The woman Sarah I wrote of yesterday, apart from being addicted to meditation and to her failed marriage, had another notable quirk. I was teaching her fiction writing in 2003, and one day the pair of us happened to share a lift into Cambridge to do some last minute shopping for our teenage kids back home. We were sat in a cafe, at a table adjacent to three or four loudly chattering Cambridge women, very obviously not highbrow dons in their functional Primark slacks and leggings, and with their lushly applied make-up and cheap handbags. Suddenly Sarah remarked that she couldn’t stand ordinary, boring people, and she didn’t know how anyone else could. Her voice was low thankfully, and they were all talking at full  volume, plus there was something about her artless honesty which didn’t offend me as much as it might have. But very obviously, someone who had spent 30 years doing oriental meditation courses on several continents, and hadn’t sorted out her principal and overwhelming personal problem, namely her hopeless marriage, might have been describable as a bit on the predictable side, if not downright dull in her repetitive biases and inclinations.

As I pointed out yesterday, Sarah fetishised the male intellect, and had had a 20 year chaste affair with a married man, largely because he had such a colossal brain. This admiration of the mind and all that it stands for, is, as you probably know, as common as muck, and given that I myself went to Oxford University, read Sanskrit and Old Iranian, and have published 10 works of  literary fiction, it might be thought that I revere and respect the intellect too. To be honest, I often play devil’s advocate and tell these partisan enthusiasts for all things intellectual, that brains are 10 a penny, and that I have spent some of the best nights of my life with people who never open a book, have never willingly listened to Bach or Beethoven, and would sooner watch the sink emptying than go to a lecture on philosophy, much less a bloody poetry yuk reading. The corollary of that, and I am being merely candid rather than provocative at this point, is that there are a great many very clever people who are also, I would argue, outstandingly thick as well as super-eminently dull. Indeed if you have anything like a full, panoptic and stereoscopic take on life, there is no paradox at all in talking about thick or even quite brainless ‘geniuses’. I have met Oxbridge dons with intellects (to quote one of them himself, apropos a dazzling woman scholar working in the same field) half way between Einstein and God, but who are astonishingly naive and wooden when it comes to both banal daily matters, and the most urgent practicalities, such as workable international politics, in these truly apocalyptic days of ours.

One Oxon gent in particular took my breath away, when in 1980 I introduced my wife Annie, and she explained that she worked in an innovative hostel for young people with learning difficulties, which was intended to help them to live independently. In those Neanderthal days of 35 years ago, such people tended to be referred to as ‘mentally handicapped’, but this Brasenose professor with his gigantic brain aged 44, obviously needed more ruthless clarification and terminological definition. With amazing bluntness he shot at Annie:

“You mean that your are working with people who are simply very stupid?”

His voice was anything but compassionate, and indeed sounded contemptuously critical of folk who had not got round to refining their brains quite as spectacularly as he had.  One irony was that he himself was Jewish, of Central European extraction, aged 9 when WW2 finished, and in other circumstances he might well have been murdered in the Nazi camps. His tone of disapprobation communicated to me in a split second, that part of him would have preferred that such people as my wife worked with, simply did not exist, as for him to think about them and their dilemmas, he found an irritating and perplexing chore. I don’t mean anything as crass as he was pro-eugenics or Brave New World inclined, but most certainly he felt a vast impatience when required to contemplate a 25 year-old professional like Annie, taking on a selfless task that would have driven him to distraction. For clearly, in some respects, he automatically projected himself into her situation, and violently recoiled.

He snorted, “And what do you do in your job? Play with these unfortunate people all day?”

What do you say to someone who is as thick as pre-stressed concrete, an Oxon professor notwithstanding? In this uncomfortable connection, it is worth reflecting on the fact that a phenomenal intellect like the socialist HG Wells (1866-1946) was very much alarmingly pro-eugenics, and that Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) pre-WW2 was repellently anti-semitic in his early collections of short stories. Search out those books like Limbo (1920) Two or Three Graces (1926) and Brief Candles (1930), and you will find raw and slighting references to Jews and Jewishness, stated as casually as if the milieu Huxley moved in absolutely took these things for granted. He was 33 and 37 when he published the last two, so we can hardly write them off as jejune and forgivable juvenilia. I have no idea whether he ever repented those books, but he obviously never forbade their republication as they stayed in print after WW2. Also, reflect on the choicest irony, that he penned one of the most famous books on eclectic spiritual appreciation ever written, The Perennial Philosophy (published in 1945, therefore composed while the war was still in progress) where he quoted Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, Sufi saints, Confucian thinkers, alongside the writings of Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart and St Teresa. His conclusion was that the great spiritual traditions all had a common ground, a transcendent substratum, which he termed the ‘perennial philosophy’ and which conclusively proved the authenticity of such immanent, all-pervading and catholic spirituality. Fast forward about a decade, and in 1954 aged 60, he published The Doors of Perception and in 1956 Heaven and Hell, books which almost everyone you have ever known, intellectual or not, has read and pondered over, and sometimes used as a pharmacological self-help manual. Here he radically proposed that in suitably comfortable circumstances, the spiritually inquisitive might swallow some LSD, and thereby at the drop of a hat, experience the identical numinous bliss of the blessed saints and sages of all the Great World Religions. Anyone but a blinkered intellectual, could have predicted the regular psychotic breakdowns/cataclysmic bad trips that would ensue over the next few decades, but Huxley’s prescription for those bumming out catastrophically on acid, was for someone nearby to read to them a soothing verse of scripture, most likely from his convenient compendium, The Perennial Philosophy.

So observe the diffuse triangular eccentricity of this mega-intellectual, who came from an entire dynasty of geniuses (he was the grandson of TH Huxley, the controversial zoologist, as well as the great-nephew of Matthew Arnold, no less). On the one hand, a fearless youthful anti-semitism, which presumably no intellectual these days, aside from a few far right nutcases would endorse. 15 years later a sunny conflatory appreciation of the various Great Spiritual Gnoses, all according to him originating from a common ground, and all leading to the same transcendent bliss of Godhead, Moksha, Nirvana and so on,  as exemplified by the meditations and renunciations of the great saints and sages of all faiths. Finally, a decade later, he has worked out that a simple tab of acid can assist you  to the prize of all prizes, meaning you can shortcut all the years of meditation and renunciation, and get there over a long weekend if you have the bottle to do so. No wonder all the 60s and 70s hippies adored him, and subsequent generations have never stopped doing so.

Two things to reflect on. Aldous Huxley with a brain as big as the universe, said what he said, and wrote what he wrote, and there are those who survive him, who remain his fervent apostles, and like Huxley himself, see no commonsensical contradictions. In this connection,  in September 1971 I was walking with a friend through Hyde Park, London, where we dawdled to watch a free concert which included a live performance by the Rolling Stones. A few long-haired hippies in their early 20s had put up a small white tent, and outside it they had a large flag attached to a wooden pole which they were waving victoriously. The flag was plain white, and had a message written on it in big black letters. The message was obviously connected to their experiments, for who knows how long, with the psychotropic drugs, which included LSD, mescaline and psilocybin. This was what their victorious 1971 pennant said:

We shit purple lightning!

