TIPS ON WHAT TO READ: VIRAGO WOMEN WRITERS

TIPS ON WHAT TO READ: VIRAGO WOMEN WRITERS

It is all of 50 years since Germaine Greer’s incendiary The Female Eunuch forced everyone to suddenly reconsider accepted notions of gender and power, and to stop believing that pace Voltaire’s Pangloss everything was for the best in ‘this best of possible worlds’. Australian Greer (born 1939) had an enormous and incisive brain by anyone’s standards, and her articulate, reasoned and invigorating polemic still has the power half a century later to stop us in our tracks. When it came to the parallel scandal of a neglected women’s literary tradition, it was 3 years later in 1973 that another Australian living in the UK, Carmen Callil (born 1938) started the feminist Virago Press, and in 1978 the first Virago Modern Classic appeared; namely the 1933  Frost in May by Antonia White (1899-1980).

Callil with other women involved in publishing, such as Rosie Boycott, Harriet Spicer and Ursula Owen,  was painfully aware that there were a considerable number of very gifted women novelists and short story writers, active in  the first half of the 20th century, who were either destined to stay out of print, most probably for ever, or were ominously heading that way. They set about the highly practical business of putting those women back in the bookshops and libraries, and the familiar dark green Virago paperback began to resurrect neglected virtuoso talents such as Kate O’ Brien, EH Young, GB Stern, Violet Trefusis, Storm Jameson, F Tennyson Jesse,  plus that severely ignored and unarguable genius called Molly Keane (aka MJ Farrell) and many more. By 1989 there were 300 titles in the list and the current tally in 2020 is 715. As the decades passed, the list understandably went beyond its original brief to take in US writers (Willa Cather, Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston) as well as the occasional forgotten work of George Eliot, plus contemporary UK authors such as Shena Mackay and Lisa St Aubin de Teran who perhaps felt happier with a dedicated feminist imprint than they did with their previous mainstream publishers.

Currently, if you google a list of women’s presses, you get an impressively long tally, though most of them turn out to be American and many of them are defunct. The three best known UK ones are Virago which is still active, and The Women’s Press which folded in 2013, and Sheba Feminist Press that finished in 1994. To underline that things are still not as rosy as all that for women authors in UK publishing, I would advise you to pick up any title of the imprint Rebel Inc which is owned by mainstream and prosperous Canongate UK, and which showcases ‘counterculture’ writers from both sides of the Atlantic, including the bad boys Alexander Trocchi (author of Young Adam) and Charles Bukowski. At the back of my copy of Nelson Algren’s The Man with The Golden Arm, there is a complete list of Rebel Inc titles, numbering 40 in all, of which guess how many are written by women? The answer is 2, and they are by the same woman Laura Hird (born 1966) an acclaimed Scottish novelist and short story writer. 5% of Rebel Inc authors are women, then, or more accurately 2 and a half per cent, if we are talking of writers rather than their titles. So, how can I put it: if the audacious counterculturists are to outward appearances at least, more than a little on the macho side when it comes to editorial bias, what hope is there from the ever-cautious and terrified of taking any risk mainstream?

WORKING YOUR WAY THROUGH VIRAGO

As a writer and a fiction teacher, active as both since the mid-1980s, I am often asked for advice on what to read. I always recommend the same thing, which is that you the questing reader could do worse than:

a) work your way selectively through the whole of Virago Classics as found in libraries, bookshops, charity shops, or via Amazon or abebooks etc.

b) go along also to a good public library with a large fiction stock, and make your way from A to Z, picking out all the works by foreign authors only, and after a brief scrutiny taking some of them home to read.

NB. It is those three words ‘selectively’ and ‘brief scrutiny’ that are crucial. Working your way through either branch of neglected authors, namely neglected women and neglected foreigners (note that only 1% of books published in the parochial and complacent UK are translations) doesn’t mean ceding your judgment nor your personal taste. The way to be selective is very simple. Pick up your Virago Classic or your foreign novel in translation, and take a quick look at page 1. If you like it, great. Now try page 10. If you still like it, even better. Now try page 85 and then page 108. If you still like it, you’ve cracked it, congratulations, take it home and enjoy the whole book. If you find yourself half liking page 1 but not page 10 and definitely not pages 85 and 108, put it back on the shelves and pick up another till you find a book that you do like. It doesn’t matter if on the back cover of the book you don’t like, ten esteemed critics and three English profs are telling you it is an ineffable masterpiece. If you aren’t enjoying what you are sampling you are never going to enjoy it vicariously, through the eyes of the venerated brainboxes and the literary authorities. The only way you are ever going to gain some trust and confidence in your own literary taste, is by reading what appeals to you, not by treating literature as some kind of necessary if unappetising medicine.

Bearing that in mind, here are some of my Virago recommendations:

GB STERN and the Matriarch novels

Gladys Stern (1890-1973) was a friend of Rebecca West (‘indisputably the world’s number one woman writer’ according to Time in 1947), and a popular and prolific novelist and playwright in her day. Her finest achievement was the wonderfully funny and autobiographical ‘Matriarch’ series, which Virago rescued from oblivion. These 5 novels detail the hectic lives of the Hungarian Jewish diaspora in the form of the Rakonitz and Czelovar families who left Europe in the 19th century to settle and run prosperous businesses in London. Improvident uncles, appalling aunts, the crazy but lovable Anastasia who is the eponymous Matriarch, and her young and defiant granddaughter Toni. Pure joy, and the only problem you might have is in remembering who all the characters are, but there is a genealogical tree provided just in case. Try to read the following in order, but don’t worry if you read them in random sequence as I did (NB. the dates of course refer to their original publication, not to their Virago reissues).

The Matriarch (1924), A Deputy was King (1926), Mosaic (1930), Shining and Free (1935), The Young Matriarch (1942)

KATE O’BRIEN

The Limerick writer Kate O’ Brien (1897-1974) won two major literary prizes for her debut work Without My Cloak (1931) and her 1946 novel set in Spain That Lady, was made into a 1955 film with Olivia de Haviland and Paul Scofield. She often wrote with precise yet understated subtlety about the conflict between the spiritual and the sexual, and as a result both Mary Lavelle (1936) and The Land of Spices (1941) were banned in Ireland on publication. I can strongly recommend all of her books, but perhaps the one with the most compelling tension, one that you won’t be able to put down, is Without My Cloak

EH YOUNG and Chatterton Square

EH Young (1880-1949) was the pen name of Emily Daniel, born in Northumbria, but who spent most of her adult life in Clifton, Bristol which she fictionalised as Upper Radstowe. She broke many taboos in her day, as she had an affair with her husband’s close friend, and ultimately shared a menage a trois with the same lover and his wife. She was also a gifted mountaineer (as was Virago author Ann Bridge, see below). Several of her novels were dramatised as a 4-part series by the BBC in 1980 under the name of ‘Hannah’, though the main novel source was Miss Mole (1930). Don’t let the titles put you off, as in The Misses Mallett (1922) and Jenny Wren (1932) and The Curate’s Wife (1934). Her books have a sly, subversive and highly intelligent wit, and her masterpiece Chatterton Square (1947) is in a league of its own. Set in 1939, it is all about a stuffed shirt of a middle class Upper Radstowe gent, who bullies the life out of his wife and tries to rule the roost with his children. It is so immensely enjoyable and the dad so thoroughly odious, I read it 3 times in 2 years! So start with Chatterton Square and then go where you will…

ANN BRIDGE and Illyrian Spring

Ann Bridge (1889-1974), born in Hertfordshire, had several names, and was the pseudonym of Mary Ann Dolling. She was unhappily married to a diplomat called O’ Malley, which explains her occasional designation as Lady O’ Malley, but she also went by Cottie Sanders. Bridge travelled all over the world, and wrote 14 novels and memoirs set in China, Croatia, Albania, Portugal and elsewhere. In addition, she was a star climber, the youngest ever member of the Alpine Club at 19, and a friend of the great mountaineer George Mallory. She was commercially successful late in life, with her amateur sleuth series, the Julia Probyn novels, published 1956-1973. I strongly recommend her 1935 Illyrian Spring which is a delicately moving, remarkably insightful tale about the successful artist Lady Kilmichael who takes an impromptu holiday from her husband and daughter when she feels neglected by them. She sets off on a trip to what is now Croatia and develops a platonic relationship with a tormented young Englishman, Nicholas, a thwarted artist of great promise. Bestselling Illyrian Spring is credited with kickstarting tourism to the former Yugoslavia which in the 1930s was barely visited. Another much acclaimed Bridge novel is Peking Picnic (1932)

MOLLY KEANE, the unsung genius

Molly Keane (1904-1996) was born into the Anglo-Irish landowning elite in Co Kildare, though she grew up in Co Wexford. She had a lonely childhood and wrote her first novel during a bout of illness. This was called The Knight of Cheerful Countenance, she was only 22 when it was published, and understandably enough, I found this, her hurried juvenilia, far from satisfactory. Luckily it was about the tenth of her books that I read.

However, all of those 11 novels that appeared under the pen name MJ Farrell, between 1928 and 1956, are in my view accomplished masterpieces, and I would recommend you try any and all of them, as she is one of those writers you devour rather than read. Her addictive qualities stem from the fact that she mixes mordant character comedy with diamond sharp penetrative satire, as she shows the painfully dysfunctional Anglo-Irish families with their faithless fathers, hurt and spiteful mothers, and best of all their infantilised bachelor and spinster children who will clearly never leave home. She also writes magnificently and tenderly about furniture, curtains, carpets and gardens, in a manner superior to Balzac in my opinion. She published nothing for 20 years after her husband died in 1946, and then in 1981 was ‘rediscovered’ with Good Behaviour which had sat in manuscript for years, and which she published for the first time under her own name. It was shortlisted for the Booker and was followed by Time After Time in 1983, and Loving and Giving in 1988, when she was 84 years old.

If Molly Keane had been a man, she would without doubt have been hailed as a major 20th century novelist, and would never have been out of print. It is more than depressing then, that I have met numerous well-read people who have never heard of her, much less enjoyed her infinitely entertaining and instructive novels. The only caveat I have about Keane, is that most of her novels have regular references to fox hunting, which was an inevitable part of her class and her milieu. Luckily there is little in the way of descriptive detail when this gruesome and repugnant pastime is referred to.

LISA ST AUBIN DE TERAN, The Hacienda

De Teran (born 1953) is one of Virago’s contemporary authors, who made her name with two vivid and atmospheric novels in the 1980s, Keepers of the House (1982) and The Slow Train to Milan (1983). She is probably my favourite living UK author, as to quote George Orwell, she is not afraid of the English language, and can actually write enduring and finely wrought prose, Partly, this is down to her cosmopolitan origins, as her father was the Guyanese writer Jan Carew, and the name St Aubin indicates Channel Island ancestry. At a young age she married an exiled Venezuelan as revealed by her surname, but when they returned to his ancestral hacienda he went into a kind of profound psychotic decline. Virago in 1997 published The Hacienda, her memoir of how she more or less single-handed took care of the sprawling property as her husband sat in a motionless stupor. It is brilliantly written, touching and enlightening, and my late wife Annie was so impressed and moved by it she made plans to use it in her work as a consultant trainer.

REBECCA WEST, ROSAMOND LEHMANN, VIOLET TREFUSIS, F TENNYSON JESSE

Rebecca West (1892-1983) would probably have stayed in print without the advent of Virago, such was her stature as a novelist, and as an observer at the Nuremberg trials, not to speak of her authoritative 1100-page travelogue on Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1942). Virago reissued many of her novels, and I can strongly recommend all of them, apart from that utterly bizarre and unreadable 1929 baroque fantasy Harriet Hume.  Otherwise, The Thinking Reed (1936) The Fountain Overflows (1956), The Return of the Soldier (1918) and the assassins and skulduggery novel The Birds Fall Down (1966) are all outstandingly good reads.

Rosamond Lehmann (1901-1990) likewise was such a high-profile writer, she too would probably have survived without Virago’s assistance.  I am an admirer of two of her best-known books Dusty Answer (1927) and The Weather in the Streets (1936) but I eventually gave up on both Invitation to the Waltz (1932) and A Note in Music (1930). You have the spectacle of intelligent and sensitive young women falling for posh and vacuous army officer chaps, whose vocabulary is full of ‘frightfully’, ‘spiffing’, ‘ripping’ and ‘topping’, and you wonder why Lehmann didn’t realise that documentary accuracy (i.e. their prototypes did actually talk like that) doesn’t always make for successful and enduring art.

Violet Trefusis (1894-1972) was the daughter of Alice Keppel (the mistress of Edward VII) and she was also the lover of Vita Sackville-West, who in turn was the lover of Virginia Woolf. She wrote with equal facility in both French and English, and produced at least one comic masterpiece Hunt the Slipper (1937) which everyone should read. This details the pursuit by the middle-aged idler Nigel of the demanding but ultimately sincere young Caroline, and is variously set in English country mansions and the Paris of the rich and idle. Trefusis’s caustic and panoptic wit is incredibly impressive, and the comedy is so rich you have to be alert to every searing two-edged irony as you go along.

F Tennyson Jesse (1888-1958) was one of the first female criminologists in England, and she also wrote at least one brilliant novel called A Pin to See the Peepshow (1934). It was a fictionalisation of the notorious 1923 Thompson-Bywaters murder case which ended with the execution of Mrs Thompson and her lover for the murder of her husband. In reality neither she nor the central character of this novel, Julia Almond, knew that their lover contemplated murder, but was convicted on the misogynistic grounds of ‘leading him on’. The novel is particularly good at showing the young girl growing up in a stiflingly respectable household and going on to find independence in her job as a clothes buyer, whilst simultaneously being pressured into a dull and equally stifling marriage. A Pin to See the Peepshow was adapted for both BBC TV and BBC Radio 4, in the 1970s.

The next post will be on or before Saturday 3rd October

THE ROWAN – a short story

THE ROWAN – a short story

Baxter Prosser ruined his back trying to lift a 1980 tractor engine single-handed, and for years afterwards continued his business in needless pain. He tried, knowing full well it was impossible, yet pointlessly exasperated by the fact there wasn’t a soul around to help him that warm if pleasant August afternoon. He had only himself to blame, but Prosser’s consistent habit was to note inconsistency and failure all around, and to add salt to his always friendly conversation by condemning everyone he knew, his closest friends especially. He picked fault with the unflagging energy of a compulsive gossip, in part because his job was often lonely and his one-man business stuck out in the wilds. Also, Prosser was frequently grossly put upon. Being self-employed and his workload varying with the season – he was a very competent agricultural mechanic – he could rarely afford to turn away work. An old heartless farmer with a harvester needing immediate servicing, would turn up at nine o’ clock on a balmy summer’s night, just as weary Prosser was off out to The Drove. Baxter would slowly remove his scented cardigan and flap his freshly washed fringe in muzzled sourness and genuine despair. Those Uplands bloody farmers always wanted huge jobs done in half an hour and at half a minute’s notice. As they themselves had no holidays, gaily broke every limb, calmly pulled every muscle, happily haemorrhaged in all weathers on the hills, why should they give a damn about Baxter’s back and competitive dominoes and Guinness?

Baxter was forty-five and had come to Cumbria from the north-east twenty years ago. He had a motherly, even quaintly grandmotherly look about him, the result of high cheekbones and a countrified purply rosiness so homely it could only suggest the gender historically stuck at home. However, Baxter was coarse and ribald among pub companions, tirelessly lewdly chuntering (deek at the tits on yon) about that notorious brazen shopkid from Brampton, or that thirty-year-old femme fatale of a cashier who wore fancy contact lenses, from Longtown. That drop-curtain hairstyle of his, that heavy fringe voluminously wispy when just washed – just before the buff cardigan and the pale slacks were donned for nightlong doms and a wild singsong at The Drove – that somehow lent him a Shakespearean page boy lustre incongruously at one with the ghost of the carping old grandma from Consett.

Baxter hated a considerable number of people and Sonny Armstrong returned his loathing, in part because of their proximity as neighbours. They both lived up a very minor C road, Prosser almost at the corner with the winding B road that went on to the Scottish border after considerable bend and bog and pine forest, and hovering pink kestrel. Most Cumbrians, much less the rest of the world, know less than nothing of that remarkable triangle subtended by Brampton-Longtown-Newcastleton. Sonny Armstrong came from an old local family and like the Clan Armstrongs of the Debatable Lands, he did not always rein in his natural wildness, or why not say his natural anarchy. Baxter was a highly unusual immigrant in having lived in five separate smallholdings scattered all over the Debatable Lands. He had bought, renovated, started up his workshop every five years, got bored, sold up, and repeated the cycle. Baxter had even flourished in Bailey, an area so wild and unplaceable it literally refuses to be a place and goes under a Scots postal address whilst staying geographically in England. There he had acquired a perfect seventeenth century farm of incalculable historical interest, purchased in 1980 for thirty thousand pounds, even then a mere song. Baxter had speedily ripped out an unreplaceable oak timbered ceiling, and cheerfully replaced it with four hundred blindingly white polystyrene tiles, admonishing his sceptical wife Stella with:

“It was juss a lorra manky bliddy owld wood!”

The once glorious parlour was soon converted into a snooker room for himself and teenage Arnold, embellished even further by Baxter’s private bar gaily festooned with Sangria wine bottles in raffia baskets, and a few rosettes of Newcastle United. But especially at Bailey, Baxter could make as much mess and noise as he liked, as his nearest neighbour, a lonely half mile off, was always glad of that dissonant music of human activity, even of Baxter Prosser’s. Especially on those infinitely grey Bailey days when the wind howled and the light was so bad that the surrounding pine forests seemed to be closing in on one with some definite purpose.

Sonny and Prosser had significant characteristics in common, and this intensified their mutual loathing. Both had smallholdings in considerable disarray, a condition termed locally a ‘scrow’ (an abbreviation of ‘scrow-wow’). Baxter and his family always had to live somewhere else whenever he was doing up his properties, and as he was nearly always doing up something, there were always two or three brand-new mobile homes of a sharp angularity and stark contrast with the sleepy gentleness of the winding farm lane. Sonny’s scrow was there in the laughably ugly turnip machine squatting idly on the bank outside the farm (on the public blurry highway, the lazy lirrel whooah!) together with two or three snoring vintage tractors and a haphazard quantity of sawn up timber for perpetually deferred fencing.

The country somnolence might have been complete without the two enemies to shatter it to pieces. Sonny was only thirty-five, and in the normal run of things a shy little stocky, moon-faced man, boyish, soft-eyed and with a continual air of self-deprecation. When sober that is, or when doing his daytime job. Sonny craved day and night to be a full-time farmer, but had neither the resources nor the confidence to risk such an irreversible enterprise. Instead he laboured for a building firm and saw to his farmstead in his leisure hours. Haphazard and hopeless financially, yet Sonny was unarguably a master in his own sphere. He was a champion sheep breeder, owning several ‘blackfyasst yows’ worth into thousands of pounds and insured correspondingly. Neither he nor his wife Lizzie nor his teenage daughter Sall, would have parted with their animal champions for less than gold bullion. Thus Sonny’s farming expertise went into a mere dozen prize beasts and meanwhile the stead at large stayed an unutterable scrow that inflamed Prosser’s eyes and aggravated his backache whenever he thought about it.

Sonny was a eugenic genius, a hopeless failure, and where Baxter from Consett made a din with his business, Sonny made the perfect evening air resound with his bawling obscenities as he shepherded his ewes without a dog. He’d bought two incredibly expensive two-year-olds for herding over a year since and had made loud but meagre efforts – four hours education in all – to train up Trim and Spot. Trim, the gentle bitch, was about ten per cent competent to herd the yows, and could usually manage to get one in every dozen through a large gateless aperture. Spot, the male, was sired by priceless fell herders and correspondingly reckless at spending his pedigree on these flats. He herded them all up in seconds, but in opposing redundant tangents that sent half flying to Brampton and half of them to Scotland. Left to himself, he might accidentally have worried them, he was so keen to sink his teeth, tongue, love, into anything that moved. Sonny solved things by keeping both dogs penned into a barn day and night so that they yapped and howled and sometimes acted as deafening chorus to the roaring shepherd who was almost thirty per cent efficient as a sheepdog.

Yadafftblurryowdcuns,” Sonny bellowed across the tender, resonant summer air as he leapt and dodged in repetitive exhausting arcs around his four or five fields. The lanes were heavy with honeysuckle and fuchsias; the siskins and goldfinches seemed to be drawn in great quantities to lend colour and glory to an almost inconceivable richness. It really was like Eden up this lane, especially at Armstrong’s end, at The Hagg. Prosser’s place and the adjoining sandstone cottages had nothing like Sonny’s view, and Baxter while happiest living in remote countryside, had no particular devotion to beautiful landscape as such. For Baxter’s disgust at his neighbour’s foul-mouthed yelling, was not because it ruined a pastoral idyll, but because it spoilt his wholly abstract sense of proprietorship – of what in formal leasing contracts is always described as ‘quiet enjoyment’ of the tenant’s property.

