IN THE PINK WITH BORIS AND BREXIT – a short story

IN THE PINK WITH BORIS AND BREXIT – a short story

What I am about to say will, I promise, shock you to the core, but I can no longer keep it to myself. I have to confess that I, an educated, liberal, middle-class, heterosexual Englishman of wondrously mature years, cannot stand the sight of grown men (meaning those over the age of eighteen) if they are wearing anything that is pink…which is to say sporting shirts, ties, trousers, jackets, neckerchiefs etc, should any of those be of a rose (with a French accent) hue. There, I bet you recoiled in incredulous outrage at once, and didn’t know where to start in fulminating against and excoriating the likes of an evident sexist, macho, patriarchal, intolerant enemy of hard-won personal freedoms, whilst inter alia just possibly employing your favourite searingly pejorative term ‘judgemental’ against a pointlessly provocative old bastard like me.

I am talking about visceral instincts, not calm reasoning nor ratiocination, and I would add that I think it better to speak my controversial feelings, than cowardly hiding them from the universe, idly pretending  that I don’t give a damn what colour of tie or poplin shirt anyone offers to the world of sartorial display. Nevertheless, I need at once to brush off the accusation of notional homophobia, and on two solid grounds. Firstly, and most cogently, and courtesy of my particular job, I have numerous gay friends all over the globe, and not one of them, of whichever gender, ever sports pink, and in my broad experience it is strictly straight males who decide to be free floating when it comes to chromatic aka roseate latitude. The fact is I run a one-man literary publishing house, and two of my leading authors are gay, one an American male just turned 60, and one an Englishwoman ditto. Both of them when we were recently sipping coffee at a lively litfest in an exhilarating northern UK town turned to me independently, and more or less said the same thing.

“Joe,” said Dave Henthoff, with his innocently puckered grin, “as far as I’m concerned you are an honorary homo, man. I can’t put it any other way.”

“Joe, “added Maggie Brownson. “You seem to me to accept absolutely everyone, whoever and whatever they are. Even though you can diagnose people who are pains in the arse faster than else anyone else in the world…”

What might perhaps clarify my extreme allergy to pink, is to add that that there is one particular species of male, invariably clad in the colour of Portuguese Mateus Rose (I went past the extensive factory near Vila Real in the remote Tras Os Montes in 1981) a masculine species who gets my goat more than any other. Have you guessed who I mean? I am talking about British Labour politicians and especially the male cabinet ministers, who at their annual conferences instead of singing the socialist anthem Keep The Red Flag Flying, if they had any trace of honesty would be warbling Keep Our Admirably Pink Flag Aloft. There they are all in pink shirts and pink ties, their faces pinked and pinking from the copious lunchtime wine and the rare beef steaks that are of course pink, their unflinching pinkness signifying a lack of red-blooded meaning visceral passion for everything under the sun. One thinks with sadness of the founding fathers and mothers of the Party, who were steaming angry and with scarlet faces to match, when it came to the ambient rank injustice, the monstrous unfairness of inherited and moneyed privilege, the pampered drones who lived in their London villas on their steady dividends while the factory workers repined in insanitary cottages with the solaces of blood-flecked TB and communal outside lavatories. They were very angry red-faced founding fs and ms, many of them aristocrats themselves, whereas their pink-visaged grammar school and comprehensive 2019 counterparts, in their pale pink duds and spats, are piously peevish, virtuously vexed, not raging nor incandescent with righteous anger. At this point I can inform the whole bloody lot of them for free, that they need to be very angry before they can make the stone-deaf Brexiteers and for that matter the ardent Remainers,  stop in their tracks and really listen, their facial capillaries urgently need to dilate and their voices need to come from their guts and especially their spleens, not from their fluttering and flabby vocal chords. The truth is the Labour Party for the last 80 years has been ruled by an assortment of clapped out, feebly mumbling and stumbling strictly masculine physics and geography teachers, variously called Clement, Hugh, Jim, Neil, Michael, Gordon, and currently Jeremy….the only notable star celebrities  being those beamingly pragmatic egotists called Harold W and Tony B who would do anything and beyond to stay in power, luxury weekend junketings with cosmopolitan fascists included. There was also I dimly recall a fizzy adolescent called Ed who had the cheek to grin as he said he was perhaps way too far to the left, but he squeaked like a twelve-year-old as he said it, and turned pink not red, and nobody believed a word of it, not even his wife. He had a cabinet pal also called Ed whose surname splendidly means testicles, an ironic inversion if ever there was, as the notional seat of all hot-blooded male passion seemed at an unbreachable existential remove from both or our Eds, certainly when it came to the world of executive politics.

NB. There was once an American TV comedy series featuring a talking horse, called Mr Ed. Had he been called Mr Edward, no one would have watched it, if only because diminutives are reassuring whereas full-length adult names are so daunting. Had the two effervescent teenage Eds called themselves the grown-up name Edward, they might have been taken far more seriously. For Edward Balls has a certain august and unmockable ring about it, would you not agree? Need we say more at this point?

Yes, we bloody well need. The Tories, however they might think of themselves, are in fact all Fallen Angels to a man and woman, and I am talking in the strictly scriptural not metaphorical sense. Nonetheless they have one or two orators who can talk a passionate streak, and who sound as if they believe in their Melodramatic Mendacity (all melodrama is a lie by definition) that is their autopilot birthright. Let us at this point scrutinise three paradigm Tory cabinet Brexiteers, all of whom dress in pink, hence are almost indistinguishable from their Shadow Cabinet counterparts. There is the one who looks exactly like Pinocchio, who was once Minister of Schools, and who insisted on the rote learning of the Genealogies of English Kings and Queens and ditto the Nine and Two Sevenths and the Seventeen and Three Sixteenths Times Table. There is also a tall, completely hairless one, who by his critics is unkindly nicknamed Tablespoon, an acronym for ‘Tall Bald String of Piss’ (so cruel, so utterly and needlessly unkind). Tablespoon’s fulsome contribution to the annually published and defiantly titled Tory Chapbook of Melodramatic Veracity is often to repeat the statement that ‘Britain Is the Greatest Country in the World’, a devastating mantra he learnt from the late Margaret Thatcher, she who had a full head of hair and who was an Iron Lady, not a Tablespoon made out of alloy steel. Then there is Mr Fluffy, so named because of his singular tonsure, and he is also called Boris, and he is destined for great things, as he is nearly as fluffy and blond as the fluffiest and blondest and most powerful man in the world, who as everyone knows is called Donald. Mr Fluffy and Donald both like to dress in pink, both admire each other enormously, and sometimes joke about outfluffing the other as a means of raising money for charity, and even moot a competitive if jocular IQ test.  Boris in a pink shirt once asked Donald in a pink shirt (off the cuff that is, haha) what was the capital of Liechtenstein to which Donald earnestly answered Liechtenstein City, and when Boris modestly put him right with Vaduz, Donald snorted hilariously, That is such Fake News, Boris, man! and added that he Boris was The Enemy of the People! for contradicting the fluffiest and most powerful man in the world, and the two of them were helpless with merriment for the next half hour…

Fluffy read Classics at Balliol College, Oxford in the 1980s, but his take on Modern Greek was always a trifle shaky, so that when he once holidayed in the Cyclades with his wife, and kept overhearing the word ‘boris’ all the time, reasonably enough, he thought it must be a touchingly respectful homage to the blond and amiable English celebrity. It was only when he dipped into his Berlitz phrase book one day, that he recalled ‘mporeis’ or ‘boris’, actually meant ‘you may’ or ‘you might’ and lo and behold that quaint fact seeped into his subconscious with remarkable speed, so that the same night he had two hideous nightmares in succession. One featured an olive-skinned middle-aged Greek male who was of course not an Anglo-Saxon, but a European, and worse still a member of the EU, meaning that noisome, swamplike lethal morass that Boris the minister was so keen for his country to escape as soon as possible.  In his bizarre dream, a leering ill-shaved Mykonos barman of about fifty leaned over the Balliol man, who was startlingly just a little gurgling baby Boris with a dummy in his mouth, and shouted at him with a comical albeit threatening grimace.

“Borish! Pay attenshoon! Your name mean, You May! Lissen, my Borish, bebe! It mean, You May!”

There was only one May with a capital in Boris’s capacious subconscious, and she was called Theresa and she was Head Girl amongst the English Tories of the Brand New School, and a woman at that, and she hadn’t a single  friend nor any allies within the Parliament, and nobody of any political hue, including the Labour Pinks or Tory Pinks, agreed with anything she said or did. You or me or even Fluffy Boris, would have had a crippling nervous breakdown in her cruelly isolated position, with the weight of the intractable world upon her shoulders, but the Head Girl’s remedy was to go to church once a week, where she begged the Anglican vicar to reassure her she wasn’t really a Fallen Angel but a Responsible and Infinitely Dutiful Head Girl of the Brand New School. The vicar not only rushed to confirm she was all of that, but assured her it was all the dandruffy Labour chaps all dressed in unmanly pink who were the Fallen Angels, and would get their comeuppance when as in Thessalonians at the end of all things you would hear the sound of the trump = trumpet, and  it might even be the apocalyptic trump in human form, meaning Donald the One and Only, who would start off (by a nifty tweet of course, not a noisy trumpet) the eschatological proceedings.

Baby Boris gurgled at the huge Greek barman in horror, “But me not Treesa May, mister forren He Hugh fellah! Me instead am de fluffiest, blondest, nicest ickle boy in de worrld!”

Cue offstage, or rather in the baby’s delicate left ear, where could be clearly heard: ‘That is the Very Worst Fake and Phony News, baby Boris! You really are the snake in the grass Enemy of the People, lil Boris in your British diapers! Aha aha aha… ‘

The second nightmare you may imagine yourself, or rather no you mayn’t, as instead of a hissing olive-skinned Greek, we have massive avuncular Donald himself looming over the baby Boris’s cradle and jovially hallooing:

“Didcha know, buddy, that your name in Greek means, ‘you might’, kinda hypothetical in terms of your uncertain future, Boris, you geddit? But listen, because you’re an ignorant and innocent little baby, you actually think I’m saying ‘you mite’, just like your Mom did when she leant over your cradle and said, Boyish, Boyish, my ickle shweet mite!”

