BREAST CANCER AND THE ABANDONED VILLAGE

I am on holiday for 2 weeks and the next post will be on or before Thursday May 31st

WHAT  ANNIE, IONE AND I DID, AND WHAT I READ IN 1998

 In June of 1998 a few days after her 43rd birthday, my wife Annie noticed puckering in one of her breasts and immediately got herself along to her very efficient woman GP in North Cumbria. At the impressive speed of light (for of course not all hospital authorities are lightning fast) she was referred to a stocky and moustachioed consultant, also in his forties, who in retrospect was perfect for what lay ahead. He had nil bedside manner and was bluff and brusque to the point of comedy, but was a proven and uncompromising expert in his field. He also worked like a maniac and ran clinics where he saw literally hundreds of Cumbrian and South Scottish women about their worrying lumps and told them they were either benign or that they needed immediate intervention. He had Annie swiftly take a mammogram and a needle biopsy and though the latter was inconclusive he turned to us and declared:

“Forty-three and breast puckering? I don’t believe the needle result. There is something definitely not right.”

He ordered an exploratory lumpectomy and sure enough a few days later found a heap of calcified tissue in the breast. We didn’t know that when I drove Annie home, after which, dozy from the anaesthetic, she got into bed and I lay on top of it, and we watched a ponderously second-rate movie Dolores Claiborne, which it transpired was adapted from a Stephen King novel. Since then I have never liked Stephen King movies and his novels even less, though when I think about it I didn’t like them pre-1998 either. The Shawshank Redemption for example is admittedly compelling viewing, but watch it a few times and you will see all the cracks, the inconsistencies, the rank incredibilities, and the conflation of extreme and sickly violence and an oddly cloying kind of wishful thinking.

Let’s call the consultant Mr Wilkinson. About a week after the lumpectomy we had to see him in his office where in rat a tat fashion he told us about the calcified tissue and recommended a mastectomy, lymph node clearance and most likely a course of chemotherapy to follow. This was exactly what was to happen between August 1998 and the spring of 1999, but his matter of fact explanation came as an overwhelming shock to both of us. At once Annie collapsed against my shoulder and burst into sobs.

Wilkinson, truly mystified, turned to look at me.

“What’s wrong with her?”

I stared at the specialist and ought to have been angry, but instead divined that this was the unflinching if graceless expert that we really needed and that sometimes the people we require most in this world are not always the nicest and might even be half mad. He probably really liked Stephen King novels, though being a workaholic no doubt fell asleep on page 24. I pondered, then translated the perplexing phenomenon of a deeply upset woman for his benefit.

“She’s very upset, Mr Wilkinson. That’s why she’s crying.”

“Oh,” he blinked, not at all comprehending, as he drummed his stubby fingers. “But it is very straightforward what we have to do.”

After the mastectomy, he explained that he would reconstruct the breast by injecting fluid, then build it up after the manner of a modest but confident sculptor. All that would begin in August which meant our planned fortnight with our dogs Bonnie and Monty up in a beautiful South Uist cottage had to be immediately cancelled. We also had to tell Annie’s worried Mum and Dad as well as all our friends, and we hid nothing from Ione, but being only 9, thankfully it seemed to pass her by. The night after Annie’s surgery I arranged her little pal Maria to come down for a sleepover and the pair of them raced around above my head hooting hilariously, and of course I really relished that din as it was obvious that my daughter’s innocence knew nothing of the fear of mortality. I had just come back from the hospital where Annie was sat waiting and smiling in the patterned floral blouse I’d bought for her birthday in Alston. With a natural and unfeigned assurance, she was adamant she would survive all this, and I had nil doubt either. That said, I observed her courage very humbly, for in her shoes I would have openly shit myself at such drastic surgery. But she like several other remarkable women I have known with breast cancer, just took a deep breath and opted to get on with it. She was already planning her work schedule months ahead, when the chemotherapy and reconstruction were to start, and she was to drive poor Wilkinson bonkers when she refused several appointments and demanded others.

He gasped. “But you simply can’t put your work first at this stage! You have to have urgent treatment for a serious condition and you…”

“I know that. Of course, I want the treatment, but I also want to have flexible appointments, because I have an important job and I happen to be a breadwinner.  And no, before you say it, the chemotherapy won’t make me sick, I’m confident of that. I definitely intend to carry on and work as normal.”

Right enough, seemingly clairvoyantly, she had nil side effects, for she lost no hair, nor was she even mildly nauseous at any stage. She had an important conference in Belfast in early September and with my encouragement she treated herself to a holiday and drove her hire car over the border to Donegal. Donegal is paradise of course, and having sampled the lovely Gaeltachd, Annie carried on down to Dublin, and went to see a very shocking Sarah Kane play, the last word in defiance and the first word in assertive attitude you might say. Annie did not put it in so many words, but instead of cowering and shivering and worse, she was determined to bloody well enjoy herself in Ireland, and make the most of things. I meanwhile cashed in an insurance policy so that we could have a fortnight’s recuperation in Greece, for Annie had always said that Greek islands were the only place where it was possible to swim in a warm and above all gentle sea. She like me was a doting Portugal fan, but the Algarve often has huge breakers, and the sea along the Costa Verde though beautiful can be bloody cold even in August.

We chose Tilos in the Dodecanese in the end, because of its relative obscurity. It is close to both Turkey and tiny and waterless Symi which has so many Brit expats they even have an English language newspaper, which must surely be some sort of coded warning sign. In 1998 Tilos had only a handful of tourists and the port where we stayed was a tranquil backwater with a silver haired domatia owner who provided breakfast and was infinitely courteous to young Ione. She always chose peach flavoured iced tea, but he always gravely asked her, what kind today, madam, as if the choice and she as discerning customer were of infinite importance. Three other Tilos cameos are worth recounting.

A grizzled and handsome young farmer of about thirty selling watermelons from his van had no English whatever other than the following two words, which he bawled at everyone he believed to be a foreigner:

‘Sexy veetamins! Sexy veetamins!”

Talking of vending, a state of the art supermarket had just opened in the port, stocking massive quantities of every kind of cigarette, for the Greeks have long been notorious as Europe’s most unashamed smokers.  Touching to behold, directly opposite was an old fashioned and grubby periptero, i.e.  a Greek kiosk that specialised in cigarettes, sweets, chewing gum, pens, combs and the like. With the new arrival the old kiosk was severely ailing, and the proprietor had only a few loyal smokers and customers, meaning that much of the time and especially during the midday heat he would stand feebly upright in his kiosk, then bit by bit sag and doze the hours away. More strikingly the proprietor was of indeterminate sex, what in the old days would have been called a hermaphrodite (2 Greek gods in one you understand). He dressed like a man but could have been a woman and he had a look of melancholy and lifelong endurance though he was always greeted very warmly by everyone who passed by.

One midday he was happily asleep and probably dreaming about the good old days when he sold dozens of juddering 200 packs of fags every exhilarating Friday evening… when suddenly an insistent if shy knocking on his glass roused him from one of his few consolations. It was roasting hot and inside his kiosk must have been an oven, a fournos bakery. The knocking came from a tourist called Ione aged 9, wanting a lordly/ladily 10 cents worth of chewing gum. Annie and I standing at a distance were expecting him to show a reflex  irritability, but he merely yawned and passed across the gum and duly gave her the 40 cents change.

Finally there was the abandoned village of Gera (pronounced ‘Yera’, it means simply The Old Place) which was not mentioned in the Rough Guide To Greece but which the domatia owner had told us about with unabashed tears in his eyes, as it was where he had spent his early years. It was deserted in the late 1940s, and was a mere half hour’s walk from the port, presumably the villagers having migrated there for an easier if hard enough life. Our Tilos map was one of those cheerful tourist ones which still flourish alongside the posh digital and cartographic ones you get nowadays in ever increasing profusion. This meant that the distances and dispositions were of an intuitive order, i.e. vague and frequently contradictory and often downright wrong.  As a result, it took us longer than we’d thought to find Gera and we almost gave up. At one point I spotted some insignificant ruins, a mere heap of stones which I claimed must be it, but they were probably much older ruins from a much older abandoned hamlet. Then at last and through some trees and right next to the sea there it was, there was Gera, and our excitement and our emotion were profound. There was Gera which was about forty little cubic houses sprawled along a summit, empty of windows of course, and a kind of seabird grey with half a century’s weathering, looking infinitely biblical and eternal as they faced out to sea and to Turkey, innocuously hidden away by the copse of trees and to all intents and purposes the very end of the world.

Annie and I were helplessly moved and we did not say as much but we both instinctively felt that the desertion of this little protective cove for a new place close by, yet in human terms a million miles away, was rather like our own cruel transmutation. A few months ago Annie Murray aged 43 was without diagnosed breast cancer, that was her old, safe and obviously eternal state. Then only days after her birthday, she was a woman invaded with this thing called cancer, meaning inevitably and completely against her will, she had been obliged to abandon her old secure existence. So it was that Gera at the deepest level represented Annie as she was, as she and it were both hauntingly beautiful and in a curious state of grace called Divine Sadness…which of course you might well disbelieve and will only know yourself once you have tasted it.

