PUTTING YOUR FOOT IN IT

PUTTING YOUR FOOT IN IT

An interesting phrase isn’t it, and I bet if I googled it,  it’d tell me the origin before I’d finished typing the 5 words, but I prefer to spend the next 5 years doughtily, and yes, vainly, guessing what it might be. I am not exactly an expert at saying the wrong thing, but I have done so once or twice to great effect. Nearly 40 years ago, in 1976, I was  in a Cumbrian pub with a couple I’d known a few years, where I very much liked the guy, but didn’t really care for his partner, all 3 of us being about 25 years old. Kenny was relaxed, extremely long-haired and independent-minded, and Ginnie had a funny kind of barbed if camouflaged sullenness and critical side to her. They were opposing personalities in fact, and I’ve lost count of the number of couples I’ve met like that, as if the male likes to be regularly criticised and harassed albeit in muted form, and the woman enviously likes his dilatory, carefree side, but also believes it needs constant taming and curbing. Theirs was an immature, symbiotic and childish relationship in short, but let us say it obviously kept their show on the road.

One thing worth pointing out is that though hairy Kenny was surpassingly laid back, he was actually a hard working and infinitely shrewd community worker. Meaning outward appearances can be only partially revealing, at best. Ginnie had a conventional job as a secretary, and it would have been impossible to think of her as being anything but conventional. We happened to be discussing last night’s TV, and there had been a very funny if offbeat drama starring Donald Pleasence (1919-1995), that actor of massive talent and versatility, creepy and disturbing in one film or play, bland yet stonily impossible the next. Kenny and Ginnie hadn’t seen the play, so I was carefully outlining the surreal sequence of events, and trying to communicate the extraordinarily funny fact that Pleasence’s character had outrageously grotesque protruding teeth, which added a special and hectic  piquancy to the drama.

I was going on at great length about these hilarious teeth, when I looked at Ginnie and noticed as did everyone the first time they met her, that she herself had protruding and ferretish front teeth. Remarkably, and it has never happened since, I had had a cloddish fit of amnesia where I had started guffawing at buck teeth to one who had the same affliction. Two things to comment, at this pivotal point. Have you ever tried to rewrite and edit on the spot, what you’ve just said, as I did, and come out with the lame and lunatic second draft, that the teeth weren’t that funny at all, and it was the non-dental aspects of Pleasence’s character that really won the day?  The second reflection is that those prominent fangs of hers might just have made her the sullen and hypercritical bat she often was…though of course you as well as I know there are plenty of unfortunate Harold Hare/ Bugs Bunny folk around, who are kind and friendly and a pleasure to be with, despite their sorry handicap.

My best friend Willy Barber often erred more radically than that, though let us say one reason why he was my best friend, was that he had a natural comic sense and a spontaneous turn of phrase and artlessly vacant facial expression, all of which made him exceptionally funny. He had tight very curly hair, a slightly oversized nose, and was like a good-looking version of the US comedian Gene Wilder, with a little of Harpo Marx thrown in for good measure (Discuss. Why are so many really funny male comedians equipped with extremely curly hair? Is it a linked gene…as in the case of Wilder?). Willy Barber, who left Cumbria in 1970 aged 20 and has lived in London ever since, endured a troubled love life all the way to his late 30s, the apple of his eye, his  wife Rose, deserting him for a man who wore spectacles with, most ironically, vividly rose-coloured frames. After her, he got involved with a Filppino woman Augusta, who had severe mental health problems, meaning she was borderline schizophrenic. Worse still, he got her pregnant and the child ended up being brought up by her elderly Filippino parents, who happened to be living in London too. While Willy and the half-mad woman were living together, they shared a house with Augusta’s closest friend in London, who was a Syrian cosmetician of all things. The Syrian woman Nada was mid-30s like Willy and Augusta, and unfortunately she had had a serious car accident back in Damascus which had led to her having her right leg amputated in 1980. Thus she always wore a wooden leg which was visible below her skirt and she limped significantly wherever she walked. Nada was an extremely disputatious and argumentative beautician, so much so that according to Willy she barely noticed that her best friend was schizophrenic. She didn’t care for Willy and his flippancy at all, and let him know it, and as her politics and religious beliefs were a strange and conflicting hotch-potch of severe conformism and anchorless egotism, Willy did not love Nada either, and often got into prolonged debates with her.

One day in the summer of 1985 the pair of them were arguing about Christianity, which atheist Willy had almost nil knowledge of nor opinions about, but which Nada believed was responsible for the ubiquitous British racism, Willy Barber’s included. Stunned by the accusation, Willy insisted he was no racist, not least because he had a Filippino partner, Augusta. Nada refused to relent from her critique, and the argument bounced endlessly back and forwards. Nada at first was seated on a chair and was fiddling angrily with her wooden leg, as the debate grew ever warmer. Something Willy said then riled her to such a profound degree, that she stood up, as if to attack him with a beautician’s fists as well as her words. Willy stepped back from the table in moderate alarm, and then shot back at the amputee with absolutely nil forethought, apropos her powers of argument and subtle dialectic:

“But you haven’t got a leg to stand on!

There were a whole 2 seconds where Nada couldn’t believe her beautician’s ears and suddenly realised there were even worse things than racism, namely inconceivable human callousness combined therewith. It took Willy Barber another second to realise his hideous mistake and he started to babble and beseech and apologise at the speed of light. But Nada was enraged and  she hummocked off to tell the awful tale to Augusta who just at that minute happened to be talking to herself, or rather communing in Tagalog with one of the several clamorous voices inside her perpetually tormented head.

