THE STRANGE HOTEL

THE STRANGE HOTEL

In March of 2013, when its streets were covered in snow, I went over to Poland to visit my 23-year old daughter Ione, who had been working there for a year. She was teaching English in the outstandingly beautiful city of Wroclaw (its historical name is Bratislava, confusingly the same as the Slovakian capital), which then had no direct flights from the north of England, meaning we found it easiest to meet up in Krakow, a 4-hour bus ride away. Thanks to the impeccable Rynek Glowny Square, as well as the handsome 13th century Wawel Castle and Cathedral, and St Mary’s Basilica, Krakow is a world heritage centre, and is so well known that certain pocket travel guides have all of 95 pages on Krakow, but only 5 on the rest of Poland, Warsaw included. Other compelling attractions include a great deal of live jazz mostly in subterranean clubs on Rynek Glowny, where both the entrance fee and a bottle of beer cost 1 euro. The jazz musicians are Poles in their early 20s, none of whom you’ve heard of, but all of them virtuosos nonetheless. You will also notice pristine horse drawn carriages with liveried drivers, as the Krakow equivalent of the London Sightseeing Bus. Less pristine are the frequent raucous stag parties of young Englishmen who long ago discovered that booze and accommodation in Eastern Europe can often be got for a song, and where you can get away with doing more or less what you like. One evening I was in a Krakow pub where one of a stag entourage was dressed as a caricature of lipsticked womanhood, and he and his cronies in their standard trainers and denims, did not even once glance around at the Poles surrounding them, to check if they were amused or shocked by their performance. I reflected that if a group of heedless young Poles had walked into a smart Manchester or Liverpool pub, and commenced a drunken cross-dressing rumpus, they would have been bawled out and turfed out of the premises faster than the speed of light.

The real shock when you’re in Krakow is of frequently coming face to face with at times chilling polar opposites. Next to the glamorous horse drawn carriages you will observe numerous smart minibuses doing shuttle trips to nearby Oswiecim, better known to you and me as Auschwitz. Those barbaric and quite unbelievable death camps of 70 odd years ago, are a popular tourist draw, if only because no one can assimilate the sheer magnitude and rank horror of the Holocaust, and has to see it with their own eyes. It is indeed vital that people see and learn from these terrible monuments to societal derangement and gratuitous evil, but perhaps the minibuses could be more discreet and respectful in their prominent pick-ups and drop offs, and for that matter the liveried carriages might decide to avoid the same city routes. Meanwhile, the first thing you’ll be told by your English-speaking guide is that Auschwitz-Birkenau was not a single entity, but a massive and extremely elaborate complex with a total of 40 dedicated units, some of them extermination facilities and others labour camps. 1,300,000 people entered it, of which 1,100,000 were exterminated. 90 per cent of them were Jews, but there were also 150,000 Poles, 23,000 gypsies, 15,000 Soviet prisoners, and 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses, which is to say that next time one of the latter knocks determinedly on your door, instead of groaning you might perhaps show them a new and deserved respect…

There was even more shock when it came to our Krakow accommodation, though only at the end of our stay it needs to be stressed. In this connection, my daughter Ione who has been backpacking everywhere from Iran and Iraq to El Salvador and Honduras, actually prefers communal dorm-sharing to the pampered self-contained en suite. I told her in advance I didn’t wish to stay in a hostel-style dormitory, and she nodded and laughed, and got me a single room and a dorm for herself in the same hotel. As it transpired, just down the road against a brick wall, was a large framed poster advertising the nearby Museum of the Krakow Gestapo, replete with harrowing archive photos taken by the Nazis of the Polish inmates they dragged in and tortured and often murdered. Back at the hotel my en suite room was fine, we were there 2 nights, and throughout my stay I made no connection whatever between our accommodation and that disturbing poster in the street below. But on the day we left, as we walked down the stairs with our bags, I noted for the first time a plaque on the wall with an inscription in both Polish and German. Ione had good Polish while I only had O level German, though it was enough for me to make out that the hotel where we had been staying was formerly the Krakow Gestapo’s HQ…

The grisly conclusion was obvious. The room where I had been sleeping unawares, might not have been the principal interrogation room, but whoever had been incarcerated there would have been able to hear the horrific screams emitted from close by. The same applied to Ione’s dormitory, and I checked with her and of course she had known nothing whatever of the hotel’s wartime history when she booked our stay in Krakow…

The night before we left for Wroclaw, we went to the cinema, where we were delighted to find that the excellent film they were screening, Slawomir Fabicki’s Milosc/Loving (2012) was provided with English subtitles. Ponder for a while that the equivalent scenario would be for a Pole holidaying in Britain to go to a cinema where an English or American movie was provided with Polish subtitles. This of course is wholly improbable, though not in any fair or objective sense, given that certain UK cities like Carlisle have substantial populations of Poles (at Carlisle railway station, for example, the parking instructions are in both English and Polish). That aside, we watched one of the most profoundly moving films I have ever seen in all my life, which makes it all the stranger that most of Ione’s Polish friends have never even heard of it. This is particularly baffling, as it has the gifted and handsome star actor Marcin Dorocinski (born 1972) playing the lead of Tomek. He and his wife Maria (Julia Kijowska, born 1981) are a professional couple living quietly in a small obscure Polish town, and she is pregnant with their first child. One day when Tomek is out, the town’s mayor (Adam Woronowicz, born 1973) turns up at their door, and seeing her alone rapidly forces himself on Maria and assaults her. The cruellest twist, while convincing enough, is that when Tomek learns from traumatised Maria what has happened, he is stonily alienated rather than sympathetic. Soon afterwards he decides to go to the mayor’s house to confront him, but the quaking official orders his wife to do the dirty work by offering Tomek a heap of cash as compensation. Foolishly Tomek takes the money, and his alienation from Maria grows exponentially as a result. As subtle counterpoint to this haunting parable, Tomek’s mother (Dorota Kolak, born 1957) is in the last stages of cancer, and is at home being nursed by her husband (Marian Dziedziel, born 1947).With the mother blindly groaning and weeping piteously in her bed, as if she were regressed to primitive babyhood rather than infancy, for the first time ever I beheld a truly credible depiction of the cruel disease in its terminal stages. The poignant twist is that Maria is a special favourite of her mother-in-law, and so she is there to tenderly nurse her towards her end, while Tomek with his wounded selfish egotism does not have the same power, and thus fails his mother and his wife and for that matter his grieving father when they all need him.

