STARTLING EXPRESSIONS

I will be busy for the next couple of weeks and there will be no new post until on or before Wednesday 12th December

STARTLING EXPRESSIONS

Quaint turns of phrase can delight and irritate in equal measure, and it’s true to say there are certain phrases some people use to excess that can set one’s teeth on edge, so that you have to do deep breathing to avoid going into a Basil Fawlty rant at them, or worse. Someone I once knew used the expression ‘blah di blah’ with a piercingly nasal inflection up to four times per ten sentences of speech, as a means of shorthand summary, instead of the more neutral ‘etc etc’ or ‘and so on’ and had clearly no idea either of the frequency, or of the grating nature of that far from sonorous expression. As a rule, I am more tolerant than most of the words folk use either in conversation or in emails (as opposed to the creative written word) but hearking back to acronyms as discussed recently, a couple of weeks ago and for the first time ever I discovered the remarkable ATB. Slow off the mark as I am, I immediately understood that it was meant as ‘All The Best’, the standard valediction at the end of an email, but it had an instant effect in 2 ways contrary to the author’s expectations. It was a round robin sent out by someone I knew to have an enormous address book, and it was asking for a touching favour for a third party. But the fact that the writer couldn’t be bothered to write a single All the Best, which takes what 3 seconds to type? inevitably made me think less of him and also somehow invalidated the selflessness of his request, though not of course the request itself. It would take the doubtless busy recipients of his round robin maybe 10-15 minutes to execute the desired favour, and he who begged the favour could not be bothered to take 3 seconds just to wish his correspondents well.

On the comedy side, possibly the most startling expression I have ever heard in my life was in 1974 at a cousin’s house in West Cumbria where his 4-year-old daughter Tansy was playing with her 4-year-old friend William. I hadn’t seen William for some time and he was one of those old-fashioned little boys who seem like the miniature already pre-edited version of exactly how they would look as a frowning adult. He had a solemn, moonlike extremely scrubbed face, he sniffed a lot, often appeared comically pensive, and he resembled very much a good-looking miniature version of the controversial comedian Benny Hill, currently at his worldwide zenith in 1974.

“How are you William?” I asked him by way of pleasant conversation.

He looked at me sagely, in a way most pintsize 4-year-olds would not, as if the enquiry were a matter of enduring importance rather than a casual remark.

“Ah,” he sighed. “I’ve been having trouble with my epiglottis…”

I promise you that’s exactly what the pipsqueak said, and I immediately noticed my relative’s wife Dora chuckling at the bizarre precocity. Any West Cumbrian infant other than William would have lisped, ‘I’ve had a sore fwoat’, but instead the homunculus professor had made his measured utterance. I realise now with a shock that William must be all of 48 in 2018 and it wouldn’t surprise me if he is one the world’s leading throat surgeons who knows more about epiglottises than most.

You get quaintness in grown adults too, and surprises all the way. A couple of years ago I was in correspondence with a very nice Englishwoman in her 60s who kept apologising for her use of multiple exclamation marks. Parenthetically I have only ever known women to use them in the plural, never men, and sincerely I do not deplore or mock the habit as old-fashioned knuckle-rapping schoolteachers might. I honestly think it might be a function of women of any background or station never being listened to enough, whether in a social or professional context, nor credited to have as much wit or sharpness as bumptiously emphatic blokes believe themselves to be in the same milieu. However, that is not the point to this anecdote, for what really surprised me was that in a single email she clearly intended to use the term ‘exclamation marks’ 4 or 5 times, but she didn’t write that at all, for what she wrote instead was ‘explanation marks’. I happened to know she was a graduate with an important managerial job and because she used the wrong term 4 to 5 times it cannot possibly have been a typo. Therefore for 60 odd years this university-educated woman had gone around talking about explanation marks, and hadn’t ever twigged that the proper term actually makes some sense whereas her own version did not. They are called exclamation marks as they follow what is exclaimed, not what is explained or dissected…

At the opposite end from that, is a clever dick writer like me supposedly infinitely sensitive to the nuances of words and the resonances in the silences between words and the echoes of the infinite in terms of unelaborated suggestion (qv the literary credo of Vladimir Nabokov and of Abhinavagupta the ancient Indian writer on poetics). Endowed with all of that, yes, but who nonetheless thinks that certain words make objective sense, when in fact they don’t, or at least only at a secondary and metaphorical level. In this context, I need to quote my West Cumbrian parents, Ian and Mollie Murray, a factory worker and a housewife respectively, both born 1915, both of whom who left school at 14 and had no secondary education to speak of, even though my father was a lifelong reader and autodidact. My parents had colourful words of their own that I never heard anywhere else, but which I presume they had learned at the knee of earlier generations. For example, if they wished to speak disparagingly of something e.g. a TV programme or a celebrated chip shop or a fashionable holiday resort, they would say, ‘it’s nowt patent’ which though I understood the phrase, I only managed to translate into logical sense at the age of about 40. The explanation is that back in their own parents’ time (my grandparents were all born between 1878 and 1885) when poor folk could not afford to see a doctor, the antidote to non-fatal ill health, whether it be anything from constipation to bad nerves to a bad back to flatulence to impotence, were the patent medicines usually in dark bottles that were advertised in the newspaper and the magazines of the day. If something was ‘patent’ it meant in terms of the sufferer’s wishful thinking it was effective and magical and dynamite, and something to put your trust in. Extrapolate that and then patent just becomes a term of approval and its antonym ‘nowt patent’ a dead loss.

Less glamorously we need to turn to the humble and unarguably fundamental (geddit?) backside which my folks also had their own humorous term for and which I have never heard used anywhere else in the anglophone world. Sure enough they regularly talked about the backside, the behind, bottom, arse, bum etc but they also regularly referred to it as ‘The West End’ and assuredly back in the 50s and 60s they weren’t talking about Terence Rattigan dramas or Brian Rix farces in the metropolis. I carried this quaint little posterior navigational compass phrase around in my head for all of 60 odd years, believing it to have some sort of core semantic validity, until only a few days ago in the middle of the night it occurred to me that the expression didn’t make any bloody sense at all…

West End of what?

You can only be called the West End if you are west of something else. Discarding the redundant front view, from the rear view your backside is only west of whatever is to its right, e.g. your wife or your husband or a heaving saloon bar or a vicar or a brace of handsome borzois or a photo of Theresa May colloguing with Boris Johnson, or the Complete Works of William Shakespeare as assembled on a creaking bookshelf. The only way it can make any sense at all, the West End qua the humble behind, is if someone turns to a right-facing profile and assuming they are steatopygic and have a protuberant backside, and the more protuberant the better, it might arguably be their West End…

Personally, as an accurate and homely metaphorical phrase for that which is often deemed mirthful (clowns kick each other up and on the West End) I think that it is Nowt Patent….

ATB!!!

Sorry for all the Exclamation/ Explanation Marks…

And I am not even a woman…

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HAPPY 100TH BIRTHDAY, JOSIE

The next post will be on or before Saturday 1st December

HAPPY 100TH BIRTHDAY, JOSIE

My Aunty Josie was born 13 days after the end of WW1, on the 24th November 1918, hence turned her century yesterday in a care home in West Cumbria, where she has been for the last 5 years. Before that aged 94, she was living alone in an upstairs flat in no nonsense downtown Workington and every Tuesday night businesslike dragging her 2 dustbins down for the Wednesday 7am collection. Redoubtable isn’t the word for it. Up until she was 90, as a retired confectioner she was baking a minimum of 20 Christmas cakes for her numerous friends, kids in their sixties, seventies and eighties who visited her at least once a week as their most charismatic and without a doubt most generous acquaintance. Forget about the costly ingredients, but her winter electricity bill was astronomical, for Christmas loaves as she called them, have to sit in the oven smirking away at low temperature, refusing to bite the bullet and actually bake, for endless hours. One year she also wrote and posted, she told me, 117 Christmas cards and got back 112 and she spoke with a measured possibly limited charity of the 5 anomalous defaulters. Charity and charisma are indeed appropriate words in her case, as she has always been a devout Evangelical Christian whose sole reading material for decades has been her Daily Bread scripture pamphlets.

