat “Sweet Thing.” In all three songs Morrison’s vocals weave in and out of the melody, which is often carried by Jay Berliner’s classical guitar or the strings, double bass, and flute.

The high point of side one is the three-chord impressionistic blues song “Cyprus Avenue” about a leafy street in East Belfast where all the pretty girls in Morrison’s childhood seemed to live. “Cyprus Avenue” features Morrison on rhythm guitar, Richard Davis on double bass, Larry Fallon on harpsichord, and an anonymous session flute player (possibly John Payne or John Elliot) who turned in an inspired, melodic jazz performance for cash-in-hand. The joyous stream-of-consciousness lyrics of “Cyprus Avenue” are deceptive, as this is really the story of a kid from the other side of the tracks longing for a world that he cannot have.

Side two of Astral Weeks begins with the upbeat "The Way Young Lovers Do" with Warren Smith Jnr a standout on percussion and then slides into the extraordinary nine-minute, forty-five-second “Madame George,” an ode to a lost world of Belfast life in the 1950s. “Madame George” is the emotional climax of the album, and the songs that follow in its wake, “Ballerina” and “Slim Slow Slider,” are the excellent post-coital Woodbines.

With a call back to side one of the record, “Madame George” begins like this:

Down on Cyprus Avenue

With a childlike vision leaping into view,

Clicking-clacking of the high-heeled shoe,

Ford and Fitzroy, Madame George.

Ford and Fitzroy, like Cyprus Avenue, are streets in Belfast where the title character of the song, Madame George, parades confidently in her pumps, much to the amazement of the young Protestant lad from East Belfast, Ivan Morrison. Much ink has been spilt trying to decipher the lyrics of “Madame George,” and Van Morrison himself has added to the confusion by telling several contradictory stories over the years. Tom Nolan writing for The Wall Street Journal in 2007 claimed that Madame George was none other than Georgie Hyde-Lees, W.B. Yeats’ wife who died in 1968. This seems unlikely. Mrs. Yeats was not the type to be seen legging it from the police along Fitzroy Avenue in 1950s Belfast. There are at least four other credible theories I've found about the identity of Madame George/Madame Joy but as the song continues it becomes obvious to me that Madame George is a brassy drag queen who either runs a shebeen or some kind of tranny knocking shop or both.

And you think you’ve found the bag,

You’re getting weaker and your knees begin to sag.

And in the corner playing dominoes in drag

The one and only Madame George.

And from outside the frosty window raps,

She jumps up and says, “Lord Have Mercy, I think that it’s the cops,”

And immediately drops everything she gots

Down into the street below.

Van Morrison again weaves his voice through the strings, flute, acoustic guitar, and stand-up bass; the musicians riffing their parts (including the anonymous flute player) heading off in half a dozen different directions but always coming together again in a kind of miracle of pace and timing.

“Madame George” is an impressionistic, wildly romantic take on a Northern Irish boyhood. I have never heard anyone within a hundred miles of Belfast say “Lord have mercy,” but it is Morrison’s absolute sincerity that adds credibility here and makes the song so wonderfully transcendent and endearing. This is many songwriters' favourite song from Bruce Springsteen to Harry Styles. Martin Scorsese apparently imagined the opening of Taxi Driver as an homage to Madame George and it comes up again and again in other movies too. 

The "get on the train, the train, the train" bit gets me every bloody time. 

In some CD versions of Astral Weeks the tracks have been re-arranged so that the album ends with “Madame George,” but I like the way it is on my old vinyl, giving me two songs to recover before flipping the record and playing the whole thing again.

Astral Weeks cultists used to be proud of their hermetic knowledge, but then in 2001 it went gold, in 2003 Rolling Stone ranked it nineteenth on its list of Greatest Albums of All Time, and the British rock magazine Mojo put Astral Weeks second on their list. The secret was leaking out, and Van Morrison himself blew the gaff completely in 2008 by performing two Astral Weeks concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, which were subsequently released as a live album.

For me the record is not only a perfectly conceived work of art, but it is also an emotional journey into my own Belfast boyhood, and perhaps even a glimpse of a future Belfast where the scars of the 1970s and 1980s have faded, and the city can become again an ordinary provincial town where the idle street kids dream about music and girls rather than bullets and bombs