The next post will be on or before Sunday, November 24th

TOMMY AND HIS MISTRESS

TOMMY AND HIS MISTRESS

A few years ago, when I was living in the small market town of Brampton in North Cumbria, UK, I had an unusual and theoretically impossible encounter. I was just about to go into the smaller of the two Spar supermarkets on a warm summer evening, when someone approached me to ask a favour. It was a smiling and heavily made up woman in her late sixties who I’d never seen before. She had a number of furrowed lines on her face and was visibly dishevelled, her jeans and blouse in grubby disarray, and she also exuded an odour of beer and wine that effortlessly overpowered the evening air. She also had a little dog on a lead and the dog was a tired but amiable old Lakeland Terrier, with a hint of lengthily acquired dopiness that possibly correlated with its mistress’s recreational habits. The woman looked at me and said could I please stand and hold the dog for her, while she went inside the shop. Somehow, I felt a premonitory unease at the request, and asked her why she just couldn’t tie him up at the convenient post nearby, like every other dog owner.

“Tommy doesn’t like being tied up,” she said. And then she hiccupped.

I stared at Tommy and decided I couldn’t imagine him disliking anything much, other than being forced to walk up a steep hill in the adjacent North Pennines.

“OK,” I said.

The woman disappeared for what turned out to be an endless 15 minutes. I stood there staring at the traffic going past, and feeling rather stupid. I even had the mad idea that possibly the woman wanted rid of Tommy, and this was an elaborate albeit drunken ruse for his abandonment. I said to myself that I would stand another 5 minutes of being a sentinel with his canine adjutant, and then I would shout inside the Spar to tell her to hurry up. Just as I was rehearsing all of that in my head, I suddenly felt something very warm on my left leg, and then within a second the warm turned to cold and then wet…

Tommy had treated me as a lamppost, even though one of unusual design, and had decided to piss on me…

Dog piss on your lower leg when you’ve been doing someone a handy little favour, fills you with a painful sense of melancholy and even of self-pity. I didn’t blame daft little Tommy of course, I even felt sorry for the feckless little blighter… but I did blame his stupid bloody mistress. When, after a marathon wait, she emerged, and I was starting to smell like a social work case, like the swaying lady herself in fact, I snorted:

“Your dog’s pissed on me! Look here! Look! It cocked its bloody leg, as if I was a lamppost.”

She tried not very hard to restrain her quaking mirth, and without a trace of guilt, embarrassment, dismay, much less any mordant self-reflection. Then what she said took my breath away…

“Are you sure it was my Tommy?”

For a time I was speechless, for she was seriously frowning as if I must be the fanciful kind.

I snapped at her, “Who else could it be? Ordinary Brampton folk aren’t in the habit of randomly pissing on locals, nor even on passing strangers. Look. The wetness stops exactly at Tommy’s height…”

She shook her addled head with haughty finality.

“That’s not the way my Tommy would behave!”

I reeled at her righteous use of the subjunctive. Meanwhile she assumed a majestic disdain, surveying me as if I was the inebriate, and she a woman of sobriety and immaculate habits, not to speak of flawless control of her autonomic nervous system.  

“Try looking closer to home,” she advised, before revolving on her heel and departing with Tommy.

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

WAR IN THE CLASSROOM

WAR IN THE CLASSROOM

If you have ever taught 14 to 15-year olds in a tough urban school, you will know that the experience varies from life-affirming and warm-hearted hilarity, to trawling the lowest depths of Hell, and with a regular emphasis on the latter. At one stage in the acclaimed 2008 film The Class (aka Entre Les Murs ) a curly haired and gentle young teacher, plunges into the staff room after a particularly infernal session, and exclaims in despair and rage:

“I’m sick of these clowns. They know nothing. They can stay in their shit. Kevin for example, spent a whole hour in class doing this (pulls a grotesque sideways leer) Nyah, nyah, nyah!

The teacher looks close to breakdown, but will rally, pick himself up and start again with his next class, as will the rest of his dour, infinitely resilient and touchingly principled colleagues. It is somewhere around 2005, in a deprived multi-ethnic area in the Paris suburbs, and most of the film is set inside the classroom of Francois Marin, an idealistic though assertive French teacher, who is in his early thirties. Marin is played by the journalist and author Francois Begaudeau (born 1971) a former Parisian schoolteacher who wrote the novel Between the Walls, on which the film is based. It was directed by Laurent Cantet (born 1961) both of whose parents were teachers, and deservedly won numerous awards, including the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2008. One of the judging panel at Cannes was the celebrity actor Sean Penn (born 1960) who described it as ‘a perfect movie’.

Marin’s struggling attempts to be an effective teacher inside his classroom, are interleaved with briefer playground and staffroom scenes, where for example the teachers confer and argue about how to reward and discipline the more troublesome of their students. One conservative colleague believes an incremental points system like that of a driving licence might get more compliance, but Marin is sceptical. There is also the business of indirect, i.e. at a remove responsibility, for if they punish any of their pupils with sanctions, and their parents learn of it, some of them will also beat their erring child and thus inflict a double punishment. Add to that, and this is one of the few things that is not forensically explored in The Class, but only via the justifiable scepticism of the students themselves, much of the syllabus Marin works through with the kids, is of a top heavy and antiquated nature, including highly technical grammatical terminology such as the imperfect subjunctive (of which more later) as well as decorous metrical analysis on the lines of tercets and quatrains. All of this makes for ripe comedy, as the class of about 20 kids, a goodly proportion being of North African, West African or Chinese extraction, are grilled on the matter of comprehension and vocabulary specifically.