The great thing about stereotypes is they are nearly always way off the mark. Believe it or not you cannot even stereotype Evangelical Christians, for her husband Ted who died aged 86 in 2003 was also one, and yet as a former collier, he was also an uninhibited comic who was not afraid to mix his words. At the age of 17 when I was at a family party with my girlfriend, I interrupted one of Ted’s zestful anecdotes to ask him what ‘humping’ meant, as for some incredible reason and even with Lawrence Durrell’s steamy Alexandrian Quartet under my belt, I had never heard the word in its colloquial context. He stared at me a second or two and then at my girlfriend, and then said he would whisper it later in my ear outside, whereupon my parents and even Josie burst into hectic if wholly innocent laughter. On reflection that word ‘humping’ was first applied by farmers to their simple animals and to copulating sheep in particular, so perhaps its pastoral origins made it less disturbing than the Anglo- Saxon gerund. Less controversially, at the same party Ted urged me to offer Aunty Joan’s adored but yappy little poodle Judy a handful of silverskin pickled onions to shut it up, and then in the same breath surveying the dinner table, he whispered to me with great originality re my Uncle Tommy’s daunting new hairstyle. Tommy, a lorry driver from the back end of remotest rural East Cumbria, born somewhere around 1930, had become inordinately fond of gel and quiffs as he entered his mid-20s in rock and roll 1955, and now in his late 50s, was suddenly returning to his glamorous youthful image. This evening he had really outdone himself, for his gel was so copious it shone under the electric light like some new moon of Saturn, and the luxurious quiff he had imposed upon it, constituted a gable end at the front at least 3 inches long and 4 inches wide. He looked, in short, exactly like one of the Leningrad Cowboys, the mad retro rock band as envisaged by the remarkable Finnish film director Aki Kaurismaki. Ted passed his incisive judgement on Tommy’s startling tonsure in the broadest Cumbrian dialect.

Marraboy Tommy leuks like ee’s hed a bad flate!” (Boyo Tommy looks like he’s had a bad fright!)

Ted died in bed in the middle of the night in August 2003 with Josie lying there next to him as she had done for the last 60 years. The horror she felt both at the proximity of his corpse and when in raw sorrow she realised he was never going to wake up again, meant that she told the story of his fatal heart attack every time she met anyone from that day onwards. Her other obsessive story came a few years later, when she had to go into hospital herself, and when a young male nurse one day had given her a bed bath. It had all happened so quickly and she had been so dumbstruck she had not had a chance to protest, but she assured her patient audience she had never felt so mortally embarrassed in her life. No amount of urging her that it was his job and was certainly not embarrassing to him made any difference to her tragic blow by blow account of how it had happened and what a post-traumatic example of a muck sweat it had put her in.

Josie was not in fact my aunty, but my mother’s cousin and she was also adopted, a fact which she never spoke of to anyone other than possibly Ted. Her adoptive mother was my Aunty Ginnie who was in her late 80s in the early 1960s and who had the mildest and kindest nature of anyone I have ever met. She lived with Josie and Ted and had numerous furrows of loose and shrunken skin, countless freckles that seemingly marbled her face, and a surprisingly deep voice, even though she swore she had never smoked. Josie was still a confectioner then, and if she was out shopping Ginnie was always there in the back kitchen where a huge old black range baked the bread and cakes and where her hands and skirt were perennially coated in ghostly flour. Aunty Ginnie was another lifelong chapelgoer, and in Josie’s childhood was disturbingly literal in her notion of Christian charity. She took in waifs and strays including a startling character called Uncle Sam who only had one leg and was an alcoholic and he stayed with her for the best part of 10 years. I fictionalised some of this in my 2001 novel John Dory as I also did the deviant behaviour of Josie the reckless child who loved to play awful tricks on her guileless mother. Once simpering sweetly, she brought into the kitchen a present of a pound of lard, bought at the butcher’s with her last few pence of pocket money, so she cooed to beaming Ginnie. It was tightly wrapped in an unusually grubby issue of the West Cumberland Times and Star and when her mother gushed her gratitude and opened it up, she beheld instead a long dead rat, and she screamed enough terror to bring the house down.

Josie and Ted had no children, and after leaving the pit he got a cushy and well-paid job as a security officer in a factory that employed half of West Cumbria. With the income from the busy confectioner’s they had money to burn, and Ted could think of no one better to spoil than Josie, who possibly because she was adopted and had no child to spoil, became the pampered child herself. The spoiling took the form of driving to the county seat of Carlisle of a Saturday where she would shop for expensive clothes in the one or two exclusive stores, not to speak of lush accessories like umpteen designer shoes, handbags, cosmetic sets and more. Back home she would fill the 3 huge wardrobes in the 3 bedrooms with her glorious suits and skirts and boots, and she accumulated so many she was a West Cumbrian Imelda Marcos of whom assuredly she had never heard and never would (once in a party game I asked her the capital of Spain and she frowned then giggled and said she hadn’t a clue). The morality tale that ensued (an Evangelical who accumulated countless worldly goods) was that she never wore 95% of her trophies but simply accumulated them to show off to folk like my Aunty Joan and my mother, both of whom had husbands who made half of what Ted made, and one of whom, my mother, had four children to look after. Now and again, in a fit of largesse she would offer a dress or a jacket or a blouse to my mother who at first would modestly and repeatedly no no, but then as Josie pressed her, and as the item on display was so undeniably beautiful would reluctantly accept.

And then Josie’s piece de resistance. She and I left my mother to dress in front of the bedroom mirror and went through to the sitting room, where Josie usually laid 2 Wagon Wheels and a huge glass of dandelion and burdock on me as we waited for the imminent fashion show…

My mother who could never afford designer clothes, walked through shyly in a sumptuous pale blue suit which had cost Josie 50 guineas in 1964, meaning five times my Dad’s wage at the shoe factory. Even to me aged 13 who had no idea of women’s (or men’s for that matter) fashion, she looked brilliantly lustrously attractive. I was about to say something sincerely complimentary through a mouthful of wet Wagon Wheel, when Josie got to it first. Josie, as I said, had never heard of Imelda Marcos nor knew the capital of Spain, nor of course had she heard of Litotes or Negative Hyperbole if that is the accurate rhetorical trope she came out with by way of cousinly laudation.

The more homely name for it is… Damning with Faint Praise…

“Oh,” said the middle-aged woman who would live to be a 100, to the middle-aged woman who would live to be only 74. And then added:

“Don’t worry, lass. You don’t look daft in it. You needn’t worry yourself. You don’t look soft…”

And with that I could see my mother doubting not just herself, but of course everything else in this wholly unpredictable world…

 

LOL AND OMG!

The next post will be on or before Wednesday 28th November

LOL AND OMG!

George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Mollie Keane and James Joyce, are all outstanding examples of those who were phenomenally sensitive to the infinite nuances of those mercurial, indeed hallucinatory things called Words. As in his own hilarious way was the late great comedian Professor Stanley Unwin (1911-2002) who with his excellent default epistemological category ‘fundamould’ (= ‘philosophical fundamental’) could entertain an audience for hours. Prof Unwin provides a salutary foil to those authoritarian pedants who don’t like splitting infinitives nor putting a preposition at the end of a sentence, but believe you me those old-fashioned sticklers are nowhere near as extreme as some. About 20 years ago, I briefly mixed in the same circle as a know-all bloke with an excessive amount of education, famed for his love of formality and intellectual hierarchy, who in dinner party conversations would come out with sentences like the following.