Poor Boris pulled a tearful face and groaned, “But me not mite, Uncle Donald! Me vewy big boy and I am ve vewy fluffiest person in de worrld!”

At this point, reasonably enough Boris thought Donald was going to hurl Fake News and Enemy of the People at him, instead of which the most powerful person in the world seemingly distorted his earlier maxims and began to croon in a strange falsetto:

“Faint of heart, you are baby Boris! You’re an anemone of the purple!”

“What!” said a suddenly adult Boris as he flung out his dummy and sat up angrily in his cot.

“Foul poo poos, you are baby Boris! You are the enema of the people!”

Boris turned as purple as a violet anemone, as he snarled, “You what! How dare someone like…like… someone like you… insult an… a… top drawer English gentleman of such impeccable waddyacallit… like such as me? Why you… you…”

But no, let’s stop, and forget Boris and his horrible dreams for a while. For there is also the mighty Najj, Nadge, Nadgie, Call me Mr Brexit, and Najj has so much phenomenal energy and quite unearthly drive, we can hardly get him down adequately on the page. Najj, though a dyed in the wool pinko when it comes to his shirts and ties and Rotarian cummerbunds, to the uninitiated is not remotely fluffy-haired, much less blond. But if you have anything like an ounce of intuition, and have sharp unfoolable x ray eyes to boot, you can see that Najj is as fluffy as they come, and like Boris is a born Rotarian: which is to say jovial, jocose and jocund to the core, an expert at kissing babies, opening jumble sales full of obsolete video tapes and broken VCRs, shaking hands with those who touch their modest brows and drop their aitches, and making faithful old ladies laugh to excess when he mocks the ridiculous Brand New Head Girl and the clapped out Mr Corbyn…

Suddenly one of Najj’s audience, a man of about sixty with bulbous ears and thick rimmed spectacles, says to the world at large, and especially to the nearest ITV camera:

“In my opinion we are a great little country, a nice little tight little country, and that is why we’ve always done best on our own. You see, whatever the world atlases say, we really aren’t part of Europe, never have been and never will be. Added to which the consumption of garlic by an Englishman is invariably an immature Johnny Foreigner Dago affectation. Shoot me down if I’m wrong, of course…”

Najj, the modest hero of the garlic hater, like Donald Of The Myriad Tweets, speaks for the common man, rarely the common woman, and in doing so has craftily inverted and thus subverted the accepted linguistic rules. While Donald coyly parrots his robust mirror image Josef Stalin/Dlugashvili, whenever he talks about the ‘enemies of the people’, so Najj the breezy sexpot of the libertarian right, declares that he has completely ‘revolutionised’ politics, as if he is another Trotsky fighting the fakes, the compromisers, the totalitarians, and the power mad. Najj is a fervent Rotarian if only because the splendid word breaks down, qua his beloved cryptic crosswords, to yield ‘rote’, ‘rota’ and ‘hairy uns’. Najj firmly believes in learning by rote in schools (arranged in alphabetical order the following: Great British Admirals, Great British Generals, Great British Inventors, Great British Vice-Roys and Florence Nightingale as his sole Justly Celebrated Female of British History). He also frets over precise rotas for the Brexit jumble sales with Mrs Poges on coffee, Mrs Biss with the raffle tickets, and Mrs Bux on the kiddies’ face painting. That said Najj teasingly refuses to explain precisely what he means by ‘hairy uns’, though we take it his sprightly rugger-loving bawdiness, if that is what it be, is both manly and broad, rather than obscure and offensive. Actually, the explanation is much more banal and innocuous. At times he has taken severely injudicious political risks that were decidedly hairy to the nth.

Meanwhile, three days ago, Mr Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party, received a handwritten letter from a twelve-year-old boy from Camden Town which his Mum had sneaked a read of, and then had photocopied multiple copies on the sly. She sent one of them to a campaigning journalist, an acquaintance of mine who showed it to me in a Kentish Town pub, and which I have transcribed in toto below. The journalist intends to send copies to numerous printed and digital sources, for he believes at long last he might have a possible exemplary foil to the ubiquitous and by now insane Brexit fever. The boy is called George Salmon and his letter speaks for itself.

Camden Town, London

June 2019

Dear Mr Jeremy Corbyn

First of all I should tell you that my Mum, who with very little money brought me up single handed in a tiny council flat, often refers to you as Jimmy Tarbuck, not Jeremy Corbyn, as she thinks you are an out of date and unfunny comedian, rather than a true political leader. You need to know that my mother, aged 45, is very angry at you, for saying that the proper democratic thing is for all of us to respect the Referendum result, where 51% wanted to leave the EU and 49% didn’t. This is because she says it will obviously produce 100% unhappiness for both the 51% as well as the 49%, if the nightmare of Brexit should ever happen. She adds that if you were to ask the Great British People in a similar Referendum should we bring back Capital Punishment, 60% would say yes, and they would also suggest it might be a good idea  to have all executions live on YouTube, if only to deter potential wrongdoers, though of course you’d have to be over 18  to watch them. My Mum tells me that is why we have democratic first past the post politics, and not referendums, which she says are ammunition for envious folk, and those she calls the infantilised, meaning the grown-ups who behave like spiteful little babies. She says the considered opinions of the Great British People really don’t mean shit (excuse me) as most of them spend all their time watching TV’s Strictly Come Dancing and The Great British Bake Off, though my Mum uses a different gerund and noun from ‘dancing and ‘bake’ and they are both very rude and both start with ‘w’ (I know what a gerund is because they make me do Latin at school when I wanted to do Arabic, but they said that option is  too controversial and also disloyal and not really British). My Mum also reckons that if Nigel or Najj or Nadgy Brexit, as she calls him, ever becomes Prime Minister, he will immediately pass a law that will jail single mums, overweight people and all those who stutter, as in his opinion they seriously let down and embarrass the country, which Najj says is the envy of all other nations in the world.

My Mum says the truth is you will say whatever you think might get you into power, and that respecting the will of the people, even if they are ranting bullies and spiteful Rotarians, is tantamount to saying you have no real moral principles of your own. Her conclusion is you clearly have no Centre of Gravity, Mr Corbyn, that you both look and talk like a clapped-out physics teacher (so you ought to know what C of G means) and she also sometimes calls you Mr Carbon, as she believes you are a carbon copy, not an original version of a flesh and blood man with a beating heart and a sensitive soul.

That’s it then. I thought I would just run all this past you, as you never know what might change someone’s mind, and in doing so even change the world. Just possibly a letter from the heart from an unknown and very ordinary schoolboy aged 12, might lead somehow to something happening in this world that really matters. Because surely if films on the internet of kittens playing with a ball of string can go viral, maybe what my angry and passionate and hardworking Mum says can also go viral too? Who knows?

Hoping this finds you as it leaves me, Mr Corbyn.

I remain your obedient servant

George Salmon

PS The valediction (remember my compulsory Latin at school) is what we are now ordered to put at the end of our letters, by our Civic Studies teacher, Miss Petunia Byng. She copied some handouts from a very old book from her grandmother’s bookshelves, called Essential Social Etiquette For All. As a result, I now know the proper way to address a Bishop or a Right Honourable, or a Commander of the British Empire. If ever I should need to write to one of them, that is

( I am going to be busy for the next few weeks and the next post will be on or before Tuesday 2nd July )

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JULIETTE BINOCHE AT HER BEST

The next post will be on or before Sunday June 9th

JULIETTE BINOCHE AT HER BEST

The Lovers of Pont-Neuf (1991) is an extremely powerful and very subversive film, that could only have been made by a youthful and patently fearless director (Leos Carax, born 1960) with the lead parts played by young, angry and seemingly politicised actors, namely Juliette Binoche (born 1964) who was 25 in 1989 when filming started, and Denis Lavant (born 1961) who was all of 28. Carax had made his acclaimed low budget black and white debut Boy Meets Girl (1984) at the tender age of 24, and the half dozen years that had passed before The Lovers of the New Bridge had evidently broadened his imaginative scope and laudably idealistic ambitions. I have seen the film 3 times: in 1993 in rural North East Cumbria; in 1994 in a grim and dilapidated Manchester hotel where Charles Dickens once stayed, and finally 25 years later, a few days ago on the Isle of Kythnos, via a DVD on my laptop. Only now, 25 years after the Manchester viewing, do I realise quite what a stereoscopic, delicately nuanced, and incalculable achievement this cinematic masterpiece amounts to.

Let’s start with the obvious ironies. It is 1989 and Paris is celebrating 200 years of the French republic, with appropriate pomp and ceremony, including astonishing firework displays, of which more later. Carax chooses for his bicentennial celebrants, 2 down and out vagrants whose future is to say the least unremittingly bleak. Alex (Lavant) is a street performer in the form of a humble fire eater (contrast the mega-scale civic pyrotechnics) who unfortunately has serious alcohol and sedative addictions, so that he is now homeless and dossing on the Pont Neuf, which has been cordoned off for extensive bicentennial repairs. He suffers from insomnia which explains the sedatives, and these he obtains from a middle-aged tramp, also on the bridge, called Hans, played with splenetic conviction by German director and actor Klaus Michael Gruber (1941-2008). The film is effectively a 3-hander then, for one day Alex chances across a woman covered in a blanket and sprawled on a bridge bench, and when he lifts the blanket, he beholds the most beautiful little pedigree cat sitting on her belly. The young woman Michele (Binoche) has a patch over her eye, the other eye is glazed, and she looks harrowingly vulnerable yet also studiedly angry with life and everything it has done to her. She is a gifted and successful artist who is going blind because of some rare ocular deterioration, plus the love of her life has broken off all relations, and refuses to even let her past his door. These 2 vagrants have already met, though only Michele remembers exactly how. The previous evening Alex was staggering drunk and doped down a busy city road when a car ran over his leg, and it was Michele trudging myopically the other way who rang for an ambulance. Alex now perforce has to hobble about on a crutch and he does this with a stern and determined dexterity that so to speak orchestrates the dynamics of the film. Lavant, with his dogged yet touchingly feral face, stomps angrily backwards and forwards around the cluttered bridge, almost like some silent opera singer playing a tramp, just as Michele is pugnaciously stone-faced at the thought of her unbearable future as a blind artist. As for Hans, he is in a rage with the new arrival, and threatens violence if she doesn’t bugger off immediately, insisting that a woman sleeping rough is bound eventually to suffer rape and/or violence. Later we learn his tragic story: decades with a secure job as an attendant in the Louvre, but a wife who liked the booze too much, and then they lost their small child, the drinking got worse, and everything went downhill. Nevertheless, he still has a complete set of keys to the Louvre, so that when Michele later resists his evicting her from the bridge, and pours out her torrential grief, he tells her he can easily get her in there to take a last look at her favourite paintings.

