The next post will be on or before Christmas Eve


At the start of 1994 we acquired our new dog Bonnie from the Carlisle animal refuge at Wetheral. Our previous pet, the legendary Bill (1976-1993), a beautiful black and tan cross who was loved to distraction even by those who didn’t like dogs, had died the previous April at the estimable age of 16 and a half. Bonnie was a horse of another colour, a sweetly timid and angelic little brown pup who 4-year-old Ione naturally doted on, and a hefty and ungainly mongrel when she reached maturity, a cross between a walloping greyhound and a miniature donkey. She showed her true mettle when she was nine months old and on a boiling hot August day stole half a pound of butter from the dining room table, which she consumed at her leisure on our best sofa. The melted butter dribbled into the beautiful antique item and when we returned from our shopping the sitting room smelt like a rancid Bombay ghee factory. We tried cleaning the sofa, but it was a waste of time, and we ended up burning it and buying another at considerable cost. As deplorable rider to her overall CV, Bonnie like many another craven dog would eat any gratis excrement she chanced across, on presumably a waste not want not ethic, though indeed Bonnie never wasted and she always wanted.

The year before I had taken back Panurge fiction magazine from David Almond (born 1951) and had decided to promote it by running an International Short Story Competition. Carlisle Arts Officer Mick North and I were the judges and in February 1994 we gave 1st Prize to the American Richard Zimler (born 1956) who lives in Oporto and who subsequently hit the big time with his fine historical novel The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, about the cruel persecution of Portuguese Jews by the Inquisition. Joint Second Prize went to the late Julia Darling (1956-2005) one of the nicest women the world has ever seen, though her Bloodlines collection (Panurge Publishing 1995) is razor sharp and blackly comic, and impressively unsettling to read. The novelist and critic DJ Taylor handed out the cheques at the presentation in Brampton, North Cumbria, and I took the opportunity of picking Richard’s and his partner Alex Quintanilha’s brains when it came to exploring the Portuguese Alentejo, something we had coincidentally scheduled for the following month.

They recommended one of the handsomest places in the world, the exquisite walled city of Serpa which inexplicably wasn’t in the guide books in 1994, and we also visited the out of the way towns Odemira and Santiago do Cacem. To complete the circuit back to the Algarve we stopped off at wonderful Mertola, a fortified city on a hill way above the Guadiana river, which marks the border with Spain. Groups of young Spaniards come across in droves to dine in the aerial and much cheaper Portuguese restaurants, and gorge themselves on cozido, a stringy meat and chickpea confection guaranteed to drive sensitive souls to vegetarianism quicker than any amount of pious propaganda. One beautifully sunny evening there in Mertola I was pushing Ione on a swing in the fine old-fashioned playground while Annie was reading a book nearby. I was suddenly touched by an epiphany of grateful joy and expansive serenity, as I realised I had a lovely little daughter and a really lovely wife and I was here in one of the finest if unsung towns in Portugal. I mention this because 11 years later, when owing to work commitments Annie and I were obliged to take separate holidays, I revisited Mertola and sought out that playground on an identical sunny evening. I went there to re-experience the same intense epiphany and was stricken to see that the little playground was overgrown, and the swings rusted and the place barred up and defunct. Ione of course was no longer 4 but was 16 and had started on her A levels. I was as poignantly sad as an exile as I yearned for the pristine past, and stood gazing at the rust, and rued the bitter fact that we cannot stop time, not even for a second, much less a whole decade.

That August we took a second holiday to the Outer Hebrides, and to toughen her up took Bonnie along, as she was such a home dog even the somnolent market town of Brampton gave her panic attacks. We thought that Scalpay and Great Berneray, Lewis, would give Bonnie another and more discerning view of life, as being so remote and peaceful, not even she could get herself in a neurotic flap. Not so in bustling Stornoway, the capital of Lewis, and puritanical Wee Free Presbyterian capital of the world, wherein Bonnie was shitting herself at the passing traffic and five-year-old Ione was insisting that only she hold the lead of the yanking miniature donkey. I had to run alongside like an imbecile, being shouted at by Ione for exerting a dual control, whilst also anxious that terrified Bonnie would bolt for the hills and collide with a car as she did.

The island of Scalpay off Harris had no causeway then, and you needed to catch the tiny ferry from Kyles Scalpay. It was at least as puritanical as Lewis and on Sundays you hung no washing out and when I took Ione and Bonnie for a Sabbath walk through the village my little daughter’s innocent running and whooping seemed like some sinful transgression on my part, if not hers. In fact, I told her to pipe down and said I would give her a great deal of chocolate later, if she did. Meanwhile Scalpay was nearly all Gaelic speakers and was also a prosperous little place with most of the islanders engaged in lobster fishing. There was also the bizarre presence of a massive wooden shack of a shop run by an old man wearing a bosun’s cap who was straight out of the Para Handy tales of Neil Munro (1863-1930). The shop was evidently on its last legs as the numerous shelves had nothing whatever to purchase in the food line, aside from some 50 bottles of gravy browning and 5 tins of processed peas. At a distant table though, old Para had a sumptuous collection of locally knitted Harris sweaters and he was keen to foist one of these on Annie at whom he looked with glistening and tender eyes, as if she reminded him of someone from his remote past. Of course, in order to test for size Annie had to remove her jacket, then don the lovely sweater, but before she did so the old Teuchter could not resist advising her in his sonorous Hebridean lilt.

“That is indeed a fine big back you have on you, missus!”


What I read in 1994 (from my 1994 Diary)

Treasure Hunt by Molly Keane (1904-1996. One of the funniest and subtly nuanced English language novelists of the 20th century)

The Pasquier Chronicles by Georges Duhamel (the Pasquier Dad is a hoot. Should he spot someone on a tram in Le Havre with say a large nose he upbraids them in public for their unseemliness. Try also Duhamel’s existential masterpiece, Salavin)

Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal (1914 – 1997. Fine Czech writer who had a habit of giving away his book’s film rights when drunk, but doing so to more than one recipient. He wrote Closely Observed Trains as adapted for the hilarious Jiri Menzel film of 1966)

Broken April by Ismail Kadare (born 1936. The great Albanian novelist who lives in Paris, and who I interviewed for the Independent on Sunday in 1997 after he had been awarded the Legion d’Honneur. This illuminating novel is about the ancient Albanian Kanun or Honour Code)

Jean de Florette by Marcel Pagnol (everyone has seen the 1986 Claude Berri film with Gerard Depardieu, but Pagnol was also a great film maker himself, and the movies set in 1930s Marseilles are atmospheric masterpieces)

A Good Natured Fellow by Paul de Kock (1793-1871. Immensely productive and popular, sometimes saucy French writer referred to in James Joyce’s Ulysses. He once wrote a novel called The Girl With Three Pairs of Stays. His father was guillotined in the Terror)

The Puritan by Liam O‘Flaherty (1896-1984. O’ Flaherty born on the Galway Aran Islands, wrote many powerful novels which are barely read these days e.g. Skerritt and Mr Gilhooley. I believe that the latter anticipates Beckett’s early novels like Murphy and More Pricks Than Kicks, meaning that O’Flaherty got there first so to speak)

The Undying Grass by Yashar Kemal (best known for Memed my Hawk)

Confessions of a Young Man by George Moore (George Moore isn’t much read these days, which is a shame as his Esther Waters is a fine novel and has been regularly adapted for TV and radio)

Dr Pascal by Emile Zola (the author famously hounded because of his courageous denunciation of the disgracefully anti-semitic Dreyfus affair)

The Ladies’ Paradise by Emile Zola

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre by B Traven (I once owned a valuable first edition of this which I was mad enough to give away)

Shepherds of the Night by Jorge Amado (1912-2001. Epic Brazilian novelist who writes about the northern Bahia province and its Candomble religious tradition, introduced by African slaves. He is full of gusto but tends towards the macho)

The Fifth Estate by Ferdinando Camon (1970 novel by Italian writer born 1935)

Nocturne and Other Stories by Gabriele d’ Annunzio (1863-1938. Quixotic Italian writer and soldier who organised his own short-lived city state in Fiume of which he was self-proclaimed Duce. Inevitably he was to influence the likes of Mussolini and Hitler)

The Girls of Alexandria by Eduar el Kharrat (1926-2015. Egyptian writer who was a Coptic Christian. This novel wonderfully evokes Alexandria in the 30s and 40s)

Knot of Vipers by Francois Mauriac (1885-1970. 1932 novel by a devout Catholic writer who sparred with Camus and later Roger Peyrefitte after the latter had satirised the Vatican. He vigorously condemned anti-semitism and the use of torture in colonial Algeria. Nobel winner 1951)