I wonder if Huxley, who had been dead 8 years, could have observed that singular gnomic message from The Great Beyond. Would he have at once understood it as paradoxically exemplifying his perennial philosophy? I somehow seriously doubt that he would have turned in his grave if he had.



12 years ago I met a woman with a very strange life story, who in turn kept referring to me as an exceptional eccentric. In all honesty, I felt like a blameless Mr Joe Average, in comparison to let us call her Sarah, as the only things she could instance as my offbeat behaviour were that I was a writer, that I didn’t make much money from it, and that my wife Annie, in  a reversal of the usual gender expectations, made most of our income. Strikingly Sarah had spent no less than 3 decades, involved in a kind of costly and worldwide therapeutic journey, not to overcome her personal problems, but simply to endure and accommodate to them. While my writer’s income was modest, Sarah was a very well paid IT manager, as was her husband Roger, from whom in a complicated way she had long been alienated. We met in late 2003, on one of my UK fiction courses, and were both aged 53, and both had been married a long time. Sarah who was short and slight, with handsome expressive cheekbones, had married young at 23, and had been wed for 30 years. She also had 3 grown up kids, all in their 20s, all unusually living at home, two of them students, and one working as an accountant. She was a Canadian of Indian extraction, who had emigrated from Bombay to Toronto in 1960 when she was 10. In Toronto she was still surrounded by her Indian diaspora family: uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews, and she spoke of it as both claustrophobic, but also enjoyable and heartening at times, all those people who you could claim as your kin, and who took an inordinate interest in you and your doings. It reminded me in all its vigour, vehemence and ebullience, of those early Naipaul fictions, especially the excellent first novel Fireflies of the late Shiva Naipaul, younger brother of the eminent VS Naipaul. By a coincidence I told her, the younger Naipaul had been at the same Oxford college a few years before me, and had studied Chinese as opposed to my Sanskrit, and I even knew some of the lecturers who had taught him. At any rate, eventually  I suggested Sarah might consider mining this Indian diaspora material for her fictional material. Given that she had written precisely nothing by the age of 53, but claimed she was ambitious to succeed as a writer, I thought it time she homed in on her possible head start in terms of subject matter, for not everyone has the advantages of such a colourful and resonantly comic fictional milieu.

Our contrasts were profound. I had been married almost 25 years to Annie, and very happily so. Sarah claimed she had been unhappy for almost all her 30 year marriage, which obviously begged the question of why she had had 3 children over a 7 year period, by an unsatisfactory husband. Roger was also a senior IT manager, and was of Scottish extraction. By now, they slept in separate bedrooms, and she had made it plain to him she wished she could depart the marriage, whereas he still claimed to love her, and had no wish for them to divorce. Roger had had no compensatory affairs in those 3 decades, and Sarah had had one very long one, which was still underway. She had enjoyed a sporadic 20 year relationship with a married man called Gordon, also in IT, but in a different office in a different part of Toronto. While Roger was all depressingly sport and down to earth banal interests, Gordon who was frustrated in his own lengthy marriage, happened to be a massive intellectual who was phenomenally well read and spoke several languages fluently. As Sarah put it, he was the most brilliant man she had ever met, and this was the definite and overwhelming power of his charisma. Over the last 40 years various women have confessed to me, that for them the possession of much money is very erotic in a man, and by contrast others have sworn that  a small tight masculine backside, has been that which tipped the scales from enamourment to addiction. But Sarah wasn’t the first woman I have encountered, who emphasised that a man with brains was oh so wondrously sexy, and that in Gordon’s case a huge brain was hugely sexy. The only problem, she explained, was that in 20 years they had only made love once, and it had been, and possibly this isn’t the best word, an anticlimax, if not a dud. In both cases, they could not give up on their lousy marriages, because they could not leave their kids, even though all of them (Gordon also had 3 children ) were in their 20s and all at home. Indeed 2 years ago Sarah had moved out of the family home for about 6 months, but had had to move back, because although she didn’t pine for Roger at all, she missed her adult children very much indeed.

Aside from her lover Gordon, with whom she had been ensconced in 20 years of intellectual and sexual chastity, Sarah had attempted a definite strategy for coping with her 30-year failure of a marriage. She had devoted herself to the exploration of different types of meditation, most of it Oriental and derived from Hinduism or Buddhism, or from associated quasi-Hindu sects. This fascination with meditation had been for a good 30 years, i.e.  the whole of the time she had been Roger’s unhappy wife. Sarah made it plain that she had spent 30 years meditating (1973-2003) in order to cope with 30 years of depressing marital disharmony (1973-2003). Self-evidently all this rigorous spiritual discipline had not helped her to break away from her marriage, but it had helped her, she assured me, to survive it. This struck me as exceedingly eccentric, though I did not tell her as much, whereas, as I’ve indicated, Sarah labelled me an eccentric because I was a writer who made little money out of writing, and more or less accepted the fact, as indeed did my breadwinner wife. The point was I told her, that neither my wife or I were fools, and would obviously have preferred me to make decent money from my chosen art, but neither did we pointlessly agonise about the fact that I didn’t. As Annie always put it, as long as the money came in, and we both did what we wanted to do and were suited to do, and given that I made her life special by preparing delicious gourmet vegetarian meals virtually every night of our life together, it didn’t matter who made the income that kept the show that was us on the road.

The truly fascinating  irony though, was that though of Indian extraction, Sarah was not a Hindu but was an Indian Catholic, as were all her Toronto relatives. So had she applied herself to writing a vigorous diaspora novel drawn from life, it would not have been about emigre Hindus but emigre Indian Roman Catholics, a very different kettle of fish. Ask anyone not RC what the main thing is they know about Catholics, and nearly everyone will say, especially those who have waded their way through all the brilliant if sombre works of Graham Greene, is that the RCs are big on guilt. Yet here was a middle aged Indian Catholic woman, now wholly Canadianised, linguistically anglicised, and with a sophisticated intelligence, and an avid keenness for all things cultural, who had no guilt whatever about the fact that she had rejected her chosen husband for all of 30 years. And of course she had also been having a 20 year extramarital affair, albeit of a chaste and supremely  intellectual kind, with a married man called Gordon. As you might have guessed, Sarah was no longer a practising Catholic, but it occurred to me for her first 10 years she had been raised in a very powerful and all-enveloping faith, and I wondered where the capacity for guilt had gone, for surely that first decade of her life, as the Jesuits would boast, had been kernel and abiding and conclusive?