 

What I Read in 1998 (from my Reading Diary)

Solzhenitsyn by DM Thomas

The Emigrants by WG Sebald (1944-2001. The brilliant and innovative German writer who taught at Norwich University, UK was massively popular in the late 90s with his books about memory and collective memory loss, e.g. The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz. He was tragically killed in a car crash when he suffered a sudden aneurysm)

Light on my Days by George Duhamel (1884-1966. The memoirs of one of my favourite writers, author of the wonderfully exhilarating The Pasquier Chronicles. Duhamel was also a doctor)

Fermina Marquez by Valery Larbaud (1881-1957. A boarding school novel by a poet and novelist born in Vichy of a wealthy spa water bottling family)

Diaries of Barnabooth by Valery Larbaud (his best known novel)

The Retreat by Aharon Appelfeld (1932-2018. Israeli Holocaust writer born in the Bukovina and put in a labour camp by pro-Nazi Romanians in WW2. Multilingual, he wrote in Hebrew as he could not bear to write in his first language which was German)

Babylon by Rene Crevel (1900-1935. The 1927 novel of a bisexual communist and Surrealist who was excluded from the movement by Andre Breton. He suffered with TB and like his father before him he committed suicide)

Life in the Tomb by Stratis Myrvilis (1890-1969. A haunting war novel by one of Greece’s best known writers, born in Lesvos when it was under the Ottomans. During WW2 he urged resistance to the Germans but was also fiercely critical of the communist partisans)

Doruntine by Ismail Kadare (born 1936. Albania’s best known author and a massively gifted writer. I interviewed him in Paris in 1997)

The Liar by Martin A Hansen (1909-1955. The 1950 novel of a powerful Danish writer who was active in the Resistance in WW2. He suffered appalling head injuries as a child)

Night and Hope by Arnost Lustig (1926-2011. Czech Jewish Holocaust author who was only a boy of 16 when sent to Auschwitz. The greatest modern Czech writer in my view, though barely known beside say Milan Kundera)

Blindness by Jose Saramago (1922-2010. One of the 1998 Nobel winner’s best known novels as it was turned into a controversial 2008 English language film starring Julianne Moore. The Portuguese genius is one of my abiding literary heroes as he combines phenomenal technical talent and fastidious sentence control with a wonderfully subtle irony)

Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis (1923-2013. Colombian writer much praised by his friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Maqroll is the engaging antihero whose adventures run to 7 novellas, the first published 1986)

Reading In The Dark by Seamus Deane (born 1940. This is his prizewinning first novel, published in 1996. Born in Derry, N Ireland, he is also a university professor)

The Time of Secrets and The Time of Love by Marcel Pagnol (1895-1974. Phenomenal Provencal polymath who was both a great writer and a great filmmaker. His 1952 Jean de Florette movie was remade by Claude Berri in 1986)

Noli Me Tangere By Jose Rizal (1861-1896. Novelist and polemicist Rizal, is the Philippine’s greatest national hero as he was a prime agitator against the Spanish colonial occupation. He was executed for sedition by a dragooned Filipino firing squad with Spanish soldiers stood behind, ready to shoot them if they failed to do the grisly job. This excellent and harrowing novel with the Latin title means, Do Not Touch Me)

Rainbow by Wanda Wasilewska (1905-1964). The 1944 novel of a Communist Socialist Realist who was Polish but moved to the Soviet Union during the war. Despite her rigid ideology this is a very readable novel.

Scene in Passing by Robert Neumann (1897-1975). The 1942 novel of a very prolific German Jewish writer who was a convinced social democrat.

Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell (1908-2000. Fine 1948 novel by the legendary New Yorker fiction editor. He is also of interest as he has a character called Ione which is the very rare name my own daughter has)

The Disenchanted by Pierre Loti (1850-1923. Neglected but very readable novelist who was also a navy officer and passionate Turcophile, greatly enamoured of the Ottoman Empire. He is best known for An Icelandic Fisherman)

Dark Horses by Karl Miller (1931-2014. Essays by a fearlessly independent literary editor who was crucial to my own career, as he took my first story The Senor and the Celtic Cross for the London Review of Books, a story which was so long he had to put it across 2 issues. He was ultimately sacked from the LRB which no longer prints short stories and ever since has become ever more complaisant and complacent )

The First Circle by Solzhenitsyn

The Green Fool by Patrick Kavanagh(1904-1967. Very funny 1938 novel by Irish poet and novelist who had a hard time getting established, and was famously irritable as a result. Born in rural Monaghan he also wrote the hilarious 1948 Tarry Flynn)

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon by Richard Zimler (born 1956 Richard is a New Yorker who lives in Portugal and who had great international success with this harrowing 1996 novel about the Portuguese Inquisition. He also won the 1994 Panurge International Fiction Competition, Panurge being the magazine I founded in 1984)

Bad to the Bone by James Waddington (born 1942. Debut literary thriller about the Tour de France)

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (his 1980 novel)

Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald ( I gave this a star review in the Independent on Sunday)

Plagued by the Nightingale by Kay Boyle (1902-1992. The 1931 novel of the famous American author and activist who was jailed in the 1960s for her anti Vietnam war protests and one of whose husbands was called Baron von Frankenstein. My favourite book of hers is the 1944 Avalanche)

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Victory by Joseph Conrad

Damascus by Richard Beard (born 1967. I printed this successful UK writer’s fine story in Panurge in 1995, but I didn’t care at all for this uneven and uneasily picaresque novel )

Life, A User’s Manual by Georges Perec  (1936-1982. Epic 1978 masterpiece which took 15 years to appear in English which says much for so called UK culture. Perec was a playful genius obsessed with games, puzzles, acrostics etc and who tragically died aged only 45)

Crocodile Soup by Julia Darling (1956-2005. Courtesy of Panurge Publishing I printed Julia’s first book, a story collection called Bloodlines in 1995, when she was also diagnosed with breast cancer. She also won Joint 2nd Prize in the 1994 Panurge International Short Story Competition. She and I were both longlisted for the Booker in the same year, 2003, as, come to think of it was fellow Cumbrian, Melvyn Bragg. Julia died aged only 49, after a 10 year remission. My wife’s remission was also 10 years long as it happened)

Pleasured by Philip Hensher (born 1965 and a leading UK novelist and columnist. I thought this book was very bad with weird things like clumsy and cloth-eared redundance in some of the sentences. The literary editor at the Independent on Sunday, Suzi Feay, refused to print my review with the wondrously bizarre logic that Hensher’s distinguished publisher could not possibly print anything bad. If ever you think British literary culture might be just a trifle on the cloying Masonic side, you wouldn’t be far wrong)

Salman the Solitary by Yashar Kemal (1923-2015. Wonderful 1980 novel which took 17 years to appear in the UK. Turkey’s greatest writer by far, and also a courageous human rights activist and supporter of the Kurds. Appallingly he never won the Nobel Prize, though surely a far bigger writer than the very talented Orhan Pamuk who did so in 2006)

Dita Saxova by Arnost Lustig (published 1962, translated 1979, and also filmed in the former Czechoslovakia)

The Three Arched Bridge by Ismail Kadare (the 1998 novel about an old Balkan folk myth)

Albania, A History by Miranda Vickers

The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov (1899-1951. Though a Communist his work was mostly banned in the USSR as he satirised Stalinism and the revolutionary work ethic in absurdist existentialist terms This novel was written in 1930, but only published in the USSR in 1987, 36 years after his death

Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks (born 1953. A riveting and very convincing 1998 novel about the French resistance, turned into a really awful 2001 film starring Cate Blanchett)

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather (1873-1947. The 1915 novel of the great US writer famous for her frontier fiction, including the 1918 My Antonia)

Skellig by David Almond (born 1951. Acclaimed UK children’s writer and this is his debut masterpiece which is written as much for adults as children. He and I co-edited Panurge fiction magazine between 1984 and 1996. His poignant story collection Counting Stars dealing with his Felling on Tyne childhood is another masterpiece)

The Pasquier Chronicles by Georges Duhamel (my copy of this came from the library of the sailing hero Sir Francis Chichester)

The Common Chord by Frank O’ Connor (1903-1966. Pen name of Michael O’ Donovan and a great short story writer who also wrote 2 enjoyable novels that seemingly only I have ever read. Born into an impoverished Cork family with a drunken father and a stoical mother, after Irish independence he fought for the IRA)

Silent Day in Tangier by Tahar ben Jalloun (born 1944. Hugely talented Moroccan writer who writes in French and won the Prix Goncourt)

Consequences of the Heart by Peter Cunningham (born 1944, an Irish novelist whose Monument is a fictionalised Waterford where he grew up. This book is one of 4  Monument novels)

Baltasar and Blimunda by Jose Saramago (this is the Nobel winner’s 1982 novel which is an 18th  C love story)

Stories of Eva Lunes by Isabel Allende (born 1942. One of Chile’s best known writers and her father was a cousin of the ousted president Salvador Allende who was murdered by Augusto Pinochet, Margaret Thatcher’s friend, in 1973. I love some of Allende’s novels and dislike others, perhaps because her particular type of Magical Realism is not always aimed at the same imaginative depths)

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramago (one of my favourites among his remarkable novels, with a fine urbane humour. It was published in 1984)

After the Banquet by Yukio Mishima (1925-1970. This novel was published in 1960. Considered one of the world’s greatest writers, Mishima was also a right-wing nationalist with his own fanatical uniformed militia. Hoping to reinstall the Japanese emperor, he failed in a coup to take a military base, then committed seppuku or ritual disembowelment

Fields of Glory by Jean Rouaud (born 1952. He won the Prix Goncourt with this 1992 novel)

Death in Midsummer and Other Stories by Yukio Mishima (his 1953 collection)

The Garden of the Finzi Continis by Giorgio Bassani (1916-2000. Born of a prosperous Ferrara Jewish family he joined the anti-Fascist resistance and was briefly jailed for it, much of which is reflected in this famous 1962 novel. It was filmed by Vittorio de Sica in 1970.

