The next post will be on or before Thursday April 5th. If you want to read my new comic novel THE LAWLESS BOOK OF LOVE please go to the January and February 2018 archive, see well below and to the right


I have been a paid-up fan of the US directors Joel and Ethan Coen (born 1954 and 1957) for about 15 years now, but it has only just occurred to me how a good deal of their finest comedy is actually achieved. In many of their best films we have the entertaining spectacle of torrential babble, of breathless eloquence, much of it inane and/or childishly deceitful. Thus in the 2008 Burn After Reading the fitness centre employee played by Frances McDormand (born 1957, and wife of Joel Coen) talks a wonderfully feverish streak to the phlegmatic plastic surgeon about the state of her floppy backside and the lines under her eyes, and in the same movie one of the finest comic actors on the planet, George Clooney, a genial philanderer deceiving both his wife and his glacial mistress Tilda Swinton, is also dating McDormand behind Tilda’s back, and he wins her over principally with his febrile banter. Ditto when Clooney is the loquacious escaped convict insisting on one specific hair pomade in Oh Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) or think also of the slippery divorce lawyer in the 2003 Intolerable Cruelty where George manages to rapidly reassure acquisitive Catherine Zeta-Jones (born 1969) of his ability to exact divorce settlements, whilst rubbing his toothpaste-covered finger all over his state of the art cosmetic dental work.

In the 2001 film noir The Man Who Wasn’t There which won Joel Coen the Best Director Award that year at Cannes, the central character, the gaunt and puzzled barber Ed Crane, is the opposite of all that, for he is monosyllabic and borderline mute, whereas he is surrounded on all sides by folk who never shut up. Speechless Ed is played with amazing virtuosity by Billy Bob Thornton (born 1955) who by contrast in Intolerable Cruelty acted the brash and gauche Texan fiancé of Zeta-Jones and is notable for other hectic extrovert parts as in the movie he wrote and directed himself, Daddy and Them (also 2001) where he co-stars with Laura Dern and Brenda Blethyn. But this present moody film noir account of a vulnerable man perpetually lost for words, is set in 1949 in a small Californian town called Santa Rosa, and is shot in mesmerising black and white by the cinematographic genius, the Englishman Roger Deakins. Much of the action is focused in the barber shop where silent Ed’s permanently burning cigarette is virtually a leading character in itself. Ed has crinkled, waved and gelled hair convincingly of the period, and his employer and fellow barber is his brother in law Frank (Michael Badalucco, born 1954, star of the TV legal series The Practice) who blethers his manic anecdotes to his generally stunned customers. One day a wily individual called Creighton Tolliver who is proud of his expensive toupe, sits in Ed’s chair and before long is telling him of his money-making scheme involving that mindboggling new process called Dry Cleaning. Tolliver is played with predictable expertise by Coen Bros regular the late Jon Polito (1950-2016) a glib and fast-talking conman, so convincing that Ed visits him in his hotel room and says he can find the $10,000 to invest in dry cleaning if Tolliver will allow him. Tolliver blusters his delighted assent, but then sat on his hotel bed makes a dangerous move, by showing a sexual interest in Ed, whereupon the barber delivers one of his rare speeches, which throughout the film are often repeated for emphasis.

“You are way out of line there, mister. Yep, you are way out of line.”

Ed Crane, true to the noir genre, is in addition voice-over narrator of this crime story, where he is rather more discursive about life and its pitfalls, the business of love and its inconsistencies and unpredictabilities. Yet it is only right at the end of the film, we see the grim context in which Ed is telling his tale, and the Coen Bros were surely tactically wise to keep that as the secret and ultimate revelation.

Ed is keen to make his fortune by investing in dry cleaning, but of course he doesn’t have $10,000. However his wife Doris (McDormand) is bookkeeper for a profitable clothes store managed by one Big Dave Brewster, and the business comes courtesy of Dave’s wife, Ann, a strange and very plain woman with wildly staring eyes. Doris who has a drink problem, is having an affair with Dave who is instantly recognisable as Tony Soprano, meaning the celebrated actor James Gandolfini (1961-2013) who died sadly young at only 51 of a heart attack. Big Dave talks an entertaining streak as evidenced by a dinner party the Cranes throw, where Doris hoots hilariously at his patter, while her husband sits painfully speechless. Later Ed craftily types an anonymous note to Dave, saying he knows about the affair and demands $10,000 dollars  to be dropped at an agreed pick-up place. Panic- stricken Dave gets Doris to embezzle the money, and duly hands it over, but then unbeknownst to Ed, he bumps into Tolliver who not only tries to con another 10K but also makes a pass at him. Dave duly throttles and disposes of the shyster in a river, but we do not learn this until later in the film. Shortly after the handover, Dave summons Ed a second time to the clothes store at dead of night, where eventually he reveals he found on Tolliver’s person a laughable business ‘contract’ and a receipt with Ed’s signature upon it. He then proceeds to strangle Ed who only saves himself at the last minute by stabbing him fatally in the neck with a cigar trimmer and then immediately flees the scene.

An anxious and disorienting period elapses before two comically bluff detectives with trilby hats turn up at the barber shop. Ed assumes they have come to arrest him, but no they have looked at the store accounts and have decided it must have been Big Dave’s employee Doris murdered him after he discovered the embezzlement, and she is now in jail on a capital charge…

“It’s a tough deal, pal”, the tecs croak by way of tender counselling. “Yeah a tough deal.” And they even offer him a calming cigarette but of course he has one already on the go.

Doris hasn’t told the detectives about her shameful affair with Dave, nor about the compromising blackmail letter, and when he visits her in jail, to spare her, Ed says nothing either. He takes with him the best attorney money can buy, the incredibly garrulous and bombastic Freddy Riedenschneider from Sacramento played to perfection by Tony Shalhoub (born 1953) best known as lead of the cult detective show Monk. Freddy insists on staying at the best hotel in town, and is a gourmand with a massive appetite who shovels down food whilst rattling like an express train through the details of the case. In the jail Freddy orders both husband and wife to keep their mouths shut, and let him do the talking (‘I’m an attorney and you’re a barber! You know nothing!’) At first, even this star attorney can’t see any fruitful line of defence, until he discovers, thanks to his hired private eye, that Big Dave was lying about his war record, for far from being a one-man hero against the Japs, he spent his time in an army office and had also been fined for assault a couple of times after the war. Meanwhile Ed suddenly makes the momentous statement that he, not Doris, had killed Big Dave, because Dave was his wife’s lover, a revelation which babbling Freddy blindly interprets as a strategy to save his wife, not the truth. It is all matterless however, for all of these tactical possibilities come to nothing, as Doris hangs herself on the morning of her trial, whereupon her brother Frank, Ed’s boss, takes to drink, having already mortgaged his barbershop to the hilt to pay for Freddy Riedenscheider.

As moving counterpoint to all of this, when visiting an old family friend Walter Abundas (Coen Bros veteran Richard Jenkins, born 1947) Ed encounters his shy teenage daughter Rachel aka Birdy playing classical music at the piano. Birdy is portrayed by Scarlett Johannsen who was only 17 when this film was made, and she plays the gauche and motherless girl with an impressively disingenuous face. Ed knows nothing about Beethoven and Mozart, of course, but says to her clearly smitten:

“Well that really was something, Yep, that surely was quite something.”

In one of the most affecting scenes in the film, one evening he chances across Birdy in the street, where she is doing the normal thing of flirting with a good-looking young boy next to his 40s jalopy. Thornton expertly conveys Ed’s surprise and middle aged disappointment, as he is painfully polite to both Birdy and the boy, and rapidly turns heel with an embarrassed excuse. At this point Ed the narrator recalls that his childless marriage to Doris who was an alcoholic as well as unfaithful, followed on from her terse suggestion that after only 2 weeks dating, Ed really ought not to delay but to marry her right away. She had then thoughtfully appended the sensitive compliment that she really liked Ed Crane because he rarely talked…

Bizarrely enough, there is an unexpected science fiction motif appears twice in this film and though it doesn’t spoil anything, I still haven’t worked out its intended significance. Prior to Doris’s suicide, Big Dave’s strange looking widow Ann turns up in the middle of the night to tell Ed that once on a camping holiday in Oregon they had encountered a flying saucer and that Dave had gone on the space ship to talk to the aliens. Hence his murder had obviously been done by the paranoid US government, not by his poor wife Doris! Thoroughly ruffled by that, Ed turns to Birdy for comfort and is so smitten that he volunteers to pay for her to have piano lessons with a French expert in Sacramento. He drives her up there for a preliminary interview, where the great man laughs at Ed, and says Birdy is a nice little girl sure enough, but with those plinky plonk fingers of hers she will make a good typist and no more. Miserably driving them home, Ed angrily damns the foreign expert but young Birdy has rather more common sense and says she never planned to be a serious musician anyway, but instead she hopes to become a veterinarian.