THE BOOT BOY WHO WOULD NOT RELENT

THE BOOT BOY WHO WOULD NOT RELENT

My grandfather was a legendarily hard old man who died in 1969 aged 86. His first job round about 1894 had been as a boot boy in a mansion at a hamlet called Baggrow near Aspatria, West Cumbria. He pronounced it ‘Baggra’ which sounds like the received pronunciation of ‘buggery’, a noun I’m sure he’d never heard of, though of course he’d heard the word ‘bugger’. After that he was briefly an auxiliary policeman, a collier, and finally a railway worker until he retired in 1948. He was a fund of curious and sometimes appalling stories, most of them going back to the 1920s and earlier, and the telling of tales was very much his raison d’etre. He briefly acquired a TV around 1961, but quickly loathed it as his eyesight was so bad, and he had to guess who was who, and who was doing what. He liked precisely one programme called Yorkie, and that was only because it starred the jovial and homely Wilfred Pickles (1904-1978), who could have been talking about existentialism for all he cared, not because he could follow the storyline. He got rid of the telly without notice and  without consulting my grandmother, for he never consulted her about anything, and would have found himself wholly contemptible if he had. They returned to the valve radio and the Home Service, and there again it was only the agricultural drama, The Archers, which is still going strong 54 years later, that they listened to, or rather what he would permit. Walter Gabriel the garrulous and comic Ambridge farmhand, made him laugh, and as I once wrote in a short story,  I am 100% confident both he and my grandmother believed they were all real people on that show, who magically were always doing interesting things at 6.45pm just as my grandparents chose to eavesdrop on them. As a matter of note, once the one permitted programme was finished, he would cover both the odious telly and the tolerable wireless with a large cloth, as if they were both cagebirds he was encouraging to fall asleep.

He came of a large family and all but 2 of his siblings were dead by 1961. One still living was his kindly, saintly older sister Agnes who lived a mile away with her daughter, and who he saw once every blue moon, and whom he did not disdain, but neither did he show any signs of loving her. Agnes was so old her facial skin was heaped in loose folds, but she also had the tenderest smile known to man. My grandfather would say she talked too much and was far too sugary arsy-arsy, or more accurately she talked stuff of no consequence, by which he probably meant she had no fund of pungent stories, for he himself orated endlessly, as if it was his tenured job. One of his madder tales I put in my novel John Dory, namely that of a WW1 Cumbrian railway signalman who kept his beloved pet fleas taped under one of his armpits, in a cosy little matchbox kennel. In my novel I made the man commit suicide once his adored pets accidentally escaped, though that was my own gratuitous invention. But the original tale of a man with a little box full of fleas under his arm, can that possibly be true? Just and so… and especially, leaving West Cumbria for a while, in East European film, and the fiction such as that of the incomparable Bohumil Hrabal. And in any case if it was sheer invention, where on earth did my always down to earth and mostly sullen granddad find such extraordinary powers of imagination?

His other surviving sibling and younger brother, had one of those surname Christian names, meaning his grandmother’s maiden name became his first name. Pearson as he was called, was a mere baby of 80 when they had their final meeting in 1968, just as my grandfather had turned 85, and Agnes had been dead all of 5 years. It might have been their final meeting, but also it was their only encounter since 1945, when they had bumped into each other in Workington on the day the War ended, and the port and iron and steel town were all a-riot. The point is they lived 5 miles apart, were the last 2 surviving of their family, and hadn’t seen each other for 23 years. None of these harrowing statistics moved my grandfather one iota, and he thought about Pearson who was a retired publican, still helping out now and again in the pub run by his daughter, about as much as he did about Beethoven or hermeneutics. Pearson like Agnes was a gentle and tender soul, and I met him in his pub where my brother took me drinking when I was just 16. He always wore his flat cap inside the pub, just as my grandfather did inside his house, and indeed as do I most of the time, half a century later in Kythnos cafes. Pearson’s eyes were full of naive kindness and he looked the double of my granddad whose eyes were not kind, but more tense and taut with some sort of long forgotten apprehension or unmentionable trauma. Pearson’s daughter Millie came across to me and my brother, and said she and her sister Belle had decided to bring their Dad over to see our granddad now that they were both so old, and hadn’t met since the end of the bloody War! Pearson smiled amiably and warmly at the proposition, and right enough about a fortnight later Millie and Belle drove him to our village where by now my grandparents were living in the small cottage adjacent.

The two daughters in their 60s led Pearson round by our back lawn, and my grandmother after 5 minutes hungry conversation with her gentle long-lost brother-in-law, nothing like her stony, loveless husband, came round to our house to allow the pair of them to chew over the last 2 decades. Meanwhile my mother and she gossiped with Millie and Belle, about everyone they knew in both their villages since about 1890, and the deaths, births, and above all the meaty and sometimes unbelievable scandals that had occurred there since. They left the 2 brothers to themselves for about an hour, and then Millie went round on her own to bring Pearson back to us. Pearson looked truly animated and indicated they had had a good old crack and caught up on the post-war years with no pauses or hiccups in either of their memories. After another hour, the three of them departed in Millie’s car, my grandmother returned to her lord and master, and my mother waited an hour or two before going round to see how it had all gone.

Surprisingly she did not bother to report her father’s account of the meeting of the brothers to me, just possibly for good reason. The following evening I went round to see my grandfather, and found him in a steely mood in his rocking chair, with his worn old cap on in the gloaming, virtually in the pitch dark. There were about three coals glowing parsimoniously in the grate, and as he hadn’t permitted the electric light to go on, and she was unable to read her People’s Friend in the pitch dark, my grandmother had nodded off. I asked him eventually how it had gone with Pearson, and before I give his answer I need to give some singular explanation. My grandfather once being a collier, was in the habit of giving abbreviated Christian names and surnames to male acquaintances, just as all Cumbrian colliers did, by way of jovial recognition of their shared and very hard profession. Thus for example a miner called Anthony would become ‘Tant’, which was easier to say than ‘Ant’, and far more comic and pungent and no doubt manly. The surname Hodgson likewise became ‘Od-gin’ and Atkinson became ‘Atchin’, and Watson, ‘Watty’.

With Pearson’s name there was the problem of the decorous long vowel at the start, which in broad dialect turns into the original Scandinavian/Viking  ‘yoo’, pronounced exactly as in ‘youth’. My grandfather did not pronounce his baby brother’s name as Pearson, nor as notional collier abbreviation ‘Peart’, but as Pyoort, enunciated approximately as the outlandish Pea-yoort. The very sound of it was farcical and contemptuous, and nobody but he ever called his younger brother that.

