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