Juke Box Jeopardy, Brian Johnstone

Red Squirrel Press, 2018  £10.00

Inner sleeves

I like the design of this pamphlet: square, made to look like a 45 record, which you pull out of its sleeve. Clever. And beautifully executed. For someone like me, who used to live by vinyl, the invitation’s compelling.

The poet describes a life in music. Growing up, and out, was all about it. Indeed, in a band, and a keen gig-goer, music was the main event.

Or was it? My favourite pieces in the group are the ones that directly concern the poet’s own life (at least, by my reading). All the time, behind the scenes, life is changing and a boy is growing — first, to teenager, ‘freighted with eager desires’ (‘Faithfull’), then to grown man.

In the first poem, ‘Skiffle’, he and his pals are playing in his dad’s shed:

For melody, your uncle’s old guitar,
abandoned years ago to rust

and missing strings, but What the heck!
with luck you’d knock out something

like a tune within the week.

A little later, they process early disappointment, when

“Not what we’re after,” John Peel wrote
Our cake had turned to mush

Meanwhile, they do note, along the way, the real pleasure in the process: ‘You miss the hit you got recording it’ (‘Juke Box Jeopardy’).

We learn about responsibility — and absurdity. The story of the ‘The Ring She Left’: a singer visiting the poet’s university for a gig, organised by him, and damaging ‘the Bosendorfer grand for which the university must hold you responsible.’ (She stained the woodwork with a pint glass.)

My favourite moment on the whole ‘record’ may be in one of the intermittent prose pieces towards its end, ‘Incredible’, where he steps into his own, real life, catching sight of his wife across Edinburgh’s old Empire Theatre:

she is leaning over the edge of the balcony lazily blowing bubbles towards the musicians on stage. She is his wife — and she looks beyond compare

‘it’s we who are incredible’, he realises, in a flash.

Charlotte Gann