THEY BURNT HER BOOKS

THEY BURNT HER BOOKS

Edna O’ Brien (born 1930) arrived with a considerable fanfare in 1960 with her first book The Country Girls. Born and raised in Tuamgraney, Co Clare, in the west of Ireland, she wrote vividly about the claustrophobia of rural Irish life during WW2 (when Ireland significantly was neutral) and for the first time ever a female Irish novelist was to write candidly and with authority about passion generally and sex specifically. In her native land, where the Catholic church wielded immense secular as well as religious power, her fiction was deemed incendiary, and under Irish censorship her books were banned, denounced from the pulpit, and even publicly burned in several places, including her native Tuamgraney. Later, one of the most flagrant crooks in the history of Irish politics Charles Haughey (1925-2006) pronounced that the novel was’ filth which should not be allowed in any decent home’.

O’Brien was educated by the Sisters of Mercy between 1941 and 1946, and she described the experience as coercive and stifling, frightening and all pervasive, so that she couldn’t wait to get away from it. By the age of 20 in 1950, she had a licence to practice as a Dublin pharmacist, and a few years later found herself in London where she married a minor and older novelist called Ernest Gebler (1914-1998). Gebler eventually became jealous of her meteoric success, and proved to be tyrannical and controlling, even making out that it was he had half written her books, so that the marriage was to end by 1964. In fact, her first book was helped by the fact that she was a publisher’s reader at Hutchinson’s at the time she wrote it, and they had commissioned her with a £50 advance to write a novel. Once published, it was loudly acclaimed by Kingsley Amis (1922- 1995) who was a major cultural arbiter at the time. Amis with his irreverent and sardonic first novel, Lucky Jim (1954) had been granted the post-war iconoclast category known as the Angry Young Man, alongside writers like John Wain (author of the 1953 Hurry on Down) and the dramatist John Osborne with his splenetic Look Back in Anger (1956). These Angry Young Men were deemed notionally leftist at the time, though by the mid- 60s Amis had metamorphosed into a far right satirist tainted by misogyny and racism, and a few years later Wain was to be made the Oxford Professor of Poetry. In O’ Brien’s case, politics are to a certain extent beside the point, for she and her characters are so painfully shaped and fragilely defined by their claustrophobic upbringing, that their mere physical survival is an achievement in itself.

That said, in latter years O’Brien has touched courageously on matters so sensitive in the Irish context, that she can be defined as a true radical. In 1997, based on real events from 1992, in Down by the River she writes of an underage Irish victim of her father’s sexual abuse fleeing the country to seek an abortion in the UK. Later in 2002 there is In the Forest where we have the fictionalised account of the real life Brendan O’ Donnell who abducted, raped and murdered a woman, her 3 year old son, and a priest in rural Ireland. By contrast The Country Girls Trilogy that also includes Girl with Green Eyes (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964) seems almost like a world of lost innocence, even though the last one in particular reveals not only a sardonic and sceptical take on marriage, fidelity and parenthood, but is also downright blasphemous at times, albeit delivered in a context of comic farce rather than one of earnest ideology (e.g. Kate down on her knees praying during Baba’s fumbled abortion attempt, much to the latter’s chagrin).

In Girls in Their Married Bliss we are once again with Kate and her friend Baba, both now living in London, and both married to Irishmen. Kate like Baba is in her mid 20s and is wedded to Eugene, a documentary maker, and has a small child by him, a son called Cash. They live in some splendour in a large house, and with a maid called Maura who is a hopeless cook, as is Kate. Kate is having a covert affair with a rather dull and staid British politician called Duncan, and in order to meet him one night lies that she is going to stay overnight with Baba. Eugene is suspicious and goes part of the way on the bus with her, where things reach a crux of alienation when Kate suggests it would be more comfortable if they sat on separate seats. In fact, Eugene follows her to see her liaising with Duncan, and later unearths their clandestine love letters which he passes on to his solicitor. Before that at Christmas, he gives a present to Cash and one to Maura, but nothing at all to his wife, and their mordant exchange is economically done.

‘“You forgot me,” she said to him, sullenly

 “I give presents when I want to,” he said, “not out of duty.”

“You’re quite right,” she said, but in the wrong tone.

“I see you’re getting your persecution complex back, put a sign out,” he told her.’

Once he has removed her love letters, Kate rummages frantically through his desk, and inside an accounts’ ledger reads his diary entry about herself

‘So this is her, my special handpicked little false heart, into whose diseased stinking mind, and other parts, I have poured all that I know about living, being and loving.’

Kate’s tragedy is that when they had first met, Eugene was the epitome of romantic tenderness. But now that she has betrayed him, he regularly unleashes the opposite, of a loaded and limitless venom.

‘“I must say it took quite a time to get to know you…I must congratulate you on your simpleton’s cunning, and your simpleton’s servile ways.”

The chapters of this novel are structured in roughly alternating fashion, with Baba’s dour and irreverent first person recollections, alongside a more sombre and troubled third person account of Kate’s marital anguish. In some ways it reads like the story of two separate and distinctive émigré friends, straightforward young Irishwomen both with healthy sexual appetites, both adulterous, and both of them rebels of a kind. But at other times, and with O’Brien being such an autobiographical writer, it comes across as being the two halves of the authorial personality, one guilt free and relatively liberated, the other riddled with contrition, so that it could almost read as some sort of attempt at private reconciliation. Baba like her friend Kate has married an Irishman, but nothing like the cerebral and wordy Eugene. She is wedded instead to dumb Frank, a wealthy London builder who splashes his money about, and especially if there are people with titles or artistic credentials, however modest, at the frequent parties he throws. Kate’s sad descent into dissolution as she reels from her husband’s refusal to forgive, is skilfully offset by the comic counterpart of Frank, a man so ignorant and unworldly he doesn’t have a clue what is happening when he first sees Baba menstruate.

‘“It must be the food,” he said…

“Don’t you know about women?” I said. He just looked at me with his big, stupid, wide open mouth. He didn’t know. What sort of mother had he? He said to leave his mother out of it, that she was a good woman and baked the best bread in Ireland. I said there was more to life than baking good bread.’