Her meditation, I almost said hobby, but of course it wasn’t  a hobby, her dedication to meditation, had not only been prolonged over 60% of her life, it had been expensive. Some of it had been done in her ancestral Indian homeland, but she had also attended courses in Amsterdam, Berlin, Crete, London, and some very small Scottish islands actually purchased and owned by the sects concerned. In India she had gone to the ashram of a famous native guru, who was notorious among other things for the colossal number of Rolls Royces he possessed. He was a world celebrity and attracted devotees to his Maharashtra base, almost exclusively from outside India, meaning those who could pay the 50 US dollars a day fee, which of course back in 1983 and 1993 when Sarah was 33 and 43, had been a regal fortune by Indian standards. She recalled exquisitely furnished bedrooms with modern tubular floor lighting, as well as the baffling vision of  security guards possessing loaded pistols in their holsters. No, there was virtually nil chance of burglary or theft in the remote setting, and the pistols looked so decrepit, they probably couldn’t have finished off a rabbit. Strikingly the courses were so popular, that at any one time this remote mansion could accommodate up to 500 Western devotees. That meant that many meditation sessions were held simultaneously, in various spacious arenas, and one could pick from a comprehensive range. In her case, she had gone to one where she had had to meditate on the blue light of Shiva, by focusing on the yogic ajna chakra which is sited centrally between the eyebrows, a long way existentially speaking, from her artless 9 year-old Bombay RC devotions of 1959.

Sarah said that skill in meditation helped one to achieve one’s goals, in fact assured those goals, and especially if like her, one had been learning the skills and their refinements over 3 decades. To be sure the goals had to be credible and sensible, so, she explained, you could not learn to fly  or levitate (I did not point out that some Hatha Yoga adepts, claim that they acquire yogic siddhis or magical skills, which allow them both to levitate and fly through the air, and more). In her case, she added, whatever she focused on in meditation, and wished for with total concentration, she had eventually achieved. So Sarah had meditated in order to be granted success in her Toronto IT sales department, which she was obliged to oversee, and so it had been. Year after year she had notched up immense credits and bonuses for herself, and her staff, far more than Roger and Gordon who both worked in equivalent fields, and neither of whom practised meditation.

There was one very obvious question to ask at this point, and yet I forgot to put it before it was too late, as she had already departed the UK for North India and another meditation course, her 21st in 30 years. If she could meditate with such beneficent focus, that it gave her massive success  and personal kudos in her IT profession, why couldn’t she meditate for the end of her miserable marriage? Later it occurred to me, that maybe you cannot focus on a negative, meaning you cannot meditate with a desire to achieve the absence of something. With that in mind, you cannot focus your spiritual powers on hoping for the termination of a marriage, however fruitless and depressing. Could you though, I wondered,  if you were Sarah, focus your transcendental energy on achieving a permanent union with Gordon of the massive intellect and the Olympian indifference towards the activities between the sheets? On paper it should have been possible, but perhaps in Gordon’s case, for he was also a Roman Catholic, the spiritual force of even a lapsed Christian’s sense of Guilt, was somehow getting in the way of even  the most accomplished yogic meditation.



I am busy teaching here for a week on Kythnos, so there will be no new blog post until MONDAY 29th JUNE. You can always contact me direct about anything, at

I first heard Radio Luxembourg of a Sunday night in early 1959, and it was on the sitting room wireless as opposed to my Ekco transistor radio, which I did not acquire as a Christmas present until 1961. 1959 was 3 years after we had acquired a television, and the goggle box had taken total entertainment precedence, apart from the daytime, when my mother preferred the Light Programme’s Music While You Work, to accompany her scrupulous housework. The fact we were listening  to the radio of an early evening, could only have meant Sunday TV at that hour was so excruciatingly boring, that we had to twiddle the wireless stations to find something to lighten our hearts. Until that is we could watch What’s My Line? (BBC 7.30) with the impeccable Lady Isobel Barnett (born 1918), sadly in 1980 arrested for shoplifting, after which she very soon took her own life, and the US cop show Highway Patrol with gruff Broderick Crawford (ITV at 9). At any rate I was in a state of mild 9 year-old euphoria, sat on the thick rug in my socks, and enjoying the 50s pop music on Luxembourg 208 MW  along with my Mum and Dad. They were both aged 43 then, so were young enough to enjoy the undemanding hit music of the day, most of it American,  currently being broadcast by the ebullient Jack Jackson (1906-1978) on his eponymous Show. In 1959 there were no such vulgar things as jingles on BBC radio, and commercial radio was outlawed inside the UK, so Jackson’s gimmicky jingle was a beguiling novelty for my parents as much as me. We were greatly tickled by it, as if it was half way between a ventriloquist’s dummy, and a bit of subtle magic. It was an imaginary squawking little man crying Wah Wah, I Can Pick Em!, and he was Jackson’s bragging alter ego of course, and prototype of the outrageously suggestive DJ Kenny Everett’s array of crazy characters’ voices. Jackson himself boasted that he could pick and forecast the hits of the day, which in reality he could no more do than fly. The only power he had, doubtless under contractual instruction from above, was to play the same records all the time, for whatever notional kickback, which, like all other and later disc jockeys, he duly did.

There were only the three of us in the sitting room of our little terrace, that we were to leave a few months later, and my 3 older brothers aged 14, 16 and 19 can only have been out with friends, as they certainly were not at church. I had this strange and joyous sense of being possessive and proprietorial  apropos the music, and almost as if I were feting it for my parents, like a benign 9 year-old disc jockey myself. Unlike them, I scanned the newspaper for the radio schedules and was able to tell my Dad that later Scottish Requests and Irish Requests were on Luxembourg. My Dad’s mother was Lowland Scots with the quaint maiden name Lidderdale, and the Christian name Jessie. That meant he had allegiance to all things Scots, or at any rate the accordion dance music of the Highlands and the poetry of Burns. By lateral Celtic analogy he also took in Ireland as a natural field of interest, but that did not mean he had any partiality for Wales or Cornwall or Brittany. At any rate, he was so intrigued  to hear of these novel programmes, that the pair of them decided to forgo What’s My Line? and to listen to Scottish and Irish music for most of the evening instead. Before that Jack Jackson played El Paso by Marty Robbins, which was of a resonant Country and Western flavour, melodic and simple enough for my Dad to relish that too. What I am saying is, that the mood in a house that was often fraught with the demands of too many kids, and not enough money, had now its  symbolic only child, me, the baby of the family, born 1950, when the other 3 were born in long gone 1944, 1942, and 1940, i.e. all three of them during another kind of endless upheaval that was called WW2.