MARIN: Yes, there are some difficult words here: ‘condescension’, ‘argentites’ and ‘henceforth’. No, no, Rachid, ‘argentites’ doesn’t mean ‘from Argentina’. And Rachid, you didn’t know what ‘succulent’ meant (someone at the back ventures ‘suck off’, followed by general hilarity, which Marin expertly ignores). Well it means ‘juicy’, ‘ripe’, ‘appetising’, and if we are talking of food ‘delicious’. So, let me give you an example on the blackboard

Bill enjoys a succulent cheeseburger

SOULEYMANE (his parents are from Mali, and he is portrayed here by Franck Keita) : But cheeseburgers are really shit, they’re not succu…

ESMERALDA (who has a North African surname) What’s with the name ‘Bill’ anyway? Why do you always use weird names?

MARIN: Weird? Why, a recent US president was called…

ESMERALDA: But you always use whitey, honky names! Why don’t you use Aissata or Rachid or Ahmed?

Her scepticism is even more justified when Esmeralda asks him why the indicative as in ‘imperfect indicative’ is so called. Momentarily speechless, Marin ingeniously throws the question open, whereupon a dozy looking lad at the back stuns everyone by saying:

“To distinguish it from the imperfect subjunctive!”

Esmeralda sneers, then demands that Marin give an example of the latter on his blackboard

After some thought, he scrawls laboriously:

I wished that I were fit

As distinct from the present subjunctive, which he also scrawls:

He demands that I be fit

ESMERALDA: You are kidding! Do you think I’m going to talk to my Mum like that? ‘I wish that I be fit, Mum!’ Don’t you see? None of this shit applies to us.

These vaudeville exchanges are extremely entertaining, but the banter can get far more seditious, barbed and potentially humiliating. This occurs when Marin is asked to explain what the word ‘posh’ means, because Khouba, a resentful West African girl (played by Rachel Regulier) does not understand it. Marin tries with the synonyms of ‘affected’ and ‘mannered’, which of course none of them recognise, but then Boubacar who sits in front of Souleymane, suggests it might mean ‘homosexual’. After the general merriment, Souleymane then slyly asks Marin, and as if he has rehearsed it:

“I shouldn’t say this, sir. But it’s what I’ve heard. They say that you like men. Is that true?”

Marin is impressive at this crucial point as he gently berates the boy for several things, including idle gossip and sexual prejudice, and then, after quite some time, quietly affirms that he is not gay, and leaves it at that. As it happens, Souleymane has an impressive track record of insolence and bare faced lying to all his teachers. He regularly says he has forgotten his schoolbooks, and will write it all up at home tonight, which of course he never does. When his brother and Mum come in for Parents’ Night, they are baffled to hear this, as he had assured them that he worked hard at school and was doing very well. His school reports are far from positive, but he craftily makes sure that his Mum and no one else sees them, as she can neither read nor understand French. Meanwhile, the precise manner of the taunting and needling of teacher Marin, varies with the gender of the student and two girls in particular, Khouba and Esmeralda, are experts at tying him in knots with their accusatory arguments. In effect, and this applies to all Marin’s colleagues, the staff spend most of their lessons defending their professional and personal cases, like battered litigants who are attacked by up to half a dozen antagonists in a row, rather than just one. Khouba, for example, refuses to read aloud from The Diary of Anne Frank, and when Marin insists, barks back, No way, and claims with nil justification and just for the hell of it, that he is picking on her. Marin’s unfortunate if understandable tactic, is to respond with mannered (posh?) irony, which of course a tough nut like Khouba can brush off with steely contempt.

“So the class here has to revolve around your desires, does it?” he asks far too reasonably.

“No way!”

Marin is worn out by this permanent battle to get them to do their work, but being an idealist heroically persists. He has them all write Self Portraits, and remarkably Souleymane illustrates his with moving photographs of his family and friends, as well as a close up of the tattoo calligraphy on his arms, which he claims is from sacred scripture. Marin is delighted and pins it up for all to see, while Souleymane grins and modestly says no it’s just shit really. Equally touching. is the Chinese boy Wei who reads aloud his Self Portrait, where he admits his French isn’t very good, and that there is much he cannot understand going on around him, and so feels lonely. He says he spends at least 4 hours a day on video games and rarely goes outside, as he also has an allergic condition. Allergic to what, someone interrupts. I don’t know he replies. Esmeralda then wisely snaps, you’re allergic to yourself! This is the same Esmeralda who in her Self Portrait says that when she leaves school, she wants to be either a policewoman (they are all supposed to be bad, so I want one of them to be good) or… a rapper. Souleymane takes umbrage at these crazy choices and sneers at anyone wanting to be a cop. As the argument escalates, he nastily assures her that she has bad breath, and even offers to buy her a toothbrush.

Souleymane’s next argument proves fateful, for he falls out with a Moroccan boy who is giving a talk about Africans and their role in World Football, so that they angrily dispute the merits of Malian and Moroccan soccer stars. To make things worse, Marin is very angry with the 2 student representatives, Esmeralda and Louise, who have disclosed to Souleymane that in a staff meeting their teacher described the Mali boy as academically ‘limited’, scarcely as incendiary a comment as they would have it. As they sneeringly justify themselves, he also says they behaved appallingly in the same meeting, giggling and even guzzling snacks like a pair of petasses, meaning like ‘sluts’. This of course is a grave mistake on his part, that as a teacher in loco parentis, he chooses to use loaded and inappropriate language towards two 14-year-old children. Now, as Marin intercedes in the football row, Souleymane who has just been told that he is ‘limited’, shouts and swears at his treacherous teacher. He then storms out of the classroom, but his rucksack catches Khouba near the eye with the edge of a metal clasp. There is a great deal of blood, and she needs stitches, so that a staff meeting is soon convened to decide on the disciplinary measures. Marin again argues for leniency, and especially when injured Khouba insists that it was an accident, and she also adds that if he is expelled his Dad will probably send him back to Mali, a fate worse than death. Then when Souleymane eventually turns up to the disciplinary meeting, he brings only his Mum along. She is decked up in her best and very beautiful Mali clothes, and is eloquent in her son’s defence, though sadly not in French. Her son has to translate for her, for of course the teachers don’t know any Bambara nor any of the other dozen Mali languages. According to his translation, she says Souleymane often looks after his younger siblings and helps his Mum in the house in many ways, and is generally a fine and unselfish son.