Eugene is now threatening Kate with solicitors and limited parental access to Cash, so that she panics, takes her son, and lands up on Baba’s doorstep. Baba is not at all pleased, as she knows that Frank who is a good Catholic, will not appreciate the scandal, and especially when Eugene comes knocking at his door in the middle of the night demanding to know where they are. After futile attempts to find accommodation for them both, Kate soon realises how limited her options are. She hands Cash back to his father and eventually ends up alone in a bleak and godforsaken place where the wiring is so bad there is no electricity, and she has to survive by candlelight. Cash on his first visit to his mother, cannot bear the cold, the dark, the lack of TV and toys, and cries to go back to his father and Maura who seemingly is now cohabiting with her employer.

Frank who does not understand the phenomenon of menstruation, also needs to have the business of lovemaking explained to him (what do we do now?) so that understandably Baba feels the need to spread her wings and have some excitement. In her case, she meets her lover at a party, a drummer in a band called Harvey, who by agreement comes to the house when Frank is away. As pure farce he turns up wielding a massive drum and clutching drumsticks. Harvey is theatrical in other ways, and having taken a mouthful from the brandy she has offered, he subjects her to a species of regurgitation which Baba finds the last word in erotic stimulation.

‘Then he beckoned me to come over near him, and I leapt across and he put his lips to mine and gave me brandy from his mouth. I nearly passed out with the thrill. I don’t want to get all eejity about nature and stuff, but it was just like the way birds chew the food and feed it to the mouths of their young. He could twist me around some barbed wire if he wanted to.’

Being a percussionist, Harvey can also impress her by using her body for drumming practice. He starts with his drumsticks across her breasts, which Baba finds the opposite of aphrodisiac, more like painful pummelling, then turns her round and drums her backside, so that she begins to worry how she can lie to Frank about the bruises.

Harvey as it happens is a reckless boaster.

‘“I’ve studied the art of lovemaking since I was fourteen,” he said. He said he had his muscles under such control that he could make love to twenty-five women in an evening. He pointed to a little line of hair on his chin and said that it was put to use in lovemaking too. “My hip bones, every part of me is brought to bear,” he said. Talk about the secrets of the orient. I was rearing to get upstairs.’

Once in the sack Harvey proves less than proficient, and even walks out on her in the small hours, to see some other woman, Baba surmises. Fidelity aside, she ends up pregnant and Harvey promptly vanishes to Budapest. Later, with Kate in attendance, she tries to abort herself using a hot bath and castor oil. When that fails, and with Kate once more in tow, she confesses the truth to Frank who at first threatens to kick the arse off her, then subsides and decides he is pleased to have an heir after all.

Kate makes one final attempt to be reconciled with Eugene, and they meet at a train station where he curtly refuses to take her back. Thoroughly traumatised, she then enters a bizarre mental state, where she stands on a weighing machine and hallucinates the voice of a friendly Irishman talking to her in a warm, consoling voice. Suddenly and without warning, all her backlog of suffering and petrified emotions starts to shatter and pour forth.

‘Then something broke loose inside her and she started to scream and bang the glass that covered the numbered face. She hurled insults at it and poured into it all the thoughts that had been in her brain for months. She lashed out with words and with her fists and heard glass break, and people run, and say urgent things.’

An ambulance comes to takes her to the casualty ward, and later her GP sends her to a psychiatrist for fruitless discussions which Kate abruptly terminates. In the interim Eugene slyly takes Cash out of his school and they plus Maura the maid emigrate to, of all places, Fiji. Kate, mad with panic, is angry enough to approach a bumbling old, hand-pawing solicitor, but the cost involved in pursuing them to Fiji is beyond her. In a kind of shutdown stupor, she contents herself with writing letters to Cash, while Baba to her surprise suggests she come and live with her and Frank and the baby. After that Kate takes the symbolic step of having herself sterilised, whereupon she enters a state of emotional remove that somehow seems to rescue her from complete vulnerability. And so, to the novel’s final sentence.

‘It was odd for Baba to see Kate like that, all the expected responses were missing, the guilt and doubt and sadnesses, she was looking at someone of whom too much had been cut away, some important region that they both knew nothing about.’

The next post will be on or before Thursday 24th October

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A MIRACLE IN ENFIELD

A MIRACLE IN ENFIELD

How would you feel if you lived in a London suburb that lies on a busy train route, but where the trains only stop once a day, and at 6.50 am, which is to say The Antisocial Crack of Dawn. And to add insult to injury, they don’t stop at your small Middlesex town at the weekends at all, meaning no one is going to go junketing in your pubs and restaurants of a Saturday night, or at least not unless they drive there, which means they cannot have a drink? You would probably feel neglected and shunned and let’s face it a bit paranoid at being a bit of a pariah, especially as the trains halt at the small towns either side of you with a partisan and unreasonable frequency. Such is the fate of the community of Brimsdown which is on the Greater Anglia train route heading for Bishops Stortford with connections further afield to Cambridge. I can speak with such authority, as yesterday Marta and I were headed for the same town where there is a massive plumbing warehouse, the only place in commuting distance of East London that could provide her immediately with replacement guttering sections of a special and distinctive kind. We arrived at Lea Valley Station to read a timetable that might have been designed by someone in a Samuel Beckett novel bent on illustrating the poetics of absolute futility. There were 5 different colours for the route overall, and the grey one and the black one both offered stops at Brimsdown. The problem was that the grey and black were hard enough to distinguish on the key code at the top, but on the timetable itself it was impossible to see any difference whatever in their finer hues. And as I said, the only unambiguous halt at Brimsdown was at daybreak weekdays only.