The Forge by Arturo Barea (1897-1957. The first part of his compelling three-part autobiography The Forging of a Rebel. He lived in exile in the UK after the Spanish Civil War and died in Faringdon, Oxfordshire)

Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais (first read in 1983. The fiction magazine I edited Panurge is so named after Pantagruel’s outrageous manservant)

Zest for Life by Emile Zola

His Masterpiece by Emile Zola

The Frontenac Mystery by Francois Mauriac

Showdown by Jorge Amado

The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett (I remember reading this in the bath in Great Berneray in the Outer Hebrides)

Too Far from Home by Paul Bowles (best known for The Sheltering Sky)

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy (there are 2 superb TV adaptations of this. The 1978 one scripted by Dennis Potter, starring Alan Bates, and the more recent one featuring the excellent Ciaran Hinds)

Victory by Joseph Conrad

Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940. Novelist, playwright and doctor, best known for his startling political fable The Master and Margarita. Stalin interceded to stop his being persecuted, but latterly he was unable to publish or perform)

Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse (1898-1993. This 1966 novel is about the bombing of Hiroshima and won worldwide acclaim)

The Concert by Ismail Kadare

East West by Salman Rushdie

The Rising Tide by Molly Keane

A Dream of Something by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975. Not everyone knows that star director Pasolini was a poet and gifted novelist as in this 1962 work. Pasolini was murdered with revolting cruelty, run over by his own car and tortured, probably by mafia extortionists)

Diaries of Arnold Bennett (extremely enjoyable though amusingly at the end of every year Bennett calculates how many thousand words he has written and how much money he has made)

Money by Emile Zola

England Made me by Graham Greene

Celia by EH Young (one of Virago Classics’ great rediscoveries)

Nazarin by Benito Perez Galdos (this 1895 novel was turned into a film by Luis Bunuel in 1959. Galdos was Spain’s greatest literary figure of the 19th century)

Diaboliad by Mikhail Bulgakov

Doom by William Gerhardie (don’t be put off by the title as this is a comedy by the ‘English Chekov’)

Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford (1915-1970. Married three times and her first husband was the poet Robert Lowell. She won the Pulitzer prize but was dogged by depression, alcoholism and pulmonary disease)

The General of the Dead Army by Ismail Kadare (1963 novel turned into both a 1989 Albanian movie and a 1983 Italian film, the latter starring Marcello Mastroianni and Anouk Aimee)

City of Marvels by Eduardo Mendoza (one of Barcelona’s best-known novelists born 1943. This historical novel appeared in 1986)



The next post will be on or before Sunday 17th December


Sometimes life’s ironies can be a bit too much. Yesterday morning while I was working in the Paradisos café here in Kythnos, the TV was blaring with a wonderfully decerebrated US movie about a race against time crisis involving, guess what, aeroplanes and frantic air pilots. It was such virtuoso garbage that even the Greek subtitles looked embarrassed, but it had been on for well over half an hour before I realised that the lead actor was Nicholas Cage (born 1964) a man who is currently worth around $25 million, and is nephew of the illustrious director Francis Ford Coppola. The reason why I felt moderately sad rather than terminally disgusted, was that only the night before, and for the fourth time, I had been watching Cage in his mesmerising star performance in the 1995 Leaving Las Vegas, as Ben Sanderson, a Hollywood script writer and raging alcoholic, who decides to literally drink himself to death on a mad terminal spree in Las Vegas. It was based on the autobiographical novel of John O’Brien (1960-1994) who tragically committed suicide two weeks into the shooting of the film. Cage portrays the pitiful dissolution of this talented young writer with amazing and frightening fidelity, and was rightly awarded the Golden Globe for Best Actor and Academy Award ditto. For research purposes he not only read O’Brien’s novel but went binge drinking in Dublin (and had his friends film his facial expressions while doing so) presumably because he thought that’s where folk really know how to pack it away, but Cage also visited hospitalised celebrity alcoholics and described the research as very enjoyable. Likewise, his co-star Elisabeth Shue (born 1963) who played the Las Vegas call girl Sera and who falls seriously in love with him, also went and talked to experienced Las Vegas hookers.

The film was directed by Mike Figgis (born 1948) who outstandingly is one of the few good things to come out of Carlisle, Cumbria, my home county, though luckily for him he swiftly moved to Nairobi and then Newcastle upon Tyne. Figgis not only directed the movie, he also wrote the screenplay and was responsible for the potent and haunting film noir music that plays throughout. I may be wrong but as the credits raced past at lightning speed, I’m sure it said he played trumpet on some of the score, so let’s just agree he is a Renaissance Man who makes me and you look like the bone-idle slouches we tend towards as default and in line with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. And talking of moving towards maximum entropy, that is essentially what happens to Ben the screen writer, when at the start of the movie he skips joyfully if alarmingly around the booze aisles of an LA supermarket with an outsize trolley, and rapidly empties them of all whisky and vodka. Then of course with absolute predictability, by the end of the film he is sprawled senseless and inert on a seedy Las Vegas hotel bed, just as he set out to be. En route he gets in practice as a grovelling sponger when in an LA bar he bumps into 2 writer colleagues and their girlfriends, and his excessive bonhomie fools no one, especially when he asks for a private confab with one old pal who gives him all his cash and tells him he never wants to see him again. That evening he blows the ‘loan’ in a downtown bar where the sardonic barman grins as he insists on buying drinks for a gentle young woman dressed alluringly all in pink and who is obviously attracted by him, whilst aware he is a pathetic babbling drunk. He proposes they spend the night together, but she gently and kindly says she has to get up early, then as she leaves urges him please to stop drinking all that booze.

The next day Ben’s boss calls him in and sheepishly tells him without any explanation that he is letting him go. There is a generous severance cheque in the envelope he passes across, and when Ben goes to cash it in his bank, the agony of squirming public humiliation is harrowingly evoked. Ben’s hands are shaking so badly he cannot hold a pen, and he even ludicrously asks if it can be cashed without a signature. He then does what most alcoholics would do, and goes back to the same bar to take the hair of the dog. The barman after reproving his early morning boozing and evidencing an unwonted compassion, suddenly gets perversely angry with Ben and finally, rejecting all responsibility for the ridiculous wreck in front of him, chooses to give him a large drink on the house. Back in the bank and with steady hands, he enters a bizarre waking fantasy where the handsome counter clerk has decided to coat her breasts and  genitals with bourbon and he is happily and heroically licking it off. He seems to be speaking this aloud to the consternation of the other customers, but as the bank clerk doesn’t bat an eyelid throughout, we can assume it is all going on inside his drunken head. Later that day in one of the most powerful scenes in the film, Ben enters a classy strip joint, clutching a bottle of whisky, and as the ferocious yet muted jazz gets ever more piercing, the stripper with remarkable and unbelievably conical breasts seems to weave provocatively towards him through the darkness. Ben is drunkenly delighted and after his neighbour refuses a swig from his bottle, he promptly gulps it entire and then goes into terrifying convulsions, alarming to behold to everyone watching, apart from the unshockable stripper.

The next day Ben’s madness follows its natural course, and prior to his terminal exit to Las Vegas, he decides to make a fire in his yard out of unwanted things like his clothes and most other personal possessions. He drives off to the gambling city glugging away at a whisky bottle, paying but sporadic heed to motorcycle cops who happen to be driving parallel. Once reached Las Vegas he almost runs over a handsome call girl who tersely chides him but accepts his offer of $500 for a night of love in the horrible motel room he has just booked. She introduces herself as Sera and on his bed, she performs fellatio which given his extreme drunkenness seems little short of a miracle. Just as Ben’s drinking himself to death motif, is reminiscent of the excellent subversive 1973 French movie La Grande Bouffe where some world-weary rich businessmen (two of them played by  Marcello Mastroianni and Philippe Noiret) decide to eat drink and fuck themselves to death, so Sera the hooker’s confessions to presumably her offscreen therapist, seem to echo Jane Fonda as call girl Bree Daniels in another US noir masterpiece, Alan Pakula’s 1971 Klute. There Fonda dilates to her therapist about how she is a truly excellent hooker and that is mostly down to the fact she feels nothing whatever for her johns. Sera says the same and adds that she can assume anything and be anything, adopt any kind of perversion or performance to suit her clients, but otherwise she had nil emotional involvement with them. Both of these women are confounded by the fact they have for the first time in years fallen in love; in Fonda’s case with the capable and charismatic private eye Klute (Donald Sutherland) and Sera less convincingly with the pathetic and suicidal drunk Ben Sanderson. This then is the one serious weakness in Leaving Las Vegas, that we have to believe that Ben’s hopelessness as an adult male, his pitiful disabling addiction, and his frequent sexual incapability, all appeal to and conquer a woman who spends her time dealing with men who are by contrast violent, perverted, unloving and at times plain terrifying.