The two young derelicts soon become smitten, though while Michele eloquently states her love, she insists that it must go slowly, slowly, so that volatile Alex is regularly driven to distraction. His naïve solution is simply to subvert everything that might lead to her deserting him, either soon or in the long run. Thus, when she shows him a loaded pistol that had belonged to her army colonel Dad, after ordering him to merrily blast away on the bridge for their entertainment, she then commands him to fling it in the Seine. She is so short-sighted however that Alex fakes a splash, and hides the weapon where he can get at it if necessary. Note also that this close focus study of two seemingly terminal existences, is not without its regular laugh out loud comedy. The stronger of the pair, Michele, decides to wean her lover off Hans’s sedatives, by their wangling as much money as they can steal as quickly as possible. After that, she surmises, they can leave the bridge and live in a proper house, and then surely Alex’s insomnia will disappear. She is visibly pleased when she sees that the sedatives are administered from plastic ampoules, and she orders Alex to purchase a cartload from Hans, after which they repair to the poshest of central Paris cafes. Michele plonks down adjacent to the intended businessman victim, Alex then strolls up begging a few sous, and as the dupe is fidgeting in his wallet, or being distracted by handsome Michele, Alex squeezes an ampoule into his coffee or beer. Within minutes he is fast asleep, and Michele empties his wallet and that of dozens more, so that before long she has amassed 2000 francs which she keeps in a faded cigar box.  Unfortunately, all that money spells her possible independence from Alex, so that back on the bridge he craftily moves the cigar box, meaning that as she exercises her stiff leg, she kicks it blindly into the Seine and then collapses into grief at the absolute hopelessness of everything in her life.

Their trusted remedy for despair is to go on periodic binges with rough red wine, often preceded by Alex doing acrobatic cartwheels on a wall above the Seine (Lavant actually trained as a circus performer and a mime artist at the age of 13). Whenever they get drunk, they roll about the bridge laughing crazily, and one of the extraordinary things about this movie is their particular species of hysterical laughter, which is that of two comprehensively wounded souls, hence quite unlike that of most folk who find themselves in stitches. Their whinnying laughter sounds partly like a horse neighing, partly like a whistling express train, and partly like someone in muffled anguish. There are 2 set pieces where they go both crazy with mirth, and the second one even has Michele telling a joke as preamble to the hysterics. It takes her an inordinately long time to tell the joke, however, because she is helpless with merriment as she anticipates the punchline…

Three Parisian men, all middle-aged barflies, are comparing notes about the frequency of their marital sex life. One has sex once a fortnight, and is depressed by his meagre quota. Another has it once a month, and is even more fed up. The third confesses he only has it once every 3 years, and yet he is beaming from ear to ear. Why, the other 2 ask him amazed, are you so bloody happy, if you only have sex once every 3 years?!

Because, gushes the man euphorically, tonight is the night that I have it!

On another drunken binge, things turn out altogether surreal, yet infinitely liberating for both. They decide to break into the makeshift shelter used by the river police, Michele expertly coshes its sole occupant with an empty wine bottle, then they steal his motorboat. Before long we have Alex steering a police boat with impudently blaring siren, at full speed down the Seine, with the half blind artist being ecstatically towed behind on water skis.  Director Carax doesn’t do things by half, so that at this point he chooses to have the bicentennial pyrotechnic display go off in all its excess, extravagance and unbelievable beauty. I honestly doubt whether I have ever seen anything more affecting in all my life, cinematic or otherwise, if only because the spectacular glory of the contrapuntally igniting fireworks, set beside the poignant tragedy of the two disabled vagabonds, free at last in however provisional and curtailed a fashion, would be enough to move the coldest heart. For this epic visual epiphany we have to thank the cinematographer, the late Jean-Yves Escoffier (1950-2003), who in my opinion should have been given not one but half a dozen Legion d’Honneur medals for his services to French cinema 30 years ago.

The other mesmerising tableau is one of horror rather than beauty. One day along the metro Alex notes numerous posters with Michele’s mugshot on it, paid for by her rich father, and urging her to come home, for they have found a certain virtuoso eye specialist who can probably cure her rare condition. Terrified she will desert him, Alex rips down the first one with his nails, and then noticing dozens more, he sets fire to the metro station to annihilate them all. Fleeing the blazing station, he sees a van full of the same posters, so he promptly sets fire to that. The van driver comes out from the station shouting his rage, but then catches fire himself, and neither he nor any bystander can extinguish him. He dies screaming his agony, and the hideous image lingers as Alex returns to the bridge where he finds Michele listening to an old radio that is broadcasting the same parental message as the posters. Just as she realises she might be healed of her affliction and resume her artist’s life again, a couple of cops arrive on the bridge and take Alex away for interrogation. Once again Corax pulls no punches as they handcuff this virtual cripple and have him on his knees where he is assailed on 4 sides by flics battering his head as hard as they can with 6-inch phone directories and the like. He is given 3 years for manslaughter and while he is in jail, and learning, of all things, how to be a welder, Michele is successfully treated and completely regains her eyesight.

Nonetheless she is still in love with Alex, and visits him in prison, albeit in his cloistered vulnerability he urges her to go away. Once he’s out of jail, they liaise on the bridge again, where Hans has recently committed suicide by drowning, and where at last the reconstruction is over. Full of wine they dance together gleefully and lovingly, and Alex is about to embrace her in a way that indicates possession and perhaps an ultimate permanence. Always too considered Michele blows it at this point, and insists on yet more slowly, slowly, for she must leave him now to be alone, and then she will return tomorrow. Alex goes completely crazy at such a heartless command, grabs Michele, and athlete that he is, throws the pair of them into the Seine where they sink like lead and look set to drown…

Just then as deus ex machina an old-fashioned barge bearing sand trundles past, and the 2 waifs surface and beg for a rope, then clamber aboard. The elderly couple who run the boat are both in tears as this is their last day as bargees, which they have been for all their married life. Their astounding plan, having delivered the sand, is to keep on travelling into the Atlantic, an open-ended and fairytale option which very much appeals to the 2 lovers. They beg the bargees to be taken along, the old couple accede, and for the first time in the whole film both Michele and Alex offer to the world the most natural, full, tender and human smiles imaginable. Their lovers’ happy ending is of course incredible, and also incredibly beautiful, and you are for once requested to suspend adult disbelief and to embrace poetic aka childlike license.

I would add that if you neglect to watch this remarkable film, you will do yourself out of far more than trusting credulousness and a refusal to see that even the ineluctably damned may be redeemed in the proper circumstances. Meanwhile hats off to Leos Corax, his veteran regular Denis Lavant, and the Juliette Binoche who in her mid-twenties at any rate was an unbelievably gifted actor who has since changed the world around us in more ways than one.

Postscript

When it was released in 1991 after 3 years in production The Lovers of Pont-Neuf was the most expensive French film ever made, only exceeded 2 years later by Claude Berri’s version of Zola’s Germinal starring Gerard Depardieu. It was plagued with production problems as Corax had limited access to the real bridge, and eventually had to construct both it and the Seine in the Herault region of the South of France. Lavant is variously noted as having broken his thumb/ broken his leg on set, but Corax refused to cast anyone other than his regular actor. Whatever the fracture, it obviously helped Denis Lavant to stomp convincingly around the set on his single crutch. In the end the costly film was successfully bailed out by the movie’s producer, the late Christian Fechner (1944-2008)

BLACK COMEDY FOR ADULTS

I have visitors arriving soon and there will be no new post until on or before Sunday 2nd June

BLACK COMEDY FOR ADULTS

There is a recurring and impressively sour old character entertainingly called Bert Bastard on Channel 4’s vintage comedy sketch show, Absolutely (1989-1993). Bastard is played by the versatile and gifted Welshman John Sparkes (born 1954) and is a white-haired octogenarian, understandably bitter as he is living alone and impoverished and with serious mobility problems. In one sketch, we have Bert in the bathroom with his Zimmer frame, facing the camera, and to vigorous musical accompaniment he is trying to perform the famous Hokey Cokey song and dance.

He begins, ‘You put your left leg in…’ and then attempts to do just that.

His left leg refuses to move even an inch. He scowls then doggedly resumes, ‘You put your left leg in…’ and ditto a failure. This happens three times, until Bert decides to doctor the lyrics in accordance with his personal reality. To the rumbustious Hokey Coke tune we now have…

You stay exactly where you are!

You get OLD…

And then you DIE…

And THAT’S what it’s all ABOUT!

(Pause)

ARSE!

Cue as finale the Zimmer frame lurching forward, and Bert Bastard landing flat on his face.

In another sketch, Bert who has very shaky hands, vainly chases some elusive processed peas around his meagre lunch plate, until finally cornering a single pea, he addresses it man to man:

‘I’ve got you now! You little BASTARD!’

Bert, you will note, though he might be old, is a man of vehement passion, for he is angry as well as bitter at his hopeless situation. Nor is he in the least charming nor amenable on the wider front. One convenient fiction about very old people is they have no sex drive, and doddering Bert not only has his, he has a pre-war bawdy vocabulary to go with it. Fantasising one day what it might be like if he attended a local Day Centre for the Old, he drools lubriciously as he weighs the odds of likely tedium versus the presence all those women:

‘Just imagine. I’d be in amongst all that quim!’