“A veterinarian?” echoes Ed, clearly out of his depth by now.

Then a classic Coen Bros mad touch. Birdy tells him of her gratitude for his generous concern, and despite his protests, by way of reward, tries to perform oral sex upon her kindly chaperone. Ed inevitably crashes the car against a tree, so that Birdy escapes with a broken clavicle, while he is hospitalised unconscious and severely bruised. When he awakes, he is confronted by the same pair of trilbied detectives who arrest him for the murder not of Big Dave but of Creighton Tolliver, whose body they have just unearthed in a river, together with his dry cleaning contract with Ed.

Ed is arraigned in court again with Freddy as attorney, where he is physically attacked by Frank who has vainly ransomed his business for his cowardly brother in law. Riedenscheider immediately decides to give up on the case now there is no one to fund him, and the hopeless county attorney gets Ed to plead guilty and to throw himself upon the court’s mercy. The jury dissents, needless to add, the ancient judge shows no mercy, and sentences Ed Crane to the electric chair, when in reality the infinitely confused barber is guilty only of blackmail and self-defence, neither a capital crime. It is at this point we realise why Ed is the film’s narrator, as he is recounting his experiences from Death Row, and has been paid to do so by a lurid magazine who want to know exactly what it is like to be facing the end. Just before the execution, just like chirpy Big Dave and his crazy wife Ann, Ed looks and sees a dazzling spaceship up in the sky, and reflects that he has no regrets and hopes to see Doris again on the other side of Death…

As coda, Billy Bob Thornton has been in at least 2 films involving that grisly item, the electric chair. In this one he is the unjust victim, but in the watchable and no more Monster Ball (2001) he is a prison officer alongside his son, another warder played by the late Heath Ledger (1979-2008) the two of them jointly in charge of the execution of a black man. Without warning Ledger vomits and cops out of performing the electrocution, so that Thornton beats him up and berates him, and Ledger  responds by shooting himself fatally in front of his horrified Dad. It sounds strong stuff, but is sadly not a patch on The Man Who Wasn’t There which is surely an enduring and highly original masterpiece.



The next post will be on or before Sunday 25th March. If you want 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


‘Ormond Sedge was dreadful in bed. He knew he was dreadful because Chrissie had told him: and Chrissie was his wife. Six months after she had married him she had begun to tell their friends. She called him ‘poor Ormond’ because it gave the telling a sympathetic ring; but ‘poor’ in her own mind because he failed to endow her with libidinous riches.’

THE COMPLETE ANGLER (from Collected Stories) by CLARE BOYLAN

Apart from that impressively assured and rhythmic prose, observe also that the Irish author Clare Boylan (1948-2006) who died tragically young of ovarian cancer aged 58, doesn’t do things by halves as a comic writer. Few fiction writers of either gender would make laugh out loud comedy out of male inadequacy, and be assured it isn’t a kind of strident and merciless ideological stance at work, for Chrissie the heartless gossip comes to a very sticky end in this gothic story which arguably puts talented Roald Dahl well into the shade. Meanwhile the problematic couple’s friends are understandably divided by such public humiliation, and there is a fine example of bathos when we are informed that they didn’t like being told poor Ormond ‘had reached a new low, as if he was the pound’. So wise is Boylan’s artistic vision, she adds that the one who minds least is Ormond himself, as he finds Chrissie ‘luscious with frustration’ and can’t wait until he is in bed with her again. In a trice we are in a parallel and updated version of that quaint Shakespearean scenario of the willing cuckold, for which they even had a special word ‘a wittol’, and which for some reason the Dorset literary sage John Cowper Powys (1872-1963) was very fond of using. Chrissie’s solution is to bluntly order Ormond to go and find a mistress, and assuredly it will be no trouble, as the bars were full of single women who ‘paid for some of their drinks and sat with legs shaped for cello practice’.

Just pause for a moment and observe the richness and economy of Boylan’s comic effects. Note the fact the pragmatic women paid for some but not all of their booze (romantic idealism when it comes to finding a quick date, being, as they have learnt the hard way, usually hopeless) and the comic juxtaposition of sexual availability and the chaste image of someone studiously practising the cello. The sequence before he meets his perfect erotic tutor, Bernadette (unfortunately she is ugly and when he reveals his hobby was once stamp collecting, yelps, you poor little prick!) is highly entertaining. The first woman he taps on the shoulder is aptly called Virgin, and when he says he wants to ask her advice about something, her retort is ‘gin and lime’. Boylan orchestrates the story very originally with a literary source The Compleat Angler (1653) by Izaak Walton (1593-1683) because it is fishing which Bernadette recommends as a hobby far superior to philately. Bernadette herself is wonderful in bed, but is said to have make-up that looks like boiled butterscotch sauce, a figure which was warm yeast underneath damp satin skin, and who was also a lot older than anybody else. She twiddles Ormond’s genitals as if they were a squeaky toy, to make him laugh, and then tucks herself around him like a duvet. Later she goes and rummages in her books and unearths the angling classic and indicates how the fishing techniques of dapping and trolling and playing the water and baiting the right flies are analogous to the sensitive way a good lover teases and excites a woman. The punning that follows is always timely, and it is not all drawn from Izaak Walton.

The jealous trout that low did lie

Rose at a well-dissembled flie

There stood my Friend, with patient skill,

Attending of his trembling quill

‘“Sir Henry Wotton wrote that”, she said, adding as a reprimand. “He was over seventy.”’

In any event, studying Izaak Walton does the trick and Ormond ends up a virtuoso lover, whereupon like many a selfish male he returns to his wife and deserts his tutor Bernadette, who sadly is the only kind-hearted person in the story. Clare Boylan’s depiction of these cruel little tragedies that go on every day between and beyond the sheets is far from comforting.

‘For some reason Bernadette seemed to be coming to pieces. It must have been to do with her age. The tears appeared to be melting her face. He was eager to be on his way and forget her. “I’ll never forget you,” he told a palette of running colours. “You led me through troubled water, like Moses.”’

This is altogether reminiscent of the black anticlimax of the plays of Joe Orton (1933-1967), the difference being that at the end of the day no one loves anyone in Joe Orton’s burlesque dramas, whereas Bernadette in vain loves faithless Ormond who in turns loves disdainful Chrissie. Boylan is using these black comic effects not because she herself is callow and cruel, but because she has observed the sometimes preposterous selfishness of both men and women when it comes to matters of the heart. And of course, making us laugh, albeit queasily, at some of these bedroom betrayals, can often be more potent than telling the same thing straight, as a moral or ethical dissection.

Clare Boylan wrote at least three brilliant novels where the tragicomic treatment of adult egocentricity is contrasted with the consequent deprivation of their children. In Holy Pictures (1983), Home Rule (1992), and Room for a Single Lady (1997) set variously in Dublin in the late 19th and early 20th C, we have the scenario of a feckless enterpreneurial father whose reclusive, haughty wife is blindly loyal to him, hence hopelessly disloyal to her deprived and suffering children. Yet the poignant drama is treated as comedy not tragedy, and the children, invariably a trio of sensitive young schoolgirls, survive thanks to a phenomenal inner resilience and a penchant for harmless eccentricity. One of them has a pet hen she takes everywhere round Dublin and another organises a doomed amateur entertainment review with an entrance fee when proud father isn’t around, as they are so poverty stricken they are virtually starving. Searching round for parallels, there is a similar theme of an improvident father and a distraught family in the 1956 The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West (1892-1983), but although it is a fine novel, it does not manage Boylan’s unhinging and exquisite comedy. Clare Boylan’s unique and massive talent was to see things from a stereoscopic comic elevation, to observe them in the nuanced and infinite round, so that even the villains and hopeless cases are seen in a revelatory three if not four dimensions. At least one major fictional talent ‘the English Chekov’ William Gerhardie (1895-1977) made this his prescription for the very highest fictional art, and in my opinion the neglected Clare Boylan is emphatically a major writer who should be made obligatory reading in every household, school and university, as she has so much to tell us that we really do not know.