Meanwhile the quaint and farcical sociology of UK radio and its attitude to the miragic phenomenon called pop music, needs to be explained to anyone under the age of 55. Incredibly there was almost nil  provision for pop music on BBC radio, until 1967, when the Light Programme and the Home Service were made defunct, and were replaced and renamed as Radio 2 and Radio 4, alongside the birth of  a  new baby called Radio 1,  devoted to pop music. To put it another way, the 1962-1967 revolution  of the Beatles and the Stones, the Mersey sound, the sudden massive sovereignty of UK pop and rock music over American music in the charts, including within the USA itself, all that was completely ignored by the national broadcaster. Pre-1967, the BBC provided precisely one hour of pop music with a Saturday lunchtime Saturday Club, on the Light Programme, presented by a seemingly elderly stalwart called Brian Matthews, who being born in 1928 was in fact only 39 when Radio 1 was born. Amazingly, aged 86 in 2015, he is still presenting the Sounds of the 1960s on Radio 2. The joke is that he couldn’t present the Sounds of the 1960s in the 1960s, when it would have been nice to have known what was going on in the contemporary musical world. It was partly the Lord Reithian ethic of not kow-towing to the vulgar aka popular, as abbreviated to the unlovely monosyllable pop, and, in passing, that which was not educative…but that argument was unfortunately shot to ribbons by the fact that the Light Programme was largely a welter of aqueous drivel comprising vintage light music for the senile, combined with 5 star soporific radio ‘drama’, such as Mrs Dale’s Diary. At any rate Radio Luxembourg stepped into the hollow and class-ridden void pre-1967. The programmes were broadcast from the Royal Duchy, but actually recorded in London, which was a necessary legal compromise. The maritime pirate radio of Radio Caroline etc which enlivened my pop and rock listening in 1966, wasn’t quite as savvy, and got towed away for its law-breaking impudence a year later. All this was accurately portrayed in the extremely entertaining 2009 movie The Boat That Rocked (titled Pirate Radio in the US) starring Bill Nighy and the late and very great actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Radio Luxembourg began its first English language broadcasts on long wave in 1933 and finally packed them in, in 1992 i.e. a quarter of a century after the BBC decided to appease the ineffaceable reality of youth culture with Radio 1. It stopped broadcasting during WW2, then  resumed in 1946, but the real breakthrough came when it went on the medium wave at its legendary 208 frequency in 1951. Sample programmes of the early 1950s, include a singing group named after a popular and sickly bedtime beverage, namely The Ovaltineys’ Concert Party (I blush to admit I joined the Ovaltineys’ Club myself when I was 10 in 1960). Later there was something that was always a thread of early Luxembourg, the factual or narrative or quiz programme, which had all but vanished by the mid 60s, when UK pop and rock  music effectively  took over the ears of the world. But in 1952 at 9.15pm, you could listen to the self-explanatory Leslie Wild, The Famous Memory Man, and for more revolutionary fare The Top 20 presented by Pete Murray (born 1925, now 89), also a pop presenter in the 50s BBC TV Six Five Special, and a major media campaigner for Margaret Thatcher in 1979, along with the pop singer Lulu, and other sundry class deviants. In 2012 Murray went public with the Daily Express that he once saw two 16 year-old girls ensconced in compromising circumstances in the Leeds home of another Luxembourg DJ celebrity, Jimmy Savile (who died in 2011, aged 84). Savile as the whole world knows now, was a  lifelong manipulative paedophile, who seemingly got away with it, and certainly thought he’d done so, when he died much loved by the ignorant public, if only because of his phenomenal amount of charity work, and his flamboyant and perpetual cigar. His destructive vice was seemingly the worst kept secret at the BBC for decades, but no one in any authority did anything about it. I remember in early 1962 snuggling under the bedclothes to hear his 10pm midweek Luxembourg programme The Teen and Twenty Disc Club. You could join the club and be assigned a TTDC number and Savile would read it aloud on air, and gained many loyal fans as a result.

As for the non-music broadcast from The Duchy, you might be surprised to learn that serialisations of Perry Mason and The Story of Dr Kildare (as later immortalised on TV by Richard Chamberlain) could be heard in 1952. Less surprising was the dramatisation of spaceman Dan Dare, and the phenomenon throughout the station’s history of countless numbers of US evangelists blasting forth, including Billy Graham, Garner Ted Armstrong (excommunicated from The Worldwide Church of God, in 1978, by its founder, his own Dad), and programmes with names like Back to the Bible. Funnier and more memorable than all of that, and even memorialised by the poet Adrian Mitchell, was the elderly geezer who advertised his amazing scheme for winning a fortune on the Football Pools. His name was Horace Batchelor (1898-1977), and he had a plaintive croaking frog’s voice to match. His system he called ‘The Infra Draw Method’, which perhaps to him seemed to suggest the magic and subtlety of Infra Red rather than the humiliation and datedness of Infra Dig. At the end of his ad he would always repeat the suburb of Bristol where he lived, and the second time he would spell it out for good measure:

That’s Horace Batchelor, Department 1,  Keynsham. Spelt K-E-Y-N-S-H-A-M, Keynsham, Bristol…



There was an extremely violent shouting match in the Glaros yesterday, which as I have said previously, is par for the course when it comes to card games and tavli arguments, but in this case it was nothing to do with idle diversion. A middle aged woman with a face like a peevish puffin, who is never ever seen in the Glaros, decided to confront Bojan the handyman in his lair. This definitely showed a certain blithe recklessness, as she must have known she had no allies among the male regulars, all of whom are fond of Bojan the talented artisan, even if he is a Serb and not a Greek. Sotiria is a querulous and squawky voiced gossip of 58, who is also my landlady and previously she had come nagging me for what she is not due. In Bojan’s case, with work drying up, he could not pay her his 150 a month, so eventually departed the tiny flat close to mine, and started sleeping in his car with 4 months’ rent unpaid. Yesterday she also discovered that he had run up an electric bill of 400 euros. Evidently this was the last straw, so she came squawking and beseeching at him to pay the electric bill at least, and this greatly amused the regulars, for how can someone sleeping in a car disburse 400 euros for long vanished and long forgotten electricity? Bojan smirked rather than laughed in her face, and also smirked when she shrieked and babbled her indignation for the whole of the port to enjoy.

Sotiria is 7 years younger than me, but I always think of her as something like a shrill, humourless and cranky aunt. When she came wheedling for money for my electricity, I told her curtly that we had had an agreement, a symbasi. Moreover the agreement had also been witnessed in the Paradisos by the owner, who had seen us shake on it, and being an anglophone Corfiot, had acted as translator for the toughest and knottiest bits of Greek. Sotiria has not a single word of English, yet saves face by telling me glumly and diagnostically that my Greek is very bad. The deal was that I paid all the repairs, and she paid all the bills, and now she was trying  to renege on it. Anyone but her, if only out of self-interest, would have paid for the repairs on her own house, and no Greek or Albanian would have whacked out 350 for my old and worn apartment, even with bills included. I told her also that only 4 year-olds and criminals renege on agreements, where hands have been shaken. She smiled and let it all bounce off her. I would have had to address her eye to eye as  a thief, a kleftis, to make any impression, though even then bare-faced as she was, I would have had to add a dozen epithets either side of the word thief, including blood-sucking leech and heathen Turk and who knows what else to pierce her unpierceable hide.

I definitely pay her well over the odds at 350 euros a month. This is more than selfless on my part, as paying for all the maintenance, means I pay yet another person over the odds (that ought to be my nickname  Over The Odds, or alternatively Bank of Kyrio John) in the form of  Bojan, when the shower goes kaput, or the Heath Robinson metal washing line on my balcony collapses. Tell Sotiria about some major repair needed, and she blinks like a pensive seabird, and nods her non- acquiescence in the form of yes, very interesting, or rather no, not interesting at all, and she changes the subject with all the glibness of the chronic self-seeker, and stalwart self-protector. There is something essentially Greek about this particular type of flagrant wheedling, and unabashed acquisitive temperament. Of course you get the same kind of thing worldwide, the UK included, but at least in good old Blighty, and outside of Dickens’ novels, there would be some attempt to hide one’s graspingness. In Britain one does not like to be thought of as an avaricious, immoral toad, even if one is, but in Greece they do not bother to hide their flaws, or should we say in some cases their running sores. It is a kind of Malthusian survival mechanism, possibly related to Greek history, one of extreme poverty and foreign domination by and large. In such circumstances there is no point in being subtle, considered, soft-hearted, and accommodating, and seeing the other competitor’s point of view. You fight for survival, even if in Sotiria’s case, she is said to be rolling in it, as are her daughter, son in law, and all the rest of her monied and ever acquisitive and imperial  clan.