‘Possibly in this situation the best approach/strategy would be to aim at/test empirically the simplest/least complex option.’

Except he didn’t say that at all, for amazingly what he said was:

Possibly in this situation the best approach STROKE strategy would be to aim at STROKE test empirically the simplest STROKE least complex option’

 After 10 minutes of that I thought I was taking a stroke myself, added to which I was genuinely worried about this finicky geezer’s mental health. As I stared at him (and for want of distraction and rather like Richmal Crompton’s Just William when bored, I was trying to count his teeth) I thought to myself did he talk like that in bed with his wife (‘would you like STROKE prefer me, to stroke STROKE caress STROKE palpate you?’). The point is he obviously believed that there was admirable intellectual subtlety in giving an approximate synonym for everything he said, whereas instead he seemed to have a verbal OCDC similar to those unfortunate folk who have to wash their hands red raw 20 times after going to the bathroom rather than once.

At the opposite end to all that fussiness, is the amiable practice most evident in Facebook posts and confiding texts between best pals aged anywhere between 15 and 75, of peppering one’s paragraphs with acronyms on the lines of OMG (Oh My God!) WTF (What The Fuck) and last but not least the duplicitous and debatable LOL. Apropos which, a lot of people think that with my Sanskrit and Old Iranian degree and 11 books to my name, I must be a brainbox and a steaming intellectual, but I have to confess to being thicker than shit in this specific acronymic context. It was only a few months ago at the tender age of 67, that I discovered what the current generation means by LOL, for in my own formative years, back in the swinging mid 60s when I was in my mid-teens, it could only mean one thing, namely ‘Lots Of Love’. More to the point, when I was 15 years old in 1966, no less than twice did I receive from a certain lovely young girl, a letter in a dainty pink envelope sprinkled lightly with cheap scent, its reverse (while we are in the mood, dare I say its sweet little backside?) being sealed with the acronyms LOL and SWALK in smudged red biro. The latter meant ‘Sealed With a Loving Kiss’, a beautiful, tender and rhythmically poetic formula, albeit the acronym itself surely sounds like something one might bring up if one had a serious throat infection. And as I say, the previous 1966 endearment meant ‘Lots Of Love’. The problem was that half a century later, on Facebook posts and in occasional jokey emails, I would come across LOL in a repetitive context that made little sense to me if any. Had I thought laterally and intelligently, I would have asked someone if LOL had more than one meaning, but instead I persisted in my Neanderthal Beatles era translation, and felt that there was some LOL nuance in these 2017 posts that I just didn’t get, partly because I was thick, and also of course because I was old.

At length and only a few months ago, I did ask someone for clarification, and discovered that these days it means ‘Laugh Out Loud’ haha, and with that, all of a sudden, all those fb cheerleaders and wild night out anecdotes began to make a cumulative sense. But I have to say I felt as thoroughly and outrageously cheated by LOL having 2 contrary and unrelated meanings, as if someone had told me Christmas Day could also be on the 5th of May, or that the genius of an actor Brad Pitt actually had the birth name of Pontefract T Wilberforce.

And so it is that at this point I lay down in public and for all who have a sense of semantic justice, an acronymic challenge. If LOL can have 2 meanings, then I am going to invent an acronym here and now that has 3 of the buggers, all of them seemingly appallingly bawdy but instead simply vehement expressions of visceral amazement, consternation or chagrin.

My 3-pronged acronym which I patent now before the watching world at 10.25 Greek time Monday 19th November 2018, is…with a momentous and monumental roll of drums…

FMS!

Yes, that’s right, effing FMS…

This acronym signifies in the most subtle and minutely calibrated spectroscopic range of passionate human sentiment, all of three quite different things:

F–k me stiff!

F–k me sideways!

F–k me senseless!

As I say, none of these magnificently heartfelt interjections are remotely bawdy, nor are they paraphrased directives from the ancient Hindu erotic  manuals the Kama Sutra or the Ratirahasya of Kokkoka (it’s not my fault the great man’s name was that). They are all instead passionate and uninhibited expressions of astounded nay dumbfounded nay incredulous wonderment.

And let’s face it, a bit of passion wouldn’t go amiss with anyone, would it, whether it be carnal passion or the aesthetic variant. Whoever you are and wherever you are, that is…

Would it?

LOL

A KINDLE ON AMAZON I MUST GO

The next post will be on or before Wednesday 21st November

A KINDLE ON AMAZON I MUST GO

Yesterday the 11th November 2018, my comic extravaganza novel The Lawless Book of Love (2018) which has never appeared in book form, went digital i.e. became a Kindle e-book available on Amazon. In case you are impressed not to say puzzled by the sprightly old bugger that is me, aged 68, doing something fearlessly and uncharacteristically youthful, you need to be aware it was not my inspiration but that of my daughter Ione aged 29 who lives and works in Leeds, UK. Ione in the last 4 years has done massive and admittedly much needed make-over work on her appalling default Luddite of a Dad in the form of a) putting me on a  dating site and hence after an inscrutable  fashion attempting to sort out my love life b) getting me to write the blog that you are reading now (after my wife of 30 years Annie died in 2009 I had no wish to write anything at all for a full 5 years, which was when Ione suddenly and ingeniously got me kick-started) c) Putting me on Facebook with 2 separate accounts no less, which in terms of routing my uproarious prejudices, was the equivalent of the heroic Hercules cleansing the Augean stables (previously I had always genially referred to it as Arsebook, and I wasn’t using arse in the admiring erotic sense believe me) d) Buying me a smartphone whose principal value is it allows me to take nice photos of Kythnos characters (Bulgarians and Albanians as well as Greeks) and slap them on fb with a nifty little biographical cameo perched below. They are very popular on the island and I even had one likeable Albanian lad unashamedly walking up to me and asking me if he might be next. He added that he would need at least a day’s notice to look as spruce as he would wish to be seen on the digital platform.

To put it all in context, my daughter at one stage trained in digital advertising, hence understands a crafty step by step testing the water tactic when doing any promotion. She is also a dab hand at web design and as an automation test engineer and with a partner Ado who is a very experienced programmer, she is decidedly more digital than most. When it comes to promoting my book, and given that she was only 9 in 1998 when we first acquired the internet, Ione is at the opposite end of my historical and increasingly outmoded notion of the publishing and dissemination of, now that the world is growing ever more a a-kindle, that formerly set in stone 3-dimensional artefact called ‘a book’. In the old pre-internet days to publish a book you had first to buckle down by whatever means and then write the bugger/bastard which might take from 6 months to 6 years to 20 years or more, if like the Sicilian Lampedusa it was your lifelong brooding magnum opus. If you were lucky you would already have a literary agent and a publisher, and if the latter accepted your book, you would wait a minimum of 12 months for it to appear, though these days it can often be 2 years, in which period of course you might act in bad faith and inconveniently snuff it. I am not joking when I point out that those pampered and very successful UK writers with their 3-book deals, often have to take out insurance to compensate the publisher should they drop dead and slothfully omit to be there for the Waterstones’ knees’ up launch in the interim.