This is what he had to say about his gentle and harmless baby brother whom he hadn’t seen since WW2.

“Ah care nowt for that feller Pyoort…”

 A few seconds passed as he stared bleakly at the dying coals, and as my grandmother awoke with a fearful start.

“Oh?” I said not knowing whether to reprove him or to laugh outright at seeing this impossible old man breaking all accepted rules of clan loyalty and of old age and mortality, and so-called humanity.

He added gravely, “He’s aw yap yap yap, and ah care nowt at all for him. Nor if I ever see him ever agyan.”

 I’m sure you can work out ‘agyan’ pronounced, ‘agg-yann’, means ‘again’. What else could it mean, after all?

THE ONLY CURE FOR BACKACHE

THE ONLY CURE FOR BACKACHE

Yesterday I mentioned agonising backache as one of the perils of camping in a too carefree manner once you are over 40. At 25 most folk can sleep on the bare ground or even a cheerless stone slab without ill effect, but by middle age you need to, what’s the word, cosset yourself (not a facile pun re what Kostas wears, as see below). In case you think this is a far too contrived and specialised subject, and have never had a bad back in your life, let me tell you that at the moment no less than 4 habitues of the Glaros are not only struggling with backache, but are all wearing medical corsets to alleviate the pain. They are Chrisoula and Marianna who run the place, and the new Bulgarian lass who has just started there…plus Kostas the taxi driver. I have already mentioned that Kostas is the island autodidact par excellence, and now it’s late September and the customers are fewer, he can dawdle as is his wont, reading the finest of demanding world literature. I possibly also told you he loves to read Shakespeare in Greek, and be advised of the striking fact that he is currently reading Hamlet for the fourth time in 2 months, whilst wearing a bloody old corset. Great eh?

Kostas is 42, Chrisoula is 48, Marianna 50, Varvara from Plovdiv only 32. Varvara is well below the age of backache consent, and she has it because of her particular occupation, as do the other 3. The point is none of them go camping, and indeed even the most barren and unlikely places on Greek islands have warning signs saying  in Greek, plus the customary English version, Campping Forbiden. In the case of Kostas, it’s because he is in and out of his taxi countless times a day, and is also driving far too much for the good of his posture. In the case of the waitresses they are on their feet for very long hours, and are always carrying heavy trays full of umpteen drinks and plates of mezedhes for the latest Glaros parea (bunch of carousing pals). You won’t believe this, but handsome Chrisoula goes on strike for 3 months of the year, and pisses off to tiny Sikinos island to work in a creperie at the slave labour rate of 33 euros a day. She works 15 hour days meaning 2 euros an hour, or the British factory hand rate of 40 years ago. But the glorious thing is because she works in a creperie, she can sit on her legendary behind all day, mixing the crepe constituents, and doing absolutely nothing else, and never has to get off it apart from going to the Ladies and to her garret bed upstairs. Anyone else would go mad with the tedium, and crave variety and even dear old backache, rather than whisking eggs and milk and flour all bloody day, but not Chrisoula. As noted earlier, her sole activity outside of work is watching awful 1950s black and white Greek comedy movies, and eating chocolate by the yard, always quite alone on her single bed. It would be tempting to say Chrisoula’s life is just plain bonkers, but that is not the sensitive structural approach, and that is the only viewpoint would make any authentic sense of the perplexing torques and inscrutable dynamics that make up the mystery that is Chrisoula.

I first got backache when I was 41, and it was, so my GP reckoned, because I was pushing daughter Ione aged 2 in a pushchair for many hours per week. He pointed out that becoming a Dad in your late 30s and early 40s, often brings concomitant back problems with all that stooping and lifting and onerous uphill perambulator duty. He then smirked and said he had backache himself right at that minute, and in fact almost every patient he knew over 40 had it now and again. I felt glum and asked him was there nothing to be done. Nothing he said, apart from investing in a professional massage if possible, and if it got really bad to go and fork out for an osteopath. About 2 years later and partly because I was doing so much hard labour for Panurge fiction magazine, my back went again and this time I sought the services of a local reflexologist. Suffice to say getting in and out of a car was like having a knife shoved up your spine, and in whichever direction you shuffled for relief there was no such mirage. In 1994 I knew nothing about reflexology but the advert on her door said she treated back pain, and at this stage I would have employed a voodoo doctor or a hypnotist, both of whom had had only one weekend’s, no, one hour’s, no, one minute’s, no, one second’s  training, to stop the bloody agony.

The lady reflexologist was about 55, and was henna-haired, wore very large earrings, and was  Australian. She had a dreamy and most mesmerising voice, and a serene and utterly hypnotising smile, a function, I had little doubt, of substantial quantities of yoga and like oriental disciplines, possibly including meditation, conducted on  floor cushions inside a spacious sitting room. Before applying therapy she said she had often seen me and Ione walking in the town together, and had been deeply moved by the sight of bearded poetic father and beautiful poetic infant daughter. I smiled gratefully but really wanted her to start reflexing like buggery, and save her tranquil effusions for another day. Instead of which she asked me to take one of my shoes off and began to studiously massage my foot. I watched her in  perplexity and of course thought she must have misheard.

“It’s my back,” I said. “I have a very bad back. There’s really nothing wrong with my foot.”

Any other reflexologist would have snorted their muffled derision, but the Aussie lady with the enormous earrings smiled sanguinely, and indicated she was massaging certain nodal energy points. Those which corresponded to the energy area of the back that is.

I saw light of a sort.“Ah? You mean a bit like acupuncture?”

“A little,” she replied very hypnotically, so much so that I felt she really must have some arcane magical powers. She then smiled her patient, unerring, phantasmal smile and told me my pain would have gone by tomorrow morning, whereupon I wrote her a cheque, and she ushered me out.

I didn’t believe a bloody word of it of course, as I hobbled out still pitifully crippled. But bugger me, it was prophetically true what she said, and next morning I was right as rain, and as sound as a pound.