I have missed one crucial factor here. Because it makes so little impression on me, I have almost forgotten that in the ocean of selfishness which she inhabits, she feels duty bound now and again to temper all her greedy taking with a symbolic bit of giving. On those occasions when she sits back and reflects that she has a steady tenant, who pays his exorbitant foreigner’s rent on time, and doesn’t hassle her for repairs, she evidently feels duty bound to do another specifically Greek thing. You reward an acknowledged  favour with a gift. This strikes me as an attitude more Middle Eastern than European, a sort of genteel variation on baksheesh reciprocity, or even the kind of barter quid pro quo mentality of the Hindu caste system. It might have its roots in the Turkish occupation, or go back even earlier, but I imagine the one doing the favour, has always expected to receive the gift in return, otherwise the favour might well cease. In the 2 years she has been my landlady, she has twice brought a massive quantity of home cooked biscuits, and has smiled all her matronly largesse, as if she to say she is a tender Mum and a caring sister as well as a landlady. She also brought me at Christmas what I regarded as a kind of dirt cheap fairground candle, the kind of thing back home you would get in Poundstretcher at Yuletide. But a Greek expert assured me it was pure beeswax,  a symbol of extreme holiness, and a costly object if ever there was. In both cases I gave away the biscuits and the candle, as I could not square her apparent kindness with her overwhelming selfishness, and it would have made no sense to relax one’s vigilance in the warmth of her sudden and transient warm-heartedness. The biscuits would have frozen in my mouth, and if her candle had been burning in my flat at Christmas it would have spoiled my Christmas. It is a cliché but Timeo Danaos dona ferentes, ‘I fear the Greeks bringing gifts’.

The final manifestation of her lavishly charitable soul, was last summer when she presented me with something phenomenally ugly, and even with a kind of nightmarish psychedelic appearance. It was a blindingly red cactus plant with unpleasant yellow buds, but I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know what the hell it was, and thought it might even have been a toy or an ornament. She donated it in public with much ostentatious charm, and passers-by must have thought what a simply divinely sweet landlady, or is she not simply another saint aka Agia Sotiria ? Once she had gone, I did what anyone else with my ignorance would have done. I reached out and touched it, and immediately its horrible prickles stung like a thousand adders! It was a psychedelic cactus, that if I’d put it in my flat would have given me psychotropic nightmares, and if I’d been fool enough to amnesically touch it again, it would have needed a doctor to take out the painful spikes. It occurred to me immediately that this gewgaw was a perfect symbol for Sotiria my landlady. Garish, gaudy, punitive, stinging, nightmarish, and tragicomically absurd. I found a remote rubbish skip, en route to a swim at Martinakia, and coating it in 2 thick carrier bags I cast it into the depths.



It is a comical fact that almost everyone over the age of 30, starts to moan about putting on the years, and growing old. I remember my brother Bryce being most concerned at turning 40 in 1984, as if it was the start of a lifetime’s creeping senility. In fairness to him, and me being 33 at the time, I thought yes that is bloody old, and he does right to be depressed. Now that I am 64, 40 seems like a stripling’s second childhood, as well as a first one, the second childhood representing the cloud cuckoo land of being such a carefree 4 decades old adolescent. Not that long ago, 40 was classed as decidedly middle-aged, whereas these days you are not regarded as middle-aged till you are at least 60, if that. I can witness it all well enough in the port here in Kythnos. In late June it is often full of foreign yachties, and many of them are couples who are patently 70-plus. They hold hands tenderly as they wander the length of the harbour, just as if they were 15 each. In fact they hold hands a damn sight more than any 15, 25 or 35 year-old couples. I imagine their love lives to be rampant, avant-garde and noisy, rather than restrained and decorous, the reason being they wouldn’t cling to each other’s mitts in public as addictively as they do, unless there were some crackling electrostatic tension between the sheets.

My wife Annie had a smart rejoinder to anyone complaining about putting on the years. She had primary breast cancer in 1998, and then, seemingly in the clear, was sadly diagnosed with secondaries in the bones and liver 10 years later. She would say matter of fact to the moaners, that they should be glad they were adding another year on, as some people didn’t have that enviable luxury. It wasn’t that she was feeling sorry for herself, as much as noting with indignation that some people in perfect health, weren’t even grateful for that miraculous gift. Had she had their endless lifespan to look forward to, she would probably have explored every last possibility of her specialism of Organisational Transactional Analysis and written the authoritative books to match.

I turn 65 in October, which is pension age, and which even now seems monstrously old. I know these days they pay your pension direct into your account, so you don’t have to stand in the Post Office alongside the unemployed, to reveal your appalling status. I know also upstanding respectable types like Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton are all well past 65, and it is astonishing to reflect that Bill Wyman of The Rolling Stones born 1936, is now 79. But the problem is the term ‘pensioner’ still lingers with a whiff of cheap tea (Pensioner’s Tips it used to be called at 1/2d a quarter pound in the Coop…and I don’t even drink bloody tea, unless it’s the best Assam or Broken Orange Pekoe) together with the Brampton, North Cumbrian pub that used to offer a ‘Pensioner’s Special Lunch’ of Fish and Chips and Cup of Tea for only £5.50. I love their bloody nerve, don’t you? There are plentiful bargain pubs in Workington and Cockermouth down west, where anyone, pensioner or not, can get fish and chips for either £2.99 or £3.99, the logic being that they will spend another £5 minimum on drinks, so it’s an amiable win-win for all. Doubtless the North Cumbrian pub thought that dealing with senile dupes all happily reft of brain cells, you could persuade them that cheery sleight-of-hand extortion was a bargain.

As for age and existential relativism, the more I think about it the more it is a joke. The accepted parameters have all been shifted so drastically in the last 30 years, it is like a variation on one of Nobel winner Saramago’s remarkable parables, in which people manifestly age, but never get sick, and never die. The real life variation is that most of the folk I know, including close friends and family, appear not to age at all, and if any of them do fall sick, it seems freakish and completely out of character. Let me illustrate with my own extended family, starting with my 3 siblings. I am the youngest of 4 brothers, and the others are 70, 73 and 75 respectively. To me, and this is not biased flattery, they look middle-aged rather than old, they all have more hair that is less grey than mine (you try being a writer of comic extravaganzas, some of them half in Cumbrian dialect, and possibly your teeth and your brains will fall out too), and all of them are still working very hard, in the main because they need the income. The 70 year-old is still self-employed as a financial consultant working in 3 alliterative venues: Cumbria, Cambridgeshire and Crete, and guess which one is his favourite (as he puts it, in Crete you can walk around the garden in your underwear on Christmas Day, exactly like you can in good old Kythnos, I reply). The 73 year-old is a retired prof of Chemistry in Australia, who is still teaching and supervising and examining all over the globe, to the extent I don’t think anyone has noticed he is retired. The 75 year-old is a retired physicist who spends a lot of time doing complex and artistic house renovation.