The sales route afterwards, is that the publisher waits for good and quotable reviews in newspapers and magazines, or possible encomia from someone famous, either literary or a TV chat show host who salivatingly claims to like nothing better than a rattling good book, indeed far more, with hand to heart, viewers, than his more than justified 6-figure salary. Armed with these reviews, the publishers’ reps then go round the bookshops and take orders, and if in addition the author is being interviewed on BBC Radio 4 or a TV Breakfast Show or even local radio or performing at some splendid litfest, all that should help the books to fly. Such a model only ever worked, and not always then, for the big metropolitan publishers, for nearly all the small independent literary presses such as my last one Flambard, had to depend on being repped by idealistic, virtually philanthropic concerns such as Central Books. These principled and kindly distributors might have literally dozens of small presses as their clients, and even literary magazines that they were repping wherever they could, so that if you were just one of 50 such independent publishers, your chances of sales were slim, even with the best of reviews. This was precisely the case a year after I was Booker-listed with Jazz Etc, when my 2004 novel Murphy’s Favourite Channels was reviewed absolutely everywhere, and mostly very favourably. I even got a full page with mugshot in the Independent on Sunday. I even achieved Novel of the Week status in the delightful Shire Tories’ favourite newspaper, the Daily Telegraph. In all I had 10 reviews in major papers and magazines, all of which sold all of 500 copies of Murphy’s Favourite Channels, meaning no more than vanity press numbers. For argument’s sake, had I been with Jonathan Cape I might have sold 10,000 copies or more. The reason was that my publisher did not have the financial means to promote the much-reviewed book, nor did he have a top honcho rep who only handled a handful of classy imprints such as Cape, Faber, Secker and the rest.

Things have gone severely arse-up for almost everyone involved in the book trade, writers especially, in the last decade or so. People have stopped buying newspapers and prefer to read the news for free online. Book reviews such as they are, tend to be a good deal shorter, and the literary editor if there be one, has less money to pay any reviewer, so that in some cases he or she does the reviewing themselves to save money. When it comes to literary magazines, journals that should be getting their act together and reviewing neglected fiction, often review very little, notably the august London Review of Books which discusses one novel per fortnight, and then only of a celebrity bigshot. Outstandingly the UK Literary Review edited by Nancy Sladek manages to showcase about a dozen works of fiction per issue as well as round ups of first novels and thrillers, but it is startingly alone in doing this, and the situation is getting bleaker year by year.

If you are lucky enough to have your book in both print and Kindle versions, then notionally your Kindle can ride on the back of the former, and sell on the basis of any previous print publicity. But many a Kindle only exists in digital form, and the only other place my book The Lawless Book of Love can be read is via another digital source, namely this the blog that you are reading (see the January and February 2018 archive). Between 1985 and 2009, almost a quarter of a century, I published 10 conventionally printed works of fiction, and any sales they had came via newspaper and magazine reviews, which in the old days zealous librarians used to study and then might courageously decide to buy the new unfashionable talents for their library. My novels were also repped in a modest number of bookshops, mostly in London, even though most of them were set in Cumbria and my family and I were living in Cumbria. It is a stark fact that the bulk of UK fiction sells mostly in London bookshops, whatever the novel’s geographical setting. Many Cumbrian booksellers (Steve Matthews of Bookends, Carlisle, with his admirable Keswick outpost, is a wonderful exception) were extremely leery and far from embarrassed about refusing to take on the local lad, should they have to choose between him and Jeffrey Archer or Martina Cole.

But now it is like a Zen awakening for me. With no publisher these days other than my blog, no literary agent, no bookshops, no reviews, no reps, the only way my Kindle book can shift on Amazon is by nifty advertising, by that and that alone. I am lucky inasmuch as I can quote from distinguished critics, namely DJ Taylor and Jonathan Coe, who have both said very generous things about my writing (‘one of my favourite writers’ from Taylor and ‘one of the best comic writers we’ve got’ from Coe). Using digital means, namely Facebook, and with the advice of Ione, I will construct three ads with lively quotes from the novel itself, and with a testimonial from either celebrity critic, not to speak of a prominent mention of my Jazz Etc Booker listing. Ingenious Ione says that we will invest experimentally in those 3 ads, see which works best, and then concentrate on that one, and invest a good bit more. For a modest amount of money, would you believe it is possible on Facebook to reach 100,000 people, a fraction of what it would cost anywhere else. Meanwhile, I never thought that I would end up admiring contentious Facebook much more than I do the hallowed London Review of Books, and those deliriously squawky Radio 4 book shows, not to speak of the venerable Curtis Brown agents, and those peerless Messrs Faber and Faber and the Bodley Head and all the rest.

But believe you me, I do…

Finally, I would sincerely ask you to wIsh me luck. I am in a Brave New World, a benign and I believe an optimistic one in this case, but I am nowhere near as brainy as Aldous Huxley was. The link to my new book is below.

 

OUT OF THE BODY EXPERIENCES

The next post will on or before Wednesday 14th November

OUT OF THE BODY EXPERIENCES

A close friend of mine who is reliably enthusiastic about my blog, asked me recently what I was going to write about next in these pages. I told her I had been thinking about Out of the Body Experiences, then immediately hastened to add, in case she thought I had suddenly turned New Age and/ or prematurely senile and begun throwing the I Ching straws every morning to see if I should get out of bed or not, that I had never had such experiences myself. At that she laughed, then said I would soon run out of material, and it would be a very short post. Those who know something of my writing can predict my considered reply, which is that if ever I do run out of material, I simply digress, on the basis that a digression as long as it is interesting and has a basic anticipatory tension in the prose, is as valuable as whatever the original subject was under discussion. I went on to say that in any case the initial inspiration was not re astral projection or whatever you want to call it… but a fond memory I had that was approximately 30 years old. Back in 1987 I was at an unusually enjoyable dinner party in my native West Cumbria where I was talking to a very likeable woman called Mary, a 40-year-old music teacher at a local comprehensive. Mary was exceptionally attractive and in an original way, as she had a pair of lively and mobile eyes that somehow managed to be gentle, and also to radiate outwards that moving gentleness, in a just discernible if immaterial way. Animation and gentleness together, an unlikely oxymoron perhaps, but the older you get and the more you learn of the fabric of  life in all its myriad permutations, the more you wordlessly realise that opposites are often there together and subtly harmonious notwithstanding.

Mary and I weren’t talking about astral projection, but with a great deal of passion about posh types of tea. It turned out we both liked Broken Orange Pekoe, Assam, Darjeeling, English Breakfast (did you know they call it Irish Breakfast in Bewley’s Café, Dublin?) and then moving to China, we praised Yunnan and Jasmine and all the rest. However, there was at least one fly in our connoisseurial ointment, I suddenly realised at one stage, as I remarked:

“I can’t stand Lapsang Souchong, Mary. Can you? It always tastes of iron filings.”

Incredible as it sounds, I suddenly felt I might be struck by lightning for saying something so appallingly heretical, and that despite my Oxford degree in Sanskrit and three works of imaginative fiction in hardback, I was really a grubby working class provincial northern lout, the only things missing being a damp Woodbine on my lower lip and a  shivering whippet on a bit of string. Imagine my relief then when Mary sniffed and stoutly replied:

“Coal bags!”

“Eh?

“Lapsang Souchong smells exactly like coal bags. That is if you sniff them in the coalhouse when your coal’s being delivered.”

I almost applauded as I loved her ancillary detail and the specificity, and I loved even more the fact that Mary wasn’t remotely intimidated by upmarket tea. To return to the start though, and very relevant to astral projection, was the fact that Mary had had a great tragedy in her life somewhere in the early 1970s, which I only learnt of a decade after we first met. It turned out that she had been married very young and when she and her husband were both about 23, he had collapsed and had a rapid and fatal brain haemorrhage in their North London flat. She had coped as best she could, they had no children thankfully… but about a fortnight after his funeral, she had awoken one night alone in the marital bed, only to discover that she was apparently close to the ceiling, some ten feet above her body, and, not unconfused, was looking down on herself who was fast asleep down below.

“Was your husband there?” I asked.

“No, no. There was only me on my own in the bed.”

She added as expected that all of that went against her natural and visceral atheism, and that it emphatically didn’t mean she afterwards believed in the afterlife or the occult or any of that, at which risible checklist she sniffed her exquisite nose sardonically, in the identical way she had when talking about Lapsang Souchong and malodorous coal bags.

