SORRY, BUT IT’S A SECRET

SORRY, BUT IT’S A SECRET

The  way that Greek ferry timetabling works, drives someone like me immoderately crazy. At its very worst, it is like some exclusive, even Masonic, even sadistically Kafkaesque set up, that will not impart its precious secrets until the very last minute. For example, at the moment Saturday 30th May 2015, you cannot get  accurate timings for the start of June i.e.  next week, or no, I mean for all of 48 hours hence. Though you can, God help us, get them for August and September, meaning high season, when most folk, especially Greeks, plan their summer holidays on the islands. May, and even June, are not only treated as low season with its risible tourist income, but even in some Greek minds  contemptibly as ‘winter’.  I am not exaggerating here. You regularly meet Greeks who refuse to put a toe in the sea until July, and are amazed when you the foreigner venture into the Aegean on a boiling hot day in April, and are seriously anxious that you will get a disabling chill. The corollary of that is that outside of peak seasons, the ferry firms will not commit themselves to comprehensive timings, until a few days before the new month starts. So if you are some poor sod of a foreign backpacker, and want to do your travelling in April or May or June, and wish to plan ahead using the ferry websites, you simply cannot do so. What you see online is some amazing and nightmarishly skeletal service, that is the ferry companies playing safe and allowing themselves to abolish an unprofitable timing, at will, and at the very last minute. There are of course some that even they dare not abolish, no matter what, but they still hang on sadistically to the 11th hour to confirm their continuation.

For example there is always a Monday teatime boat at 5 o’clock from Lavrio to Kythnos, but in low season they will not confirm it officially, until a day or two before the new schedules. The first folk to know for definite are the Kythnos and Athens  travel agents, and they pin up the new timetables and sure enough there is the Monday 5pm. But if you go the very same day  to the official website gtp.gr, it is not up there, and perhaps won’t be for another few days. Dickens could have written a whole novel about this, and we would have been gripped by it from start to finish, as it is everyone’s worst nightmare, a travel system that is truly unfathomable and impulsive, and to which is there is no satisfying and objectively verifiable key. Given that any foreign tourists who are independent travellers can only plan ahead by online timetabling, those doing so in low season simply cannot get at the truth of things, and cannot effectively plan ahead. Ludicrously, they might well book a pricey overnight stay on the mainland, assuming there is no handy ferry, when indeed there is, but only as announced at the 11th hour. As part of the impressively surreal scenario,  Lavrio, one of Greece’s principal mainland ports, has no overnight accommodation whatever, and you have to stay at the nearby posh resort of Sounio, where there is exactly one bargain hotel and the rest might charge you 120 euros plus. And all of this because you cannot trust the timetables of what is supposed to be the shipping companies’ official website.

The Albanian public transport system is another first rate model of impulsiveness, but the only reliable  website they have is for their antique rail system, which is so underfunded and so much on its last legs, they are probably closing yet another branch of it as I write this. There are a few trains a day reliably between Tirana the capital and industrial Elbasan, and Durres the major port, and beyond that to Shkoder the capital of the north. In May 2013 the wondrously simple website, which looked as if it had been designed either by me or by Homer Simpson,  gave times that connected  Elbasan to the lakeside resort of Pogradeci, via the ebullient and incredible two-horse town of Prrenjasi. As it happened, my daughter Ione and I were making the same journey by minibus, so were able to observe by our parallel route as we approached Pogradeci, that the line was derelict and the trains no longer operating, and the weeds were already starting to sprout. It was in our up to date Bradt Guide to Albania described as the country’s most scenic rail route, yet sadly it was no more, and typically its Homer Simpson website had forgotten to note as much.

Albanian railways have to be seen to be believed. Tirana station is a barren and cavernous place with no cafes or vending machines, or anything to divert the excited traveller. It has two lines and a single friendly lady dispensing tickets from a bleak little kiosk, but there are weeds on the two rusted sets of Thomas the Tank Engine lines, and it looks like a West Cumbrian pit village station, say Parton or Bullgill, from about 1938. From there to majestic Elbasan with its lovely mosques and beautiful old houses, is 70 km, and it takes a good 4 hours, meaning you could gallop by horse or cycle faster. It reminds me of those trains of 40 years ago that chuffed me and my Canadian pal Bill through the Baluchistan desert en route to Quetta from Lahore. They went so slowly Pakistani kids would blithely jump off and run a few yards to jump back on, just for the fun and to break the monotony. The big plus is that the 4 hour trip between the 2 important Albanian cities, costs the lek equivalent of 1 euro, or 75p. Also in terms of meeting Albanians and having a whale of a time, it cannot be recommended too highly. En route to Shkoder from Durres, we were sat with a beefy and grinning off-duty policeman of late 40s. He was remarkably friendly and very keen to study my English-Albanian phrasebook, and did his best to pronounce some difficult words, such as those in the breakfast section: ‘omelette’, ‘scrambled eggs’ and ‘marmalade’ (you should listen to an Albanian, or a Greek come to that, trying to get their eloquent Balkan mouth round the consonant clusters in ‘scramble’, and it’s even worse if you try to explain the unfathomable relationship between the original verb, and the egg dish designation). Our fellow passenger and English student was, how shall I put it, not the most ethical of Illyrian law guardians. He saw Ione and me dutifully putting all our picnic litter and other rubbish into carrier bags for later disposal, and couldn’t believe such pointless and demeaning  fussiness. He stooped and lifted up all three, then flung them joyously through the open window, and I briefly wondered if in Albania they have such a thing as citizen’s arrest, and whether I should decide to put him in charge.

After he’d gone, a  couple of sturdy and homely middle-aged women, one dark and one fair, entered the carriage, and were soon extremely captivated by the unusual foreigners. We shared our picnic and enormous plastic bottle of red wine with them, having presciently brought plentiful paper cups for any chance guests. The two Shiptar ladies very much enjoyed numerous cups of our wine, and wanted to know all about my marital situation, and whether Ione aged 23 at the time was married. Bemused at first by the fact I could speak simple Albanian, they looked very grave to hear I was a widower. The blonder and fatter of the two, moved seats and sat close to me, and then like a sister or possibly a mother, though Ione later told me she thought distinctly otherwise, leant against me heavily to give me moral support. She looked approximately like a young and dishevelled grandmother of about 55, who might have toiled at spartan wages in a West Cumbrian chip shop, dressed in the go-ahead fashions of about 1968. Still, a woman’s arm is a woman’s arm, of whatever age and provenance, and I was genuinely disappointed when the pair of them got out at a country stop. The dark haired one at the last minute gave us some extremely unappetising looking apples, and by way of fair exchange, so she claimed, walked off with the litre of wine that was left in the plastic bottle.

Trying to work out the way buses function in Albania, you need a lot of determination, strong legs, and a fair bit of eloquent Albanian, unless you are a genius of a mime artist (hardly anyone speaks English in Albania, and away from Durres there are a lot less Italian speakers than claimed). There is nothing like a national coach service, nor even any significant large firms in the regions, nor in Tirana. It is mostly a system of privately owned minibuses, some of which compete for the same routes, and leave from different parts of the city, and in the case of Tirana might be miles apart. They have a notional departure time, but if there are insufficient customers,  they wait until there are a profitable number. In the case of Ione and I leaving Shkoder for Kosovo, via the boat across Lake Komani, the number of obstacles was multiplied unnecessarily. The receptionist at the smart  and bargain Shkoder hotel, owned by a kindly German-speaking Shiptar,  assured us there was a daily minibus leaving the city only 5 minutes walk away. In the event they were right, but a nosy and insistent elderly man who interrogated us in the cafe opposite, laughed us to scorn when I told him where we were going.

“There is no minibus from Shkoder to Lake Komani. Never has been, and never will be. You have been given some very wrong information!”