One such happens to be the volatile and disturbing pimp who controls her, a Latvian immigrant called Yuri Butro played very capably by the Englishman Julian Sands (born 1958 in Otley near Leeds). When Yuri makes love to her he does so in silence and with frighteningly brutal and contemptuous thrusts of his hips. The same night she sleeps with Ben she returns to tell Yuri she had made very little money that evening. Yuri enraged starts beating her around the face whereupon she picks up a knife on the table and we assume she is about to fight back. Instead she offers the knife to Yuri, then bends over and exposes her underwear and invites him to cut her backside by way of punishment, as if he cuts her face it is bad for business. Instead of accepting the provocative offer, Yuri shrieks at her in what sounds like convincing Russian but might have been Latvian, and he shows a similar surprising restraint later when some Polish mobsters come looking for him, and he unselfishly shoos Sera out of the way so that she does not get what is about to be meted out to him.

As part of her pursuit of regressive fairytale innocence, call girl Sera gets Ben to move over to her place where he has to sleep on the couch rather than share her bed. They declare their love for each other, and then decide to have some fun at the nearby casino. Once there, all is going well until Ben explodes for no obvious reason and has to be ushered out of the place with Sera as well as the culprit being banned for good. Sera then breaks her promise and tries in her desperation to get this one and only love of her life to see a doctor. Ben in his barely sentient attrition angrily rejects her and wretchedly she sets off to find some business in a place called the Excalibur Hotel. There three college students want to have serial sex with her which she refuses before changing her mind. Thereupon they demand anal sex which again she refuses, and at that point they embark on a hideous gang rape.  The next morning, she staggers back distraught and unkempt to her flat, and the landlady is there with her notice to quit. After a phone call from Ben she goes and visits him on his death bed, and again remarkably she would appear to bring this corpse to life when they have a half-dressed and orgasmic copulation. Shortly afterwards, Ben Sanderson the LA screen writer dies, and the film ends.

For all the unconvincingness of their identity as truly romantic lovers brought together in ironic extremis, Mike Figgis’s film is redeemed and put to the top of the league by two things. Firstly, there is the miracle of Nick Cage’s world class sympathetic and nuanced acting, with its fearless intensity and its brilliant wavering between chirpy sophomore optimism and rank and panicking and very unAmerican spiritual desolation. Secondly, and this might sound even a bit facetious, the prodigious musical accompaniment, the blindingly powerful black and burning jazz score, together with the acute and sensitive photography are of such piercing and allusive power that they notch up another 30 per cent to the quality of what is a quite exceptional film. After all, even people who love cinema often forget that film, like TV, is par excellence a visual medium where the spectators’ eyes should be as busy as the brain, but how many US or UK directors do you know are prepared to take a risk and put a lot of their energies into the non-verbal, the pre-verbal, the world that is quite simply beyond words? Instead by timid and imitative default, they go for discursive dialogue and sequential plot and hope that that will carry the day and win all the prizes. That is just the kind of formulaic movie Nick Cage has spent most of his life making, but here in Leaving Las Vegas and also in that fine comic role as the inept and idiotic thief in the Coen Bros’ Raising Arizona (1987) Cage shows how much exactly he has got stored under his sleeve, and I for one am completely bowled over and would like to ask for more.




The next post will be on or before Saturday 9th December


My daughter Ione started school aged 4 in 1993, and before opting to send her to the big place in Brampton, North Cumbria we looked at two little village primary schools, with the fond if forgivable illusion that remote countryside equals atmosphere and authenticity and a kind of cushioned and gratis equanimity for us the laudably discriminating parents. Far from it. The Deputy Head at one of the country schools seemed to have clinical depression though I don’t think she knew as much as she rattled off all the insuperable and endlessly multiplying problems she faced day in day out in her job. The other 2-room rustic school was run by an egregious crackpot aged 40 who saw to the juniors and was ex-army and would have made a good prison officer as he spent his time manically whanging in and out of the infants’ room supervising what his terrified female deputy was up to every five minutes. It made me dizzy to look at him but I knew several ambitious North Cumbrian parents who drove their kids some distance to his school just so they could have them capably harassed, tormented, pushed and stretched as far as was legally possible.

In June we had our first ever backpacking holiday with Ione, and we visited tiny Folegandros and tinier Sikinos in the Greek Cyclades. We had to get there and return via heaving and touristy Santorini/Thira and we all but froze once we beheld the sea of bawling domatia owners, as we got off the boat from Sikinos at Thira’s newish and amazingly ugly port. They all appeared theatrically insane as they bounced up and down with their placards, as if afflicted with St Vitus’ Dance, elbowing each other out of the way to get at the prize catch of the foreign couple with the little infant who needed to spend a night on Thira before heading back to Manchester. The exhausted bloke in his fifties who bagged us, perhaps because of the intense June heat, was extremely irritable with his guests from start to finish and every question I put to him about distance from the town and check out time and so on, was met with a surly and barking incomprehensibility. This was Greece in the good old days when to ask a Greek a question about anything was to make yourself a feeble and pitifully unmasculine seeker of superfluous, what-is-this-ever-so-redundant-English-nonsense-known-as-information/plirofories? If you were fool enough as I often was to ask 2 or more questions in a row you would invite the leering opera aria contempt of Zorba the Greek as seemingly powered by dexedrine and whisky and raki in devil may care proportions.

In the Sikinos port of Allopronia there was a handy supermarket run by a good-looking daughter of late thirties and a still handsome mother in her mid-sixties. The latter had a pet hen that went in and out of the shop and was treated as venerable royalty, whereas a stray cat would have been sent flying with a dousing of water faster than the speed of light. The husband of the daughter worked for the Cyclades electric board and was both friendly to us and irascible with his family. He had two handsome dark-haired sons, Kostas and Stamatis, aged 10 and 8, and once when irritated with Kostas for mislaying something unreplaceable he dealt him a blow across the lughole would have felled not an ox but a Pleiocene mastodon. Which reminds me that the second most impressive smack across the lug I beheld some 5 years later, was also in Greece but in the Dodecanese this time, in the then remote island of Tilos. A tough looking unshaven but diminutive restaurant owner of around 60 was berating his gangling adult son of early 20s who had forgotten to post an urgent letter for his Dad, so that the enraged pop with his swollen facial veins pulsating with Dodecanese choler, strode towards this extremely grown man, and landed a lug rattle that made all the stacked plates and boxed cutlery before us start to dance in chorus in this truly excellent taverna.

In the autumn of 1993 after an epic 3-year struggle and 35 rejections my novel Radio Activity – a Cumbrian Tale in 5 Emissions was published by Sunk Island. I was lucky enough to get a rave review in the Guardian by Jonathan Coe no less, as was another unknown novelist with another tiny publishing house. On the strength of that Penguin Books asked to see both of the novels, and they took his and swiftly rejected mine, the Cumbrian dialect narrative no doubt compromising in cravenly commercial terms the standard English narrative accompanying. Radio Activity which happens to be my favourite of all my own books, principally because it is so wilfully crazy and so deliberately uncompromising, was later a Book of the Year in the Spectator and the Independent, thanks to the late William Scammell and another staunch supporter over the years, DJ Taylor. Subsequent novels of mine got star treatment (including luxury themed suppers) when it came to local launches at Tullie House Museum, Carlisle, but this time understandably playing safe, the poet and arts officer Mick North (born 1958) had me doing a reading in the Brampton secondary school, William Howard. He arranged an ad hoc bar, and I had a respectable audience of about 30 in the school library. Predictably I read with some theatrical vigour the rudest most scatological parts about pile cream being confused with Euthymol, and Fiery Jack rheumatism medication dripping down onto an old fellside farmer’s ballocks, only to discover that I had them all in stitches, weeping with helpless mirth, and at last and just perhaps I realised I had found my true vocation at the age of 43. In fact, they all enjoyed it so much that replete with gallons of wine and beer they invited themselves back to my nearby house and made me read more and more of it until I had read almost the entire novel for their kindly gratification.

