Twelve Bar Blues

P. Neate
Twelve Bar Blues
Twelve Bar Blues
Twelve Bar Blues
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Spanning three continents and two centuries, Twelve Bar Blues is an epic tale of fate, family, friendship and jazz. At its heart is Lick Holden, a young jazz musician, who sets New Orleans on fire with his cornet at the beginning of the last century. But Lick’s passion is to find his lost step-sister and that’s a journey that leads him to a place he can call ‘home’. Meanwhile, at the other end of the century, we find Sylvia, an English prostitute, and Jim, a young drifter. They’re in search of Sylvia’s past, lost somewhere in the mists of the Louisiana bayou. Patrick Neate has written a story that straddles time and space, love and friendship, roots and pilgrimage and everything between. Poignant and hilarious, it will hook you – like a favourite tune – till the end. ‘If I could choose one current British writer to tell tall tales around my fantasy campfire, it would be Patrick Neate’ Daily Telegraph ‘Hugely enjoyable’ Independent on Sunday ‘An endearing romp. Continents, and eras, come together in an infectious celebration of a mixed-up music – and the mixed-up people who create it’ Boyd Tonkin, Independent ‘A rollicking novel … energetic, divinely plotted' The Times ‘Truly epic … consistently pleasing and worthwhile’ Face ‘A formidable work of imagination’ Evening Standard 'Stories are the lifeblood of Patrick Neate's fiction - his novels, like Salman Rushdie's, are full of them and simultaneously fascinated by them' Metro 'A sweeping novel about the history of black music and culture which spans New Orleans, African roots, witchdoctors and juju' Daily Telegraph 'A century of jazz, blues, and lost love, Neate's energetic novel has its heart in the bars of America's Deep South ... a moving tale' Marie Claire 'A genre-crossing peach of a fiction ... Vivid, bold and energetic ... an engaging and imaginative novel' Guardian Mount Marter, Louisiana, USA. 1899) Lick Holden was christened Fortis James. His momma Kayenne called him that because he was her eighth child and it was a strong-sounding name. Damn! He was going to have to be strong, all right. There wasn't much in the way of celebration surrounding Lick's birth. This was partly because he was Kayenne's eighth; partly because he was a breech birth and he almost killed his momma; and partly because his papa had bunked six months before. Mostly, though, it was because Fortis James 'Lick' Holden was born in the Cooltown district of Mount Marter just as the twentieth century was coming up for air; and a new birth was a blessing to no one, least of all the child. Some ten years later, when Lick first blew his horn in the funeral parades that snaked their way down Canal Street through Cooltown, he watched the way the sombre mood of such events soon evaporated into a festival of dancing and ragtime or jass (as the music was called back then - or 'jasm', both shortenings of 'orgasm'). Lick loved to watch the fine ladies swing their hips and stomp to those African beats. But he couldn't help but wonder if the whole scenario was somehow disrespectful. He asked Momma Lucy (his grandmother) about this and she told him, 'Fortis! You gots to celebrate a life somehow!' But Lick didn't buy Momma Lucy's explanation any. The way he saw it, the funeral parades were not celebrating a life so much as its passing. And that was the truth of life and death for a negro in Cooltown. Momma Lucy was there when Lick was born. She held her daughter's hands and stuffed her mouth with rags to bite on. She knotted the umbilicus and slapped the life into Lick until he screamed loud enough to make the wooden walls shake. 'The boy sho' got some lungs, Kayenne,' Momma Lucy said and she held Lick under the armpits and examined his features, wiping the mucus from his nose and eyes. Black babies are born in a variety of shades from pink to tan. But Lick was born dark with full lips, a spread nose and a proud African forehead. 'The poor boy's been born a six-out-seven negro!' Momma Lucy exclaimed and she cackled like a witch. Momma Lucy popped a bottle of dime hooch and swigged deep. Then she poured some down her daughter's throat until it spilled over her chin. Then she emptied the remainder over Kayenne's rupture and Kayenne dug her nails into her mother's arm until she drew blood. So Lick was born to the sound of screaming: his own, Kayenne's and Momma Lucy's. But Lick screamed the loudest. In later years the first sound Lick could remember was not screaming but singing. Kayenne sat him on the outside staircase of their ramshackle apartment when she aired the two rooms, and he looked out over Canal Street as his six older sisters did the laundry in the gutter bowl below. They scrubbed the clothes until their nails bled, with bit soap collected by a neighbour from the white folk she worked for. And they sang away their troubles with voices as sweet as molasses. 'When the devil comes to take me to hell,