The reason why this is very funny is that it is rooted in a reality that is not even remotely comical. Being semi invalid, being alone and lonely, struggling to eat your dreary economy lunch, being patronised and/or ignored by the young, facing perhaps before long total immobility, contemplating and in some cases even looking forward to Death: all this Bert Bastard exemplifies extremely economically, for the Hokey Cokey sketch only lasts 50 seconds, but in its own way tells you almost everything you need to know about life at its limits. Apropos which, one thing it took both UK TV and radio a long time to learn, is that you don’t get enduring comedy out of stand-up facetiousness and boom-boom one liners, which are all, you might say, comedy felt at the level of possibly a reflex chuckle in the neck (if you are lucky). By contrast belly laughs are aptly so called, as you feel the depth of the comedy in your viscera, and the reason why you do that with Bert Bastard is that he is trawling the painful depths when he makes comedy out of mortality, illness, inanition, isolation, depression, despair. Meanwhile the definitive torch bearer when it came to this comic treatment of thwarted lives, came in the early 1960s, when the legendary script team of Ray Galton (1930-2018) and Alan Simpson (1929-2017) wrote a pilot 30-minute comedy for BBC TV about a couple of impoverished East London rag and bone men. They comprised a father and son called Albert and Harold Steptoe, whose scrap was gathered by horse and cart, with the horse heroically dubbed Hercules. Steptoe and his son used the hitherto taboo words ‘bleedin’, ‘git’ and ‘ponce’ to excess, had a grubby outside lavatory with newspaper instead of toilet paper, bathed once a week in a tin bath, and relaxed in amongst a comical array of antiques, stuffed animals and junk picked up in the course of their work. Harold with his struggling cultural pretensions was a frustrated bachelor of 39, who was aching to find a nice woman, but was saddled with his appalling old Dad who was both foul-mouthed and determined not to be deserted. Steptoe Senior artfully foiled every attempt Harold made to find a girlfriend (Albert invariably termed such women ‘birds’ or ‘bints’) including once squatting sloshing in the tin bath wearing his battered trilby hat and eating his supper of meat and pickles as Harold arrived back with his heartthrob. At one point a pickled onion drops in the bath and with the ladyfriend played by an incredulous Yootha Joyce (1927-1980) Albert tersely grabs the fork and goes spearfishing, only to stuff the soapy pickle into his mouth. Filial betrayal is thus nipped in the bud, regardless of Harold’s ranting accusations. The belly laughs, you will note, are rooted in the pathos of two objective living hells, viz being in your late thirties and having no sex life, nor much prospect of it, or alternatively finding yourself very old and terrified of being alone.

If you wish to find the equivalent matter in literature, meaning someone who makes others wretched and uses them to his own ends, you will probably need to explore great literature aka the Classics, and perhaps most instructive of all is Charles Dickens who can make laugh out loud comedy out of the most appalling, manipulative monsters.  A prime example found in Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) is the fawning arch-hypocrite Pecksniff who to suit his own greed gives away his daughter Mercy to an even more appalling monster called Jonas Chuzzlewit, he who inter alia hastens his old father’s death (i.e. murders him) to get his hands on his considerable fortune. The atrocious Pecksniff is repulsively hilarious, partly because Dickens, in order to emphasise his villainy, subjects him to elaborate decorous ironies and wonderfully leisurely digressions, including a 2-page riff at the start of the novel where he fantasies snobbish Pecksniff’s distinguished genealogy going back all the way to Adam and Eve. Yet as George Orwell first pointed out, Dickens, while a master at comic evocation of monsters and their heartless manoeuvres, is more or less hopeless at depicting happiness. Instead he regularly opts for a blurred and risible sentimentality, often with a rhetorical address to the readers, effectively commanding them to be touched by these saintly waifs who have been through their trials but by dint of uncomplaining piety have come out on top. Thus, when Pecksniff’s exploited lackey Tom Pinch is reunited with his equally exploited governess sister Ruth, their domestic felicity is so treacly, sickly and all-purpose nebulous in its gushing excess, you start to wonder why it was the great author was so critically split down the middle. A genius at humorously evoking human selfishness and cruelty and their tragic effects, he often reads like a penny dreadful hack when it comes to evoking the mystery of human happiness.

All this, believe it or not, is very relevant when it comes to contemplating the cream of TV entertainers, and those very few contemporary performers who could be described as comic geniuses. There are essentially 3 kinds of comedy entertainment: the collaborative sketch show, the collaborative situation comedy series, and the solo stand up performance. As I’ve said, in my view, the last one with its convergent one liners and often limp and overstated ‘observational’ humour, is predictably the least impressive. So it is that even though the enormously gifted Peter Kay (born 1973) whose drama series Phoenix Nights, set in a Lancashire working men’s club, is of a very high comic order, he is, I would argue, a great deal less commanding as a stand-up comedian. For example in his televised Blackpool Tower stand up, he has all the crowds of grandmas and grandads as well as the mums and dads and aunties and uncles, in amiable and harmless stitches over such things as (apropos good drying weather) ‘fine rain’ as opposed to ‘heavy rain’, and the habit working folk on package tours have of ringing up immediately from Torremolinos with nothing to say other than they have just arrived and it is sunny. To be sure, such observations are both anodyne and harmless, but hardly sidesplitting, and the only way they would work is if they came torrentially, with only a second to laugh at each gag (a second being surely all they deserve). This was the unique case with one of the very few great stand up comedians, Liverpudlian Ken Dodd (1927-2018) whose feverish puns, athletic wordplay and saucy doubles entendres worked as a kind of collaborative visceral assault, with the nature of the genius there on offer being the sheer speed of Dodd’s mind and the hurricane nature of his comic delivery.

The excellence of Phoenix Nights (2001-2002) resides in the fact that although its comic milieu is the friendly Lancastrian working class, it eschews all sentimentality, and instead portrays certain driven individuals trying to rise to the top, despite all the odds, and to do that they are required to put Self first, meaning to be as callow and at times breathtakingly heartless as possible. The heartlessness as with Bert Bastard versatilely braces itself to cope with disability, serious illness, aching loneliness, and it even makes authentic gallows humour out of the universal fear of Death. Regarding which, the Phoenix night club is owned by portly, doleful and irritable Brian Potter who is played by Peter Kay (he also plays sardonic, wisecracking Max, one of Potter’s bouncers, the other being Paddy McGuinness). Potter is wheelchair bound and behind his back is routinely referred to as Ironside (qv the detective played by Raymond Burr aka Perry Mason, who also had a wheelchair). Potter is callowness personified, yet he is an unarguably likeable as opposed to lovable monster, and his one moral quality you might say, is his commitment to his beloved club, for which he will do literally anything. Otherwise his moral scruples are wonderfully appalling. When his compere the club singer Jerry Sinclair (Dave Spikey, born 1951) has a bowel cancer scare, we are bemused to see that Jerry after a fashion is rather proud, and even theatrically bragging to strangers about his condition (that’s what I would call real observational humour,  if perhaps too close to the bone for those who prefer stand up). In reality the compere is shitting himself and going along for a colonoscopy is terrified. Not only do we see him quailing in his pathetic hospital nightie, but we watch the camera inserted in his rectum and astonishingly we follow the aeronautic progress of the lens inside the depths of his bowels, aka viscera (qv visceral comedy). To his massive relief, the compere is told there is no evident cancer, and that what he has is most likely irritable bowel syndrome.  Cue Jerry skipping his way joyfully back to the Phoenix, ready to share the good news with Potter who is looking rather strange not to say very shifty as he does. What he tells Sinclair is preposterous while also blackly hilarious. That he, Potter, has cleverly spread the profitable news that Jerry very likely has cancer, and that there is a to be a mega benefit concert tomorrow night organised specifically for him. Common sense then, and for the good of the club in terms of hefty ticket sales, Jerry must pretend that he does have cancer until the concert is over, after which he may say whatever he likes.

Even by Potter standards this is rather too much to swallow.

“But I don’t have any cancer, Brian. I’ve just been told that I’m OK.”

The man in the wheelchair looks even shiftier, and then throws a meagre baseball cap too small for the compere’s head. Potter commands him to wear that cap tomorrow night, the singular and pity-inducing headgear that all cancer sufferers have in any fundraising context. So it is that the following night there is Jerry Sinclair aping terminal illness, as he croons his saccharine ballads to the mostly elderly hence decidedly mortal audience. En masse,  as we have all seen in numerous poignant dramas and documentaries, they are holding up their ignited lighters, and with tears streaming down their faces at the heartbreaking sight before their Lancastrian eyes.

CHIC FASHION AS I SEE IT

The next post will be on or before Friday 10th May

CHIC FASHION AS I SEE IT

A few days ago, here in the Kythnos port, I thought at one point I might be hallucinating, or perhaps less dramatically, misperceiving to the extent of seeing things erroneously and absurdly, so that if I blinked several times in quick succession, the phenomenon would go away. Let me try to clarify. Last weekend was the Greek Orthodox Easter, the port was full of Athenian tourists, and the outdoor cafes were thronging mostly with young families and couples enjoying things like frappe coffees and fresh orange juice, both of them consumed with colourful straws. Somewhere around midday on the Saturday, as I was staring at all these visitors, I was surprised to see no less than six people, of both genders, all sat at two joined up tables, all wearing a uniform item of fashion, in the form of six near identical jackets. Such a bizarrely homogeneous sartorial array puts you in mind immediately of either a Sixties pop group (recall the Beatles in 1962 all wearing the identical pre-war Belgian confectioners’ apprentices round-necked outfit) or the current fashion in yachts that are chartered in Athens or Lavrio, where the chartering firm makes the foreign yachties all sport the same usually orange or yellow promotional t-shirt, as if they were all US Evangelical Christians united by a single faith. That aside, I think the proper term for what the half dozen Greek adults were all wearing is a ‘quilted jacket’ and possibly I only imagine ever having heard it described as a ‘padded jacket’, which sounds unflatteringly reminiscent of both strait-jackets and the nature of the soundproofing as found in the same mental institutions. Unable to blink away this odd vision of so many Standardised Quilted Folk, I didn’t know whether to be touched, or to burst out laughing whilst strategically looking in the opposite direction. To put my cards on the table, I personally, even if very drunk, would never sit with a bunch of friends, all of us wearing the identical apparel, because surely it would  look as if we were mocking some gormless devotional cult, or were aiming to be a tribute band for a pop group that made it to No 237 in the January 1965 hit parade, and then, guess what, vanished without trace.