Their theoretical potential for a friendly nod or a wave or a joke might have been twenty times a day of a weekend. But if Baxter glimpsed Armstrong’s battered blue wreck of a Ford flying down the lane, he rushed rudely into his workshop, or alternatively turned his bad back and let that speak his injuries for him. Prosser spoke contemptuously of the sheep-breeder to all his customers, and derided his spouse Lizzie Armstrong, for her jerky, wide-eyed, nervous manner, and his son, Stanley, for his sleepy obesity. Nobody could have found reasonable fault with Sall the energetic daughter, but Prosser scoffed at her raucous voice and unsettling love of sheep-breeding and horse riding…

“Bliddy tomboy, not natral shootin an barlin like Sonny, mare like a lad than a ficken lass, man.”

Plus Sall’s father did undeniably illegal things like driving his tractor without lights on pitch dark nights, so that once or twice Baxter Prosser had had to leap into the hedge to avoid being run over by what had seemed to be a pair of rampant bulls. Armstrong had an unfortunate history of road accidents, one nearly fatal, and one quite recently where a broken arm and bruises had had him off work for a month.  Everyone knew that the near fatal crash had not been Sonny’s fault, and in his time off work last year he’d been hobbling about gamely on crutches, doing bits in the farm sooner than rest as instructed. However, Prosser sneered and condemned it all as part of the same picture. Feckless, reckless, rough, cheap, no money, moon-faced, only one horrible old vehicle between them, dibbling and dabbling with this and that, like an amateur and an eejit. At bottom a hired labourer with a farmstead come only by his wife, and which hardly kept them in Weetabix cereal never mind the animal feed. Prosser had the Masonic pride of the self-employed and a merciless contempt for anyone outside the running.

Midway between Armstrong’s and Prosser’s lay an even more striking smallholding than The Hagg. From the eighteenth century until the First World War it had been a blacksmith’s, the smith toiling in the roadward half and dwelling in the remainder. It was called The Rowan and from a distance it looked like a peculiarly long, peculiarly low single cottage. Yet for at least thirty years it had been divided up into two separate rented cottages, with shared tarmacadamed access and the field at front and back split by amiable consent rather than fenced into two gardens. It looked both large and small from Sonny’s garden, toylike, tender, magnificent. There it was squatting innocently in the dip with its unusually pleasing design, the construction of the smith himself, who had moved from Dumfries way and had introduced the Scottish Lowlands shape transformed. No one had ever seen a pair of cottages like it anywhere, especially from the Hagg side; the doors and the windows croftlike, queerly foreign in design. It exuded a fine touching radiance there in its snug two-acre field and with its happy clutter of disused pens and pitched hen hulls by the roadside. If anywhere was unspoilt while being reasonably handy for Carlisle, it was The Rowan. It made passers-by think of young, sentimental love, dimly recollected old fables, remote Orcadian islands, dreams of a benign and harmless kind. Birds like oystercatchers and curlews when passing overhead in summer definitely used it as a flightline, some chosen, elected navigation expressing their select sympathy and affection for something also birdlike. This little bird of a smallholding had a muddy trickling beck covered in brambles, the refuge of a solitary wild duck many a summer. A hen pheasant might also hide it away in the deep lush grass at the field side, and stay stockstill for weeks and weeks. There was a choice single alder at the start of the jungle which on warm nights melted into a wild glory of rust and gold. The Rowan had faded lupin-blue brickwork and post office red window frames. Clearly, to have carelessly changed the tiniest detail of this pure yet modest miracle, would have been a lethal stupidity, so few transcendently glowing crofts like this have survived in this perennially thoughtless county.

Sonny Armstrong always passed it of course, every time he drove Prosserward. But he also cast a special, possessive inner eye, each time he merely thought about The Rowan. For he and Lizzie themselves had lived at 1 The Rowan for the first five years of their marriage, and their children had played in the little muddy beck, where they had seemed barely distinguishable from the hens and new lambs that nibbled dreamily alongside. Sonny had not properly come into The Hagg until four years ago, when Lizzie’s old mother Winnie had died and left them the farm and some modest savings. Meanwhile, since 1960, The Rowan had been owned by a second old farming widow called Ginnie Davidson, who in 1979 had died and passed it on to her strong-willed daughter Shane, and her weak-willed son-in-law, Bender Jackson. Shane and Bender had immediately moved into Number Two, and finally rented Number 1 to Sonny after a remarkably unnerving, though typical bit of sleight of hand. Sonny and Lizzie were actually their very close friends, yet would always be their anxious tenants, a paradox common enough among farming folk and their Prosserish counterparts. Bender had promised Sonny the spare cottage for months and even let him in to paint and redecorate the week before moving in. Then two nights before formally giving him the key, in a seasoned fit of drunken hubris, Bender had offered the same cottage to an old drinking pal called Pinner from Longtown, who was about to wed a woman less than half his age. 

Shane Jackson had early adapted to her husband’s drinking sprees, vain loyalties, broken promises and occasional brushes with the police, in two intelligent ways. Firstly, though friendly if not warm to all in the farming community, she was protectively uneasy, her eyes going all ways, constantly hurriedly filling in conversational pauses as she nervily took in the crowd at the church do or Longtown auction or whatever, and asked herself – how many of waddyacallit, Bender’s adversaries/victims are watching me/us  just now? Secondly, she had learned to be ruthless not only in her compensations for an unpredictable husband, but in her own certain right, as her own fortified means of survival. Shane was stocky and strong and fit and knew how to graft, both on a farm or in any appropriate town job, all her years at the West Cumberland Farmers Retail Shop, for example. When faced with any looming moral dilemma, she always looked sternly down her nose as she embarked upon suiting her own precise needs and no one else’s. With the same volte-face as Bender, she now promised Pinner Wright and his child fiancée Number One, The Rowan, just like that. She was quite sober and yet felt no compunction about disappointing Sonny and Lizzie. They were not bright enough, nor powerful enough to make any fight out of it. Plus, it was her property, The Rowan, her mother’s and grandma’s before her, to do with just as she wished. Plus, the whole of The Drove was riveted by the ceremonious handshake on a very nice farm cottage supposedly spoken for months since. One or two murmured as much and Bender immediately growled that Sonny had lost interest in it long ago. This though Bender personally had heaved in the woodchip wallpaper and the Dyox from Sonny’s car the night before last…

That night Sonny was leaning at the gate of The Rowan, enjoying the perfect view upbank of his future farm, and wondering in the warm twilight why his mother-in-law had painted The Hagg dogshite brown and treacle black. Suddenly a Hyundai pulled up and an elderly farmer called Snaith, who had just been wrangling with Prosser over a very reasonable bill, stopped for a spiteful chat. He let Armstrong talk on a good ten minutes about corruption among the judges at Gilsland Show, before describing what he’d heard in The Drove an hour ago…

“Tellt em what!” cried Sonny, incredulous. His moon-face was tight, and in his anger he looked terrible. Only last night his old mother-in-law had been casting doubt on having Shane and Bender as adjacent neighbours, much less landlords. But then Winnie, like Prosser, trusted no one, and approved of almost nobody apart from the dead or the terminally ill.

Old Snaith told the tale slowly and slyly. He watched excited as Sonny frothed at the mouth like a lamb who’s eaten snow. Enraged, Sonny dragged him in to show him the bastard woodchip and the cream e-fucking-mulsion. Snaith looked politely shocked at the pains taken to no purpose. Sonny swore he would kill Bender and Snaith could quite believe him. Nothing, he said mournfully, could shock him about Bender Jackson, who was always daft and unreliable in his drink. Once, he told frantic Sonny, after some blazing marital argument conducted in public, he’d witnessed Shane drag Bender from a stool, hurl him down in the floor of the pub, and then fall upon his head with flailing fists.

Sonny left him abruptly and raced up to The Hagg to consult with Lizzie and her parent. Lizzie showed more laudable gumption than her mother who simply tutted complacently ah her accurate prediction. The uneasy, insecure young wife suddenly became impressively alert and pugnacious. She raced upstairs to their temporary bedroom, where snoring but now homeless Stanley and Sall were in their bunks. She then rang The Drove and checked with Willy that Shane and Bender were still soaking it up alongside Pinner. With Sonny roaring for explanations, she leapt into the car and drove them at seventy the eight miles to the pub. En route, she unfolded her audacious strategy. The Drove was full that night which definitely suited her purpose. She strode across the bar with a ceremonious smile, and as she was flourishing two hundred pounds like some cowboy gambler, she was not slow to win all eyes, including drunken Bender’s. Shane Jackson herself seemed painfully dismayed, and hoarsely squeaked how pleased she was to see ‘strangers’ like Lizzie and Sonny.

“I’VE BROUGHT YOU THE RENT FOR THE ROWAN,” Lizzie shouted at the top of her voice, like some raw extra from amateur rep. “THE FIRST MONTH’S RENT. STARTING TOMORROW. TWO HUNDRED POUNDS. AS AGREED.”

“Oh?” flushed Shane, as addled Pinner hiccupped and lurched to protest. “We weren’t really su…”

“Weren’t sure?” bawled Sonny with an iron smile of iron incredulity. Then he hammered Bender on the back like a drill sergeant, just to indicate the strength of his love. Finally, he turned with lordly patronage, to the elderly betrothed:

“How Pinner?” he snarled. “Gitten hitched an looken fer a hoose to rent? Not easy these days?”

“We weren’t sure,” Shane faltered, “whether you two were a hundred per cent sure.”

Bender meanwhile had collapsed and evaporated into the suds of his beer. Irresponsible and unreliable, and yet his capacity for guilt and naked terror were undoubtedly remarkable.

“No,” Sonny grinned, addressing the whole bar as if party to a grand joke that he, his wife, Bender, Bender’s wife, had cooked up for the general satisfaction of all concerned. “That’s Bender for you. He carries in me pest an paper and stands gassin aboot dogs and bets, while I decorates The Rowan. Then he cods on he’s gien it to Pinner in tiptop decorative order! Thank Christ, him and me and Pinner is aw just like that, three rogues aw fit for owt, eh boys?”

From earliest times The Rowan had maintained a colourful sequence of tenancies. Back in the Sixties Shane’s mother, Ginnie, had lived in Number One, and rented Number Two to an extended, impoverished family alluded to locally as gippo-potters, who were leet (light), daft, gormless etc. About a dozen of them had lived in one sitting room and two small bedrooms, and the surrounding land including Ginnie’s had stayed a lush jungle. Later when the Armstrongs moved in and Bender had refused all interest in gardening, Sonny had been permitted to cultivate almost the whole of it with potatoes, leaving Shane just a scrap of flower bed at the front. He had grown enough Rowan potatoes to trail with them in a pick-up hawking around Longtown every Saturday morning. For like Shane, Bender and many more, Sonny Armstrong was not content with a single job, nor a day that only yielded twenty-four hours. He felt no pride, simply his survivor’s instinct, at being able to turn a useful penny. His kids and Bender’s little girl Maria, had grown up together by The Rowan’s beck and it had been a simple, happy, most surprising period for all. The two couples were as close as that and as distant as that, friendship and genuine warmth forever parodying disagreement and doubt and ferocious disdain. Above all there was gossip to eager third parties, prognostication, furtive criticism, worried smiles masking doubts, and the impossibility of keeping all one’s family secrets sufficiently secret. They heard each other’s rows and enjoyed them, and would remember certain ice cold facts which even as they relayed them to a third party ten years later stopped them in their tracks. Bender and Sonny heard each other crying and tried to pretend amazement. Then there was foul, hot-blooded language from both Shane and Lizzie, which supposedly surprised the men too. But there were also certain communal picnics down by the beck on nights so vast and lusciously stagnant, it seemed impossible that life could ever have tasted more mysterious, yet more substantial with however much land or stock or plain cash.

Then Winnie died and the Armstrongs took over The Hagg. Then Bender’s mother died and left him one of her three farms and the adjacent bungalow down a rough track near Roadhead. They left The Rowan and leased out both cottages to whoever they could get. Round about then, Baxter Prosser sold a comprehensively renovated clump of cottages at Noblestown and moved down country to be Sonny’s neighbour. Noblestown had looked wonderful from the outside, but inside Prosser had left his mark. The young teaching couple who bought it immediately took out the private bar and the Madeira bottle,  the mile of tangled raffia, and started to paint a nursery, and then went to bed with a purpose. Shane and Bender had coincidentally been good friends of Prosser for quite some time.  They were closer to him than the Armstrongs, possibly because of his self-employment, a landowner in his own right, impatient of farmyard scrows, just like they were. They could suffer his intelligible mechanical scrow, but not any kind of agricultural scrow. Furthermore, Sonny, with his hands firmly on The Hagg but lacking capital, sold off far more of his fields than made sense. Later, he would bitterly reflect how he might have rented them as grass lettings and make more durable income. Shane, Bender and Prosser naturally indulged a dizzy chorus of critical sagacity at Sonny’s expense, whenever the Jacksons drove their machines down past the denuded Hagg and the bonny little Rowan cottages, towards the mechanic’s workshop.

Meanwhile, Baxter Prosser gossiped to all the farmers about Shane’s incredible temper and Bender’s insoluble drink problem.

Meanwhile, if Shane’s mother Ginnie had rented The Rowan to the-light-and-the-daft, her daughter carried on an impressively adapted tradition. Not for her the calm apparatus of estate agents, bank references, deposits, clergymen’s testimonials etc. Someone Bender had talked to in a Brampton snug would do, so within the space of five years The Rowan’s two cottages had had about twenty separate tenants between them. There were single mothers with drug problems; a time-cushioned hippy or two; the odd talentless painter; the odder mysterious retired journalist; a Greek Cypriot who commuted to Larnaca the entire way by motor scooter and only spent half the year at Number 1, The Rowan. He sublet genially of course, to a cosmos-tuned paranoid schizophrenic encountered on the backstreets of Carlisle. Then there was Thomas Turpin, of the Turpins of awful reputation. He and his brother Will had almost beaten a man to death outside a Longtown dance hall some years back. Once secure in The Rowan, Turpin surrounded both cottages with a horrible collection of wrecked cars and scrapped motorbikes, which he used to do death to the pregnant stillness of the summer nights. Once, after a four-hour row with his wife Tessie, who always wore bunny-shaped bright orange slippers, he climbed up onto the ancient roof of Number One, and let off a couple of rounds of shotgun, just to relieve his feelings. Armstrong, herding and cursing at the time, actually stopped in amazement at this Bugs Bunny sight, as he heard something other than his own yells.

Sonny surveyed the passage of time from The Hagg, as he counted the passage of tenants down the way. Some of them he liked, some of them disturbed him, some of them he loathed. The hippies and painters were all very genial and fine, but as he himself had been hospitalised by a Turpin at a Hethersgill Young Farmers’ dance in 1976, Thomas and he behaved towards each other exactly like Sonny and Prosser.

This endless procession of tenants seemed destined to stretch to eternity. Shane and Bender had frequently gravely sworn that Ginnie on her death bed had left these cottages to her granddaughter, not themselves. That is, for when Maria married or should the Jacksons perish in a car crash, not too remote a climax if bibulous Bender had his way. The Rowan was sacredly unsellable, until Maria came of age and chose to part with it. They swore with so much sentiment, it caused no one any surprise that when house prices went mad somewhere around the end of 1987, Shane and Bender suddenly gave serious thought to the absolute nature of family patrimony.

In 1960 Maria’s grandmother had bought The Rowan from Kyle the farmer, who’d used the pair of them as labourers’ cottages, for just three hundred pounds. By the end of the Eighties they were valued incredibly at thirty-eight and forty-two thousand, Number 1 having some potential for extension. The two pairs of tenants were naturally the last to be apprised as Shane and Bender with august pensiveness murmured to everyone they bumped into in auctions, bars etc. that they really did think The Rowan should be sold in the present climate. For one thing Bender had just been suspended from a haulage job (one fourth of his employments; the others being farmer, auctioneer’s assistant, and he kept a small milk round) for his outrageous timekeeping. Shane and he had resolved that if they bought a small farm called Gartiestown by the ford road up from Sleetbeck, Bender might be able to survive on farming alone. To buy Gartiestown would mean selling off Maria’s legacy and borrowing on the strength of their own. Lest Bender should sell of The Rowan in the form of an ambitious dominoes bet in a Longtown pub, Shane went along to a valuer and to their solicitor and learnt some interesting facts. Firstly, that The Rowan was worth that colossal amount of eighty thousand pounds, about two hundred and fifty times what her mother had paid on the day Shane left school in 1960. Secondly, it was wiser to sell them off as two separate properties, as Bender would make more and also pay less in capital gains. The very next morning, Shane and Bender went round gaily whistling and speedily repainted the outside, changing the beautiful lupin blues to cell block brown and a hideous shade of molten caramel. They turned up just like that, with huge tins and brushes, and wasted a couple of minutes in deceitful discussion with the tenants. A couple of teachers lived in Number Two, and a pair of herbalists in Number One. The herbalists listened incuriously to Shane’s laborious speech about spring cleaning. She even suggested they themselves do the window frames at a later stage, without a word at all about her intention of selling these little beauties. The teachers seemed a little warier, and the wife who happened to be friends with Lizzie rang her up immediately at The Hagg with the news.

Lizzie who had nearly been deprived of The Rowan herself, had only yesterday heard about Gartiestown and Bender scratching around for the means. When she elaborated her suspicions, the poor teacher burst into tears, as for her The Rowan had been the fecund paradise it would have been for any sensitive soul. She was thirty-four and had just decided to get pregnant, and had been dreaming about playing with her baby next summer down by the brambled beck, near the reclusive ducks, below the aloof oystercatchers and the skrarking lapwings, by the brooding pheasant hens, within sight of the massive old alder…

Shane soon got shot of the teachers and the herbalists. The teachers went first, grief-stricken, but adamant that an Eden ceased to be so once you realised the Eden proprietor wanted you out of it. The herbalists had more fire than elderflower in their veins, and they stuck it out for another four months. They watched with pleasure as about twenty separate parties went embarrassedly round their cottage, whereafter several put in stupid offers. Three put in extravagant bids that were taken up and then came to nothing. One couple from Carlisle, who to anyone but Bender would have looked penniless, offered far in excess of the asking price. Their mortgage firm laughed in their faces when they saw the beautiful fantasy in question, with its buckling roof, its bathroom mould, its flaking walls in need of damp-proofing and rewiring. At last, after the third let down, Shane took a dusty offer of thirty-four. The herbalists moved out shortly after, and three months later, as final proof of their fathomless amnesia concerning promises and asseverations, they sold Number One to you can guess who…

They sold Number One, the one where Sonny Armstrong had raised his young babies and his priceless potatoes…to an agricultural mechanic called Baxter Prosser.

They had forgotten the solemn speech made to the young cafe owner Sid, who eventually took Number Two. Recall that his access was the tarmacadamed road shared with Number One, the cottage nearer the road. That his quiet enjoyment was a dependent, meaning a contingent quietude. All he had asked was that they didn’t sell Number One to anyone in any noisy business, or indeed in any sort of business, but to someone like himself who wanted quiet and beauty and congruity.