None of which pleading works, and Souleymane is permanently expelled from the school, though the headmaster says they will do their best to find him another. The film ends with a hectic and hilarious end of year football match between the students and the staff, which seems in a wisely understated manner to spell out how much real affection exists on both sides, as when both parties step outside their customary roles. But before the match, Marin asks his class what they have learned and liked in the last 12 months at school. Most of them have something positive, or at least polite to say, but fearless Esmeralda is true to form, when she declares that she has enjoyed nothing inside the school, and that everything here is shit.

However, she adds in a rush, at home things were a bit different, for there she had read and had liked a certain book called The Republic.

Marin asks her in wonderment. “By Plato?”

“Yes,”

“Really? Is it your own book?”

“No, it’s my sister’s. She’s a university student.”

“A student of philosophy?”

“A student of law.”

Then Esmeralda adds victoriously. “And The Republic is not the book of a slut!”

The next post will be on or before Friday, November 8th

FEAST AND FAMINE

FEAST AND FAMINE

I have only once been seriously hungry for an extended period in my 69 years. Back in 1971 when I was 20, my friend Marty and I were hitchhiking through Germany when a 3 day public holiday meant that we were unable to change our travellers’ cheques (google that antediluvian quaintness if you are under 55) and we had run out of cash. I recall being stranded at some bustling motorway café where I felt so hungry, I feverishly contemplated eating the grass to the rear of it. As it happened, we had a tiny amount of deutschmarks, so that with my worthy O level German I went inside, and asked what they had in the way of a snack, as opposed to a meal. I used the word Imbiss which translates literally as ‘bite in’ and believe me I’d have loved a ‘bite in’ on the analogy of a ‘love in’, but no such thing was to be had. The three young women assistants couldn’t make any sense of the term ‘bite in’, and in any case the cheapest thing on offer was a minute Kartoffelsalat for which we had inadequate marks. In the end Marty in his desperation went hurriedly round the nearest small town, where he found a kindly long-haired record shop owner who changed one of his cheques. We then, I remember as if it was yesterday, gorged and spluttered on egg and chips and wurstel sausage and beer, until it came out of our 20-year-old ears.

Fast forward exactly four years to the opposite scenario in the summer of 1975. I was living in little known Irish West Cumbria, which is to say a small town called Cleator Moor, and I had been out for the evening with my landlady Beth and two of her friends, a couple called Katie and Luigi. Katie who barely drank had driven us to a pleasingly obscure and old-fashioned pub in an atmospheric hamlet just off the Egremont to Cockermouth road. Luigi, who had a strong West Cumbrian accent (yis marra, ah bliddy dyeuh hev) but whose Dad hailed from Reggio Calabria and had once worked the Whitehaven pits, consumed the same as myself which is to say 4 pints of lager which then cost 22p per pint. Katie sipped just half a pint of shandy and Beth two bottles of sweet stout Mackeson, so neither of them were as painfully hungry as Luigi and I were on the return to Beth’s house. It needs to be emphasised that we had had an extremely ample dinner (tuna bake, roast potatoes and green salad) cooked by Katie before we had gone out, but of course alcohol in quantity can renew and exaggerate one’s appetite as if by totemic magic. Luigi and I therefore demanded that Katie stop at a chip shop half way down a very long cowboy town called Frizington, where as it happened my grandfather also called John Murray (1878-1951) had once rented out two small terraced cottages at a peppercorn rent. There we ordered mountainous portions of fish and chips, while the women ordered nothing, and sure enough Luigi and I devoured most of our malodorous repast in the back of the car, breaking off now and again only to sing from Stevie Wonder’s latest mesmerising album Fulfillingness’ First Finale of which we were both enraptured addicts…

They won’t go when I go…

They certainly wouldn’t. We had brought 4 cans of Harp from the country pub, and once reached Beth’s neat little kitchen, both of us reeking of chip fat whilst still warbling that admonitory gospel song of Stevie Wonder, we broke open the Harps then immediately decided that we were still very hungry.

“I don’t believe it,” said Katie in a tone not of justifiable reproof (Luigi, who was a talented artist, was decidedly a podgy bloke, while I was as thin as a lath) but of sincere and open-mouthed wonderment. I walked without delay to the cupboard where I kept my lodger’s supplies, and then to the fridge, and before long had prepared massive doorstop Mature Cheddar sandwiches, that lacking any chutney, I had daubed with Coop marmalade, which of course supplied the complementary fruit element to the pungent cheese, though not the desirable astringence of the vinegar.

Beggars can’t be choosers, I thought to myself, and anyway marmalade will give the cheddar a bit of zesful elan and a bit of needful tang. We both snorted and wolfed down 3 of the ungainly sandwiches, as if they were gourmet baguettes or bistro panini, neither of which of course had reached West Cumbria as a standard snack or Imbiss or bite-in by Neanderthal 1975.

Suddenly Luigi the artist took on a profound and altogether pained look, and remarked in a not unslurred tone:

“I like it when it’s mature, you know…”

I garbled through a gag of marmalade and strong cheese, “When woh is?”

But he had forgotten what it was he liked about maturity, culinary or otherwise. Plus Stevie Wonder, as ever, was to come to his aid.

Heaven is ten zillion light years away,” Luigi crooned with a tender, heartfelt passion, indeed with a remarkably resonant and powerful, almost operatic tenor.

Regarding which, it is easy to forget that the backing vocals on that particular song are provided by the Fifties pin up Paul Anka (born 1941) who was a Canadian, and not as widely believed, an American. But that explains why, without notice, and devotedly gazing at his tall and beautiful girlfriend Katie, Luigi rose with a stagger from the table and the Mature Cheddar, and started to carouse after the manner of some ardent troubadour, Oh please stay by me, Diana! which was Anka’s bewitching worldwide hit when he was a mere 16 years old.