WHAT I READ IN 1993 (from my 1993 Diary)

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence (the best thing is surely the moving erotic tenderness between Connie and Mellors. Crippled Clifford’s elitist dialogue with his friends is more or less repellent)

Nana by Emile Zola

The Disinherited by Benito Perez Galdos (Spain’s greatest and very prolific classic novelist)

Tales of Unrest by Joseph Conrad

Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz (superb, courageous and persecuted Egyptian writer who won  the Nobel Prize in 1988)

Tis A Pity Youth Does Not Last by Maurice O’ Sullivan (I heartily second the title and this is a fine specimen of the Blasket Islands literature, best exemplified by Tomas O’ Crothan’s The Islandman)

Their Heads Are Green by Paul Bowles

The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe (made into a film by Neil Jordan)

Government by B Traven (1882-1969. Powerful and legendarily mysterious author, probably German, much of whose fiction is set in Mexico)

They Burn the Thistles by Yashar Kemal (Turkish prose master 1923-2015 who appallingly never won the Nobel Prize. Because of military opposition Peter Ustinov directed with great difficulty Memed My Hawk in 1984, and had to transfer the shooting to Yugoslavia. His actors were mostly non-Turks like himself, Herbert Lom, TP McKenna and Michael Elphick)

Search Sweet Country by B Kojo Laing (1946-2017. Ghanian writer who mixes Ghanian pidgin and vernacular with standard English in his novels)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

Death Ship by B Traven

Stories by Susan Hill (I met her the same year when we were co-judges of the Stand Short Story Competition)

The Devil’s Pool/ Francois The Waif by George Sand (1804-1876. Pen name of Amantine Dupin who was lover of both Chopin and Alfred de Musset)

Welsh Short Stories (Faber anthology 1937)

A Moment of Time by Richard Hughes (author of A High Wind in Jamaica)

Cousin Bazilio by Eca De Queiroz (the great and seditious novelist was once Portuguese Consul in Newcastle upon Tyne)

Selected Stories by VS Pritchett

The West Pier by Patrick Hamilton (grand old man of London noir)

Sleepwalker in a Fog by Tatyana Tolstaya

Bosnian Story by Ivo Andric (wonderful epic novel by Nobel winner 1961. I read this as distraction from the intense and insufferable midday heat of June in Folegandros, Greece)

Blindfolded by Siri Hustvedt (I enjoyed this very much and far more than anything by her husband Paul Auster)

Stories by Boris Pasternak (I once met his grandson, a film maker called Joe Pasternak)

Joanna by Lisa St Aubin de Teran (probably my favourite UK writer of my own generation. This is, I realise belatedly, because she writes like a foreigner, not like a Brit)

Two Days At Aragon by MJ Farrell (= Mollie Keane)

Maps by Nuruddin Farah (prizewinning Somali novelist born 1945)

Entanglements by Theodor Fontane (1819-1898, very prolific German author best known for his novel Effi Briest)

The Dead Women by Jorge Ibarguengoitia (excellent Mexican satirist, 1928-1983)

Houses of the West by Christopher Burns (fine Cumbrian novelist and my friend of many years)

Chatterton Square by EH Young (subtle Bristol novelist, thank God rescued by Virago Classics)

Miss Mole by EH Young

Common Chord by Frank O’ Connor (the renowned Irish story writer, also a pioneer librarian)

The Debacle by Emile Zola

The Unknown Sea by Francois Mauriac (enormously gifted and seemingly now neglected French novelist)

The Misses Mallett by EH Young

I Knock On the Door by Sean O’ Casey

Zorba The Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis (his best known work, but sadly most of his books are barely known outside of Greece)

The Golovlevs by Shchedrin (1826-1889, also known as Saltykov-Shchedrin. The greatest of early Russian satirists, some of  whose work was banned and he was also exiled to Vyatka by Tsar Nicholas 1st in 1848)

Nocturne by Lisa St Aubin de Teran

Suzanne and the Pasquiers by Georges Duhamel (1884-1966. The start of my lifelong infatuation with Duhamel who was also a doctor. He is barely read these days but his Pasquier family sagas are remarkably zestful and enjoyable. One of my copies came from the library of Sir Francis Chichester)

Full House by MJ Farrell

Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich Kleist (1777-1811. Author of The Marquis of O. Poet, playwright and story writer who died in a suicide pact with his terminally ill lover Henriette Vogel)

Within the Tides by Joseph Conrad

Open at Night/ Closed by Night by Paul Morand (1888-1976. Only after reading these novellas did I learn he was both anti-semitic and a collaborator with the Nazis)

Bell’Antonio by Vitaliano Brancati (1907-1954. A Sicilian novelist who also wrote a humorous satire about the Mussolini years)


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


Twice in my 67 years I have relocated from a small, confining and claustrophobic house to a spacious and infinitely expansive one. In 1959 aged 8, along with my parents and 3 older brothers, I moved from a tidy but poky 3 bedroom terrace called 1 Criffel View (Criffel being the Scottish mountain opposite on the Solway Firth) to a former sea captain’s mansion on the other side of the enormous recreation ground of  a pit village called Flimby, near Maryport, Cumbria. The mansion had 7 bedrooms no less, and my 8-year-old soul at once expanded to authentic mansion dimensions and from then on I knew what it was to be an aristocrat which has nothing to do with blood or lineage, believe me, but the ineffable certainty that you have lots and lots of space at your suddenly and addictively born to the manor command…

So it was that 34 years later, in February 1992, Annie, Ione and I relocated from a minute North Cumbrian cottage to a 4 bedroom 17th century farmhouse at the end of a half mile cul de sac, just off the A6071 Brampton to Longtown road, which also happens to be the gateway to Scotland when coming from the north east of England. Immediately we felt as if a huge weight had been taken off our shoulders, as now we had a proper dining room plus a decent sized kitchen, not to speak of a utility room for a washing machine, and a nice little lawn with flower beds out the back, and a possible vegetable garden to the right of that. As an added bonus, it lay smack on an old Roman road called Stanegate which linked nearby Walton with the strategic watchpost at Stanwix, Carlisle, and it had been a ceremonial Roman burial route also, which ought to have portended Latin speaking ghosts, of which we saw and felt nothing, I am pleased to add. We could also look up at Brampton Old Church, a tender and lovely place last used long ago as a mortuary chapel, and where the oldest gravestones said that Crooked Holme where we now were, in the early 19th C was inhabited by a family called Sibson, which of course is cognate or do I mean homonymous with Simpson. At £260 pcm, and even though it was rural North Cumbria in 1992, we were paying a remarkably bargain rent to a moneyed estate for that handsome and secluded sandstone farmhouse. When I left Crooked Holme in 2013 to come to Kythnos, four years after Annie’s death, my final rent was only £400, meaning an average annual rent increase of a magnanimous £7 sterling was being requested by its owners. To restate a gratifying but obvious paradox, if you rent a lovely big farmhouse for 21 years and the rent is a continuous bargain throughout, then whatever anyone else thinks you really have owned the bloody spot for 21 years, especially as it is one which you could never possibly have afforded to buy, and not only that but for over two decades you have not been responsible for any of the substantial structural repairs, including a new  and costly central heating system in 1996.

Being stuck 2 miles outside of Brampton had its consequences. We only had one car, which Annie used for her job as Principal Training Officer for Cumbria Social Services, and meanwhile I had to get Ione, who turned 3 in June, to a Brampton nursery for a few hours a week. The only feasible thing to do was to stick her in the pushchair, with Bill our deaf and shortsighted 15 year old dog in tow, then wheel her up the verge of the very busy A6071 trunk road. My little daughter reasonably enough would like to engage me in enjoyable colloquy about the nursery and Bill and what she’d seen on telly and video yesterday, and I was her eager interlocutor until perhaps a huge articulated lorry flew past and drowned our conversation, whereupon Ione not understanding my apparently churlish silence, would get remarkaby ratty and reprove me. Once I’d dropped her off at the excellent nursery, Bill and I would immediately walk back down the trunk road, I would write for 2 hours, then we would double back for Ione, and the whole travelling circus would hie its way back to Crooked Holme at midday, in order to watch the highlight of both our days, the legendary Sesame Street and  especially those prize child puppets Bert (dogged collector of paper clips and bottle tops) and his friend Ernie, an eight year old moon faced comedian of far greater imaginative stature than the whole of the UK Perrier Award fraternity by a factor of let’s say 10 to the 10th to the 10th.

In the spring of 1992 my novel Radio Activity- A Cumbrian Tale in Five Emissions, at last found a publisher in the form of Sunk Island down in the lovely cathedral city of Lincoln. Sunk Island was actually a fine literary journal run by Mike Blackburn (born 1954) formerly of Stand Magazine, and he had already published a work by Robert Edric, pen name of Gary Armitage (born 1956), a successful literary novelist, one of whose books Hallowed Ground (Sunk Island 1993) had been inexplicably rejected by his posh London imprint. I read Gary’s novel and it was bloody good, and it was also bloody good of Mike who worked on a shoestring (as did David Almond and I when we edited Panurge), to do my book when it had been rejected by 35 publishers, even including an, excuse me, fucking West Cumbrian literary (an egregious oxymoron, you understand) publishing house.