NUTS IN MAY

NUTS IN MAY

The above is the title of an achingly funny 1976 film by Mike Leigh, about an obsessional and wondrously boring bloke called Keith (Roger Sloman),  who insists on educating his docile almost autistic girlfriend Candice-Marie (played by the genius, Alison Steadman) at every stage on their camping holiday. As they drive along in their tatty little antiquated saloon through the Isle of Purbeck, Corfe Castle and Lulworth Cove included, he drones gobbets of local history, attempts excruciating folk singing, orates fascinating if little known facts about somnolent Dorset towns, the lot. It is just this side of being painfully credible, and you could say that the camping context is the real backbone of the comedy. Camping among other things is synonymous with economy accommodation, which can sometimes oscillate with innate masculine stinginess and anal retentiveness, as well as the preposterous chauvinism of the smug and pisswise male who likes to be a virtuoso with a mallet and a tent peg, and is a genius at building a makeshift windbreak around a camping stove in the always horizontal  English rain.

Camping when you are 40 plus, and certainly when you are 60 plus, is often a brave attempt to pretend that can still do what you did easily at 25, especially when it come to that appalling life-stopper known as The Bad Back. It is perhaps comparable to experimenting with fancy  Kamasutra-style sexual postures with your partner, just to prove there is life and strength in the 2 old dogs yet. Though on second thoughts, it is probably only sexagenarians and septuagenarians who go in for yoga-style contortions in their sex lives. Kids in their 20s and 30s are so pantingly rampant they don’t have the patience to read any sort of  manual, and can’t wait to get to the jackpot in any case. Pause a while for one of my parentheses, and this time a very important one. There is a pub in the, apropos the Kamasutra, interestingly named Cumbrian town of Cockermouth, with an equally interesting and complementary name. It is called The Rampant Bull. The truly fascinating thing is that only today, 40 years after I first clapped eyes on it, do I take in the precise symbolic significance of the name.

I first went camping when I was 24 and travelled for the first time to the beautiful and then remarkably unspoilt  Scottish Hebrides. I visited the isles of Mull, Iona and Tiree in the sweltering June of 1975, and I camped because I was on a budget. Incredibly I had £25 to last me for 2 weeks, but as I was hitching for 2 of the 14 days and spending virtually nothing en route, I had all of £2 a day to go wild on. Once I got to Mull my accounting had to consider breakfast = fried eggs and bread, dinner = a packet of vegetable soup, with potatoes and onions all boiled up on a stove, Nescafe and Crumble Cream biscuits to wash it down, and one drink in the handy pub down the way (every rough camper always pitches near a pub for water, for the toilet, for a sneaky wash down, and of course a sociable and midge-free drink at night). The drink was invariably a bottle of Tennents’ Sweetheart Stout, which possibly is no longer obtainable. As well as being delicious, rather like Mackeson stout without the bitter edge, and virtually  alcohol-free, it had the charming and innocent fizzogs of glamorous pin-up lassies/sweethearts on the labels, blond as a rule, and doubtless from central Auchtermuchty, and in need of a bob or two.

I hitchhiked everywhere I went, aside from Iona which is so small I walked, and on Tiree I hired a bicycle at 40p a day, cheap even in those days, but one that had no brakes and needed my galloping if decelerating feet to effect the frictional resistance. The pin-up sweet stout was 25p a bottle, a calor gas canister 50p, and everything else cost almost nothing. Hence £2 a day was more than adequate, and I never once borrowed from tomorrow, as alas I have been doing all too often ever since. The significant thing was that I slept in a sleeping bag, but never even thought of putting any kind of inflatable mattress or even a folded blanket down to protect my back. If I had done that any time after the age of 40, I would have been crippled for at least a week. But in 1975 I slept very well, apart from maybe needing to leave the tent to micturate (oh yes, me and my big words) the Sweetheart Stout. If someone had suggested I lie on an inflatable, I would have laughed them to scorn. I was 25 and therefore immortal, and I was not going to load myself down with a variation on an incontinence rubber ring. The only real surplus weight I had was an ex-army radio with FM reception and an aerial, and to my astonishment I could get BBC Radio 3, the classical music channel, on far-flung Mull. In fact I could listen one evening to Bach’s Mass in B Minor on a lonely and exquisite bay en route to the capital Tobermory, and as far as I remember I was happily out of my body for an hour or so with the transcendent joy of it, the Hebridean littoral, and the sublimely resonant language  of the divine composer. Beat that if you can, is I all I can say.

I camped on Iona too, and in those days there was a relaxed and atmospheric site immediately below the sacred Celtic abbey. Life is sometimes too good to be true, and the abbey ran a smart cafe up the top, which sold excellent posh salads and succulent tray bakes, alongside fragrant filter coffee at bargain prices. Sweet middle-class, middle-aged English ladies served the food, which is what you would expect. Go anywhere fashionable and modish anywhere in Scotland in the last 50 years, and be served by anyone who is not English, and you would expire with the shock. Lest you think this is my cheerful and puerile and gratuitous hyperbole, trot along if you will to that new star attraction, the much lauded Scottish Book Town, that truly morose little oddity called Wigtown, stuck way down in the deep south. Wigtown must have at least twenty 2nd hand bookshops, yet every single one of them is run by a beaming immigrant Englander.

Camping opposite the tranquil Sound of Iona on a warm June evening 40 years ago, and listening to the sweet skrarking burrs of now vanished corncrakes, was on a par with Bach oratorio and the deserted strands of East Mull, which somehow filled you with a haunting sense of infinite and aching yearning. Tiree with its umpteen massive shell sand beaches, and pure green water, was also truly transcendent, and I settled down with my sloping tinker tent on the common land next to the pub in Scarinish. There was an ancient wreck of a boat in the harbour, which looked like a skeleton of a whale, and young fishermen, again mostly English, were always going out for lobster which of course never got anywhere near the tables of Tiree, not even of its 2 hotels. Scarinish, the capital,  then had its own village butcher, a man of thirty with the striped outfit and a perky straw boater, and in the broiling heat on the lovely shell sand, it was fascinating to see him discarding his offal by the nifty expedient of tipping it on the beach, then idly scuffing a tiny covering of sand across it. They speak Gaelic in Tiree, whereas it has all but disappeared from Mull. Both the hotel owner and the bar manager were English and in their mid 60s, and the latter was astonishingly patronising and rude to the locals, who of course kept his pub in funds for 12 months of the year. He had once been a domestic bursar at an Oxford college and gave me slightly more time of day than the Gaelic speakers, as I had been an Oxford student 2 years earlier. But any pride at his grudging affability was quashed a year later, when the same man looked at me amnesic and uncomprehending, and asked me was I the one he believed had been rusticated from my hallowed college as a delinquent student?