Shane and Bender swore they’d have died before letting Number One go to any sort of clattering tinker (brushing aside Turpin, almost a manslaughterer). Prosser himself had frequently scoffed at these cottages a hundred yards closer to The Hagg as damp, comical, dreary little shacks that lazy Bender should have sorted out long since. However, words are only a kind of expendable gas, and now he decided he urgently needed a move. To be precise, he desperately needed to move one hundred yards. His five-year cycle had resumed, he needed to up sticks and start all over again. Let’s haul me caravans to the next oasis a hundred yards on. Baxter the Bedouin, various farmers chuckled, and slapped their fat old thighs. His wife Stella was aghast, almost ill. To go through all that hell again, in order to move a hundred bloody yards. Asked to justify the advantages of a single small Rowan cottage over their present modernised holding, Baxter found he could not. Instead he went heated and odd and began inventing things. Well, there was the land, there was half a bloody acre. You could throw up a whole village on half an acre if you wished. You could stick your caravans there, neah bother. But what for? Why? What’s wrong with this yan? Wal…ah canna stick next dooer, Stella. Nor next next dooer. Nor next next next dooer! The Number 2 Rowan lad ran the caff was weel canny, or if he wasn’t Baxter would soon flatten him, because he might well just be another thingumee New Edge puff for all he knew. Baxter who had a very bad back regularly posed himself as a pugilist. Stella Prosser went through about a month of severe reactive depression. It was like some mad dream. You went through a major ordeal, a house and business move, only to resume the caravans and calor gas and portabogs for another five bloody years…

Soon two large white touring caravans were obstructing Sonny’s view of The Rowan. Armstrong had remarkable long-sightedness and was able to read a church clock from a mile off, a skill which enabled him to view the vast nape of Prosser’s neck through the caravan window every morning. Drawn by this enhanced view of his enemy digesting his Coco Pops, Sonny could not tear himself away. Without consulting the café owner, Sid, Baxter had widened the entrance from the road, a sure sign that he planned tractors and harvesters to trundle through it. In fact, Prosser had informed his new neighbour he was probably retiring on account of his disabled back, and would not be constructing a new workshop. A remarkably sincere insincerity coupled with some fierce lumbar twinging at the time had convinced them both of his honesty. Faced with the turnabout, Sid was incredulous and then outraged. Prosser turned woundedly huffy and insisted it was only to help the pair of them, he would make no charge for his labour. The café owner stared at Prosser and discerned shameless untruth in the guise of immovable selfishness. Every evening Sid hovered warily at the back door and glared at Prosser who was fetching and carrying from the larger caravan, now suddenly bulging with sundry building materials. Prosser whistled with an enigmatic neutral expression, creating even more suspense in Sid. Sid was also making improvements on his own cottage, but he took it patiently and did not neglect to enjoy the fine summer nights, at least for an hour or two. Baxter worked fanatically, grimacing as he moved his back, and if he paused it was to light one of his many cigarettes and sip an instant coffee, and to stare always at his competent handiwork, never at the gathering glow of twilight. He replaced the roof of Number One, began a conservatory extension towards the gate, and had a few piffling farm Landrovers in for servicing with equipment stored in the caravans.

One day opening the Cumberland News to read the latest stock prices, Armstrong had his sleepy eyes drawn to a notice of proposed planning permission for a workshop business at Number One, The Rowan, Boltonfell, Carlisle…

Just as Sid was being apprised as much by one of his customers, Sonny had got out his pen and his writing pad and was feverishly composing a letter of objection to the county planner. Handicapped by his memory for spelling, grammar and syntax, nevertheless he managed to construct a compelling read. He pointed out that Prosser had disrupted the quiet and the appearance of the same small area in his previous workshop business, much of the planning permission obtained afterwards rather than prior, as the planner must be well aware. Also, that workshop had only been a hundred yards down the same road, so he was preparing to ‘reek havac’ twice in the same small area of ‘outstannin natrurel buty’. Lizzie learnt from Sid the next time she had a coffee in Brampton, that Sid also had put in detailed and precise objections, based on clandestine use of a tape measure, and presumably of a more articulate order, as Sid wore a stubby grizzly beard, and served guacamole for example to anyone who asked for it.

Baxter quickly learned of the objections and their agents. He went around fearlessly to remonstrate with Sid who refused to let him through the door, having maintained a blank taciturnity ever since the expanded entrance business. Prosser then began cursing viciously through the letterbox, until Sid poked his head calmly out of the window and gave him ten seconds to cease before he rang the police.

Sonny and Sid successfully objected to Prosser’s second application. Blazing Baxter spent a whole day in his caravan, trying to devise a revolutionary conservatory that was in fact a covert workshop. Blinds around the glass, could it be done, was it illegal? Feeling altogether desperate, and with his back giving him hell, he drove down to Fine Fare for a six pack of Carlsberg Special. It might give him inspiration, or if not might work as analgesic. As he drove the three miles, two young kestrels were there at their usual points, one hovering lyrically at the lee of the blind hill, the other almost at the Longtown junction. Prosser saw no sunlit hawks, he was deep in his mire of bitter resentment. He saw nothing of Newtown or Irthington, he was awash with a sense of comprehensive impotence. His aching back that no sort of treatment could improve; his probable need to acquire a workshop miles from home, and with all the dismal palaver that implied.

As he slowed opposite Fine Fare, he decided to park in the little triangle opposite the Moot Hall. He rived on the handbrake with a surly flourish, he even flicked his fringe like teenage Arnold. Thwarted and thoroughly dejected, he felt oddly like some romantically wounded youth. Although he tumbled out of his gleaming car rather more like a wheezy, very rheumaticky Carlsberg fan. He flicked his hair a second time and sighed. Then he blinked and felt a surge of half anxiety, half rage, as he saw who it was coming out of the space up front. Reversing with scant concern for limping mechanics was Sonny Armstrong, who, along with Lizzie and tubby Stanley, was doing his late evening shopping.

Stanley whispered solemnly to his Dad, that that was Prosser immediately behind them. Lizzie had just dashed out of Fine Fare with an afterthought tin of tuna, and she promptly stiffened and blushed as she saw Prosser lingering by her husband’s car. It was one of those pregnant showdowns one sees in old cowboy films. Sonny had obviously spotted his hovering foe, and was wilfully continuing his reverse. Prosser likewise was stubbornly taking his time to limp across the car park, to toss his empty Embassy pack into the litter bin.

Yet one of them must give way!

Schoolboys go through these High Noon performances every day of their lives: it is as old as time itself; as old as the Debatable Lands; as endless as the ubiquitous denaturation of the English provinces…

Lizzie feared exactly what would happen. Sonny looked defiantly at his wife through the rear window, turned with crafty eyes to Stanley, and said: “I know who it is behind us, Stan. I know it’s not King bastard Arthur frae Langtoon.”

Sonny then accelerated his reverse, pretending in fact that Baxter was incorporeal. The mechanic was completely flabbergasted, as he heard Lizzie scream:

“Look out! He hasn’t seen you!”

Prosser staggered back just as the blue Ford was inches from his toes. Then he executed a kind of sideways Western Roll that promptly saved his foot from certain maceration.

Sheer fright led to a courage he’d never have had, not even in his dreams. He pulled himself upright, tore across, and began to beat thunder upon the roof of the car.

“Cam on oot!” he bellowed in a molten rage. “Cam on oot! Are you trying to kill us, yer ficken imbecile?”

Lizzie roared at her husband. “You come here! Drive over here, and don’t you dare start anything in public!”

“Cam on oot, yer cunt,” Baxter continued with a deranged rallentando, “and I’ll kill yer! Away than,” he added with a wild fist flourish. “Away than, away than, Hamstrung!”

Armstrong lowered his window in a leisurely movement. Soon their two heads were only two feet apart. Perspiring Stanley was terrified but ecstatic.

“Are you tryin to kill us?” Baxter demanded operatically. “Tryin to maim us, you mad little fucker?”

Sonny screwed his eyes and replied pedantically, “If I was goin to maim thee Prosser, ah would dee it, ah would get on with it, there wouldn’t be any tryin aboot it! The fact ah didn’t kill thee means there was neah original intention.”

“Cam on oot!” hiccupped Prosser, vehement afresh at such naked injustice. “Cam on oot an feyt it! Cam on oot instead of writin letters to planners and cuddly (he meant cowardly) poof’s wark like that! Cam on oot till ah ficken bray youse!”

Very slowly Sonny wound up the window. “There’ll be neah brayin,” he replied scathingly. “Just like there’ll be neah scrow of a workshop at The Rowan. If there’s any brayin between me an thee ah’d break thy neck an thoo knows it.”

Baxter poked the end of his elbow across the window to prevent it shutting. His grandmaternal fizzog peeking above the elbow looked almost pitiful in its hunted indignation. Why, he wanted to know bitterly, why was Armstrong persecuting him over The Rowan?

Sonny glared at him with fatigued disgust. He hawked but did not spit. Nobody could talk to Prosser’s kind, he announced with something queerly sage in his voice. There was a rough kind of assurance in his disgust, that momentarily succeeded in unnerving Prosser.

But what about Sonny’s own noise, Baxter insisted hoarsely, his horrible roaring every night at his ewes?

Sonny snorted unembarrassed, and told him it was more than just simple noise was at stake.

“It’s to do with ruinin summat that’s bonnier than anybody can imagine.”

Prosser stared amazed at his ludicrous sincerity. That was exactly what Sid had said to his girlfriend last night, just loud enough for him to catch it…

“Ah lived at The Rowan for years!” Sonny clarified with a snarl. “Lang afoor thee! Stan here an Sall was raised by yon beck like real country bairns. They’ve mare country inside em than a coo or a hen or a yow. Folks like thee and Shane an Bender would sell The Rowan till some bastard wantin to make a theme park or six country bungalows or a slaughter hoose or a suppermackt. Thoo would sell it to Hitler or Marlon Brando or Slim Whitman or any bastard that gie thee fifty thoosand pund.”

Lizzie blushed and rallied to her husband awkwardly. She said with a huge quiver, “It’s to do with ruinin a thing that could never be replaced.”

Baxter squinted and then loudly scoffed. He threw up his arms in appeal to Fine Fare’s frontage.

“You should hear Shane and Bender laughin at yer scrow up at The Hagg! At you pair of amateurs. Christ, half of Boltonfell is laughin at you cloons for that Jed Clampett scrow at the ficken Hagg.”

“Thoo should hear Shane and Bender bad-moothin thee,” said Sonny pacifically. “They’re like thee, Prosser. They bad-mooth friends and enemies. They’d bad-mooth a coo or a cast tup if it did em any good. They’d give away a little speck of paradise widoot a care or cuss.”

Then he reversed sharply to where his wife was standing. Prosser’s elbow went suddenly numb and drooped down as he reached automatically for his fresh pack of smokes.

Meanwhile three miles away The Rowan was glistening deserted in the evening sun. Sid and his girlfriend were away camping in the north of Scotland. An oystercatcher calmly aligned itself by the newly repaired pair of roofs. It soon sped on beyond time and anyone’s memory

(This long-lost story first appeared with a different title in Panurge 15/16 in April 1992, when the magazine was edited by David Almond, author of Skellig)

The next post will be on or before Tuesday July 7th

WILSON FUCHS – a short story

WILSON FUCHS – a short story

Wilson Fuchs was suddenly turfed out of Ponsonby Vermin Club (PVC) after an extraordinary meeting of the Vermin Committee. Two days later, the authorities expelled him from the dismal craft annexe of the illustrious Grammar School at Mosser, though this time it was all done very properly in terms of his probationary and therefore temporary contract. In baffled retrospect, Fuchs was forced to recall that that was all the job security he’d ever possessed. So, when he finally got an exacting new post in the woodwork department of a crumbling tenement secondary down in Manchester’s Moss Side, he took home the densely-printed document and studied it minutely for a good two hours. This one emphatically was permanent, indeed they’d all but begged him to embrace the uniquely challenging post. Wilson Fuchs was just the man they needed. Six-foot-six, fierce, frank, immoderately psychopathic, and with a normal speaking voice which assumed the audience was dead as well as deaf. Just the man to quell a riot or a lynching, or to pick up four twelve-year-old Rastas by their dreadlocks and urge them to get on with their dictations on the spokeshave…or Fuchs would take them all apart.

“The-best-are-made-of-boxwood,” bawled Wilson Fuchs, once a year, every year in Moss Side. “Others-are-made-of-beech-or-ash.”

Fuchs dictated with his eyes shut, in a fractured but forceful rhythm which made him sound like an Irish crooner or an auctioneer. Winston Crombie, aged fifteen, had once succeeded in a flinging a piece of used and bloody Elastoplast right into that open mouth, but Fuchs had responded by getting him down on the varnished floor and pouring nearly twenty ccs of undiluted Quink past the struggling lips of Winston.

Fuchs was a most lucid teacher, he had a way of really putting things across. He put little Mingus across his knee and paddled his trousers with a thick piece of warped dowelling after Mingus had called him ‘a wall-eyed and hoss-faced big whooer’. He made the giant of 5R, Rat Twentyman, weep with hysterical fright, after assembling him for a mock crucifixion (two whopping planks of durable pitch pine) having threatened to turn into him a Messiah every week for the whole of 1982.

“I wouldn’t have done it, yer greet halfwit,” consoled Fuchs, squeezing the big boy gently, and lending him his bright red handkerchief. “But yer have to learn to stop mouthing off, and remember I’m the only legal boss in here.”

So it went. But Wilson Fuchs did not wish to reside in backstreet Manchester, Fuchs was a countryman born and raised. His widowed mother lived in Ponsonby on the North Lancashire coast, and Fuchs himself had a small terraced house half way between there and Mosser, Cumbria, down at Estuary Row. He lodged the weekdays in a noisy depressing bedsit in Whalley Range, but every weekend he was up there with his Lakeland Terriers, his guns and his snares and his boat, drinking his fill of one of the most beautiful estuaries in Britain. Number 3 Estuary Row looked out onto three solid miles of glittering, silver sand, curving around Blackdyke in the north, down to the nature reserve at the edge of Mosser Bridge. The nature reserve was famous for its unique maritime habitat – the favourite of natterjack toads. The rest of the heathland surrounding the reserve was fair game, it belonged to everyone and no one, and so Fuchs tore around blasting rabbits and foxes, he gave short shrift to the estuary’s populous vermin. Sometimes too he spotted members of the treacherous Vermin Club and would take ambiguous pot shots right behind their stooping forms. Of course, he was only firing into the air, or in the direction of the hills, but it had its notable effect.

Fuchs liked going out with Herbie Leacock who lived at Number 4, and invariably told embarrassed passers-by that this was his very best friend. Herbie accepted Fuchs’s ferocious generosity in the way of boat trips and loans of expensive tackle, but later told the same folk that really he couldn’t stand ‘Bela Lugosi’s big brother’. Herbie was a pallid, chubby shoe shop manager in Ponsonby, and his exophthalmic wife Madgie had an identical job across at Mosser. During the week, for a handsome sum, Madgie exercised and fed Fuchs’s Lakeland Terriers, which he kept in a small pen by the allotments, wrinkling up her pudgy small nose at the stench of their special sloppy feed. Herbie and Madgie were both over thirty, and had no family, but they owned a swaggering Airedale called Geoffrey, and they spoiled him like a favourite little son. Fuchs, frustrated through the week in Whalley Range, was always begging Leacock’s company at weekends to go out shooting or trawling the bay. Herbie usually accepted with a sigh of solemn condescension, but when he wasn’t in the mood virtually slammed the door in Wilson’s face. Fuchs would grow subdued, then stiff, then emotional, and then with a sudden confirmation of something from his distant past, would bawl to his girlfriend Sarah, standing some six inches away: “Herbie’s like everyone else in this bastard Row, Sarah Stern! No energy, no brains, no sense of humour, no consistency at all!”

It was surprising to learn that Fuchs had a steady girlfriend, and had once had a steady wife. Now forty-three, he’d been divorced since 1969, and had been with Sarah Stern since 1976. Sarah at thirty-seven was an assertive, attractive, self-contained mother of two teenage boys, both of them with sharp staring eyes. They were called William and Angus, and got on remarkably well with the mercurial craft teacher and lover of country sports. Divorced from a man who was a violent alcoholic with a roaring voice like Wilson’s, it was as if Sarah had kept the outward marks of her previous husband, but had found in Fuchs someone who, while odd, was not dangerous, while loud and vehement, was quite pliant underneath. Fuchs himself had been married at twenty-one to a factory hand called Wilma Fessick, a manically boisterous woman he had known since early boyhood. She had left him without notice one intensely sunny May morning and a week later he received a cheerful four-views postcard from Dorchester announcing she was happily settled with a pesticide salesman called Victor from Chaldon Herring. Fuchs had been devastated, half-suicidal, quite unhinged, even by his standards of aggressive defiance and sour disapprobation of a fickle world. It was then in 1968, that he started his habit of bawling at everyone and everything, just as if it had seriously occurred to him that perhaps his misunderstood complexities, the impenetrable contours of his misperceived self, needed to be broadcast as loudly as possible, all ambiguities to be resolved by the force of his lungs.

It transpired that Wilma Fuchs had hated her awful surname far more than Wilson had guessed. Anyone toiling in a Ponsonby button factory might have wearied of Hector the chargehand’s puerile little puns on an unfortunate handle (‘Wilma Fuchs and Wilson Fuchs. And that’s raither nice for both parties?’). In fact, Wilma had tried to get Wilson to change it by deed poll to Fox, to anglicise himself in name at least. Wilson’s father had been a Danish fisherman whose grandfather had been a German migrant to Denmark from Hamburg. Adolf Fuchs had married Cissie Wilson in 1938, after two years of courtship consequent on his monthly fishing trips over to Mosser from Esjberg. He married and settled with a local woman in Furness-Lancashire (now part of Cumbria) but unfortunately for him when war broke out, he was interned up near Bassenthwaite, Cumberland as a risky alien with a most worrying pair of names. No matter that he was Danish to the core, and knew far less German than English. Adolf’s justifiable sense of outrage rubbed off on his only child, who effectively had no father till 1945 when he was six. Penalised for nothing, imprisoned for a nonsense, a law abiding but pugnacious Danish fisherman could not help but transmit his anger and bewilderment to his growing English son. Fuchs who had loved his father to idolatry, would sooner have called himself Wilson Excrement, than Wilson Fox.

Sent on his way today by Leacock, Fuchs eventually decided to take Sarah out in his boat. Her two lads were idling happily on the sands on this blazing August afternoon, so he proposed that they leave them there while they sailed over to Blackdyke for a pint and a sandwich in the Old Barnacle,

Sarah was already in her bright yellow swimming costume, looking handsome and sensitive and shapely. Fuchs disappeared to return post-haste in some new and remarkably revelatory briefs, and at once she winced and remonstrated.

“Christ Almighty, Wilson Fuchs!”

“What yer on about, woman?” he chaffed her briskly, wincing absurdly as his bare toes felt the red hot pebbles.

“Those ridiculous trunks! Christ, the whole of North Lancs and South Cumbria can see everything you’ve got!”

Fuchs smirked and looked admiringly at his cumbrous genitals. “So what? It’s bloody 1982, not 1882. And anyway, what’s wrong with the yooman body? Nothing at all, as far as I can see.”

“It’s incredibly embarrassing…”

Fuchs offered her a ferociously contorted leer. “Yes, I see. Shifting the goalposts, or call it one law for the ladies and another for the lads! Typical of your mad bloody gender, Mrs Stern. Of course, it’s alright and dandy that your bits is bulging out all over like lumps of plaster of Paris. What I mean is a blind toad could see that’s your plump little backside jiggling away down below, not a pair of yeller melons kissing.”

Sarah crimsoned as two or three young couples energetically tuned in, piously fascinated by today’s outside broadcast from Estuary Row.

“Lower your stupid voice!” she hissed.

“Bah!” roared Fuchs, salivating and glowering at the leering audience which immediately turned away. “Prewdery! I’m not one for pretence, Sarah, you know that I don’t hide nothing if I can help it!”

Confessing which, he tiptoed down the burning sand with his gigantic manhood bouncing like the pouch of a Furness marsupial. Sarah followed on with her graceful, poiseful gait, her full and touching figure, and basking locals scratched their chins and wondered how it was that someone as gentle and quiet as Sarah was girlfriend to someone as shameless and uproarious, and well-nigh a lunatic in his extravagance.

Out in the little boat, half way between the shore and Blackdyke, Fuchs decided to take a cooling plunge. While Sarah lay and sunbathed, he leapt in noisily over the side. But soon irritated by the encumbrance of his trunks, he wriggled them off, cast them into the boat called Daisy May, and began bobbing up and down by its side like a bizarre little boy on a rubber tire. Sarah, peering out of the side of her sun-shaded eyes, observed his fat penis dancing and swaying in the warm breeze, semi-turgid and batonlike, a histrionic conductor agonising over a poignant passage of Dvorak. She sighed yet ultimately concluded they were too far out for any observer to distinguish specific parts of the Fuchs anatomy.

“I hope,” she murmured dozily, “no one can see your luscious behind from Haverigg prison, Wilse.”

“Well I hope they can,” answered Fuchs doughtily. “It might just give them a belly laugh, my moonin. You know,” he gasped with deadly seriousness, “even the Queen Mother has one, Sarah, even she goes to the toilet, and does her smelly business just like me and you.”

“I think you’re some kind of pervert,” Sarah responded, almost asleep in the blissful heatwave.

“No I’s not,” Fuchs retorted, blowing a mouthful of brine onto her lovely belly, so that she leapt up and took a vain lunge at his teasing form. “I’m not at all. I’m just honest as opposed to hypocritical. I’ve got an arse and a Charlie, and I’m proud of them! That’s my personal philosophy in a nutshell.”

But believe it or not, someone could see the philosopher’s buttocks. From his cottage, hidden by its high hedge and its position half way up the hill behind Estuary Row, Edmund de Sausmarez was staring at Fuchs’s gigantic posterior through his Zeiss binoculars. Amused, he refocused, then saw the good-looking woman lying there in her skimpy yellow bikini. He thought he vaguely recognised her, but could not remember where: whether at Ponsonby, Mosser, Lancaster or Preston. As for her companion, nude bathing, however discreet, always suggested the English middle classes, and there were few of those to be spotted in this part of the world. He could not place that bobbing, naked man, and certainly not from the rear.