The Collected Stories by Clare Boylan were published by Abacus in 2000. They should be available via the usual second hand sources



The next post will be on or before Sunday 25th March. If you want to read my new comic novel about online dating, The Lawless Book of Love, please go to the January and February 2018 archives, see well below and to the right.


Regular readers will be aware that I used to spend a great deal of my time in the port’s late lamented Glaros Café which closed down last summer, so much so that I often referred to it as my devtera spiti or second home. I estimate I must have gone in a minimum of 300 days a year, meaning at least 1000 times after I arrived in Kythnos in September 2013. Though women were always welcome, the Glaros was par excellence a man’s cafe, the last old fashioned kafeneion on the island, replete with motley objects stuck on the wall (odd bits of marine flotsam, ancient shepherds’ animal skin water bottles, at Christmas a complete outfit of Agios Vassilis’s/ Santa Claus’s clothes but, moderately unhinging to contemplate, no actual Santa Claus) not to speak of Marianna’s substantial collection of books, some of them unabashedly literary (e.g. Knut Hamsun’s Hunger in Greek) which made it an informal library or even as I once said to Marianna who bristled proudly at my suggestion a little Kythniot panepistimio/ university. Because it was the cheapest place on the island, the Glaros tended to be busy all the year round, regularly full to the gills with labourers both Greek and Albanian, fishermen, shopkeepers taking a break, farmers, builders, electricians and even very occasionally a fearless foreign tourist.

The relevant point is that all the staff were female, the two handsome sister owners Marianna and Chrisoula, fiftyish and late forties respectively, and a succession of seasonal waitresses as a rule in their early thirties, and all of them attractive by any standard. I used to reflect that if this had been a West Cumbrian or North Cumbrian pub, the nearest small community equivalent with which I was familiar, there would have been autopilot flirting by men of all ages, from their late teens to their early nineties, some of it loaded with that exquisitely English sexual double entendres supplied by that other informal UK university known as the Carry On movies. In case you aren’t familiar with this perennially popular entertainment and its more or less unchanging cast, it is all to do with rude punning about sexual and occasionally toilet functions, and even the film titles themselves can be puns. Carry on Up the Khyber is nominally about the 19th C  Afghan wars but Khyber is also Cockney rhyming slang for Khyber Pass = Arse. Carry on Camping has campers innocuously ‘bunking up’ which is also jovial English slang for having sex. Believe it or not certain optimistic British cultural commentators have tried to argue for the artistic merit and creative content of the Carry Ons whereas veteran anarchic director the late Ken Russell (1927-2011) sensibly went public that they were in fact unmitigated rubbish. Notwithstanding, with the filmic doubles entendres mentality as watertight testimonial, in those Cumbrian pubs it would be absolutely standard for certain male customers to make usually low level but occasionally brash and overt sexual innuendo with the female bar staff. At least with some of the older women employees, they would even at times seem to be gamely encouraging it, though I wonder now how much that was rueful learned expectation rather than authentic flirting for fun and for possible maintenance of middle aged self-esteem.

Whatever the case, in my 1000 plus visits to the Glaros, to my surprise I never once saw any of the rough and ready men in there even mildly flirting or being remotely suggestive with its two proprietors, Marianna and Chrisoula, much less the seasonal younger staff, all of them apart from married Marietta being single and notionally available. A great many of these men were divorced or single and in their fifties plus, and it wasn’t that they didn’t have sex drives, as believe you me they were often asking me with no little desperation if I could somehow get them a woman from the UK, possibly by mail order. None of them spoke a word of English, but the fishermen among them would regularly tell me to instruct such eligible UK ladies that by way of enticement they could have any amount of lobster, and/or posh sea breams in the way of fangkri, dourada, sargos and other tasty and, if eaten in Kythnos restaurants, extortionate fish. Stranger still these mostly uneducated men were so polite, old fashioned and respectful, that if say beautiful Chrisoula was in a compromised physical posture on account of e.g. furious internal window cleaning when stood on a chair, with her shapely backside being only six inches from old or young or middle aged Kostas’s nose end (there were always at least 3 Kostases in the Glaros) none of these Kostas avatars would make jokes or naughtily pretend to reach out or even acknowledge that her rear embonpoint was there. Such a chaste scenario would have been wholly unlikely in the small town Cumbrian context, and if I have to scratch round for explanations, maybe the only feasible one is that even the roughest male Greek diamond of any age, even if they rarely go inside an Orthodox chapel, would still have old fashioned and always respectful religious instincts imbued in their bones. As evidence of which on certain holy days the young Horio priest would bustle businesslike into the Glaros, and give every man there (me the Englishman included) an individual blessing, and not one of them did not reach eagerly towards him and thank him warmly and emotionally for the favour.

There are always deplorable exceptions needless to add, even on tiny and unvisited Greek islands. 3 years ago, I wrote about the very awkward yet audacious young man, Mikhailis. a mechanic with a nasal and piercing voice of about 25 from Loutra in the north, who on New Year’s Eve 2014 plonked down opposite me in the Glaros with my daughter Ione adjacent, and tried to do a deal with me whereby I would enthusiastically encourage her to date him. Ione speaks Greek and understood fully what this reckless Lothario was proposing, namely that if I could urge her to go in his romantic direction he would reward me with a couple of nights with a desirable young woman of mid 20s in a deserted shack somewhere on the remote northern coast, and not only that but limitless doppio krasi (homemade wine), feta cheese and lavish quantities of (it was to be presumed organic) honey. Even assuming I hadn’t been stunned by his anachronistic feudal approach to courtship, I would have jibbed at the homemade wine. For even though all the Kythniots love it, to me it tastes like stale cold tea into which someone has drunkenly urinated. When I later told Marianna and Chrisoula about Mikhailis’s unusual offer they laughed uproariously and said he was a nutcase who knew no available young women, nor did he have access to a remote shack with unlimited cheese, wine and honey, whether organic or uncertified.

2 years later the same Mikhailis was to be observed, looking rather restless, in one of the noisy and overpriced bars at the far end of the bay. That night he and another man caused an outrageous ruckus even though they were not in league but engaged on quite separate enterprises. Mikhailis suddenly decided to beat up violently a harmless law-abiding farmhand with a severe squint from the Hora called Panos who he accused of making eyes at his girlfriend Zacharoula, a slim, dark-haired shop assistant from Horio. At that point Zacharoula shrieked her incredulity and said that not only was Panos not eyeing her up, even if he was confusingly cross-eyed, God bless him, but she wasn’t malaka/dickhead Mikhailis’s girlfriend anyway, as like everyone else on the island she believed him to be an idiot and acted accordingly. Self-evidently Mikhailis was a fantasist who wanted a girlfriend so much he ended up believing Zacharoula was his own, though she had never once cast her eyes less than uncharitably in his direction. Then just as everyone was picking up Panos and wondering whether he needed a doctor or not and urging idiot Mikhailis to fuck off before they rang the police, further mayhem originated from immediately next to the bar. A man of fifty called Dimitri who had no connection to Mikhailis and who was married, and a devout Orthodox Christian who crossed himself every time before he ate or passed a church, even if there were ten large and small ones in a row as he drove his farmer’s pickup from Ormo Skhilo, had suddenly acted grotesquely out of character. He had reached out and crudely pinched the behind of the twenty-year-old barmaid Anna, less than half his age, as she was serving drinks to a bunch of tourists and was stooping a little as she conscientiously mopped down their table. Anna was naturally outraged and shrieked abuse at him, but did not slap his face much as she wished to, because Dimitri was a serious body builder and had a lengthy history as a one-time casino bouncer in Thessaloniki up north. Anna stalked off and angrily complained to her boss 60-year-old Stamatis and after half a second’s deliberation he likewise decided not to reprove nor even confront muscle man Dimitri for his unpleasant behaviour. At which enraged and thoroughly betrayed Anna took off her apron and walked out never to return, and devoutly religious Dimitri sat grinning and insisting it had been a fun and wholly inconsequential pinch, and meant nothing whatever in the eternal scheme of things.