The station preceding Brimsdown was Ponders End, a smallish town famous for having an early 19th century flour mill (Wright’s) (the Enfield area’s oldest working industrial building) and little else (if it’s of interest a 2 bedroom flat there would cost you about half a million pounds, meaning an unrefusable bargain if you wished to commute into central London). Unfortunately, the next train didn’t stop there either, so to get at our specialist guttering part we would have to go as far as Enfield Lock, the station after Brimsdown. Once at Enfield, it looked about a half hour walk along the picturesque Lea Valley to get to the plumbing warehouse, and the easiest route was to turn right down a rather colourless row of villas shortly after leaving the station. Half way down that street, we suddenly noticed a gaunt and thoroughly improbable bus stop, which declared itself to be a stop, but also added emphatically, No Passengers Taken On Here

Shades of Brimsdown and Beckett already. After about half an hour’s intelligent debate, Marta and I decided that this obscure and unfriendly stop was a terminus of a kind and that likely Enfield Lock train station was too busy to have a bus stop nearby. The trouble was there was no polite explanation to that effect, and that this part of Middlesex which is principally one long industrial estate with no real demarcation between Ponders End, Brimsdown and Enfield Lock, would seem to operate by a combination of faceless anonymity and the principle of arbitrary and pointless frustration (indistinguishable colour codes and information that does not inform).

The plumbing warehouse was a horse of another colour, as the middle-aged male assistants were polite and kindly to a fault, and pointed us to an impressively complimentary refreshment machine whilst we waited for the pallet with our guttering segment to be unloaded. I had a cup of tomato soup (with minuscule doll’s house croutons) followed by hot chocolate which I would rate at 6 out 10 and 1 out of 10 respectively, but of course anything that is free is never to be despised. When at last we had our guttering adjunct, we could afford to walk onto Ponders End station for the return journey, and this took us by King George’s Reservoir, and a really handsome canal walk it proved to be. We met almost no one along the way, but in a field adjacent saw a massive flock of ducks with hooded beaks, as well as three brown horses, one of which cantered over to befriend us. The hair on his neck was covered in an enormous quantity of thistles, which didn’t seem to bother him at all, but as Marta said he looked like a Rastafarian, of which I imagine there are precious few in either Brimsdown or Ponders End…or even Enfield Lock.

But the highlight of that walk was what you might call an unexpected and uncanny vision, or no more accurately a perceptual miracle. On the canal itself, alongside the boats and barges, there were numerous moorhens with their plaintive little squeaks, and nearby were countless small gulls gently bobbing up and down. Fascinated by the tranquillity of those little gulls, I looked across the canal and was astonished by what I saw. A young man with long hair was stooped down and was tenderly stroking two of the gulls that were sat in the short grass next to the towpath. Of course, everyone has heard about robins consenting to sit on the hand of the gardeners that regularly feed them, but I had never heard of anyone patting and stroking a seagull before (not even in the wonderful Hebridean children’s stories of Mairi Hedderwick’s Katie Morag). That means, I thought to myself, like Dr Dolittle or some mystical recluse or forest hermit, he must have some transspecies praeternatural power…and I even felt a good bit jealous as I would very much have liked to have stroked a seagull myself.

“Look,” I said to Marta in considerable excitement. “Look at that man over there stroking those two seagulls. How the hell has he got them to be so tame?”

Marta did not sneer, but with an acuity of vision superior to mine, put me straight in two seconds.

“Those aren’t two seagulls. It’s a white carrier bag he’s rummaging inside. He’s fishing out his sandwiches as far as I can see. Maybe he’ll feed the seagulls with them… and those moorhens too, no doubt.”

The next post will be on or before Thursday 17th October

SPOTIFY AND FRIENDS

SPOTIFY AND FRIENDS

One of the entertaining things about the world of IT, which has been overwhelmingly dominating our lives since around 1994, meaning a good quarter of a century, is the self-reflective glamour of its discourse and terminology. For the 2 or 3 years as a writer that I resisted word processing in favour of a manual typewriter, whilst also gingerly avoiding the internet (partly because like a Flat Earther I thought such an Aladdin’s lamp phenomenon  fairytale impossible) I had no idea what a Hard Drive was, even though I guessed it was in a different epistemological category from say Acacia Drive or Buddleia Drive. At the time I lived just outside a small town in North East Cumbria, which thanks to its rural status, received a good deal of subsidy to ensure that all its citizens, and those of the outlying villages, were au fait with computers and with going online. Soon the little town, its population a modest 4000, had a massive and splendid Resource Centre, part of a converted comprehensive school, which ran free classes for anyone who wanted to learn word processing, spreadsheets and sending and receiving emails. A goodly number of these students were of retirement age, though it was only later they were coyly dubbed the Silver (as opposed to Snow White and Senile) Surfers. I would go into the Centre mostly for photocopying, but as I began to learn word processing, I was startled to hear blameless old octogenarian lads and old ladies in their frequently stylish cardigans, bandying an oddly macho and always heroic vocabulary. To me that language was strikingly reminiscent of old black blues singers, as they chatted earnestly about their Hard Drives (qv Muddy Waters, and his album Hard Again), their Hard Copy, their Bootings Up, their Downloads, and a few years later they were unflinchingly Burning and Ripping their CDs (wal ah took mahself dahn mah hard drive, ah done boot up mah shit, then dahnlowds an fixes it, then burns an rips mahself in hell).

To be sure, if you are an octogenarian and male, the adjective ‘hard’ has a resonant and crucial personal significance. And of course, the same holds true for those women who still maintain a healthy appetitive elan in their eighties and beyond. Hard drives after all, in computer terms, hold everything that matters, and are therefore indispensable, as is a copious blood flow, should you wish, to quote the great author Francois Rabelais (1494-1553), who never touched a keyboard nor a mouse in his life, to play the two-backed beast. Likewise, if you do something as innocent as copy a CD, whistling as you do so, it is more dramatic to make out you fearlessly ‘burn’ it or ‘rip’ from it, as if you were a crazed Viking setting everything on fire and causing carnage and mayhem wherever you go. Apropos which, the more alert of you will have thought ahead by this stage, and will be saying yes, yes, but your twopenny halfpenny anthroposociopsycholinguistic thesis fails lamentably, Mr Wiseacre, when we come to ‘floppy’ disks, floppy being the opposite of hard, and with symbolic and more to the point physiological implications of lame not to say limp rheology (google it). And to drive the point home, you might add, while we’re at it, squire, what the hell is supposed to be macho about the term ‘mouse’? Because according to your highfalutin in your face machismo theory, it should surely have been a called a ‘rat’?