I went back camping a year later to Tiree, with my young nurse girlfriend Dinah, the one who subsequently deeply embarrassed me by telling people that she and I had holidayed in ‘The Hebs’. It was the molten August of 1976, and we had a great many curious adventures, including spotting David Bellamy the celebrity TV botanist, furiously scribbling in his notebook outside the Gott Bay Hotel. We were also chased by a big and very beautiful white horse running loose in a field by Scarinish, and came close to serious injury. One night in Mull where we had to dally to get the Tiree boat, outside our tent where we had placed the margarine and milk, there was the noise of manic animal ferreting, which sounded like nothing so much as two or three rats scrabbling away. I’m ashamed to confess it 40 years on, but in the pitch dark, half way between dream and wakefulness, I became filled with a strange and hellish fear. I somehow thought those rats would get inside our tent, and start devouring me and Dinah, most likely in the genital areas, and very likely extremely ravenously and horribly. Dinah had awoken at the noise too, and she noticed I was anxious, and asked me what was wrong. I coughed and admitted my craven fear, and Dinah squeezed my hand reassuringly. Fearlessly she stuck her small nose out of the tent, then told me tenderly that it was a harmless little hedgehog guzzling the marge, nothing more. But she knew I was still uneasy and she came and hugged me very tight and very caringly, speaking the words of reassurance you might to a child.

She knew how to comfort, did 24 year-old Dinah, even if she did call the Hebrides, the Hebs.

NICE ONES AND UGLY ONES

NICE ONES AND UGLY ONES

I mentioned big words recently as something I often use for comic or ironic effect in my fiction. One or two of my fans and followers continue to shake their heads dolefully, and say they have to have a dictionary to hand at times for the novels, and for this blog of mine likewise. I promise I’m not like the eminent UK story writer and critic VS Pritchett(1900-1997), who urged people to read the novels of the Victorian poet George Meredith (1828-1909), with the injunction that such readers would ‘have to work for their pleasure’. I certainly don’t expect people to work for their pleasure when they read either my novels or these pages, but rather to relax and even whistle and drink fine wine, and simply to enjoy themselves, and go with the mood if they find it to their taste. In any case like a lot of people (as evidenced by the massive quantities of his works that never shift in 2nd hand book shops) I don’t think George Meredith is worth the phenomenal slog. Oscar Wilde thought otherwise, but even he, comparing him with Balzac, said, ‘his style is chaos illuminated by flashes of lightning’. Virago over 30 years ago reissued Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways (1885) along with George Gissing’s The Odd Women (1893) as 19th C fiction sympathetic to a feminist reading. Gissing’s novel was a wonderfully readable and subtle and dramatic love story, and with the added bonus of having an obscure and improbable  Cumbrian seaside town (good old radioactive Seascale, pre Sellafield needless to add) for its romantic denouement.

George Gissing was also capable of fustian, elitist and misanthropic stuff, as in the unpleasant, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903), a thinly disguised account of his own obsessional Olympian tendency to withdraw from the world. But Henry Ryecroft is a piece of cake compared with reading Meredith’s Diana, as I did all the way on a bus from grim Ceausescu’s Rumania to grimy Thatcher’s England in August 1984, and it was exactly like wading through treacle. Interestingly, in 1962 a famous child psychologist, JA Hadfield, published a bestselling book called Childhood and Adolescence, and throughout he quoted Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859) as a key text on adolescent romantic infatuation. I struggle to imagine any self respecting adolescent battling through its leaden and august pages in Beatle-era 1962, much less 2015, and you would wonder why Hadfield couldn’t find something more contemporary when it came to obsessional infatuation, moonlight dreaming, and sighing and yearning for the gorgeous young lass sat blushing and hopeful next door. As a sensitive child psychologist, surely he should have been in rather than out of touch with the contemporary preoccupations of those he was helping.

There are beautiful big words and horrible big words, and some that look beautiful, but on close inspection are more or less ugly. Two of my favourite big words relate to decay and inanition, which is interesting, as those are not really where I’m focused as a writer or as a man. They are ‘desuetude’, meaning ‘ a gradual state of decay’, and ‘evanesce’ which means ‘to vanish or disappear’. I use them at every opportunity in my writing, not because I fetishise decay or disappearance/loss, but because they are beautiful words, and they give a kind of nostalgia and tenderness to those after all inevitable organic processes. Also, if rarely, a scientific and hence Greek-derived word, can be beautiful, as in ‘phylogeny’, meaning the biological development of an animal species. I can never forget a Scientific American article about caterpillar metamorphosis I had to read in 1968 for my Oxford entrance, where it finished with the gnomic words ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’ apropos the beauty of a finished butterfly, namely the ‘imago’ (another lovely word). Otherwise the only beauty I have ever found in something as  cut and dried as organic chemistry terminology, is that Aldous Huxley named some of his characters (e.g. Joe Aldehyde and Mr Mercaptan) after organic compounds. ‘Mercaptan’, as in ethyl mercaptan, is evil-smelling, so we know where we are there, thank you  Aldous, as we did with Dickens’ Gradgrind and Pecksniff and Uncle Pumblechook.