Between them they have provided me with 7 very fine nephews and nieces, who by now are nearly all in their 40s. This is a fact which truly amazes me, as mentally I envision them as they were aged 6, between the limits of 1978 and 1981, when I was 27 and 30 respectively, and they all very accurately, saw me as their youngest and daftest uncle. Two are in Australia aged 43 and 40, three of them are in Cumbria aged 46, 42 and almost 40, and one in London is also aged 40. Whenever I see them in the flesh it is not only a delight, but instead of looking 6 as they do in my mind’s eye, they all look 25, and that includes the two with young families, which as you know is supposed to age people more than playing with the occult or using heavy drugs. On that scale my daughter Ione who was 26 yesterday, looks about 17 to me, whenever we meet up, and has in fact been looking 17 since she was 21, and I expect her to still be looking that age until she is about 35. She has a single cousin about her own age, because of one brother’s second marriage, and she, brainbox and polyglot that she is, succeeds in looking a permanent 15.

I hope you can see the point I’m getting at. What matters is not crass and uninformative chronological age, but apparent age, and the latter, be assured, cannot be won by costly cosmetic surgery, but has to come from the animate spirit within. On paper my brothers are all ‘active pensioners’, to use that risible shorthand, but what the hell does that mean when the  Australian one is a world expert in his Inorganic Chemistry field, and what does it signify whether he is 73, 83 or 103 when he practises his world expertise? Meanwhile at the other end of the scale, I have only 2 elderly relatives left on my mother’s side, an uncle turning 87 in September and an aunty turning 97 in November. My very old aunty was lugging heavy bin bags down for the dustmen from her upstairs Workington flat, until she packed it in as a chit of 90. Their spouses died aged 85 and 86 respectively, and all four of them hadn’t smoked since their early 20s. Both my own folks died young of cancer, my mother at 74 and my father at 76. They both smoked all their lives, though the causation might be more complex than that. That said, I’m sure that we can delete the variable of diet, as all 6 of them, parents, uncles and aunts, more or less ate/eat the identical things all the time, with lots of red meat and lots of grilled breakfasts, and not a lot in terms of fresh fruit and vegetables.

My parents rarely touched alcohol and certainly never red wine, and perhaps in different circumstances they should have taken this infallible tonic, if not indispensable elixir. Apropos which, I once asked my own UK doctor, if drinking half a bottle of red wine every night as I did, was perhaps excessive and injurious. He laughed at what he took to be my little joke, and seriously suggested I should perhaps endeavour to drink a bit more.



Have you ever been enormously and very painfully embarrassed, and wished that the entire cosmos, rather than just the earth would swallow you up? If not, you should read the powerful and very uncomfortable A Nasty Story (1862) by Dostoievsky, about a complacent civil servant staggering home one night drunk, who, peering inside a house, happens to spot one of his subordinates having his wedding party. Instead of walking discreetly on, Ivan Ilyich Pralinsky as he is called, decides to go in and generously patronise his underling’s celebration…and in doing so completely ruins it. Both the clerk and all the guests are mortified with shyness in front of the great man, so that the party becomes a truly humiliating ordeal. Worse still Pralinsky collapses dead drunk, and has to be put to bed in the only available place, the nuptial couch! All this because, according to Dostoievsky the satirist, he was a dozy Russian idealist who believed in being kind to to his inferiors. At which point, I would like to turn the provocative interrogator myself, and ask you the reader, is it not truly astonishing how little serious UK fiction of any period, explores this universal and painful matter of severe embarrassment, in the sense that it gives a forensic account of just what it is like to be made speechless with humiliation and personal shame?

The reason I ask is that a great many writers on psychology and psychotherapy, would argue that much of ‘civilised’ and adapted human behaviour, as opposed to whatever they do in lost tribes in the remotest Amazon jungle, is all about ordering one’s life to avoid severe embarrassment in whatever social circumstances. For example people who are chronically shy and find social mixing torture, will continually avoid doing so, because the far end of their fantasies is being speechless, blushing, tongue-tied and even fainting with the ordeal. One writer, the South Africa anti-psychiatrist David Cooper(1931-1986), put it uncompromisingly when he argued that neurosis was simply ‘the fear of looking foolish’, as the neurotic simply cannot imagine anything more horrific than being personally mortified. Objectively of course there are very many things worse than being paralysingly socially embarrassed, such as being about to be stoned to death in Iran, for engaging in homosexual sex, or facing execution by lethal injection in Dade County Jail, Florida.And in any case, it is not just neurotics who avoid things. Examine your own  behaviour, and candidly ask yourself how much of your life is about not doing very often many very small things, in a minutely orchestrated way, which only you could understand, and delineate, if someone asked you to confess all. For example you always look the other way at someone you fell out with 2 years ago, or that you think might just know that you are having a clandestine affair with X. For you to face them and say a brief hello, and otherwise try to get over the eye contact hiatus, would take more courage than you feel you have.  Alternatively you never use lifts/elevators, but always go panting up the mile-long staircase, and if you are in a public lavatory, you never lock the door, but keep it shut with your foot, and do your necessary business as fast as you can, you feel so foolish. You are emphatically not a certifiable case, but you have your limiting dead ends so to speak, and there are worrying roads and by-ways you will not walk under any circumstances.

I once talked at length on a train journey to a very nice, if rather stiff and uneasy woman in her 50s, as we both left a course of mine in Cambridge. The whole of the journey her eyes were roaming vigilantly in every direction, and at length she explained that in effect and crazy as it sounded, the whole of her existence was spent in trying to avoid butterflies. She was literally terrified of the approach of a butterfly, and the whole of her waking hours were devoted to avoiding such a calamity. That was why in my class, and it being a hot week in August, and the back door being open, she had sat immediately next to it. If a terrifying butterfly entered, she could shoot out the open door away from it, whereas if she sat in the middle of  the large teaching hall, she was a sitting duck so to speak, as it came ever nearer and nearer in her direction. This phobia had a profound and far reaching effect on her life, as you can imagine. She never went for a walk in a field or in any woods, and whenever she entered any room or closed space of any kind, supermarkets and bus stations included, she always gauged where an exit might be, in the event of the monster entering and flapping its wings at her. Likewise however boiling hot it might be, she would never open the car window if she was driving, and her children when small had had to be instructed never to wind one down too. If they had, and a butterfly had entered on the motorway especially, she might well have crashed the car in her terror, and killed herself and all her family.  That said, this woman was not without insight, and readily admitted the thing was all about a psychological metaphor for being in control. She knew right enough a butterfly could not harm her, and it was much more likely she could accidentally harm it. Doing all this obsessive avoidance, was a way of exerting absolute tyrannical control over her own life, and incidentally on her long-suffering husband and now grown up kids. She had had cognitive therapy for the condition, which of course was not about analytic understanding, but of playing with the symptoms, however ingeniously. It had helped her, but it hadn’t stopped her gauging the horizon for lepidoptera 24/7, as she did for the 2 hours she was sat next to me on the crowded and emphatically butterfly-free train to Birmingham.