The Infinite Plan by Isabel Allende (published 1991)

Of Love and Shadows by Isabel Allende (published 1985)

Room For a Single Lady by Clare Boylan (1948-2006. I recommend this 1997 novel to everyone and everyone really loves it, my late wife Annie included. Boylan is brilliant at the comical portrayal of feckless fathers and hopeless mothers failing to keep up appearances in impoverished middle class Dublin, as depicted in both the 19th and 20th centuries.

Runaway Horses by Yukio Mishima (published 1969)

Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997. This hilarious 1964 novella by the Czech master, is remarkably written as a single sentence from start to finish. It is among other things a string of mad anecdotes, appealing to someone like me who is a lifelong fan of Cumbrian Tall Tales (Cummerlan Tyals)

Ecstasy by Louis Couperus (1863-1923. The 1897 novel subtitled A Study of Happiness by one of Holland’s greatest authors. Surprisingly it was translated into English very quickly, but it took another 100 years before the enterprising Pushkin Press put it out again in the UK)

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres (born 1954. Corelli is the word of mouth 1994 runaway success which is certainly very readable, but curiously soft centred and rosy-eyed re the central love affair. The same wishful thinking is evident in his earlier Latin American trilogy of novels which I think are excellent apart from the bonkers fantasy of men and women and pumas living happily side by side. Corelli was made into a film starring Nick Cage which received very mixed reviews)

Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson (born 1943. Enormously successful novel about 3 generations of women by an Idaho writer who also won the Pulitzer. It was turned into a 1987 film directed by Bill Forsyth)

A Small Yes and a Big No by George Grosz (1893-1959. Superb memoir by brilliant satirical German artist who was a prime member in the Dada movement. He emigrated to the States in 1933 but he died in Berlin)

House of Children by Joyce Cary (1888-1957. This is his 1941 novel. Not much read these days, Cary was massively popular in his day and in the early 80s I read almost everything he wrote. His mad artist Gulley Jimson in the 1944 The Horse’s Mouth took everyone by storm but in fact Jimson was violent towards women and in my view was a vicarious and uneven bit of wishful thinking by Cary who was formerly a colonial administrator in Nigeria. I think his best book was the 1939 colonial novel Mister Johnson, made into an enjoyable 1990 movie with Maynard Eziashi, Pierce Brosnan and Edward Upward)

The Sacred Night by Tahar ben Jalloun (his 1987 novel)

The Palace by Lisa St Aubin de Teran (born 1953. One of the few UK writers of my generation who I would say is of real stature, as she is one of the few who is capable of writing prose of a truly enduring quality. It is telling that her Dad was Guyanese, that her family origins are Channel Island French, that one of her husbands was Venezuelan, and that she now lives in Mozambique. This is the 1998 novel of an authentically cosmopolitan and very gifted writer)

The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte (born 1951.The 1990 work of the Spanish novelist and former war correspondent. He writes gripping and very filmable historical novels but was accused of stealing one of her plots by the Mexican writer Veronica Murgula)

Paula by Isabel Allende (the harrowing 1994 memoir about her daughter Paula who died after entering a porphyria coma in 1991)

Count d’Orgel by Raymond Radiguet (1903-1923. A friend of Picasso and Cocteau who was his mentor, this posthumous 1924 novel is about adultery, as was his explosive and autobiographical 1923 The Devil and the Flesh, about a 16 year old boy having an affair with a married woman whose husband was away fighting at the front. He died aged 20 of TB)

 

 

 

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THE LAST OF THE PROPHETS, ALBERT COSSERY

I am taking a fortnight’s holiday and the next post will be on or before 31st May

THE LAST OF THE PROPHETS, ALBERT COSSERY

‘The Lane of The Pissing Child led to the school of beggars. It was the most squalid and also the narrowest in the district. The hovels there are more wretched and dirty than anywhere else; the old petrol tins which compose them are cracked and rusty in the extreme. They all seem ready to collapse; but the eternal misery which built them with its wild hands, had left on them its imprint of eternity.’

Men God Forgot by Albert Cossery

The Egyptian author Albert Cossery (1913-2008) was known as ‘the Voltaire of the Nile’ and he was a friend of celebrated iconoclasts such as Albert Camus, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell and Alberto Giacometti. Born in Cairo of Greek Orthodox parents of Syrian origin (originally known as al-Qusayr), he emigrated to Paris in 1945 and although all of his half dozen novels are set in Egypt, he wrote exclusively in French. His family was wealthy but much of Cossery’s fiction is about the atrocious poverty of Cairo’s myriad disenfranchised; beggars, thieves, street cleaners, out of work actors and hashish addicts. The titles of his books speak for themselves: Men God Forgot (1940) and Proud Beggars (1955) but he also wrote novels where certain rich Cairenes behaved in highly unorthodox and rebellious ways. At times these middle class Egyptian rebels behave in a manner surreal beyond belief. For instance, in The Lazy Ones (1948) a pampered young man protects his bereaved mother from a paralysing grief, by acting the part of his recently deceased brother in regular improvised 2- hander dramas, which of course necessarily involves his constantly shifting chairs.

His first book Men God Forgot, less than 100 pages long, is a collection of 5 short stories of phenomenal and quite unhinging power. It is all about the down and outs of Cairo as Cossery knew them somewhere around the late 1930s, but it is fair enough to assume from the authoritarian nightmare which constitutes modern Egypt that very little will have changed for the poverty-stricken in the intervening decades. I use the word unhinging because most fiction writers who deal with extreme poverty understandably treat it in straight realistic, possibly impassioned and angry style. The shamefully neglected Ignazio Silone (1900-1978) for example, author of Bread and Wine and The Secret of Lucca writes about Italian peasants slaving all day in order to afford a single plate of unadorned polenta. Ditto the startling 1962 autobiographical novel The Countrywoman by Dubliner Paul Smith (1920-1997) who recounts his unbelievably harrowing childhood when he was a wage earner as a mere infant, and the desperation of his mother in the face of his feckless boozing father. Cossery by contrast turns the pathos coordinates upside down when he elects to treat of what is atrocious with a kind of black gallows humour. In a single word, all his down and outs are irremediably stupefied by the situation they find themselves in, for their lives are so hopeless and so desolate that they constitute a kind of mad dream by which their victims are continually amazed as well as horrified.

The characters in the 5 linked stories cope with the horror of absolute destitution in radically different ways. Nonetheless, there are 3 principal strategies for dealing with a living hell: one can sleep as much as possible; smoke dope as much as possible, or if you are a man, you can go home and vent your misery by beating your wife. Thus, an illiterate laundryman who has no customers to speak of spends his day sleeping, and at night he has his cronies round to smoke the poor man’s panacea, hashish. However one day a postman cruelly ruins his daytime sleeping with a letter from his landlord threatening eviction after 6 months of arrears. As well as viciously cursing the postman (‘and now son of a dog you are going to read it to me, or I’ll kill you’) he decides to go home and beat his wife if only because her parents cannot stand the sound of her wails, and so will give him the backlog of rent. Later, in ‘The Danger of Fantasy’ we have the mindboggling dialogue between Abou Chawali, ‘Professor of Mendicancy’, and the man of letters Tewfik Gad. The Professor who coaches child beggars to look as horrifying as they can, as the only means of melting the hearts of the callous rich, is incensed by Gad suggesting that a handsome little girl should toff up to look as beautiful as possible in a pretty red dress. To compound the irony, the man of letters suffers from chronic diarrhoea which means he is always racing a full kilometre to use the public toilets. The Professor mocks not only his Fantasy/Pretty Dress approach to the reality of mendicancy, but the fact he avoids defecating next to his house like everyone else, presumably because he doesn’t want the world to see his backside. Meanwhile the Professor’s notion of the power of realism when it comes to effective begging, is economically and appallingly stated.

‘It was the turn of little Olla, a new recruit whose case seemed very interesting…In her arms she held a child some months old, blind from birth and wrapped in all kinds of filthy rags. The child seemed to have been dead for a long time and its face had a green pallor.

“Well…” scolded Abou Chawali. “What are you doing with that bundle in your arms. Are you by any chance taking a walk with your trousseau?”

“This bundle is my brother,” said the little girl…

“Does he eat?”

“No…Only he opens his mouth sometimes.”’

Remarkably, the anguish of total destitution is even more harrowingly rendered when a penniless tinker’s little boy turns up to give his Dad an armful of clover to feed the Holiday Sheep, meaning the one sacrificed on special religious days. The Dad has no sheep of course, and his little son’s distress is all too much for him on top of the infernal baseline of a normal pauper’s desolation.

‘“If we are poor it is because God has forgotten us, my son.”

“God!” said the child. “And when will he remember us, father?”

“When God forgets someone, my son, it is forever.”

“All the same I’ll keep the clover,” said the child.’

Later an out of work actor Sayed Karam ( an avatar of the young Cossery perhaps?) suddenly wakes from his idle stupefaction and decides that something needs to be done about the cruel paralysis of all these derelicts he has long been safely observing at a distance. He repents his vicarious and amoral ways, for while he lazes at home, Raya the woman who loves him and who is dying of TB, is out there earning a hotel clerk’s pittance to keep the pair of them off the streets. It is here for once that theology raises its powerful head in Cossery’s fiction, and his character suddenly understands what the truly diabolic amounts to.

‘There was nothing forced here about the demoniac spirit, nothing falsified. It was simply reality, mean and unrehearsed, the violating reality of every day at every moment. Sayed Karam now felt his heart beat at the sight of certain details that the street in its complete nakedness no longer knew how to hide.’