He even zealously pursued us, emphasising our obdurate wrong-headedness, as we approached a slim and very handsome man of about 50, who indeed confirmed that his minibus was headed for Lake Komani. Even then, the nosy Shkoderite insisted that the driver was a fool, and didn’t know where he was going. In a modified sense he did not, as he had been told by a young German couple they were coming along this morning, and he assured me, with our fare added, that would be enough for him to break even. But inside the baking minibus, Ione drifted off to sleep, and we sat and sat, but no German couple nor anyone else looked remotely like turning up. The driver with the film star looks became very glum, and it occurred to me he simply might not have enough petrol money to get us to Komani. I made an immediate executive decision for all three of us then, and concluded that I wanted to go to Kosovo very much, and he looked such a kind and genuine man, I didn’t give a damn how much it would cost, and I would treat this as our personal taxi. I fished out 20 euros, the equivalent of 200 euros in Albanian terms, and stuck it in his hand, and he smiled a heartfelt gratitude. He immediately went to the nearest garage, and amazingly the whole 20 euros was gone by the end of the filling. It turned out petrol costs as much in Albania as in England, and given that the wages are about a tenth of ours for the conspicuous minority that is employed, it is amazing there are any cars at all on the roads in Albania.

DRUSILLA

DRUSILLA

Amusing Names 5

Women in the UK and USA do not have as many quaint and comical names as men do, but the decorous  -illa and -ella variation includes Priscilla and Prunella, as well as Drusilla. The first one has been redeemed by the impressively talented comic actress Priscilla Presley, wife of Elvis, and star of the very funny Naked Gun slapstick movies, with the late Leslie Nielsen as a wonderfully poker-faced and bungling NY chief of police. Prunella Scales aka Sybil of Fawlty Towers, adaptively deaf wife of the insufferable hotelier Basil, has single-handedly dignified and even exalted her rare and peculiar name. You imagine her schoolmates cruelly talking about prunes and all things to do with the bowels, but it has left no mark on Scales, who surely was at her astonishing best as Miss Mapp in the 1985 Channel 4 adaptation of EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia (forget about the recent BBC version). I would like to give you some heartfelt, and important advice at this point. If you are seriously tired of life, or just bored and in need of some felicity and enrichment, get hold of the DVD set, and sit back and be stunned by  the virtuoso comic acting and timing of Scales, as breezily overbearing busybody Mapp, Nigel Hawthorne as mincing Georgie and his bibelots, Denis Lill as barking dipsomaniac Major Benjy, and Geraldine McEwan aka ‘how you all do work me!’ with her pretentious four words of Italian, as preposterous Lucia. In 1985 my wife Annie and I not only cancelled everything, and watched every single episode entranced, but  with the new millennium, viewed the DVD set entire once a month for the best part of a decade. I would emphatically say it is the finest comic TV drama ever made, and assuredly that ever will be made, and consequently my only melancholy reflection is that Channel 4 who commissioned it, has now become a nest of unlovely vipers, producing nothing but prurient and brainless drivel. Back in 1982 when it started, C4 was supposed to be ITV’s answer to the cultural channel BBC2. Now that the latter is also sedulously aping its fallen and ludicrous counterpart as best it can, there is literally nothing but unspeakable pap (and that includes all those risible and mendacious soap operas known as the News Programmes) to watch on the erstwhile analogue channels.

The best known Drusilla is Drusilla Beyfus, second wife of the veteran theatre critic Milton Shulman, who died at the age of 90. He famously slagged off both Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, so at least you can acknowledge he is good and catholic in his disparagements. Beyfus is coy if not secretive about her date of birth, but it is somewhere in the 1920s. As mother of Nicola Shulman, who is the Marchioness of Normanby, and of Alexandra Shulman, the editor of Vogue, it is not retrospectively surprising that she is one of Debrett’s favourites (though she won’t even tell them her age) and an expert on social etiquette. Beyfus wrote a bestselling book called Modern Manners, which tells you how best to hold your knife and fork,  and what to write by way of a thank you letter to your godmother.

Doesn’t it after all make you glad to be British, that there is someone posher than posh, who by way of certification is called Drusilla rather than Madge or Karen, and makes good lucre, by advising you on prime time telly how to hold your bloody old fish knives?

MARMADUKE

MARMADUKE

Amusing Names 4

It takes some considerable parental cruelty, to dub your tiny and possibly angelic baby boy at his christening Marmaduke, and yet remarkably some people have bequeathed their offspring that incredible handle. I personally would have such parents arrested, if only to stop them doing worse things to their children in the future. Best known, rather like Percy, as the jocular name of a cat, in the schoolyard you imagine Marmaduke being corrupted to ‘marmalade’, ‘smarmy’, and among the more precocious, ‘marmoreal’  meaning ‘like marble’. That is possibly an apt description of the visage of the best known UK Marmaduke of recent times, namely the erstwhile BBC Chairman, Marmaduke aka Duke Hussey. Fair enough, Duke is a very acceptable Christian name, as in Duke Ellington, even though, just like the unabbreviated version, it is often the name of an animal, invariably a large dog and frequently a bloodhound. And it is an interesting aside, that though many a hound is called Captain and Duke, and I know at least one tail-wagging Baron albeit he is a Greek dog, I have never known a canine called Viscount or Count or Marchioness or The Right Honourable, and perhaps as an omission this is a shame.

Marmaduke Hussey died aged 83 in 2006. Born into the middle class, his family nickname was the saccharine Dukey, though in his later professional life he was noted for his booming and aggressive bonhomie, and was reputedly famed for his skills in mismanagement, rather than management. He presided over the Times Newspaper lockout in 1978-1979, that ultimately led to the takeover by the egregious Rupert Murdoch. In his tenure at the BBC, he appointed John Birt as Director General, and according to many of its staff, succeeded in wrecking the morale of our national treasure. The acidulous and always prophetic TV playwright Dennis Potter, described Hussey and Birt  together as ‘a pair of croak-voiced Daleks’. Conscious of his less than top notch origins, Duke was fond of playing the Wodehousian aristocrat, though his war service was truly heroic to say the least. He was there as platoon commander at Anzio in 1944, where he was mowed down by German machine gun bullets. As a result, he had to have a leg amputated, and was repatriated by the enemy on compassionate grounds. Decades later, in crucial managerial negotiations, he would sometimes jovially remove his wooden leg, by way of catching the attention of his audience.

Less well known, yet a far more original and significant individual, was the distinguished Orientalist scholar, Marmaduke Pickthall, also known as Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall (1875-1936). The son of a London clergyman, he was a sickly child, who eventually received a shortened  education at Harrow. Pickthall, whose prolific writings were praised by  the likes of HG Wells, EM Forster and DH Lawrence, was celebrated for his acclaimed translation of the Koran, and was a convert to Islam. A staunch admirer of the Ottoman empire, he later showed inordinate courage by being pro-Turkey during WW1, and he also defended the Turks against what he regarded as simplistic and biased accusations of Armenian genocide. He declared his conversion to Islam publically and dramatically, at a meeting of the Muslim Literary Society in Notting Hill in 1917. Pickthall’s unusual surname can be traced back to a knight of William the Conqueror’s day, one Sir Roger de Poictu. I was at first intrigued to learn that the de Poictus had originally settled in my native Cumberland, then later not that surprised, given that Cumbria’s best known removals firm at one stage, and certainly when I was growing up, were the long established Pickthalls.

HUBERT

HUBERT

Amusing Names 3

The first time I encountered the comical name Hubert was in West Cumbria, when I was about 10, and started reading the Just William books of Richmal Crompton, to which I became rapidly and joyously addicted. They became so much a part of my world and imagination, I regularly dreamed that I discovered non-existent titles, as before too long I had read almost the whole substantial oeuvre. Anarchic William aged 11 and his friends, Ginger, Henry and Douglas, had a gang significantly  called The Outlaws, which also included William’s mongrel dog Jumble. They were opposed by a weedy gang of sneaks and Mummy’s boys, whose improbable name The Laneites, was that of the eponymous leader, a fat, spiteful  and perfidious boy called Hubert Lane. The only other Laneite I was recall was his speccy adjutant Bertie Franks, and all in all they were a half-hearted opposition to William’s astounding charisma and his loyal Outlaws. The fact that William was a solidly middle class boy whose parents had servants, and yet amazingly he went to a village school and talked demotic, and dropped his aitches, never bothered me, but it must have presented compositional problems to Crompton, who was also after all a would-be serious novelist. To compromise, when the Outlaws got involved in a pretend General Election, William who was never without grubby knees and a catapult, and in every respect a dauntless and angry Outlaw, without a second thought presented himself as a Conservative, and needless to say won the mock Election.