David Cooper, who believed neurosis was rooted in the fear of looking foolish, also argued that it was mistakenly seeing yourself as a collection of symptoms i.e. in lieu of permitting yourself an identity, you just saw yourself as an assemblage of medical problems. Anyone who has read the brilliantly funny Just William books of Richmal Crompton, will recall certain squawky elderly and irritable old ladies who claimed to be suffering from neurasthenia, meaning they were literally ill and disabled with their nerves, and often spent much of their lives in bed as a result. Being moneyed folk as a rule, sometimes their real life counterparts would be recommended by their doctor, to seek a change of air, possibly by taking an expensive cruise around the world. As often as not, this treatment worked, or at any rate temporarily, for once the hypochondriac aka valetudinarian or atrabilious individual, returned to their familiar milieu, they also returned to their familiar symptoms.

One instructive way of gauging your own, as it were, behavioural cul-de-sacs, meaning those myriad, minuscule and byzantine areas, familiar and intelligible to only you, and you alone, i.e. those roads  you will obsessively never go, in your routine and daily behaviour, is to set yourself the following  delightful if possibly daunting task. Permit yourself just one day in your life, where you will deliberately do those things that you never do, for the specific reason that you always feel inhibited and indeed phobic  about doing them. So this is not about playing canasta or whist instead of bridge by way of card game variety…but about exploring those parts of yourself, however small and supposedly trivial, that  you dare not reach. The easiest way of doing it, is to write down a checklist of how you normally spend a day, with a few little side notes of things you don’t do at certain points, and which you feel on reflection seriously limit your options. So for example if you are a single guy, who every morning at around 11, spots a very nice woman you judge to be single also, and would love to do nothing more than smile at her in a non-leering and non-nauseous manner, but dare not…permit yourself on Freedom Day to do just that. Though ‘permit’ is probably  a joke verb here. If this is one of your cowardly cul-de-sac dead points, then you will need to take an imaginary gun behind your head, and force yourself non-Gorgonwise to smile at her. Then,  behold the worst she can do is sniff and ignore it, and unless she is a lunatic, she is unlikely to ring the police. Far more likely, providing you haven’t leered or grimaced at her like Marty Feldman or  Harpo Marx, is that she will smile back. Then go the double whammy and say, Hi. Then the triple whammy and say, Hi, how are you? And who knows where things  might lead, once you bravely decide to explore the wholly illusory nature of your experiential cul-de-sacs?

Done in a sensitive step-by-step gradedly expanding manner, clearly what you end up doing is subtly widening the range and versatility of your personality, by ingeniously removing a few chains and blindfolds and gags. It is of a piece with the therapeutic technique of the ‘Paradoxical Injunction’, whereby someone in a stuck and painful situation, is told by the therapist to do the opposite of what they expect, so they end up doing what they really want to do. An eminent US psychiatrist for example, was once treating an unfortunate young student woman who had got to the miserably unhappy stage of barely leaving her room. Incredibly, this was because one day, in the vast lecture hall, while walking to her seat, she had accidentally farted, or as the psychiatrist had decorously put it, had ‘voided afflatus’.  Almost certainly no one but her had noticed the fart, but she was convinced the entire lecture hall had taken note, and that she was a disgusting and disgraceful pariah as a result. No amount of logic, including reflecting on the wondrous anatomical and physiological perfection of the anal sphincter mechanism, would talk her out of her crisis, so the therapist prescribed the following paradox. She was tonight to consume an inordinate amount of raw root vegetables, and sundry other things guaranteed to create a gut full of explosive wind, and then was to deck herself out in some attractive ballet tights, underneath which she would have some sturdy and absorbent diaper-style underwear.  Having booked the gym for her exclusive use at 9pm tonight, when no one else wanted it, she was with bloated guts and with a CD of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake playing, to explosively and assertively fart her way in fearless and ecstatic pirouettes around the gym. And of course turning the insuperable problem on its head with an incongruous command, like a Zen koan, it did the healing trick, and this 19 year-old girl was back at her lectures grinning, the next day. Plus as a matter of plain commonsense, and theoreticians and learned specialists aside, any half-sensitive parent would effortlessly understand this notion of Paradoxical Injunction. Applying the logic that if you tell a wilful 15 year-old kid not to stay out after 11pm, they definitely will roll in at 2am, the paradoxical injunction would be to say,  ‘I insist that you stay out well after 11!’ and as sure as shot they will be back home by 8.30, just to spite you.

One final note from the antipsychiatrist, David Cooper. In line with his radical Marxist commitment and his loathing of all acquiescence to destructive capitalist forms,  he once said that so-called full-blown schizoid ‘paranoia’ was not a psychotic condition, but an appropriate and ‘sane’ reaction to an insanely repressive society such as ours. That being the case, he added that the condition of neurosis was ‘at least going in the right direction’.



Yesterday I  described the hothouse of a Highlands residential biology course in 1968, where every participant aged 17 had sex on the brain, and the subject we were there to study became a kind of sexual ecology, which as far as I know has never been recognised as a bona fide field of study, but certainly should be. One thing I omitted to say, which I still find passing strange, is that a kind of linguistic supremacy established itself over that week when there were 6 West Cumbrian and maybe 14 sixth formers from the Newcastle area. Sheer numbers might have had something to do with it, but after 3 days it was baffling to observe that all the West Cumbrians had acquired very strong North East aka Geordie accents, and could not renounce them, even with an effort. By contrast none of the Geordies had succumbed to West Cumbrian supremacy. As soon as the course was finished, and we Brothel on the Hill students, were on the train back to Carlisle and beyond, the foreign accents vanished like a puff of magician’s smoke. 47 years later, I muse on the irony that the West Cumbrian intonation is very strong, abrasive and dissonant, while the Geordie one is mostly gentle and musical and euphonious. Which is at least one reason why in the mid 70s BBC TV was saturated up to the neck with singsong often sentimental Geordie dramas, like the famous When The Boat Comes In, as penned in 1976 by Alex Glasgow. Do you remember the lilting lyrics, sung without a blush. You shall get a fishie in a little dishie? Doesn’t it make you want to cheerfully nay ecstatically throw up, and be glad that you’re a hopeless bloody old West Cumbrian after all, because at least you can manage to say very demanding words like ‘fish’ and ‘dish’, and not the cute diminutives?