To which perhaps I can only counter that the hard drive, thanks to its charismatic adjective, has survived and always will, whereas the floppy disk, thanks to its opposite and demeaning epithet, has gone the way of the Dodo…

Meanwhile the name Spotify, I think you will agree, is not a heroic descriptive term, suggesting as it does a brainless dog called Spotty, or the perverse capacity to induce a rash of acne in someone else’s or even your own fair countenance. Just in case you’ve never heard of it, Spotify is a music site which for a modest monthly subscription, gives you access to about 50,000,000 recorded albums and singles, a dream beyond compare, is it not, if you imagine trying to buy even a tiny fraction of those albums as CDs or downloads. It covers every genre of music from pop to rock to jazz to world music, to the arcanest of classical composers. I have only had Spotify for a fortnight and as with the bursting of dams have been plundering, or do I mean despoiling, the musical cosmos. So far I have unearthed the Minor Baroque composer, a Czech called Samuel Capricornus (1628-1665) who died aged only 32, in the form of a magnificent 1994 recording of his Theatrum Musicum. In 1657 Capricornus became Kapellmeister in Stuttgart, but alas did not make himself popular. He complained inter alia about the gluttony and drunkenness of its musicians, and added that the cornetto players played the instrument like a cow horn. For a suitably vivid contrast, I revisited the black American Rufus Harley (1936-2006) who, wait for it, was the world’s only known exponent of the jazz bagpipes. Harley who came from Philadelphia started as a sax player, and then one day in 1963 observed the Black Watch band at the funeral of John F Kennedy, and decided he also wanted to play the pipes. Whenever his neighbour complained to the police about the racket he made practising, Harley would swiftly stash them and say to the baffled cops, ‘Do I look like I am Irish or Scottish to you?’. I first heard him on an old Sonny Stitt album, Deuces Wild, which I bought in Oxford in 1970, and hadn’t listened to his music for about 45 years, so that the nostalgia all but irrigated my laptop for the next half hour. Despite the eccentric choice of instrument, Harley also played with Herbie Mann and Sonny Rollins, which goes to show that doing what you really want to do against all the odds can at times handsomely pay off. Harley often wore a kilt when he was playing his pipes, plus a Viking horned helmet for added effect. A Scottish family who once beheld him amazed on TV, sent him a tartan the next day, which he wore for the rest of his musical career.

I unearthed yet another old favourite at the opposite end of the world, the Indian genius Bhimsen Joshi (1922-2011) one of the finest exponents of Classical Hindustani singing, and especially noted for his remarkable vocalic flutterings called taans. Bhimsen was born the eldest of 16 siblings and his mother died when he was very young. At the age of 11 he left his home village for Bijapur to find a musical guru, and the 3rd class passengers on the train he took, clubbed together the little they had to help him on his way. In 2002 when she was working in Panchgani, Maharashtra, my late wife Annie brought me back a Joshi CD. I had never heard of him nor his mesmerising taan ululations, but I played that album over and over again, and now incredibly I can play his whole repertoire for evermore.

The saddest thing when you google your Spotify discoveries, is to see that some of your erstwhile favourites died relatively young, and/or in poignant circumstances. In the late 1960s there was a wildly exhilarating jazz rock band called Colosseum (qv the 1969 album The Valentyne Suite) who continued to perform until 2015, and who I saw live in Oxford Town Hall in 1971. Their sax player was the bearded and professorial Dick Heckstall-Smith (1934-2004) who had the impressive habit of smoking cigars throughout the gig, resting them in the sax’s cavities as he paused between solos. Colosseum was the brainchild of drummer Jon Hiseman (1944-2018) who later played in the band of his wife which was called Barbara Thompson’s Paraphernalia. Tall and handsome Thompson (born 1944) played energetic sax, and Annie and I saw Paraphernalia performing to a capacity crowd in Sheffield only a few months after we were married in 1979. My wife died 30 years after that gig, and Thompson’s husband Hiseman lived on for another 9, and somehow those set in stone statistics seem to me to have a life and an inner purpose of their own. Meanwhile Barbara Thompson herself has been battling with the onset of Parkinson’s Disease, though thankfully medication has allowed her to keep on playing and performing …

I also tracked down those other jazz rock virtuosos, the 70s band Nucleus, sometimes known as Ian Carr’s Nucleus. Carr (1933-2009) was a Renaissance man who played trumpet and flugelhorn in the 1960s Rendell-Carr Band as well as in Nucleus, and later taught musical composition at Guildhall. He wrote definitive biographies of Keith Jarrett and Miles Davis, as well as co-authoring the Rough Guide to Jazz. I always thought he was a Geordie when I listened to him giving his talks on BBC Radio 3, and indeed he studied at Newcastle University, but was born in Dumfries, South Scotland. I once took exception to one of his talks, where he spoke rather snootily apropos late Miles Davis as exemplified in uncompromising albums like Agharta (1975). This happens to be one of my own favourites with its hypnotic dreamlike progressions, interspersed with fearless use of synthesiser and all manner of fuck all the critics electronic bravado. Carr termed it pejoratively Miles Davis’s ‘rock band’, and I was angry on Davis’s behalf if only because no common nor garden rock band, nor even a band of great versatility and exceptional talent, could have had a hope in hell of playing those infinitely sophisticated progressions.

Then last week, after almost half a century I sat listening again to Nucleus, before googling the band, and then googling Ian Carr. I read about all of his many achievements and deserved successes, but I also flinched considerably as I read that Carr died aged 75 of that unspeakable disease called Alzheimer’s. At once, believe it or not, I felt queasily guilty about being irritated by the musician for his long-ago radio talk, and those unacceptable musings about Davis’s supposed surrender to rock.

Then again, crazy as it sounds, I thought that jazzmen only died of drug and alcohol abuse, and that they always went out in style, however messy that style might be. Which is to say that Spotify can be a great and unparalleled ride, but is not always without its shocks and its seisms…

The next post will be on or before Thursday October 10th

MARLON’S SECRET LOVE

MARLON’S SECRET LOVE

Here is a puzzler for you, and if you’d asked me this question a month ago, I’d have had not the faintest inkling, and would have been more than astounded by the answer.