I have only ever met one other person who claimed extracorporeal experience, and that was in singular circumstances in one of the dullest towns in the universe, the Scottish Border town of Gretna, famous for its miraculously unattractive and clinical depression-inducing annexe Gretna Green, which as you probably know in the old days attracted 16-year-old runaway lovers wishing for eternal nuptial felicity. The reason we were there was that Annie and I in 2003 had driven teenage daughter Ione to a dance just inside Scotland, and instead of returning 15 miles to our North Cumbrian home, then back again, decided to carry on and have a night out somewhere nearby, and that somewhere had to have a quality Indian restaurant. We duly ate a tolerable enough set meal for 2 in the Gretna Green curry house where remarkably one of the starters was called Spicy Boti, and then we went on to a huge pub which looked outwardly exciting but was terminally dull. An unexceptional and innocuous looking man of perhaps forty sitting alone at an adjacent table, suddenly introduced himself, and within half a minute I promise you was telling us about his Out of The Body peregrinations. It transpired that a few years back he was a jobbing farm labourer and was sat on a bunch of haystacks on an open lorry when the vehicle suddenly braked, he was flung forward, only to hit his head on the stony ground, whereupon he entered the Other World minus his astral sheath. I will edit what he said about such an unworldly world, where he like Mary was at some distance above his body, but suffice to say our storyteller was very plodding, mechanical and pointlessly finicky in his exposition, and minus any narrative flair or editorial sense whatever when it came to evoking the excitement of finding oneself reft of all one’s customary phenomenological bearings. In short, he managed to make his Astral Projection Adventure about as exciting as a tax return, and at the first opportunity when he laboriously slipped off to the Gents, I whispered the hoarse injunction to Annie, Off We Fuck! And so indeed we did.

I know of only two fiction writers who have engaged wholeheartedly with such exotic paranormal phenomena. One is William Gerhardie (1895-1977) also known as the English Chekov, who wrote wonderfully funny and brilliantly nuanced novels concerning matters of the heart, but who also made an excursion into the florid and bizarre, and penned Resurrection (1934) which is a whimsical and unsatisfying romance about someone who regularly goes AWOL from his body, rather on the lines of it being a party game. The other writer is French and he is Jules Romains. the pen name of Louis Faragole (1885-1972) best known for his multi-volume Men of Goodwill but who also wrote The Body’s Rapture (translation 1933) and Tussles with Time (translated 1951). The latter is a novel about out of the body phenomena, and surely gets the prize for the worst translated title ever, co-winner that is alongside a rare English version of the much-translated Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry aka A Nest of Nobles which somewhere around 1890 was amazingly rendered  as A Nest of Hereditary Legislators

But to return again to digressions, or rather to digress to digressions. And while we’re at it, alternative technical terms you might conjure with for ‘gressing’ in ‘di’ manner, are divagations, meanderings, anastomosings, excursi, three of them being Latin-derived and one only from good old Classical Greek (‘stoma’ means ‘mouth; as I’m sure you know). There is, would you believe, an entirely digressive novel or rather a 100 page single sentence novella (related by a sex mad cobbler) which is called Dancing Lessons For the Advanced in Age (1964, translated 1995), and is devoted entirely to endless very entertaining and very funny, ricocheting and catapulting anecdotes. These digressions are  about people, especially attractive women that the cobbler has met, plus tall stories, meaning hilariously crazy tales that he has heard, and that cover an amiable time span from 1900 to 1948, which is when totalitarian communism arrived in the country in which it is set. The author is the Czech, Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997) who as I regularly remark is one of my all-time literary heroes. Hrabal wrote fabular, comic, serendipity East European fictional entertainments, and even if you’ve never read any of his books, if you are aged 60 plus, there is a good chance you will have seen a film based on a short story that he wrote in the 1960s. The film is called Closely Observed Trains (1966) and was directed by his pal Jiri Menzel, and was made in the Prague Spring when the gentle Czech president Alexander Dubcek was trying to liberalise and democratise state communism, until 2 years later in August 1968 the hideous Soviet tanks rolled in, a man called Jan Palach immolated himself in protest, and that for the time being was that.

Of the numerous memorable things in Closely Observed Trains which is set in the 1940s in a tiny country railway station in a small and vulnerable nation occupied by the  Nazis (inter alia, a new and young and bashful employee attempting suicide via slit wrists in a hotel bathroom when he cannot perform sexually…and the old station master being such a crazy pigeon lover that the birds use him as a landing post, and at one stage completely obliterate him on film) there is the one scene that everyone remembers, as it is both supremely erotic and supremely farcical. The failed suicide’s fraternal mentor who incidentally ingeniously cures the young man’s impotence problems, is a railway clerical worker who sports round and rimless glasses, and who always wears a smirk, and who thinks about absolutely nothing but sex. He is enamoured of a handsome and infinitely playful female colleague who is also a clerical worker, and they share the same small highly-charged office. She flirts with him and teases him to distraction until one day when the pair of them are alone, he chases her around the office threatening to spank her for her pains. He catches her, upends her right enough, and pulls her knickers down, but instead of condign chastisement he picks up the station stamp, its ‘logo’ in modern usage, and stamps that logo more or less indelibly on her succulent backside. Later her outraged Mum discovers this souvenir memento on her daughter’s behind, whereupon she creates havoc with the railway authorities and tries to have the speccy Lothario sacked forthwith.

Hence as we contemplate the cinematic, theatrical and thematic charisma of a tantalising female bottom, with an official administrative address on it no less, by a digressive route we are back to the Gretna tandoori place and its innocent menu that boasts of a ‘Spicy Boti’ starter. Everything that goes around comes around is what I’m saying, and those who like their stories strictly linear and sequential in my view, really are barking up the wrong tree when it comes to the eternal perspective.

Postscript

One other novel that deals significantly with Out of the Body phenomena is a minor one by Aldous Huxley called Time Must Have A Stop (1944). Sebastian, a 17-year-old English poet, has a hedonistic Uncle Eustace,  who he is invited to stay with in Florence, and one night after a surfeit of  rich food, fine brandy and cigars, Eustace dies of an overdue heart attack. Not only does Huxley describe his initial extracorporeal experience, he gives a detailed account of the uncle’s spiritual journey to the Other World, which reads to me very much as if lifted straight from the Bardo Thodol or Tibetan Book of the Dead. Huxley of course was famous for his fascination with the great religious traditions, and his book of spiritual quotations The Perennial Philosophy is excellent at showing the common ground of all the great religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism. However, and for all his massive intelligence, his tendency to easy conflation, led ultimately to his equating spiritual and psychedelic drug experiences, for which in the end I believe he was justly ridiculed.

 

 

LAST TANGO IN PARIS AND MISOGYNY

The next post will be on or before Friday November 9th

LAST TANGO IN PARIS AND MISOGYNY

Did you know that the eminent movie star Marlon Brando (1924-2004) never memorised his lines, but always had cue cards scattered all over the film set? In the massively controversial 1972 Last Tango in Paris where he played Paul the bereaved American hotel owner, Brando even asked the director Bertolucci if he could have some of his lines written on co-star Maria Schneider’s naked backside, which Bertolucci stoutly refused. Schneider was only 19 when the film was made and Brando was 48, and principally because of the notorious anal rape scene in the film, Schneider (1952-2011) years later went public that it had ‘ruined her life’ and that Bertolucci (born 1941) was ‘a gangster and a pimp’. Likewise, Brando and the director fell out and didn’t speak to each other for 15 years after the film was made. The film was an Italian-French co-production and was duly prosecuted for obscenity in Italy, and the director and producer (Alberto Grimaldi) were given suspended prison sentences in 1976, and all copies of the film were ordered to be destroyed. They were accused of ‘gratuitous pansexualism’ a phrase which sounds oddly innocuous and even a commendation to me. And just to summarise the international response, it was banned for 30 years inside the mass murderer Pinochet’s Chile and immediately unbanned in 1974 when the Fascist Portuguese government was overthrown. Censorious Mary Whitehouse of the UK Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association as you would imagine roundly hated it, and quite bizarrely puritanical Nova Scotia was the only state in Canada to proscribe it.