Just after Ione’s 3rd birthday we took our first family trip abroad and played safe with a package holiday on the Cycladean island of Andros, Greece. We sailed from Rafina, and everywhere there was graffiti insisting that the term Macedonia could only be applied to a historical province of Northern Greece, and never under any circumstances to a country which the Greeks always refer to as Ta Skopje (named after the former Yugoslav province of Macedonia’s capital). We stayed in Batsi, an amiable if highly commercial resort, where extortionate cocktail bars are the norm but where Greeks not foreigners are the principal holidaymakers, thank God. Our Brit package was mercifully invisible,  scattered all over a dozen villas well away from the sea, and the rep was an excellent no nonsense  young woman who actually encouraged us not to take up any of the package offers of e.g. A Typical Greek Night Out In A Village Taverna With Limitless Free Wine. Instead I used her good offices to get us a taxi to visit a remote Orthodox nunnery too far for a 3-year-old child to walk from Batsi. The hallowed and ancient place was opened for us by a tenderly smiling nun of about 30, who had probably had severe polio at some stage as her face was distorted and flattened in not an ugly but a very touching and for sure immediately attractive way, as that lovely young woman’s presiding spirit was very evidently wrought of pure gold and nothing else. She immediately took Ione in her arms, kissed her, then took her off for some loukoumi (Greek Delight, not Turkish Delight, you understand) and got her to bring some back for Annie and me. I often wonder what that unforgettable nun might be doing now and also what she thinks of all those gorgeous and deafening cocktail bars in Batsi, if ever she gets sent off to do some urgent shopping in the nearest town.

That autumn was notable for the repeat showing of an invigorating TV drama series, which I deplorably suspect I would find third rate if ever I watched it again (I am such an unremittingly uncharitable bastard when it comes to my mercilessly vertiginous critical standards across all the arts). It was called A Bit Of A Do and was scripted from the series of regional novels by David Nobbs, all of which were set in the same fictional Yorkshire town. As well as featuring old hands like David Jason and Nicola Pagett, it had an early TV appearance of the excellent actor David Thewlis (born 1963 in fabled Blackpool, would you believe) who later showed his genius in the harrowing and disturbing lead part of Naked (1993) by Mike Leigh. Thewlis also published a very interesting sounding novel in 2007, called The Late Hector Kipling so that how can I put it, he is obviously a man of parts, and I wish I had met him, and I hope one day that I will.

WHAT I READ IN 1992 (from my 1992 Diary)

Up Above the World by Paul Bowles (a US composer as well as novelist who spent much of his life in Tangier)

The Untilled Field by George Moore (short stories by the great Irish novelist, 1852-1933,  who wrote Esther Waters which has been both televised and broadcast on radio. These stories often have bullying and unprincipled priests threatening  to turn credulous peasants into goats!)

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton (by an odd coincidence, my discerning and lovely girlfriend Julia, who is visiting me next week here on Kythnos, has just finished reading this powerful example of London noir. She like me was really knocked for six)

The Casualty by Heinrich Boll (my favourite modern German novelist)

The Man Who Died by DH Lawrence

Black Boy by Richard Wright (autobiographical novel by the great US black writer. Contains some harrowing scenes of the hero being bullied and cruelly tormented by whites when trying to do his job as a messenger)

Scum by Isaac Bashevis Singer (who wrote in Yiddish and won the Nobel Prize in 1978)

War and Peace by Tolstoy (about my tenth attempt and I actually finished it)

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane (the best known novel of Germany’s best known classic novelist)

I Left my Grandfather’s House by Denton Welch (superbly sensitive writer whose life was cruelly shortened by a severe bicycle accident. I wrote a blog post about him in January of this year)

Eyes Shut by Federico Pozzi

The Pigeon by Patrick Susskind (author of the bestselling Perfume, but this novel is not a patch on his masterpiece, alas)

Scenes of Clerical Life by George Eliot (ignore the title as this is one of her best books)

The Fratricides by Nikos Kazantzakis (giant of Greek letters and author of Zorba the Greek)

Vatican Cellars by Andre Gide (another colossal talent and I read this first about 1971)

First Love by Samuel Beckett (I love his short prose works and especially Worstward Ho!)

The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazan (1851-1921, great but neglected Spanish woman novelist)

Peregrine Pickle by Tobias Smollett (a picaresque comic treat written by a navy surgeon as well as novelist, and be prepared that some of it is very raw, especially where servant Tom Pipes starts cudgelling on the skull anyone who offends his eponymous master. I much prefer Smollett to Henry Fielding and the only novel of his I don’t like is Ferdinand Count Fathom)

The Boys by Henry de Montherlant (a brilliant if rather haughty and uncompromising writer)

Amateur Passions by Lorna Tracy (fine stories in Virago by an American writer born 1934 who once co-edited Stand Magazine with her former husband, the poet John Silkin. I commissioned from her for Panurge 4, 1986, the best essay about the short story that anyone has ever written and ever will. Prepare to be dazzled if you can get your hands on it)

Saga of A Seagull by Yashar Kemal (one of the great Turk’s most touching novels)

The Sea Crossed Fisherman by Yashar Kemal

Strumpet City by James Plunkett (a riveting masterpiece published in 1969, about poverty and politics in Dublin in the early 20th C. He also wrote some very fine stories available in Poolbeg Press)

Collected Stories by James Plunkett (see above)

Savage Paris by Emile Zola (one of my very favourite writers who pleasingly never fails to shock and offend, not even in 2017)

The Old Curiosity Shop by Dickens (with the wonderful villain Quilp who when he eats crabs eats the shells as well)

The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk (given a surprising demolition job review recently in the Literary Review for his latest novel. I loved and have taught My Name is Red. He won the Nobel Prize in 2006)

The Lost Girl by DH Lawrence (little known but possibly my favourite of his books)

Amongst the Women by John McGahern (a very gifted Irish writer who also doubled as a farmer. I met him at a reading once in Grasmere, Cumbria. He died in 2006)

Iron Earth, Copper Sky by Yashar Kemal

Report to Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis

The Girls by Henry de Montherlant

Dictionary of the Khazars  by Milorad Pavic (stunningly ingenious fabular novel which I assume is out of print now)

Kangaroo by DH Lawrence (a very unpleasant and ridiculous novel where DH’s latent version of hierarchical fascism makes me glad that he never exercised any power outside of being a writer)

A Meeting by the River by Christopher Isherwood

Pierre and Jean by Guy de Maupassant (in 1966 some of his stories were televised as prime time entertainment on ITV, in a fine series called The Liars. Can you imagine ITV and even worse the unbelievably debased Channel 4 of 2017 doing anything like that now?)

I The Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos ( 1917-2005, trenchant Paraguayan novelist who  necessarily did most of his writing in exile. He came late to the South American Magical Realist scene)

Taking Chances by M J Farrell (aka Molly Keane, another of my favourite writers)

Blind Argus by Gesualdo Bufalino (Sicilian novelist, 1920-1996, encouraged along the way by fellow Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia)

L’Assommoir by Emile Zola (I once showed to some 16-year-old Cumbrian technical apprentice students the famous film adaptation of this classic, in which at one point a jealous woman in a 19th C Parisian laundry drags down the knickers of her sexual rival and mercilessly thrashes her behind with a laundry paddle. They all hooted and cheered their unalloyed delight until the Technical College roof was seen to shake. The same bunch really enjoyed reading Flaubert’s Three Tales)

Earth by Emile Zola (I read this in bed after performing at Lincoln’s 1992 Litfest, organised by Mike Blackburn, see above. It is still a shocking novel by any standards)

England by Nikos Kazantzakis

Goddess of the Stones by Norman Lewis

Colonel Jack by Daniel Defoe (everyone knows Moll Flanders but not all have heard of this)

Blood and Wine by Ignazio Silone (another of my favourite authors, who writes like no one else about peasant poverty and those who exploit it)

Maurice by EM Forster (who was brave enough to defend Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the famous obscenity court case)

Plough and Stars and Shadow of a Gunman by Sean O’ Casey (author of the very poignant and funny drama Juno and the Paycock)

Owning Up by George Melly (riotous jazzman and possibly the last of the instinctive anarchists)

Desperate Spring by Fettouma Touati (harrowing novel published by the excellent Women’s Press)

Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig (amazingly there are some UK Germanist critics who think Zweig is a second-rate writer. They must be crazy in my opinion)

Fort Comme la Mort by Guy de Maupassant (in English despite the title)










My next post will be on or before Saturday 18th November


In 1991 Annie, Ione and I moved from a massive aerial farmhouse stuck up a small North Cumbrian mountain only yards from the Scottish border, down to a tiny cottage on the outskirts of the market town of Brampton. The cottage belonged to the adjacent hotel and was within its handsome gravelled grounds, and from the outside looked attractively snug and reassuring. We had moved there because the farm was so remote and so elevated it was prone to being snowed in in winter as well as having year-round phone and electric cuts, all of which with a little 18 month old daughter seemed a needless and even decadent load upon our parental shoulders. Right away though, we felt the radical decrease in domestic space and I spent many weeks fiddling about with the disposition of bookshelves, tables and chairs trying to make it yield more space than it would. Feng Hsui my arse, I often swore as I discovered that nothing worked and we had to resign ourselves for a while to a tiny kitchen, a modest single sitting room and two little bedrooms above. The most relaxing place to be was outside of the cottage in the hotel grounds, where poultry and a few sheep were kept by the owner’s partner. To the right was an open barn with bales of hay, and there Ione and her best friend Katrina the younger daughter of the hotel would play together, under my rigorous supervision of course, as the one time I left them to their own devices for a whole three minutes they were half way to the busy main road as I tore after them in a blur of terror and horrified incredulity.

By June of 1991 Ione and Katrina were both two years old, and neither could pronounce each other’s relatively fancy names (likewise myriad North Cumbrian adults couldn’t manage to enunciate Ione and called her variously Ilone, Ninone and Iona). Katrina always called Ione the economic Olly, and Ione would invariably refer to her best friend as Keegan. Olly and Keegan were a pair of deviant little buggers to put it mildly. Keegan raced around at considerable speed with a feeding bottle full of Ribena jammed between her teeth so that even today I see the 29-year-old wife and soon to be mother as faintly and permanently coloured purple. In summer they liked doing things like taking all their clothes off and prancing uproariously around the gravel which of course wasn’t what every guest at the hotel wanted to see. Ione also liked shoving the biggest bits of gravel into her mouth to see what they tasted like, and once I’d removed them ramming in whole handfuls for an accelerating entertainment value.

My infant daughter was also capable of objectively shocking behaviour at the age of 2. At her birthday tea which comprised myself, Annie, Olly, Keegan and my in-laws Joe and Ann, Olly took exception to Keegan having a go on her lovely new moulded green plastic scooter. Instead of simply shouting and shoving her away, she grabbed Keegan in an expert neck lock and smilelessly held here there for an impressive time, and I am still trying to figure out how the hell she could have learnt such an ugly manoeuvre at such a tender age, as be assured neither Annie or I ever employed such a thing either for dubious dionysian fun or any other obscure purpose. Picture likewise Ione and her angelic little visage, on Bonfire Night ’91 when we assembled a small fire and a box or two of colourful rather than loudly banging fireworks, as she roundly shocked her doting granddad Joe who was a retired policeman and had seen absolutely everything. There were her parents, Granda Joe and Nana Ann and her Uncle Trevor happily assembled drinking Coke and wine and eating pizza while Ione strode up and down excitedly supervising the firework display. At a certain point her foot went into a small hole in the path and caused her to stumble a tiny amount. Aged 2 my little daughter coarsely ejaculated FUCK! at the top of her voice and I saw Joe’s face look a picture of frozen consternation and epic disbelief. The mimetic and inherited factor was there obviously and embarrassingly enough, as Annie and I were always first class and incontinent swearers but we somehow assumed out tiny infant daughter had never once heard us.


WHAT I READ IN 1991 (from my 1991 Diary)

My Only Child by Frank O’ Connor (you might say that I am a hungry addict of classic Irish fiction. As well as his famous stories O’ Connor wrote a couple of enjoyable novels which no one but me seems to have read)

The Day of Judgement by Salvatore Satta (1902-1975, one of Italy’s best known novelists. A Sardinian, he was also a leading authority on post-war civil law)

Youth and Gaspar Ruiz by Joseph Conrad

Resurrection by Tolstoy

Typhoon by Joseph Conrad

Three Novellas by DH Lawrence

My Childhood by Jean Paul Sartre (he loathed his childhood as you might have guessed)

Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

Collected Stories by Katherine Mansfield (I have recently reread this twice within the same year in Kythnos. She is dynamite needless to add)

Dalkey Archive by Flann O’ Brien (the oddest and most structurally haphazard of his books but very funny)

The Legend of Mount Ararat by Yashar Kemal (brilliant historic novel set in Ottoman times but the harrowing scene where a man is skinned alive is not for the squeamish)

A Small Yes and a Big No by George Grosz (wonderful autobiography by the great satirical German artist)

The Insulted and Injured by Fyodor Dostoievsky

The Hard Life by Flann O’ Brien (see my blog post in these pages from a few months back. My favourite of his books)

Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

The Princess by DH Lawrence

My Host the World by George Santayana (celebrated philosopher, essayist and novelist, 1863-1952, who defined beauty as ‘pleasure objectified’. He was born a Spaniard but spent most of his life in the USA and taught at Harvard)

Time After Time by Molly Keane (published when she was rediscovered in old age. Her earlier pen name was MJ Farrell. She had a massive talent which I do not believe has ever been fully recognised as such. I recommend that apart from her unconvincing first novel The Knight of Cheerful Countenance you read everything she’s ever written, all of it in Virago)

The Wild Duck and The Lady From The Sea by Ibsen

Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

My Apprenticeship by Colette (another massive talent whose husband the appalling Willy published some of her books under his own name)

Any Old Iron by Anthony Burgess ( I read this while camping on the Isle of Eigg in May 1991)

Monsieur by Lawrence Durrell (one of his Avignon ‘quincunx’ about Cathars and Albigensians and heresy. Not in the same league as The Alexandrian Quartet, alas)

Good Behaviour by Molly Keane (wonderfully televised)

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

The Nigger of the Narcissus by Joseph Conrad (Conrad also showed an unsavoury attitude towards Chinese ‘coolies’ in his maritime novels)

Bel Ami by Maupassant

Let It Come Down by Paul Bowles (his extremely talented novelist wife Jane Bowles is less well known)

The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters by Chekov

The Golden Ass by Apuleius

Homo Faber by Max Frisch(1911-1991. The best known and bestselling novel of this Swiss playwright who was much influenced by Bertolt Brecht)

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan who made her sensational debut very young, cf the excellent French Canadian Marie-Claire Blais who also published in her teens)

Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos Laclos (made into a fine film with John Malkovich and Glenn Close)

China Men by Maxine Hong Kingston (controversial Chinese American novelist and feminist and Berkeley professor born 1940. Some Asian feminists have accused her of exaggerating male stereotypes among Chinese Americans)

A Thousand days for Mokhtar by Paul Bowles

Call at Corazon by Paul Bowles

Home Before Night by Hugh Leonard (excellent and funny  Irish memoir)

The Other Garden by Francis Wyndham (novelist born 1924 who worked for Andre Deutsch publishers and is executor for the literary estate of Jean Rhys)

Without Stopping by Paul Bowles (unassuming autobiography unkindly referred to by William Burroughs as Without Telling)

The Family of Pascual Duarte by Jose Celan (an earlier post about the controversial and aggressive and Nobel winner Celan appeared in these pages)

The Confessions of Dan Yack by Blaise Cendrars (marvellous vagabond writer who once wrote scathingly about the inhospitable behaviour of the poet Rilke)

Lantern Slides by Edna O’ Brien (a very fine and remarkably consistent talent who is now aged 86)

The Trespasser by DH Lawrence

The Comedians by Graham Greene

Chance Acquaintances and Julie Carneilhan by Colette

Edwin Drood by Dickens (contains the cemetery custodian who amazingly pays a small boy to throw stones at him to keep him awake)

Perfume by Patrick Susskind (compelling historical read and also a fine film with Ben Whishaw and Dustin Hoffman directed by Tom Tykwer)

Iceland Fishermen by Pierre Loti (1850-1923. No one reads Loti nowadays which is a great shame. A French naval officer and passionate Turkophile, his novels were warmly praised by both Edmund Gosse and the eminent Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet)

A Dragon Apparent by Norman Lewis (one of the world’s greatest travel writers)

St Mawr by DH Lawrence

The Virgin and the Gypsy by DH Lawrence

The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig (autobiography of the great Viennese Jewish writer who together with his wife took his own life in a Brazilian hotel)









The next post will be on or before Saturday November 18th


‘I put away my bicycle and slammed the garage door. I was thinking of Myrtle, and I looked up at the sky. There were stars, sparkling. I was feeling happy, and I had left Myrtle feeling sad. Why, oh why? I am an honest man: one of my genuine troubles with Myrtle was that I could never tell whether she was looking unhappy because I would not marry her, or because she was feeling cold.’