Sexual harassment of any kind is never a joke, though it is taking a very long time for a lot of men to wake up to the fact. The recent exposure of gross and abusive harassment by men in positions of power in the US film media and elsewhere, and the fact it has been an open secret for decades, makes for deep historical as well as present tense anguish in the hearts of all striving professional women in whatever career they are engaged. It almost invariably boiled down to a kind of disgraceful and disgusting blackmail, of powerful men and one in particular threatening to ruin young women’s careers if they mentioned the fact that the top honcho had met them semi-naked in his hotel room and was requesting masturbation for starters and everything else to follow. That kind of monstrous coercion is also the ugly motif in the harrowing sexual abuse of children where the child is threatened with everything from e.g. removal from its family, to the killing of its adored pet or even of the child itself if it squeals on the abuser. In the scale of things small children can be made to believe anything, whereas young women in the film industry are not usually threatened with personal extinction (though horrifyingly it is not so in e.g. the coercive international sex industry currently going on day after day in most large UK cities under our ignorant noses). The one thing that can be said about all sexual abusers and sexual harassers is that they are not functioning adults, but deeply infantilised narcissi wholly incapable of putting themselves in their victims’ shoes. The vicious lackeys and cohorts of sex traffickers, likewise can be encouraged towards psychopathic indifference to the victims’ fates by plentiful payment of copious non taxable dosh in the hand. Another appalling variation is where the abuser adopts a public persona where they are seen to be so outwardly virtuous that they cannot possibly be guilty of the awful crimes they are perpetrating in secret. For example the serial predator, UK TV celebrity Jimmy Savile (1926-2011) did epic, truly staggering amounts of charity fundraising, raised millions of pounds for good causes that is, which was surely his grossly alienated sympathetic magic tactic for dissociating himself from his multiple decades as a flagrant abuser. The eerie logic would run that if I do all this phenomenal amount of open public good, I Jimmy Savile cannot really be doing anything that amounts to a phenomenal amount of covert evil.

By comparison gormless Mikhailis the mechanic imagining he has a girlfriend when he has not, and beating up squint-eyed Panos for supposedly ogling her, is almost rustic innocence itself. That said, nobody likes being publicly assaulted in front of their friends, and least of all if you are a cross-eyed farmhand and looking at nothing in particular at the time.


The next post will be on or before Sunday 25th March. If you want to read my comic novel about online dating, The Lawless Book of Love, you need to look at the January and February 2018 archive, see below to the right


Angelic small American boy: I love you, Mommy.

His beautiful young mother: I love you too, honey!

Guess where those two choice and highly original lines come from? The charming old TV series, The Waltons as extolled by George Bush Sr when peevishly excoriating the unAmerican and subversive The Simpsons? The Sixties US kids’ comedy series Just Dennis about the pesky little boy who has a heart of gold and longsuffering if doting parents to match? No, on the contrary they were penned by the celebrated customarily radical UK dramatist Sir David Hare (born 1947), for a fancy and ambitious arthouse movie called The Hours (2002) directed by the Englishman Stephen Daldry (born 1960) who made the 2000 Billy Elliot and the 2016 The Crown. Add to that, that this is a film full to the gills with bankable superstars all of whom sad to say, apart from Nicole Kidman and Stephen Dillane, are flailing about trying to animate what stolidly refuses to be animated. I came to it 16 years after its release, and as it had received a great deal of critical acclaim was prepared for a considerable treat. I arrived admittedly with a good quantity of ignorance, as I didn’t even know it was adapted from a novel by US writer Michael Cunningham(born 1952) which fetes 3 separate narratives, a single day in 1923, 1951 and 2001 respectively, where the characters are all somehow linked to Virginia Woolf’s poignant fictional masterpiece, Mrs Dalloway. Unlike most portmanteau films, only two of the characters straddle more than one narrative, the child and mother above, and as they are two of the weakest creations in the whole ensemble, the film overall was always going to struggle.

Laura Brown played by the gifted Julianne Moore (born 1960) who alongside Ralph Fiennes excelled in the 1999 The End of the Affair is pregnant with her second child and is stuck at home in suffocating 50s LA suburbia with her small boy Richard/ Richie. She is married to decent and tenderly affectionate Dan, a WW2 veteran played ably by John C Reilly (born 1965) who alas is seriously miscast as we are much more used to him playing the uproarious idiot in comic films. Today is Dan’s birthday and given that Laura plans to commit suicide on that anniversary and his unborn child will die as a result, it might have made more sense to cast someone not normally playing the clown. The other overriding problem is that Laura’s suicidal depression is simply stated as a fact, not evoked, and there is nil nuanced evocation of why she is so terminally distressed. Moore does her best just as everyone in this film does their best against the odds, but the thematic pointers are way too loaded and facile. Laura is a fan of a novel whose central character Clarissa Dalloway also mused on death and ending it all, and the book is there on the table when her pretentious neighbour Kitty played by Australian Toni Collette (born 1972) turns up to ask a favour. She picks up the highbrow work uncomprehending, and then drops her suburban smugness and says she is having an operation very likely to confirm her chronic infertility. Above all she wants to have a child, and Laura meanwhile is planning to kill both herself and the foetus inside her, so the symbolism is both overt and top-heavy. As a kind of all-purpose fudge to this, as Kitty breaks down, Laura kisses her full and lingeringly on the lips, as if to hint at a thwarted sexual orientation, though that possibility is explored no further. Once Kitty has gone, she leaves Richie with a neighbour and drives off to a hotel where she plans to take an overdose. As her car departs, Richie played by handsome little Jack Rovello starts kicking the restraining neighbour and shrieking his distress at his abandonment. Jack is definitely the best child actor in the film, but he still doesn’t convince, if only because he is taking his cues from Julianne Moore who really doesn’t know what she is doing with the unfinished and unextrapolated lines they have given her. Meanwhile on the hotel bed she gets out her copy of Mrs Dalloway but before she can take the overdose falls asleep only to have a horrible nightmare of the bedroom being flooded (cue the real Virginia Woolf who drowned herself in a river in 1941). Somehow this wakens Laura up from her depressive stupor, she decides against suicide and returns to pick up Richie (which is where the ‘I love you Mommy’ lines come in) though ultimately she abandons her family to take up a job as a librarian in Canada.

Fast forward 50 years to 2001 and Richie living in NY has become a celebrated novelist and poet who is bisexual and is dying of AIDS. Richie is played with haggard and emaciated conviction by Ed Harris (born 1950) notable for his dour and unfoolable role in David Mamet’s 1992 Glengarry, Glen Ross. The problem is though, that his inadequate emotional foil is a former bisexual partner Clarissa Vaughan portrayed unconvincingly by the I would argue overlauded Meryl Streep (born 1949) who over the years Richie has inevitably playfully addressed as Mrs Dalloway. Just as in the novel, the NY Clarissa is throwing a huge party and is buying colossal quantities of flowers for it. The party is to celebrate Richie winning a coveted poetry award, but weak and battered Richie is not delighted by the belated recognition as he thinks they are only giving him it because he is dying. Clarissa who spends a lot of time caring for and helping her ex is dismayed by such pessimism and later breaks down when Louis Waters, a previous gay partner of Richie’s played by the always genial Jeff Daniels (born 1955) turns up at her house. They swap notes on Richie’s notorious highbrow novel, a tough and demanding read which they both agree clearly portrays Clarissa, and both dilate gauchely about its obscurity and unreadability and Louis pertly exclaims, ‘But nothing happens in it!’. The point I am getting at is that Richie’s terminally ill pessimism is met with the whimsical Sunday supplement foil of two literati twittering and cooing about the great man’s oh so endearing and ineffable highbrow inaccessibility. At this point it would be wise for Stephen Daldry and his cinematic future, to go away and study 2 portmanteau films of real by which I mean towering virtuosity, namely 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006) by the Mexican Alejandro Inarritu (born 1963). The Hours is supposed to be saturated with subtle evocation of death and grief and mortality, but at times it has echoes of a Hampstead/ Manhattan dinner party and the kind of milieu where the London aka New York Review of Books is always prominent on the kitchen table. By contrast Inarritu in Babel has Brad Pitt watching his wife Cate Blanchett apparently bleeding to death on a Moroccan country bus after an ignorant young shepherd boy accidentally shoots her, and later the boy’s father going mad with grief when the brutal Moroccan policeman guns down his son without making any effort to arrest him. Meanwhile in this final showdown between unappeasable Richie and beseeching Clarissa, Richie opens his nth floor window and sits himself on the ledge before plummeting to his death in order to end the charade of his life and the charade of the coveted prize. Just before that, and I have seen B movies do it better, he has a flashback to the traumatic time 50 years ago when he kicked the neighbour and begged his Mommy not to drive away and abandon him. That loaded juxtaposition really needed to be expertly and seamlessly crafted, and you would wonder what on earth was going through Hare’s and Daldry’s heads when they decided to let it go and then crossed their fingers and hoped for the best.