Make sure you cry to Gabriel,
Don't let the devil take my sister down,
She been in hell in old Cooltown.' Lick loved to hear his sisters sing. Because he knew nothing of the devil or hell or Gabriel and Cooltown was his world. One time when Lick was around nine months old and he'd just learned the use of his limbs, he crawled to the edge of the staircase and looked down on his sisters at work. He liked the way their picky heads bobbed and their necks dipped as they scrubbed and sang. They reminded him of the scrawny chickens that pecked the dust out back. But the sounds they made were a whole lot prettier. Lick leaned out from the staircase to try and get a better look but his little body wasn't up to much balancing. With a sudden scared shriek, he fell from the staircase the full four yards to the street below and landed head first in the gutter bowl with a splash. Kayenne heard the shriek and she came whooping from the apartment like a banshee, two-timing the stairs with her skirt hitched at the waist. But she reached the street to find her second daughter, Tomasina, clutching Lick to her chest. Lick sneezed a couple of times and he certainly caught a little chill but he wasn't hurt bad. That didn't stop Kayenne giving all her daughters a wupping like the accident was somehow their fault. When they heard the commotion, a lot of the Canal Street neighbours gathered round to watch the free entertainment. The men laughed at the thought of little Fortis Holden being an expert diver like the white good-time boys who leaped from the steamers into the depths of the Mississippi and they retold the story to passers-by and they nudged each other with their elbows and sucked on their cigarettes like they were scared they might escape. The women pulled their shawls tight around their shoulders and muttered to one another. Some said that it was 'surely a blessing'. Others looked at Kayenne and whispered that such fortune had the smell of witchcraft. But Big Annie - acknowledged as the expert on all matters of religion and juju by virtue of her husband's working for the white minister - soon set matters straight. 'T'ain't no hoodoo,' she said. An' t'ain't no religion neider. Jus' good luck, plain an' simple. Kayenne, that boy of yours sho' lucky to be alive.' When Big Annie said this, the other women nodded in agreement and Kayenne nodded too. But she looked at her sniffling son with his rack of ribs and bloated hungry belly and she couldn't be sure how lucky he really was. Truth is, Lick would surely have starved before he walked if it hadn't been for Kayenne's eldest daughter. She was named Lucy after her grandmother but Lick never knew her as nothing but Cheese. Cheese was fifteen years old when Lick was born and she'd just become a mother herself, though all too briefly. Cheese had been raped by one of Kayenne's many sweethearts (though Kayenne never knew it) and she gave birth to a little boy she called Jesus (after the immaculate conception she'd invented in her head). But Jesus never had much desire for life and he breathed for just two days with a rattle in his chest like a purring cat. Then the purring stopped. Of course Cheese was distraught when she found that Jesus had died next to her while she slept and she clung to the corpse for a further two days. And, since her own time was due, Kayenne didn't notice the silent little bundle until the smell became unavoidable. So Kayenne sent for Momma Lucy and Momma Lucy took her granddaughter and the body other great-grandson to Big Annie for a blessing because there was no point bothering the minister for a baby who'd barely tasted the bitterness of life. Momma Lucy promised Cheese that Jesus would receive a good Christian burial and sent the young girl home to her sisters. Then Momma Lucy and Big Annie weighted the corpse down with two stones and sent it to the bottom of the Mississippi. Because that was best for everyone. The next day Lick was born. Spanning three continents and two centuries, Twelve Bar Blues is an epic tale of fate, family, friendship and jazz that won the Whitbread Novel Prize in 2001. At its heart is Lick Holden, a young jazz musician, who sets New Orleans on fire with his cornet at the beginning of the last century. In an exclusive interview, Patrick talks about hip-hop, new-found fame and appearing on The Weakest Link. How did it feel to win the Whitbread fiction prize? Has it changed your life?
Bizarre. It was neither strange to be swamped in such hyperbole: it suddenly seemed like everyone was either saying Twelve Bar Blues was the best book they’d ever read or the worst and I kept having to remind myself that it is, of course, neither. As for changing my life? I guess it has in a way. I keep getting asked to talk about writing: so much so that it’s hard to find time to actually do it. Oh well. The book inhabits a seedy world of blues musicians, prostitutes and witchdoctors - dare we ask how much research went into it?