POSTSCRIPT

I was privileged to meet Albert Cossery in December 1997, when he was 84, in his favourite café next to the Paris hotel where he had been living since 1945. My introduction was supposedly because I had published a piece about him in London Magazine, but in fact Cossery was unaware of this and assumed I was someone else. Nevertheless he knew more English than I knew French, and he was very courteous and kind towards his 47-year-old English fan.

MENTAL ARITHMETIC – a short story

The next post will be on or before Friday11th May. If you want to read my new comic novel about online dating, The Lawless Book Of Love, you need to go to the January and February 2018 archive, see well below and to the right.

MENTAL ARITHMETIC – a short story

Obsessions are curious things, and perhaps my own is shall we say, small beer. Perhaps better to call it an eccentricity, even a harmless eccentricity, as I don’t see that it puts anyone out in the smallest way, not even myself the tireless but not at all tiresome obsessive. It is no secret to those who know me that I am always doing mental arithmetic in my head (mark the slack redundance. I am not as clever as I thought I was, unless we are to conjecture that the mind might be lodged in the backside as feasibly as in the head). But my mental arithmetic is of a specialised kind, for it is exclusively concerned with time and chronology, the passing of time and the related business of the dates of birth of significant people, some of whom I know personally and others who I don’t. The fact is, it seems to me to be infinitely illuminating to know that e.g. Englishman X was born in 1939 while Englishman Y was born in 1950. The reason is toweringly obvious. The infancy of X overlaps with the duration of the Second World War which means X’s parents and other relatives must have been carrying the anxiety of a world at bloody war, including the apprehension of a possible invasion by brutal at times genocidal German Fascists, and this anxiety surely must have communicated itself however subtly into the warp and weft of X who now in 2018 aged 79 still carries those buried and haunting resonances whether the bugger knows it or not (and if he is a nigh octogenarian English Jew this is even more germane, no pun intended).

However, all this is very general and I shall now be more specific. It is now exactly 51 years since I sat my O level GCE examinations in 1967, the year of both the radical and hallucinatory Sergeant Pepper album by the Beatles, and of the lightning Six Day War where Israel took on the surrounding Arab countries and in less than a week clawed back what it believed to be its rightful ownership of the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights. Of course, in June 1967, aged 16. I wasn’t thinking about either of those defining events (I didn’t acquire the album until Christmas of the same year) as I was up to my eyes in the make or break O levels which led either to the Sixth Form and university, or to obloquy and oblivion. Yet the truly extraordinary fact is that I can not only remember sitting those sine qua non bastards 50 years on, I can also remember the bulk of their contents, and in some cases to a remarkable degree of specificity. For example, the Biology O level 51 years ago required me to draw freehand a busily sprouting broad bean with the labelled cotyledons. The RE asked me to give the significantly different gospel versions of Jesus’s two separate Miracles of the Loaves and Fishes, respectively The Feeding of the Five thousand and The Feeding of the Four Thousand, with Saints John and Luke completely omitting to mention the latter. The English Literature paper demanded that apropos the HG Wells novel Kipps, our set text, I must give an example of the hero’s social embarrassment when his surprise fortune moved him up the snobbery ladder (I wrote about the ice cream aka the ‘bombe’ going flying in the posh London hotel restaurant, with mortified Kipps blushing and decorously swearing ‘demn’!). But more remarkable than any of that, and this brings in the Second World War again, after a full half a century I can still remember verbatim a specific sentence in the German Dictation exam, both that which Willy Wandless the German master actually dictated, and that which nobody including me the effortless top of his class was able to transcribe correctly.

What I thought Willy Wandless, aka Willy Witless Shitless born 1912, hence 27 when World War Two broke out in 1939, had brayed at us, and thus what I wrote down was, “Allmehrlich nichte er ein.”

I jotted down that terse if musical sentence, even though it made nil sense to me, because I had never heard the first word, presumably an adverb modifying a verb ‘nichten’ of which I had also never heard. The fact that both were unknown to me, was for the simple and laughable reason that they didn’t exist, and indeed it transpired that what Witless Shitless had flung at us teenage ignoramuses was: “Allmahlich, nickte er ein.”

Meaning, “Gradually, he nodded off.”

Wandless was subsequently obliged to send off all our dictation papers to external examiners, but he took a quick look at them before he did so, and then sought me out to upbraid me for getting that very easy sentence wrong. I was his star pupil who regularly got 99% in every exam, and he scowled at me very pettishly as if to say I had let him down badly.

“But we’ve never had the words allmahlich and einnicken in class,” I protested with a blush as it occurred to me not for the first time that schoolteachers, and especially bachelor and spinster ones born anywhere between 1900 and 1920, were often truly bizarre in their outbursts and regularly downright idiotic with some of the things they melodramatically proclaimed.  I did not do so, but could have gone on to say with great feeling that the whole bloody German O level was stark, staring mad in 1967, inasmuch as we were required to demonstrate the utmost familiarity with the obscurest reaches of German grammar, but did very little reading of texts and certainly studied nothing whatever of actual German culture or literature. Thus, while we knew every jot and tittle about the inflection of adjectival endings which a great many Germans themselves get wrong (der junge Mann, den jungen Mann, des junges Mannes, dem jungen Manne) and the suppositional subjunctive, God love us (sei es noch so schwierig, tue ich es doch! Be it ever so difficult, yet I shall do it!) we didn’t know the fucking word for ‘gradually’, surely one of the most essential adverbs in the world (if you doubt me, try going without it or its handy synonyms for a month). Apropos which our German master Witless Shitless was a published author no less, for he himself had written our beginner’s German textbook, full of derring do tales of his own peculiar invention about courageous granddads, epic feats of strength and escaped bulls, and they were peppered with words we would never use in a million years. Amboss for example, meaning a blacksmith’s anvil, that Willy’s Tarzan of a granddad carried on his back across a raging river! Backpfeife, a rare and dated word, meaning slap or smack. Brotkrume, meaning a bloody old breadcrumb! So yes in 1967 when the Beatles were improvising about psychedelic drugs and the boundless cosmos, and the Israelis were briskly routing the hostile Arabs, we befuddled schoolkids knew plenty about anvils, slaps and breadcrumbs, but didn’t know the oh so vital word for gradually, bit by bit, slowly, eventually…

Enough said, and now back to mental arithmetic, which in my view is generally far more instructive than any other field of knowledge. My balls-up of Willy’s O level dictation happened 51 years ago, but then reflect and be truly stunned to realise what in the way of kernel history was going on 51 years before that. That’s right, 51 years before 1967 was 1916, and it was half way through the First World War, and we and our brave allies, the French and the Belgians, were at decimating war with the Kaiser’s troops. And in such a fractured scenario, of course, ordinary Boche soldiers away from the front, were regularly required to guard ammunitions depots and strategic train junctions and the like in the vicinity of Ypres and Passchendaele, and understandably enough a lot of the poor exhausted buggers, short on decent food and brainless with lingering trauma from the trenches, did what exactly, can we imagine? Yes, that’s right, they fell asleep, naturally enough, which is to say, they bloody well nicked ein, for they nodded off as opposed to upping sticks and deserting and fucking off. Let us imagine one of them, let’s call him peacetime farmhand Rudolf Knappertsbusch, helplessly sensing his poor eyelids growing ever heavier in the ammo depot as he dreams of his plump and succulent little girlfriend Heidi Tischbein back home in a village near Monchen Gladbach. Allmahlich nickte der Rudolf ein! ‘Gradually’ and despite himself Heidi’s blameless and uncomprehending peasant boyfriend ‘nodded off’, to be viciously bawled out by an outraged sergeant, a bully called Wilhelm Schatz from Bremen, who said that if it happened again, this flagrant and pansified neglect of duty, he would have Knappertsbusch shot and would happily join in the firing squad personally.

51 years before 1916, when someone like Rudolf Knappertsbusch had been shouted at by someone like Wilhelm Schatz, it was 1865, which was exactly one year before one of the most famous authors ever, HG Wells, entered the breathless and expectant world. He was born on the 21st of September 1866, which means he was conceived somewhere around the 21st of December 1865, a few days before festive Christmas. 102 years later (twice times 51) in 1967 and for my O level, I would be reading the fruits of his creativity in the form of a novel called Kipps, which became famous far beyond the rest of Wells’s fictional comedies (e.g. Ann Veronica or Mr Polly or Love and Mr Lewisham). That was because it was turned into a runaway successful London musical in 1963 called Half a Sixpence and was a vehicle for the stellar promotion of the English pop singer Tommy Steele (his real name was Tommy Hicks) who was born in 1936. Which is to say that HG Wells, whose innocent and charming little novel was responsible for the Swinging Sixties superstar success of Tommy Steele, was 70 years old when his future Artie Kipps = Tommy Hicks/ Steele was born. It seems to me to be also very significant that the musical’s success was at its height in precisely 1963, when the Beatles were already a heraldic presence, but the mop-haired boys were still culturally and affectively speaking the equivalent of the likeable lads next door (aka Tommy Steele with knobs on). There they were with their cheeky but affable Scouser grins, you could if you had wanted have happily introduced them to your aunty or your granddad, and they were certainly nothing like the blearily hallucinogenic long-haired Beau Brummel extravagances they were seen to be a mere four years later on the Sergeant Pepper LP cover. What that means is that though Tommy Steele’s success was colossal and it was in the 1960s, it was not at all a Swinging Sixties success but more like a Belated and Bloated and Austere 1950s success. The novel Kipps was published in 1905 which means it took 58 years to reach in transmuted form the London stage, and by then HG Wells who lived to be 80 had been dead for 17 years. He had seen the end of World War Two and the defeat of the Germans for the second time in that fretful fiasco known as the twentieth century, where wisdom and tolerance and basic kindness and even practical if selfish common sense had seemingly meant nothing at all to anyone. He had also been through wretched self-searching in his final years and aged 78 in 1945 had published a book of only 34 pages, an essay in fact called Mind At The End Of Its Tether. It is a pessimistic and embittered vision of a future where humanity might well be replaced by something else…and of course it was more than likely occasioned by the appalling and quite unbelievable events revealed on the recent documentary newsreel films that anyone could go and watch in the cinema. Piles meaning spectacular mountain heaps of infinitely emaciated corpses, glazed and hollow-eyed little infants among them. Enough said, surely.