By contrast Hubert Selby Jr (1928-2004) was a rebel of another colour. 6 years after DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover escaped successful prosecution, in 1967 Selby’s 1964 novel Last Exit to Brooklyn was tried in the UK for obscenity. The book was found guilty, but freed on appeal, and one who spoke up in its favour was Anthony Burgess. Filmed very effectively in 1989 by Uli Edel, the novel recounts the low lives of NY longshoremen and features pimps, prostitutes, homosexuals and drug addicts, and spares nothing in terms of graphic sexual detail, gang rapes and heroin use. Selby himself became addicted to heroin, having been given it in hospital after a botched TB operation, which almost killed him. However, after 1967 he effectively kicked the habit, and even refused morphine as pain relief on his death bed. Supported by a working wife for many years, and bedridden with the aftermath of TB, he was encouraged by another Bert, his friend the author Gilbert Sorrentino, to become a writer rather than waste away lying on his back. A lifelong fan of the Chicago Cubs earned him his unusually gentle nickname ‘Cubby’. However gentleness was a long way away from his 1971 novel The Room which recounts the mind and musings of a criminally insane man who has been locked away in total isolation. Almost as if someone else had authored it, Selby described it as one of the most frightening books ever written, and was unable to read it for decades after it was published.

Other excellent folk called Hubert, include the black Texas jazzman Hubert Laws, born in 1939,  who is the doyen of living jazz flautists, but also has recorded Faure and Stravinsky and Bach for flute. In the 1970s he was a member of the New York Jazz Quartet and he has also recorded with virtually everyone in the rock and soul, as well as jazz and classical  worlds: Herbie (aka Herbert) Hancock, Aretha Franklin, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, and not forgetting the cruelly murdered jazz bass genius Jaco Pastorius, formerly of Joe Zawinul’s legendary fusion band, Weather Report.

PERCY

PERCY

Amusing Names 2

There might be a few people who don’t desire to smirk or even titter, when they meet someone called Percy, but I have met few individuals so impressively self-restrained. After all, the female name ‘Mercy’ in addition to its piquant literal meaning, is a lovely euphonious  one, and both ‘m’ and ‘p’ are labials, so the mystery of why the masculine name is so ludicrous, is enigmatic. It’s the kind of name old ladies in the UK used to give to their budgies or their cats, and oddly in their cases, the name wasn’t  particularly laughable. But by inverse analogy, none of us guys want to be called Tabby or Bouncer or Captain as a rule do we (well actually I wouldn’t mind being called something as jovial as Bouncer, in the proper and shall we say unrestrained context)?

Good guys among Percys, include the Australian-born composer Percy Grainger (1882-1961) credited with reviving English folk music within the classical domain, and famous for his version of Country Gardens. Notorious in his latter career for histrionic appearances on stage to play the piano, he would sometimes turn up in gym kit, and even vault over the piano athlete style. He lived in the UK 1901-1914, but when he left for the States at the outbreak of WW1, was accused by an eminent English music critic of unpatriotic cowardice. He was accused of worse things than that. He was so close to his mother Rose, who tutored him at home as a child, that some acquaintances thought their relationship might even have been incestuous. In 1922, by which time Rose was mentally ill and severely unhinged and delusional, she committed suicide after struggling with these accusations. On a gentler note, and while we are talking about musicians called Percy, it would seem inconceivable that anyone of my rock and roll, drugs and sex generation, would bear such a risibly antiquated Christian name. But incredibly, in the mid 70s, there was a jazz fusion band called Brand X, which included Phil Collins of Genesis fame, and the bass player, God love him, was called Percy Jones.

I went to the same college, University College, Oxford, as the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) but unlike him was not rusticated at the age of 19 for writing a pamphlet on The Necessity of Atheism. There was a handsome sculpted Shelley Memorial right next to the coffee machine, and en route to the Domestic Bursar. It was surrounded ultimately by protective railings,  as college rugger buggers had the infantile habit of decorating it with white paint when pissed, as they always were. They should have been rusticated for being irredeemably puerile idiots, but of course that never happened. Shelley also refused to toe the line when it came to participating in fagging and sport at Eton, and was bullied by older boys who called the ingenious torment ‘Shelley-baiting’. Surprisingly, he had a keen amateur interest in science, and liked to pep up his Eton door knob with frictional electricity of a hefty voltage. Shelley also blew up a tree in the South Meadow while at Eton.

As a West Cumbrian kid, the only Percy I knew at all, and that included budgies and cats of my acquaintance,  was the homely and avuncular BBC TV gardener Percy Thrower (1913-1988). He came to media prominence in Gardening Club, exactly as we got our first ever West Cumbrian TV, a 17 inch Ekco in 1956 when I was 6. I loved the new and magic household  pet called the telly, and watched damn near everything, but even I baulked at rustic Buckinghamshire-born Thrower talking about mulching his  perennials. It was worse than both horseracing and bloody old Brains Trust with frothy AJ Ayer, speccy Jacob Bronowski and sober and solemn Alan Bullough, chuntering about Relativity and Applied Logic , and that was saying something. Later from 1969-1976 Percy Thrower presented Gardeners’ World before bravely blowing all that, and making a royal mint by doing adverts for ICI, and renouncing his BBC career. By contrast at the age of 18 in 1931, he was working in the Royal Gardens at Windsor Castle and making £1 a week. A decade later when toiling in Derby, he was big in the WW2 Digging for Victory campaign, as comically fictionalised in Richmal Crompton’s  Just William books of the period. One thing I cannot forgive him for is that he invented that nightmare known as the Garden Centre in 1967, before which, oh such palmy days, no such things existed. Don’t get me wrong, I love gardens but I hate garden centres. Anyone who walks through the gate of any garden centre anywhere  on earth, ages at least 30 years immediately. I know what I am talking about and it is an empirical and absolutely verifiable truth.

HERBERT

HERBERT

Amusing Names 1

I have an embarrassing confession to make and I am almost too cowardly to make it. In the first year of our marriage in 1979, my wife Annie gave me a ludicrous pet name and no, before you ask, it had nothing to do with sultry and suggestive bedroom intimacies, or anything like that. It was instead related to the fact that I was chief cook for most of our marriage, and Annie really loved my cuisine, and always loudly announced as much to all of her friends, including my elaborate cosmopolitan menus that I had told her about the night before, and which would make some of her women colleagues and girlfriends gasp with undisguised envy. But early on neither of us were vegetarians, and I was more of a stickler for cookbooks, and as the little North Yorkshire town where we lived had a fishmonger’s, one day I bought some haddock and then scratched round for a recipe. When Annie got home I presented a tasty fish casserole, done in olive oil and subtle herbs, and then without a second thought, explained that I had got it out of 500 Fish Recipes and it was called Herby Haddock.

Annie of course fell about at my recipe name, as for her it immediately conjured up one of those Walt Disney movies where titchy and anthropomorphic cars are called Herbie, as in Herbie Rides Again (no unseemly jokes, please). She couldn’t stop laughing ecstatically as we knocked back the succulent fish, and for the next year or so behind closed doors affectionately referred to me as Herby Haddock, or more often abbreviated it to Herby. Were I to teasingly say anything mock-critical or mock-annoyed to her, she often used this single unit handle in a tone of playful reproach, in the beseeching tones of, ‘Herrrrbbbby, but how can you say that?’