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

THEY BURNT HER BOOKS

THEY BURNT HER BOOKS

Edna O’ Brien (born 1930) arrived with a considerable fanfare in 1960 with her first book The Country Girls. Born and raised in Tuamgraney, Co Clare, in the west of Ireland, she wrote vividly about the claustrophobia of rural Irish life during WW2 (when Ireland significantly was neutral) and for the first time ever a female Irish novelist was to write candidly and with authority about passion generally and sex specifically. In her native land, where the Catholic church wielded immense secular as well as religious power, her fiction was deemed incendiary, and under Irish censorship her books were banned, denounced from the pulpit, and even publicly burned in several places, including her native Tuamgraney. Later, one of the most flagrant crooks in the history of Irish politics Charles Haughey (1925-2006) pronounced that the novel was ‘filth which should not be allowed in any decent home’.

O’Brien was educated by the Sisters of Mercy between 1941 and 1946, and she described the experience as coercive and stifling, frightening and all pervasive, so that she couldn’t wait to get away from it. By the age of 20 in 1950, she had a licence to practice as a Dublin pharmacist, and a few years later found herself in London where she married a minor and older novelist called Ernest Gebler (1914-1998). Gebler eventually became jealous of her meteoric success, and proved to be tyrannical and controlling, even making out that it was he had half written her books, so that the marriage was to end by 1964. In fact, her first book was helped by the fact that she was a publisher’s reader at Hutchinson’s at the time she wrote it, and they had commissioned her with a £50 advance to write a novel. Once published, it was loudly acclaimed by Kingsley Amis (1922-1995) who was a major cultural arbiter of the day. Amis with his irreverent and sardonic first novel, Lucky Jim (1954) had been granted that post-war iconoclast category known as the Angry Young Man, alongside writers like John Wain (author of the 1953 Hurry on Down) and the dramatist John Osborne with his splenetic Look Back in Anger (1956). These Angry Young Men were deemed notionally leftist at the time, though by the mid-60s Amis had metamorphosed into a far right satirist tainted by misogyny and racism, and a few years later Wain was to be made the Oxford Professor of Poetry. In O’ Brien’s case, politics are to a certain extent beside the point, for she and her characters are so painfully shaped and fragilely defined by their claustrophobic upbringing, that their mere physical survival is an achievement in itself.

That said, in latter years O’Brien has touched courageously on matters so sensitive in the Irish context, that she can be defined as a true radical. In 1997, based on real events from 1992, in Down by the River she writes of an underage Irish victim of her father’s sexual abuse fleeing the country to seek an abortion in the UK. Later in 2002 there is In the Forest where we have the fictionalised account of the real life Brendan O’ Donnell who abducted, raped and murdered a woman, her 3 year old son, and a priest in rural Ireland. By contrast The Country Girls Trilogy that also includes Girl with Green Eyes (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964) seems almost like a world of lost innocence, even though the last one in particular reveals not only a sardonic and sceptical take on marriage, fidelity and parenthood, but is also downright blasphemous at times, albeit delivered in a context of comic farce rather than one of earnest ideology (e.g. Kate down on her knees praying during Baba’s fumbled abortion attempt, much to the latter’s chagrin).

In Girls in Their Married Bliss we are once again with Kate and her friend Baba, both now living in London, and both married to Irishmen. Kate like Baba is in her mid 20s and is wedded to Eugene, a documentary maker, and has a small child by him, a son called Cash. They live in some splendour in a large house, and with a maid called Maura who is a hopeless cook, as is Kate. Kate is having a covert affair with a rather dull and staid British politician called Duncan, and in order to meet him one night lies that she is going to stay overnight with Baba. Eugene is suspicious and goes part of the way on the bus with her, where things reach a crux of alienation when Kate suggests it would be more comfortable if they sat on separate seats. In fact, Eugene follows her to see her liaising with Duncan, and later unearths their clandestine love letters which he passes on to his solicitor. Before that at Christmas, he gives a present to Cash and one to Maura, but nothing at all to his wife, and their mordant exchange is economically done.

‘“You forgot me,” she said to him, sullenly

 “I give presents when I want to,” he said, “not out of duty.”

“You’re quite right,” she said, but in the wrong tone.

“I see you’re getting your persecution complex back, put a sign out,” he told her.’

Once he has removed her love letters, Kate rummages frantically through his desk, and inside an accounts’ ledger reads his diary entry about herself

‘So this is her, my special handpicked little false heart, into whose diseased stinking mind, and other parts, I have poured all that I know about living, being and loving.’

Kate’s tragedy is that when they had first met, Eugene was the epitome of romantic tenderness. But now that she has betrayed him, he regularly unleashes the opposite, of a loaded and limitless venom.

‘“I must say it took quite a time to get to know you…I must congratulate you on your simpleton’s cunning, and your simpleton’s servile ways.”

The chapters of this novel are structured in roughly alternating fashion, with Baba’s dour and irreverent first person recollections, alongside a more sombre and troubled third person account of Kate’s marital anguish. In some ways it reads like the story of two separate and distinctive émigré friends, straightforward young Irishwomen both with healthy sexual appetites, both adulterous, and both of them rebels of a kind. But at other times, and with O’Brien being such an autobiographical writer, it comes across as being the two halves of the authorial personality, one guilt free and relatively liberated, the other tormented with contrition, so that it could almost read as some sort of attempt at private reconciliation. Baba like her friend Kate has married an Irishman, but nothing like the cerebral and wordy Eugene. She is wedded instead to dumb Frank, a wealthy London builder who splashes his money about, and especially if there are people with titles or artistic credentials, however modest, at the frequent parties he throws. Kate’s sad descent into dissolution as she reels from her husband’s refusal to forgive, is skilfully offset by the comic counterpart of Frank, a man so ignorant and unworldly he doesn’t have a clue what is happening when he first sees Baba menstruate.

‘“It must be the food,” he said…

“Don’t you know about women?” I said. He just looked at me with his big, stupid, wide open mouth. He didn’t know. What sort of mother had he? He said to leave his mother out of it, that she was a good woman and baked the best bread in Ireland. I said there was more to life than baking good bread.’

