HE REALLY THOUGHT I WAS SALMAN RUSHDIE

HE REALLY THOUGHT I WAS SALMAN RUSHDIE

I am going to be very busy with non-blog matters for the next 2 weeks,  and there will be no new blog post until Thursday 5th November. I do hope you are all having  a good autumn, or fthinoporo as it is in the Greek. You can always write to me about anything, at john@writinginkythnos.com. NB. If you are wondering why you have 2 posts today, it’s because a Lavrio boat has been cancelled for tomorrow and I have to leave Kythnos a day earlier

As you know, I come from West Cumbria, the industrial part of a large and mostly rural county in the north of England. Since about 1920, it has been an ailing industrial heartland, and it had no fast road connections till as late as 1974, so getting there, and even worse getting out of it, was a palaver you might say, and patience was the name of the game. Mostly because of the massive nuclear energy facility at Sellafield, a dozen miles below Whitehaven, it has long had very good rail connections, but the diesels unfortunately stop at every lamp post, and you could easily read War and Peace in 44 different languages, in the time it takes to travel from the county capital Carlisle to tribute band Soviet bloc city aka Barrow-in-Furness, in the far south. It’s very tempting, but I shall soberly refrain from exaggerating the county’s remoteness, even though I have a friend Susan now 66 from the obscurest rural NE about a mile from Scotland, who had no electricity, no running water, and definitely no telly reception, up in her borders forestry smallholding as a child. The rest of Cumbria had the TV option early on in the 50s, whereas e.g. the Isle of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides didn’t get the goggle box until 1976. There is by the way an apocryphal story that cars were so rare on the Isle of Tiree in the Inner Isles pre about 1960, that when an old man saw one coming towards him one day in 1948 he leapt into the ditch in terror, mistaking it for an outsize animal. It’s a good and very touching story, but as discussed a few days ago, along with William Wordsworth’s greasy bacon slices used as nifty bookmarks by ST Coleridge it simply isn’t true.

Nor is the name on my boat ticket to Lavrio tomorrow. I wrote it down clearly for the guy in the Kythnos travel agents and he transcribed it as Mr J Mukraj. It makes me sound like an Indian nabob (q.v. fictional Billy Bunter’s school pal Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, ‘the dusky[sic] nabob of Bhanipur’) and I guess I feel flattered on that score. It is also not the first time someone has assumed that I am Indian, given my overall thinness, and my permanent Greek suntan, and the perennially sallow complexion I enjoyed back in old Blighty (maybe who knows, they also clairvoyantly sense that I studied Sanskrit at university a mere 42 years ago). The other quaint context deserves an entire post in itself, but in a nutshell when we lived in Susan’s childhood playground, the Debatable Lands of N Cumbria, in 1990, a posh old retiree from Bucks who had moved into a converted barn below our 17th C farmhouse, got it into his head that I must be Salman Rushdie in hiding from the fatwa! His evidence was that I was sallow-skinned, thin like Rushdie, and that our farmhouse was so inaccessible it was just the ticket for someone in hiding from assassins. It just shows what his stockbroker years and his public school education did for him, eh? Even a 6 year-old would know you are more anonymous, hence safer, in a Birmingham or London basement, than you are stuck up a bloody great fell in Blennerbuggery, NE Cumbria, and, what’s more forever conspicuously pushing your 1 year-old daughter Ione round in a pushchair with a mongrel dog Bill in tow. In that connection and I may be wrong about this, but I somehow feel Rushdie is not all that crazy about dogs.

But Indian or not, it is fair to say that the West Cumbria of my childhood was a UK Third World of a sort. Wages were very low, workers were very tractable as a result (e.g. the Cumbrian branch of the National Union of Miners who rarely went on strike) and shall we say the impenetrable local dialect didn’t help matters. There are a string of small towns in the west: Maryport, Aspatria, Cockermouth, Wigton, plus all their many satellite villages and hamlets, where the dialect still survives in defiant strength. Here the hereditary Scandinavian/ Viking vowels in e.g. the innocent verb ‘to do’, turn into the frequently much elongated dyeeeeeeeuh, or sometimes div or sometimes dee, and they all mean the same (you’ll notice much larger Workington is omitted from the list, and that is because of the massive number of immigrant steelworkers to the town in the 19th C from Dronfield near Sheffield. In essence ‘the Dronnies’ heavily Yorkshirised i.e. neutralised the Wukiton twang. Ditto the megalopolis of  Whitehaven’s ‘asser marra’ argot, which is strongly affected by the huge number of immigrant 19th C Irish)   Philology excursus aside, time and again, even in 2015, you meet foreign tourists as well as anyone from London or Reigate or Uttoxeter, holidaying in West Cumbria, who confess they haven’t a clue what that old local guy has just said to them in the greengrocers. They aren’t even sure it is English, maybe it is Polish given the current Cumbrian sociology that now includes many hardworking East Europeans. The local phrase is that if you talk strong dialect you ‘talk broad’,  and ambitious  Cumbrians seeking a rosy future would always do their best to shake off all dialect both in themselves and their kids. Hence in the 50s and early 60s, certain elderly and notionally genteel Cumbrian ladies would make regular pin money by giving lessons in Elocution specifically designed to iron out these hideous Maryport, Wigton, and Spyatri/Aspatria accents.