That is not the only punning example I can give, with regard to the relatively absurd Christian name of Herbert. Before dozens of you temperate and fair-minded modern democrats, start shouting hang on, nothing wrong with being called Herbert, I invite you, assuming you are male, to change your own Christian name by deed poll to Herbert, and see how you feel about it after about 24 hours. Herbert is one of the equivocal ‘Bert’ names along with Hubert, Albert, Cuthbert, Gilbert and Robert, and I would venture to say only the last of those names, is not to most Anglo-Saxon ears borderline or outright daft. The proof of the pudding is that apart from Robert, most men so-named always call themselves ‘Bert’, and keep under wraps their full designation, and especially if they are called, God love them, Cuthbert. France has its noble literary son Albert Camus, and that sounds great, whereas we have bloody old paradigm groucher Albert Tatlock, erstwhile 1960s Coronation Street TV character, with the flat cap and the miserable and huffy mien. What’s more, if Albert Camus pronounced Albair Camew, was instead an English Existentialist, and his name pronounced Albut Caymuss, I would venture to say no one on earth, not just in the UK, would read his sterling treatises, no matter how pithy and immitigably profound.

The other punning scenario goes back to 1970 when I was a student at University College, Oxford. For complex and completely forgettable reasons, I had been shoved out of my own 1st  year rooms to some 2nd year alternatives, for a short while, and one night the previous 2nd year tenant came back to try and locate something he had left behind. He was a nice friendly guy with floppy hair and a moustache, and would subsequently become something of a celebrity as a freelance photographer. I am giving his real name, or the misunderstanding that follows would make no sense. His name was Herbert Knott and both in 1970, and in his subsequent Guardian by-lines, he would regularly call himself Herbie Knott. I had no idea who the previous tenant was in my temporary quarters, so when he turned up on the door, and shook my hand and said to me: “Knott,” I had no idea what the hell he was talking about.

“Not what?”I said gormlessly.

He smiled a little wearily. “Herbie Knott. My name is Herbie Knott.”

Among the good guys called Herbert are Herbert Read (1893-1968) the anarchist, poet and art critic, and Herbert von Karajan the conductor, and Herbert Lom (1917-2012) the Czech-born film actor. Herbert Read in 1938 was editorial director at Routledge publishers in London, and it was he who insisted, against all opposition, on accepting an unsolicited novel by a barely known Dublin  gent called Samuel Beckett. The novel was called Murphy, and it had been preceded by Beckett’s first book More Pricks Than Kicks. The latter, as anyone back then would have recognised, when people knew their Scripture, is a quote from the Old Testament, but the puritanical and sadly pig ignorant Irish government banned it, assuming it was obscene. Murphy had been touted to innumerable UK publishers by Beckett’s Dublin pal, Thomas McGreevy, as the author found the business of rejection simply too agonising to deal with direct. It was rejected an incredible number of times, many more than my own 25 for Samarkand,  and 35 for Radio Activity – A Cumbrian Tale in Five Emissions.

Herbert Lom, most of us know best as Charles Dreyfus, the hapless superior of Inspector Clouseau, played by Peter Sellars in the Pink Panther movies. If you remember, he was under such appalling stress from the idiot bungler Clouseau, that he had a permanent severe twitch in one eye. Lom was a fine comic actor, but he impressed me most when I was a young teenager, and he was lead star in a 1963-1964 ITV series, called The Human Jungle. He played a brooding genius of a London psychoanalyst, and his statuesque East European features fitted the part to perfection. He also had a meditative fag on the go all the time, as in film noir light he played back his interview tapes, and pondered his clients’ psychiatric enigmas. And so it was by the age of 13, impressed as much by the low light and the fags as the tapes and the Freud, I knew above all I wanted to be a shrink just like Herbert Lom. That explains why I went up to Oxford to read Psychology, as in my naivety, aged 17, I thought Experimental Psychology was more or less the same as Psychoanalysis. Fat chance. It also explains why I switched to Sanskrit and Old Iranian, as the Oxford Psychology degree was so transcendentally boring (Attention, Perception, Reflexes, Eysenck, Eye Contact, Semantic Satiation, kiss my ass and hope to die) that I already sensed I would understand more about the soul, the occidental as well as the oriental, through studying Vedanta, the Upanishads and the like, than by buggering about with mice and rats and blindfolds and cards with single words and numbers on them.

HALF A MILLION A YEAR

HALF A MILLION A YEAR

You can always contact me direct at john@writinginkythnos.com

As I once mentioned, I never independently planned to start a blog like this, but was eloquently persuaded into it by my daughter Ione, who thought it would help promote my Greek island fiction teaching. It has been going since December, and aside from when I was cruelly stormbound and minus laptop on the Attiki mainland in February, or have had teaching commitments, I have been energetically posting almost every day. Little short of a miracle, or rather 2 miracles have happened as a result. After my wife of 30 years Annie died December 2009, I wrote almost nothing until I commenced the blog 5 years later. If I had written anything it would have been a comic novel, but I had as much wish to write comic extravaganza fiction in those 5 bereaved years as I had to become a cost accountant living in a roof-leaking bedsit in Batley or Oswaldtwistle or Penge. Since starting the blog, I am averaging no less than 10,000 words a week or 500,000 words year, an unprecedented and even worrying quantity of prose, don’t you think? As far as I know only HG Wells and Arnold Bennett and Frank Richards, pseudonym of the man who authored the Billy Bunter novels, to which I was addicted as a child, ever knocked out that quantity of writing.

In the case of Frank Richards, some of his lines went: ‘“Ha ha ha”, cried the four chums of the Remove’ followed three lines down simply by ‘Ha, ha, ha’ and with that happening every second page, he certainly knew how to fill up his immensely popular books. A Radio 4 documentary I listened to many years ago, said that he lived alone on the south coast, with only a housekeeper to fetch his meals to his study on a tray. He was so busy writing about Bunter the obese schoolboy, he often left his food untouched, and the housekeeper claimed the only things he really got enthusiastic about were sticky cakes and similarly regressed schoolboy tuck. He and Billy Bunter as avatars of each other, perhaps? Pray God, I don’t go that way, and end up only eating baklava and ekmek kadaif from the Kythnos zaxaroplasteia. To dovetail this excursus, I shall do so with an anecdote that has nothing to do with anything, but is instructive nonetheless. The Bunter books were dramatised by the BBC in the 1950s, and the greedy overweight schoolboy with ‘the tightest trousers in the Remove’ was played brilliantly by an actor in his late 30s called Gerald Champion. In one episode, Bunter breaks into a fellow student’s study, and alights upon a splendid and enormous cake. This is not in the books, so it must have been  a touch of genius either by the director, or just possibly Campion himself. Bunter cuts a minuscule wedge from the cake, but instead of guzzling that, picks up the colossal remainder and, grinning victoriously, stuffs it entire into his mouth. The Zen of Bunter, and the Zen of the Art of Complete Surprise, and I laughed like hell when I watched a rerun of that episode a decade ago.

The second miracle, and this is far more stupefying than the fact I am writing half a million words a year these days, is that as of last December, and for the first time in my life I am without much struggle writing massive quantities of non-fiction. Up until then the only non-fiction I ever managed was book reviews for the Independent on Sunday, and subsequently the Literary Review. Writing reviews never came easily, and anything on the lines of travelogue or political journalism or journalism of any kind, was, I promise you, wholly beyond me. Ditto for memoir and reminiscence of my singular West Cumbrian youth and childhood, unless it was turned into fiction which was the only literary mode I felt comfortably at home with. I could with a massive struggle feebly produce something, but I knew it was nowhere in the same league as my fiction, and I certainly never wished any of it to be reprinted or otherwise immortalised. To be candid,  I thought it was ineffably second rate, and I  was embarrassed by it, and yet I was also sad about the fact that a first person eloquence as observer, autodidact, sceptic, comic pundit and controversialist, was seemingly beyond me.