What exactly does a quilted jacket look like? In case you have no idea, its primary characteristic is that unlike a proper jacket which has arms, and is therefore unarguably all there, it is only really half there, for it has sawn-off arms which make it somewhere along the imposing structural lines of the more artistic French gilet. QJs are not remotely artistic however, they are quite the opposite. As I’m sure you all know, people react subliminally as well as directly to almost everything in life, and the initial subliminal impression of the QJ is that it is rather like a hacked-up duvet or a hacked-up quilted blanket or a hacked-up sleeping bag/ doss bag, or as my late wife Annie put it more brilliantly than anyone else ever has, when she first beheld one, exactly like an immersion heater cover

She and I first encountered the QJ/IHC around 30 years ago, back in the winter and spring of 1989-1990, when our daughter Ione was a baby and we were living in remote and beautiful rural NE Cumbria, UK. We happened to be renting an old cottage is the middle of a very handsome little village, which boasted a state-of-the-art brand-new community hall, and where we lived was diametrically opposite that hall. Once a month of a Friday night the North East Cumbrian Young Farmers held a riotous dance there, and they liked their pulsing acoustics at full throttle and on these wahey wahey Hootnanny nights we were resigned to losing even more sleep than we did having a new baby. The Young Farmers were of both genders and were mostly in their early and mid-twenties, and were always single (unless they happened to be divorced young) and every single one of them wore quilted jackets. They lived very healthy agricultural lives and their complexions were there to prove it. All of them had alliteratively speaking roseate, ruddy, rubescent, extremely rubicund countenances, or to put it in a more homely manner, they all had faces that looked strikingly like smacked arses. People who live very rural lives in remote places, often give the impression of being adaptively guileless, which is to say innocently countrified when it comes to sophisticated urban and intellectual/ theoretical matters, albeit of course  at a sheep or cattle auction they can demonstrate minds faster than the speed of light when it comes to buying and flogging their ewes and gimmer hoggs. Otherwise, in convenient assimilable terms, for both me and Annie, these Young and Uniformly Quilted Folk, all being farmers, couldn’t possibly be other than no nonsense Countryside Alliance Tories, with their fervent passions for fox hunting, coarse fishing, pea and pie suppers, Treasure Hunts and Beetle Drives, all of it vividly engraved in their innocent slapped backside fizzogs…

The QJs of those young farmers, like all passions and crazes, seemed to have disappeared by the time I left the UK in 2013. Now, 5 years later, out of nowhere I behold the Greek version of the walking immersion heater cover, the one radical difference being the countenances of the quilted Greeks are tanned and olive skinned rather than appearing chastised. Meanwhile my daughter Ione who lives in West Yorkshire, tells me that there has been a recent resurgence of QJs back in urban as opposed to rural UK, even among fashion-conscious students in places like Leeds and Bradford, the last people in the world who would consent to look retrograde and doltish. Apropos which, I would argue, few things are more puzzling than why some folk are so remarkably excited by a specific fashion that they opt to look exactly like everyone else. At first glance, perhaps it seems consistent with the historical consensus amongst the industrial British working class, which was always to be and look as much like your pals as you could, meaning to find yourself acceptable by being in an unspoken and emphatically understated solidarity, your choice of clothes included. Hence, well into the early 1980s, among northern pit and factory communities, almost every adult male would wear a flat cap, sometimes at a slight oblique angle, and travelling through relatively deprived places like the Portuguese Alentejo and Western Turkey during the same period, you would likewise note almost every man over 40 also with their standardised flat caps, in Portugal often jet black, striped and with a small plastic button at its peak. It is obviously a completely different urge that 30 years on, inspires so many relatively comfortable Athenians all to wear the same thing, because in an inverse and paradoxical way they would all seem to be expressing their individuality by a unified aesthetic taste. For them the QJ or Immersion Heater Cover is perceived as a thing of striking aesthetic beauty, not a badge of bland solidarity, the only solidarity being that you agree with other connoisseurs that these things look bloody fantastic, and make you look the bees’ knees when you go out with your pals, all of them dressed like you. More flattering to reflect, and also more touching, I would say, surely the closest analogy is the joy with which children and teenagers all opt for the same craze, the same cool haircut or same chromatic hair bobble, or same colour and style of trainer, because for them it is an expression of heartening unity through the same enlivening aesthetic choice (even if not all of them know what ‘aesthetic’ means).

It is as if they are saying, we are all natural geniuses, and isn’t that great, when it comes to the same stylish t-shirt with the same shocking or suggestive message, or going back 6 decades to the same revolving Hoola Hoop, or those blindingly coloured bobby dazzler socks that were worn only with funereal black suits.

Or best of all, and most instructive, if you were male and prematurely old, and had nil taste, aesthetic or otherwise, you would wear hygienic white socks with your floppy curate’s sandals, and even though you looked like a struggling hopeless clergyman, you really thought you might be Rudolf Valentino incarnate as you flapped through downtown Stoke Poges en route to the newsagents to get your hands on your treat of the week, your Sunday Express…

HUMAN NATURE – a short story

The next post will be on or before Sunday 5th May

HUMAN NATURE – a short story

It was in the roasting summer of 1984, meaning all of thirty-five years ago, and I was at a crowded party held in an exquisite country cottage on the outskirts of a small town in my native West Cumbria. That town, unlike most in the decaying industrial belt along the Solway Firth, was also undeniably handsome, one of two such townships in fact (the other I can disclose, and despite all its thronging Lake District tourists, is Keswick by Derwentwater). I had been there about twenty minutes when suddenly something very unexpected happened, involving myself and the hostess Connie. We had been chatting a while, and she seemed to me distracted, possibly unhappy, though Connie who was in her mid-forties and a talented sculptor, was so legendarily vague and self-absorbed it was impossible to detect any subtler shades of mood. At any rate she urged me to reach up at the elegant and massive antique table, where a beautiful array of colourful food was on display, including as centrepiece a chromatic mountain of fish kedgeree cleverly tinted with odorous saffon. Connie, who had fine brown hair and limpid eyes, and a habit of smiling when you least expected it, suddenly moved some six inches in front of me, after being stood by my side in conversation. Without more ado, as if it was some party game or forfeit she had just then ingeniously invented, she reached blindly behind herself and took firm hold of both of my hands. She then placed them swiftly on her breasts, meaning on top of the pretty floral-patterned blue blouse she was wearing, and started studiously massaging them into massaging her. As part of this lightning manoeuvre, she effectively pinioned my arms with her back pressed against my chest, almost as if she had bagged me as a custodial specimen, her private pet and exclusive possession, and with the clear hint she was unlikely to let me go for the rest of the evening, or possibly for ever.

You might imagine I was shocked at this point, but in truth I wasn’t, or at any rate not very much. This was not, I stress, because either Connie or I had ever had any feelings for each other, though we had always been friendly and chatted easily enough should we bump into each other at the cinema or theatre or in the streets of the small town. Nor was my wife Maria, who was stood a few yards off and could clearly see Connie clutching my hands to her blouse, remotely put out by the bizarre and compromising spectacle. Maria and I had been happily married for five years and neither of us had ever strayed and neither ever would, and when she saw what was happening  (and thankfully she’d observed Connie’s preliminary unilateral grab) she raised her eyebrows and smiled as if to imply that Connie was Connie, and therefore her Carry On Shenanigans in Bloody Old West Cumbria didn’t mean anything in the last event. When we compared notes later, we both agreed that Connie being so perennially scatty, vague, abstracted, in her own little sculptor’s world, not quite there, and a dozen other straining modifiers and metaphors, that never quite expressed her absolute yet always completely elusive nature… that because she was all of that, she was a special and forgivable case, which is to say not wholly responsible for her actions. In many ways one assimilated her to the status of a child, rather than an adult, even though she had two teenage daughters, Kezia and Jane, and made a decent income teaching sculpture in a technical college. Maria better than I, had rapidly understood what this naive manoeuvre was all about, for my wife had known Connie’s husband Tam a few years before she and I had met, and Maria had seen him, invariably minus Connie, in action at sundry other parties, where his womanising was comically autopilot and undisguised. Hence, even though Tam had no obvious new lover in tow here tonight, Maria and I deduced he must have one tucked away somewhere else, and somehow Connie had learnt about it and decided to play a kind of artless six-year-old’s tit for tat by grabbing Maria’s innocent husband and getting him to massage her vigorously in public.

Tam, who had also observed the whole thing, simply grinned at me now with a look of comic apology and grateful understanding of my obvious tolerance. Like Maria, he raised his lazy eyebrows as all-purpose disclaimer, as if to say, you know what Connie is like, it doesn’t mean anything, because it is Connie. It was evidently no more consequential than if one of his daughters, say Kezia when she was just six, tired and in a tearful tantrum, had shouted, I blinking hate you Dad! and then stomped off to bed in a petulant fume…

At length I realised I couldn’t stay there for ever, annealed to Connie’s perspiring back, so prised myself away as best I could.

I said to her, “I think Maria wants me…”

Connie looked moderately astonished. “Really?”

It was hard to work out whether she had been boozing to excess in that enveloping mist of vagueness, though I thought on balance not. In any event, she began chatting affably to someone filling their plate, and as if nothing had occurred. Maria meanwhile was signalling me to come over and look at something which was causing her great amusement. She pointed smiling to another example of extreme lack of inhibition, though in this case it was reciprocal and unambiguous. One of Tam and Connie’s neighbours, a stocky, bluff and argumentative college lecturer in his late thirties called Hughie, was centre floor and was extremely drunk by eight o’ clock. Hughie was married with two small children, but was conspicuously not here with his wife Tamsin, who most likely was seeing to the kids only three doors away. Instead, he was dancing with an attractive and impressively dressed young woman with mesmerising fair hair and very large ear rings, who was probably about fifteen years his junior. She was called Cora and might perhaps have been a college administrator or a friend of someone here, but no one seemed to know who she was or how they had met. Cora might well have been trying in principle to dance, but Hughie was more or less collapsed like a laden sack into her arms. Like two teenagers at some old-fashioned provincial disco, they were smooching heavily, and Hughie wore an expression of addled, beatific rapture, and she too was smiling contentedly as he squeezed and massaged her skirted behind like some parody of a leery Mafia boss… and for all the bemused partygoers to see…

Maria snorted her merriment. “Look at him kneading her behind as if it was bread dough and he was a drunken baker. Some people don’t care, do they? It’s a hell of an education being here, in my opinion.”