Paul (Marlon Brando) who is 45 in the film is seen wandering dazed through Paris in an immaculate camel hair coat, his French wife the hotel owner Rosa having just slashed her wrists and bled to death.  A young woman Jeanne (Maria Schneider) who is a fashionably dressed 20-year-old actress with an ostentatious hat, walks hurriedly past him and stares bemused at his condition. A few hours later she is on her way to look at a flat, and by a fluke it has already been taken by Paul who had had to get out of his wife’s hotel to retain his sanity.   The black concierge is confused about everything when Jeanne arrives, and because of a shift change doesn’t even know that Paul has taken the flat. She frightens the young actress by clinging onto her hand and cackling insanely after giving her the duplicate keys, a cameo that establishes the mood for what is to follow. Paul is there lying on his back in the semi dark inside the furnitureless flat when Jeanne chances upon him and is duly shocked. He is an extremely handsome American who was once a boxer and has led a vagabond life, ending up in Tahiti where learning French, he then transferred to Paris and married moneyed Rosa. His wife ran a kind of flophouse/ brothel hotel and it was there that the couple lived and where she committed her suicide. However, Rosa was far from faithful and had a long and undisguised affair with Marcel (played by Massimo Girotti, 1918-2003) who lived in a room directly above them, and where Rosa weirdly provided her lover with identical furnishings, fittings and everything else including personal gifts, that she had given to husband Paul. In a key scene Paul goes up to talk to Marcel to talk about their joint lover and the fastidious rival asks if he can keep on working as they talk. He makes an income snipping out newspaper articles for a press cutting agency, then pasting them into an album and Paul is suitably scornful of such an unmanly pastime.

The film works by switching back and forwards between the mordant and intense present which is Paul with Jeanne in the new flat, and the melancholy past which is Paul trying to make sense of Rosa’s tragedy and all that followed, mostly as witnessed in the flophouse hotel. Now in the bare apartment that Paul has taken, he and Jeanne are warily eyeing each other up. Friendly, attractive and very girlish looking, Jeanne wants to know his name, but he snarls at her and refuses all personal detail which he says pollutes and ruins everything and is quite unnecessary. This motif of a bare and spartan existential approach to life, familiar from the writings of Sartre and Camus, continues throughout the movie, and Jeanne is continually attracted and repelled by what can be both liberating yet infinitely bleak. Just as she is about to depart, now that the flat is no longer hers, Paul walks over, then grabs and embraces her roughly. Before long there is the famous copulatory scene where both of them are fully dressed, stood upright, and where Jeanne lifts her legs and clings onto his hips like an affectionate or possibly needy monkey. Parenthetically, if you are a connoisseur of famous cinematic sex scenes, you may be aware that it has only ever been outranked, or maybe I mean outflanked, by Jack Nicholson and Karen Black locked in coitus and furiously bouncing together across the floor where Jack is a kind of pogo stick and Karen the enthusiastic bouncer, the film in question being the excellent though sadly neglected Five Easy Pieces (1970).

After the coition, they roll apart still fully dressed and noisily gasping. However, Jeanne is in an additional turmoil, as she already has a fiancé Tom, a film maker played by veteran Truffaut regular Jean-Pierre Leaud (born 1944). The ironic contrast of loquacious Tom and his relationship with Jeanne is, sad to say, the weakest thing in Last Tango, for Tom is a chirpily anarchic film maker who never stops talking as he films absolutely everything that is happening in his life, including meeting his fiancee off the train and embracing her tenderly on the platform. Belatedly Jeanne realises what she thought was spontaneous affection is just part of his never-ending film creations and she is suitably angry. Tom bats it off in boyish faux Surrealist mode (my art is all that matters!) but that is precisely the problem. To use Tom and his ingenuous and breezy iconoclasm as foil against passionate, contemptuous and desperate Paul was surely a serious artistic mistake on Bertolucci’s part. Tom who takes up a large part of the film, comes across as something lost deep in the Swinging Sixties, indeed as someone on the lines of one of the Beatles racing around unhilariously in one of their unwatchable cinematic capers.

Meanwhile the passion is growing between the sad American and the Frenchwoman less than half his age. It is true to say about half of their romantic alliance is presented comically and playfully, the other half bleakly, a la film noir, and sometimes with undisguised masculine violence. At one stage during comical foreplay, they pretend to be the Big Bad Wolf and Red Riding Hood where paradoxically Jeanne is the wolf. As she pokes around Paul’s body he says his powerful arms are all the better to squeeze a fart out of her, and later when she is exploring his pubic hair, it is all the better to host her genital crabs. In their quiet bedroom interludes, she tries to tell him about her colonial colonel of a father stationed in Algeria, but he shouts at her to shut up and says he wants to know nothing of her past, nor even know her name, and the bizarre fact is that by the end of the film neither has a clue what the other one is called. He also breaks his own rules by talking emotionally about his rural midwest childhood with parents both drunks, his mother lovable and poetic for all that, but the father a bully and a whore chaser. The first time aged 16 Paul dated a girl and took her to a baseball game, his Dad had ordered him to milk the cows at once, and so he drove her to the game with his feet stinking humiliatingly of cow shit. Young Jeanne is then bold enough to accuse him of breaking his own rules about absolute anonymity, and he laughs and shows signs that his stony petrifaction after Rosa’s death is starting to thaw.

But then the controversial rape scene takes place, and it is worrying to learn that though both the director and Brando knew what was going to happen, Maria Schneider aged 19 did not. Seemingly the 2 eminent and experienced males thought they would get a better performance out of her if she didn’t know she was to be mock-raped, which if true was an appalling decision. Paul without preamble asks Jeanne to throw him a pack of butter, who makes nothing of such a weird request and chucks it at him indifferently. Then, while she is idly and innocently lying on her belly on the bed, he violently tears her pants down and rubs some butter up her back passage. In a trice he is violently penetrating her and she is sobbing hysterically at what according to Schneider she had never been forewarned of. Of course, the rape was simulated not real, but according to Schneider her sobs and horror were genuine and she was wholly traumatised. During the rape Paul pins her shoulders down and orders her to repeat verbatim a litany of loathing for the Nuclear Family, and it is worth pointing out the historical context here. The film was made only one year after the publication of the anti-psychiatrist David Cooper’s The Death of the Family, a raging polemic which calls for the destruction of the nuclear pair bond as the core and oppressive template of Monolithic Capitalism. Cooper was the best known disciple of another anti-psychiatrist RD Laing who penned Sanity, Madness and the Family, and doubtless avowed Marxist Bertolucci aged around 30 had imbibed some of these uncompromising texts and decided to make a mouthpiece for them in his anti-hero Paul.

Despite her puzzling commitment to babbling Tom, Jeanne eventually admits she is in love with Paul in a teasing wordplay reversal, which confuses even shrewd and world wise Paul. She keeps iterating she loves him, she loves him, she loves this special man, and seemingly she means fiancé Tom, but no she shouts it is Paul before her who is the only man she loves. This is cue for the other famous sex scene where just as he gruffly commanded her to get the butter, Brando now orders Jeanne to get some nail scissors. He then instructs her to clip only the two middle forefingers and next, guess what, stuff them up his backside and bring him to orgasm. Now then, dear reader, anal masturbation between consenting couples is not completely unknown on this planet, unless you live in Arkansas where it very likely used to be a felony (as it definitely did in the case of premarital sex). But the rest of the erotic tableau that follows is in my view utterly revolting and phony and devil may care nonsense, not to say profoundly misogynistic. The middle-aged American commands the very young Frenchwoman while she masturbates his arsehole, that she must imagine she in turn is being sodomised by a pig, and that she will inhale the dying farts of the said pig, and that when the dying pig vomits, that she must eat the vomit and that all this splendid unfailing obedience is a tribute to him the presumably divine or more likely demonic Paul.