All this is a hell of a mystery worth exploring. For 40 years I had tried in vain to write lively and incisive non-fiction, and it  was all still-born, sheepish, and grotesquely unsure of itself. Should it ever  stagger and stumble into print, It bored me brainless rereading it, never mind the poor buggers out there who might chance across it. Then aged 64, I suddenly embarked on something entirely new, and at someone else’s instigation, and it did not call itself non-fiction, but called itself a ‘blog’. I embarked on this strange thing in a foreign land, not really knowing what it was, or was meant to be, and then, without trying, non-fiction poured from me torrentially. At first I could make nil sense whatever of this weird transformation, and I was just remarkably grateful  that at long last and at an advanced age, I was able to say precisely what I wanted, outside of the confines of fiction, and comic extravaganza fiction at that. And of course even though it might all have poured from me in torrents, writing the blog was still hard work, as is any kind of serious  writing, and I edited and chopped and rewrote and fussed and faffed, like any decent writer does in any context. I am also incidentally much delighted at this point, to realise that what I claimed was nothing to do with anything before, viz. Billy Bunter and his Zen volte-face with the pilfered cake, where he eats the big bit and not the little bit…that that was not after all just a bit of gratuitous and random digression, but an acute and subconscious metaphor for what has happened to me as a writer and indeed as a man, in the last 6 months.

In a nutshell, I tried off and on over 40 years to write non-fiction, and I could not. Then after a  5 year grief-orchestrated sabbatical, I started writing again, but with absolutely nil intention of trying to write anything specific. I was at this point, no longer aiming at non-fiction, nor very obviously was I aiming at fiction, whether comic or not. I was more or less trying to write entertaining letters home from Greece, home being interpreted generously as everywhere in the world, where folk might choose to read and think about what I write. And lo and behold, once I stopped trying to do something, the thing happened of itself. I was now effortlessly writing non-fiction, and in many cases I would say that the non-fiction was writing itself, not pace anything mystical or occult, but just that the blockage had cleared itself, and assuredly through nothing at all that I personally had done. If anyone did it, if anyone engineered this miracle, it was my remarkable daughter Ione.

The controversial American writer Henry Miller (1892-1980) once put it very aptly. He was a big fan of all things Japanese, including Zen Buddhism and the tragic novelist genius Yukio Mishima. Talking about being stuck or blocked both as a writer and also just as a frustrated human being, he quoted his own variation on a Zen aphorism.

Instead of keeping on knocking your head against a brick wall, stand still and watch it crumble before your eyes

FREE LOVE AT NIL EXPENSE

FREE LOVE AT NIL EXPENSE

In June 1976, meaning almost 40 years ago, I left West Cumbria and went to visit old friends in North London for a long weekend. Most bizarrely, for the entire time I was staying with them, I had an unusually painful headache, or more accurately it was a persistent and very unpleasant above-the-eyelids ache. It felt as if there was a small iron bar pressing down on the top of my eyelids, and it was there without any remit, for the whole of the weekend. It started about half an hour after I arrived at the NW6 London house, which was a very attractive and spacious squat, and it lifted about 10 minutes after I left. It’s worth noting that I have never ever suffered from headaches, not in all my 64 years, not even in my adult years, nor even when I have had a hangover, when to be sure I get the sort of desiccated and corpsified feelings of dehydration, and a kind of diffused and tormenting ache the length of my anatomy, that tell me I have been ludicrously and deplorably abusing my body, though not specifically my stupid and obstinate head, that is, believe me, a definite glutton for pointless and sometimes prolonged punishment.

I’m not saying that two and two always make four, but I have no doubt whatever that it was my stay there in that luxury squat in North London, that gave me a painful headache of the supra-eyelid variety. I also know precisely why it was. There were 2 couples and 2 singles living there at the time, all like me in their mid twenties, but unlike me, all of them to different degrees engaged in the idealistic establishing and maintenance of ‘free’ relationships, if that’s the best way of describing it. What follows by way of clarification, means that I need to give them fictitious names, as trying to do it with algebra, A, B and C, and A1, B1, C1 for their respective partners will not do at all, though given the arguably empirical and quasi-arithmetical ideology that moved them, it might all be expressed best that way. Even calling them by their Christian names, as I am now going to do, might lead to it all sounding like a confusing version of The Archers radio soap opera cast list, but I will do my very best to make it all crystal clear.

There were 2 long established couples there, as well as two single women who were, so to speak, involved in the cross-pollinating activities of the household. One twosome who I had known at Oxford were called Don and Margo. Don was thin, tall, handsome, had tight curly hair,  was very clever at all sorts of things, and was a musician who played jazz guitar and scraped a modest living by it. Margo was a social worker with large and vivid brown eyes, and was notably shy while also being very skilled at foreign languages and landscape painting. They had been together for 7 years, and perhaps for half of that time Don had showed signs of boredom and restlessness, while Margo had remained effortlessly faithful. The two single women I had never met before, and were called Sarah and Grace. Both native Londoners, Sarah as well as being a radically committed squatter, specialised in CAB housing advice, and Grace was a Harlesden community worker. Sarah was dark haired, with impressively strong yet shapely arms and shoulders, and looked very attractive after a Gallic or Italian manner, while also obscurely calculating, and as if always looking for a door that no one else could see, marked most likely Exit. Grace demonstrated a kind of cheery, breathy acquiescence to everything and everyone, and was objectively a dull individual, but being stunningly good looking, with lovely fair hair and tender melting eyes, she had no trouble finding men and occasionally women partners.  Finally there were Rose and Ronnie, and the alliteration seemed apt enough. They had been together 3 years. Rose who was the only one of us who had not been to Oxbridge, and she had a good and responsible administrative job with a Kilburn-based charity. Ronnie was a 27 year-old museum curator who specialised in the cultural artefacts of Ancient Greece. He had read Classics at Oxford, and was one of the most ponderously theoretical people I have ever met. He was a natural monologuist, which would have been fine if he had been entertaining, which is how most people, including everyone at 25 Waterloo Street NW6 indubitably found him. I experienced him as more than a challenge, principally because he found his appreciation of his own thoughts more interesting than the thoughts themselves, something I found supine and decadent to the nth degree. Often he would sit back in his chair after a long peroration, and then subtly and elliptically praise his unique originality, and his exclusive and idiosyncratic connoisseurial take, on whatever it was he had described. In brief, he was incapable of talking about anything, without including himself as a winning part of the equation, and as if the abstract idea, whether it be Buckminster Fuller’s or Karl Marx’s or Herbert Marcuse’s, was only a pale and insubstantial thing, if it didn’t have Ronnie as conduit for disseminating it to the non-connoisseurial  world at large. Expressed in unadorned and unflattering shorthand, he was a Look At Me Egotist and almost everything he said amounted to,  ‘Take a look at me who is looking at this, and aren’t I even more interesting than the thing I’m looking at, whether it be Albert Camus or space travel, or types of nan and pilau in Indian restaurants, or  George Eliot’s attitude to women, or the lyrics of Stevie Wonder songs?’

Now is where this might start to read like a taxing algebra problem. Ronnie the monologuist and museum man, was supposedly ideologically committed to breaking down the monogamous pair bond, and in passing, and as it just so adventitiously happened, very much fancied Parisian-looking if devious Sarah of the strong and handsome shoulders. He had with Rose’s knowledge slept with Sarah several times in her room, and was, Rose told me, currently smilingly negotiating with both Sarah and Rose for them all to sleep together, in an ambitious threesome, whether in Rose’s and his bedroom, or Sarah’s bedroom, a matter of some indifference apparently. The technical term for 3 in a bed is troilism, and Rose told me frankly and simply in her strong working class Wiltshire accent, she had no intention of sleeping 3 people in a single pit,  like grubby bloody animals. Needless to say, Rose was not an ideologue, though neither was she old-fashioned monogamous either, but was after a fashion promiscuous. She had put up with Ronnie and Sarah as occasional bedmates,  because she also maintained her own man on the side, a bloke called Lester she had known at Keele, where they’d both studied Economics. Lester lived and worked in a bank at Vauxhall, and the pair of them had slept together in his Brixton flat, not only with Ronnie’s acquiescence but even his robust encouragement. In Shakespeare’s plays and various bawdy Jacobean romps, Ronnie might fittingly have been termed a ‘wittol’ or a willing cuckold, but needless to say as an idealistic anti-monogamy pioneer in 1976 in NW6, that antique noun cuckoldry deriving from the cuckoo bird was entirely meaningless.