An example of an ugly word that I have never once seen used (unless just possibly on one occasion I read it in a DJ Taylor book review; more likely I dreamt that I did) though it is not archaic and obsolete,  is ‘nugatory’, meaning ‘futile, vain, trifling’. Let’s just try a swift and painless experiment. Can you, I wonder, imagine yourself or anyone else telling your lazy child, a schoolkid with  hereditary protuberant ears, struggling to draw a circumcircle in Maths, that his labours are alas all too ‘nugatory’?

Another word I have never seen in print, though again it is not obsolete, is ‘thrasonical’. It means ‘boastful’ or ‘vainglorious’. For me it is not so much an ugly word, as an absurd and stiff and bumptious one. Its synonym ‘vainglorious’ is a beautiful term, and if you have anything like a rudimentary poetic sense, you can work out why that is. Its two halves ‘vain’ and ‘glorious’ are both examples of firm, assertive yet resonant prose. Put the 2 together and you get a very nice oxymoron, and as everyone knows oxymorons are addictive and funny and entertaining, if used by an expert, who is of course not necessarily a poet.

30 years ago I happened to be in touch with the critic who had roundly mocked my first novel Samarkand (1985) in the TLS. He and I both worked on separate literary magazines, a venerable and brilliant and independent-minded metropolitan one, in his case, and Cumbria’s Panurge fiction magazine, of which I was founder-editor, in mine. I had with an effort taken his scourging on the chin, and never let him know I was dismayed by his comments, though my incensed publisher had immediately rung his boss, the TLS editor, and threatened to withdraw his choicest Nobel winners from review. This critic and fellow magazine slave, later wrote to me that another of my publisher’s  novelists had been so incensed by a bad review he had given him, that he had written an angry if pathetic letter of complaint to his detractor, via the newspaper where the review had appeared. As the critic commented:

“Such foolish and vainglorious behaviour!”

Is that better than, ‘Such foolish and thrasonical behaviour’? Not everyone would agree with me perhaps.

SUPERIOR BEANS

SUPERIOR BEANS

Most of us have some tender and cherishable memories of childhood, especially of early infancy, if we can remember that far back. Wordsworth in his Prelude rhapsodised about the pristine and idyllic lost kingdom, but as far as I recall he never got round to talking about bullying. I can’t believe it didn’t exist in his day, nor in the Cumberland of his time, because it certainly did in my version of the year 1961, when I was 10. It is rare to meet someone who has never been bullied, and inconceivable, unless perhaps you live in the Trobriand Islands or among a lost tribe in the Amazon jungle, that you don’t know of someone who has been. It would be comforting to say that animals don’t bully each other, but many of the Kythnos stray cats will ruthlessly batter all others, including tiny kittens out of the way, to get at the ham that I regularly disburse to them here in the port. I guess the reassuring thing is that animals do not concertedly and in a planned way intimidate, they are just spontaneously self-seeking (sounds like plenty I know, including me). Also the kitten victims do not go around apprehensive of future intimidations, because like very small children they have almost nil sense of the unknown future.

I was bullied in junior school in rather farcical circumstances. It was by a gang rather than an individual and there were 4 of them, all a year younger than me, meaning they were 9 years old, aka pint-sized tormentors. I’ve no sure idea why they seized on me in particular, unless it was because I lived in a big house and was supposed to be very clever. They were rough, motley and mostly poverty-stricken lads from the top end of the Cumbrian pit village, all of them in the new council houses, and most of them had brothers in the same year as me. I wasn’t bullied by their brothers because I was reckoned good at football, especially at fearless heading, and I even had quite a personal charisma, despite the fact I was the school brainbox destined for big things. The bullying took the form of the four of them surrounding me menacingly, and taunting me, but luckily my journeys up to the top end of the village were few. Though sad to say, the C of E church  was up in their territory, which was even more reason for deeply resenting the weekly amphitheatrical purgatory (yes an ironical theological term) as I made my fearful and hesitant way up to the Sunday School.

Their repetitive taunt was definitely a comical item, even though I was scared of it at the time. Our teacher Miss Beryl Bullace who was in her late 50s, in special front seats had set aside 5 of us as obviously intelligent, and therefore destined for the local Grammar School, whose commonest alias was eventually to be The Brothel on the Hill. One of these 5, myself, had been put in for the 11-plus exam a year early, when I was only 10. Bespectacled harsh and owlish Miss Bullace, born 1902, had in her immaculate Cumbrian bungalow obviously never heard of any abstruse psychiatric terminology, but if she had, might have recognised herself as an expert in the double bind or even the schizophrenogenic mode. Once she had showcased us 5 bright kids as the crème de la crème, she abruptly referred to us sardonically before the other kids, meaning the siblings of my bullies, as The Superior Beings. Possibly because they only heard about it second hand, these 9 year-old geniuses, the pipsqueak younger brothers, got it wrong and thus chanted at me in unmelodic unison:

“Spearier bean! Spearier bean. Soup-eerier bean.”

Back to Greece again eh, with its ample mainstay of bean soup/fasolada? Yes, they told me I was a superior bean, and that was good enough reason for their harrying me, my superiority at any rate, if not my ontology (my being)or my botany (my being a bean). There is a major problem here though, because I’m sure none of that sorry quartet of impoverished 9 year-old squirts, would have a flying clue what the word ‘superior’ meant. Hence like many a monoglot tourist Greek in 2015, with a nifty t-shirt emblazoned with some unintelligible message in English, those kids in 1961 had no idea what the taunt meant, it might as well have been in Volapuk or Mandarin Chinese. One of them, also called John, and the son of a pig farmer and brother of my fellow footballer Dave, had a large cache of green snot under his right nostril, and a general physiognomy suggestive of pre-Neanderthal man. If that sounds cruelly elitist, it is not, it is mere candid comparison, as his fellow tormentor Ralph was quite handsome and looked intelligent, even though he couldn’t write his own name correctly till he was 8 (he had previously written Rallf as if he was a hero from the Icelandic Sagas). Ralph/Rallf also sat right at the back of the class, where he industriously masturbated, which as far as I know isn’t that common among 9 year-olds unless they are victims of sexual abuse, which perhaps he was. This open forum little 9 year-old wanker here was calling me a Spearier Bean, and all I had to do was call him Wanker Rallf in return, but somehow the words would not come.