You would also wonder what led them to make the disastrous executive decision to have 3 badly coached child actors in the kernel 1923 narrative concerning the author of Mrs Dalloway. Virginia Woolf played with twitchy neurotic brilliance by the massively gifted Nicole Kidman (born 1967) has been dragged from London to rustic Richmond by husband Leonard, portrayed with infinitely touching subtlety by Stephen Dillane (born 1957). There he sets up the Hogarth Press to print worthy authors including Virginia, and also to distract his wife from her occasional psychotic episodes, for she not only has suicidal depression, she also hears voices. Today in longhand and with a pen, she embarks on her new book Mrs Dalloway and she talks to herself with a kind of steely toughness wonderfully counterpointed by ironic, cerebral, pipesmoking, but always sensitive Leonard who is keeping a vigilant eye on her. Later when she hooks it for the train station to make an unannounced trip to London, Dillane portrays Leonard’s acute distress with understated tearful desolation and here is one of the few times in the film where you see a real and convincing character with real convincing emotions as opposed to ones spuriously tacked on in a fit of wishful thinking crossed with an A level approach to postmodernism. Ditto when Virginia bawls at him on the station how somnolent Richmond drives her mad and bustling London keeps her sane after a fashion, Nicole Kidman puts everything she’s got into that thwarted fury and harrowing desperation that will eventually end her troubled life.

But as I said, the child actors effectively ruin this very promising Richmond narrative. Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell, wife of Clive and a central figure of the ostentatious Bloomsbury set, comes to visit with her three children, two hulking boys and an angelic little daughter. Veteran Miranda Richardson (born 1958) is cast as Vanessa and she always gives good value, as when she gets very upset confronting her sister about whether she is obeying the nerve doctors or not. The costume designers get her sons’ clothes impeccably right (they always do, don’t they?) but the voice coach definitely doesn’t do their job because these lads don’t sound like posh 1923 schoolboys, they sound like the 2001 variant at some smart London independent school, and the only thing missing is the mobile phone in their back pockets. Ditto the lovely little girl who goes and sits on disturbed Aunty Virginia’s knee and addresses her in lisping Walt Disney tones UK style, so that the pathos, the emotional registers and everything else get depressingly mangled and tangled. Apropos which and despite all the autopilot plaudits, Stephen Daldry deserves to be put in detention for that lack of artistic forethought, and I for one won’t be seeking out Billy Elliot which I have not yet seen, in any hurry.


If you want to see a really excellent film about Mrs Dalloway then get hold of Marleen Gorris’s 1997 eponymous masterpiece with Vanessa Redgrave (born 1937) superb in the lead and Michael Kitchen(born 1948) outstanding as Peter the man who always loved her, but was passed over for a lukewarm competitor. I have watched it about 10 times and could happily watch it another 10 at least.

THE OOMPAH SONG – a short story

The next post will be on or before Sunday 18th March. If you want to read my latest comic novel The Lawless Book of Love, you will need to go to the January and February 2018 archive, see below to the right

THE OOMPAH SONG – a short story

Brigitta and I were bouncing up and down, but she was an obvious expert and I was not. As she rose a good three feet in the air I tried to bounce in synchrony but I couldn’t do it, and I pulled a face of severely theatrical despair. She smirked at that, then giggled joyfully, as if to say she liked to laugh at any opportunity, so that my heart danced to the endearing music of her heartfelt amusement. Brigitta had gently blond hair and a neat little green and red dress, and she wore glasses and had a look of vagueness, distraction and abiding innocence, rather like a little song bird resting for an indefinite period before going about its necessary business. I had never seen anything as lovely at close distance, and as I did my apprentice bouncing, I asked myself what the hell I had been doing of any worth or merit for all my life preceding.

It was a lovely hot day in August 1967 and at the time the hit song all over Holland, Germany, Belgium and by extension the adjacent border towns of Givet in France and Clervaux in Luxembourg was the invigorating and hypnotic ‘Oompah Song’. It was blaring from the amusement park café as Brigitta and I poy-oynged into the atmosphere from about twenty yards adjacent.

Ya da da oompah oompah oompah ya da da

Ya da da

Ya da da….

Believe it or not those lyrics are repeated without the slightest variation some dozen times and they are the only ones. That Oompah Song is addictive beyond words because it is both brainless and cheerful, and believe me brainless cheerfulness can be a fine thing at any time of year and at whatever biographical stage you find yourself. Some people spend a fortune learning how to do Transcendental Meditation or become skilled at Mindfulness, or perhaps they explore some quasi-Hindu technique where they assimilate a repetitive mantra in order to steady themselves ontologically speaking. Far cheaper and far less of a debatable struggle in every sense, is to google The Oompah Song of which there are fascinatingly many variations over the decades. Once you find this 1967 Benelux eurohit, stop all else to listen to it on Youtube and surrender yourself lock, stock and barrel as I did when I bounced up and down with Brigitta and pulled faces of exaggerated anguish to make her laugh her little Dutch socks off, even though she always wore neat sandals and her fine and enchanting little feet were always clearly visible in the time we spent together.

Everything has its one and only coordinates, its piquant and inimitable context, and ours was the equivalent of an inland Blackpool in southern Holland, a small town called Valkenburg which is just the place to be if you are sixteen as Brigitta and I both were. She was from Amsterdam and was on holiday with her friend Anni and Anni’s Mum and Dad,and was staying at a pension a short distance from our hotel. I was on the impressively titled Five Countries Tour with the now sadly defunct Southbound Holidays, and for the first time ever was not with my parents but a schoolfriend called Len. Len’s flat monosyllabic name was all too apt inasmuch as he was on the prematurely old, plodding and dutiful side, an only child spoiled by his doting Mum and teased by his likeable and unassuming Dad, who for some reason he openly and unashamedly looked down on. Actually, the reason for his rejection of his playful father was clear enough, and was because his Dad worked contentedly on the conveyor belt in a button factory whereas Len was severely ambitious and wanted at all costs to get into a medical school and become a doctor.

To tour five countries in the same week, even if some of them are very small, you need to get up very early and spend a lot of time on the road. There is a fair chance The Oompah Song will be pullulating from the coach’s radio at least half a dozen times during the day, and that you and even frowning Len will be carousing alongside and gurgling buffoonishly in the pauses between verses. Behind us as a rule sat red-faced black-haired Frankie Shears from Newcastle, who despite the temperature always wore a neat blue suit and was amiable and optimistic and had a musical Geordie accent and who eventually dated Anni in parallel with me dating Brigitta. He was nineteen and worked in a Durham insurance office but was happy enough to befriend two Cumbrian schoolboys who had just finished their fatiguing O level exams. Sat behind him invariably was Margie, an overweight, boisterous and heavily made up Londoner in her late-twenties, who helplessly fancied him and evidenced a flirtatious interest even when he was to be seen snuggling against Anni and putting his arms around her in the hotel lounge. Nonetheless, Frankie must have possessed much altruistic sensitivity unusual at nineteen, as he always returned Margie’s flirting on the excursions, as if to say that though she was considerably overweight and homely rather than thin and handsome, she had her feelings like anyone else and it would be cruel of him to rebuff them. Also because Frankie and I were friends, she chaffed me too and regularly addressed me as Jimmy Tarbuck, the name of the fast talking Scouser TV comic, who you will recall always wore a suit, and as I never wore a suit and Frankie always did, I decided that her banter with me must actually be a coy, vicarious way of addressing him.