Edmund de Sausmarez succeeded in supporting himself by running a wholefood and health food stall on the local markets, and had been living here in Spindrift Cottage for almost twelve months. Very early on he had discovered that his Cumbrian and Lancastrian patrons were only rarely what you might have termed indigenous locals. It was the undeniable truth that apart from a tiny handful of working class hypochondriacs, Edmund sold his wares to a classic assortment of e.g. art teachers and social studies lecturers, plus a copious stream of the young, pained and searching who went down regularly to stay at the nearby Advaita Vedanta hermitage and naturally spurned the changeless local diet of…hot pies.

De Sausmarez had lived all over the globe in his forty years, and had never been anywhere – even Athens and its tiropittas paled beside Furness-Cumbria and Lancashire – where they consumed quite so many pies. Even in the newsagents and sweetshops there was always a sign proclaiming We serve hot pie’s. On enquiry the pies turned out to contain either ‘beef’ or ‘pork’ never cheese. De Sausmarez had once read an authoritative New Scientist article on exactly what went into commercial pork pies. Apparently, the butcher took all the inedible, unsellable, horriblest bits of scraps, lights and offal, churned it all at fantastic speed in a huge electric mixer, injected it with commercially prepared ‘marrow gravy’, then stuffed the resultant poison into the pastry. Now and again in light-hearted manner, de Sausmarez had tried to disclose such unpalatable dietary truths to some attentive locals, those who stood politely bemused at his stall, looking hopefully to discover what it was all about, all this colourful hen feed.

One of these bemused had been Herbie Leacock at Ponsonby; another Madgie Leacock surveying de Sausmarez’s Thursday stall at Mosser. Herbie had lingered a good quarter of an hour, scrutinising all the charming little plastic packets with such labels as garam masala, savory, lemon grass, asafoetida printed on them in Edmund’s neat italic. He was entranced by the bright colours and the variations in seed, powder, pellet of all the herbs and spices. Herbie didn’t recognise them as spices, though, he seriously thought they were some kind of health food sweets. And so, in all good faith, he blushingly purchased a half ounce of turmeric, went and slouched in the nearby park and dipped into what he hoped would taste like the speckled sherbet of his remotely recollected childhood. He dipped, sucked, then spat it out amazed. Worse, in spitting with such violence he tipped his little yellow packet and the turmeric went all over his work suit and stained it, oh my Christ! for ever more. He had to tear back home in his Fiesta to get himself changed, swearing all the way at his treacherous curiosity. Leacock was hardly to know that turmeric is sometimes used as a fabric dye for religious purposes in a distant sub-continent. Madgie Leacock had likewise gazed in bafflement at all those big packets of bulgur, maize, besan, sunflower seeds etc. before coming to rest on an unlabelled jar of yoghurt-coated peanuts. They looked like small white gobstoppers, or the excrement of an exotic but sick animal, and she gazed at them frightenedly for minutes. When de Sausmarez, elegantly spruce in fawn cords, camel-coloured velvet shirt, dapper puce waistcoat and, amazingly, a white straw hat with a pink and white ribbon tied around it, had asked her kindly if she’d like to try one of them gratis, she had jumped, flushed and darted on hastily to buy herself a …hot pie.

 It was partly Edmund’s left eye, an engaging poetic sort of cast to it, which had unnerved her, but his eccentric dress had certainly helped. Of course, market stall men are allowed their sartorial gimmicks, but there was something about the extreme gentleness of manner and the very posh accent which made him seem of quite a different planet. Moreover, to put it coyly, he didn’t exactly look like a ladies’ chap, though neither had anyone ever caught him holding hands with a man or mincingly queening or generally making a buffoon of himself, as northern provincial homosexuals were once classically expected to do as penance for their personalities.

Here he was then on his day off, the amiable posh pansy, standing alone in the acre grounds of Spindrift Cottage, gazing through his binoculars at the noisy children, the mongrel dogs, the couples, and the mysterious male arse. Edmund lived quite alone, about ten miles from the few friends he had locally, all of them employed in some capacity at the Vedanta hermitage at Hanging Strand. Simon Wallace, an ex-accountant from Chesham, who these days preferred to be called Narasimha Devadasa, had offered to get him a job as an assistant gardener, but Edmund was determined to keep his cottage and his independence, particularly of the emotional kind.

Today exceptionally the radio on his garden table was tuned to BBC Radio One, in line with de Sausmarez’s relentless addiction to self-torture. To elaborate, anyone watching him over any stretch of time in his cottage grounds, would have seen him rush to the blaring radio, when with a look of sorrow and dampened anger, he would switch it off for about three minutes of clenched teeth, dour grimacing, and carefully controlled intensity. After the three minutes was up, turning it back on, he would swiftly expel the tension in his breath, and in doing so snort a hint of inhibited disgust. After two or three of these debilitating mimes, the fascinated onlooker would probably have deduced that this ritual happened exclusively when Simon Bates announced that the band coming up was called incredibly Leyton Occident

“Leyton Occident, yes. The outstanding band with the outstandingly naughty message. For a change I don’t want you to listen too carefully to the words of this one.”

Quite, grunted Edmund. The band’s name had been Timmy Badaines’s invention. A football fan with a taste for opaque puns, and an art college background, which meant that he knew a few big words like ‘occident’, it was Timmy who sang lead, played lead guitar, and was, within his own terms, remarkably talented. De Sausmarez heartily disliked pop music on the whole: whether gay, straight, funk, punk, soul, or any other of the mad, monosyllabic categories. Edmund liked only jazz and classical music. Timmy Badaines with his London working class background, had chaffed him lightly about all of that, and had often chuckled at his lover’s pretended affable tolerance of ‘homo rock’. The chaffing however had been sincerely affectionate, as it had been right up to the very last minute, when he’d finally averted his eyes to inform Edmund, no, he was not going to migrate up there to Spindrift Cottage. Leyton Occident had been signed up for a Scandinavian tour, so that no, the original plan of his permanently joining the other band he occasionally sang for up there in Manchester, was definitely shelved. Leyton Occident were destined to be very, very big, he predicted quietly, unboastfully. There was no real way of avoiding imminent, huge success, and he even looked a little frightened as he said the word huge.

“Meaning the end of you know what,” Edmund had sighed with a windblown expression, the cast in his eye waggling quite distressingly.

“Not at all, Ed,” said Timmy, kissing him very lightly. “How could it be like that? Love doesn’t die just like that, does it, like a little match gone out. I’ll still be up working regularly with musicians in Manchester. Inevitably. Where else could I stay but at Spendthrift Cottage?”

A Freudian slip which made Edmund weakly smile, because Timmy had frittered away money like no one else. And that was the very last he’d seen or heard of him, about twelve months ago. As predicted, Leyton Occident had broken through to massive superfatted stardom. Now, if ever Edmund timidly rang the Shepherd’s Bush flat it was either an ansafone resonating with Timmy’s jocular deadpan response, or an aggressive young man (without doubt his current lover) with a brusque and grating voice, one which immediately made Edmund yelp out that he’d got the wrong number.

De Sausmarez, impeccable dupe that he was, had let Timmy Badaines live off him for a full five years. Slaving away in a Chalk Farm jazz record shop like any uncomplaining pimp, he had made every penny of the income, while Timmy had endured his many frustrating apprentice years. Flagrantly but always gently and tenderly unfaithful, Timmy had pursued his self-advance to the limits, and then, when the time was propitious, left his gentle slave to his own devices. Since when not even a one-line postcard! As if old Ed de Sausmarez did not exist, and never had, just like Timmy’s fatuous past. As if all that unearned money had been his minimum legal/moral right. As if Timmy being some fifteen years his junior, old Ed should have demonstrated more sense, therefore naturally deserved his present stint of isolation. Here he was in the northern Eden then, living alone along the most paradisaical coastline, comparable with Kerry or Barra or the Sporades. Here we find him selling wholefoods in The Land of the Hot Pies. Simon/ Narasimha (Man Lion!) down at Hanging Strand would perhaps have moved in with a lure and a nudge, but Edmund decided patiently to preserve what slight durability was left of his fragile heart. Meanwhile with de Sausmarez attending at the wake once an hour, Leyton Occident would moan on mournfully, as if real tragedy were Timmy’s natural soulstuff. When Ed better than anyone knew that it was as shallow as the rock pools down at Blackdyke, and that was what had been his star attraction in the first place.

That same day, Fuchs was carrying aloft a string of fresh dabs as he and Sarah returned from Blackdyke. Gingerly they tiptoed back to Number 3, as the sand felt even hotter by mid-afternoon. In doing so they suddenly encountered Mr Buskerford of Number 5. Buskerford, a curt, round-shouldered but powerful man of about sixty, might have been allowed his cantankerous surliness on the grounds that his wife inside was presently terminally cancerous. However, Fuchs had known him all his life and could never remember a time when he hadn’t been the moody, resentful man of caprice.

“Mrs Buskerford was certainly a second mother to me,” he muttered with excessive mournfulness as they approached his neighbour. “When Mam was badly with nerves, and Dad was still interned up in the Lake District, I used to play all the time with Dennis, him who farms at Mosser Bridge. Now he’s another hopeless bastard, who won’t look me in the face, he’s as surly a get as his old misery guts Dad. They both get things in their heads, queer little obsessions, no bloody constancy, no bloody sense…”

As if to demonstrate his own admirably unselfish maturity, Fuchs boldly approached Joe Buskerford with a string of dabs.

“Something for you,” Fuchs bawled, thrusting out the smelly wide-eyed fish. “I thought the missus might be glad…might be glad of a bit of me fish.”

Buskerford stared at him incredulous. Disbelief aside, those obscenely tiny trunks gave him legitimate excuse for adopting a blankly unseeing expression, one emphatically concluding all further intimacy with Fuchs.

“No,” he said throatily but firmly. “She’s too ill for any damn fish. My wife can hardly take a boiled egg, never mind any bloody mackerel.”

Mackerel? He spoke as if it was Fuchs single-handedly had finished off her digestive tract. Then he stalked off, head bent, to his chickens and pigs at the far allotments. Fuchs flushed at the shameless coarseness of that refusal. Then he staggered off himself, muttering and smiting at the high grass behind the Row with his string of malodorous dabs. En route he almost collided with old Mrs Gorley of Number 2, a retired schoolmistress of eighty, who had recently lost her husband. Jane had married late at seventy, her husband a widower of seventy-five being the same man she’d rejected in 1925 in favour of a dependent, bedridden mother. Forty-five years on she’d had bold second thoughts and had taken a substantial risk. A fair twelve years of happiness had followed. Nothing was to prepare her however, inside or outside of wedlock, for the sight of Wilson Fuchs’s horribly lush gonads thumping towards her beneath his hideous black briefs.

“For you, Mrs Gorley,” he roared, pushing the dabs into her arms before she could refuse. “If you don’t want em, give em to Sammie Jack!” Then he snapped at her, pre-empting any argument. “Don’t tell me your little cat don’t like dabs, he’s a veggy-bloody-tarian?” He halted abruptly, as he saw how his angry speech was making her thoroughly frightened. “Pah, knackers, I got things on me chest! But you take the fish, Missus G, and you and Sammie Jack have yersels a nice dab supper…”

At length, inside his terraced house, he slumped into his favourite settee and waited there miserably for Sarah Stern.

“Pay no heed,” she urged him compassionately.

Fuchs snorted with bilious disgust. It wasn’t, he shouted, just Buskerford, it was damn near everyone on the putrid, rotting planet. Madgie Leacock moaning about the terrier feed; Herbie brutally slamming the door in his face today; Keller at the road end who barely spoke; even old Jane Gorley desperate to think up some excuse for turning down his fish.

“She’s just become a widow,” Sarah temporised. “And Mr Keller’s wife I think has breast cancer.”

“Cancer!” blistered Fuchs derisively.” Death eh? Listen Sarah, in my opinion the whole bloody Row’s all bloody hypochondriacs, all of them dyin to die! Don’t you see? You know what we need along this row of seaside cottages, don’t you? Some young uns who aren’t all bloody busy dyin! Plus,” he shot out hastily, as he saw her about to reprieve his nonsense,” my Dad died of it too, cancer of the spleen. It tore me bloody up.” He briefly sniffed and touched his brow before resuming his salivating flow. “But I didn’t go round bloody growlin and scowlin at folk. Plus, that still doesn’t explain why the two Leacocks are such inconsistent, wassaword summatorother twats.”

Sarah really couldn’t comment and fell silent. Privately she thought the couple next door were an extremely faithless pair of friends, like many more in this remote provincial corner. The kind who slyly crowed and prated, when marriages such as hers, however violent and hopeless, broke up. The other factor, of course, was that most people she knew sincerely thought that Fuchs needed some sort of chromosome reduction, or at least a course of horse tranquillisers from the veterinary at Mosser Bridge…

Summer drew to a poignant close, yet things for Fuchs did not improve. He applied for several teaching posts, all within twenty miles of Estuary Row, and many at far lower salaries. He did not gain a single interview. He was unaware that after leaving Mosser Grammar he’d been blacklisted from ever returning to the county, because six months earlier he had applied Moss Sideish self-defence in a fracas where a pupil had been mildly concussed. To be sure, Wilson Fuchs hadn’t wittingly concussed him. Insolent Karl Leatherbarrow had stumbled and fallen backwards to wallop his brains on a jackplane, as Fuchs had bowled down on him with a brandished fist and a waving chisel.

At Estuary Row, old Buskerford complained to him one weekend that his terriers made too much racket, and it was distressing his sick wife. This of course was classic invention, but Fuchs immediately moved the pen, as calm and contemptuous as he could be when he wished. Madgie Leacock was idly threatening to give up feeding them too, so he had to plead and finally increase her wages by fifty per cent. Then Mrs Keller died one grey August morning, and after that Keller stopped even looking at Wilson Fuchs, or anyone else noisy or brash or cheerful or strange. That same day the widow Mrs Gorley slipped and disastrously broke her ankle, on the two-mile shopping pilgrimage along the stones and sands to Ponsonby. At the weekend Sarah went in and chatted to her, while Wilson did his best to find a willing co-huntsman. Herbie had a bad head cold (ha ha!) this weekend, but Wilson Fuchs was not invited inside to cheer him up. So that day he stumbled off alone and defiant around the claypit, and amazingly, almost caught a fox. The Lakeland Terriers flushed it coming back over the field where the wild mushrooms were particularly copious and huge. That put Fuchs in a great fury of raw excitement. Unfortunately, without the speed of hounds, the terriers lost it quite near to Spindrift Cottage, whose latest occupant Wilson had so far never met. Still, returning down the hill, disappointed but exhilarated, Fuchs smiled at the shining eyes and smiles and bursting tongues of the little dog, all four, and wondered what sort of tyrant but Buskerford would not have loved them like his own. Their passionate, vigorous yapping was purest, if not celestial music. And the thrill of the chase, what a feeling, what a drug, what a taste of the call of the wild…!

That night in renewed spirits he proposed to Sarah Stern and for the forty-eighth time she refused. She swore that she was prepared to stay his girlfriend for ever, but never again would she marry. Fuchs turned as moody as a little boy and leaving their bedroom went and stayed in the spare one, next door to William and Angus. Tomorrow he was off back to Moss Side and his miserable tip at Whalley Range. To add to his desperation, outside a seedy bunch of motorbike enthusiasts had started tearing up and down in front of Estuary Row, singing and yelling and nastily blaspheming. The final straw in anyone’s estimation. Fuchs quickly lost his fabled patience. He flung open the bedroom window and roared at them all in great rage:

“Get the hell away from here, you vermin! There’s a very sick woman up the road. If that means anything to your disgraceful bloody kind.”

“Vermin?” a long-haired and helmeted man jeered back. “How can any bugger sleep with that orrible greet foghorn of thine?” And for good measure he gave Fuchs two upraised fingers, then farted and crazily guffawed.

That settled it. Fuchs stormed downstairs, his brain intoxicated with a brilliant vengeance. It was a full moon, and luckily for him he could easily see his target, the outlines of their bikes and their women and their studded jackets and their leers.

He flung open the downstairs parlour window, poked out his shotgun, then took casual aim. Not for a second did he worry about his marksmanship nor the possibility of manslaughter or worse. There was a great crack, and at once the back wheel of the cheeky youth’s bike was punctured, his imaginative figure of eight turning into a skiting slither into the sand.

The party wound up at once, but for a few screams and swearing, and the sound of a woman howling with shock. Fuchs raced elatedly upstairs to behold a terrified Sarah clutching at her heart. Fuchs laughed wild-eyed and proposed to her for the forty-ninth time, down on his knees with his shotgun pointing upwards as he did. Sarah Stern stamped back into her bed, and left him out there frozen on the landing where he stayed a full two hours in total darkness.

By contrast, on an exceptionally pleasant Friday morning, just before he drove off to Mosser market, de Sausmarez was to receive a cheerful postcard of the Queen on horseback, one which he noted had been posted from Shepherd’s Bush.

Hi Ed!

Up at Manchester this w/end to audition for new drummer. So I must of course pop over to see yr  wee Spendthrift Cottage! Have to be back London by Sunday night but supposing I stay over yrs Saturday? I’ll be there mid afternoon I’d say in my new Porsche!! and will explain all, esp, the communication bizarrenesses! I often think about your Lancs or is it Cumbrian idyll with remorse, regret etc. I shall see you soon, senor! T

This extraordinary correspondence made de Sausmarez feel queasily elated, then downcast, then pained, then confused, then excited but inordinately anxious. He was stirred beyond measure at the thought of tenderly embracing an old lover, while queasily depressed at the imminence of changeless caprice. The language as ever gave itself away. ‘Bizarrenesses’? That was a breathtakingly insolent way of talking about absolute silence, unanswered letters, many mutedly desperate, if the young pretty bastard had bothered to read between the lines. And then this teasing mention of ‘regret’ on his card, the half-hearted juggling with Edmund’s hankering affection, all this subtle insinuation of anything might happen favourable to a permanent reunion! God, what baloney! Timmy would be back with ‘Boris’ down in Shepherd’s Bush by Sunday night, and nothing more would be heard for another year, if not ten. And yet the childish tormenting expectation and the hopelessly bitter impatience would not go away. It was a complete waste of effort trying to think about anything but Timmy, Timmy Badaines, for the next forty-eight hours.

Wilson Fuchs was similarly stirred. Madgie had rung him mid-week at Whalley Range for some advice about one of the terriers. It had a violent diarrhoea after guzzling some rabbit infected with myxomatosis. Fuchs bawled at her across the sixty miles, to indicate which local vet he favoured, and then to his surprise he found old Herbie chirping away at the other end with real affability and humour. Herbie, addled on Mateus Rose, was suddenly bored and wanted to talk to someone, even Bela Lugosi’s bastard brother. The two best friends soon grew warm at each other’s comradely chaff, and before they knew it had arranged a full day’s shooting on the Sunday. The Saturday was not in question as Herbie had to go to a cousin’s wedding at Garstang.

“As best man,” he mumbled, and added drily. “Because they couldn’t find anyone better. The devil’s advocate is what it comes to, Wilse.”

“Some poor fooker signing his ballocks away,” agreed misogynistic Fuchs. He forgot momentarily how Sarah Stern had rejected him fifty times to date. And then these two splendid rakes went on to bemoan Marriage, Domesticity, Domination, Womanly Nagging and the rest. Afterwards overheated Herbie peremptorily commanded Madgie to make him a second cup of tea, and to go and find his missing fishing socks…

Come Saturday, Fuchs repainted his boat and later cleaned his guns in preparation for the treat tomorrow. Then his contentment was temporarily shattered by the receipt of a franked and posted letter, which had come all the way from 5 Estuary Row. It was a formal request from Mr Buskerford for the annual ground rent of his allotment; all of fifty pence as it transpired. Joe Buskerford owned all of the Row’s gardens, by some complicated title deed going back to 1890, but always Fuchs, Jane Gorley, Keller etc. had paid the silly peppercorn rent by hand. Painfully suspicious in his bewilderment, after checking along the Row, Wilson discovered that all of them had received this ridiculous request by post.

“Good God!” gasped Jane Gorley to Sarah, after she’d come round to confer. “He must be in some frame of mind to send us these.”

“He’s a lunatic is what,” sneered Fuchs to Sarah, when she was back in Number 3. “To spend seventeen pence on each of his four letters. Sixty-eight pence to get back two bastard pounds! And look they’re posted from Ponsonby, the warped old get must have driven up there specially to post them. Listen, I’ll show him, Sarah, sick missus or not! Christ, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was him that gave Mrs Buskerford psychersomatick cancer with his stupid bloody attitude…”

Teacher Wilson soon educated that old misanthrope. He went up to Ponsonby and despatched a fifty pence postal order by a special delivery which absolutely guaranteed delivery on the next working day. This special delivery cost him eight pounds fifty pence, and Fuchs blithely wrote out his cheque for nine pounds (garden rent equivalent for the next eighteen years) absolutely delighted with the irony of what he was doing.