Paul groans, “Would you do all that for me? Would you do all that for me?”

Exultant and innocent Jeanne, “Yes. Yes I would! I would do all of that. And I would do even more!”

On your bike, Bernardo Bertolucci, who here is trying to be a cross between a 1920s Surrealist of 1000% shock value e.g. Dali or Breton or Ernst (all of them arguably half mad males, not one a female you might notice) and/or a Tantra adept from the far reaches of the borderlands of East Bengal, and believe me no Tantric follower would be so puerilely revolting. It is all so male and masculine and ludicrously misogynistic and infantilised, is it not? By which I mean,  would cocksure Paul/ Marlon ever conceivably suffer himself to be sodomised by a pig, and then swallow its vomit all for the sake of teenage Jeanne/ Maria Schneider? Isn’t it because he is a leery middle aged self-aggrandising man, and she is a naive young kid, that he feels it OK to make her eat porcine puke should it come to the crunch, and when she has to prove her eternal fidelity to him the Supreme Deity in her life?

The only excuse for Bertolucci’s 4MF (Macho Man as Monster Masturbatory Fantasy) is that it immediately precedes what happens when Paul returns to the hotel he now owns, and where his dead wife’s body is laid out. She has been decorated with beautiful flowers and also given a great deal of camouflaging make up, presumably by her grieving mother, who Paul had previously screamed at when she demanded a church service and the ritual of Absolution (as a suicide) by a Catholic priest. Rosa was neither religious nor did she use make up, and when he first enters this funereal shrine, Paul starts to rage, rant and insult her, in almost identical terms to those demanding total perverse Obeisance/ Deification from Jeanne. He calls Rosa a fuck-pig, the venomous C word, and every filthy insult he can muster, and he tells her he hopes she rots in Hell (this from an aggressive atheist married to an atheist neither of who would have believed in The Other Place). At length he reaches a peak of deranged obscenity towards this treacherous woman who took the easy way out as far as he was concerned, and left him Paul stranded in this nightmare of a fallen world. Then, right enough the floodgates break, and he starts to sob and wail and thanks to Brando’s remarkable acting we realise that he really loved unfaithful Rosa after all, and that all that acidic bile preceded the declaration of his undying love.

After that, the singular dynamic between Paul and Jeanne switchbacks between her total adoration and an unconvincing resolve to leave him and marry Tom. Near the end of the film he chases her down the street, and as she insists it is finished, he puts to her a kind of Zen proposal that yes that is how things work, it finishes and then it starts again, something finishes and then begins again, the cosmic way of things. To divert her and to have his way, as by now he is patently in love with her, he leads Jeanne into an enormous ballroom which turns out to be hosting competitive tango, hence the title of the film. And for once we get some fine, artistic even farcical comedy for the tangoing couples as well as having men with Neanderthal haircuts complete with mile long sideburns, keep stopping dead like frozen mannikins and looking hilariously mad. Paul is in high spirits and orders champagne and then whisky for Jeanne who rapidly gets drunk. Jeanne persists in her rejection but eventually seems to succumb to her Deity, and is hoisted onto his back like a child and led onto the dance floor where the burlesque that follows is laugh out loud. First of all Brando lies on his back and kicks his feet like a baby, then ups and does a kind of crazy Daffy Duck stride with a mad protruding behind.  The two of them then parody the other dancers, with wild and rigid flings like a fairground whiplash. Before long the toothy lady in charge of the comp who has a remarkable hat and a dress sense from about 1910, storms onto the floor only to be lifted high by Paul and swept around the room as impromptu partner. Tiring of that he drops her, and heading for the door with Jeanne drops his trousers, moons at her and invites her to kiss his backside (the backside if you think about it, is more or less the actual and symbolic and overwhelming star of this film).

What follows now is painful to behold, for as she speeds off down the street telling him it is all over, he races after her protesting his love and determined to have her. Jeanne is pursued all the way to her widowed mother’s home, and we are chilled as we see she goes to a certain drawer where earlier we saw the mother brandishing her late husband’s pistol (which her stiff and bourgeois Mum had no idea how to use) as token domestic protection. As Paul steps up to her and protests his tender love, the gun either by accident or design goes off, and he staggers outside onto the balcony and with barely a word but a look of infinitely poignant and heartrending acceptance he drops dead. Jeanne meanwhile still inside with the gun, is rehearsing her words to the police, that she didn’t even know his name (which was true) and that he had followed her inside and attempted to rape her (which in a very specific sense, he already had).

You can draw your own conclusions about this worrying and very flawed masterpiece, and should certainly watch it again if you haven’t seen it for 20 or 30 or 40 years or more. The film is beautifully tender and brilliant at times, puerilely and obnoxiously misogynistic and violent at others, wildly funny now and again, and throughout there is a haunting string score, and as added bonus we have Gato Barbieri’s raw and sexy sax at the start, and with the credits. There are also terrific Francis Bacon paintings as ornamented titles alongside the pungent howling sax and those are not to be sneezed at either.

THE ASTONISHING ROBERT DUVALL

The next post will be on or before Wednesday 7th November

THE ASTONISHING ROBERT DUVALL

Anyone who has watched enough TV documentaries or  sultry atmospheric movies set in the US Deep South will be aware of the kind of intense devotional fervour witnessed in Black American  Pentecostal churches, the kind of place where the (usually male) preacher is right there with the congregation in the thick of it, not at a polite rhetorical distance as witnessed in White Anglican C of E where the dog collar alone is enough to mark our the long established demarcations. Because the gospel singing in these places is regularly of a high artistic order, normally cynical secular liberals will often give these devotees the benefit of the doubt, and generously refrain from autopilot derision. What characterises those black churches is that the worship is one of often feverish adoration, involving staccato and sustained repetition of key phrases like Praise The Lord, Say No To The Devil, I Full of Holy Ghost Power and so on. To put things in  a comprehensive spiritual context, a similar tradition of intoxicating repetitive chant in Classical Hinduism is called Bhakti or Devotion and has an honourable history going back to the great Bengali Vaishnavite prophet Chaitanya (1486-1534). The same thing was observable more entertainingly (for some) at its peak in the 1970s, in the joyous dancing and mantra repetition of the Hare Krishna devotees (white British as a rule and originally called perhaps Derek or Deirdre) outside of sundry Central London Tube stations.