So far, so good, or rather what I ultimately mean is, so bad. Now on to pacific, almond-eyed Margo and jazz guitarist Don. The second evening I was there, Margo with her always expressive lips and nostrils, found herself alone with me in the beautiful sitting room, where there was a state of the art tweetered and woofered record player, and plenty of jazz guitar LPs courtesy of Don. I was playing John McLaughlin’s Extrapolation, and smiling fondly at Margo who I’d known a long time, when I noticed she was battling to hold back tears. I gently asked her what the problem was, and after a struggle, she disclosed that Don had told her he was scheduled to sleep tonight with jesting, chattering but beautiful community worker Grace, in the latter’s bedroom. She added that despite Ronnie’s much advertised polygamous adventures, Don had never engaged in anything like this before, nor of course had Margo. I hesitated what to say at first, as Margo and Don had been so long a couple in my life, I felt almost as upset as she. The difference was I didn’t bother to hide my distaste, whereas she clearly felt guilty about expressing any criticism of her idol’s intentions. The thing was compounded all the more harrowingly, because as she told me she was also pregnant by Don, and was set to have an abortion in a week’s time. Neither of them wanted kids in their mid 20s, though my hunch was that if that had led to paternal commitment by Don that would have suited Margo no end. The trouble was she would not permit herself, on considered theoretical grounds, to criticise his planned and rota-ed 10 o’clock coupling with Grace tonight. Jealousy, she thought, as they all did apart from Rose, in 25 Waterloo Rd, NW6, was retrograde and gender-wise exploitative, so much so that Margo wasn’t even going to bugger off out of the house to get away from the hideous copulatory sounds 20 yards away. She would sit there on the bed she shared with Don, and try to pretend she couldn’t hear the gasps and groans of the man she loved, and the hectic and breathy but beautiful and animated woman called Grace.

I turned over the McLaughlin record, and said to her, “I think it’s bad enough what you’re suffering, Margo. And especially seeing you’re pregnant by Don, and about to have an abortion. But worse than that,  is you won’t permit yourself to be jealous. If that really sticks in your gut, fair enough. But why not just be angry or annoyed or resentful at the two of them?”

She smiled at me kindly, but as if I were an out of date naïf, or at least not one attuned to the codified and set in hieroglyphs ethics of NW6. I couldn’t stop myself, and told her I’d had a god awful headache since I’d arrived here, and I knew damn fine it was all about feeling the unexpressed and understandably molten emotions in 25 Waterloo Rd. The place was a tinderbox, with her in agony over Don, but bottling it up, and showing nothing of her third degree pain. Meanwhile Ronnie the museum man who liked to talk and talk and talk, was wanting to have 3-cornered isosceles triangle sex with his partner Rose, alongside Sarah the Parisian-looking femme fatale with those powerfully alluring shoulders. Rose was visibly suffering over that, but stoutly refusing to accede to the troilist drama that obviously had Ronnie so hooked and perspiring at his mesmerising vision.

I went on with ill controlled impatience: “I’m baffled that you don’t see it’s not really about ideals, but about egotistical convenience. Plus plain old-fashioned greed to some extent. Marxist Ronnie for example isn’t single-handedly breaking down the nuclear pair bond, to outdo the most radical of radicals. He just likes bunking up with as many women as possible, no doubt talking his relentless pedantic arse off as he does. Sleeping 3 in a bed isn’t for his political health, it’s because he fancies an orgy. He’s read about it in the Greek classics in the original, and now he wants to take a crack at it in NW6 himself. And possibly he’s trying to get his own back on Rose for sleeping with Lester the bank manager from Vauxhall. Meanwhile you and Don have been together for 7 years, about a quarter of his life. And doubtless like many a guy, he possibly fancies a diversion and a change. But he would never state it as crudely and naively as that. And you would never believe anything as crude of him, because you love him so much. Don’t you, Margo?”

Her tears let loose at that point. More gently, I went on to insist that this NW6 luxury squat was full of smirking winners and stricken losers, rather than ideologues and failed ideologues. Flighty Sarah and giggling Grace, both got immoderately and immorally excited by disturbing two long established couples, and they were gloating victors after a fashion, as neither of them seemed in any distress over what was happening. Febrile and volatile Grace was not moved by Margo’s pregnancy, nor her understandable grief, and not just because Margo was hiding it. Even if Margo had screamed her sorrow to the skies, Grace would still have chuckled and hiccupped and babbled her blond and breathy and charismatic way out of it. Ditto tawny, Roedean graduate stockbroker’s daughter Sarah who liked to compete with resentful and working class Rose. And who also, because everyone in the house thought Talk His Arse Off Ronnie was a matchless philosophical and political guru, decided to follow suit and treat him like a hallowed minor deity while she was it.

That was what I said, and I left it at that. A week later, after I had left London, Margo had the abortion in a Hampstead hospital,  and returned by taxi to the house early evening. Virtuoso jazzman Don, who hadn’t accompanied her or even waved her off, briefly commiserated, then explained he was sleeping with Grace again that night. On this night, cried, and then howled, brown-eyed Margo, in rank disbelief, on the night that I have lost  your little baby? In the normal run of things, Don was not a monster by any stretch of the imagination, but tonight of all nights, he really didn’t seem to see or feel the problem, as the business of her losing a tiny and undifferentiated  embryo, meant little at all to him, and he assumed, at root, it meant little to Margo also. Two years later Margo found lasting succour and happiness with a woman partner, and stayed that way ever after. A few weeks after my NW6 visit, back in Cumbria I ended up living with a nurse called Nina, and we were both as possessive as the day was long. We both liked the fact that the other was proprietorial, and if anything it made us glad and even proud, though neither of us could have said where exactly that pride arose from.

THE OLD ANTI-SEMITE

THE OLD ANTI-SEMITE

If you visit one of the remotest and highest towns in England, and some of the half dozen routes there, are not only tenderly beautiful, but very steep and winding, and the place on the whole feels hard of access from all possible directions, you can expect that town to have a certain exclusivity and atmospheric magic about it. This is all true of beautiful Alston in East Cumbria, which I briefly mentioned recently, and it is also true that there has only been an all-weather road to allow for emergency ambulances coming and going between the snowbound town, and Hexham in Northumbria for the last 20 years or so. In the old days Alston could get blocked by winter snow along every axis, and especially towards Penrith by the fearsome and barren Hartside Pass, and along Killhope (great name)in the direction of County Durham. Towns like this subject to extreme weather, have interesting sociologies as well as unforeseen demands on some of the emergency services. A few years back the massive icicles hanging down above the steep main thoroughfare, were so big and so sharply pointed, there was serious danger of someone having their skull impaled by effective stiletto daggers, and they had to get the fire brigade in to cut them down. Otherwise it was the subject of a national TV documentary where a rather bumptious local youth of about 20, was complaining that the town had a massive gender imbalance in favour of women, so that the girls had the pick of the many Alston men, while the blokes had to struggle to find a girlfriend of any kind. In desperation he had gone on dating sites  online, an interesting fact in itself, as Alston’s rural remoteness has meant significant money has been poured into the town, to make the whole community digital. Later the same TV star was ostracised and guffawed at by the local women, who maintained that his lack of a girlfriend was nothing to do with gender statistics, but the fact he was notoriously stingy and selfish as well as gormless and daft, and no woman in their right mind would want him online or offline, or hanging off a washing line come to that.