Meanwhile, de Sausmarez had given up his Saturday specifically to wait for the arrival of the international rock star. He might have earned about sixty pounds on his Lancaster stall of a busy Saturday morning, but no matter where a national celebrity was involved…

Fuchs meanwhile got out his guns and started whistling with a joyous anticipation. At the same time, Mrs Gorley, all but disabled inside Number 2, gazed at her bandaged ankle and waited for the visit of a cousin aged 92 from Barrow-in-Furness. She turned up three hours late, by which time Mrs Gorley was weeping, but her cousin who had cataracts did not see that. The young great-niece who had brought her assumed it was because of Jane’s recent bereavement; not that it was the reality of being old and quite alone and always waiting, waiting, waiting…

Edmund de Sausmarez also waited all afternoon for Timmy Badaines. It was a fine, warm, tranquil day. Despite which, he was almost white, quite sick with anticipation. He turned on his transistor out in the garden, and of course every hour or so Leyton Occident sang their latest truculent or doleful hit, and now, uniquely, Edmund did not race over to switch it off. Time passed with a leaden slowness. The clouds came out by about six, but Edmund hoped against all reason for the immediate arrival of his famous guest.

Meanwhile, Mr Buskerford watched his wife being violently sick for the eleventh time that day. A few doors down, Mr Keller played with his grandchild Wayne visiting from Preston, and every time Keller found himself laughing till he cried, he wished his wife were also here to do the same. Just up the road, Sarah looked at Wilson Fuchs bent over his shiny guns and felt a great tenderness at his boyish happiness. All he wanted, not a lot, was a close and loyal pal, and a teaching job in the coastal area that he idolised. And her slim and wavering hand in permanent wedlock…

De Sausmarez was sitting in the garden of Spindrift Cottage at nine o’ clock, just as dusk was turning to dark. It was cold by now, and there was even a speck of rain. The phone rang and his heart leapt. He raced to it, but it was a wrong number! He barked and nearly swore at the person responsible, and then apologised but too late. Then Leyton Occident came on the wireless for the twelfth time in four hours. De Sausmarez, like an actor in some dreary minimalist drama, resumed his mime of misery and motion, and switching it on and off. He hoped absurdly for an explanatory telegram, but vaguely believed such things no longer existed. These days there were only these Dataposts, Swiftairs, Express and so forth. Besides, half the town post offices in this stolid neck of the woods, were closed by Saturday lunchtime…

The next day Fuchs was up and battering on the door by eight. After an incredible delay, and the deafening barking of Geoffrey, Madgie eventually came out in her turquoise dressing gown. She was bleary-eyed, bulging with her exophthalmia, and as physically stirring, Fuchs thought to himself, as a day old slab of rations margarine.

“Where’s that beggar?” he boomed cheerfully, and Madgie jumped at that roar of his. She’d just been dreaming about an international shoe conference in Venice, of all places, not to speak of her illustrious promotional role in it.

“Out!” she snapped.

“Eh?” said Fuchs, in all smiling innocence. “Down his garden you mean?”

“No, out. Out out! I think he’s gone off shooting for the day. With Buskerford’s son, at Mosser Bridge.”

Fuchs’s mouth dropped open as they do only in films. He battered his great fist on Madgie’s window sill and Geoffrey snarled and whimpered with great fear.

“You what!” he yelled.

Madgie jumped again and frowned at Fuchs disdainfully.

“He promised to go out with me today!” Fuchs protested, and there were mirages of tears in his eyes. “He promised me over the phone! All day today, the pair of us! I spent the whole of damn yesterday cleanin his rotten bloody gun.”

Madgie shrugged. “I don’t know nothing.”

Fuchs glared at her tautology, and pointed vaguely all about him. “Nobody here knows nowt…and it makes me bastard bloody sick.”

Madgie bridled and actually bared her teeth. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nowt,” mumbled Fuchs, with great haste. He instantly remembered, as did she, that nobody but Madgie would consent to see to his orphaned dogs during the week.

That was the Sunday morning when weary and nauseous, de Sausmarez was lying insomniac in his handsome handcarved double bed. He felt awful as a connoisseur of awful feelings might be able to claim, yes, I have felt awfuller than anyone else in the world. The rock star had neither come nor cancelled his coming. No call, no card, no whistle, no telepathy, not even an inkling. Worse than that, Edmund knew he would be spending all day today waiting for the miracle of the eminent guest arriving even for a snatched hour of his whistle stop weekend.

Mrs Buskerford passed away finally that Sunday, about an hour after Fuchs vanished off alone with his terriers. He’d spent the morning pacing up and down the sitting room of Number 3, singing a paean of hate to an imaginary Herbie Leacock. Sarah was sitting in her favourite chair and listening with a grimace to Radio One. Every hour her boys’ favourite band Leyton Occident would come on and the two of them leapt up and down singing the quaintly obscene words they only just understood, and telling her what a wonderful singer was Timmy Badaines. Meanwhile ‘Uncle Wilson’ muttered away to Herbie, took him by the throat, cast him away, apostrophised his ‘best friend’, grilled him on the meaning of the superlative, asked him how his cousin would have felt if Herbie’d stood him up as best man yesterday, and so on. Sarah left him to his therapeutic jabbering, but sporadically urged him to go off hunting on his own.

Wilson finally took her advice. He opened up his car boot and ordered the four Lakeland Terriers to get inside. They scampered in and sat on their haunches, panting like four little mannikins or dwarfs, Fuchs’s funny-looking bairns. Swiftly he shut the boot on their grinning jaws. He was going to drive up to Mosser Bridge and set them on Herbie’s fat throat, along with gobshite Dennis Buskerford’s. Then he flung down his keys, swore, picked them up, reopened the boot and ordered his blinking children to leap out. Forswearing murder, he took them over to the claypit and the fields where the wild mushrooms were still as plentiful as in dreams. The terriers raced on, darting hither and thither, up and down the pit sides and the hillocks, sniffing victoriously and crazily, cocking their tiny ears every few minutes, their eyes as ecstatic and vigorous as six-year-old Fuchs’s the day the Home Office had let his Dad out of Cumberland internment.

After about two hours. the terriers flushed a fox…

“Fuck me!” bawled Fuchs, with vainglorious joy. The fox clearly shuddered at his horrible roar. “After him!” he ordered his whiskery companions, his steadfast pals. “It’ll be yon feller gave us the dummy last time. After him Jessie, Maisie, gwon lassies! Come on Sam, you owd slowarse! Go on man, get wallopin after the owd beast.”

The fox tore off up the hillside and dye-ken-Wilson-Fuchs raced after it with bursting lungs. The terriers scampered on, yapping and squawking, first a hundred yards, then a quarter of a mile behind, and with Fuchs about a hundred yards after that. This was a far cry from the sport of saddleback toffs, it was foot hunting as men with their rifles have been doing for centuries, helping out desperate farmers who have lost their lambs. Fuchs of course was no conservationist, he simply exulted in the chase. Without fleet hounds the race was almost hopeless, but a stroke of luck might trap the vermin somehow. Fuchs loved his dogs but loathed all foxes! Why did he loathe them? Because they were vermin. Vermin being vermin, fit only for extinction!

The fox took the same route as before, up in the direction of secluded Spindrift Cottage. Where it was almost three o’ clock, and on his lawn de Sausmarez was having a late and solitary lunch. He was so bruised and despondent he was almost prepared to ring up Narasimha Devadasa and ask him if he fancied a different Lancastrian ashrama. The rock star of course would not arrive now, and yet if by a mad miracle he were to drive like the wind and then drive back to London likewise, they could still enjoy a tender half hour together. Clutching at such childish nonsense, so Edmund kept hoping like every trampled heart since the beginning of time…

Suddenly he heard a distant clamour, the sound of woofing dogs approaching up the slope. Then the hoarse unpleasant cry of a man shouting furiously behind. Had superstar Timmy got six Borzois nowadays, he wondered in impossible dread and excitement. Warily he got to his feet, afraid as well as annoyed. Before he could move further, he saw to his astonishment a little fox run in through his open gate! It paused less than an instant to examine Edmund de Sausmarez, then bolted up the slope of his sprawling grounds to vanish into the distant spinney.

“Thank God!” he said with a great relief, and a huge tension seemed to evaporate inside him at once. “Thank Christ for that at any rate.”

He raced down to swiftly bolt and secure his gate. His heart was singing at the thought of the coming confrontation, but no matter. Then the terrier dogs all came yapping up in a demented rage, viciously commanding Edmund to let them through, leaping and slavering horribly outside his gate.

De Sausmarez scowled at the uproar, turned, and walked back to his lunch. He’d gone about ten yards when he heard someone impudently shuffling with the bolt. Timmy? Could it possibly be him at this eleventh hour?

He turned and saw a panting giant of a man, an outsize beetroot-faced monster about to enter his private grounds.

“What in hell d’ you think you’re doing?” de Sausmarez bawled in the purest of Fuchsian tones.

Bawled? Rage? It was a real miracle, just like the sight of that vivid, beautiful small fox, just like a film star or a fantasy. De Sausmarez had yelled aloud in righteous anger for the first time in thirty-five years! Nor could he quite believe the strength of his lungs, and the remarkable feeling of having made the nearby trees shudder with this unwonted emotional power.

“Let me through,” puffed Fuchs in a righteous tone. “We need to get after yon fox. They go like the wind and if we traipse round the long way, we’ll be pushed to click the blasted get.”

To Edmund’s amazement, the purple lunatic began to fiddle with the bolt once again, his dogs in chorus urging him on.

“Get the bloody hell out of here!” he roared. What’s more, Leyton Occident had just come on the radio again, and as Edmund trembled and stood his ground, he felt no particular urge to race across and lament that fickle superstar.

“I’m wanting to come in,” Fuchs insisted with an earnest pedantry. Though he was in fact rather baffled. It was not often anyone ever snarled or bawled back at Wilson Fuchs.

“You shall not, my friend!” shouted Edmund, stamping down swiftly to his gate. “Touch that bolt and let those dogs in, and I’ll call the police immediately. Do you hear me? Do you? I’ll have you in court just like that. Now get away back down that hill, do you hear?”

Fuchs conceded to his yelling opponent to the extent of resorting to emphatic discussion. And so much for a day out, he was also brooding dismally, for salvaging what was left of it. Instead here he was preparing to argue the laws of trespass with this very odd-looking toff who wore a most unusual kind of attire.

“Is it against your precious principles?” he sneered at his usual volume. “You don’t believe in killing poor little baba Reynard?”

De Sausmarez folded his arms, stuck out his chest, and shouted back. “Listen to me Mr…”

“Fuchs,” said Fuchs.

“What?” said Edmund with a start.

“Fuchs,” Fuchs insisted. “What’s wrong with being called Fuchs? Especially if your Dad was a Dane.”

“But I thought Fuchs was German,” Edmund murmured cautiously, thinking this really must be a full-blown lunatic after all.

“My great-grandfather was German,” Wilson explained with great bitterness. “They interned me father during World War Two, just because he had a German surname. But believe you me he was a Dane. He was as Danish as Danish can be.”

“I…”

“But that up there is vermin,” continued Fuchs imploringly. “It’s fit for killing and that’s all, Mr…”

“De Sausmarez,” snapped Edmund.

“Diesel what?”

Edmund smilelessly informed him that his grandfather had once farmed in the Channel Isles. Whereupon Fuchs rather overdid the affable reciprocity, and said. “And you were laughing at me and my fancy handle!”

“Well,” Edmund said coolly. “It’s just that your name in German means fox. So, I thought you were making some kind of joke, or being sarcastic.”

“Yes,” Fuchs agreed blankly. “That’s what it does mean in German. But I wouldn’t change it. Even my bloody wife left me because of it, but still I wouldn’t change my name to Fox. It would have denied all my Dad suffered through a lot of tyrannical damn twats at the War Office!”

Then he leaned over the Spindrift gate, and said with emotion. “You know how foxes kill chickens, Mr De Summery? They rip off their heads, like bottle tops! Sometimes just for pleasure, not just for hunger. They’re cruel heartless beasts are foxes. They are! They kill little lambs as well and make a right bloody mess of them. They’re vermin, sadists, bloodlovers themselves! They put us all to shame with their cruelty. You ask any genuine countryman, and he’ll tell you.”

De Sausmarez stared at him without expression. “My opinions about bloodsports are quite beside the point, Mr Fuchs. This is my land and that’s an end of it.”

Fuchs, bitterly certain that the fox was sauntering through Moss Side by now, leant dolefully on the gate, and then bellowed at his dogs to shush. He turned to Edmund and observed that the odd gentleman looked very tired, pale and unbelievably sad. A particularly raucous song came on the wireless just then, and the look of fatigue and sadness on the very sensitive face seemed to concentrate in that squint, and look in danger of instant expression. Fuchs was particularly alarmed at that, and so he attempted to smooth matters over with tact.

“Forgive me,” he said with deadly gravity. “I’m sorry if I got you het up with these dogs of mine. It was the heat of the chase, that was all.”

Edmund looked at Fuchs and noted that the apology was a bit mournful, a trifle theatrical. Not for a second did he realise that this was the same man whose buttocks had been on display out there in the estuary last month.

Fuchs again became dismally aware of his companionless Sunday. Desperate now to avert complete despair, he struck up a warm conversational tone. “Do you like pop music, Mr de Summery, that tune blaring on over there?”

“I loathe it!” said de Sausmarez with vehemence. “And particularly that appalling stuff on now.”

“Good man,” swore Fuchs enthusiastically. “I recognise that bit of rubbish myself, funnily enough. William and Angus think it’s beautiful of course, but they’re just a couple of brainless bairns.”

“Beautiful?” murmured Edmund elegiacally himself. “Oh, he certainly was that.”

“I like Emmy Lou Harris and Wally Whyton,” Fuchs complacently boomed. “Or anything where you can enjoy the words and clap your mitts and scream a bit. Sarah says the words on that record are filth, but it’s just meaningless nonsense to me, nothing else.”

De Sausmarez stared at this garrulous, artless giant, and realised that at least three quarters of the world knows less than nothing about the love of a man for another. Fuchs whistling casually, then lied, “I’d better be scooting. I’m off out with my mate. I…”

Edmund observed him with a little less disgust now that he was offering to depart.

“I…” Fuchs vacillated.

“Yes?”

Fuchs burnt his boats and dived straight in. “How would you like to come out fishing in Daisy May?”

“What?”

“There’s plaice out there is clustering round the Mosser shit pipe, and the taste, man, is just out of this world!”

“You…”

“Now! Go on! Now would be ideal! Come on! Plaice are notorious bottom-grubbers, they like raw sewage better than owt. I know I can’t ask you out gunning, but surely you can bloody well fish! I mean hell, even bloody vicars fish!”

Edmund hesitated for just two seconds. His refusal when it came was very polite, a perfect gentleman’s in fact. A sensitive mannerly evasion which left Fuchs really touched and even more anxious to undo what distress he’d caused. Wilson Fuchs then made about ten different friendly offers, ranging from the immediate loan of his hedge trimmer, to a family meal this evening down at Number 3. Finally, he settled on a friendly drink they would have together in Mosser in the maddeningly nebulous future. Then, just as Edmund ran out of patience, Fuchs noticed Herbie Leacock’s car turning in down below into Estuary Row. And thought he might just be able to persuade him out into Daisy May tonight, if the weather did not break.

“My best friend,” Fuchs bawled as he tore off down the hill with his ecstatic little dogs. “Or at least the bugger thinks he is.”

(This uncollected and long-lost story first appeared in Spring 1993 in Panurge fiction magazine , when it was edited by David Almond, author of Skellig)

The next post will be on or before Saturday 4th July

THE TRUTH ABOUT FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

THE TRUTH ABOUT FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

Paradoxes abound with the controversial mega-selling ‘sado-masochistic romance’ Fifty Shades of Grey (2011) by EL James, the pen name of Englishwoman Erika Leonard born 1963. Everyone has read it, and yet no one that I know has read it, and I don’t know anyone who knows anyone who has read it, unless like me ( until last week) they have taken a quick flick through the 2012 Vintage paperback and decided life is too short to wade through its 500 plus pages. The statistics are truly remarkable. It started off in 2009 as a fanfiction website inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling vampire stories Twilight, and in 2011 was turned into an ebook by an Australian publisher called The Writer’s Coffee Shop. Word of mouth recommendation meant its sales rocketed exponentially, so that it was bought up by Vintage aka the Random House conglomerate in 2012. A year later it had grossed $95million and was the fastest selling paperback of all time. 50SG is the first of a trilogy that by 2015 had jointly sold 125 million copies (approximately twice the entire population of the UK) of which the first volume contributed 60 million. It has been translated into 52 languages, and market research shows the principal purchasers are married women over 30, hence its occasional unkind categorisation as Mommyporn.

I flicked through it myself 7 years ago, a year after it had hit the big time, when I saw a copy lying about in an art gallery in Berwick upon Tweed where I was staying with an artist friend. I noticed right away that the non-erotic portions of the narrative were full of bad things: cliched autopilot adjectives and adverbs; flat, redundant and painfully pointless ‘stage directions’ whereby the characters staggered from A to B; total absence of convincing characterisation, and a strong line in witless repetitive exclamations (Holy Shit, Holy Crap, Holy Hell!) by the 21-year-old American student narrator Anastasia (Ana) Steele. The author’s sexual descriptions were a good deal better and occasionally quite well written, especially the early ones that were not about ritualised sado-masochism (Ana as the submissive and 27 year old billionaire Christian Grey as the dominant) but about the more standard you might say old fashioned practices by blameless couples of mutual masturbation and oral sex. There were several important things I missed by that random flick through its pages, and only a thorough reading over the last few days has clarified what had always made me considerably uneasy about this bestseller. If you haven’t read the book carefully, you might reasonably assume that the best part of 60 million women all over the world from Coventry to Coimbra to Cancun are excited at the prospect of reading up on ritualised S and M sex ranging from mild spanking all the way to gagging, nipple and genital clamping, suspension by a rope from a metal bar, and all the rest of the grisly advanced bondage techniques. A cursory flick through the book soon indicates an itemised list of precisely such possibilities in the po-faced contract that Grey has drawn up by his lawyer for Ana, indicating what he expects of her as the dom and what she must obey as his chosen sub.  Moreover, about a third of the way through the book, Grey shows her his luxurious red-lit Room of Pain in his Seattle mansion replete with all the daunting apparatus. If at this point you shrug and toss the badly written book away, you might well believe that Ana ends up being suspended from a bar or has her unfortunate genitals clamped. It is with great relief I can assure you that after a careful reading, the bestseller, atrociously written as much of it is, reveals something of a likeably warm heart at its core. Apropos which, just as Christian Grey can deftly itemise when it suits him, for convenience sake so can I:

ITEM. Ana’s sex games with Christian never get further than him spanking her in various ways and positions, and there is certainly no clamping nor application of burnt wax nor of cutting with a knife (yuk). The most questionable thing he puts his naked sub through is to lay her on his sumptuous bed blindfolded, and then put state of the art earphones to her head, where she listens to the angelic Early Music of Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) and his famous choral masterpiece Spem in alium. As she lies prone in an ecstasy listening to the divine sound, your man Grey is stood upright busy at the front with his riding crop with which he whacks her gently from her breasts and nipples all the way down via the belly and navel to her genitals. All of which would have been readily sanctioned by the ancient Indian erotics writers Pandit Vatsyayana and Pandit Kokkoka in the Kama Sutra and Rati Rahasya (Secrets of Love) respectively, for they have whole chapters of advice to  men on the science of dealing mild blows to the sensitive parts of a woman, as an erotic adornment intended to arouse her blissful excitement. However, where they like me might have been baffled by Ana’s account of her exquisite Tallis trance, is when she says that Grey whacks her repeatedly on the clitoris as his piece de resistance. He does this until, pleasing to relate, she achieves a convulsive orgasm accompanied by her happily remarking to herself, Holy Crap! Now my knowledge of the clitoris, limited as it is, is that by and large excited or not, it stays within the vulva or if strongly aroused protrudes a finite amount from its nest, but surely no one, not even a golf expert, could clatter it head on with a riding crop, especially as, I forgot to tell you, Grey has her arms and ankles bound tightly with ties to increase her submissive pleasure

ITEM. There is only one hateful erotic procedure right at the end of the novel where Ana challenges Grey to show him the worst he has to offer, because crazy as she is about him and their lovemaking so far, she is seriously anxious about the limits of his perversion. Reluctantly and more or less saying you asked for it, he has her bend to receive a ritualised caning on her bare backside, 6 vicious strokes where she is commanded to shout out the number of each one. It is very painful and she is crying and wanting hm to stop, and once it is finished, she swears at him and declares that that is the end. Which indeed it is. The novel finishes with Ana leaving Grey and going home where, possibly to hint at the sequel, she sits grief-stricken bemoaning the fact that this pain in her heart is far worse than the beating she received.