As for me, aged 12, I started learning German under 50-year-old Witless Shitless Wandless in 1962, when John Lennon was 22 and Tommy Steele was 26 and was only one year off celebrity, thanks to the novel Kipps which I myself would study 5 years later. Those hideous news reel events were at their unspeakable height in 1944, which is to say only 18 years before I had started off with Willy Wandless reading Ich Lerne Deutsch (written in antique Gothic script) with Richard und Marie and their dog Rolf who bellt laut and their Mutti whose hat was hilariously stolen by a monkey, an Affe, in the zoo when she took her children there. And yes, only 18 years before the loud woof-woofing of good old Rolf and the thieving monkey in the zoo, they were still conscientiously, like the fastidious clerical Beamtes/officials they were, running concentration camps where they immolated and vaporised babies, and elsewhere they were still massacring whole villages of East Europeans as Untermensch Pobel (rabble), weren’t they, if I have it right, which I really think I do?

What I’m getting at is that the arithmetic that we are talking about is strictly mental, and the sooner we all understand that the better for us all.

THE FASCIST LADY WHO WASN’T

The next post will be on or before May 4th. If you want to read my new comic novel about online dating THE LAWLESS BOOK OF LOVE, you need to go to the January and February 2018 archive, see well below and to the right

THE FASCIST LADY WHO WASN’T

A few years back, newly arrived in Kythnos, and being single and infinitely available, I took a look at a Greek dating site where approximately a quarter of the women put their profiles in English rather than Greek. The implication was that they were looking either for Greek men who were sophisticated English speakers (thus likely to have better jobs with their command of the universal language) or foreigners living in Greece for whom the lingua franca was invariably my native tongue. Early on I was struck by the touching photo of a homely-looking lady in her late 50s, an Athenian whose English profile name startlingly was ‘Puglady’. She was as I say homely, but looked nothing like a pug, and I was initially baffled until I read on and saw she was an animal lover and the light dawned (see below for more about dawns and about misunderstanding). From that I deduced she probably owned a pug dog, and paraded it proudly round the parks and plateias of Athens, but it proved once again the risks entailed in compound nouns, especially when misunderstood in translation. I had immediately thought Puglady meant ‘a woman who looked remarkably like a pug’ rather than she was a fan of the little flatnosed and occasionally buckteethed dogs, and if for argument’s sake she had had an adored pet rat called Sophocles and called herself ‘Ratlady’ would she, I wonder, have had a single approach from anyone either Greek or otherwise?

Puglady had elaborated her profile in English, while other women chose to attach a fancy English name, but with the rest of the CV in Greek. One such had herself down as ‘Lady Godiva’ and boldly declared in Greek that she was ‘tactile’. But being tactile and riding into town bare-arse naked on a handsome horse are arguably historically different scenarios, and I wondered what kind of salivating or other response she got from those Greeks and foreigners who knew the striking details of the legendary English story…

More startling than either of those, was a woman whose profile name was Greek and with the rest of her CV in her home tongue. She was a very attractive widow of 60, with vividly animated eyes and the kindest, friendliest face you could imagine, an obvious gem among all the confused and hopeful Pugladys, and those ‘I am very physical’ Hellenic Godivas. But her profile name suggested she was catastrophically dozy and worryingly slow on the uptake, and worse still that no one in their right mind would ever want her as a partner, as she had named herself Xrisiavyi meaning literally Golden Dawn. To be sure, she really did look as sweet and aureous as the tenderest Greek dawn, but Xrisiavyi is also the name of the brutal Greek Fascist party who specialise in beating up immigrants in Athens and even occasionally being caught on telly beating up their parliamentary opponents in Syndagma. I read her profile carefully, double checking with a dictionary, and very obviously she was no Fascist nor vaunting racist, but God love her, in another country and another era she might innocently have called herself StrictlyAngloSaxon or PureAryanLady, not having checked out exactly what Aryan meant (it is in fact Sanskrit for ‘noble victorious invader’, its opposite being ‘mleccha’ meaning ‘indigenous barbarian’, as encountered in Ancient India circa 1500 BC) …

 

IN PRAISE OF MIKE LEIGH

The next post will be on or before Friday April 27th.  If you want to read my new comic novel about online dating, The Lawless Book of Love, you should go to the January and February 2018 archive, see well below and to the right

IN PRAISE OF MIKE LEIGH

Haughty male voice. “Bring me a biscuit, Christine, a Garibaldi!”

“Very well, dear.”

“No, no, bring me a Bourbon instead!”

Thus, Ralph Butcher the middle aged, tyrannical RE (Religious Education) school teacher orders his dogsbody of a wife, netball teacher Christine, the two of them living in a faceless purchased council house in Canterbury, Kent, UK somewhere around the late 1970s, when men could still boss women about and apparently get away with it. In this accomplished 1980 Mike Leigh comedy for TV, Grown Ups, Butcher is played very ably by the late Sam Kelly (1943-1970) with his impressively egotistical owl-like face familiar from BBC comedies like Porridge and Ello Ello. Butcher is aloof and more or less contemptuous of his pupils, and likes to sit in bed reading aloud to Christine their illiterate RE essays. That is the only thing that happens in bed, and Christine played by the beautiful Pinter actress Lindsay Duncan (born 1950) here looking terminally dowdy and with a singsong pedantic voice, still wants a love life and tells Ralph at one harrowing point she would very much like that elusive trio Love, Sex and Happiness. The religion teacher is suitably stumped and makes no comment as he keeps on earnestly reading his books about the Loch Ness monster and other garish mysteries. Earlier, when his wife asked him did he really believe in the fabled monster, he had ranted at her for her lack of Faith, which of course is an interestingly heretical interpretation given that later he declares theirs to be a Christian household. Even better as a comic touch, and reminiscent of the HG Wells shop-owner tyrants in Kipps and Mr Polly, Ralph punctuates his discourse with odd gurgling noises that arise from his stomach but come relentlessly to the surface in his fish-like mouth.

Next door, two of Ralph’s former pupils, now newly-weds in their early 20s, have just moved in. They recognise him, but he doesn’t remember them, which predictably causes him nil embarrassment. Dick the husband is played by Leigh regular Philip Davis (born 1953) and he is a grunting monosyllabic underdog, working wearily as a washer up of greasy casserole tins in a cheap restaurant. He has a permanent expression of bleary disdain, and despite his ever-ready libido is fighting off the ambition of his cafe employee wife, Mandy (Lesley Manville, another Leigh regular, born 1956) to get pregnant ASAP. They are effective working class counterpoints to the childless middle class Butchers, though Dick like bossy Ralph orders Mandy to make him a cup of tea while he is watching telly sprawled on his back, and when she refuses, he gets in a filthy temper. The young and impoverished couple converse in standard aspirational cliché about gathering things together bit by bit, as they have neither Hoover nor washing machine as yet. Partly this is because they like to go out drinking most nights, while unreformed Dick also reserves the right to go carousing with the boys on his own.  And into this quaint opposition of the quietly desperate Butchers and their unglamorous young neighbours, comes the powerful dramatic foil of Mandy’s older sister, significantly called Gloria/Glor and played with absolute genius by Brenda Blethyn (born 1946) familiar both from Leigh dramas and, sad to say an unbelievably dire UK TV police drama, called Vera.

Gloria is a sad, indeed a truly tragic case. She is 32 and single, a zealous office worker, and she lives at home with Mum who nags her if she goes out, and nags her if she stops in. Her only chance of happiness is to spend as much time as possible with Mandy, so she is always gawping through the window and hailing them heartily with her squeaky insinuating voice, oblivious to their looks of frank despair. She always lands when they are about to eat their dinner, and protests that a bit of toast will be enough for her and promptly helps herself at the grill. This makes Mandy and even Dick feel both guilty and resentful, and in Dick’s case gradually explosive. Gloria craftily ingratiates herself by buying double gins for Mandy in the pub after she had promised to join them for the one drink only, then swiftly depart. Even better she turns up one day with a massive parcel which turns out to be a stand- up Hoover and the two sisters purr ecstatically at the joy of the wondrous gadget. And as foil to a foil, we also have Mandy’s old schoolmate Sharon, played perfectly by Janine Duvitski (born 1952) of Leigh’s 1977 Abigail’s Party fame. Sharon is pessimism personified, and Dick’s relentless teasing implies they might once have had something going between them. Mandy proudly shows her round the house where Sharon declares everything is either too small or needs a good clean. She grumbles about her job on the sweet counter in a big store, and says she wants to be on dresses, but once on dresses says she is bored and wishes she were back on sweets.