The crisis came as many crises do, at Christmas time. It was the day of our Christmas party, where the parents provided the food for the sumptuous spread, and for once justice was done as in Bunuel’s masterpiece Viridiana, where the lowly Spanish beggars for the first time in their lives taste of inconceivable luxuries. Better off kids like me, saw their Mum’s best cream cakes and salmon sandwiches vanishing down the gullets of the council house and gypsy children, while they in turn toyed blearily with syrup or raw sugar or tomato or HP sauce sandwiches donated by the inhabitants of the top end. My mother for example had provided a resplendent lemon jelly in a glass bowl, whereas Ralph’s Mam had sent him there with a mixture of jam and fishpaste sandwiches which by careless whanging against a garage wall he had brilliantly managed to fuse into strawberry cum pulverised mackerel dainties.

I omitted to mention that our big house was immediately adjacent to the school, which meant instead of traversing the 100 yards of cobbled backs, I, a Superior Bean, could leap over our garden wall and be only 3 yards from the school and safety. No such luck. As if by prior arrangement, or even as if they had access to mobile phones due 4 decades in the future, the four of them John, Rallf, Sod and Slime (make your own judgement whether the last 2 names were onomatopoeic) were there waiting for me as I took the shortcut. Within seconds, like long extinct West Cumbrian wolves, they were surrounding and baying at me with their ‘spearier bean’s which come to think of it was the only insult they had in stock, and they never shouted any other abuse of any other kind. I tried to break through their Wagnerian ring as one would, and to hold my exquisite lemon jelly aloft, but they leapt and feinted and parried like so many noble swordsmen out of Alexandre Dumas, and I knew that my single hand with the bowl of jelly dancing on it, was not the sterling stanchion I would have wished it to be.

It all happened in seconds after that, filmic and as absorbing as Bunuel to the last degree. The bowl went flying, and in a trice had smashed against the cobbles below, where it successfully peppered the ground with a great deal of chromatic jelly and ugly splinters of glass. The vandals all shouted ooh, fuck me stiff! in soprano unison, and instantly took to their heels. But coincidences, though rare, do happen, and unfortunately for them, and a blessing for me of a magnitude which has never occurred since, Beryl Bullace was out in the playground supervising all on her own, and had observed the whole episode, with some degree of consternation, by which I mean spinsterish anger, by which I mean choleric rage.  She bawled and gesticulated at them to get over to her immediately, and started judicial proceedings by rattling all 4 across their quivering lugholes, a kind of taster, hors d’oeuvres or mezzes, when it came to the 5-star punishment she craved to inflict on them, for the appalling crime of destroying some beautiful food that was destined, if only the idiots had thought about it, for the likes of them. For Beryl, though no socialist, and who had inexplicably given Viridiana a miss when it went on the cinema circuits as far as negotiable Newcastle (she had a car and she wasn’t frightened of driving further than Carlisle) made sure that the luxurious dainties went to the likes of these ragged arsed bullies, and the crumpled fishpaste delicacies went to the pampered likes of me.

She explained her dilemma to my mother that evening, when she went to apologise for the destruction of the jelly. Normally they would have been sent to the Head immediately, Joe Gorringe, and swiftly caned across the backside for their vandalism, and Joe who had been a sergeant in the army during the war, knew how to lay it on, and as he boasted he always liked to leave enduring marks. However it was the day of the Christmas Party, and you couldn’t cane a kid with full ferocity on a day like this, even if they had destroyed an oh so lovely lemon jelly. You could of course have sent them to be lambasted tomorrow, but that again was no fair solution, as they would have it hanging over them for 24 hours, and it might even put them off their beggars’ banquet salmon sandwiches and cream éclairs today.

Beryl Bullace’s solution was to stride inside the school and find her own 12-inch ruler. After she’d returned, she told the evil quartet to line up against my own garden wall, facing our back lawn that is, meaning the dramatic site where the jelly crime had been committed. But no, those of you keen on over-excitable melodrama, she didn’t hand the ruler to me to do summary peer justice, but admirably took it upon herself with a rather weary sigh. They had to bend over the wall and the 4 of them got serially rulered on their arses before an audience of 100 gawping schoolkids, two excited women teachers who had come out to see what all the fuss was about, and several mostly elderly villagers who stopped and loudly applauded the puce-faced lady pedant when the thrashing was over. These days of course, 58 or not, Miss Bullace would have been arrested for what she did to those kids, but back in 1961, as long as the child did not actually die under the lash, it was de rigeur to flog away righteously both in public (if you were a parent) and in private if you were a pedant.

It was cathartic justice right enough, as they had been publically beaten and publically humiliated at the site of their most public harassment. It would be nice to conclude that they stopped their bullying after that, but in fact they didn’t. It went on for another few endless months, until one day, like all fads and crazes, it simply ceased, without any logic or any prior notice. It took about another month for me to relax, and accept the ordeal was over, and then to forget that it had ever been. And of course it proved that corporal punishment, even in public, even at the site of the crime, was no bloody use to anyone or anything. Though, all too obviously, all but the blinkered and the sadistic knew as much already, even in bloody old 1961.

SHYNESS AND BLUSHES

SHYNESS AND BLUSHES

I had an interesting discussion with 2 old friends recently, where I suggested that ‘shyness’ as a recognised personality trait or innate condition, was more or less absent from general discourse by 2015. I would go further and even argue that it has been low on the UK agenda since about the mid 1970s, which possibly corresponds to the serious decline in circulation of homely if often prurient magazines like Tit-Bits (1881-1989) and Reveille (1940-1979). Any time between about 1950 and 1975, at the back of those splendid journals, always  more engaging and far more educational than say the arid TLS or the complacent LRB, in amongst the line drawing classifieds, they always had a young woman with an obvious blush on her face (hard to do it black and white). The caption was ‘Shyness, Blushing And Stammering Can All Be Cured Easily!’ And yes you’ve guessed, it wasn’t Tit-Bits recommending bearded immigrant East European psychotherapists for the problem, but a handy little stapled booklet which if you read it closely would see the last of your red faces, stutters and disabling bashfulness. It would in pre-decimal 1970 either have cost 7/6d (37 and a half p), or a guinea aka 21 shillings  = £1.05, as almost everything in the way of handy postal cures for baldness, urinary incontinence, being overweight and being underweight, and having a poor memory, cost one or other of those precise amounts.