ITEM. Up until this crisis Ana is not only enchanted by Grey but the billionaire is by her, and though he refuses to use the word ‘love’, or for that matter to let her even touch him with her hands, he continually reassures her both inside and outside the bedroom with tender words of praise

“You have the most beautiful skin, pale and flawless.”

And a page later, “Anastasia, you’re a very beautiful woman, the whole package. Don’t hang your head like you’re ashamed. You have nothing to be ashamed of, and it’s a real joy to stand here and gaze at you.”

He goes further than that, and tells her she is the cleverest, wittiest, most beautiful woman he has ever met. We will examine the questionable validity of these swooning assertions later, but the thing worth emphasising is that badly written S and M saga that it is, 50SG is also throughout intended as a a tender love story. In one erotic passage alone, we have the word ‘gentle’ used three times on a single page to describe the way he caresses his beautiful Ana. Which brings me to the most important conclusion when it comes to any understanding of the unparalleled universal success of this decidedly peculiar work. Namely:

ITEM. Those 60 million women readers conversing excitedly in 52 languages all over the globe, are not there panting for an ugly and loveless S and M porn epic to perk up their over 30s married lives. Instead they are following the progress of a tender love affair, which badly written as much of it is, has Ana continually voicing her anxieties about how far the man she loves will force her to do the hideous and the painful. And worse still, and as numerous frightening court cases about so called consensual rough sex sessions have shown, she is not being irrational nor unreasonably anxious when she foresees the possibility of what is dangerous, horrific, even lethal. As noted, when Grey’s practices get truly odious, she bravely gives back his costly gifts and walks out on him, agonising as that proves. So, and this is the crucial point I have never seen pointed out before, 50SG is so phenomenally and unbelievably successful, because, appallingly written as much of it is, it does what no one else but EL James has ever done. It takes a precarious but tender love story where the woman plays with exciting erotic fire that is so to speak ballasted and protected by an underlying tenderness. She meanwhile is continually anxious about the limits of their alliance, and they are regularly debating the small print of his comicaly pedantic S and M contract. Add to that the fact that the rough stuff of clamps and gagging never actually happens, and that Christian at almost every point concedes to Ana’s wishes (OK she can eat what she wants, exercise as much as she wants, wear what she wants rather than at the dom’s  tyrannical command). And most significant of all, Grey readily admits that the contract could never be enforced in a court of law, if only because of the embarrassment it would cause him. All of which indicates that whether the author is conscious of it or not, and I think there‘s a fair chance that she isn’t, the gothic and gory S and M stuff is a feint and a red herring on the part of EL James. Instead, she has written a wishful thinking love story where the cosmopolitan female reader can play vicariously with the danger of the rich and alluring male and his unknown limits, while the female protagonist, smitten as she is, exercises common sense, knows her own safe limits, and buggers off at the point where she senses danger and serious distress. I believe that had there only been the ritualised S and M, and no hint of tenderness (note also that Grey declares himself reassuringly monogamous on p156) this book would not have shifted millions of copies. Instead it would have fared as well as the dedicated female erotica with its special shelves in every Waterstone’s bookshop, all these works being about 100 pages long, all focused on the S and M and sundry other fetishes for all the 100 pages, and all selling a few thousand copies if they are lucky.

For the sake of cogence, I have put my conclusions at the start, and now I need to examine the book as it is written rather than what it intends by way of authorial effect. In a nutshell EL James is a virtuoso when it comes to incredibly bad writing, as she exhibits every variety of it, and I who have been teaching Creative Writing for over 30 years have rarely seen its daunting equal. The small stuff is evident in corny plot contrivance, for it starts with her flat mate fellow student and college newspaper editor Kate  (described on every page she appears in as ‘tenacious’) falling ill with flu so she needs Ana to go and interview Christian Grey, the IT billionaire who is giving out the degree certificates at their forthcoming college graduation ceremony. As well as being stinking rich Grey is unbelievably handsome and as the novel progresses narrator Ana tells us a hundred times that he has long cool fingers, and his white flannel trousers hang in a way that drives her completely wild. En route to interview him she sits in his Portland, Oregon offices (his main base being in Seattle) where she observes a variety of secretaries who are all described as ‘blond’, and where Cosmo adjectives like elegant, immaculate and impeccable batter down relentlessly on the page

‘Another elegant flawlessly dressed blond comes out of a large door to the right. What is it with all the immaculate blondes? It’s like Stepford in here…’

Note that EL James was in her late forties when she composed this for her 60 million readers, and her student protagonist Ana was probably born around 1990 hence turned 21 in 2011. I don’t think the author is writing at a measured ironic distance from her youthful creation, so it is fair to say that even a rudimentary feminism has hurriedly passed both of them by. Meanwhile, describing her flu-afflicted room-mate Kate, Ana ups the prose register to say she is ‘gamine and gorgeous…and green eyes bright, although now red-rimmed and runny…’  which highlights James’s incontinent fondness for unmusical alliteration and also that she likes to show off with the occasional fancy word or phrase. Christian for example teasingly refers to his capacity to make Ana ‘concupiscent’, usually an Old Testament word meaning ‘lustful’. The point is that when it comes to character consistency he keeps telling her she is very intelligent and in support of this she boasts that:

‘To be honest I prefer my own company, reading a classic British novel, curled up in a chair in the campus library.’

Oh really? Not much later she also tells us that after interviewing Grey she did what she does most nights, sits down with Kate and the nice photographer guy Jose (who with two-dimensional characterisation is said to be hopelessly infatuated with Ana) and together they all happily watch ‘crap TV’. That’s called going to sleep on your job as a writer, EL James, even if the classic novel Tess of The d’ Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy suits your symbolic purposes when it comes to analysing Ana’s obsession with Grey. Ana’s diagnosis is that pathologically controlling moneybags Grey, is a kind of Jekyll and Hyde character where his evil manipulative side is like Alec d’Urberville, who you will recall raped a sleeping Tess and exploited her at every turn. But Ana says Grey can also be the endearingly angelic Angel Clare of the same novel. Unfortunately, this doesn’t square with any kind of reality, literary or otherwise, as Angel despite his attractive name spinelessly judged and ditched his abused fiancee Tess, and made her fate even worse.

But back to 50SG and contrivance. James makes Ana the chronically clumsy type, so that entering Christian’s office for the interview she goes hurtling head first to the floor. Grey is solicitous but obscurely annoyed with her, and ditto later when chaperoning her outside, a cyclist coming the other way almost flattens her. This bit by bit establishing her clumsiness, and Grey’s rather paternal disapproval, leads on to the next stage of his controlling interest where he guardian-wise rescues her after she has been on a drinking spree. Confused by her meeting with the Man God as she sees Grey, and already feeling magnetically drawn to him, she gets rotten drunk in the company of Jose whereupon already jealous Grey tracks her down thanks to the phone tracking prowess of his world leading IT firm. By that stage, she is vomiting disgracefully, and Grey manages to take her back to his private suite in Portland’s best hotel, where he cleans her up, undresses her and puts her to bed. This final transgression on her part, paves the way for what is to come as the next day Grey remarks of all that boozing and puking:

“Well if you were mine, you wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week after the stunt you pulled yesterday.’

Later, after her first ritualised spanking by Grey, and where she literally can’t sit down and lies to Kate that she had fallen hard on her behind, she recalls this prophetic admonition. But for the moment there is no comment on his unexpected and provocative remark. And in fact, believe it or not, there is no hint of anything explicitly sexual in Fifty Shades of Grey until as late as page 78. Even offering the bestselling combination of a tender love story ballasting a tale of sleazy ritualised flagellation, it was surely a bit risky on EL James’s part to delay for so long any shall we say concupiscence in us the drooling readers? By contrast, in the old days, back in the 1960s, young hormonal teenagers like me would buy Grace Metalious’s salacious sagas of smouldering passion in New England in the shape of Peyton Place (televised with a young Mia Farrow as Alison Mackenzie) and the even steamier The Tight White Collar...and would race straight to the juicy bits which would normally be smoking away on p10 at the very latest.

Ana’s growing addiction to Christian Grey is depicted in standard hyperbolic chicklit fashion, as he takes her from Portland to Seattle for their first assignation in his private helicopter which he pilots himself. Ditto he makes her swoon by taking her gliding one day with an affable English pilot chappie pulling the glider (parenthetically, I’ve no idea why James who is half Scottish and half Chilean and grew up in the UK, decides to make her heroes jet-set American). Full of fatherly if tyrannical concern, Grey thinks her ancient VW Beetle is dangerous, so without asking buys her a gorgeous and expensive Audi. He even sends first editions of Hardy novels to her house that are worth $14,000 each. and she makes mechanical and unconvincing protestations at both those and the Audi. His brash largesse is offset by his deeply cultured and sensitive side, depicted hamfistedly by James as Grey being a virtuoso amateur pianist who favours the bittersweet melancholy of Chopin and the like. However James blows it with his 30s Hollywood B movie dialogue, and as you look around for the tuxedos and cigarette holders, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Of listening to recorded music:

“My taste is eclectic Anastasia, everything from Thomas Tallis to the Kings of Leon. It depends on my mood…”

Then apropos Tallis, who you will recall accompanied Grey’s swatting with a riding crop of Ana’s clitoris: “Sounds very esoteric, I know, but it’s also magical.”

They would blush to say that even on Classic FM. The billionaire’s sensitivity is fleshed out so to speak by James giving him a tragic biography. He reveals to Ana that he is adopted and his real mother was a crack whore as he puts it. His adopted mother is the wonderful Grace, a rich and amiable doctor, but sadly she had a friend called Elena who secretly inflicted S and M sexual abuse on Christian Grey when he was 15 years old. That supposedly explains Grey’s addiction to S and M himself, but EL James enters the world of deranged and laughable fairytale, when she has Grey airily declaring that he and Elena as two successful professionals are great friends these days, and all that abuse stuff is well in the past, forgiven and forgotten. For your information EL, there really is no such thing as a sexually abused person putting it all behind them a decade later, and having great confidential natters with their abuser on an adult level, and happily forgetting all about the obligatory masturbation and sadistic beatings of yore. Again it is all corny plot contrivance by a careless and inept writer, but it is also infinitely pathetic to do so little authorial research and plonk this kind of saccharine drivel on the page.

Nonetheless, it is consistent with Ana’s own wishfully thought biography where a scatty but lovable mother married umpteen times and now living in Georgia, shows herself tender and concerned about her little student baby up in Oregon. One of her ex- husbands Ray, not Ana’s father, makes a wonderful substitute Dad for Anastasia, and their relationship is painted as all-purpose winsome perfection even down to their goodbyes, which are of the Walton family just before the credit screens variety,

“Love you, Ray.”

“I love you too, sweetheart darling!”

So that’s alright then. But all of which pales beside some of the certifiable madnesses in this novel as portrayed in the orchestration of Ana’s inner life. There is a full-on biological side which is to say whenever Ana is in a state of excitement at meeting Grey, whether at the start before the interview, or when commencing a new erotic adventure, we are treated to a full account of her adrenalin excitement. Just like an anxiety attack, she has a pounding and exploding heart, her pulse races and to adopt a fitting 50SG simile, she blushes as red as a spanked backside. The problem is she often suffers this 3 or4 times per page, which points up another obvious problem with this book, that although it is 500 pages long, it could easily have been reduced to 120, without losing anything but the padding quotient. Another example of which is even crazier and relates to the author’s curious understanding of psychotherapy and psychology. Interchangeably, she uses the terms ‘Subconscious’ (Freud), ‘Inner Goddess’ (as in I-Spy-CG Jung) and the Medulla Oblongata of the Behaviourists, meaning EL James’s understanding that the subconscious is buried somewhere anatomically in that place with the posh Latin name. The goddess and the subconscious also appear umpteen times per page, especially when Ana is torn in two directions as she confronts the paralysing turmoil of loving Grey. ELJ the author has the quaint idea that the subconscious is always the genuine motive as opposed to the surface motive, so that if for example she feels horny lust in Grey’s presence, but strategically pretends otherwise, then we are likely to observe the subconscious/goddess/m. oblongata literally poking its tongue out at hypocritical Ana, which is to say we are treated to vaudeville anthropomorphism gone berserk.

‘For a moment I’m stunned thinking it’s an endearment, but fortunately my subconscious kicks in with pursed lips…’

A subconscious that kicks and has lips? You’ll be pleased to know that later both it and the inner goddess and the oblongata do hilarious backflips (the American for reverse somersaults) and they also laugh hysterically at hapless Anastasia. Meanwhile, the polar opposite of this EL Jamesian psychotherapeutic model, is Ana’s proneness to express her visceral excitement as terse inner exclamations, when she is amazed or astounded. She does this in an invariably blasphemous manner, in the form of Holy Shit! Holy Crap! and Holy Hell! I use the word blasphemous very carefully, because something else that I note is the notional significance of the names of our two amorous heroes. Christian speaks for itself, but what about the name Anastasia? It is in fact the female version of the Greek word ‘anastasis’ which is both a common male Christian name in modern Greece, and which also means ‘Resurrection’. And thus it is that we have Christian and Resurrection, no less, as our two dashing albeit frequently troubled heroes. Though to echo what I wrote earlier, I seriously doubt whether any of this allegorical symbolism has ever entered the author’s head at any point.

Finally, the overall quality of EL James’s prose when not describing sexual matters is shall we say of the strictly pre-processed kind. Ana being the narrator doesn’t have to describe herself, but she uses a limited and repetitive arsenal of colourless adjectives and adverbs to paint a picture of Christian. She loves the word ‘impassive’ and uses it at every opportunity, to describe the great man’s facial expression. The trouble is that the billionaire’s chauffeur is also said to be impassive, and once even Ana describes herself as impassive. At which point you are seriously tempted to leap into the narrative, and shout loudly let’s have an impassivity party! Elsewhere you get rent-a-cliché adverbs like ‘purposefully’, ‘speculatively’, ‘tentatively’ which a good writer will use carefully and sparingly while a duff one like James will gleefully slap on the page as if it were pizza dough. Christian is not only monotonously described as impassive, but we are told a hundred times that his gaze is smouldering and intense (a wee contradiction perhaps?).  She also tells us umpteen times that he has ’hooded eyes’ as a clue that he might just be on the predatorial side.  As for rent-yet-another-splendid-adverb, we have ‘sighed inwardly’ (as opposed to ‘sighed outwardly’) ‘shaken visibly’ and ‘shivered involuntarily’ (tell me, when was the last time you saw a voluntary shiver, dear reader?)

I could go on at length about EL James’s use of dialogue verbs which are regularly drawn straight from the lexicon of the Victorian penny dreadfuls and their derring-do escapades. Suffice to say that everyone in this novel at some stage ‘mutters’ and especially Christian Grey who is impassive and yet who paradoxically smoulders.

The next post will be on or before Wednesday 17th June

SAUCY PLACE NAMES

SAUCY PLACE NAMES

I have just moved into a geographical area where topographically speaking everything is thongs and bottoms, almost as if I had suddenly strayed into the salacious subconscious of Dubliner Leopold Bloom, hero of the 1922 Ulysses by James Joyce (1882-1941).You will recall that one of Bloom’s favourite pastimes was the furtive and perspiring study of lingerie catalogues, but here in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire (population 8000) you only have to look at an OS map to discern Upper Thong (1200 souls), Nether Thong  (population unknown) and less suggestively Thongsbridge  (another 1200 folk). Not far off is Lower Hagg, which seeing we are talking of the subconscious, chimes with the word ‘hag’, a pejorative term for a supposedly ugly aka sexually unappetising woman of whatever age, though usually old. In actual fact ‘hagg’ is an Old Norse word meaning ‘forest clearing’ and you get it in DH Lawrence novels and along the northern side of the Anglo-Scottish border in the form of woodland farms called Harelaw Hagg etc.

Nether Thong also has the added association of ‘nethers’, a polite and antiquated euphemism for the genitals and the backside. Which brings us conveniently to bottoms, and my new house is at Norridge Bottom, Holmfirth. A mile up the road towards Holmbridge there are also the remnants of still-functioning textile giant Bottoms Mill with its impressively phallic chimney, and which now houses several small businesses. Meanwhile the Holmfirth Coop car park is cheerfully called Crown Bottom, and even better as if a team of Carry On films scriptwriters had been busy there, there is a lone 2-armed sign next to Sainsbury’s, one prong saying Crown Bottom and the other one urging…Toilets…  

Now and again you find certain cineastes and even lofty professors praising the Carry On movies that starred Sid James, Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Williams, and which milked suggestive sexual and lavatorial doubles entendres for all they were worth. That maverick and fitful genius of a UK director Ken Russell (1927-2011) got it right however when he economically declared that they were ‘rubbish’, if only because they only ever harp on one note, viz. the nudge nudge one, and let’s face it none of them are in the same insinuating and sectionable lunatic league as that Monty Python virtuoso Eric Idle (born 1943).

What is genuinely fascinating about places with embarrassing names, is that their citizens on the whole adaptively cut off from the punning sometimes lewd associations, and phonetically and semantically simply accept the name as an innocent given. My far-flung friends all laugh at my Norridge Bottom address, but the Holmfirthers who have lived here all their lives, take it amnesically for granted and have to struggle to comprehend the bawdy echo of those hamlet names, the Upper and Lower Thongs and the decidedly subterranean Lower Hagg. Given that I am a writer, and as a rule highly sensitive to words, this non-recognition or selective amnesia is even more dramatic in my own peculiar case. Let me explain. I grew up in West Cumbria and lived 8 miles from the Lake District fringe town of Cockermouth (population 9000) famous for Wordsworth and his daffodils. People don’t believe me but I swear I that was all of 25 in 1975, before I realised the bawdy homophony of the innocent market town’s name, which is of course phonetically a corruption of fellatio. I only discovered it because a friend had been to a Workington club to see the black comedian and ex professional footballer Charlie Williams (1927-2006) and Charlie had begun his warm up by saying what kind of filthy name is that, this town near here you call Cockermouth? The polar opposite of my slowcoach recognition, can currently be seen in a highly educated Londoner friend of mine turned Cumbrian, who lives an hour’s drive from picturesque Wordsworthville, which she invariably and impishly refers to as Nob In Gob. Hearteningly though I realise I am not the only cognitive blockhead, as the annual Cockermouth Rock Festival which began in 2007, has from the word go, dubbed itself guess what? Yes, that’s right CockRock. Understand that the organisers are no doubt family folk with little kids and no way are they striving to shock or offend either the peaceable locals or the world at large. Just  like myself and Daffodiltown, aka Fellatio on the Hill, they simply haven’t noticed the glaring implications of the 2 elements, which subliminally suggest both a male erection made out of pre-stressed concrete, and a harking back to good old heavy rock music where the unashamed erotic vigour was exemplified in the forthright albeit punning hence unactionable lyrics of such as Led Zeppelin.

Squeeze my lemon

Till the juice runs down my leg…

Aw aw aw aw

Some people have it very hard though (oops), don’t they? I’m more than glad that I don’t live in Wyre Piddle, Worcs, UK (population 500) nor in Piddle Trenthide, Dorset (also 500…could it be that all the Piddles weigh in at half a thousand?) as I believe my imagination and my very Istigkeit would be somehow impalpably scented with urine if I did. Even gladder am I, that I don’t live in Scunthorpe, Lincs, UK. I have never visited the town, but it is said to be a grim kind of place, and an object of unkind derision. But believe me yet again that it was only about a month ago, when I was 69 and a half, that I realised because someone pointed it out to me, that it is the only British place name that contains four letters which Scrabble-wise might have you banned from competition if you used them at e.g. a hilarious church fete. I have several women friends who really hate that four letter word, for as well as in raw and abrasive Anglo Saxon terms denoting the female genitals, it is used very often as a venomous term of abuse, and before you argue the case, the male equivalent of ‘prick’ has nothing like its popularity nor its vicious anger quotient…

Postscript. While I was googling to find the elusive population of one of the Thongs, Wikipedia kindly observed that people like me tend also to be looking for the nearby town of Penistone (population, 23,000) which lies between Holmfirth and Barnsley. You’ll never guess of course how uproarious inroaders as opposed to stoic locals have renamed the unfortunate place?

Could there really, I ask myself, be somewhere in this always surprising world, possibly in the redneck Midwest of the USA, that is happy nay extremely proud to call itself Penistown?