One more significant addiction was that of the cigarette. We all apart from cautious Len smoked like chimneys on the Five Countries Tour, as if you are a zestful smoker, being on a week’s holiday encourages you to let your hair down and puff away all the more. Frankie and Margie both liked the standard Embassy Tipped which meant they were always offering each other a tab, whereas now that I was abroad I believed in going cosmopolitan and tended to go for Gitanes and Gauloises though I also favoured obscure American imports made of toasted tobacco and always without tips. Frankie guffawed his incredulity when I offered my pack of odorous French snouts and Margie hooted even more hilariously and said it was so true to form, as being Jimmy Tarbuck I obviously smoked my mad cigarettes as a kind of stage repertoire joke.

I looked at Margie who was teasing me like a playful older sister and grinned at her to show that I liked her and would even have flirted with her had I been older, because of course sixteen-year-olds unless in anomalous possibly deplorable circumstances, do not flirt with twenty-nine-year-old women. I said to her, wagging an admonitory finger: “For a start Jimmy Tarbuck is from Liverpool whereas I’m from West Cumberland…”

She snorted hugely. “But you sound just the same! You sound exactly like Tarbuck to me.” Then infinitely possessively. “So does Frankie here a bit, come to that, though not quite as bad as you.”

I turned to her Geordie heart-throb and shook my head severely. “That must be what they all think in London. That in Newcastle, Liverpool and West Cumberland we all talk the same. That’s the equivalent, Margie, of me saying that in London and Surrey and Kent and Middlesex and Essex, all of you all talk the same…”

As if they had cleverly rehearsed it, Margie rocked up and down in her seat and shrieked, ‘Well we do!’ just as Frankie guffawed and roared, ‘Well they do!’ and they celebrated their brilliant unison with their tenth Embassy Tipped of the morning.

We went to the French border town of Givet that afternoon, after crossing through Belgium and dawdling an hour or so by the lush and musical riverside in beautiful Namur and then Dinant. There was a street market in Namur and I bought myself a choice leather wallet at a bargain price and the stallholder, a good- looking man of forty grinned as a cascade of Dutch guilders, Belgian francs and French francs came hurtling out of my battered old English purse.

“Capitaliste!” he chuckled and both Len and I laughed at the irony, in my case because I could tell a radical soul a mile away and I guessed this confident and handsome man to be an instinctive and unwavering socialist. As for me, I was currently a standing joke at the Grammar School because I declared myself to be a communist of the Prague Spring kind, and I regularly scoured the town newsagents, sometimes for hours, for a stray copy of the Daily Worker. But there was a headier joy to be experienced in the Givet cafe as I lit up a pungent Camel and saw that the juke box  had a specially orchestrated film, and in colour at that, to go with every record, so that I stuffed in a lot of francs for the costly treat of seeing the  bands on screen, which seemed to me surely impossible by which I mean mythological, when I saw it half a century ago. If video existed in my homeland back in 1967 I had never seen it, and neither had colour TV as opposed to technicolor cinema arrived. What’s more, I have neglected to declare another addiction, which was that both Len and I were drinking bottled beer at every opportunity, for it was legal at sixteen in all the five countries where they joyfully sang the Oompah Song, while back home where we didn’t sing it, we would need to wait till we were eighteen. Booze at sixteen when you have spent months slogging away for exams, brings out a cathartic and angry defiance, for even though you bow to the sovereignty of those obligatory ordeals, at bottom you hate the bastards, and you also hate the people  both real and imaginary who cause you to suffer them, and suspect that the future they promise is not at all the glorious thing it is cracked up to be. Even Len who would have tackled any impossible workload to get into medical school sensed at some intolerable level it was all optimistic hope and no definite assurance, and indeed his suspicions were proved horribly right for in 1970 he was turfed out of a Midlands medical school after his first year, as the second year only had places for thirty medics, and they had wisely taken in an expendable extra twenty, just to be on the safe side.

Back at the hotel that night Frankie and Len and I drank more beer, and before long Brigitta and Anni arrived. We bought them drinks and offered them cigarettes and Brigitta took one of my scented Gauloise with an infinitely accepting smile. At which point Frankie ordered womanless Len to take a photo of the two new Anglo-Dutch couples, and I have the beguiling black and white memento to this day. Frankie is on the left in his dapper blue suit, leaning forward with a frown, rather as if attending an unexpected job interview. He is holding Anni’s hand but almost as a dutiful afterthought and she is glancing obliquely at him with an old fashioned, clearly puzzled look. Brigitta, sat next to her friend in her touching green and red dress, looks face on at the camera with a guileless yet somehow quietly knowing expression. I am on her left and I have my arm round her, and by the sheerest accident, for it was not remotely deliberate, it happens to rest on the edge of her handsome cleavage. Very obviously she doesn’t mind it being there, and we look every inch a steady, endearing little teenage couple in all but name. I am leant indolently back on the sofa, Gauloise in free hand, my face obscured by the cigarette smoke, but my expression is discernible as many things…happy, serene, carefree, angry, quizzical, lustful, innocent, provincial and naive…

It was my camera that Len used to take the photo, and once I’d had it developed, I showed it to my mother who predictably enough took a serious interest in my nascent love life. I expected her to be touched by Brigitta’s young innocence, those blameless, obligatory specs, her gentle fair hair and fetching little dress with its simple patterned lines. Instead she snorted and pouted and passed an instant verdict.

“Hm. That one looks like she’d give you absolutely everything she’s got….”

I stared at her a while and wonderingly examined that unkind and inaccurate judgement. My mother was fifty-one in 1967 which is barely middle aged these days, but was then the borderline of venerable antiquity. She had left school at fourteen in 1930 and worked in service before her marriage, and aside from when following difficult recipes I had never once seen her read a book, whether fictional or factual. None of which stopped her being remarkably adamant, entirely fearless in her opinions about everything under the sun, whether it be politics, ethical principles, town planning, nuclear power, religion, matters psychological or sociological, even though she could not have defined either of those terms. As long as I knew her nothing could ever prise her from her certainties, nor did she ever once express any doubts about the soundness of her reasoning.

I frowned, then said in a rush, “You should have watched little Brigitta as she moved up and down! You should have seen her amazing technique!”

She blinked very rapidly. “You what?”

“You should have seen Brigitta in her element! Up and down like nobody else could hope to do. She had me doing it as well. She was an expert and she showed me exactly how to do it. As I say, she was amazing. At one stage we were both so happy I thought we were going to take off and ascend up to the skies, to the limits of the universe that is… or even up to Heaven itself, wherever that is.”

And with that I stepped out briskly into our sunlit garden and lit up the last of my 555 State Express.


The next post till be on or before Sunday 18th March. If you want to read my latest comic novel The Lawless Book of Love you will need to look at the January and February 2018 archive, see below and to the right


Just over 30 years ago in 1987 the BBC broadcast a highly successful 6 part drama Tutti Frutti about a rickety Glasgow rock and roll band called The Majestics making a so called comeback after the tragic if farcical death of its lead singer Big Jazza. It was scripted by John Byrne (born 1940, and once the partner of Tilda Swinton) ‘the first post-modernist from Paisley’ who was also famed for his hit stage play trilogy The Slab Boys based on his own rough and raw experiences working in a carpet factory in the late 1950s. Much of the UK population joyously tuned in to watch Tutti Frutti, riveted and agog, because on top of the vintage rock songs it combined hectic black comedy spiralling all the way to harrowing tragedy, alongside an endearing if sentimental love affair developing between Emma Thompson (born 1959) aka Suzi Kettles the barmaid turned Majestics vocalist, and Danny McGlone another replacement vocalist and younger brother of Big Jazza. McGlone who was the walking double of his dead brother was played with panache by Robbie Coltrane (born 1950), meaning he also played Jazza as he laid lifeless and with a comical expression in the wreck of his car that he had pranged into a bus shelter when deadly drunk. Films about unheroic music bands (see also The Leningrad Cowboys by Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki) are good material for comedy inasmuch as they pose the tantalising dreams of global success and massive wealth against the likelier reality if you are a Majestic of sitting cramped and hungover in a Transit van and heading for gigs in desolate little towns such as Buckie on the Scottish Moray coast. That grim little fishing port is the unlikely venue for one of the band, Vince Driver, almost being murdered and his wife Noreen because of his unrepentant adultery taking a near fatal overdose.