I’ve always known a few working girls and the odd spirit medium so that wasn’t too much bother. Strangely, blues musicians proved more difficult. I suppose that’s what the imagination’s for. It is fiction, after all. Twelve Bar Blues borrows heavily from jazz terminology. Are you a jazz fan?
Certainly. But not in a trainspottery kind of way. In fact, I really don’t see Twelve Bar Blues as a ‘jazz novel’. I simply chose to set it in that milieu because it’s such a rich seam for the kind of storytelling I enjoy. As for terminology, it just seemed so appropriate. I think all the best novels have, for example, blue notes and swing rhythms. What would be the perfect musical accompaniment when reading Twelve Bar Blues?
Ha! Depends on what pushes your buttons. When writing it, I listened to a lot of Louis and a lot of Coltrane; nothing obscure, just sticking to what I know and love. In fact, the album that most saw me through the writing is one called Lewis by Lewis Taylor. It just seemed to fit the mood. It’s the most beautiful soul album in the traditions of Stevie and Martin made by this white guy from London. Perhaps that says something. The book gives voice to a number of different characters, including a London hooker, an African doctor and a Louisiana jazz musician. Was it difficult to create these very different voices?
Not really. I’ve always been fascinated by the structure and quirks of accent so it came quite naturally. On the page, at least. What has it been like to try and re-create these at readings?
Think Jim Davidson meets Pa Walton. I don’t do accents at readings. You’re also a hip-hop DJ, do you think listening to rap rhythms has influenced your writing style?
A hip-hop DJ? Any proper DJ would laugh at my inclusion among their number … I’ve been working on the same scratch for a decade (Pete Rock and Chris Isaac. I’ll get there in the end). Still, there’s no doubt that hip-hop influences the way I write. I love the immediacy of it, the rhythmical storytelling. I always reckon that if a passage doesn’t sound right aloud (accent or no accent), I’ve done something wrong. What was it like appearing on The Weakest Link? Were you happy coming second to Jilly Cooper? Is Anne Robinson as scary as she seems?
It was the emotional equivalent of TCP on a scratch: painful but necessary. ‘Character building’ my dad would say. Anne Robinson (Annie, I call her sweedie) is absolutely terrifying but I’m convinced she fancied me so I reckon I got off lightly. I thought Jilly Cooper was mad cool. She wrote me a very kind personal postcard afterwards which has pride of place above my desk. What are you working on next?
I’m writing a book about hip-hop and a novel about pigeons fighting above the streets of London. Think Brandon Lee. Think The Crow. Think The Pigeon. Clearly it can’t fail. What are you reading at the moment?
I’m going on a TV show called Before The Booker and I have to argue the case of a novel written before the Booker existed. I’ve chosen I Claudius so I’m re-reading it for the first time since I was 15 or so. I loved it the first time round. Now its brilliance seems a little depressing. Can you recommend us two books?
Blimey. Umm … two recent novels … William Boyd’s Any Human Heart is fantastic. However much acclaim he gets, it’s never enough. And Black Box by Nick Walker is, I think, as original and satisfying a first novel as will be published this year. We also asked Patrick for suggestions for top holiday reads summer reading. Here, in no particular order, choices… Black Box
Nick Walker
The best first novel I’ve read for ages. Deranged, original and impossible to put down.
Any Human Heart
William Boyd
Not quite up to the majesty of Brazzaville Beach but, in a slightly stalkerish way, William Boyd can do no wrong in my eyes. His Dark Materials Trilogy
Phillip Pullman
I just finished The Amber Spyglass. Its breadth and brilliance is completely terrifying. I’m very jealous. The New Rulers Of The World
John Pilger
Compulsory - as always.

Hooky Gear
Nick Barlay
One of the few writers who describes contemporary London in a remotely plausible way. Consistently funny too. Society Within
Courttia Newland
One of the others.

Salman Rushdie
Engaging hokum or Delphic prophecy? The former, I reckon. Very enjoyable nonetheless.

Iceberg Slim
Re-issued, relentless, relevant ... And lots of other words beginning with ‘R’ (readable, repulsive, rumbustious, rude, recherche ...) Yours Truly, Pierre Stone
Sam Bain
Breakdancer, Buddhist and my oldest friend. Besides, this is very very dark and very very funny. The Emperor’s Babe
Bernadine Evaristo
Completely charming novel in verse. The character of Zuleika is genius.
Data wydania: 2002
ISBN: 978-0-14-028656-4, 9780140286564
Język: angielski
Wydawnictwo: Penguin Books

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