People buying that infallible booklet in 1970, were likely experiencing their shyness as disabling, rather than something that was a natural and tolerable part of life. Add to that a possible horrible tendency towards rose red blushing if anyone looked at you, and an endless stammer where everyone was grimly waiting for you to finish your infinitely staggered request, ending in ‘ch-’(you want chips? chocolate? chums? cherubic women?) and life sure enough would be hell. Of course I’m not arguing that stuttering has disappeared by 2015, though I do find it fascinating I haven’t seen anyone doing a good belisha beacon blush for about 18 years, and for about another 30 years before that. Blushing I remember as being peculiar to pubertal teens, along with going for long and restless walks, struggling with your perennially unfulfilled sex drive, and being drawn attention to in a group. Once in a Cumbrian church confirmation group in 1966,  the young vicar made some harmless crack about me being keen on highly attractive Madeleine adjacent, also 15 like me. I was taken  by surprise and turned violent crimson, and the vicar affably put his hands out as if to warm himself at a roaring fire. I don’t think Madeleine was all that perturbed, but I had once heard her talking scornfully of a mutual acquaintance with severe adolescent shyness as ‘Blushing Harry’…and it made me how shall I put it, feel vulnerable.

The last time I saw anyone seriously blush was 1997. I was in a community centre in North Cumbria managed by a woman I’ll call Kate, who was in her late 30s, a quiet and gentle and timid divorcee, who lived in remote countryside but was by no means neurotic or withdrawn,  rather, a good and assertive coordinator and fundraiser for the centre, and with a passionate interest in the performing arts. Also present in her office was a quaint character I will call Reg, aged then about 60, who had run a couple of hit and miss cafes in the town, but then his fourth marriage had broken up, and he had become a bit, by which I mean a lot, adrift. He spent his unemployed days now, fishing and chainsmoking and wandering vacantly round the town He had managed to rent a smallholding at the furthest flung node of windblown North East Cumbria, which meant he had to fork out a substantial amount for petrol to get into Carlisle, or any other convenient town. Reg was bluff and blunt and unaware of nice distinctions, to a most impressive degree. He happened to be regaling Kate and me with the lengthy story of his several marriages, one of whom remarkably was to a circus contortionist called Madge, whom he had met and married down in Berkshire in 1961. Looking deadly earnest at both of us, he advised us in colourful terms of Madge’s phenomenal ability to bend and stretch herself in interesting ways.

“She was so elastic,” he said dolefully, “Madge could bend herself backwards all the way, and stick her flipping face between the cheeks of her behind…”

I shook my head and snorted at this excellent reminiscence, greatly  amused. But Kate the manager blushed a fierce and embarrassing purple, no doubt because the imagery was so garish, raw, and above all unexpected. His startling sentence commanded the pair of us, Kate and I,  to immediately visualise those ribald and suggestive words, and the image, irresistibly comic, for me, unfortunately struck Kate as ugly to the point of lewdness.

Meanwhile almost 20 years later, you would think that with kids willingly chained to their phones and laptops all day, and plenty of adults ditto, the latter finding everything via the internet from an Indian jalfezi carry out, to a romantic date, or a cynical adulterous affair, to an online chess tournament…you would think that these folk would lose the capacity to talk and joke and enjoy reciprocal and significant conversations, in the real non-digital world. To be sure there are serious cases of online addicted teenagers, notably in South Korea and Japan, who have to be more or less hospitalised for their own good, as they start to have anxiety attacks if they aren’t gaming or receiving an email or text or tweet every 10 seconds. Meanwhile I know of one English IT manager of about 50, personable and friendly to a fault, who starts off with face to face enjoyable chat at a cafe table, but after 5 minutes and for the next hour, is busy earnestly checking his i-phone, while addressing you at the same time. Multi-tasking my arse, I for one find talking to him ultimately onerous and limiting, as I think when it comes to his overloaded nerve ends, I am very much peripheral, and if he had to spin a coin to choose between his phone and his acquaintances, he would definitely choose the former. But he and the Korean kids aside, I also know dozens of people here and back in the UK who do everything online, and yet still are firmly rooted in the real world, and are also fine  conversationalists and entertaining company. As a dyed in the wool Luddite, I would like to rant that the digital world has destroyed people’s brains, sensitivities, emotional range, capacity to form relationships, to play with their kids, to talk to their partners, and in passing has perniciously encouraged the disabling retro-conditions of shyness, blushing and stammering. But the truth is the truth, and it has not.

By way of coda I must tell you about a good friend of mine Kenny, who is a very bad stutterer. Plenty of experts believe stammering is a question of buried anger, and occasionally when you get a stutterer to stick with a traumatic memory of abuse or violence or even just an angry parental voice, the stammer magically disappears. Instead the stutterer turns apoplectic, and wants to batter that memory and the one who caused it to fester inside him, to smithereens. Kenny was from that truly purgatorial place, small town SW Scotland, a couple of years older than me, and around 1975, aged 28, a brilliant playleader, very skilled at working with very tough kids in an extremely deprived part of West Cumbria. As well as being a serious stammerer, Kenny was also wonderfully foul-mouthed, with a far dirtier gob than the expert likes of me. He probably wouldn’t talk this way now that he is touching 70  (though he is still busy stuttering without remit) but back in 1975, the See You Next Tuesday epithet was far commoner than it is now. Behold Kenny’s standard salutation to a pal like me if he hadn’t seen me for a week or so:

“Hehey Mamummarray yaya fffecking wawee cacant. Wawher thatha fafack you fafackin babeen fafa thethe lalass fafafackin wick, yaya fafacking wawee Ahahenglish fafafacking tatatatatatwaaaaaat?”