At the start of the 1997 The Apostle, directed by and starring celebrity actor Robert Duvall (born 1931) as charismatic preacher Sonny, there is a flashback to 1939 when as a little white boy of about 4, he is brought into a Black Pentecostal church somewhere in rural Texas, his hand clutched by his stout old family servant. The sumptuously dressed black preacher has a gorgeous (and rather unlikely in 1939) perfectly tailored white suit. He is in the thick of his congregation and is dancing on the spot in his spiritual excitement as he roars out his devotion to the Lord in the form of saying the same brief imperative or assertion over and over again until he reaches a crescendo. Cue then many of the women worshippers falling into something close to a deep hypnotic trance as they repeat all he said, ever louder and ever more exultant. Convincingly then, by the age of 12, the boy Sonny (full name, and this is important, Euliss F Dewey) has already felt himself to be saved for Jesus and he becomes a roaring boy preacher whose very youth and innocence make him all the more charismatic and adorable to the surrounding congregation, most of them black, even in segregated 1940s Texas…

We now switch to the present day, the mid 90s, where Sonny aged about 60 is in something of a crisis. His wife Jessie, also a deeply religious woman is played by the late great Farrah Fawcett (1947-2009) a gifted actress who here has an unconvincing and disappointing part for she patently is obliged to underact and has no significant speeches nor offers any focused dramatic power of note. What makes this film a flawed masterpiece is that essentially it is a one-man film, for it is the director Duvall who we are watching from start to finish, and it is almost as if he has forgotten to ensure the rest of the cast give all they have got. Meanwhile Jessie has successfully agitated within their church to have her husband removed from the governing committee on account of his bullying if genial tyranny and volatile character. For the same reason she has started an adulterous affair with a younger and very religious man called Horace (played by Todd Allen) though she assures angry Sonny there will be no problem with access to their young children. At one point, Sonny tries to intimidate her into reconciliation with an ugly feigned violence which he then disowns with his always charming chuckles. Very obviously this devout Pentecostal is capable of being a very unpleasant man. One minute he is tenderly hugging his children and jovially testing them with the sequence of the books in the Old Testament (1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job!) the next minute he turns up in his car at the Little League baseball game where they are playing, having taken a sly slug from a bottle of bourbon.  He is in an evil mood and grabs both Jessie and the kids and tries to drag them who knows where. The spectators try to stop it and Horace his rival comes and gently dissuades him, whereupon the man of God grabs a baseball bat and swipes him viciously across the skull. To everyone’s horror Horace collapses into a coma from which he never surfaces. Seemingly unrepentant Sonny flees the scene to inform a buddy called Joe (country singer Billy Joe Shaver, born 1939) of what he has done and adds that he gave him what he was due. Joe who Sonny had converted and rescued from the gutter, vows to keep him informed of what happens with Horace and the police, whereupon Sonny drives off in the pouring rain as a resolute fugitive.

Soon he is inspired to ditch the car in a deep river and thereafter he stumbles into a nearby wood where like something out of the Southern gothic of Flannery O’ Connor he bumps into an old one-legged black man who staggers about on crutches and is currently fishing for catfish using a hickory stick as a rod.  The old man accepts Sonny’s edited tale that he is obliged under the Lord’s guidance to seek out a new life, and lets him stay in his grandkids’ playtent outside his tumbling shack that is in the middle of the woods.  Sonny then grills him as to whether he knows of a famous black preacher called Brother Blackwell, and sure enough the angler directs him to a small town in Louisiana. After rebaptising himself as a new man, EF, in the river where the old man fishes, Sonny eventually arrives at Blackwell’s town by bus. There like the remarkably adaptable opportunist he is, he soon befriends a shy white mechanic called Sam (played by Walton Goggins, born 1971, best known for the TV series Justified) as he helps him to sort out a car engine that has Sam flummoxed. Part of Sonny’s magnetic charisma is that he is one of those men who can never be defeated, for he can turn his hand to anything, and from a window above, the manager of a Gospel radio station who also owns the garage shouts down and offers him work as a mechanic. Sam likewise offers the impressive stranger free lodgings in a spacious homestead left him by rich relatives. It is then time to seek out Brother Blackwell, played very ably by John Beasley (born 1943) familiar from the CSI TV series. Blackwell has retired from preaching and when Sonny asks him can he therefore take over his spiritual role and his vacated church, though friendly, the older man challenges him sharply:

“And why should I trust you? Coming out of nowhere like you are? Tell me that? Now I am going to be watching you for a while… and God is going to be watching you too.”

Sonny grins and fearlessly proves his mettle by taking on an extra job to fund the renovation of Blackwell’s old shack of a church, stuck out in the remote countryside. He begins evening shifts in a burger bar as well as being a mechanic during the day, and in his spare time and boundlessly energetic, he has Sam, Blackwell and numerous small children helping with the refurbishment (the kids hilariously do all the inside repainting in a holy white). Soon the church is ready and tireless Sonny even acquires and mends an old red bus which he uses to pick up the worshippers from distant farms. All the small congregation bar Sam are black countryfolk and include an overweight lady in her Sunday best, and her 2 little boys in natty suits both carrying miniature guitars which they cannot play. Once ensconced in his new church Sonny stomps into frenetic preaching in the form of repeating ever louder:

Holy Ghost Power, Holy Ghost Power, WE GOT HOLY GHOST POWER!

After ten minutes of which he has the women at the front going into rapturous trances, and Brother Blackwell suddenly looking at him with a proprietorial admiration. All would seem to be going to plan but the trouble with being a charismatic Pentecostal preacher, is that you can also forfeit commonsense and believe yourself to be invulnerable. Sonny then makes a serious error by deciding to broadcast on the Gospel radio station above the garage where he works. The portly bespectacled station manager is infinitely sympathetic, but shrewdly asks for money up front as air time has to be paid for, is not free. That means Sonny has to work all the harder to afford both the church and the radio access, and as a third and you might say more intelligibly human factor, all of a sudden potential romance steps into his fugitive existence when the beautiful radio station secretary, Tootsie, played by UK actress Miranda Richardson (born 1958) enters his life. There is a problem though, which she is separated not divorced from her husband, so that when Sonny wines and dines her on a Louisiana riverboat and later attempts to get her into bed, she gently refuses him. As a man of God, he ought to accept this patient restraint of course, but Sonny is human all too human, and again oddly unrepentant about his flaws and failures whether they be that of would be fornicator or first-degree murderer. The real import of the radio broadcasts though, in terms of cinematic power, is Duvall’s astonishing acting when he goes into full Pentecostal frenzy on air, so much so that the manager confides to him that all the listeners out there, unless they know otherwise, assume he must be black, he cannot possibly be a white preacher.

A strange and unsatisfactory set piece happens next, when a disgruntled young white man in a baseball cap enters one of Sonny’s services and demands to know who EF is and what this service is all about. The stranger is played by the hugely talented Coen Bros regular Billy Bob Thornton (born 1955) who here like Farrah Fawcett is not being pushed to his considerable limits. This nuisance rudely interrupts the service and after his interrogation, then refusing to join in the worship, he adds as a calm aside:

“I ain’t going to be in here among a load of niggers.”

When this disturbing pest refuses to go away, ever versatile Sonny takes off his jacket, rolls up his sleeves, and beats him up very effectively outside the church. The troublemaker then slopes off threatening appropriate vengeance, and when Sonny next hosts a church tea party to raise necessary funds, Billy Bob Thornton turns up with a bulldozer and threatens to demolish the church. Sonny, who let us not forget is an unrepentant murderer, urges him to desist, and then is inspired to lay an open Bible across his path. This stops the crazy man in his tracks, and when he gets down to remove the Bible, he suddenly goes into spiritual crisis, and lo and behold is on the spot converted by the man he hates, and who will not explain himself, namely EF. The trouble with this set piece is that there is nil background explanation as to why Billy Bob is as he is, and indeed he is listed in the credits merely as Troublemaker. Once again and as with Farrah Fawcett and even Miranda Richardson, Duvall is underusing these considerable talents while making massive demands on himself as the central unarguably towering character.

Nemesis comes when Jessie at home with her children in Texas picks up on her radio a stray Gospel station and hears the startling initials EF (as in Euliss F Dewey) and an appalling and all too familiar voice preaching at full throttle the indestructible Word. She alerts the Texas police and they notify their Louisiana colleagues, and soon a lone sheriff walks into the chapel shack and patiently waits for it to end before arresting EF for first degree murder. Sonny takes a good half hour to complete unfinished business including movingly bringing timid, weeping, white mechanic bachelor Sam to the Lord. He then with a spring in his step goes out and accepts the handcuffs and true to form guys and jokes with the sheriffs who humbly address him as sir. The end of the film has him leading a Texas chain gang in devotional chants and there is Sonny still smiling, perennially victorious, and also of course still infantilised and arguably half mad.