Note something remarkable about this passage from Scenes from Provincial Life (1950) by William Cooper (1910-2002). Even if you have never read the novel and aren’t old enough to have seen the excellent 1966 ITV adaptation with Ian McShane as Joe the novel’s narrator, you will get a vivid even if subliminal picture of both Joe and Myrtle from this short extract. There are no adjectives describing either but somehow the humorously understated voice of the narrator and the poignant if debatable sadness of forlorn Myrtle are already established and you can see or at any rate feel the pair of them as clear as a bell.

William Cooper was the pen name of HS (Harry Summerfield) Hoff who published a few novels under his real name, but his big breakthrough came when he turned to this autobiographical work published in the year that I was born. He had read Natural Sciences at Cambridge and ended up a schoolmaster in Leicester, the unnamed city of the novel. Afterwards he worked for the Civil Service where he met CP Snow (1905-1980) of Corridors of Power (1964) fame, and Snow is very obviously fictionalised here as Robert, the Oxford don friend, mentor of both Joe and his best friend the volatile and also gay and Jewish accountant, Tom.

The quote above demonstrates an early example of an unreliable narrator as Joe is not at root an honest man, certainly not towards Myrtle, though neither is he grossly devious. He like Tom is an ambitious novelist in his late 20s and his doting and vulnerable girlfriend Myrtle is a graphic designer aged only 22. Joe lives in comfy digs with a landlady and even though the novel is set in 1939 when WW2 is looming, there is an impressive atmosphere of moral equivocation in the provinces. His landlady vanishes every Sunday on a compulsory long walk with the dog so that a female relative of hers can be visited by a much older chap, where after a short delay they vanish upstairs. Joe and Tom share a cottage where they alternate weekends, Joe having a tender bedroom liaison with Myrtle after lunch and beer in the pub, Tom with a young boy of 17 called Steve who is both an unrepentant liar and who is periodically unsure of his sexuality. Tom who is admirably drawn as brave, warm and loyal as well as impulsive, selfish, contradictory and impossible, keeps trying to bag extra weekends with Steve and has a habit of turning up shamelessly when Joe is ensconced with Myrtle. The 2 relationships make a poignant structural parallel as throughout the novel Joe essentially strings Myrtle along and values his novel writing and his independence more than anything, while Myrtle’s analogue Steve is periodically disloyal to Tom, once or twice dating attractive young girls and predictably driving his older partner mad.

Some of the deliberations by Joe about his deceitful egotism and Myrtle’s artless obstinacy are very funny.

‘How I asked myself can Myrtle love me and not want to read my books? How can a woman separate the artist from the man? The answer came pat. Women not only can: they do. And they have a simple old-fashioned way of selecting the bit they prefer. At the same time, I have to admit that if Myrtle had made the other choice I should have accused her of not loving me for myself.’

Another significant force line here is the fact that Joe, Tom and their don friend Robert are planning to emigrate to the USA in the face of imminent war, not least because Tom is Jewish. This is carefully kept secret from Myrtle until it accidentally spills out when she accompanies Joe to see Robert in Oxford. The constant dramatic motif is that she wants marriage and Joe does not, and both of them are chronically incapable of stating their irreconcilable wishes. Possibly all this sounds a bit small time provincial, even trivial and parochial, but the excellence of this exceptional novel is related to the fact that Cooper works closely around the anguish of Myrtle being unable to articulate what she wants and Joe likewise often feeling painful guilt and utter wretchedness, whilst perennially unable to give up his writerly freedom (when they do at last discuss going to America together, she insists that he must get a job).  Below Myrtle’s misery and her poignant readiness to turn herself into a pathetic doormat if so required are economically sketched.

‘“I wanted to say I was sorry for being rude to you earlier this evening.”

I felt a sudden stab of pain as I recognized the words – the apology of one who is in love with one who is loved. How well I recognised it! You apologise to the one who ought to apologise to you – to such straits does love reduce dignity and common sense.’

In another and European context this is faintly reminiscent of the Jean-Paul Sartre trilogy The Roads to Freedom where Mathieu cannot ‘commit’ to a woman in absolute existential terms, though that is where the parallel stops, because Joe as the narrator, despite his lucidity and intelligence, has a definite downer on high culture and at one point makes a dismissive aside about the works of TS Eliot. And while we’re talking of culture and where it is said to begin, one other pleasing focus within the novel is the evocation of Joe’s schoolteaching milieu. As a rule, any novel set in a British secondary school is an anticlimactic and deadly dull disaster, but Joe is not an ordinary teacher and moreover half the time is facing the sack.

‘It may not have occurred to everybody that most schoolmasters are preoccupied not with pedagogy but with keeping the pupils quiet. There are numerous methods of achieving this, ranging from giving them high class instruction to knocking them unconscious.’

Joe strikes an amiable middle ground by skiving as much as possible and getting his 6th form physics students to help him do so. They call him Joe, swear in front of him, tell him their closest secrets and keep look out one day while he shins out of the window to go for a walk. The Senior physics master Bolshaw sited next door is of the opposite ilk, and loudly knocks a pupil down which Joe and the 6th formers are genuinely shocked to overhear. Bolshaw keeps tantalising Joe by implying that if he helps him with some tedious calculations relevant to the book he is writing on astrophysics he will ensure that Joe replaces him when Bolshaw takes over from the asthmatic old head of Physics, Simms. As part of the novel’s impressively lateral nuances, Joe periodically notes the intelligence and even the decency of Bolshaw who most of the time is seen as a bluffing and hypocritical buffoon. In fact, if you were to state what single thing makes this novel head and shoulders above its contemporaries, it is that Cooper via Joe sees his characters always stereoscopically, both in their touching strengths and hideous faults, their occasional joys and their regular agonies, and he does it with extreme economy and a light and graceful yet infinitely instructive humour. I doubt very much Cooper ever read much less subscribed to the aesthetic of the ‘English Chekov’ novelist William Gerhardie (1895-1977) but this gently comic and stereoscopic approach to characterisation was precisely what Gerhardie posited as the wisest and highest possible artistic tactic, being effectively a bird’s eye view = Godly view of one’s fictional art as expounded in his posthumous 1981 work God’s Fifth Column.

The plot might be simple but manages to be infinitely labyrinthine also. Tom calculates that their emigration to the States is being hampered by Joe giving Myrtle false hopes. Hence as Machiavellian strategy he makes a theatrical and absurd fuss of her in front of Joe, and even proposes marriage which Myrtle has the sense to refuse. She meanwhile in order to ruffle Joe and change the power balance has got involved with a crowd led by a man called Haxby who is never centre stage and always just a threatening name. Haxby and Co go in for listening to gramophone records and playing absurd party games, which Joe finds deplorable even though it stings him with jealousy. Next Myrtle acquires a dog and dotes on it in such a bizarrely eccentric fashion that Joe thinks she is losing her wits. As counterpoint to their disarray, Tom postpones his trip to the States and buys a car to take Steve on a trip to Paris. Steve refuses to go or even to look at the car, and Tom’s blustering and agonising anguish is simply but powerfully depicted.

‘Steve did not speak. Tom waited. Steve still did not speak. I saw nothing for it but for Tom to go. Suddenly he let out an indistinguishable cry. Steve and I looked at him in alarm. Tom opened his mouth to speak again and failed’

I won’t give away too much of the over-summatory if niftily wrapped up ending, but will conclude by saying this is an outstandingly entertaining miniature masterpiece, if a slightly flawed one at that. Part of this is because although the novel is miraculously liberal and unfoolable in its attitudes for its day, with scenes of Tom pursuing and openly demanding love of 17-year-old Steve in public places, it also shows a bafflingly naïve or at least questionable notion of what it is to be gay. There is no hint that Tom marrying Myrtle might betray his nature, and indeed both he and Steve end up married to beguiling wives and proud of the fact by the end of the book. Meanwhile Joe when he affably buttonholes the reader with his dry but kindly wisdom is always good value, but on the other hand he is always reminding us he that he is writing a novel and that at times can get archly obtrusive. Most baffling of all is that in his account of his mistreating Myrtle regularly he refers to himself by the quaint anachronism of ‘cad’. Surely other than in derring-do school stories and Frank Richards’ Billy Bunter, that term had well and truly died out by the turn of the 20th century?