Alston is the capital of the North Pennines which is also dubbed England’s Last Natural Wilderness. On a summer’s night especially, the town is breathtakingly beautiful with fine hillside views towards lambent Gilderdale in the direction of Slaggyford and Brampton. There is such tenderness in the landscape, and yet on the opposite side of the Slaggyford road there is starkly barren grouse shooting terrain, and that sheer contrast adds an extra dimension of fullness or inclusiveness, as if to say you have to take the good and the bad together, and paradise needs its inverse to be a proper paradise. Apropos the Gilderdale view, Alston is also bizarrely the only place in the world, where I have ever advised a visitor to make sure they go to a lavatory for an entirely kaleidoscopic and enchanting experience. Out the back of the old fashioned egg and chip cafe, with the beautiful Turkish brass teapots, were two outside Ladies and Gents, but along the 20 yards en route, there was a whole serendipity world to intrigue and bemuse. First of all, pause to drink in and never forget the stunning view across to tender, melting Gilderdale. Now turn sharp left, and in the cafe backyard, immediately encounter first a disused bright red public phone box, and I’ve no idea what the hell it was doing there, or how they possibly acquired it. It contained nothing other than the telephone, which of course did not work. Right next to that and down on the ground, what in 50s West Cumbria we called a bisto, but elsewhere they called a bogie, meaning a low slung wooden trolley with pram wheels and a string for steering, that kids would use as a tolerable vehicle capable of building up great speed on an incline, and especially the vertiginous inclines of the capital of the North Pennines. The cafe owners had no young family and the bisto/trolley never left its site out back, so you wondered if it came along with the phone box as some sort of job lot of stationary and enigmatic eccentricities. Then between the bisto and the bogs, was the centre piece and the acme of joy for your visiting friend, who you had smilingly propelled out back for a pee and an epiphany en route. A large and handsome and very clean aviary, full of chorusing exotic foreign finches, with plenty of room to flap about, and all of them chirruping as happy as Larry. Compare with the God awful minuscule cages they have in Greece and Portugal for their trapped songbirds, and immediately you felt those Alston cafe owners really loved their birds and wanted to make them happy, not just to own them.

Up until about 2000, Alston had another ancient and more uncompromising cafe, run by an outwardly placid widowed lady in her late 80s.It probably opened in the 50s and the technology had not changed at all, so there was no such thing as a coffee machine, not even the kind of hissing espresso kind that had been working in Italian West Cumbrian joints for half a century at least. Her stock of snacks ran to dry looking cheese baps, Tunnock’s  Caramel Wafers, and Munchmallow Cakes, these two being at their peak of popularity about four decades earlier. She was called Mavis, the ancient proprietress, and she only had an electric kettle and a jar of Maxwell House, and the last time I had experienced that kind of piquant simplicity was in 1979 up on Ludaig, South Uist, the Outer Hebrides, en route with my wife Annie to the Isle of Eriskay of Compton Mackenzie’s  Whisky Galore Fame. There the Ludaig  teashop lady, who was not old at all, had told us to make the instant coffee ourselves, and help ourselves to her cakes and leave the 25p x 2, while she rushed out to see to some of the sheep on her farm outside. Here in Alston  Mavis presided over a largely empty cafe, as, even though it was very cheap, not everyone by the year 2000 wanted acrid instant coffee and caramel wafers. Her one regular was a frail man about her own age who wore a flat cap and went there every day for his coffee and his Munchmallow and his chat. Uniquely he was followed the few hundred yards downhill, by his fat tabby cat named Gus, who wandered after him with the loyalty of a dog, entered the cafe as he did, and then leapt upon his knee and sat there for the half hour he dawdled. Seeing the two old ones and feline pensioner Gus in effortless harmony, I thought it remarkable that with the new millennium, it was still possible to be half a century out of date, and yet to survive, and proudly, after a fashion.

I said that Mavis was outwardly placid, and to be sure her forthcoming summer holiday was a week-long tour of the Scottish Highlands with the Penrith bus company, joyfully called Titteringtons. Personally if I had been christened Titterington, I would have changed my surname by deed poll to anything else apart, from maybe Longbotham or Cockelty or Dick (and yes I know a very nice man called Aaron Dick, whose childhood was a severe endurance test,  I can promise you). Imagine the epic and ecstatic teasing anyone with that Titt- handle would get at school. The old man and Gus had just departed, and we discussed the fact that I was from Brampton, and she Mavis was a lifelong Alston woman. I praised the Pennine town and the interesting shops, and the fact everything was open as today on a Sunday, and I also said how much I appreciated the friendly couple in their 70s who ran two excellent bargain second-hand bookshops,  plus no less than 4 boutique cum gift shops. I perhaps too blithely pointed out that if all those assets were removed, the town wouldn’t have half the trade, the tourism, or the excitement for one such as me, given that Brampton on a Sunday was more like a morgue than a town, not a single thing open other than the supermarkets and the noisy and smoke-filled pubs.

Mavis turned notably cool at this point, and with her old and wrinkled visage looked at me bleakly. She spoke with remarkable antipathy of the juvenile upstart couple in their 70s, who emphatically, she sniffed, were not Alston folk, but commuted at weekends from their Scottish Borders palatial hideaway. But what she said next, genuinely took my breath away, and gave the lie to the rustic bucolic fantasy, of all being well and gentle in the fields and the forests and the remotest glebes and demesnes, and especially among the very old, who having tasted of at least one World War,  could usually be regarded as peaceable, and wishing always for reconciliation at all costs.

“Jewboys, “she croaked apropos these callow outsiders who commuted all the way from rural Roxburghshire, just outside Hawick in South Scotland.

A first I  thought I’d misheard. “I’m sorry?”

“Brazen inroaders. They come and buy half the town, where they don’t even belong. They’re just money-grabbing jewboys, and it’s such a shame this nice little town has had to go their way.”

I BLAME THE RUM

I BLAME THE  RUM

Some things run in families, and one in our case, my daughter’s and mine that is, is money access problems. Take note that it is ‘access’ I am talking about i.e. there might have been a 42 year gap in our two epic struggles, but we both had the money OK, and it was just getting our hands on the elusive bugger, that proved a major battle. Ione’s hassles were a lot less culpable than mine, as you could say my own of 1973 in Katmandu, Nepal, were deplorably self-inflicted, of which more later. Ione‘s were a bit less complicated, but a considerable nuisance nonetheless.  In brief she lost her bank card when teaching in Poland last winter, and didn’t get round to having a substitute sent to the home = paternal address = mine in Kythnos, until early January. That coincided perfectly with the Kythnos postal system screwing up dramatically, and her bank card seemingly never arriving. Without a card of course, she could not access cash by ATM anywhere, nor pay for anything online. The only way round this impregnable  brick wall, was that any funds that she acquired from then on, she had transferred to me and my UK account, which is the one I use here in Greece. Meanwhile she having set off travelling round Central America early January, we improvised as best we could by my sending her regular cash instalments via Western Union. Each time you do this the transfer fee is substantial, and with dosh going to Mexico City, San Salvador, Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa, Belize, Panama etc, I don’t really care to contemplate the total handling fee that went out of her funds. The story ends happily a few days ago, when she landed back in the UK, and succeeded in getting a card on the spot, and now Western Union is a thing only of US road movies, and that wonderfully good 1987 David Mamet movie, all about small time street scams, that no one apart from Annie and Ione and me has ever seen, which showcases that undervalued genius Joe Mantegna, and is called House of Games.