Vince, played with great conviction by veteran Maurice Roeves (born 1937) recently seen as a chief police inspector in the excellent Brighton Rock 2010 remake, calls himself The Hard Man of Scottish Rock, a poignant irony as one misfortune after another topples him and leads to his eventual grisly suicide. He is turning 46 in the series, married to a sedate and squashed nurse called Noreen and they have a childless marriage which he believes is down to her infertility. Noreen is sister of the band drummer Bomba portrayed with fitting bombast by one-time BBC Play School presenter Stuart McGugan (born 1944) and Bomba who was once a happy womaniser himself is now the exhausted father of two baby twins. In between bullying bass player Fud and arguing with everyone in the band and insisting with unreformed chauvinism there be no chicks/ dolls such as Suzi Kettles in the group, he loudly condemns Vince’s flagrant affair with a much younger woman Glenna, exactly half his age at 23. Dubbed by the band members Munchkins, Glenna is the dreamy and chronically immature lassie who pettishly demands Vince stop sleeping with Noreen, and dotingly knits him a hideous cardigan to wear on stage, the sleeves being so long they touch the floor. At one mindblowingly dramatic point, prior to the gig at dreary Buckie, she forgives Vince for their recent quarrel and surprises him by arriving in a taxi at the hotel. She had no idea that Vince’s wife had accompanied him there, nor that after her husband’s testy denial of their adultery, Noreen had taken an overdose, something she had done several times before, but this time in earnest. With Noreen in hospital Glenna and Vince swiftly end up in bed together, but then there is a sudden urgent phone call saying that he is wanted down in the bar.

There he finds a strange and nervous young woman who he does not realise is the same one had made the alarming phone-in call to Radio Buckie that morning, when Bomba and Danny were being interviewed about the comeback tour. Live on air she had accused Bomba of being her Dad, as she had researched the Majestics’ only other Buckie gig date back in 1963, which just happened to be exactly 9 months before her own birth in 1964. Virtuous Bomba is of course panic-stricken as he has no memory of the initialled pendant she claims he had given to her groupie Mum 23 years earlier. In fact his memory is sound enough, as wily Vince had had several of those pendants made with Bomba’s initials engraved on them, so that any future paternity would be laid at his door, not Vince’s. There is another fine comic improvisation on this appalling ploy, where their rogue of a manager Eddie Clockerty played by the excellent Richard Wilson(born 1936) of One Foot in The Grave fame, recalls that some young fan 20 years ago had clingingly showed him an adoring message saying ‘love from Eddie’, evidently another of Vince’s fabrications, though at the time Clockerty had thought it was a fan club greeting card from the global US rock star Eddie Cochran (1938-1960).

The strange young woman can’t match the names with the gaggle of band members in the bar, but instinctively she recognises Vince as her one and only Dad, and promptly goes and stabs him in the belly with a flick-knife for deserting her Ma. Cue then the arrival of the polis car with her being taken away under a blanket, and Vince being rushed to hospital and ironically placed adjacent to his unconscious wife Noreen. Earlier when he had visited her he had ranted to accusing Bomba, and said she was a headcase and he had no pity for her. The Hard Man of Rock in that guise was true to form, but John Byrne is a sophisticated dramatist and subsequently shows Driver on a downward spiral which by the final episode has him desolate with grief as he starts insisting to Danny that:

I am the SOB Hard SOB Man of SOB Scottish AAGH Rock…

Young Glenna’s tragic naivety is such that she pretends to be pregnant by Vince and when he will not leave his wife she finally drowns herself by jumping in the Clyde. Thoroughly devastated for possibly the first time in his macho life, childless Vince has no idea of her invention, until Noreen the nurse confronts him and says no Glenna’s pregnancy would have been impossible not because of her infertility but because of his. Vince, she tells him, had the second lowest sperm count her hospital had ever seen, a fact she had kept hidden from him when she and he were unable to have a family. Prior to that, when Noreen realises how long she has been deceived, she takes all of Vince’s prized and unreplaceable Majestics’ clothes and burns them outside their house in a vengeful bonfire. More farcically, preceding that irreversible loss and piling up the grief on Vince’s unfeeling shoulders, he had gone to track down devious manager Clockerty for his arranging a prime time TV interview exclusively with Danny McGlone and no one else in the band. Clockerty who runs a tacky clothes shop as well as a dodgy musical agency (Carntyne Promotions) is so fearful of Vince’s wrath he hides under a table behind a locked door, whereupon Vince batters the glass panel with his head and gashes his scalp severely. Throughout the series then Vince the Hard Man progresses from a massive head bandage (Danny drives him mad by calling him Daffy Duck) to a wheelchair after his stabbing, to a pair of crutches during his recuperation. Part of John Byrne’s creative originality then is to show his rock heroes at the nadir of their heroic ambitions, so that proud and vain Bomba is brought down to earth by the fact he has to look after his baby twins, while of necessity hosting in his house regular meetings about the band’s forthcoming gigs. Bomba’s coping strategy is to delegate tyrannically to the gentle bassist Fud/Frank played impressively by the late Jake D’Arcy (1945-2015) of Gregory’s Girl fame. Meanwhile the rows between Bomba and Vince and Danny about the band’s future can only end up waking the twins and driving Bomba crazy, added to which Vince and Danny peremptorily turning off his blaring TV pushes him to madness as they dare to take charge of his telly in his house, so that in a demented rage he flings Vince’s guitar through the window.

For me the finest artistic achievement in this series is not the high drama, powerful as it is, but the subtle evocation of surreal contingencies, meaning the inane and mundane stood next to the dramatic or even tragic. Thus while Bomba and Vince are rowing angrily about the band, Fud is feeling Bomba’s new sitting room carpet and making solemn comments about the necessity of good underlay. Better still both Fud and Vince the hard man become deeply absorbed in the TV showing of the children’s programme Postman Pat in Gaelic in Bomba’s parlour, and are so far estranged from their Scottish heritage they don’t even know it is Gaelic they are listening to.

“Why are they talkin daft like that?”

“It must be cos it’s for weans (little kids)”

As for black anti-climax, where for example looking further afield the celebrated US Coen Brothers prove themselves to be virtuosos, there are 2 fine examples in Tutti Frutti. In this context I need to explain that about 40% of the 6 part series is devoted to the love affair of Danny/Coltrane recently back from a desolate existence in New York as a struggling painter, who recognises an old art college pal Suzi Kettles/ Emma Thompson in the Glasgow bar where she is employed as cocktail waitress. They indulge in friendly and hectic banter where essentially Coltrane gets the best lines and Thompson is more of a foil batting off his presumptuous advances as he begs to kip on her floor, and hopefully more, for the time he is here for Big Jazza’s funeral. This motif of him pushing and she fending him off is sustained for all six episodes until their eventually falling in love on stage, and it is for me the weakest part of the drama, especially now I have watched Tutti Frutti for the 3rd or 4th time in its entirety. It is weak because it is essentially a one note riff and Thompson is too good an actor to be a foil, added to which Danny is massively overweight and feckless and penniless, whereas Suzi is slim and beautiful and practical and provident, so it is hard to see why she should end up quite so head over heels. Her earlier marriage and estrangement from a sadistic abusive dentist is revealed late in the series, when he comes round and brutally twists her arm for seeing other men, albeit Byrne was very prescient in 1987 to have the abuser bursting wretchedly into tears after his cruelty. Later Danny notices the bruises and demands explanation and Suzi breaks down as she relates the horror of the abusive marriage. Desperate for solace, she then looks to Danny supine on the sofa, but as in real and anticlimactic life he is fast asleep and snoring at her most poignant revelations.

Blacker still is the very end of the series, when Vince thoroughly heartbroken douses himself with Polish vodka on stage, once he has decided to immolate himself. Would you believe it, his crappy free gift lighter won’t work, and he tries numerous times in vain to set himself on fire to end his grief. He can’t even manage that properly, one sees him reflecting, until on the nth attempt the lighter works, and Tutti Frutti immediately ends. We don’t know whether he dies or ends up with 3rd degree burns and almost as tough as that for the programme’s fans, was the fact the series was unavailable on video or DVD until 2009, meaning 22 years after it was broadcast. The BBC would not reveal why, but it turned out it was a copyright problem over the title song Tutti Frutti, a hit number by Little Richard (born 1932) which Danny deliberately distorts in one of his performances. Because of that, Little Richard’s agents demanded an exorbitant copyright fee, until eventually it was resolved. I for one had to wait over 20 years to watch again this excellent and revolutionary TV drama, and yes it really was worth the wait but no, one should not have to wait an aeon to see what is remarkable, when as rule you can watch any old unbelievable garbage a few months after its TV or cinematic debut


The next post will be on or before Sunday March 11th. If you want to read my latest comic novel The Lawless Book of Love you need to look at the January and February 2018 archive, see below to the right


‘The brigadier shook his gouge in disagreement. “I believe we come back as flies for three reasons,” he said. “First, there are enough for there to be one for every soul on Earth since the beginning of time. Second, aren’t they often flying around corpses? And third they like living in houses – old habits die hard.”