To whom did Marlon Brando (1924-2004) refer, when he informed a reporter: if my friend had been a woman, we would have been happily married ever after. He also kept the same person’s ashes in his bedroom and had nightly conversations with them. Also, when high on hashish, Brando said that the same man was the one great love of his life.

That’s right, Mr or Mrs 1950s TV Mastermind, it was Wally Cox (1924-1973) and before the rest of you say who he, I would add, think of Hiram Holliday, and when that still draws a blank, try Paul Gallico. At last we are on safe ground because the American Gallico (1896-1976) not only penned The Adventures of Hiram Holliday (1939) he also wrote the 1941 The Snow Goose and the even more famous The Poseidon Adventure (1969, filmed in 1972). Prolific Gallico wrote 41 novels in all, many of which were filmed (including a novel about a cat called Thomasina, whose film adaptation I saw with a bulging mouthful of Quality Street, when holidaying aged 13 in Cardiff in 1964). Nonetheless the great man was attractively modest about his talents.

‘I’m a rotten novelist. I’m not even literary. I just like to tell stories.’

That aside, the reason why I’d have been astounded to hear that Marlon had a passion for Wally, was that between 1960 and 1961, being a 10 year old telly freak, I watched the BBC’s broadcasting of the Hiram Holliday stories, which were the full 5 years’ worth of the original US show (1956-1961) compressed into a single viewing season, as the BBC no doubt believing them to be high art, put them on 5 nights a week, the first time they’d ever done so with a US show. To be accurate, I watched Hiram’s/Wally’s adventures perhaps a total of a dozen times and even as a young boy was not very impressed. Hiram was a weedy bespectacled American proof-reader who was a sentimental variation on Superman, as he had James Bond style secret powers which allowed him to go around the world with his querulous stooge/straight man pal, Joel (Ainslie Pryor, 1921-1958) sorting out its problems by dint of clandestine muscle and artless ingenuity. He even got involved in the Nazi peace pact of the Austrian Anschluss (recall the novel came out in 1939) so there really were no limits for the innocent moon-faced little man of mystery.

In real life Cox married 3 times and fathered 2 children, and all those wives pooh poohed the slander that Wally’s and Brando’s love was anything but platonic. He was also a serious DIY man, wired his own house and even kept a kind of fully fitted workshop in his studio dressing room. He was a military veteran to boot. All of which is to emphasise the obvious, that appearances aren’t everything, and to add that Marlon and Wally roomed together in NY from 1948 onwards when they were both 24 and aspiring actors.

I’m sure you’ve already guessed that the way I came across this extraordinary knowledge was via the internet, prompted initially by a fit of random and you might say idle nostalgia. A few weeks ago I remembered my Hiram Holliday viewing of almost 60 years ago, and the programme as I recalled it seemed so whimsical and so wet behind the ears, I imagined it must have been scripted by some D list recovering alcoholic who had once showed some promise and nearly made Hollywood (qv the Coen Bros’s excellent 1991 movie about failed scriptwriters, starring John Turturro, Barton Fink). After googling Hiram H, I was boggled to learn that it was based on one of Gallico’s novels and even more boggled to learn that the sentimental kids’ film The Three Lives of Thomasina starring Patrick McGoohan and Finlay Currie, had been based on yet another Gallico novel.

All this is leading to a fresh faced and wide-eyed revelation on the part of someone born 1950, that the internet really is astonishing in the way it generously even selflessly takes you all round not just the houses but the shacks, shebeens, Doge’s palaces and even the Viking Valhallas, and allows you to discover secrets, surprises and ironic Wonders of the World with an ironically capital W.

To wit:

The slurred psychopath and man of honour, Don Vito Corleone, doting on Hiram Holliday

Stanley Kowalski the explosive Polak, tenderly talking to Wally’s ashes

Mark Antony the treacherous assassin, happy for ever with Hiram

Fletcher Christian, another man of honour, who was just as enchanted by the Veteran

Paul and his ugly savagery in Last Tango in Paris, also adoring his ideal Wally

Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now and from Joseph Conrad, finding love here and nowhere else

(The next post will be on or before Wednesday October 2nd )

BOY MEETS GIRL AND CARAX

BOY MEETS GIRL AND CARAX

The controversial director Leos Carax, is best known for the 1991 The Lovers of Pont Neuf (see my earlier post), a poignant love story about two derelicts living rough by the Seine. One of them is a gifted artist (Juliette Binoche, born 1964) who is tragically going blind, and the alcoholic vagrant who dotes on her (Denis Lavant) is pathologically terrified he might lose her. Less familiar is Carax’s remarkable debut Boy Meets Girl (1984), where Lavant (born 1961) appears as the lead character Alex, a Parisian drifter and would-be film director, who has just been ditched by his volatile girlfriend in bizarre almost farcical circumstances. His lover had kept secret from him that she was deaf in one ear, so that when he said to her one night in the small hours, I love you, lying on her good ear she misheard him accusing her with, You have a lover! Groggy in the middle of the night, she had asked him, How did you know? whereupon Alex predictably goes ballistic at the deceit. Even worse it turns out her lover is Alex’s best friend, whom he accosts by night on the banks of the Seine, and nearly murders with a flick-knife. His enraged girlfriend, who has an infant child, then abandons him to go and live in the mountains, but in her car she loads what she calls all his shitty paintings and crappy poems, and makes a diversion to fling them victoriously into the Seine.

This subtle and finely crafted film works partly via thematic parallels but also by original and provocative anecdotes from its unusual yet thoroughly convincing characters. Just as Alex is being abandoned, not far away a handsome young woman called Mireille (Mireille Perrier, born 1959) who is prone to suicide attempts and is a passionate dancer, is being dumped by her boyfriend Bernard. Bernard is so highly strung just going down into the metro unnerves him, and likewise he instinctively fantasises a bunch of idling cops might be about to arrest him for an unspecified crime. He walks out on Mireille who is frozen with grief by his departure, and later he rings and bitterly complains that at the start his love was far greater than hers. But once their loves had become equal, so to speak, perversely he had found himself losing interest, and even been revolted by her, to the extent that he had told her that her breath stank, when it didn’t. After a long while Mireille rouses herself from the aftermath of his nastiness and begins to tap dance rhythmically on a tray, almost like an oriental virtuoso, and the haunting black and white camera work of acclaimed cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier, turns this into a poignant little wordless tableau, reminiscent of the poetic economy of a Bunuel or a Kurosawa.  