Things come to a disturbing head when Gloria turns up with her overnight gear claiming her Mum has kicked her out. Mandy happens to be out drinking with Sharon, and Dick is trying to watch football on Grandstand when the maddening pest arrives. On her return he orders Mandy to throw her out, who does her best, but then sobbing Gloria races off and locks herself in upstairs, until pursued by enraged Dick she flees next door to the Butchers! She barricades herself in their toilet and only Mrs Butcher shows anything like mature sympathy when it comes to calming the pathetic hysteric. She orders raging Dick to get out of her house, clouts Mandy across the face when she terrifies Gloria further, and also bellows at bullying Ralph to get out of the way. She manages to get Gloria out of her refuge with a cup of tea, whereupon the pest promptly falls asleep exhausted, and Christine organises Mandy and Sharon to take her home by taxi. All this might have seemed final, and Mandy and Dick might have banned the hopeless sister for ever more, but the film concludes with Gloria bent over her sister’s swollen belly, ecstatic as she feels the baby kicking and realising she is about to become an aunty.

So what to make of Mike Leigh (born 1943) winner of numerous international prizes for his films and TV work, yet still criticised by some for his unsentimental and others might add, cruelly satirical attitude towards his characters? Around 40 years ago the novelist Julian Barnes (born 1946) then TV critic for the New Statesman was complaining that Leigh was uncomfortably patronising towards the working class and putting his audiences into the invidious situation of sneering at what should not be sneered at. Aside from the fact that impeccably intellectual Barnes, would have about as much notion of how to blend into a rough London pub or other mundane milieu as he would of astral travel, where I believe Mike Leigh really deserves to be applauded is with his radical decision not to idealise working people, nor for that matter anyone else in his dramas. He is accused of overdone caricature when he portrays e.g. the appalling slob of a Mancunian Dad (Clifford Kershaw) in Hard Labour (1973) a gruff and loveless nightwatchman with painful feet who treats his charwoman wife (Liz Smith, 1921-2016) like dirt. But sad to say such folk did and do still exist, and I myself have known them, and Leigh really is not parodying anything or anyone to excess. And after all, Leigh is a director and a dramatist, not an idealistic journalist nor sociologist, and if he wishes to, surely he is entitled to bend the coordinates to get the artistic effects he is after. Where he really excels though, is with people painfully on the edge, such as needy hopeless Gloria, or the seriously disturbed driving instructor Scott played brilliantly by Eddie Marsan (born 1968) in the 2008 Happy Go Lucky, or photographer Timothy Spall’s fragile and childless  Scottish wife in Secrets and Lies (1996) or most powerfully of all with Johnny the Mancunian vagabond (the virtuoso David Thewlis, born 1963) jabbering his apocalyptic obsessions, as he wanders round London looking for who knows what, in that remarkable 1993 film Naked. It is an undeniable fact that Leigh specialises in making us feel thoroughly uncomfortable, indeed has us comically squirming in our chairs, as we recognise those sad and appalling and periodically hilarious folk, who are remarkably like ourselves, and those we know, at our worst. Reflect that no one seriously criticised Harold Pinter (1930-2008) for conveying disturbed and damaging eccentrics in hypertrophied form on the stage, and ditto with the subversive Joe Orton (1933-1967) if only because their bizarre protagonists were by and large classless and rootless and far from realistic flesh and blood individuals. Leigh achieves the same unhinging effects, but with extremely credible café skivvies in Grown Ups, and very ordinary London postmen in the 1982 Home Sweet Home, and ditto the unfeeling Manchester nightwatchman, and the convincingly callous Asian taxi driver (a very young Ben Kingsley) in Hard Labour. He presents them quite so unflatteringly and inevitably uncomfortably, just possibly because he sees the notional aesthetic of the audience’s  ‘comfort’, as ultimately bogus and the consequent enemy of dramatic truth.

 

 

THE QUESTION NO ONE DARES ASK – a short story

The next post will be on or before Friday April 27th. If you would like to read my new comic novel about online dating THE LAWLESS BOOK OF LOVE please go to the January and February 2018 archive, see well below and to the right

THE QUESTION NO ONE DARES ASK – a short story

When, after our thirty-year marriage, Joanie died of secondary cancer at the tail end of 2009, once the busy funeral was over, and all the many mourners had come and gone, I realised there was something very simple I wanted people to ask of me, but oddly no one, not a single soul, ever did. It was something remarkably basic and obvious, that I would have wished my friends and colleagues to say, nothing remotely sophisticated, something so natural, not to say short and sweet, I couldn’t imagine why no one said it, but indeed nobody ever did, neither at the time nor for months after until something obliged at least one of them to stop in their tracks and almost do so.

I was living alone in a bloody big house that was stuck out in the country, and which inevitably made things worse. My daughter Sarah was away at university, and of course I didn’t expect her to ask me that question, as she was grieving herself in her own particular way, and it was not appropriate for her to put to me, what my friends and workmates, most of whom were at least twice her age, I believed should be putting. My situation reminded me vividly of that of my Dad when my mother had died back in 1990. He also lived in a bloody big house, and she also had died of cancer, though in her case and unlike Joanie she had sat like some obstinate broody hen on the appalling symptoms, kept it all a close secret, and had not consulted the doctor for an incredible, and of course very hazardous, eighteen months. It is a tired cliché but my Dad really was lost without my mother, because his social life had come exclusively through her, as she was the last word in gregariousness and hospitality, whereas he was very shy and naturally reclusive. Once she died everyone apart from me, my brothers and one of his sister in laws, stopped coming to the big old mansion in that grimy village down west, and manifestly he did nothing to encourage any visitors. He didn’t drive but could have taken a bus or even a train easily enough to see old acquaintances, but instead he stayed at home and pushed the time in as best he could. He read the paper, he read his library books, he watched TV, he endured the occasional visits of one or two old villagers, but if they too were widowed or otherwise abandoned he felt no ameliorative kinship. He told me that one unfortunate old man whose wife was severely demented and agonisingly didn’t know him from Adam, bored him to death, and he made a point of offering him neither tea nor coffee in case he opted to extend his visit. The result was that my father was thoroughly bored with his long and empty days, that he frequently went to bed at 7.30, the time a six- year-old child might have, and that every night he firmly bolted the door fast against the uncomprehending and increasingly unappetising world.

It was only a few days after my mother’s death that I visited him with one-year-old Sarah and it occurred to me at once to ask him the simple question that twenty years later I would want people to ask of me. So I put to him my obvious query and he looked at me a little startled and then his eyes filled up and his voice broke for the first time in many years and very huskily he answered:

“Of course, I do! Of course, I do. What else could I do?”

He was dead some two years later aged seventy-six of a rapid stomach cancer which indeed might have been seen to be looming on the horizon. It was all too explicable given his incredible and unhealthy widower’s diet. The first thing he had done after his wife’s death was to empty her copiously equipped kitchen of all but one breakfast bowl, one tea plate which would also accommodate his dinner, one set of cutlery, and a single small saucepan. His sister in law Josie who drove through every Friday night, brought him half a dozen meat pies she had baked herself, and he ate half a one of these that he had heated in the oven every lunchtime and every evening, employing the cooker rings only to warm up some baked beans or tinned peas. And that was it. Twice a day for all of two years he had pie and beans or pie and peas, and nothing else aside from his breakfast cereal.

As for my workmates, or better say professional colleagues, though in a different social and intellectual strata from my factory worker father, they were just as extreme in their omissions. This was my third year of working in a European Literature university department, though I was not employed by the university but by a private charity, and my job was to teach the students how to structure and write their essays, theses, reports and doctorates. If you included the secretaries and administrators, there were about thirty colleagues in all, and when I went back after Joanie’s death, I expected most of them sooner or later to say something, however perfunctory, about the fact I had lost my wife. Note carefully that I am not talking about them putting the urgent question that I really wanted them to put, but just to acknowledge the fact that after thirty years, no small time lapse, I no longer possessed a wife. I should likewise emphasise there was no way in which they could have been in ignorance about it, as the department secretary I shared had sent a memo round about their colleague’s bereavement. And yet as the days and then the weeks went by, only two out of thirty went so far as to acknowledge my loss. One man, bustling energetic Danny Ross, was a lecturer I had first met elsewhere, who also had a wife and the one daughter, and he sent me a delicate and calligraphic sympathy card with a single violet on the front, and I immediately filled up as I read it very slowly. The other was the big surprise, for handsome, sharp-featured Margo De Lisle was the most flagrantly anti-social of the teaching staff, a German lecturer who was an expert on Theodor Fontane, who customarily walked around with her head down and didn’t bother with the usual niceties of casual greetings. Instead today she knocked barely audibly on my door, shuffled in, looked me shyly in the eye, and said she was really sorry to hear of Joanie’s death. I smiled and thanked her and made us both a coffee and told her that only she and Danny, who ironically taught the affectless existentialists Camus and Sartre, had offered their condolences, and no one else had spoken a word.

She looked moderately shocked. “That is certainly altogether strange.”