Eugene is now threatening Kate with solicitors and limited parental access to Cash, so that she panics, takes her son, and lands up on Baba’s doorstep. Baba is not at all pleased, as she knows that Frank who is a good Catholic, will not appreciate the scandal, and especially when Eugene comes knocking at his door in the middle of the night demanding to know where they are. After futile attempts to find accommodation for them both, Kate soon realises how limited her options are. She hands Cash back to his father and eventually ends up alone in a bleak and godforsaken place where the wiring is so bad there is no electricity, and she has to survive by candlelight. Cash on his first visit to his mother, cannot bear the cold, the dark, the lack of TV and toys, and cries to go back to his father and Maura who seemingly is now cohabiting with her employer.

Frank who does not understand the phenomenon of menstruation, also needs to have the business of lovemaking explained to him (what do we do now?) so that understandably Baba feels the need to spread her wings and have some excitement. In her case, she meets her lover at a party, a drummer in a band called Harvey, who by agreement comes to the house when Frank is away. As pure farce he turns up wielding a massive drum and clutching drumsticks. Harvey is theatrical in other ways, and having taken a mouthful from the brandy she has offered, he subjects her to a species of regurgitation which Baba finds the last word in erotic stimulation.

‘Then he beckoned me to come over near him, and I leapt across and he put his lips to mine and gave me brandy from his mouth. I nearly passed out with the thrill. I don’t want to get all eejity about nature and stuff, but it was just like the way birds chew the food and feed it to the mouths of their young. He could twist me around some barbed wire if he wanted to.’

Being a percussionist, Harvey can also impress her by using her body for drumming practice. He starts with his drumsticks across her breasts, which Baba finds the opposite of aphrodisiac, more like painful pummelling, then turns her round and drums her backside, so that she begins to worry how she can lie to Frank about the bruises.

Harvey as it happens is a reckless boaster.

‘“I’ve studied the art of lovemaking since I was fourteen,” he said. He said he had his muscles under such control that he could make love to twenty-five women in an evening. He pointed to a little line of hair on his chin and said that it was put to use in lovemaking too. “My hip bones, every part of me is brought to bear,” he said. Talk about the secrets of the orient. I was rearing to get upstairs.’

Once in the sack Harvey proves less than proficient, and even walks out on her in the small hours, to see some other woman, Baba surmises. Fidelity aside, she ends up pregnant and Harvey promptly vanishes to Budapest. Later, with Kate in attendance, she tries to abort herself using a hot bath and castor oil. When that fails, and with Kate once more in tow, she confesses the truth to Frank who at first threatens to kick the arse off her, then subsides and decides he is pleased to have an heir after all.

Kate makes one final attempt to be reconciled with Eugene, and they meet at a train station where he curtly refuses to take her back. Thoroughly traumatised, she then enters a bizarre mental state, where she stands on a weighing machine and hallucinates the voice of a friendly Irishman talking to her in a warm, consoling voice. Suddenly and without warning, all her backlog of suffering and petrified emotions starts to shatter and pour forth.

‘Then something broke loose inside her and she started to scream and bang the glass that covered the numbered face. She hurled insults at it and poured into it all the thoughts that had been in her brain for months. She lashed out with words and with her fists and heard glass break, and people run, and say urgent things.’

An ambulance comes to takes her to the casualty ward, and later her GP sends her to a psychiatrist for fruitless discussions which Kate abruptly terminates. In the interim Eugene slyly takes Cash out of his school and they plus Maura the maid emigrate to, of all places, Fiji. Kate, mad with panic, is angry enough to approach a bumbling old, hand-pawing solicitor, but the cost involved in pursuing them to Fiji is beyond her. In a kind of shutdown stupor, she contents herself with writing letters to Cash, while Baba to her surprise suggests she come and live with her and Frank and the baby. After that Kate takes the symbolic step of having herself sterilised, whereupon she enters a state of emotional remove that somehow seems to rescue her from complete vulnerability. And so, to the novel’s final sentence.

‘It was odd for Baba to see Kate like that, all the expected responses were missing, the guilt and doubt and sadnesses, she was looking at someone of whom too much had been cut away, some important region that they both knew nothing about.’

The next post will be on or before Thursday 24th October

A MIRACLE IN ENFIELD

A MIRACLE IN ENFIELD

How would you feel if you lived in a London suburb that lies on a busy train route, but where the trains only stop once a day, and at 6.50 am, which is to say The Antisocial Crack of Dawn. And to add insult to injury, they don’t stop at your small Middlesex town at the weekends at all, meaning no one is going to go junketing in your pubs and restaurants of a Saturday night, or at least not unless they drive there, which means they cannot have a drink? You would probably feel neglected and shunned and let’s face it a bit paranoid at being a bit of a pariah, especially as the trains halt at the small towns either side of you with a partisan and unreasonable frequency. Such is the fate of the community of Brimsdown which is on the Greater Anglia train route heading for Bishops Stortford with connections further afield to Cambridge. I can speak with such authority, as yesterday Marta and I were headed for the same town where there is a massive plumbing warehouse, the only place in commuting distance of East London that could provide her immediately with replacement guttering sections of a special and distinctive kind. We arrived at Lea Valley Station to read a timetable that might have been designed by someone in a Samuel Beckett novel bent on illustrating the poetics of absolute futility. There were 5 different colours for the route overall, and the grey one and the black one both offered stops at Brimsdown. The problem was that the grey and black were hard enough to distinguish on the key code at the top, but on the timetable itself it was impossible to see any difference whatever in their finer hues. And as I said, the only unambiguous halt at Brimsdown was at daybreak weekdays only.