Tam Driver and Hughie James were two working class boys made good, and both by coincidence were from rural East Anglia. They were both comfortably tenured college lecturers in obscure West Cumbria, and were now living only yards apart in expensive renovated cottages, situated in what is decorously called The Fringe Lake District. Hughie might be prominently here at Tam’s party, but there was a fair chance he had invited himself, and not without a crude pugnacity. The pair of them were outwardly amiable in the public sphere, but certainly no love was lost. In private Tam thought Hughie was a philistine, and not just because he was currently treating Cora’s backside as if it was two lemons from which he was trying to squeeze every last item of juice. Hughie like Tam taught the Humanities, and he took an interest in amateur drama and musicals and penned the occasional unpublished poem. But he was also comically addicted to the radio agricultural soap opera The Archers, which made his older colleague snort with incredulous contempt. Tam had informed me that when Hughie went on a six-month sabbatical to Canada, because it was pre-internet days, he actually got a friend to tape six months’ worth of the soap on audio-cassettes and post them out week by week to Toronto, an epic labour of love on the part of that most selfless dogsbody. The Archers fan also very much relished crime novels, which thirty years ago had less chic status than they do now, and which certainly did not spawn a hundred TV adaptations in the form of Nordic Noir. Determined Hughie had even wangled permission to teach a module in Crime Fiction at the college, and thought he was an innovative genius for doing so. This of course stoked Tam’s incredulous ire, and he growled to me one day:

“Teaching fucking ‘crime novels’ for fuck’s sake! Anyone with any brains knows there is only one detective novel worth reading, and only ever will be. Fyodor Dostoievsky’s Crime and Punishment I mean. All the rest are tepid cross word puzzles for stand-up comedians like Hughie James.”

Tam was also a poet, but unlike Hughie, a published one. He had an original talent and a fine intelligence right enough, but was innately ambitious and craved after a Faber or equivalent imprint, which eluded him painfully for the rest of his life. Thanks to his heavy smoking he died of a rapid cancer aged only sixty, having divorced dizzy Connie and remarried her diametric opposite, a shrewd and balanced former lawyer’s wife called Marjorie, just a year earlier. It didn’t help his career that writing for the Sunday broadsheets and various magazines, he was a merciless critic of both prose and verse, and was impressively frightened of no one, Booker and Nobel winners included. I bristled and all but cheered in my chair one day, as I read with admiring envy his reasoned, copiously evidenced, and irrefutable demolition of a ventriloquial if vainglorious Martin Amis novel of the Nineteen Eighties…

Tam had sneered, “It would be nice if Martin, or his other unconvincing avatar Martina, as he terms himself here, could manage to distinguish prose from pose… I don’t believe a word of this vaudeville joke of a novel.”

Only a week later, in an august Sunday heavy, came a mocking excoriation of a preening Julian Barnes masterwork, where the jovial authorial voice, according to Tam, was absolutely identical to the breezily facetious tone of Barnes’s TV reviews in the New Statesman a decade earlier. Soon after, for good measure, with meticulous and decorous precision, he stamped on the latest hilarious epic poem by the TV polymath Clive James, even declaring that his eminent Scottish editor should spend a night in the Edinburgh stocks for printing something so amateurish and dire. Within a single month, Tam had put his hobnailed boot into that hallowed unassailable triumvirate, and thus become an insolent heretic who had declared that all three emperors wore no clothes. If all this should sound meagre, inconsequential and masonic stuff, be aware that the number of truly fearless and independent-minded critics, both then and three decades on, could be counted on just two fingers, which is to say that Tam Driver constituted a full fifty per cent of the national quotient.

Tam was one of my best friends, and yet he was one of those (and they are always men) who I could have talked to for a thousand years, and never known who was sat there before me. He rarely spoke of anything personal, and if he did it was a distanced precis or a polite summary, not a revelation, however modest. I know perhaps five men in the whole world who are not like that, which explains why I prefer the company of women, the majority of whom do not hygienically summarise but speak with a natural transparence about themselves. Sometimes of course a biographical horror can make people hedging and self-protective and it was only after Tam’s death I learned that he was in a near fatal car crash when he was just five years old. I had known the man for twenty-five years and knew nothing about the accident, nor it transpired did even one of his closest friends. That protective distance of his was consonant with his avowed intoxication with Art, meaning literature and great music, in his case the finest classical composers and jazz. He had abandoned school defiantly at sixteen and done countless humdrum jobs, before becoming a mature student and spending three years reading the greatest of books and listening to Bach, and realising what in his terms, life was finally all about. However, there is an inevitable penalty for making High Culture your Deity (or in making it your Wife or your Husband  by marrying it) which is that you often become incapable of being  an ordinary soul and thus of talking  to other ordinary souls, and I have seen Tam patently at a loss to talk unselfconsciously with even the friendly old men with their flat caps in the corner of a Workington or Whitehaven or Maryport saloon bar. Meanwhile Tam would have been the first to acknowledge that many of the greatest writers: Hardy, George Eliot, Dickens, Zola. Gorky and many more, have the acutest of ears and can render the tone and timbre and consequence of the speech of ordinary folk, not as cosmetic local colour, but as the enduring stuff of life itself…

None of these reflections came into full focus for me, until four or five years after Tam died. One evening I was thinking about the considerable number of people one meets in this world, who lack any sense of private boundaries, meaning they are frequently presumptuous, would-be controlling, and often irritating, and can occasionally catastrophically get on your nerves, and who no one in their right mind would wish to share a closeted month of self-catering on a minor Outer Hebridean island in severely inclement weather, in say mid-January…

But what are we to do with such people, I ask you directly now in the spring of 2019, and I also ask myself, and I also ask the ghost of the poet Tam Driver. Should we, to preserve our basic sanity and our treasured independence, ignore them, run like the wind from them, satirise them, pillory them, incarcerate them, excommunicate them from polite or impolite society, and if so should it be forever more?

The answer came after reading the works of the Donegal writer Peadar O’ Donnell, born in the 1890s on a remote and tiny Irish island, and whose first tongue was Ulster Gaelic. In a nutshell, what the Irishman said was, tempting as it is, you cannot kick the bores and nuisances and monomaniacs and busybodies and pains in the arse, and serial adulterers, and not even the drunken gropers out of your, or anyone else’s life for evermore, it simply cannot be done. On the manifest grounds that if over the course of history, everyone had successfully done that, there would have been no Shakespeare, no Dickens, no Dostoievsky, no Virginia Woolf, no operas, no Verdi, no Donizetti, no Rolling Stones, no Joni Mitchell, no anything worth having, and Tam Driver would have been the first to be up in irate arms about that…

What O’ Donnell said was:

The great thing about this world is that it is full of people. Human nature is great stuff

In the reductive technical world of Psychotherapy, it is called Deliberate Reframing. In the Gospels, it is called simply a Parable. In Zen it is called a Koan. To achieve such an exemplary insight, you need to have the patience of a saint, and the mind of a child, and the instincts of a dog and the prescient silence of a cat…

And the reward, at the end of the day is…

Who knows?

WHY EVERYONE SHOULD READ VIOLET TREFUSIS

The next post will be on or before Sunday April 28th

WHY EVERYONE SHOULD READ VIOLET TREFUSIS

‘Caroline was certainly pretty, but she looked sullen and extinguished. The most noticeable thing about her was her hair, which was the colour of sherry and probably waved naturally, but it was parted down the middle and plastered into an unbecoming bandeau. Why try to look like a Luini Madonna, when one’s expression is that of a schoolboy who has been kept in on a half holiday?’

Hunt the Slipper (1937) by Violet Trefusis

Somewhere around the mid-1930s wealthy English socialite Caroline Crome who is in her early 20s is being scrutinised by her future lover, the middle-aged Nigel Benson, who resides with his unmarried sister Molly in a handsome rural pile called, significantly, Ambush. Note in the 3-sentence extract above that there is an enormous, quite uncanny amount being told and hinted about the young woman, and in the sharpest and most economical manner, in terms of ironic qualifications and nuanced comic wonderment. Caroline, daughter of the aptly named Lord and Lady Random of the eponymous mansion, has been married off to young Sir Anthony Crome, who lives with his mother in another mansion called Critchley, but she soon finds Anthony dull, and slowly though by no means easily, she falls for his one and only good friend, Nigel. But and before I elaborate on the story, I’d ask you to look again at the passage above, and reflect that in its density and lateral richness and deliberate comic bluntness, it is rather like a virtuoso jazz musician, inasmuch as lots of things are happening at once and yet the author/musician is in total and lucid control of her material. I emphasise this, because such technically adroit and complex writers of any gender are extremely thin on the ground (the remarkably subtle stories of US Deep South writer Eudora Welty, 1909-2001, as in the 1941 A Curtain of Green, are a worthy parallel) and one major literary injustice among many affecting Trefusis (1894-1972) is that her critical reception has always been guarded and mixed. It didn’t help that, as she spent much of her life in France. she wrote equally well in 2 languages, and several of her 7 novels are in French. For complex copyright reasons, the wonderful feminist Virago Press who put some of her books back in print in the 80s, were unable to do so with her unpublished novels that only survive in manuscript. If you’ve heard of Trefusis at all (I myself hadn’t till I was in my mid 50s) it is probably in the context of upmarket literary scandal, for between 1918 and 1921 she was lover of the novelist  and later owner of Sissinghurst and its legendary gardens, Vita Sackville-West(1892-1962) who in turn was lover of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941). Woolf’s famous 1928 novel Orlando has a central character who keeps changing gender throughout various periods of history, and is based on Vita, and likewise the novel also fictionalises Trefusis as Sasha, a wild even savage princess who is part of a Russian embassy entourage.