In 1973 they didn’t have visa cards or ATMs in the UK, and even less so in Fascist Greece, and if you wanted cash in the UK, you went in the bank and wrote a cheque for £5, ha ha, and they gave you five quid to last you 2 days perhaps. If you went abroad you took travellers’ cheques, which still exist, though I don’t know anyone who uses them, and hardly anyone changes them abroad these days, apart from banks, who take a regal commission, and about 10 hours to do the transaction. Literally in India in 1973 in a boiling hot Delhi bank, it took 6 bank employees to cash a single traveller’s cheque, and you put aside all morning for the business. One guy indifferently took the cheque and snootily held it up to the light to check its authenticity, and of course if it was for £10 it was a month’s wages for him, and I also would have been snooty, looking enviously at a hairy, beardy  but rich 22 year-old vagabond like me. He got a little skivvy guy in dirty shorts to carry it to the foreign exchange bloke, who filled out a mile of paperwork and sent another skivvy also wearing dirty shorts, to carry the paper to the cashier at the far end there. The cashier then sent the cash back with a third skivvy, who might possibly have had clean shorts, to the first bloke, and then he very slowly filled out some more paper, and just as you were dropping dead with the midday heat, and the suffocating congestion you encounter in every big Indian city, you finally got your cash in rupees. Later you discovered that if you had handed out cigarettes to the skivvies and a few 5 rupee notes to all the bank clerks, the process would have magically speeded up by a factor of 10.

Then in Katmandu, Nepal in August 1973, having travelled through Northern India, including Delhi, Mathura and Agra, one evening in ludicrous circumstances I lost all of my traveller’s cheques, meaning all my resources bar the £10 in sterling I had about me. There were about £300 worth, which was a royal fortune in those days, and especially in Nepal, which was then the poorest country in the world. My hotel if that’s what you could call it, cost me 16p a night, gecko lizard on the ceiling, and bare walls and squat toilet with water pot to, quoting Samuel Beckett now, absterge the podex. I was travelling with another young Cumbrian called Stuart, but we weren’t getting on, principally because the raw and unfettered experience of both India and Nepal of the early 70s,  seemed to seriously unhinge him and his normal regular habits (later he became an accountant living in Esher). Stuart compensated for this by planning every day of his trip minutely, and also wishing to include me in his meticulous and infinitely tedious and above all miserably frugal and penny-pinching plans. Picnic breakfast at 9, look round non air-conditioned archaeological museum  at 95F, at 10, lunch or why not an economical picnic at 12 (in Nepal, where a decent curry lunch cost 5p), service bus excursion to Bhadgaon at 1 (when a taxi cost all of 6p) and so on. Stuart was 22, but it was as if he was a curmudgeonly bachelor Anglican vicar aged 72, the year being 1873 not 1973. However, once I lost my cheques, and had to stay in Katmandu to receive the first tranche of the reimbursement, Stuart had ample excuse for buzzing off on his own, and he ended up in Calcutta before long. Given that he mocked my pathetic idiocy in losing my cheques, I was subsequently pleased to learn that Stuart not only had his passport stolen, but was also ingeniously scammed into parting with a great deal of money for a fictional boat trip to Australia, organised, or rather not organised, by a famished-looking middle-aged trickster who hung around Calcutta docks looking for just such gormless Western dupes as he. The problem was that Stuart  might have been an intelligent Oxford graduate, but he was also a rustic Cumbrian of farming extraction who happened to be a Quaker, and in those days in 1973, Quakers really did believe whatever anyone told them, however mad, as it was their unassailable article of faith, speak the truth at all times and effectively believe the truth of all men. His Quaker farmer great grandad most likely would have chastised any non-Quaker visitor in 1880 for changing their mind about whether to accept or not accept a cup of tea, by saying, Thou shouldst not make a liar of thyself by changing thy froward mind…

But from virtuous long dead Cumbrian Quakers, to unvirtuous Cumbrian youths, one of whom was a 22 year-old hedonist in 1973. I was in a bar in Katmandu populated by young travellers, one of them being an Australian, and because he liked the look of me, he gave me a small lump of euphoria-inducing botanical resin, gratis. I hadn’t smoked this stuff for over 2 years, and normally would have had nil interest in it, much preferring good old brainless alcohol, because at least boozers are aware they are talking all purpose shite and onions when drunk, whereas dopeheads quite often assume they are articulating timeless profundities, even though 85% of their sentences are comprised of the adverb ‘really’, the conjunctions ‘but’ and ‘and’ and the particles ‘sorta’ and ‘kinda’  and ‘ like’ or even the compounded ‘kindasortalike’, the ‘like’ being used in an indeterminate punctuating, yet exclusively narcotised context, and of course the adjectives ‘cool’ and ‘heavy’ and ‘nice’ are plentifully peppered throughout.

As I say, normally I would have politely returned the resinous present to the Aussie, but as it happened I had been imbibing a fair quantity of Nepalese black rum called Khukri. Some of you may know the rum brand name refers to a knife used by the legendarily tough and fearless Gurkha soldiers. Well the eponymous rum was also like a merciless dagger in its sharpness and keenness, and its capacity to wreak havoc and violence, in this case upon the substantial vacuum of my youthful and callow West Cumbrian mind. Like a fool I swallowed whole the lump of resin, and about twenty minutes later began to feel as if all my veins were melting, and as if also I was on fire, undergoing a kind of inner conflagration because it also seemed that this little bomb or shell inside of my stomach was roaring and burning away, in an intense desire to consume whole the same fool who had decided to peristaltically deposit it there.

I mumbled my excuses and then with a considerable struggle, found my way to my hotel room and collapsed upon my hard and unyielding 16p a night bed.  I tried to fall asleep, but the hideous inner volcano continued apace, and I also felt my heart and my circulation going with great velocity, and reasonably enough, wondered just how much cardiac and pulmonary violence would be needed to ensure a fatal heart attack. Next, I resorted to a kind of primitive sympathetic magic, typical of those who are super-stoned and panic-stricken, as it occurred to be that intense inner heat might be salved by an appropriately inverse outer coolness. In a nutshell, maybe if I went in the shower down the way, which thank God despite the boast on the placard outside the hotel, never yielded even lukewarm much less hot water, I might get some relief and not actually die of resin poisoning that night. I scuttered off in incredible haste, stripped off, and cast my clothes on the floor, and whimperingly got under the cold water. I stood there under a thin trickle maybe for 10 minutes, and at first felt no different, even slightly worse. But eventually, time being  a compassionate continuum, rather than a heartless constant, though the water didn’t exactly still the inferno, it helped alleviate some of the worst. With that straw to clutch at, I had enough courage to realise the incendiary process I was undergoing was finite, and it would stop once the lump had worked its way through my stomach and any subsequent digestive processes. I could already feel my gut burning just a little less, and though my heart and circulation still pounded crazily, I could with a little faith envisage  returning to my normal state after a night’s sleep underneath the squinting  ceiling gecko.

I dressed myself,  inasmuch as I yanked my underpants back on (no one I can assure you ever called them ‘boxer shorts’ in 1973) lifted up my shirt and jeans and sandals, and hobbled my way back to the iron bed and the bare boards and the spartan walls. Even 40 years on, I can feel the crude irony of the fact I looked around for my wristwatch, and retrieved that from the shower, but I didn’t notice something far more valuable left behind. There were £300 worth of Thomas Cook Traveller’s Cheques left lying there in the shower, and my impregnable security measure was to keep all my precious wealth tucked away in my underwear next to my genitals. It had always worked flawlessly before and quite frankly I could imagine no way on earth in which it could ever fail.

When I woke at 7am feeling comprehensively rum and resin poisoned, but also remarkably 50% lucid, I felt as I always did for my traveller’s cheques next to my genitals. I found my genitals easily enough, but of course no cheques that were so indescribably lifesaving, and even qua the customarily adjacent genitalia, indescribably life-giving. Why labour the immediate catastrophic panic, the fatuous scratching round the hotel room about ten, and then another ten times, the vain scurrying to the shower, where of course they had disappeared immediately after someone else had used it? Later, Thomas Cook were to tell me that the cheques were already changing hands in North India within about 4 hours. Whoever found them must have helped someone else to fly from Nepal to India, and then as the Cook’s print off subsequently showed, they changed from hand to hand to hand to hand…and I meanwhile was all but bereft and penniless and in most respects quite alone in the foothills of the Himalayas, upon whose peaks are supposed to dwell the majestic Hindu gods.

The byzantine and also Dickens-style Little Dorrit sequel to this  misadventure, is to be found in the title story of my collection Pleasure (1987, reissued 1996).