So the point is a strong and raw and abrasive accent, should have surely taken precedence over a gentle and lilting one, but in this case it didn’t. The Geordies even joked about our linguistic subjugation at the time, and told us we talked like real civilised people at last, instead of like savages from the primitive Cumbrian coast. Bizarre to relate, I took this enigma with me to Oxford in mid December 1968, when I went for interview at my first choice of Queen’s College. The college has connections with Cumbrian schools and several ‘closed’ scholarships, a charmless and appalling designation if ever there was. They might as well say We Take Freemasons Only, or No Irish, Blacks or Dogs. Not everyone has watched Charles Sturridge’s TV adaptation of  Brideshead Revisited, so not all of us know the drill here, and for the uninitiated there are three grades of Oxford student, who in descending order are either a Scholar, an Exhibitioner or a Commoner. The Scholar may wear a full gown with the cloth right down to his hands, the Exhibitioner less full and altogether shorter in the arm, and the luckless Commoner, bless him, in the single sex colleges of 1969, had no sleeves at all, so he looked like a halfwit of a page boy with lopped off arms. Scholars and exhibitioners got their own rooms, while commoners invariably had to double up. All of the students however, commoners included, had a personal servant to wake them up (morning sar, quarter to eight sar), make their bed and wash their cups and saucers. These servants were called Scouts and mine was an elderly Irishwoman with a foul temper and  an explosive drink problem, meaning she would drunkenly rant and bellow in the quadrangle at times, and I think if I had had her job at £11 a week for antisocial multiple split shifts in 1969, I would have hit the bottle and shouted my Co. Cork head off too.

For the interview I was put up at Queen’s in a dismal and remote garret at the arctic arse end of the college. As bleak as something out of Dickens or Gissing, I didn’t reflect on it then, but now imagine it was not student accommodation at all, but for the few come and go live-in skivvies they occasionally were obliged to host at Queen’s. The dining hall where they gave us breakfast and a buffet lunch, despite all the paintings and the baroquely fluted ceiling, had a sombre and somnolent feel about it, and I realised as I stared about me that so far I didn’t actually like Queen’s College, because it had a kind of overgrown schoolboy’s flavour about it. The interviewees, as well as the few students hanging about out of term, all had short hair and heavy specs, were mostly remarkably bullish and ugly, and seemed as dull as heavy drizzle. I overheard one lad with severe acne and a sort of slicked down tonsure, that would have suited a man 3 times his age, saying that his hobby was taking photos of canals and longboats and locks, and I also heard mention of Wigan Pier but not in the George Orwell context. Looking at him and his glorious hobby I felt myself age a century, in both directions, meaning into the future as well as experiencing a queasy retro-senility. One thing I was unaware of, as quite simply no one either at my school or at college reception told me, was that you had literally all the time to keep your eyes on the college notice board, where they pinned up the lists of candidates and interview times. Now of course, I realise that the other boys had been coached in the minutiae of interview protocol by their teachers, who had long-established aka closed links with the colleges. My Brothel on the Hill having nil links to speak of, did not know anything about anything. It was this ignorance of mine that meant at the very last ditch, I saw my name and the room where I was to be interviewed in less than 5 minutes time. I had been about to go round the town to buy some jazz LPs and it was the merest fluke that I noticed it.

In the ante room,  I was an 18 year-old bag of nerves. I felt hot and still had the lingering aftermath of having been put in what felt like the outcast’s garret for the night.  Once inside the arena, I was surrounded by four kindly and tolerant men in tweed jackets, all in their early 30s, all looking  uncritically at this blushing Grammar School specimen from the far north. In 1969 there was still a rank preponderance of public school products in all the colleges, and in some like Christ Church it was almost total, meaning they were like Oxonian Etons and Harrows ands Reptons and Haileyburys for overgrown adolescents in their early 20s. I was applying to do Psychology, so they gently asked me about my interest in the subject, which was then never taught in schools.  I relaxed enough to drop a few names and mentioned a few subjects (Eye Contact, Attention, Semantic Satiation) about which, had I been honest with them and myself, I was monumentally uninterested. They were pleased enough by  that, but instead of being content with my more than passable impression, I decided like a fool to show off, and reveal to them things they knew nothing about, Oxbridge brainboxes notwithstanding. Inspired, even reckless, I hauled out my anecdote about the Field Course of a year ago in the Highlands, where the 2 sets of students in close proximity for a week, demonstrated a kind of linguistic hierarchy, as the West Cumbrians ended up talking exactly like the Geordies, and not the other way about. I even  dropped the term Psycholinguistics, just to show them what I was about.

If it had been anywhere but Oxford they would have been happy to hear the anecdote and that would have been it. They would not have wished to subject it to science, and to empirical investigation, and to experimental controls and mensuration. Instead, one of them with an oddly angelic expression, as if he had for long been a choir boy, smiled and asked me:

“How would you investigate possible linguistic dominance? How would you take your suspicions further?”

Suspicions? Further? I wasn’t suspicious about anything, apart from folk like him who asked me did I have the bastards. I stared at him in glassy horror, disguised as a frozen if acquiescent smile, and struggled hard not to say, oh fuck. I felt my face melt with the sheer ignorance that lay behind my insincere visage. I had tried to treat them to something outside their ken, as assuredly none of them would know one northern accent from the language of the Martians or the Venusians, and it had all blown up in my complacent young face.

He prodded me helpfully. “How many variables are there in this situation you describe?”

That was better. I still felt overheated and underperforming. But I also felt that my brain was still my own.

“Well, one variable is the numbers. There were 6 Cumbrians and 14 students from the North East, over twice as many. So I could try to have say 6 of each, stuck in a room talking together for a week. And see if that changed the dynamic.”

He grinned. “You’d have to pay them handsomely, to stay in a room chatting for a week. Some of them might find it an endurance test, I suppose. But if you had equal numbers of participants, what do you think might change? Would there be nil influence either way,  or might it still be a dominance by the ‘Geordies’.”

This choir boy grown to adulthood, really did put the word between  jovial quote marks, as if he was being  a forthright wag by being so colloquial.

“With equal numbers?” I paused and for once in my life I decided to use my brain with honesty, rather than be compliant and simply to please others. I thought this college was a wan and lacklustre bolthole anyway, and I couldn’t remotely imagine why I’d want to spend 3 years here. Listening to dreary guys in thick-rimmed specs, with state of the art skin complaints, talking about longboats and cuts and barges and British canals?

I said, “I’m tempted to be purely scientific. And to say with equal numbers, no one would imitate anyone. Meaning no one would adopt the other’s accent. But then, I’m even more tempted to trust my intuition…”

All the tweed suits raised their eyebrows, and one of them even frowned. I hesitated, blushed and said:

“Even with equal numbers, I think the Cumbrians would inevitably imitate the North East group. It’s to do with charisma. They have all the charisma over there, and the Cumbrians have none. You imitate what impresses you, as well as what intimidates you. The Cumbrians have nothing. They haven’t had for the last 100 years, and they never will again. The West Cumbrians especially, where there has been a serious industrial recession for so many years. Cumbrians don’t have any big cities like Newcastle or Durham or Sunderland or Middlesbrough. They don’t have a university, or even a polytechnic. I guess what I’m saying is, the number or variables is inscrutable and colossal, and some of them can’t ever be explained or accommodated by the subtlest and most ingenious of  experimental design.”

A silence ensued, and then some sonorous placatory murmurs about my intriguing scepticism re the limitations of the empirical method. And then I was ushered out. One hour later there was another notice pinned up, telling me I had an interview at my second choice of University College just over the road. There they asked me about my biology reading outside of A levels and I told them about Buddenbrock’s The Love Life of Animals, and I spouted as much ethology = animal behaviour,  as I could remember. They all seemed to love it, me talking about the love life of animals, that is, and that, meaning University College, was where I was destined to spend the first three years of the next unending decade.