The station preceding Brimsdown was Ponders End, a smallish town famous for having an early 19th century flour mill (Wright’s) (the Enfield area’s oldest working industrial building) and little else (if it’s of interest a 2 bedroom flat there would cost you about half a million pounds, meaning an unrefusable bargain if you wished to commute into central London). Unfortunately, the next train didn’t stop there either, so to get at our specialist guttering part we would have to go as far as Enfield Lock, the station after Brimsdown. Once at Enfield, it looked about a half hour walk along the picturesque Lea Valley to get to the plumbing warehouse, and the easiest route was to turn right down a rather colourless row of villas shortly after leaving the station. Half way down that street, we suddenly noticed a gaunt and thoroughly improbable bus stop, which declared itself to be a stop, but also added emphatically, No Passengers Taken On Here

Shades of Brimsdown and Beckett already. After about half an hour’s intelligent debate, Marta and I decided that this obscure and unfriendly stop was a terminus of a kind and that likely Enfield Lock train station was too busy to have a bus stop nearby. The trouble was there was no polite explanation to that effect, and that this part of Middlesex which is principally one long industrial estate with no real demarcation between Ponders End, Brimsdown and Enfield Lock, would seem to operate by a combination of faceless anonymity and the principle of arbitrary and pointless frustration (indistinguishable colour codes and information that does not inform).

The plumbing warehouse was a horse of another colour, as the middle-aged male assistants were polite and kindly to a fault, and pointed us to an impressively complimentary refreshment machine whilst we waited for the pallet with our guttering segment to be unloaded. I had a cup of tomato soup (with minuscule doll’s house croutons) followed by hot chocolate which I would rate at 6 out 10 and 1 out of 10 respectively, but of course anything that is free is never to be despised. When at last we had our guttering adjunct, we could afford to walk onto Ponders End station for the return journey, and this took us by King George’s Reservoir, and a really handsome canal walk it proved to be. We met almost no one along the way, but in a field adjacent saw a massive flock of ducks with hooded beaks, as well as three brown horses, one of which cantered over to befriend us. The hair on his neck was covered in an enormous quantity of thistles, which didn’t seem to bother him at all, but as Marta said he looked like a Rastafarian, of which I imagine there are precious few in either Brimsdown or Ponders End…or even Enfield Lock.

But the highlight of that walk was what you might call an unexpected and uncanny vision, or no more accurately a perceptual miracle. On the canal itself, alongside the boats and barges, there were numerous moorhens with their plaintive little squeaks, and nearby were countless small gulls gently bobbing up and down. Fascinated by the tranquillity of those little gulls, I looked across the canal and was astonished by what I saw. A young man with long hair was stooped down and was tenderly stroking two of the gulls that were sat in the short grass next to the towpath. Of course, everyone has heard about robins consenting to sit on the hand of the gardeners that regularly feed them, but I had never heard of anyone patting and stroking a seagull before (not even in the wonderful Hebridean children’s stories of Mairi Hedderwick’s Katie Morag). That means, I thought to myself, like Dr Dolittle or some mystical recluse or forest hermit, he must have some transspecies praeternatural power…and I even felt a good bit jealous as I would very much have liked to have stroked a seagull myself.

“Look,” I said to Marta in considerable excitement. “Look at that man over there stroking those two seagulls. How the hell has he got them to be so tame?”

Marta did not sneer, but with an acuity of vision superior to mine, put me straight in two seconds.

“Those aren’t two seagulls. It’s a white carrier bag he’s rummaging inside. He’s fishing out his sandwiches as far as I can see. Maybe he’ll feed the seagulls with them… and those moorhens too, no doubt.”

The next post will be on or before Thursday 17th October

SPOTIFY AND FRIENDS

SPOTIFY AND FRIENDS

One of the entertaining things about the world of IT, which has been overwhelmingly dominating our lives since around 1994, meaning a good quarter of a century, is the self-reflective glamour of its discourse and terminology. For the 2 or 3 years as a writer that I resisted word processing in favour of a manual typewriter, whilst also gingerly avoiding the internet (partly because like a Flat Earther I thought such an Aladdin’s lamp phenomenon  fairytale impossible) I had no idea what a Hard Drive was, even though I guessed it was in a different epistemological category from say Acacia Drive or Buddleia Drive. At the time I lived just outside a small town in North East Cumbria, which thanks to its rural status, received a good deal of subsidy to ensure that all its citizens, and those of the outlying villages, were au fait with computers and with going online. Soon the little town, its population a modest 4000, had a massive and splendid Resource Centre, part of a converted comprehensive school, which ran free classes for anyone who wanted to learn word processing, spreadsheets and sending and receiving emails. A goodly number of these students were of retirement age, though it was only later they were coyly dubbed the Silver (as opposed to Snow White and Senile) Surfers. I would go into the Centre mostly for photocopying, but as I began to learn word processing, I was startled to hear blameless old octogenarian lads and old ladies in their frequently stylish cardigans, bandying an oddly macho and always heroic vocabulary. To me that language was strikingly reminiscent of old black blues singers, as they chatted earnestly about their Hard Drives (qv Muddy Waters, and his album Hard Again), their Hard Copy, their Bootings Up, their Downloads, and a few years later they were unflinchingly Burning and Ripping their CDs (wal ah took mahself dahn mah hard drive, ah done boot up mah shit, then dahnlowds an fixes it, then burns an rips mahself in hell).

To be sure, if you are an octogenarian and male, the adjective ‘hard’ has a resonant and crucial personal significance. And of course, the same holds true for those women who still maintain a healthy appetitive elan in their eighties and beyond. Hard drives after all, in computer terms, hold everything that matters, and are therefore indispensable, as is a copious blood flow, should you wish, to quote the great author Francois Rabelais (1494-1553), who never touched a keyboard nor a mouse in his life, to play the two-backed beast. Likewise, if you do something as innocent as copy a CD, whistling as you do so, it is more dramatic to make out you fearlessly ‘burn’ it or ‘rip’ from it, as if you were a crazed Viking setting everything on fire and causing carnage and mayhem wherever you go. Apropos which, the more alert of you will have thought ahead by this stage, and will be saying yes, yes, but your twopenny halfpenny anthroposociopsycholinguistic thesis fails lamentably, Mr Wiseacre, when we come to ‘floppy’ disks, floppy being the opposite of hard, and with symbolic and more to the point physiological implications of lame not to say limp rheology (google it). And to drive the point home, you might add, while we’re at it, squire, what the hell is supposed to be macho about the term ‘mouse’? Because according to your highfalutin in your face machismo theory, it should surely have been a called a ‘rat’?