Of her own initiative, she mentioned the omission to a gentle and amiable man called Roy Stenhouse who taught Lorca and Fernando Pessoa. Roy had always stopped to chat to me whenever we passed in the corridor, and he now went so far as to send me an email saying that he hadn’t mentioned my bereavement in case it upset me, and he also presumed that was the case with the other colleagues who it seemed had also tactfully said nothing. Reflecting that his office was twenty yards away and he could have come and told me his explanation in person, I pondered a while then emailed back to say that I had guessed that might be the reason for all the silence. The trouble was that I wasn’t a mind reader, and like everyone else bereaved you don’t know whether the silence is because people wish to protect you, or to protect themselves, or a feasible mixture of both, or because never having met your wife they don’t, perhaps forgivably, care quite enough, or because they never read the memo, or because they have toothache. I didn’t put in the email that if I had been living in rural Ireland everyone would have come up and shaken my hand, and said with real sincerity, I am sorry for your loss, or if I had lived anywhere at all in Greece they would have solemnly approached, kissed me on both cheeks, shaken my hands and not been surprised if I had shown some open grief. Nor did I add that all these twenty odd lecturers and readers and profs were celebrated specialists in foreign literature, whose trademark, whose very essence, from Dostoievsky to Colette and Grazia Deledda and back again, was deep feeling, deep passion, love, loss, life, death and yes Death again, and that was where I and Roy Stenhouse and the other twenty odd academic mutes came into the baffling picture again.

Then a breakthrough, a timely intervention, a deus ex machina, an example of that ineffable albeit transcendent duo Time and Chance being quietly at work, as they always are, even if we are not aware of it. One night in March I was fishing through my old video cassettes (ironically Roy Stenhouse was the only other person I knew who still played his video cassettes) when I chanced upon Stanno Tutti Bene, starring handsome Marcello Mastroianni as Matteo in one of the last films he ever made, only two years before his death. The title means Everybody Is Fine which is a gross thematic misrepresentation, as old Matteo who lives in Sicily discovers, when of necessity he goes to visit his five grown kids on the mainland, seeing that they never come to visit him, and are always full of lame excuses. It turns out they never visit as they have been lying about their posh jobs and happy marriages, for one has lost his professorship, another is no longer a classical musician, yet another with an absentee husband has hidden the fact that she works as a lingerie model and sometimes has to leave her infant unattended and gaping uncomprehendingly at blaring daytime television. The point is that on his way to the mainland by train, and before he makes these infinitely bleak discoveries, Matteo is so excited about seeing his wonderfully successful kids, he is bursting to tell his fellow passengers about them. However, he has a problem that was exactly my own problem, for amiable as old Matteo looks, with his thick lenses and puffin-like gaze, no one thinks to ask him anything at all, so that with a lateral Zenlike inspiration that took my breath away guileful Matteo simply orders them to ask him what he wanted to be asked.

Ask me what Tosca does in Milan! Go on! Ask me!  Ask me how much Canio, Alvaro and Guglielmo make in their jobs in Turin and Florence, twice as much as I ever did I can assure you! And Norma’s husband, what does he do for an easy living, ask me that, and how much does he pocket in his cushy post? Go on! Ask me!

His fellow travellers are naturally touched by the earnest and excited old man, and his unfettered pride in his legendary children, and they duly put to him the questions he has ordered them to put. At once I decided I would take a leaf out of wily Matteo’s book, and do that tomorrow myself, with the one and only question I had wanted to be asked ever since Joanie had died. And while I was at it, I would go to the very top of the tree, and put my demand to the Head of Department, an affable if markedly staid Zola specialist called Professor Rex Entwhistle. He was the boss of the European Literature department, but not my boss of course, as I worked for a charity and was thus to a certain extent an independent and autonomous appendage, a detached and thereby arguably inviolable professional, because in plain and unambiguous terms Rex Entwhistle was not my line manager and therefore I was not answerable to him…

He however would be answerable to me. I caught him the next day bustling his way through the deserted corridor, and he looked at me a little uneasily now that I was a widower, and would have gone on with no more than a nod had I not indicated I wished to parley. With his fluffy stuck up hair and blameless knitted sweater, Rex exuded a very boyish aura, as if he was at fifty only a larger version of what he had been at ten. He was one of the sunniest and most compliant men I had ever met, and it amazed me that he was a devoted fan of Emile Zola who as everyone knows, must be one of the rawest, shocking and most challenging authors in all of world literature. Perhaps it was all to do with embracing your opposites, for I couldn’t really imagine Rex Entwhistle making himself a martyr over some English equivalent of Dreyfus, then fleeing to France to escape the long arm of the outraged English law.

I didn’t waste any time, but got down to business. I said briskly, “Rex, I need to ask you a favour.”

He beamed uncertainly. “No problem. Whatever I can do for you.”

“I want you to ask me a question, Rex!”

He blinked and started. “Eh? You wan-”

“Yes, I want you to ask me a specific question!”

He beamed once more, though only at half voltage. “Surely you mean that you want to ask me a question.  What you just said, doesn’t really make sense.”

I snorted in a markedly superior tone. “Yes it does, believe you me! You see, it’s a very specific question I would very much like all my of friends and my colleagues to ask. But sad to say, and it’s driving me mad, none of them ever do.”

He stared at me then moderately frightened, as if I might just be about to colourfully and embarrassingly go to pieces. Which might have been why he promptly decided to dodge things with a spurious levity.

“You must mean a kind of riddle or joke? Hah. That’s it, isn’t it? This is your particular way of telling a gag!”

I snorted yet again. “There’s a gag involved OK, but not the type you mean. No, you see it’s to do with my wife Joanie dying, as she did, of cancer after being a full ten years in remission, just three months ago. We really thought she was fully in the clear, we were very happy together for all of thirty years, and ever since she died I’ve wanted all my friends and colleagues to ask me just one very simple question. Well actually no, that’s a lie, Rex, it elaborates into maybe two or three related but very simple questions. But as I say, no bugger ever asks these truly naïve and childlike questions, and so, as far as I can see, the only way I can get them to ask them, is by ordering them to do so!”

Rex went pale. Then in a vain and rather ugly struggle, he became irritated. “You cannot order people to ask you specific things! That’s altogether crazy, surely.”

I stared at him persuasively. “Not if it drives you crazy, when they don’t ask you!  And in any case, being ordered to ask something, isn’t always a sign of craziness on the part of someone making the request. Consider something obvious and undeniable. You like me are an affectionate Dad, aren’t you, Rex? When your kids were little, surely they would often dress up as a king or queen or a wizard or a witch, and say to you, Dad, ask me what it is I’m supposed to be!”

Rex was palpably twitching at that. “But dammit, man, you’re not a little kid!”

I snorted for the third time. “I bloody well am in this case! Grief is a great leveller. It works in transcendent, meaning atemporal terms, which is why so many folk are running scared of it. So for present purposes, Rex, and as far as you’re concerned, I am like a child, albeit aged fifty-nine. So here we go, Prof Entwhistle. Get ready…”

He snapped at me in what looked like terror, “No! No, I bloody won’t!”

I frowned and swiftly blocked his path, and shouted, “Ask me exactly what it’s like for me now that my lovely wife has died. Go on! Fucking ask me, Rex!

“No! Will I hell as like!”

Ask me, you useless bastard! Ask me exactly what it’s like on the inside now that she’s gone for ever, after all of thirty bloody years. Ask me what it feels like from within, day to day, and day after fucking day. “I then paused surprisingly businesslike as he stared at me in his frozen owl-like trance.”Just think about it for a moment, Rex. You spend your days meditating on the troubling and incendiary emotions that the genius Emile Zola evokes in his millions of readers. So why can’t you take two minutes to meditate on mine?”

He gulped. “No! Like hell! You’re behaving as if you’re bloody mad! No, I won’t. It is not in my remit.”

“Eh, Rex? Your remit? Your remit, Rex! But your hero Emile Zola would have had no trouble in asking me! If he’d been here today in this university corridor in 2010, I promise you he’d have been the first to ask the question, and without even needing to be asked.”

Rex cleared his throat with evident great relief and pointed out the significant contextual problem.

“But I’m not Emile Zola! Am I? I mean-”

At that I was seized by what seemed a timely and truly therapeutic laughing fit, and I could even imagine Joanie laughing her lovely head off with me. I looked wonderingly, in real bafflement, at Rex in his chunky cable knit sweater, and with his out of date phone poking out his back pocket, and his country curate style face, like that of a genial adolescent who is still the blameless favourite of his prudish old aunts and his bluff old uncles. Then I smiled and swiftly unblocked his path, and watched him hurry off as if he had some tiger in pursuit. At last, I shouted:

“You’re so right there, old pal. I mean you’re so right, Professor Entwhistle. I promise you that Zola would never have asked you anything at all, whether prompted by you, or by the movements of the stars.”

 

THE NEW AND IMPROVED BRIGHTON ROCK

The next post will be on or before Friday 20th April. If you would like to read my latest comic novel about online dating THE LAWLESS BOOK OF LOVE, please go to the January and February 2018 archive, see well below and to the right. Please note I now have a new Facebook Author page at https://www.facebook.com/JohnMurrayAuthor/

 

THE NEW AND IMPROVED BRIGHTON ROCK

Sam Riley (born 1980) is such a gifted actor his portrayal of the youthful psychopathic gangster Pinky in the 2010 remake of Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock (1938) makes you so angry you want to get in there and give him a good hiding. Riley has variously played the doomed Joy Division rock star Ian Curtis and Sal Paradise the flamboyant hero of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road so he is evidently a versatile actor. Here he combines a vicious surliness with a frighteningly cold and affectless expression, the only sign of any human tenderness being the fact he has a framed photograph of presumably his Dad in wartime uniform of whom we learn nothing during the film. Brutal and amoral as he is, he is also a staunch believer in his Roman Catholic faith and at one stage says to his pathetic partner Rose that it is the only thing that makes any sense, especially the reality of Hell with its eternal fire.