What follows next is going to sound like a spectacularly racy, albeit elevated version of the Archers or Eastenders, but here goes. Violet’s mother was the Hon Alice Keppel, wife of the Hon George Keppel, and Alice was favourite mistress of the British monarch Edward 7th (Honourable George apparently made himself obligingly scarce when the royal made his weekly visits). Violet was sent to an exclusive London girls’ school where she met Vita Sackville-West and their friendship continued until they became lovers when both in their mid-twenties. Despite her own impressively top draw adultery, Alice could not accept the scandal of an openly Lesbian daughter, so had her married off to Major Denys Trefusis in 1919. Violet having sworn eternal love to Vita, made Denys promise their marriage would never be consummated, and ditto Vita when she was married off to Harold Nicholson requested the same of him. Harold was in any case bisexual, meaning marriage in his case was a handy social camouflage. Nevertheless, Violet and Vita kept fleeing their marriages to be with each other, often to France, and once were pursued by anguished Denys in an aeroplane. That’s enough of the pulse racing stuff to be going on with, but and before I forget, just to emphasise that Violet Trefusis still does not get her just critical acclaim, not even in 2019, and is much less read than Sackville-West who in my view is a far inferior, even clumpingly awkward writer. Vita’s 1931 All Passion Spent, for example, is a limp, jejune and underwritten affair with a title to match, and Woolf several times wrote that her lover was often ‘too fluent’ aka was often a bad writer. Yet astonishingly, in her day Sackville-West was regarded by critics as a greater talent than Woolf, and she certainly sold more books, ironically some of them with the famous Hogarth Press which Virginia and her husband Leonard owned and ran.

But back to Hunt the Slipper.  Here is Nigel’s sister Molly, a gardening fanatic who devotes herself to looking after both herbaceous borders and feckless Nigel, as she muses tenderly about her insomniac brother:

‘He gets so little, meaning sleep. She was glad to contribute to that little. An excellent sleeper herself, she was rather proud of his insomnia. It set him aside as a superior being. Like Nietzsche, he only obtained by violence what was given others freely’

One obvious thing here is that Trefusis has a very subtle and caustic wit, and the publishing industry both in her day and now, seems to be suspicious of women authors who are both very funny and very clever, and much prefer the acceptably facetious. The only female British author I can think of who managed to succeed as a razor sharp and clever comic stylist, was Muriel Spark (1918-2006) possibly in part because some of her books e.g The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) were eminently filmable, whereas Trefusis’s miniature masterpieces are less adaptable in cinematic terms.

Meanwhile, in the context of their illicit love affair, it is Caroline, not Nigel, who has always been the rebel and the iconoclast. She and Anthony have a little daughter called Margaret who Anthony adores, but Caroline finds her plain and dull, to the point that she even slaps her at times out of pure irritation. Not only does she struggle to bond with her child, she is neither a gardener like Molly and her mother in law, nor is she a cherisher of objects like her husband and her lover. Nigel and Anthony both love their ancestral homes to distraction, and they also collect antiques, furniture and ‘bibelots’. Recall that Violet’s lover Vita, owner of Sissinghurst, was an avid horticulturalist, and for years wrote a gardening column for The Observer, and then read Caroline’s observation on such worthy pastimes.

‘That was it…a turn in the garden was good English dogma…whereas a new kind of bath salts was Discovery. Surely there was something maudlin about the way these old women gushed over each embryonic plant: could it be that gardening was their last sexual outlet?’

Nonetheless, the real strength of this novel is the subtly woven thread of the two lovers’ stop-start infatuation, which also explains the title of the novel, the party game slipper which always seems within reach but stays tantalisingly elusive. They first meet inconclusively at Critchley, as naïve Sir Anthony thinks meeting a sound chap like his friend Nigel might distract his wife from her occasional doldrums. Later by coincidence Nigel happens to be in Paris at the same time as the Cromes, and there Caroline is carrying on flagrantly with a handsome Chilean called Melo. Typically, Anthony is incapable of being jealous, as Melo is not only not a gentleman, he is a ‘dago’ foreigner, hence there can be no conceivable danger in their dancing together all night. Trefusis’ shrewd evocation of Melo and his obvious limits is masterly in its economy.

‘He had no friends. Le chic was his undoing. He was really a perfectly harmless childishly vain young man with a taste for playing the maracas…and a talent for dancing which almost amounted to genius. Completely self-possessed, fashion rather than passion dictated his affairs, and he was capable of giving excellent and disinterested advice to young women on the art of running their faces.’

Melo is also very fickle and lies to Caroline when he cancels an evening assignation, the excuse being his mother has turned up in Paris out of the blue. In fact, he has a rendezvous with one of the most elegant women in Europe, namely Terpischore von Putsch, also known as Terps, the widow of a Senator. Terps has ‘bones that were joss sticks, her eyes were by Faberge, her heart made out of Venetian glass, was a pretty toy’. By chance, Caroline spots the two of them together in a taxi, and returns to her hotel in great distress, virtually paralysed by the betrayal. As it happens, Anthony has just been called back to England, because his mother Lady Crome has suddenly been taken ill. And fortuitously, it is Nigel who escorts her back to the hotel, for he has seen her in the street in a state of obvious shock and has ministered alcohol and guided her to her bed. Intimacy predictably follows, and very soon the middle-aged bachelor finds himself completely infatuated with his best friend’s young wife. Caroline before long has to return to England, but Nigel stays on with Molly on a European jaunt, taking in Monte Carlo, Florence and Rome, a blurred itinerary if ever there was, as now the whole of his life hinges on her letters and their unpredictable arrival. Her correspondence is both perfunctory and scarce, and he is driven to madness by this passive and paralysing obsession, and even becomes suicidal in Rome.

‘How could he get even with her, the bitch? How dared she make him suffer so, encouraging him in one letter, annihilating him in the next? He loathed her, despised her, longed for a whole harem of women on whom to wreak his vengeance. A second whisky and soda…made him leer at quite a respectable American girl who was sitting opposite him in the lounge. She got up and walked away.’

By a miracle Nigel’s torment does eventually cool, and as the great Stendhal (1783-1842) has analysed at length, in his treatise on the torment of unfulfilled passion entitled On Love (1822), his lesser ardour suddenly prompts Caroline to realise how much she misses him and to increase hers. They become lovers at Critchley when Anthony is away, and of course, at Ambush, with Molly ignoring everything apart from her flowering shrubs, they can behave as they like. Everything would seem to be secure for ever more, especially as Anthony is the blindest of naïve cuckolds, who sees his wife’s new happiness (she has stopped slapping little Margaret for example) as down to Nigel’s regular fraternal visits, it being inconceivable that his friend would betray him. Two things get seriously in the way however, one being that Caroline wants to show off her lover in London, somewhere else where they can behave as they like. This entails Nigel not only deserting his beloved Ambush, but also going dancing and partying, which not only bores him stiff, but gives rise to anguished jealousy when she is dancing with someone else. Caroline eventually relents on all that, but will not concede on something far more important. Guilt at his treachery to Anthony aside, Nigel would be happy to stay her lover for evermore, as long as he can stay at Ambush and have his bibelots as well as his mistress. But Caroline, for all her volatile moods, is now genuinely in love, and wants to leave Antony and to marry Nigel. Nigel meanwhile is appalled, not just as the prospect of his life being turned upside down, but at her callousness towards her doting husband and neglected daughter.

While this unresolved contention is bubbling away, Caroline makes a visit to her extraordinary family, and this is one of the comic high points of the novel. To describe the Randoms as eccentric is excessive understatement. Her mother is very keen on ornithology, especially the icterine warbler, and she has no interest in running the house, so that Lord Random the ex-diplomat survives mostly on breakfast cereals. Dinner is always at least an hour late, and is frequently organised by one of Caroline’s three brothers, all of whom live at Random, all of whom are collectors of objects, and only one of whom Terence, is married, to, of all things, a penniless emigre Russian.

‘Terence collected keys. The only key that didn’t interest him was the key to his wife’s heart. Once she had grown accustomed to his angelic beauty, she discovered his angelic coldness.’

As for the dinner Caroline is offered on the first night of her visit:

‘Lord Random thought it was time to intervene. “Leave your mother alone boys, and attend to your- er – chicken.”

“It isn’t chicken, it’s peahen,” came the indignant reply.

Caroline pushed away her plate. “Faugh! I might have guessed it was something disgusting. Really, it’s like dining with the Borgias! The next time I come here I’ll provide my own food.”

…Lord Random offered Caroline a covered dish. “Here child, you’d better have some of my puffed wheat. It’s quite safe.”’

This is high class farce, worthy of Evelyn Waugh, indeed funnier than Waugh in my opinion. However, what follows next gets less and less farcical, as Caroline pressures Nigel into telling Anthony about their affair and insisting that he must divorce her. After a colossal struggle, Nigel eventually musters enough courage, at which point Anthony is suddenly struck down with typhoid fever and almost dies. The aftermath is that his heart is so weak that any shock could kill him, which thankfully puts paid to any immediate disclosure. Caroline’s next strategy is to get Nigel to go abroad again partying, and in an attempt to stir him into jealousy, starts making much of a naive and rich 55-year-old Canadian called Tom, a man so ignorant he thinks Picasso is the name of a holiday resort. When Nigel has to return to England, Caroline refuses to go with him, but stays on with Tom, so that he believes things must have finished and is in terminal despair. It gets even worse, when Anthony turns up pitifully distraught with a letter from Caroline saying she is in love with Tom, and their marriage must end, and he must look after Margaret. Even at this stage Anthony has no idea that Nigel Benson has betrayed him. While her shattered husband is staying with Nigel, a letter arrives in Caroline’s handwriting which he assumes can only confirm what she had told Anthony. Then, the cruellest of all conceivable tragedies. Fool that he is, he doesn’t open the letter for several days, only to discover that Tom was a hoax and a lure, nothing more, intended solely to spur Nigel into putting his money where his mouth was, and to marry her. Her appalling letter concludes:

‘…if you’re not here by Friday I shall run away with Tom and it’s no use trying to find me. When I think of all the trouble I’ve gone to, to induce you to take such a natural step, it makes my blood boil, and I see red. And you say that you love me!  If you’re not here by Friday, I never wish to see you again.

This is final. Don’t be a fool.’