The next post will be on or before Sunday 14th June

FLATTERY FOR EXPERTS

FLATTERY FOR EXPERTS

Back in 1965 my mid 30s English teacher, a Mr Hincks, bald, besuited, of an incandescent temper, and with a bright orange face which I assumed was down to a powerful sun ray lamp, one day went ecstatic over one of my compositions. At the age of 14, I had used the decorous words ‘cajolery’ and ‘adulation’ and he gave me a starred ‘excellent’. I didn’t tell him that my pert vocabulary was strictly a function of my still devouring Just William children’s books by Richmal Crompton (1890-1969). Crompton was an unsuccessful adult novelist whose frustrated virtuosity was manifest in her bestselling Williams, where words like ‘lionise’, ‘susceptible’, ‘escutcheon’ and august Latin phrases like ‘meum and tuum’ and ‘mutatis mutandis’ were commoner than muck.

At the other end of the scale we have the solemn suavity of the Facebook apparatus and its tender blandishments…

‘We care about you John, and below we have preserved some of your photographic memories of a year ago…’

I don’t mind them preserving my memories, but somehow my bones inform me that they don’t in any full and substantive sense really care about me, John Murray, as they have millions of other customers to care about, and no one apart from God can do that amount of caring. A few basic questions are appropriate at this point. Who is ‘we’ and how many of them are there? The whole of the FB staff worldwide or just Chuck and Prunella working remotely from Des Moines? Why on earth would Chuck with his monstrous mortgage and his suddenly unfaithful girlfriend care about me? How tall is he? What is his favourite breakfast cereal, and does he get on with his Dad aged 69 and a half? What are Prunella’s favourite quiz shows, and does she know the capitals of Gabon and Tajikistan? But why hammer FB, I ask myself,  as they are only part of a worldwide marketing ploy of cheerily assuring every potential customer out there, that they are not only something special, but are of depthless untapped potential, and could without effort be Lord or Lady of all Four Quarters of the Universe by next Tuesday, if only they chose the right bank, insurance company, or for that matter the ideal chocolate biscuit to go with their ideal cup of coffee.

You know the score, as you see their oleaginous slogans, or at any rate used to see them, emblazoned on massive posters as you returned through the corridors of your UK airport from a foreign country.

Because you are unique

Because you demand the best

Because who knows what you might achieve tomorrow…

Oh really? Uniquely the same as kindred millions, in most cases. Favourite telly programmes The Graham Norton Show, Strictly Come Dancing, and Celebrity Bake Off. Ditto, demanding what everyone else demands, such as a 200 inch smart screen telly, where you can bet on a horse and watch Celebrity Bake Off while switching to your mobile every 10 seconds to see if that unreliable probably lying bastard has texted you yet, as he swore on his life when drunk on Chilean Malbec last night that he would… As for tomorrow’s achievers, you know as well as I do that most of us aren’t true pukka achievers, like say Genghiz Khan or Jane Austen who were what I would call real achievers. Most of us are flicking backwards and forwards with our phones while watching Celebrity Bake Off, and our likeliest achievement will be Apple-caused microtendonitis for which there is no legal redress, not even if we were the greatest achievers since HG Wells or Marie Stopes or Clara Schumann, none of whom you will note ever owned a mobile phone.

But finally, to the true achievers, which is to say the marketing team that push respectively Rocky Chocolate Biscuits, and then joy of my infancy, a fellow biscuit of hoary antiquity, a competitive cousin in the addictive snack line, that confectionery masterclass masterpiece known as, Wagon Wheels

I nearly wrote ‘legendary’ when it came to WW, which would have been profoundly anticlimactic as the Wagon Wheels marketing team got there first. On one side of the 6 pack we read ‘a legendary experience of biscuit, mallow and a chocolate favoured coating’. Fair enough, no complaints, as I was a paid up super-fan at my West Cumbrian infants’ school, not least because in the old days they were at least as big as my head, and any infant with any mettle (any kind of future achiever shall we say) would immediately wish to devour something as colossal as that. But then, turn over the 2020 six pack and you are met with a baffling riddle, for there it told me something that took me a good 10 minutes to translate.

Clue, think of legends again. It said:

EPIC INSIDE

I tore open the packet, hoping I’d find a miniature copy of either the Aeneid, the Mahabharata, the Mabinogion, or the Kalevala. I didn’t, of course. But what on earth did that cryptic slogan mean, assuming it wasn’t just random marketing gibberish.

Clue:  think of legends again, and then think of the relevant adjective…

That’s right. Legendary/epic inside contents. Legendary/epic biscuit. Legendary/epic mallow. Legendary/epic chocolate flavoured coating…

But let’s leave the last word to the Rocky Chocolate Biscuit 6 pack, which needs little parsing or explication, or exegesis (thank you for all those lovely, I’d say extremely sexually attractive words, Richmal Crompton, and remember that you’re not the only frustrated writer, believe you me)…

FUEL YOUR NEXT BIG ADVENTURE, TRY ROCKY CARAMEL!

Our bulging pockets replete with rocket fuel 6 packs of Rocky Caramels, should you and I, my friend, head for the moon, for Mount Everest, for Gabon, or Tajikistan, or as front row guests at the studio recording of Celebrity Bake Off?  Over and out to you…

The next post will be on or before Sunday 7th June

PRELUDE TO THE PANDEMIC (and see the startling Postscript at the end)

PRELUDE TO THE PANDEMIC (and see the startling POSTSCRIPT at the end)

‘Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others, they forgot to be modest – that was all – and thought everything was still possible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules over any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views? They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences’

The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus

In this remarkable novel, the 1957 Nobel winner Camus (1913-1960) is describing not a pandemic but an epidemic, that of a terrifying bubonic plague with a later addition of the even more lethal pneumonic variety  The story is set in the French colonial port of Oran, Algeria in 194- when there was in fact no severe pestilence, but was inspired by the real cholera epidemic of 1899 when the city population was decimated, as it is here. Real and severe bubonic plagues happened in Oran in 1556 and 1678 but subsequent outbreaks in 1921, 1931 and 1944 had only a handful of deaths in comparison. Pandemics as we know close down the entire world, for the whole of the globe is affected, and indeed it is one of those rare examples of democratic justice, inasmuch as two of the world’s most powerful countries, the USA and the UK, are no better, in fact currently far worse, at defending themselves, than relatively ill-resourced powers like Greece, Slovakia and Albania (which at present has just 31 virus deaths to the UK’s 32,000. See Postscript at the end of this essay). By contrast an epidemic affects a limited area, and in this case the city of Oran with its population of 200,000 after initial delay goes into lockdown, with no one and nothing going in or out once the plague is recognised as such.

That of course is the problem. The plague first shows its face in the shape of thousands of rats appearing everywhere in the city, all of them haemorrhaging from their eyes and noses and dying in great pain, a sight so upsetting that more than a few citizens are moved to put them out of their agony. One curious result of this is that all the stray cats disappear, as if sensing what is coming. The city council does exactly the wrong thing at this stage, and appoints collectors to go round picking up all the corpses, for the fact is the transmission of the plague is not via the rats themselves but by the epic quantities of fleas on their bodies. Our central character who reveals himself as the narrator at the end of the novel, is the doctor Bernard Rieux, a dour and sober Frenchman of mid 30s whose wife is in a sanatorium outside the city recovering from an unrelated illness. Shortly after the rats appear, he comes across the old concierge Michel in a state of collapse, and being helped along by the austere and fiery priest Father Paneloux. On examination, he finds the buboes or lumps in the old man’s groin and armpits, which need to be lanced to allow any chance of recovery. They release much blood and pus and as well as the great pain and the ambient stench, the patient also has a raging thirst. To state the obvious, dying of the Covid 19 virus is predictably a painful and distressing business, but thankfully is nowhere in the horror movie league of bubonic plague.

As with Messrs Trump and Johnson, the response by those in power to the encroaching nightmare is one of denial, prevarication and when all else fails, a bland if appalling mendacity. After what he has observed, Rieux persuades the authorities to convene a ‘health committee’ at the Oran Prefect’s office. Present is the Chair of the local Medical Association. a Dr Richard, who like the Prefect has no wish to panic the people of Oran and who hopes the problem will quietly go away. But also on the committee is the elderly Dr Castel who believes in speaking his mind.

‘The question,’ old Castel cut in almost rudely, ‘is to know whether it’s plague or not.’

Two or three of the doctors present protested. The others seemed to hesitate. The Prefect gave a start and hurriedly glanced towards the door to make sure it had prevented this outrageous remark from being overheard in the passage. Richard said that in his opinion the great thing was not to take an alarmist view. All that could be said at present was that they had to deal with a special type of fever, with inguinal complications; in medical science, as in daily life, it was unwise to jump to conclusions’

Castel replies that he knows quite well it is the plague, and if this were to be officially admitted then very drastic steps would need to be taken. Hence his colleagues’ reluctance to face the facts. But if it would ease their minds, he is quite prepared to say it wasn’t the plague. Richard blanches and advises a wait-and-see policy, meaning they wait for the statistical report on the various analyses of the bacillus in question. At which point, I am not spoiling the story to say that Dr Richard, as fictional precursor to non-fictional Boris Johnson, eventually catches the disease himself, though in his case does not survive it. It is after this unsatisfactory exchange, that the understated Dr Rieux pierces the fog with his cogent not to say commonsensical appreciation of glaring realities.

‘When a microbe,’ Rieux said, ‘after a short intermission can quadruple in three days’ time the volume of the spleen, can swell the mesenteric glands to the size of an orange and give them the consistence of gruel, a policy of wait-and-see  is to say the least of it, unwise…Judging by the rapidity with which the disease is spreading, it may well, unless we can stop it, kill off half the town before two months are out…’

With the US leading the world in Corona virus deaths, and the UK ditto in Europe, it is a case of so far so recognisable. But it is instructive not to say startling, to see how they organised their shutdowns 75 years ago, a baffling mixture of the severe and the reckless. No one was allowed to leave or enter Oran, as it was guarded by sentries, while those afflicted by the plague were quarantined in the hospital if they were women or children, and in a sports ground in tents if they were men. The rest carried on with their jobs, but the current ‘social distancing’ was entirely absent, as city cafes and restaurants stayed open, as did cinemas, and even the opera house. All of which distractions were of course full to the gills. In typical Camus absurdist fashion, with nothing leaving nor entering the city, the cinema only had one film to screen, which was shown every night to a capacity audience. Meanwhile at the opera house, the touring ensemble which could not leave the city, put on an extended performance of Gluck’s Orfeo. But then one night what started off as an aria, ended up with the singer screaming an eerie and unscheduled falsetto, as he collapsed on the stage with the plague.

On the other hand, stray animals and contact with dubious objects were believed to be hazardous, so street dogs and cats were shot on sight, and the Post Office was closed to letters. The only way to communicate with your loved ones if they were outside the city, was to send telegrams, as phone boxes encouraged long queues, disputes and social unrest. Telegrams being expensive tended to be 10 words long, meaning prone to becoming formulaic and repetitive. All this Camus orchestrates within the context of an ambient urban banality, as well as the baroque eccentricity of many of the French expat characters. Here for example is Oran in pre-epidemic times…

‘The town itself, let us admit, is ugly. It has a smug, placid air…how conjure up a picture for instance of a town without pigeons, without any trees or gardens, where you never hear the beat of wings…a thoroughly negative place in short?’

As for Rieux’s colonial pied noirs neighbours, there is the old man who used to drop down scraps of paper to the stray cats below, solely for the purpose of spitting on them and cheering his own marksmanship. Now alas he has no diversion. Even odder is the gent who retired from his hated job as soon as he could, and finding the outside world too demanding, took to his bed. Like something out of Samuel Beckett, he exists outside of time, and has no clock nor calendar nor radio. Instead, he spends his time transferring dried peas from one plate to another, then back again with equal pleasure. He calculates once he has done this a certain number of times it is time to cook the peas, and as they are the only thing he consumes, he has reduced life to the ideal dimensions. Far more human is 50-year-old Grand, a kindly if lonely municipal clerk and friend of Rieux, whose wife Jeanne left him long ago for someone more exciting. He has never got over his love for her, but finds consolation in writing a romantic novel in his spare time. And although Grand has been working on it for many years, he has never got further than the first sentence.

‘One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne’

As the plague reaches its terrible peak, Grand manifests many of the feverish symptoms, and Rieux is convinced he will soon die of it. Worryingly, as prelude to his illness, the clerk is manically writing and rewriting that sentence with tiny variations, as if his very existence depended on it. But against all odds, Grand miraculously recovers, and joins forces with the Sanitary League, a voluntary body organised by the mysterious Tarrou. It was Tarrou who arrived long ago in Oran out of nowhere, and has written copious diaries about the city’s characters and its subtle nature, which are presented by the narrator as part of the novel. Rieux, busy as he is, joins the League, which goes around offering selfless arguably saintly paramedic help to those stricken with the plague. So also does Father Paneloux, who believes the pestilence is God’s will in action, not so much as punishment for the evil of the Oran citizens, but for some inscrutably divine purpose which it is the duty of all true believers to accept rather than struggle against. At one point the little son of the magistrate M.Othon goes down with the plague, and Paneloux and Rieux are ministering to the child when he is in his harrowing death throes.

‘In the small face, rigid as a mask of greyish clay, slowly the lips parted and from them rose a long, incessant scream, hardly varying with his respiration, and filling the ward with a fierce, indignant protest, so little childish that it seemed like a collective voice issuing from all the sufferers there…’

It is those excruciating agonies manifest in a small child, that the priest subsequently tries to justify in one of his well attended public sermons. The essence of which, he first utters by the little boy’s death bed.

‘I understand,’ Paneloux said in a low voice. ‘That sort of thing is revolting because it passes our human understanding. But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand.’

Rieux straightened up slowly. ‘No Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.’

Yearning for one’s loved ones is a repetitive motif in this novel, and that yearning is of course amplified by the bizarre dynamics of the lockdown. Camus the existentialist  is inevitably an expert at dissecting the distortions and delusions that can take a hold in this context.

‘To come at last…to the case of parted lovers – their minds were the prey of different emotions, notably remorse. For their present position enabled them to take stock of their feelings with a sort of feverish objectivity. And in these conditions, it was rare for them not to detect their own shortcomings…the trouble they experienced in summoning up any clear picture of what the absent one was doing. They came to deplore their ignorance of the way in which that person used to spend his or her days, and reproached themselves for having troubled too little about this in the past.’

Meanwhile Rieux suspects that his sick wife in the sanatorium is sending reassuring rather than honest telegrams, and sure enough once the plague ceases, he learns that she has died. While Grand still pines for his beloved Jeanne who deserted him, there is the young Paris journalist Rambert who had been sent over to write about the living conditions in the Arab quarter, whereupon the plague had intervened and parted him from the woman he loved. She is back there in Paris and he tells Rieux he is going mad with the pain of separation. He wants impossible things such as Rieux to write him a certificate of health, which he fondly thinks will get him past the barely literate sentries. At length, he decides to pay 10,000 francs to be smuggled out by corrupt guards, and even goes and lives in one of their houses in preparation. At the last minute though he has a change of heart, and decides he needs to join Rieux and Tarrou and the rest in the Sanitary League. For he has got close to many of the people in the city, especially the young sentries he lodges with, and much as he loves his girlfriend he knows it is his simple and human duty to help out these people he cares for in their tragic situation.

The disturbing opposite of Rambert, is an odd little commercial traveller called Cottard who lodges in the same house as Grand, and who the clerk manages to save from hanging himself one evening. Rieux has to tend to the failed suicide, and it soon becomes obvious Cottard is up to his eyes in black market fraud, both before and during the epidemic. He senses that the police are after him, and he is sufficiently panic stricken to attempt felo de se as he puts it, but the choicest irony is that when the plague is acknowledged and the lockdown commences, Cottard suddenly becomes outrageously happy, The reason is that everyone around him is terrified  of either themselves or their loved ones dying a hideous death, so that they are all in the same immobilised state as he was before the plague. With this epidemic, the police have better things to do than worry about Cottard, so as far as he is concerned, may the bubonic plague go on for evermore. To celebrate the fact, he is often out at night getting drunk in the best bars, where he is raucously the life and soul of the party. However Nemesis is there once the plague is declared to be over, for the police come to get him and a shootout ensues where crazed Cottard shoots dead an innocent dog, and once captured is beaten senseless by the enraged gendarmes.

The sole unsatisfactory thing about this seminal novel, and it is substantial, is that other than Rambert’s journalistic assignment, there is no mention whatever of the majority Arab population of Oran, plague-stricken or otherwise, and not a single character with an Arab name appears among the Rieuxs, Othons, Tarrous and Grands and Cottards. Camus himself grew up in Algeria and even at one point played for the Algiers football team. His best-known novel The Outsider (1942) you will recall, is an Existentialist classic about a Frenchman Meursault who for no good reason shoots dead an unnamed Arab on an Algerian beach. This has prompted at least one young post-colonial Algerian Kamel Daoud (born 1970) to write a novel called The Meursault Investigation (2013) which is a retelling of The Outsider but where the narrator is the dead Arab’s brother and where the dead brother is this time given the courtesy of a name

POSTSCRIPT re COVID 19 FATALITIES as of May 2020, in ALBANIA and UK respectively

Current population of Albania approximately 2.8 million

Of UK, approximately 67 million

Current Corona Virus deaths in Albania, 31

In UK, approximately 32,000

If the UK was as proportionately effective at stemming the Covid deaths as Albania, there should be now about 750 UK deaths 

Instead of which, there are over 40 times that number

Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe

But before you ask, Albanian life expectancy is 78.33

Meaning Albania might well be a poor country, but it is not a sick country

The next post will be on or before Friday May 29th

CONFIDENTIALITY

CONFIDENTIALITY

On small islands people behave very differently from those on the mainland, and that constitutes much of their unique charisma. One holidays there or one relocates there as I did to Kythnos, Greece for a full 6 years, because it is the opposite of what one is used to, and most of us at some stage in life would like to break out of our lifelong patterns, especially the boring ones. Of course, the flipside of small community friendliness, is that everyone knows everyone’s business, and the craziest gossip and hearsay can escalate exponentially. I for example, the only foreigner living full time in Kythnos, was believed by at least one credulous taverna owner to be an eccentric millionaire, and a year after I moved there another virtuoso busybody actually claimed she had spotted me engaged in you know what with an attractive café waitress upstairs in the latter’s house. Back in 2014 and 5 years widowed I would have been very glad to have been noted in that precise flagrante delicto, for she was a very beautiful waitress, but as I had no idea where her house was, nor for that matter did she ever visit mine, that vision of the busybody’s was a 5 star hallucination.

The island at one stage had no less than four doctors for a winter population of 1800. All four of them chainsmoked, although one of them was obliged to go round the schools lecturing on the dangers of cigarettes, and he told me that after he had finished one lecture, he had to sneak out for a fag before driving on for his next exhortation. However far more paradoxical than that, were those times when the two of us were sitting and chatting outside a café, and certain enterprising villagers spotting the GP in his leisure hours, decided it would be a good idea to stroll up for an impromptu consultation. The doctor, let’s call him Kostas, would pretend irritation at being assailed away from the surgery, but would nonetheless end up giving a provisional diagnosis and occasionally a prescription. The dialogue between them was in Greek of course, and mine wasn’t good enough to follow every nuance, but as well as throat, chest and lungs, I also regularly heard the Greek for guts, the bladder, the male and female genitals, the dear old back passage, and so on and so forth. In any case, if you’ve studied A level Biology as I have, you will know that the bulk of anatomical and physiological terminology is derived from the classical Greek, so that the handy words are already there on the tip of your tongue as it were. The first few times these consultations happened, I instinctively turned away, until eventually I noted that most of the patients, both male and female, were politely looking at me as well as Kostas as they talked about their haemorrhoids, worms, thrush, cystitis and diarrhoea. At first, I assumed they believed I didn’t understand much of this intimate Greek discourse, which was why they were so free in orating about their pruritus, or their uncontrollable flatulence, or their candida albicans in front of me. But the more I sat in on these bizarre 3-handers, it became increasingly obvious that even if I had had perfect Greek, they would still have shared their embarrassing and non-embarrassing ailments in my presence. I was a foreigner and I was Kostas’s pal, and therefore I wouldn’t be a gossip because in structural terms I was not a native clansman, and so I had nothing to gain by badmouthing or mockery.

Unlike Kostas, who might well have been from Athens, but was as forthright as an islander when it came to likes and dislikes, loves and hatreds, panegyrics and slanders. You will note that so far I have left his necessary obligations, meaning his professional discretion and his solemn Hippocratic oath, out of the moral equation. Once or twice I would offer to move away while he talked to a woman about her menopausal symptoms or an old man about his swollen prostate, but he tut-tutted my sissified Englishness and commanded me to stay where I was.