The film updates the 30s novel to the early 1960s just as the original 1947 film with Richard Attenborough as Pinky set the action in the 1940s. Pinky is a part of a Brighton criminal gang specialising in protection rackets, which is run by the elderly Spicer played by the tried and trusted Philip Davis (born 1953) notable elsewhere for his bleakly comic performances in Mike Leigh movies. Spicer drinks heavily and is evidently exhausted and losing his nerve, so teenage Pinky has no problem in frightening him into apparent submission. These two plus their cohorts Cubitt (Craig Parkinson born 1976 who regularly plays bluff, no nonsense London detectives) and Dallow portrayed by Nonso Anozie (born 1978) who is of part-Nigerian descent, find themselves in opposition to the mighty Colleoni, extortionist and gambling magnate par excellence. Andy Serkis (born 1964) who has previously played the anarchic singer Ian Dury makes a magnificent Colleoni so vulgarly rich he has a permanent suite in Brighton’s poshest hotel and a host of suited minders stationed permanently downstairs to vet any potential visitors. Pinky comes to see him alone and unprotected where he states his fearless opposition to the great man and the fact he is ready to betray Spicer, to lure him to the pier where Colleoni’s men can do what they like with him. Things have become very unstable since Pinky went too far in beating up rival gangster Fred Hale (Sean Harris, born 1966, who interestingly has also played Ian Curtis) and ended up braining him with a rock underneath the pier. He was supposed to give him a hiding no more and Spicer is enraged now that all of them face capital charges. My DVD copy says the action is set in 1964 which was indeed the year that the last execution by hanging was performed in the UK (it was finally abolished a year later) but that date also fits with the pitched battles between Mods (qv tidy haircuts and riding scooters) and Rockers (greasy tonsures and straddling motorbikes) which are also an integral part of the film, and present an effective counterpoint of youthful criminal deviance to the organised variety.

Spicer has additional reason to be very alarmed as there was a pier photographer took a snap of him intimidating Fred Hale as Hale tried to save himself by claiming he was with his girlfriend, a rather gormless café waitress called Rose. Rose, on her lunch break, didn’t know Fred from Adam but the photographer unwittingly took a group shot of Hale looking terrified, Spicer looking angry and Rose looking baffled just a few minutes before Hale was battered to death by Pinky. The photographer gives Rose a piece of paper which will redeem a gratis print of the photo if she turns up at his newspaper offices, from which point on she becomes inevitable key to the development of all else.

Rose is played by rising superstar Andrea Riseborough (born 1981) who justly made her name in the 2014 Birdman starring Edward Norman and Michael Keaton. She wears unflattering glasses, is hesitant, inarticulate, and the last word in confused insecurity. Back home she has a bad-tempered Dad who bellows at her all the time and in the café where she works she believes that the other girls shun her. Pinky wastes no time in tracking her down in the cafe and brazenly ingratiating himself, pointing out they have so much in common, both being Roman Catholics, both largely friendless, hence very wisely trusting no one. He arranges a date that same night, then steals the paper slip for the incriminating photo from her coat pocket. Nonetheless his paradigm instability means in small things he cannot control himself, and when the service is slow in Rose’s café he batters the table deafeningly to get some attention. This earns the ire of the café manager Ida played brilliantly by Helen Mirren (born 1945) who I’m not customarily a fan of if only because she stars in so many lightweight films, but she surely shows her mettle here. She evidences a dryness, wryness and mordant worldly-wise persona that must have needed decades as an actress to perfect. She is throughout the film wonderfully paired with her old mate the equally shrewd and unfoolable Corkery the betting shop owner flawlessly portrayed by that virtuoso, the late John Hurt (1940-2017). Meanwhile regardless of the damning photograph, there must have been witnesses of Rose in conversation with Hale and Spicer, so Pinky immediately goes out of his way to terrify his new date into submission. He tells her about other young girls in Brighton who have blabbed about things they have seen relating to gang members, and who have had acid thrown in their faces as a result. He then brings out a phial of sulphuric he keeps for emergencies and proceeds to burn the wood of the bench they are sitting on. Rose is suitably aghast and when Pink asks her to swear a vow of allegiance to him and of silence to the world, she does so at once, and overall she is convincingly portrayed as someone who demonstrates a mindless devotional slavery as a function of her exceptionally low self-esteem.

After his conversation with Colleoni, Pinky lures nervous Spicer to the pier supposedly in order to make peace with the town’s criminal overlord. Spicer wants out of the stressful gangster life so has plans to purchase a little pub up in Nottingham and wants Pinky to buy him out, and even grovelingly tells the young psychopath he will always be welcome in his pub for its perfect pint. To the accompaniment of Mods and Rockers scrapping on the same beach, Spicer is cornered by half a dozen thugs and his heartrending screams are just audible against the racket of the battling youth. The Colleoni boys however double-cross Pinky and pursue him too and there is a telling scene where Pinky shows his vulnerability as after his escape he sits down and cries his terror and his outrage. When he gets back to the ugly subterranean flat where he and the rest live, to his astonishment he is told that Spicer has returned too, for indeed the betrayed gang boss had managed to get away. Pinky confronts him in his bedroom where badly battered Spicer is hurriedly packing and he taunts him with a stick of Brighton rock inserted threateningly into his mouth. We aren’t shown exactly what follows. but shortly after Spicer is seen washed up on the seashore with the Brighton rock rammed deep into his throat as effective choking device.

Pinky’s next inspiration is to marry Rose, as the law, as it then stood, was that a wife could not testify against her husband in court. For that he needs to get permission from her appalling Dad who like Pinky lives in some dog rough subterranean annexe, effective contrast to the palatial mansions which populate Brighton sea front and in front of which the disenfranchised teenage gangs gleefully battle it out. More significantly the rooms where Pinky, Dallow and Cubitt hang out are bleak and desolate to the point of no return, so that when for instance Pinky takes Rose home from the registrar office wedding and has her brutally on the bed, the surroundings are so wonderfully horrible we suddenly decide that Pinky’s obsession with the Catholic hell is vividly exemplified by the place in which he lives, a barren rabbit warren with its mental hospital beds and leaden cupboards so unbelievably ugly it is truly infernal.  Before he can enjoy Rose though, Pinky has to literally buy her off her loveless Dad who smilelessly barters for £175 so that his daughter gets properly looked after. Soon after, horrified Ida, pretending to Dallow to be Rose’s mother, tracks her down at home, and urges her to give up on the double murderer (of opponent Hale and ally Spicer) and warns her that he only married Rose to avoid her testimony in court. Rose promptly pulls one of Pinky’s knives on her, but wise Ida feels only pity rather than anger at her hopeless simplicity and suicidal infatuation. She and Corkery even go and visit Colleoni to plead for Rose’s safety, as the next logical step is that Pinky will murder his new wife given her tendency to blab what had happened despite her husband’s threats.

Before Pinky takes her on what he hopes to be her final journey, Rose begs him to make a romantic record on Brighton pier in one of those 1960s self-recording booths. In a harrowing scene and with his frighteningly blank, immobile face, Pinky inside the kiosk starts by saying that she wants him to say he loves her, but that he hates everything about her, including her clothes her face and her conversation. Rose stood outside the soundproof booth is beaming seraphically at the man she loves, who is evidently saying wonderfully sentimental things about her. With a gun in his pocket, he then puts her on his scooter and drives them up to remote high cliffs where he urges to her shoot herself in the ear (it won’t hurt at all I promise!) and with Pinky guaranteed to do the same right after. Riseborough’s acting here as she faces death to appease the man she loves beyond words, is a masterly evocation of fear, grief and cruel pathos. Cue Dallow and Ida immediately in pursuit in a battered little car that at first won’t start as an impressive exercise in deus ex machina dramatics. Dallow, thank God, manages to beat Pinky off and the two of them engage in a mortal combat. I won’t spoil things by telling you the precise grisly ending but suffice to say Pinky meets an appropriate Nemesis whereas poor Rose, pregnant by her dead husband, ends up in a Catholic refuge run by nuns for unmarried mothers. Still infatuated and loyal to the end, she borrows a record player and plays Pinky’s booth recording and thanks to a glitch peculiar to cheap old vinyl remains convinced to the end that Pinky had loved her beyond words.

The only complaint I have about this excellent film is the unsatisfactory and seemingly contrived religious motif, and I would level the same objection at both the 1947 movie and Graham Greene’s original novel. Pinky’s allegiance to his RC faith is as it were glued on to his persona rather than rising from it naturally, and the same could be said of Pinky/Attenborough’s 1940s allegiance and ditto re the protagonists in many of Greene’s novels and their film adaptations (e.g. The End of the Affair and its 1999 movie) where guilt and arctic loneliness seem to be the thematic pivot, but as it were slapped on adventitiously, almost formally, by seemingly ecclesiastical decree. At one point Sam Riley gets on his knees to beg for delivery from his pursuers, and later Rose goes into church to pray for their happiness on the day of the wedding, but it all seems oddly glued on after the event rather than stemming naturally from the otherwise convincing characters.

Very recently I have been complaining about inept remakes of film classics whereas I would argue the opposite here. This 2010 adaptation seems to me to be streets ahead of the 1947 classic which is often lauded by critics as an exemplary work of genius. I would say that apart from Attenborough’s impressive acting as bloodless Pinky, everyone else in the original comes across as standard 1940s wooden, perpetually talking and barking their lines rather than feeling them. This remake was the directorial debut of Rowan Joffe (born 1973) who decided to make more of Greene’s ‘Roman’ dimension, which alas in my view was no strategic improvement. Other than that, the film deserves a full 5 stars and it might be of interest to know it was shot in Eastbourne rather than Brighton, a Sussex seaside town I have not yet visited.