And yes, he has missed Caroline’s deadline…

SHOCKING STUFF

The next post will be on or before Friday 26th April

SHOCKING STUFF

My friend the American writer Lorna Tracy (born 1934) who for years co-edited Stand Magazine with her late husband the poet Jon Silkin (1930-1997), once complained that she received an enormous number of unsolicited and unreadable short stories about what life was like in the Aftermath of a Nuclear War. As she put it, there was so little pliable fictional material for any writer to work with, given the utterly reduced, absolute and nightmarish vacuum succeeding any nuclear holocaust, it would have needed a genius to render the thing artistically. Round about that time, I was thinking exactly the same thing about the burgeoning number of novels produced by fashionable British/Irish writers, which were all about Murderous Psychopaths and/or Serial Killers, for at one stage and despite the extreme statistical rarity of such appalling and terrifying individuals, it really looked as if everyone felt they must include one as part of the supercharged formula. Co Monaghan Ulsterman Patrick McCabe (born 1955) hit the big time with the blood-splattered Butcher Boy with its picaresquely disturbed small-town murderer and slaughter house worker called Francie, and it was successfully filmed in 1997 by Neil Jordan. The Welsh equivalent arrived in 2001 when Niall Griffiths (born 1966) published the boldly titled Sheepshagger which was about the mountain boy, Ianto, a feral drug crazed psychopath, and his rather poetic obsession with extreme violence. Both were meant to be radically uninhibited studies of characters so deprived, damaged and suffering such irreversible societal alienation, their psychopathy must therefore be ipso facto authentic, not to say structurally inevitable.

All that sounds good on paper, but after wading my way through both of them, my feeling was that neither McCabe nor Griffiths would have known what a real flesh and blood (or possibly fleshless and bloodless) psychopath was like, even if it had stood up and waved a handkerchief at them at the Booker awards. For instead of rendering a credible imaginative version of three-dimensional visceral madness, they both opted for the shorthand in your face approach of in Griffiths’ case, four letter all-purpose ranting demotic monologues by Ianto…and by a quaint inversion in McCabe’s book, he had Francie musing repetitively over a schoolboys’ comic cartoon character, namely Winker Watson of the old Dandy. What I’m saying is, their versions of disturbed and violent psychotics, were in fact acceptably stylised caricatures, which apart from anything else made them eminently filmable (Sheepshagger became a movie in 2012) for instead of making your blood run cold as any real psychos would have, they became almost cherishable and victorious antiheroes. Compare either of them with the vivid and hair-raising evocations of innately homicidal characters as in the novels of a giant like Emile Zola, 1840-1902 (qv the 1890 The Beast in Man, also frequently filmed) and you will see that the modern UK/Irish  version is a kind of anodyne and I would argue teenage rendition of psychosis, nowhere in the realm of the painfully real and infinitely distressing thing. For it would surely take an artist of massive imaginative power, another Zola or another Fyodor Dostoievsky, to project convincingly into someone who inhabits the ugliest, most barren and most wretchedly estranged areas of human, or arguably inhuman experience.

It has always been possible for a gifted writer to shock their readers in a cathartic, meaning artistically instructive manner, but without resorting to outlandish, factitious or pathologically violent characters. One author who was doing this successfully long before McCabe and Griffiths (or before Alan Warner in his gory 1995 Morvern Callar set in a fictionalised Oban in the Highlands, or Bret Easton Ellis and his 2000 American Psycho, both successfully filmed) was the story writer and novelist Guy de Maupassant. Maupassant, 1850-1893, (the honorific ‘de’ was his father’s wishful thinking) published in his short life no less than 300 stories, 5 novels (the recently filmed Bel Ami is the best known) a few travel books, and rapidly became phenomenally and lucratively successful, and has been read in every language ever since. Admired by Leo Tolstoy and Nietzsche, and subsequently a role model for the stories of O’ Henry and Somerset Maugham, he was born of bourgeois parents with a father violent enough for his mother to successfully seek a legal separation when such things were virtually unheard of. He died of syphilis aged 42, which might have been congenital, and a year before that he attempted to slit his throat and was consigned to a private mental asylum. Significantly then, male violence, whether actual or threatened, and whether evident in 19th C French peasants or aristocrats, is a regular feature of his stories, as is the contemplation of suicide. However, the threat of violence, which is to say a form of mental bullying, is not just confined to men, for there are regular spectacularly heartless women in the stories, so vicious and so callous in some cases, that your eyes all but pop out of your head. You are shocked not so much by what they do as fictional characters, but by the fact they are very obviously based on real originals, meaning you suddenly have the transforming illumination, that human beings in apparently minor circumscribed domestic dramas, are capable of being so heartlessly and egotistically appalling, it is almost beyond belief.

Below I give thumbnail summaries of 3 of Maupassant’s most shocking stories. With at least one of them you do not know whether to laugh or cry, for it is both blackly comic and extremely pitiful. All 3 have stunningly callous and unsentimental antagonists, 2 of them female and one of them male. After reading these brief and potently disorienting parables, most of them about 1500 words long, you are left with the conclusion that human beings at their solitary worst (none of these antagonists work in cooperation with other bullies, they are strictly autonomous monsters you might say) are more atrocious than even the wildest of wild animals. Also that the collective horrors and mass cruelties of every century, are surely the explicable result of infinite numbers of these solo antagonists blindly and instinctively uniting and cohering to do their vicious worst. The titles of the summaries are  my own, and if you wish to seek out the originals, I suggest you zestfully work your way through all 300 of de Maupassant’s tales, for they are not all shocking by any means, some of them are very funny or very sad, and  you will scarcely be wasting your time reading everything written by an author of such extraordinary talent.

THE MAN WHO TRIED TO MAKE HIS WIFE UGLY

A landed French aristocrat with a penchant for having his domineering way, marries a beautiful young woman in her early 20s. The worrying problem is she is so beautiful he starts to feel pathologically jealous of possible attentions from other men, not least because he himself is given to infidelity. His bizarre solution is to have her more or less continuously pregnant, in the hope that she will eventually lose all her looks and there will be no chance of any rivals. So it is that by her late 20s she has 7 children and is thoroughly exhausted and wretched, even if her beauty is still exquisite. She confronts him one day and says she understands and abhors his perverse thinking, even though he has never confessed to it, and she refuses to have any further pregnancies. Enraged and astounded, he is about to strike her, when she stops him in mid-air by telling him that one of the 7 children is not his! She flinches when she says it of course, but instead of beating her, he is stupefied and instantly crumples, whereupon she clinches things by informing him she will never tell him who the father was, not even on her death bed.

He slinks away defeated, and for the next few years wanders about like a ghostly shadow, obsessed with the identity of this child not his, and with all the torturing implications in terms of his personal honour and his future heirs. At last he begs her without fear of any reprisal, to put him out of his misery and tell her which child is someone else’s. He simply cannot take any more of this diabolical guessing, and now being just a shadow of himself, he has no wish to seek revenge, simply to free himself of this crippling anguish. At which point, his beautiful wife relents and assures him that all the children are his, she has always been faithful to him, and her confession was a justified fabrication to stop him so cruelly destroying her looks. Reasonably enough, she might have anticipated the aristocrat would become homicidally violent, but no he slinks away again, and we are left to wonder whether he really believes in her retraction or whether the torture will continue for ever more

THE MAN WHO BECAME A HEN 

In the quiet French countryside, a fat, lazy and amiable man of late middle age runs a popular public house. He is married to a remorseless bully of a woman who derides and nags him for his laziness and who resents his good nature which she sees as contemptible weakness. One day the landlord tragically takes an apoplectic fit, and becomes virtually paralysed. All he can do is sit in his bed and with a struggle turn sideways. Nevertheless, he copes as best he can by having his bed put right next to the public bar, and by chatting to his friends the customers through the walls. However, his wife happens to have one abiding passion which is raising poultry, and one day one of the customers jokes that her husband with his flabby bulk could at least earn his keep by hatching their eggs. Remarkably she takes this at face value, and instructs her husband that unless he agrees to play the broody hen, she will give him nothing to eat. Pliable as he is, the pitiful invalid protests at the outlandish proposal, but she sticks to her promise and gradually starves him into submission. With the first clutch of eggs under his motionless arms, the man gradually grows bored, so that fidgeting and turning in his bed, he promptly turns the clutch into an omelette. Enraged, his wife threatens to starve him again, until with a great struggle he manages to restrain all movement, and eventually hatches a beautiful little chick from underneath his arm. The couple happen to be childless, and as the tiny chick cheeps gently under the wing of its ‘mother’, the hopeless cripple is overcome with emotion, and tears of pride and love for this new offspring start streaming down his face

HOW TO CHEAT DEATH

A poor young peasant has a widowed mother who is seriously ill and who will obviously die very soon. He is her only child but he has to work every day to earn his bread, meaning he cannot manage the customary all-night vigils by her bedside, even though a kindly neighbour has agreed to see to her during the day. He therefore has to call in the stony old woman in the village who specialises in tending dying folk by night. For rich people she charges a certain nightly rate and for peasants less, but it is still far too much as far as the peasant is concerned.  It swiftly comes down to crude haggling, and assuring her the doctor says his mother will die very soon, within a couple of days at most, he agrees to pay her the standard peasant rate. But in the remote case that those last days drag out to a week or even longer, he insists on an inclusive reduced rate. After lengthy tussling the attendant snorts her agreement, and on her first night with the mother is confident that the end will be soon. She is therefore severely perturbed, indeed openly angry with her charge the next night, when she seems to have made a modest improvement. The old nurse does a few rapid sums and decides that this terminal decline cannot possibly be allowed to follow its own anarchic course. Quietly she steals down to the kitchen to bring up a mop and a pail and then rummaging in the bedroom wardrobe, she finds a vast sheet. She inverts the pail on her head, covers herself with the ghostly white cloth, and then by the death bed vigil of candlelight, makes the stick end of the mop look like some variation on a mediaeval lance. Moving towards the bed, she makes a muted howling sound designed not to wake the son, but to wake his mother who stares in petrified astonishment and gasps in raw horror at this terrible phantom…

Then she takes a fatal heart attack, and so assures the smiling attendant that she will not be fleeced by her wily young son…