“This is just life that you are hearing about, Mr Englishman. It is not to be avoided…”

“But what about some basic confidentiality? I mean back in England…”

“What about it? Do not make me laugh. This is a tiny Greek island, where the first thing they ask you is what is your salary to the exact penny, and what exactly is your wife’s. This is also where if you drink coffee in Café A, Café B asks you to your face why you don’t drink it with them, what have they possibly done to offend you? This is bloody Kythnos, not Trafalgar Square nor Tooting whatsit…”

In any event Kostas was impressively consistent, for not only did he waive the confidentiality of his al fresco consultations, he regularly eloquently maligned his patients as they wandered off.

“See that ugly one Panos, who just asked me about his shingles? He’s an alcoholic and he beats his wife, which is why she has that horrible nervous tic around the eyes. I can’t stand the bastard, but I’m obliged to treat him. And you see that very fat woman there Afroditi, who wanted sleeping pills off me last week? The gossip is she’s carrying on with one of the priests, so no wonder she can’t bloody sleep when all the village knows. She’s married with kids and the priest is married with kids, this place is like fucking Dallas, not the Cyclades, but I’m obliged to fucking treat them. Look, don’t talk to me about confidentiality, you shameless representative of an overbearing imperialist state. Get me another elliniko kafe, and get me a tsipuro brandy while you’re at it, the good stuff and not the rough stuff, as I feel the need to oil my tongue today…”

The next post will be on or before Friday May 15th

THE GOLDEN FIVE

THE GOLDEN FIVE

‘Ideas that eat up our life and burn us to the flesh!’

So says the old man Alavantia, the narrator of the highly acclaimed film The Golden Five (2016) which won awards at New Jersey and Cardiff and numerous other festivals, and is an impressively nuanced study of betrayal and forgiveness: meaning it is an eye opener in more ways than one. It is about lethal gangster-style oppression by the state in the former Communist Yugoslavia of the early 1950s, something that it is easy to believe was the exclusive preserve of Stalin and his cronies, who of course practised it on an industrial scale in the former USSR. The Yugoslav leader Josip Tito (1892-1980) at various times stood up bravely to the demands of the Soviets, as well as ultimately breaking off relations with the Stalinist Albania of Enver Hoxha, so that he might be myopically regarded as some kind of notional liberal. Authoritarian or not, certainly his greatest achievement was to weld the various small republics of Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia etc into a functioning and unified whole, and to hold together this labile entity which accommodated Muslims and Orthodox and Catholic Christians in a nominally atheist state. He did that so well that Yugoslavia managed to hang together for a good 47 years, until it began to implode in 1992, with the beginning of the Bosnian War.

The Golden Five was directed by Goran Trenchovski (born 1970) who is a former Macedonian TV producer and dramatist, and the author of several incisive works of film and theatre studies. He is also for the record the brains behind the annual short film festival Asterfest which takes place in his native town of Strumica in North Macedonia.  His film is set in Strumica in 1951 when it was in the Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and the communists had been in power for little more than 5 years. Scripted from a controversial novel by Bratislav Tashkovski, it is based on real, appalling, and barely credible events. In a nutshell a group of 5 boy students from Strumica, studying variously in Zagreb, Belgrade and the Macedonian capital Skopje, are engaged in low level dissidence which at times seems comically innocent. As well as an antique copy of the Bible, they also read smuggled translations of Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy which is soon to appear as a film starring Elizabeth Taylor and with whom one of the boys is romantically besotted. The town’s cinema ‘The Balkan’ is about to show the movie and tickets are at a premium. Meanwhile the local security police who parade around in trilby hats looking ironically like Mafia gangsters, monitor everything going on amongst these bumptious and educated types. They keep turning up in jeeps and strutting threateningly past these insolent kids who like to dance to bourgeois American pop music. The sinister head policeman Lamarinic is played to perfection by one of the Balkans’ best-known actors, the Emir Kusturica veteran Slavko Stimac (born 1960). Like Tito, Lamarinic was a partisan during the War, fighting the legendarily cruel Croatian Ustashe Fascists whose atrocities disgusted even the German Gestapo. Coming from a hard school, perhaps explains why he believes so fervently in the will of the people and the infallibility of his beloved socialist republic. His henchwoman and chief interrogator is called Zagarieva or Zago and is played by Biljana Tanevska, who you might recognise from the 2014 Children of the Sun by Antonio Mitrikeski, another gifted Balkan director. Zago is equally ruthless and she also happens to be cousin to Jiji (Igor Angelov, born 1977) a tailor and friend since childhood of the students. But while they are all brainy intellectuals debating about Tolstoy and French literature, Jiji is just a simple youth who is silently in love with Kata, and this becomes the signal pivot in this subtly paced film. For though Kata is fond enough of Jiji, she is deeply in love with handsome Maki (Alexsandar Ristoski) who studies in Zagreb and wishes to marry her, and in an Orthodox church at that, a procedure which in 50s Yugoslavia was likely to lead to draconian reprisals.

Early in the film, Zagarieva has a student called Alavantia pulled in by her goons, and orders one of them to start choking him round the neck with a rope. Alavantia as a young man is played by Vasil Mihail who you may have seen in the commercially successful Macedonian-US movie Dust (2001) starring Joseph Fiennes and directed by Milcho Manchevski. In old age in 2016 and also doubling as the film’s narrator, Alavantia is portrayed by Nenad Milovslavjev (born 1941). Six and a half decades earlier, Zagarieva had informed him that one of his student friends has escaped over the Greek border, and she wanted to know what he knew of his plans. She had also learnt that Alavantia was a trained printer, and there were currently these treacherous antisocialist leaflets being distributed around the town. To cut to the quick, if he agreed to spy on this student scum for her, she would let him go immediately. Terrified as he is, Alavantia points out the obvious, that he cannot possibly snitch on his childhood friends, and as a result is thrown in jail.

The Golden Five begins harrowingly in tender woodland with the sight of five trussed student corpses, all blood stained from bullets. We then move from 1951 to 2016 where the narrator Alavantia is in his mid-eighties, and is an academic in Australia returning to his native Strumica. He is attending a symposium in a smart hotel about the effect of displacement on persons in recent Balkan history, and is surprised to see that the hotel manager looks very much like Jiji 65 years on.

As narrator, Alavantia muses: ‘Then some of us fell asleep. But I haven’t.’

He adds with the mordant honesty of old age. ‘Although sometimes I wish I also were dead.’

The five corpses were of course Maki and his four student friends, including the one who had boyishly adored Elizabeth Taylor. One night, Lamarinic and his henchmen had turned up with a lorry, and taken them off at gunpoint in full view of the townsfolk. By then Alavantia was out of jail and had managed to escape the swoop, but he had paused to pick up an engagement ring given to Kata by Maki, which had dropped off in the mayhem. Lamarinic had muttered that they were being taken away for ‘summary proceedings’ meaning there would be no nonsense like a trial, and that they would be promptly disposed of. Jiji was conspicuously absent during the raid for previously his cousin Zagarieva had secretly ordered him to spy on his friends the students, and who knows he might even be rewarded for his pains. In this context, one of the most impressive things about the film’s scripting and direction, is that until the end of it we simply don’t know the actual nature of Jiji’s betrayal. I for one assumed he had blabbed about the origin of the printed leaflets, and had warned the police that they would be gathered together at such a time and place convenient for a raid. All of this is subtly compounded by the film’s narrative structure, which is essentially switching backwards and forwards between 2016 and 1951 via the musings of the octogenarian Alvantia. By chance, the hotel which is the venue for the symposium is owned by Jiji (played in his old age by Petar Arsovski, born 1945) and the two old men eye each other suspiciously before deciding on their respective identities. Jiji’s life these days is far from happy, doubtless in part because of his historical betrayal, but also because his daughter and son in law had been killed in a car crash. Worse still, his beloved granddaughter Stefanija (played by Stefanija Chobanova) is ill in hospital with a serious heart condition and urgently needs a transplant.

Back in 1951 the bodies had been reclaimed by their families from the forest to be given an Orthodox burial, and an ornate communal mausoleum was constructed in their memory. Some time later, Zagarieva had got her lackeys to sledgehammer this to pieces, as she claimed the former partisans were complaining these traitors were luxuriously commemorated, while their own comrades were not. Again, Trenchovski’s direction is subtle enough for Zago to suddenly relent half way through the demolition, as if to suggest that even monsters are capable of contrition, or perhaps we should say painfully mixed feelings. In the meantime, Kata is desperate with grief at the loss of her fiancé, and she goes around in black, eats very little, and is attended by Jiji who not only silently loves her, but takes her for cathartic pilgrimages to the forest where Maki and the others were shot. Pained by her heartrending sorrow, he gathers wild fruit and feeds her with it, and cannot restrain himself from kissing her. Kata gently reproves him and says it is impossible that she should forget Maki, but later a young priest rebukes her excessive mourning on spiritual grounds (as for death, God draws to Him the ones he loves), and adds:

‘Hate corrodes the heart and gives no space for love…’

So it is that Kata relents and before long  marries Jiji, and decades later Alavantia turns up at the old woman’s door bearing a single rose and the engagement ring she had lost in 1951. Fresh from Australia he had stopped off at Belgrade to research the communist archives, where he had found an ancient document instigated by the Secretary of the Strumica Communist Party, Zagarieva. In it was a false statement signed by her cousin Jiji the tailor, that he had seen all five of the students plotting to escape over the Greek border, and had done his duty and informed the authorities. They had been shot while attempting treasonous desertion of their homeland, not for the ideological deviance of leafleting and singing American pop songs. Again, Trenchovski’s crafty direction encourages us to think that the old woman Kata will turn on her traitor of a husband who evidently had caused the murder of her fiancé, and had sat on that appalling fact for 65 years. Instead the film ends with TV cameras interviewing Jiji, who of his own initiative had invited them to witness his public confession. After describing the terrible lump of guilt he had carried about with him for all of his adult life, he tearfully describes what actually took place. Cousin Zagarieva had held a gun to his head to get him to sign that document, and he was so terrified he had wet his trousers. The simple truth was that Jiji was not a sly Judas at all, but just a young man as frightened as an innocent animal of being slaughtered on the spot.

The film concludes with this convincingly stereoscopic view of the past, in which someone like Jiji was as much a victim of totalitarian cruelty and ideological heartlessness, as was Maki and his four friends. Kata has forgiven her old husband for what he could not avoid, and even better Stefanija their teenage granddaughter has had a successful transplant operation. It was she Stefanija who had organised a new monument in the centre of the town in memory of The Golden Five, and the work of reconciliation and forgiveness as urged by the young priest has begun to purge the nightmare of their past.

NB The Golden Five by Goran Trenchovski can be viewed with subtitles on YouTube

The next post will be on or before Saturday 7th March

COMEDY, NIGHTMARE AND MARIA SAAKYAN

COMEDY, NIGHTMARE, AND MARIA SAAKYAN

One reason for choosing to watch world cinema, or for that matter reading world literature, is that the subject matter might well stir your pity and/or your political conscience. It might deal with, for example, bitter ethnic or religious conflict in East Europe or the Middle East, hence the ultimate business of life-or-death survival. Alternatively, it can be an exploration of harrowing poverty, poignant collective tragedy or other extremes, meaning that the content is inevitably gripping and engaging from the start. In the case of the 2007 Mayak (The Lighthouse) made by Armenia’s first ever female director Maria Saakyan (1980-2018) in this first full length feature she performs the unique feat of blending unhinging and instructive farce with the grim nightmare of civil war. In that respect the director’s own experience is broadly parallel to that of the film’s heroine Lena (Anna Kapaleva, born 1979). Saakyan was a victim of the Nagorno-Karabakh war (1988-1994), where that unstable province within Azerbaijan which had an ethnic Armenian majority, led to Armenia inevitably taking the side of the secessionists. Saakyan was 8 years old when the war started, and at the age of 12 she and her parents fled the Armenian capital Yerevan for the safety of Moscow. Her film is set around 1992 which was 2 years after the USSR imploded, and when the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan etc had to swiftly come to terms with their new autonomy. For decades the lingua franca for all these countries, was Russian, and much of the film’s dialogue is in that language, which of course has guaranteed it a far larger audience than if it had been scripted entirely in Armenian. Ironically not only Maria Saakyan was displaced by ethnic war, but the scriptwriter Ghivi Shavgulidze (born 1979) had to leave Abkhazia, formerly part of Georgia, because of a secessionist conflict, and ditto the Serbian set designer Ivana Krcadinac was displaced by the Balkan conflicts of the early 1990s.

It is 1992 and Lena who is in her early twenties is returning by train to her remote Armenian village from Moscow. She is hoping to get her elderly grandparents to flee the war zone, and come back to Russia with her, and has fallen asleep on the primitive locomotive with its hard, wooden seats and peasant passengers. En route the train stops at a little station where an Armenian wedding is taking place, complete with accordion music, graceful dancing, and a touching light-hearted gaiety, and which is shot in black and white. So it is that despite the murderous war, lightheartedness is still a poignant possibility. Another black and white element is the recurrent image of massed flocks of flying cranes which is surely a graphic tribute to the great Georgian director Mikhail Kalatozov (1903-1973) and his 1957 The Cranes Are Flying. Other appreciative critics have discerned the influence of Tarkovsky (1932-1986) and his haunting cinematography, evident in his legendary films Ivan’s Childhood (1982) and Andrei Rublev (1966).

Prior to meeting her grandparents, Lena has to find her way to her own apartment along a wretched dirt road cloaked in fog. Fog and mist are ubiquitous in this movie and later we meet a village idiot (who is also in his own way very wise) improvising a sagacious two-line poem about it.

A mist is mysterious

And mystery is misty!

Because she is in a war zone, the electricity in Lena’s house is fitful. She tries fixing the sitting room light but in the end resorts to a candle in a special holder shaped like a lighthouse, hence the film’s title. Lighthouses are of course both reassuring and warning objects, and the next symbolic motif is when she puts on her favourite record from childhood, the sound track to a Russian animated version of Alice in Wonderland. The latter you may recall is both an unpredictable adventure set in two separate worlds, and also is a regular nightmare, i.e. just like a war. The next day walking the village comprised of high and stilted wooden houses, she hears neighbours who are both amiable and rowing angrily, and observes young women handwashing in metal tubs, and two very old ladies sawing up massive pieces of firewood. When she does locate her grandmother, who clings permanently to her mongrel dog for reassurance, the two of them end up accusing each other of negligence. Lena says there was no option but for her and her parents to get out of Armenia for their safety, and the grandmother (Olga Yakovleva, born 1941) insists it is all too late now to remedy matters. Later when she meets her adoring grandfather (Sos Sargasyan, 1929-2013) he assures her that neither of them wishes to leave, and even if things get very bad, because they are old, any enemy soldier is bound to leave them alone. At times these and other exchanges are shouted to the accompaniment of hovering enemy helicopters, people running for their lives, and at one point a small child screaming at the sight of a corpse floating down a rushing river…

That said, heart-warming farce allied with harrowing personal obsession, is never far away. There is neighbour Rosa (Ruzana Avetisyan) a middle-aged widow with her only son in the army, who is increasingly less in touch with his mother. Rosa’s remedy is to regularly pack a ton of luggage and wheel it on a trolley to the railway station, so that she can go in search of her boy. She does this routine every week, futile on each occasion, because the trains are all cancelled and the only ones going are those carrying troops. Worse still, she is pursued by the village idiot who eloquently dotes on her, and addresses her both as his wife and his mother. This crazy man is a splendid creation, aged about 50, spindly tall with a colossal bulbous nose, a floppy woolly hat, high boots, half-mast pants, and a strong line in megalomaniac patter.

‘My Queen Rosa!’

‘Go away!’

‘I am the great Maradona. And this is my wife, Rosalinda! These flowers are for you.’

‘Get lost!’

‘But Mummy, don’t you recognise me?’

‘Go away! Just leave me alone!’

‘The doctor says not to worry, Mummy!’

On her first morning in the village, Lena accompanies Rosa and the idiot to the railway station, and en route they behold the village accordionist bullying the life out of his small son as he tries to teach him the same instrument.

‘No, not like that! No, no, no! Tell me. Are you a man, or not?’

The accordionist is also put in charge of doling out emergency rations of bread from a lorry, and which the idiot ingeniously tries to steal from behind. The enraged musician batters him over the ear with a loaf for his pains, and it is this Charlie Chaplin aspect which swiftly reminds us of two unhinging things. One is that life really does go on with its inevitable comic side even under war conditions (the same object lesson is there in Emir Kusturica’s 2004 hilarious Life Is a Miracle where a Bosnian Serb falls for a Bosnian Muslim girl, when the two of them are supposedly at war). The second is that an idiot rather like a small child cannot comprehend what a war is, and that for him it has no meaning and in fact does not exist. Thus, we later have the dizzy set piece where at a funeral the idiot with a small boy next to him is watching an outdoor TV, on which the progress of the war complete with strategic maps is being explained to the viewer. Lena’s friend Izolda (Anastasya Srebennikova, born 1984) walks over and gives him a second clout to the ear for such disrespect at a funeral, though of course death is something else that both a small child and an idiot are incapable of comprehending.

Things continue in equally surreal fashion among the non-idiotic in the village. The elderly mother in law of Izolda, Kasiana (played by veteran Soviet actress Sofiko Chaureli, 1937-2008) starts noisily smashing all her windows, as she’s heard that war encourages burglary, and if she has no windows the burglars will assume the place has nothing of value inside. Lena points out it will be very cold but Kasiana thinks it worth the risk. Meanwhile after the funeral, the grieving old mother of the young woman who died of cancer, complains to Lena that her daughter is literally calling to her from the churchyard. Lena does not know how to reply, but it is a poignant irony worth noting that the director Maria Saakyan herself died of cancer at the tragically young age of 37.

Lena’s friend Izolda brusquely informs her that her return to the village here is completely pointless. Izolda herself has problems with her boyish husband Levan (Mikhail Bogdasarov) who is a compulsive womaniser. His latest village conquest Izolda nicknames Hamster-Looking Woman, and dourly adds:

‘Men rule the world.’

Levan arrives just then and says, ‘I am the world’s dictator. I talk when I wish and I don’t talk when I don’t wish!’

The following evening there is an impromptu party with plenty of home-made brandy, where Levan’s mother passes round old family photos, and mocks her philandering son for being so bald these days. After which, frightening war zone or not, we find ourselves firmly in the tradition of the East European surreal, and the tone changes to that of directors like Jiri Menzel or Pal Sandor where the preposterous and the non sequitur have their day. The daughter in law Izolda drunkenly turns to Kasiana and says:

‘Tell him to kill that woman (the Hamster-Looking Woman)’

Kasiana to Levan, ‘Kill that woman…’

Promptly from her son. ‘Sure. No problem.’

His mother, ‘But aren’t you ashamed? You’ve got a beautiful young wife and you go and take a mistress?’

Levan picks up a boiled egg and commences to berate it for taking a mistress, tapping it punitively on the head with a spoon.

Izolda, ‘The problem is there is no female solidarity.’

Kasiana mockingly, ‘What is that? When it happened to me, I just picked up a saucepan and battered him over the head.’

To round off the fractured table talk, Lena who is also very drunk, lifts up a rifle lying nearby, accidentally fires it, and sends a number of wooden screens flying…

Fascinatingly old Kasiana turns from pragmatic to prophetic the next day. She tells Lena that she has had a dream where she was a tree and couldn’t move.

‘But then I realised I had the whole of the world inside of me when I was a tree! Water and air and fibre and everything else. So that I didn’t need to move!’

Afterwards Lena goes to visit Izolda who has a handsome little dark-eyed son called Ghivi. Ghivi is in the bath and without thinking Lena picks up his toy helicopter and starts making pretend combat noises as she runs it the length of the child’s arm. After that she takes Ghivi out for a walk and as they explore a bird’s nest lying on the ground, an enemy helicopter descends above them and Lena freezes with terror for herself and her charge.  The helicopter moves off, but for sure it wasn’t a toy, and the lesson when it comes to little boys’ playthings is all too ominous.

Finally the first of a series of passenger trains arrives at the station, and it takes off Levan, Izolda and Ghivi to start a new life in Moscow. Lena without her grandparents will also depart very soon, and the film ends with archive black and white footage of a madly grieving and gesticulating Armenian woman who has lost her husband or perhaps her child. Then as abruptly it changes into an exquisite red and white streaked Armenian sunset, which wordlessly assures us that Hell and Hope and Grief and Hilarity and Ugliness and Divine Beauty, will never be completely set as worlds apart, no matter what.

NB The Lighthouse by Maria Saakyan (not to be confused with the 2019 film of the same name) is available on Second Run DVD

The next post will be on or before Tuesday 25th February