That said, this is a superbly entertaining novel, like absolutely nothing else of its day, and if you don’t get round to reading it, you will have missed an exquisitely comic literary treat.


The brilliant 1966 TV adaptation mentioned above was wisely renamed You Can’t Win, which has more of a commercial zing to it than the novel’s tongue in cheek title. I have tried to track down some remnant fragment of it on You Tube, but sadly there is nothing there.


 The next post will be on or before Sunday November 12th


1990 was the year when we were up in the clouds in a literal and vertiginous sense. We moved from handsome Hethersgill village, North East Cumbria to the second highest point in Penton, meaning The Pike, a lovely 17th C farmhouse stuck up a small but sizeable mountain and with very arduous access as a result. Penton is a strange place only a few hundred yards from the Scottish border, and one of the focal points of the Debatable Lands, that lawless and murderous area where English and Scottish reiver cattle thieves held sway in the 16th century. What is surpassingly odd, in fact surreal about Penton, is that it is not a proper village at all but has no less than five separate parts all situated 2 miles distant from the next part, yet all called Penton. One of its units is the comically named Catlowdy which has a few tidy cottages, and it is also where the Post Office used to be. Then there is Penton itself (call that Little Penton or meta-Penton to distinguish it from generic uber-Penton) which includes the former railway station on the defunct Waverley line from Carlisle to Edinburgh, once famous for its flourishing cattle auction adjacent. Bearing right towards Canonbie and Newcastleton is Penton Linns which is only a few yards from Scotland and here the River Esk offers scenic and tender sylvan walks on the English side. In the opposite direction is the beautiful church and the state of the art village hall which are termed Nicholforest and which gets an admiring mention in Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet as he refers to ‘the Nickle Forest’. Finally, on the road to Kershopefoot, a lovely and remote hamlet literally 2 yards from Scotland, there is Bushfield, a row of former forestry houses, and here in 1990 lived a gentleman called King Shed. I dubbed him thus as this hulking and mostly speechless bloke had no less than 10 sheds of all sizes in his not all that big garden, and I kept waiting and hoping he would try the lunatic impossible and construct another half dozen while I was there.

Penton was where Ione had her first birthday celebrated on the Scots side at Newcastleton aka Copshaw Holm, always abbreviated to The Holm or in North Cumbrian dialect The Howm. Beautiful, fair haired and spirited Isobel, the daughter at the hospitable and bustling Copshaw Kitchen, provided a little fancy cake with a single candle, and Ione struggled to blow it out until my father in law Joe stood behind his adored first grandchild and did it for her. Penton was also where we got snowed in twice in December 1990, and had to be dug out by a farmer, meaning the lengthy dirt road leading up to the farmhouse had to be cleared by a bulldozer. The first time we were incarcerated, the power went and the phone ditto, so with our one-year-old daughter we were snowed in and completely incommunicado, in those pre-digital days possessing no mobile phone, plus we had no telly, no CD music and only my transistor radio to listen to BBC Radio 3. Annie, who couldn’t get into work in Carlisle was delighted of course, for, partly as a consequence of doing so much taxing group work training, she always enjoyed the Davy Crockett and/or Robinson Crusoe experience.

Penton as I have written earlier was where the retired cut glass accented couple who lived in a beautifully restored barn down below were cordially referred to by us as Mr and Mrs Posh. It was Mrs Posh who told me that Mr Posh had taken note of my sallow skin and thinness, and the fact I was a writer living in extreme rustic remoteness, then earnestly informed his wife he thought I must be Salman Rushdie in hiding from the fatwa. Also whilst living at the Pike I was principal Ione- minder and I managed the art of filling up the day at home with a small child by doing massive amounts of walking on the B road down below. Ione was in a pushchair and our lovely black and tan mongrel Bill then 14 was on his lead beside us. Every morning we walked 6 miles to the railway station and back, and then 6 miles in the afternoon on the road to Kershopefoot. Ione regularly diverted herself by throwing her dummy/pacifier onto the road, then whining theatrically until I retrieved it. Sometimes she waited 5 minutes to tell me as much, so we did a hell of a lot of pointless reverse travel. Sometimes her dummy landed in a patch of cow shit and I was much tempted not to cleanse it by way of stopping her of her deviant habit. Later still she got roundly bored in the pushchair and fought her way out of the safety straps, then stood at the front like a victorious Viking prow motif. I tried keeping her in situ and preserving our precious routine by shackling her with multiple bungee straps. It worked for about half an hour and then as if doing what she had attempted when being born (see previous post), she fought and fought and wriggled and wriggled and cast off her manacles and stood once more at the helm and grinned her self-approval at Bill, and then, and with not a whit of embarrassment, at me.

It was time to buy a second car, of course. But how many struggling writers do you know who can afford the luxury of 2 cars?

WHAT I READ IN 1990 (from my 1990 diary)

Golden Earth by Norman Lewis (he and Dervla Murphy are my favourite travel writers)

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

Twilight in Italy by DH Lawrence (at his best e.g. Sons and Lovers, Lawrence is unmatchable and at his worst, e.g. Kangaroo, unspeakable)

My Friends by Emmanuel Bove

Smoke by Ivan Turgenev (first read in 1976)

The Ponder Heart by Eudora Welty

Childhood, Youth and Exile by Alexander Herzen

Retreat from Love by Colette

Of Mortal Love by William Gerhardie (a rereading)

Song of the Word by Jean Giono (the great lyrical pantheist from Manosque, Provence)

The Cossacks by Tolstoy

Down There On A Visit by Christopher Isherwood

Carn by Patrick McCabe (his first novel which was published by my own former publisher Aidan Ellis. Aidan Ellis then rejected Butcher Boy which eventually made Pat an international name and was filmed by Neil Jordan)

First Loves by Ivan Klima

Vathek by William Beckford

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (the only Austen I have ever enjoyed. I cannot bear Pride and Prejudice as they all seem such absolute eejits. I’m prepared to admit that the fault is all mine)

Shadowings by Lafcadio Hearn (the famous American Japanologist)

Malcolm by James Purdy (now in 2017 I can recall the fact I read this in the bath in The Pike 27 years ago. Why do I remember that?)

The Rescue by Joseph Conrad

Black Dwarf by Sir Walter Scott (the title refers to a real character called Davy who lived in the St Mary’s Loch area)

The Dubliners by James Joyce

Redgauntlet  by Sir Walter Scott (I usually find Scott hard going but this is very engrossing and has some fine comic characterisation. However Scott’s attempt at Solway Cumbrian dialect is woefully inaccurate)

Night Falls On Ardnamurchan by Alasdair Maclean (a very enjoyable account of life in remote Sanna on the mainland peninsula opposite Mull. We holidayed there the same year, and our landlady told us that the author was not well thought of by the locals)

Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

Condition of Ice by Christopher Burns (acclaimed and powerful novel by my Cumbrian writer friend)

A Tale of Santa Croce by Vasco Pratolini (Born 1913 he died in 1991. A friend of the anti-Fascist author Elio Vittorini, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize 3 times. Pratolini fought with Italian partisans against the Nazi occupation)

Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg (a truly frightening masterpiece)

Portrait of the Artist by James Joyce

A Handful of Blackberries by Ignazio Silone (a brilliant and neglected Italian writer who wrote movingly about the exploitation and poverty of the peasants he knew)

The Birds Have Gone Away by Yashar Kemal (best known for Memed My Hawk, the great Turkish writer, 1923-2015, was an ethnic Kurd. He should have been given the Nobel Prize ten times over but never won it. Jailed at times for his Human Rights activism, his later novels were filmed by a German director to great effect)

Reprinted Pieces by Charles Dickens

Fall of the Imam by Nawal el Saadawi (a fine Egyptian writer and also a doctor who was jailed for her activism)

The Card by Arnold Bennett (Bennett was rarely funny but this novel is a real hoot and there is an entertaining film adaptation starring Alec Guinness)

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark (Spark had a huge talent as a novelist. The great thing for her fans is she wrote a lot of books)

Last Post by Ford Madox Ford (the supremely gifted novelist, editor and generous collaborator with the temperamental Joseph Conrad)

Emergency Exit by Ignazio Silone

Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos (he also wrote Mouchette about a waif of a neglected country girl which was made into a fine film)

The Bachelors by Muriel Spark

Final Edition by EF Benson (a study of his literary family including brother AC Benson who once insisted on having all his teeth removed without anaesthetic. EF wrote the wonderful Mapp and Lucia books)

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens