The Not Knowing
Shop Around Ö part 49
There are few better ways to spend a miserably cool and gloomy winterís day than totally lost in a book. And that pleasureís even more special when the book comes from a seemingly unlikely source.

Let me set the scene. Our local libraryís been refurbished, and thereís part of me that baulks at the result, as there seems to be everything in there these days other than books, but there you go. But I did pop in last week, looking for something a little diverting and different. In the end I settled for a book. Oh please yourselves.

What I actually picked up was The Not Knowing by Cathi Unsworth. Now Cathiís name is one Iíve vaguely been aware of from the music press, and other activities down the years. Her worldís a little different than my milieu, but I always have a sneaking and grudging admiration for people who have actually got their act together enough to produce a real book.

Reviews I had read of The Not Knowing made much of the connections and influence of Derek Raymond. That was a good place to start, though it does conjure up links to numerous Iain Sinclair works, so that you expect Martin Stone too to be lurking somewhere in the background with a bag full of salvaged books. The actual cover of The Not Knowing comes complete with endorsements from the great James Sallis, which is interesting as I seem to recall some stupid bitchy Sinclair comments about Sallis.

Anyway, I have to confess that I wasnít expecting much from The Not Knowing, but rapidly became totally lost in the world Cathi creates. Itís a world of the early Ď80s, where everyone is walking around Camden looking just like a member of Gallon Drunk, watching Wim Wendersí Wings of Desire, reading Patrick Hamilton, listening to Nick Cave, talking about Preminger, and getting by selling on old Northern Soul 7Ēs.

It is after all the absolute moral duty of any writer to recreate the world in the way that reflects their own very personal obsessions. And I know only too well how all those references will have been boiling up inside the writer down all the days, while they watch the world around them in abject contempt for not knowing.
So, yes, full marks to Cathi Unsworth for creating a real gem. One running theme through the book is that of record collecting, and I suspect the characters would approve wholeheartedly of our favourite label, The Numero Group, which is now up to its sixth immaculate release. The latest absolute must-have is Belize City Boil Up, and the salvage experts have wrong-footed us again by collecting together a number of wonderful cuts from the archives of the islandís CES label. As befits an island that lies down the Caribbean and Central America way, the sounds are an incredibly mad mix of heavy funk, psychedelic soul, sweet reggae, latin, ríníb, and even folk.

The folk tinged folk is by Nadia Cattouse, who came from Belize to Britain in the late Ď60s and became a contemporary of some of my absolute favourites like Bridget St John, whose first few records (on John Peelís Dandelion label) have just been salvaged by Cherry Red, and are absolutely essential. I first discovered Bridget about 1982 when an older associate said if you love Tracey Thorn so much then youíll love Bridgetís records too. And I did. If you need any persuading then her second LP was produced by Ron Geesin, dearly beloved musical expeditionary oft namedropped by the likes of Broadcast these days, while my current favourite (her third LP) Thank You For features the cream of the UK folk rock scene, including Ian Whiteman on keyboards for the gorgeous Goodbaby Goodbye. Whiteman being a colleague of Martin Stone in Mighty Baby (and indeed The Action), and their fingerprints are all over the UK folk rock scene in a way that is only now being really revealed to me.
If the Numero Group is an expected source of pleasure, I would have to confess to knowing a whole lot less about Tru Thoughts. I was vaguely aware of Quantic associations, and the whole cottage industry where the underground funk/hip hop/electronica scene thrives. So I took a chance on a couple of releases on Tru Thoughts, which looked intriguing. One was by Alice Russell, and is actually her debut from last year (Under The Munka Moon), and itís an absolute joy. I really know nothing about Alice, except that I saw somewhere Sally Rodgers raving about her. She is undoubtedly the best singer we have at the moment, effortlessly up there with Jill Scott and Angie Stone, and closer to home Dusty or Linda Lewis. Itís hard to understand why music this funky, soulful, gorgeous, and moving remains buried underground when Radio Twoís airwaves are filled with hollow horrors.

Alice contributes vocals to a rousing rendition of 'Seven Nation Army' on Nostalgia 77ís The Garden set on Tru Thoughts, which flirts with danger but it works. Again I have to confess to ignorance about Nostalgia 77, somehow suspecting it was a neo-punk outfit. But no itís very funky post-Ninja Tunes jazzy deep beats, very studious but decidedly funky. And well worth investigating, if only to support what is a very healthy underground, thriving away from the mainstream media.

Which is sort of one of the themes of Tricksta, Nik Cohnís totally absorbing account of his dabblings in the New Orleans hip hop scene. I was lucky enough to find, as with the Tru Thoughts releases, a promo copy dead cheap, and didnít know what on earth to expect. I have loved Cohn as a writer more than any other, have indeed ripped him off more than anyone, but hadnít loved his last few works. But this Tricksta is amazing. And like the best of Cohn it leaves you reeling, feeling a thousand conflicting emotions, many of which you may not like. But Iím pre-empting myself. Iíve not finished the book, and I have to get back to it.

© 2005 John Carney