The deafness motif occurs a second time, when Alex turns up at a party full of media folk, artists and foreigners, and plonks down on a sofa between an old man who’s fast asleep, and a shy young woman who is evidently his granddaughter. When the old man wakes it is apparent that he is deaf, and he lectures Alex by sign language that young folk nowadays don’t know how to make conversation and make friends, all of which homily has to be interpreted by the granddaughter. He then tells Alex that long ago he worked as a grip in the silent movies, and when there was any love scene on them, the director would urge the male actors to say something romantic (inaudible of course on silent movies) in order to make the subsequent kiss look more authentic. One of these male actors happened to know lipreading, and he decided instead to mouth bawdy obscenities to his female opposite, which explained the curious anomaly of maybe 2 or 3 people inexplicably laughing in all the packed cinemas, specifically because they also could lipread.

But Mireille is also there at the party, and Alex glimpses her when he looks through the open bathroom door, where she appears to be contemplating cutting herself. He is immediately smitten and when she tells him she is from the Loire Valley and has tried several times to kill herself, he is even more enthralled. They talk about their mutual dumpings, but Mireille stays distant and aloof, so that one tactic penniless Alex adopts is to go shoplifting in order to spoil her with presents. In a very funny scene, he enters a record shop wearing his favourite checked jacket of a kind once sported by the fictional schoolboy Billy Bunter. He manages to secrete one LP inside the jacket, but then growing reckless tries a second, a third and crazily a fourth, until the lining rips, the LPs tip all over the floor, and he flees the shop at breakneck speed.

A few words about the film’s innovative, sometimes daring cinematic techniques. When Alex ascends several floors in an old-fashioned open lift in search of Mireille, he hears a couple talking through the walls, in an amplified acoustic manner that is technically impossible. Their dialogue is definitely not inside Alex’s head, and when you listen closely, you realise it is Mireille and Bernard who are no longer together, reminiscing ghostlike about their past and specifically their lovemaking past. They speak matter of fact about oral sex, anal fingering and the like, and the fact that both of them struggle to give each other what they want, and that they irritate each other as a result. And yet for all the raw and uninhibited detail, there is something oddly ordinary, even touching, about such an obsessive yet sober discussion, if only because almost every couple on the planet will go through their variation of it at some time in their life together.

Parallel with that other worldly debate, at the party there is also an American woman Helen (Carroll Brooks), a widow in her 50s, who when talking to Alex claims she is capable of telepathy. Later he finds her alone in another room, sobbing and beseeching her late husband, for whose death she feels painfully responsible. Whenever he went on business trips abroad, Helen said, she had tenderly monitored his well-being, thanks to her gift of one-way telepathy. But then, once and only once, she had become distracted by something or other when he was away, had forgotten to do the telepathy, and the next thing she knew she had a phone call saying he’d been killed in a car crash in Germany. One crucial omission on her part then, and her husband was dead, and the guilt would surely last for ever…

Leos Carax can get his actors to do a great deal with a minimum of words, partly because some of them are physically extraordinary. Denis Lavant, a trained acrobat, is only 5 foot 3 inches tall and with a face so craggy and a nose so broad, you could spend hours just looking at him and never get bored. Ditto Mireille Perrier who with her wide eyes, jet black hair, and permanently haunted visage cannot fail to be mesmerising. These actors are often statuesque and silent for an extended revelatory scene, and this regularly alternates with wry monologues that are funny and poignant by turn. Farcically the day after meeting and falling for Mireille, Alex has to leave for his army service, and he informs her that he tried to avoid conscription, with the ludicrous excuse that he was unable to sleep in a room full of men. He also confesses that he wants to make a mark in the world, and that he is an ambitious film director, when in fact he has never got beyond planning his movies in his head. It is therefore perhaps relevant that the name Leos Carax is an anagram of the director’s real Christian name Alex, and of the name Oscar, the thing that every film director wants. Given his protagonist is also an Alex, and is also an aspiring director, and that Carax was only 24 when this little masterpiece was made, we can assume that a fertile autobiographical resonance is part of its magnetic power and dramatic authority.

The ending is not a happy one, and it is also where Carax takes most risks. By now thoroughly besotted with Mireille and aware she is not in love with him, Alex goes to her flat where to his horror he has to trail through pools of hallucinatory glistening blood that look like the stains of an oil slick. Mireille has evidently botched yet another wrist slashing, but she doesn’t really want to die, and staggering bravely to her feet she begs him:

“Help me…”

It would be admirable at this point if Alex had jumped to it as deus ex machina, but instead he is so nauseated that he faints, falls flat on his back, and even bounces on the spot like a puppet or doll. With this vaudeville antidimax, we are wondering what to feel next, but just then stony, neurotic Bernard who had abandoned her, walks through the door, and hugs Mireille very hard from behind. Unknowingly he drives the knife she clutches even harder into her breast, and the blood seeps through her clothes and the end is definitely here.

The next post will be on or before Wednesday 25th September

CELEBRITY CITY

CELEBRITY CITY

If you move down to London, it is often to get out of your own stifling provincial backyard, and one  consequence of that is, there’s a fair chance you might spot a celebrity, for celebrities shine more in the capital than they do in the sticks, where as a rule they seem quaintly mundane and comically misplaced rather than charismatic. At 68 my own metropolitan celebrity quotient amounts to a dizzy 4, and 25% of those were spotted last week when just a few yards from where I live in Hackney, I observed the actor Bill Nighy (born 1949) crossing the road, and looking reasonably enough, just a little self-conscious to be innocently out and about on his own patch . Nighy with his thin, well-worn and subtly versatile face, has been in countless successful films, including Richard Curtis’s comedy Love Actually (2003), as well as playing an impressively evil bureaucrat Sir Bernard Pellegrin in the truly excellent The Constant Gardener (2005), Rufus Scrimgeour in Harry Potter (2010) and on TV as Baron Arthur Bigge in, I would argue, the extremely overrated royalty series, The Lost Prince (2003). I’d also add that just possibly Nighy has not been given enough credit for the fact he effortlessly portrays hilarious, earnest and downright diabolic parts with equal ease. For my money though, one of his finest roles was on the radio of all places, and BBC Radio 4 at that, which as you know I normally avoid lest I turn into a basilisk repository of too many recyclable facts.  But in 2010 he starred as lead part in an adaptation of Simon Brett’s impressively literate and nuanced comic detective novel Charles Paris, Cast in Order of Disappearance…and at lunchtime no less, when normally R4 fans are looking for something nice and easy on the ears…like that Boys Own chummy hysteria known as Just a Minute.

My first metropolitan celebrity in the flesh was the legendary comic genius, the scriptwriter (Round the Horne, At Last the 1948 Show) and actor, Marty Feldman (1934-1982) who I observed standing alone outside Hampstead tube station in late 1972. You would never mistake him for anyone else, as Feldman suffered from extreme exophthalmia, meaning his eyes literally popped out of his head in a kind of displaced batrachian style, so that alongside that other virtuoso comic Gene Wilder (1933-2016) he was tailor-made for Mel Brooks’s barmy ghoulish comedy Young Frankenstein (1974). The important thing to stress, was that Feldman looked even more startlingly pop-eyed in real life than he did on the screen, and so the ontological gulf between Marty the man and Marty the actor, seemed absolutely unbridgeable. Two years later when I was working at the Wellcome Institute, I saw Alan Bennett (born 1934) the country’s best-known playwright, on a bicycle heading sharpish down the Euston Road, and 45 years on I still recall the mundane fact that he stood up and looked behind him briefly. Finally and preceding last week’s Nighy by a mere 4 decades, in late 1979 and queuing to buy a tube ticket in lieu of an Oyster, I noted sharp-jawed Timothy West (also born 1934) a very fine stage actor who cut his teeth on Shakespeare parts, but has since been in soporific, by which I mean pharmalogically tranquillising soaps, like Coronation Street and East Enders. He is married to Prunella Scales aka Sybil Fawlty of Fawlty Towers fame, and sadly, as of 2014, West admitted that they had been living with the early stages of his wife’s Alzheimer’s.

That said, the inevitable ageing process also has its perks, which can sometimes be spectacular. Here in London I get free medicine prescriptions, free transport on tubes, buses and trams, thanks to the munificent and aptly named Freedom Pass, and, incredibly, the well-stacked Hackney libraries are so generous, that you can borrow their DVDs and CDs for free. So it is that in the last 3 weeks I have enjoyed that finely tuned comedy of naïve young love, the 1965 A Blonde in Love by Milos Forman, the Czech best known for his English language One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Not to speak of that little known masterpiece by Akita Kurosawa (1910-1998) the 1970 Dodeska Den, a kind of Japanese Under Milkwood about a motley if extremely poignant collection of Tokyo slum dwellers, which includes an amiable young simpleton who thinks that he’s a roaring goods train, and bawls dodeska den (Japanese for chuff chuff) in imitation of the shunting engine. Most epic and ambitious of all, was Cannes Grand Prix Winner Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) from Nuri Bilge Ceylan, which combines stunning photography of the bare landscape of Eastern Turkey with brilliant laconic dialogue from a squad of cops in charge of a wretched killer who has serious problems in remembering where he buried the corpse.

This Hackneyian generosity when it comes to nourishing food for the heart and mind, extends even further to those like me, who, should you favour hard and fast categories, are what you might call old. I was told when I signed up at the library that DVDs could be had out only for a week, so that after a few days I was puzzled that the computer print off said I didn’t have to return them for a fortnight. When I checked with the library staff, they were equally baffled, until they went away and read the fine print of their manual. It turns out that if you are over 60, not only are the DVDs free, but you get twice as long to read them. Even more impressive, if you take out a clutch of CDs, you have a whole 4 weeks to lie back with your massive glass of pensioner’s bog standard Merlot from Aldi, and blissfully enjoy them.

You could of course read something far from flattering in that double and quadruple provision. To wit, that being old and passing gaga, you clearly need much longer to watch a film, as it might take you an hour or two, or even a decade or two, to bend and switch your DVD player on. Best also to allow a hefty amount of time to stoop down to your CD player, as your woefully shaking hands might take another cosmic aeon to remove the far too small disc from the recalcitrant case.

Recall then the piquant query of the arthritic dotard, bent on his knees to pick something up off the floor, who plaintively enquires of his enviably upright wife:

“Is there anything else I can do while I’m down here?”

The next post will be on or before Friday 20th September

ONCE AGAIN IN LONDON

ONCE AGAIN IN LONDON

Snatches of two far from confidential mobile phone conversations overheard in Hackney, London in the past week.

From an attractive woman with large earrings walking at full speed, and aged about 35:

“So when she got home, she found her husband on top of another woman.”

Two days later, from a lady in her late sixties with a moon-shaped visage, pale faced and with a strong local accent:

“Well she needs to facking well talk to her facking old man, don’t she?”