To which perhaps I can only counter that the hard drive, thanks to its charismatic adjective, has survived and always will, whereas the floppy disk, thanks to its opposite and demeaning epithet, has gone the way of the Dodo…

Meanwhile the name Spotify, I think you will agree, is not a heroic descriptive term, suggesting as it does a brainless dog called Spotty, or the perverse capacity to induce a rash of acne in someone else’s or even your own fair countenance. Just in case you’ve never heard of it, Spotify is a music site which for a modest monthly subscription, gives you access to about 50,000,000 recorded albums and singles, a dream beyond compare, is it not, if you imagine trying to buy even a tiny fraction of those albums as CDs or downloads. It covers every genre of music from pop to rock to jazz to world music, to the arcanest of classical composers. I have only had Spotify for a fortnight and as with the bursting of dams have been plundering, or do I mean despoiling, the musical cosmos. So far I have unearthed the Minor Baroque composer, a Czech called Samuel Capricornus (1628-1665) who died aged only 32, in the form of a magnificent 1994 recording of his Theatrum Musicum. In 1657 Capricornus became Kapellmeister in Stuttgart, but alas did not make himself popular. He complained inter alia about the gluttony and drunkenness of its musicians, and added that the cornetto players played the instrument like a cow horn. For a suitably vivid contrast, I revisited the black American Rufus Harley (1936-2006) who, wait for it, was the world’s only known exponent of the jazz bagpipes. Harley who came from Philadelphia started as a sax player, and then one day in 1963 observed the Black Watch band at the funeral of John F Kennedy, and decided he also wanted to play the pipes. Whenever his neighbour complained to the police about the racket he made practising, Harley would swiftly stash them and say to the baffled cops, ‘Do I look like I am Irish or Scottish to you?’. I first heard him on an old Sonny Stitt album, Deuces Wild, which I bought in Oxford in 1970, and hadn’t listened to his music for about 45 years, so that the nostalgia all but irrigated my laptop for the next half hour. Despite the eccentric choice of instrument, Harley also played with Herbie Mann and Sonny Rollins, which goes to show that doing what you really want to do against all the odds can at times handsomely pay off. Harley often wore a kilt when he was playing his pipes, plus a Viking horned helmet for added effect. A Scottish family who once beheld him amazed on TV, sent him a tartan the next day, which he wore for the rest of his musical career.

I unearthed yet another old favourite at the opposite end of the world, the Indian genius Bhimsen Joshi (1922-2011) one of the finest exponents of Classical Hindustani singing, and especially noted for his remarkable vocalic flutterings called taans. Bhimsen was born the eldest of 16 siblings and his mother died when he was very young. At the age of 11 he left his home village for Bijapur to find a musical guru, and the 3rd class passengers on the train he took, clubbed together the little they had to help him on his way. In 2002 when she was working in Panchgani, Maharashtra, my late wife Annie brought me back a Joshi CD. I had never heard of him nor his mesmerising taan ululations, but I played that album over and over again, and now incredibly I can play his whole repertoire for evermore.

The saddest thing when you google your Spotify discoveries, is to see that some of your erstwhile favourites died relatively young, and/or in poignant circumstances. In the late 1960s there was a wildly exhilarating jazz rock band called Colosseum (qv the 1969 album The Valentyne Suite) who continued to perform until 2015, and who I saw live in Oxford Town Hall in 1971. Their sax player was the bearded and professorial Dick Heckstall-Smith (1934-2004) who had the impressive habit of smoking cigars throughout the gig, resting them in the sax’s cavities as he paused between solos. Colosseum was the brainchild of drummer Jon Hiseman (1944-2018) who later played in the band of his wife which was called Barbara Thompson’s Paraphernalia. Tall and handsome Thompson (born 1944) played energetic sax, and Annie and I saw Paraphernalia performing to a capacity crowd in Sheffield only a few months after we were married in 1979. My wife died 30 years after that gig, and Thompson’s husband Hiseman lived on for another 9, and somehow those set in stone statistics seem to me to have a life and an inner purpose of their own. Meanwhile Barbara Thompson herself has been battling with the onset of Parkinson’s Disease, though thankfully medication has allowed her to keep on playing and performing …

I also tracked down those other jazz rock virtuosos, the 70s band Nucleus, sometimes known as Ian Carr’s Nucleus. Carr (1933-2009) was a Renaissance man who played trumpet and flugelhorn in the 1960s Rendell-Carr Band as well as in Nucleus, and later taught musical composition at Guildhall. He wrote definitive biographies of Keith Jarrett and Miles Davis, as well as co-authoring the Rough Guide to Jazz. I always thought he was a Geordie when I listened to him giving his talks on BBC Radio 3, and indeed he studied at Newcastle University, but was born in Dumfries, South Scotland. I once took exception to one of his talks, where he spoke rather snootily apropos late Miles Davis as exemplified in uncompromising albums like Agharta (1975). This happens to be one of my own favourites with its hypnotic dreamlike progressions, interspersed with fearless use of synthesiser and all manner of fuck all the critics electronic bravado. Carr termed it pejoratively Miles Davis’s ‘rock band’, and I was angry on Davis’s behalf if only because no common nor garden rock band, nor even a band of great versatility and exceptional talent, could have had a hope in hell of playing those infinitely sophisticated progressions.

Then last week, after almost half a century I sat listening again to Nucleus, before googling the band, and then googling Ian Carr. I read about all of his many achievements and deserved successes, but I also flinched considerably as I read that Carr died aged 75 of that unspeakable disease called Alzheimer’s. At once, believe it or not, I felt queasily guilty about being irritated by the musician for his long-ago radio talk, and those unacceptable musings about Davis’s supposed surrender to rock.

Then again, crazy as it sounds, I thought that jazzmen only died of drug and alcohol abuse, and that they always went out in style, however messy that style might be. Which is to say that Spotify can be a great and unparalleled ride, but is not always without its shocks and its seisms…

The next post will be on or before Thursday October 10th