The woman next to Mr Jeremias asked; “Yes, but they eat-”

The brigadier shrugged. “In the next life we reap what we sow.”’


 The brigadier’s words might be a fitting epigraph to Little Infamies, which is the blackly understated title of the 2003 fictional debut of Panos Karnezis (born 1967), an infinitely accomplished collection of stories, dazzling in more ways than one. Karnezis is Greek but writes in flawless English which puts him in the select company of e.g. Anglophone Japanese Kazuo Ishiguro, and of Irishman Samuel Beckett who eventually wrote exclusively in French. Both Ishiguro and Karnezis are graduates of the legendary Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK, though it is perhaps salutary to reflect that the bulk of such legendary graduates do not have anything like their talent nor do they go on to such acclaim, or to put it another way Ishiguro and Karnezis would inevitably have produced their outstanding creations MA or not. As one who has taught Creative Writing himself for the last 30 years, at the end of the day I do believe that branch of so called learning regularly needs to be put in its place. That said, I would urge everyone to get hold of this remarkable book as the stories have a brilliance, coherence and understated intensity, that put him in the superleague as a short story writer (albeit in my view his subsequent 4 novels, though readable enough, are definitely not in the same league).

These 19 powerful and darkly funny stories are linked by a common stock of characters from the same obscure and humble village or rather forlorn hamlet in mainland Greece. Karnezis comes from the Ilia region in the Peloponnese (the capital is Pyrgos) and his stories are so vivid it is fair enough to assume they owe at least something to his home area. They reveal an area of deprivation and considerable remoteness, with a railway station whose toilets are so rank everyone stands a mile off to get away from the stench. The trains as in India tend to be several hours late and the station master sometimes fiddles with the station clock in anticipation of the complaints of ireful passengers. Nearby is the mining quarry aka regional penitentiary, one of whose inmates in one of the best stories seeks vengeance from Father Yerasimo who shops him to the police when he burgles a credulous and bejewelled spinster he has just slept with. The orthodox priest is an excellent creation, so poor he exists on a diet of beans whose explosive effects condemn the widower to solitude. He regularly harangues his wicked flock and assures them that the various droughts and earthquakes are heavenly recompense for their sins, and this is scarcely hyperbole given the appallingly shocking theme of the first substantial 50-page story, A Funeral Of Stones.

An earthquake (greeted interestingly by the alarmed priest with ‘Shit! It’s the Second Coming’) disturbs the local graveyard and throws up a tiny coffin which turns out to be full of stones, not the twin babies who supposedly died at birth. Yerasimo goes round interrogating the villagers none of whom will give anything away, until he confronts the midwife who reveals that their father, incensed by the loss of his beloved wife who died in childbirth, wreaks vengeance on the twin girls and hides them in a cellar where he has kept them naked and filthy for the last 14 years. Worse than their evil incarceration and the fact everyone but the doctor and the priest know about it, is that their father regularly brings these grunting, feral waifs up chained by collars and gets them to perform monkey tricks for the delighted villagers. At this point one stands back from the story and reflects that a Greek writer in his mid-30s writing not in Greek (would he dare?) describes something set in a convincingly evoked Greek village, that is so wicked and revolting it is barely credible. And yet it is surely the case he would not invent from nothing such a bizarre scenario about lifelike and credible villagers, or he would likely face lynching next time he goes home to visit his relatives. My best guess is that this horror story is based on some notorious folk tale rooted in some real event, for we all know that Werner Herzog’s 1974 film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, about the 17 year incarceration of the eponymous out of wedlock embarrassment, was based on a true story from the early 19th century, and we all shudder at the recent memory of the Austrian monster Josef Fritzl who imprisoned his daughter for 24 years and raped and fathered children by her to boot.

In general, there is a tragicomic solidarity among the villagers united in their common misfortune, for typically their longsuffering mayor has had to campaign for years to get a bus from the county capital to drive the dirt road all the way to the village. The same mayor faced with an endless drought is so personally impoverished, he decides to accept the marriage offer of the middle-aged butcher who seeks his beautiful young daughter Persa. The butcher is loathed by the villagers for short changing them, and also for buying up their stock for a pittance during the drought, and consequently Persa is kept in the dark and in fact never learns of the offer at first hand. Her suitor doggedly wishes to perpetuate his line and all is going well until the drought breaks, the rain teems down, and the mayor withdraws his hasty offer. The butcher is so incensed he instantly blasts him with his carbine and this explains the harrowing start of the story where the mayor is staggering across the village square pitifully trying to hold his entrails in. This convincing motif of the dishonoured Greek male’s willingness to face 20 years or more in the penitentiary is repeated twice more in the collection. There is the prisoner out on bogus compassionate leave, intent on killing Father Yerasimo who once shopped him as a thief, and in another fine story there is an improvident villager left a gorgeous racehorse by a remote relative who is mocked by the local landowner when an expert reveals the horse is old and past it. The legatee is only just restrained from knifing the landowner, who had earlier tried in vain to buy the horse off him. But the villagers refuse to report the attempted murder to the policeman, the poignant irony being that the useless old racehorse is promptly slaughtered and the stew given to the poor, much to the priest’s gratification who is tucking into a plateful himself.

At least 2 of the stories function as disturbing fables, even as malign and shocking fairy tales. There is a sinister first-person narration by someone part of a gang of marauders who come to the village though we never know who or what exactly they are, robbers, mafia, political rebels or what. They claim to be hunters in the winter, a palpable lie, and casually explain that that they are lost. Meanwhile they run over an old shepherd’s dog by driving too fast and when he objects they blast a gun in the air to intimidate him. Later they kill a rabid dog and an old woman angrily shouts at them ‘Murderers!’. They then bully a barber into giving them precedence and the dialogue exchange here is Karnezis’s typically assured gallows humour.

‘A man pulling a mule came to the door. He could not see us in the dark. He was an old man and his hands were shaking.

“I came for my shave, barber.”

“Not now, Fanourio.”

“I look like a thief, barber.”

“I am sorry, Fanourio.”

“But I have an appointment.”

“The barber is busy,” we said. “You’ll live longer with a beard.”

More sinister still, these terrifying strangers gather together the whole of the village and make them strip off in the snow and burn their clothes to warm themselves. Then, without any elaboration before or afterwards, and all the more harrowing as a result:

“Please don’t,” the mothers cried. “They’re only little girls.”

The final story The Legend of Atlantis is truly apocalyptic as it describes the villagers being evacuated en masse to some horrifically barren area many miles away in order to accommodate a hydroelectric dam. Outraged at the heartless crime reminiscent more of apartheid South Africa than modern Europe, they all make their way back home, only to be drowned and obliterated from history by a pathologically unfeeling bureaucracy.

‘Later a flotilla of torn pages of books appeared, drifting among the dreary pages of flotsam. The water had smudged the ink on all of them, where a lonely word of faint letters was written: TELOS – which means THE END.’

These harrowing and angry fictions no doubt give a wrong overall impression, because many of these tales are drily funny and challengingly original. There is one, for example, about a gullible villager Nectario buying a garrulous parrot who at first can only ask in Portuguese where the nearest brothel is, but later thanks to the quantity of hempseed the owner tempts him with in order to increase his narrow vocabulary, falls off his perch stoned on dope. A parallel folly is when the same Nectario, doggedly determined to fly like the Greek Icarus, builds a kind of Charlie Chaplin kite construction covered in turkey feathers, and sure enough comes to grief for the umpteenth time. The villagers then gather round and state the glaring obvious:

‘“What a fool,” they said with a single voice, and looked at Nectario bleeding on the tiles. “Didn’t he know that turkeys can’t fly?”’