It only occurs to me as I write this that they might just be both talking about the same woman. Aside from reflecting that pre mobile phones, few blameless sexagenarian women would have said fucking at the top of their voice on a busy street…I can also confirm that you would never overhear conversations like those on the Isle of Kythnos, Greece, where I lived for 6 years before recently returning to the UK. Which is to say that while adultery is as popular a non-spectator sport there, as it is anywhere else in the world (and believe me the whole island, winter population 800, knows all the juicy details, real ones and wondrously baroque fabrications, within minutes rather than days) no one there would share their potent secrets at full volume with the whole world, and for free. Meanwhile I calculated recently that I have spent some 54 out of my 68 years in my native Cumbria, approximately half in my birthplace of the industrial west (think of the Solway Firth and of coastal Maryport, and of the birthplace of the iron and steel Bessemer converter, Workington), and the other half in the beautiful and largely unsung North East Uplands (qv the remote and tenderly exquisite rural hamlets of Roadhead, Bewcastle and Penton). Ditto no one in that sprawling and massive county would broadcast the engaging tale of someone nabbed in flagrante delicto, as if they were some unrestrained BBC Radio 3 Sunday night drama pullulating at full blast for the benefit of those neighbours who have never even heard of BBC Radio 3…

This isn’t the first time I have lived in London. I was here for a year in 1974 which to my astonishment is all of 45 years ago. I lived then in West Hampstead and commuted by tube to Euston Square, and thence to the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, where I was cataloguing their collection of Ayurvedic manuscripts written in Sanskrit. These days everyone over the age of 10 knows about the Ayurveda, but then absolutely no one but myself was studying it outside of India, which if you are 23 as I was in 1974, makes you feel both headily exclusive, and let’s face it, a bit in existential quarantine. By a strange coincidence, the short cut from my flat to the tube station took you past a Zoroastrian aka Parsee fire temple, the only one in the UK, I think I’m right in saying. The Zoroastrian scriptures, including the prophet Zoroaster’s Gathas, are written in a type of Old Iranian called Avestan, and yes, my subsidiary subject at Oxford when I read Sanskrit in the early 70s, just happened to be Avestan (alongside rock cuneiform Old Persian).

In West Hampstead I shared a pleasantly old-fashioned 2 bedroom flat that cost £64 a month, about 3 times what it would have cost in Cumbria. The house of which it was a part, was owned by a very nice old Indian lady who had an elderly Nepali caretaker doing odd jobs around the house. Male Nepalis often wear plant pot shaped hats, and he wore his jaunty version day and night, even though he was a long way from his home town of Himalayan Pokhara. He owned a mangy old dog, a white bellied bitch of about 15, who waddled her way up and downstairs, and would smile at me if I greeted her, but would never approach to be patted. West Hampstead then was conspicuously ungentrified, with no suave wine bars nor pricey coffee houses, and of course not even a sniff of wifi. Nor as now were there phone shops run by exiled Kosovans, for in the 1970s Kosovo was a subdued and impoverished part of Yugoslavian Serbia, where the average income was 40% of the rest of the down at heel province. A friendly young Italian couple ran a dirt-cheap trattoria near the tube station, and their cannelloni was so excellent I never ordered anything else. It cost 35 pence, whereas it might have been 50p or even 60p in far flung Cumbria, but as I only made £1400 a year as a research assistant, I was never able to eat or drink quite as much and as grandly as I would have wished in the sometimes overwhelming metropolis.

Now in 2019 I have discovered lovely Hackney and Walthamstow Marshes, with their winding and dreaming canals, full of romantic as well as less romantic houseboats. The former are painted a heartening sky blue or homely pastel shade, the latter may be up to a mile long and with sumptuous window frames that would cost more than a terraced house in Maryport. Last week, I was warmed to the core to see the copious birdlife on the Walthamstow Reservoirs: mordant little moorhens and flotillas of gliding and plaintive ducks, but there were also flawlessly supersonic cormorants just as you get in the Kythnos port of Merihas, or up in the Outer Hebrides. The first of the reservoirs lies very low and has a brief descent from the grassland above it. Even with the high-rise flats in the background, I could have been on the bare Solway Plain, in that melancholy but handsome land of estuaries and tufted sand dunes. I was inordinately heartened to know that I was in London, and that it was both the metropolis and authentic countryside. For they have Belted Galloway cattle on the Marshes, and yesterday I saw 3 or 4 tractors manned I presume by the Nature Reserve wardens. There were signs up saying what to do if a Galloway approached you aggressively, and they urged you above all not to run. To which I would say, try doing that when they have their young calves about them, and see if you can stay rooted to the spot, to be flattened good and proper by their roaring and bellowing and decidedly lethal mothers…

I love shopping in Hackney as cooking is my passion, and you can get anything here in the way of vegetables, pulses and spices. Most of the shopkeepers are relaxed and friendly Turks, and I love listening to Turkish, even though all I know is bir, iki, uc, meaning 1, 2, 3 and cok tesekurler ederim which means, thank you very much. There is also a charity shop nearby, which boasts world cinema DVDs, including my heroes the Argentinian Ricardo Darin, and the incomparable Javier Bardem. At the same place I acquired a Virago Classic novel, The Holiday (1936) by the poet Stevie Smith (1902-1971) the Ministry worker who doted on her beloved aunt, and whose life was turned into the celebrated film Stevie, starring Glenda Jackson. The foreword says Smith was primarily a poet, and that she didn’t like writing prose, and believe you me, it shows. I promise you that I love a tough stylistic challenge as much as the next, but there are a finite number of novelists whose tortuous syntax and impenetrable semantics, I would say, are far more trouble than they are worth. It is heresy to say it, but the elliptical Henry Green (1905-1973, author of Doting and Nothing) is one, and Jack B Yeats (1871-1957), better known as a brilliant artist, is another. With Yeats (brother of WB the poet) and his The Careless Flower, I have to read every sentence 5 times, and I still have no measurable clue of what he is saying, and worse still, if on the 5th reading I do glimpse what he might just be on about, the next clause is sure to make a contrary interpretation and have me reaching half insane for the Montepulciano.

Here is an extract from Chapter 1 of Stevie Smith’s The Holiday

‘I say are you going to Lopez’s party to-night

Ye-es I a-a-am

You are very flip at the parties I suppose?

Yes I am

It is not much good is it, said Caz. ‘Something human’ he said, ‘is dearer to me than the wealth of all the world.’

Oh, yes, that is how it is.

But you remember, Celia, who said that, he was not human at all.

He lived in the black mountains, I said.

No need to cry about it, dear girl

In the black mountains, sang Caz, mimicking and getting rather louder’

Having typed all that with great care down to the very last hyphen, I have just read the whole thing through, but on this occasion only 3 times, before impatiently pushing it aside and calling it a day. I am therefore making a definite personal progress.

The same is true of my falling in love with London, which is certainly far quicker than I had hoped.

The next post will be on or before Thursday, September 12th