A friend of mine called May went along to one of these ladies of refinement  finishing schools, when she was 6 and I was 8 in 1959. May who could barely read at the time, and believed in Father Christmas till she was at least 12, told me that she had to practice the following excellent declaration:

Can yew shew me the weigh tah a caar park? Ah wish tah park mah caar. Mah caar is a Chagwar, ha,ha!

This PG Wodehouse comedy of manners came vividly into focus in 1969, when I went up to University College, Oxford. They were still single sex colleges then, and Univ was definitely not as bad as snobbish Christchurch where northern Grammar school lads were miraculously thin on the ground. There were a fair few shambling Yorkshire blokes with greasy hair and skin problems, who true to type were studying mostly chemistry, and whose hobbies tended to be photographing canal boats and/or bawling on the sidelines at a rugby game, where their muscly mate was scrum half. There was however a conspicuous moiety of public school boys, some with posh accents and some without, some of them guilty about their privilege, and others who nostalgically relished it. One of these whose accent was far from posh, became a close friend, in part because his public school had been close to Cumbria and he knew my area well. He was to loathe his private education for evermore, and especially because in his day it had for decades sanctioned boys(prefects) ritually beating other boys across the backside, and to parody Field Marshal Montgomery from my piece yesterday, had encouraged a disgusting Perverts’ Charter, no less.

No one ever actually laughed at my funny accent, though a few kind souls asked me if I were from Newcastle or Liverpool, or even if I were Scottish or Welsh or Irish. One bright spark when I said I was from Cumbria/Cumberland, was 100% convinced it was part of Scotland, and take note, any of you with chips on your shoulders about your deficient education, he was doing a degree in bloody old Geography and he was doing it at the bloody old University of Oxford…

 

LET’S FORGET ABOUT THE WAR

LET’S FORGET ABOUT THE WAR

As I have said before, time and its passing can be  mesmerisingly elastic things, if you know how to juggle with your figures. My girlfriend Monica is a mathematician, so it is most appropriate the pair of us have been framing and reframing our calculations of how long it is till we meet again on Kythnos. The first waiting period was of the Greek mythological kind, of 110 days = 15 weeks, 5 days, and the latest one is thank God a mere 67 days = 9 weeks, 4 days. After that I am going to see Monica in London for Christmas, only a risible 42 days = 6 weeks of waiting. This UK trip also commemorates the impressive fact that I haven’t been outside of Greece since 2nd September 2013, or for 778 days, and it will be 845 days, by the time I get on the plane to London. At the risk of sunny banality, these 2 years in Greece have absolutely flown by, other of course than the periods where I have been poignantly apart from my lovely mathematician. It is a function of a happy and repetitive routine (I call it BBB or Blog, Beer, Beach, for shorthand. Morning on the blog. Midday lunch accompanied by a Fix or Vergina beer. Afternoon on Martinakia beach. In that order, 7 days a week) and since I started these pages it has become an undeniably productive lifestyle. I am averaging 10,000 words a week of prose, or half a million a year, which worryingly puts me in the 1 man factory stakes of HG Wells and Arnold Bennett(1867-1931).

As an irresistible aside, you may not know that Bennett had a special omelette containing smoked haddock named after him, as served still now at The Savoy, and that he died aged only 63 of typhoid, after drinking tap water in Paris, when he’d been warned against it. Bennett was touchingly like a dogged cost accountant when it came to his writing statistics. If you read his superb journals, at the end of every year, he doggedly informs himself how much he has earned (and rest assured it was a phenomenal amount for someone born in 1867) and also precisely how many words he had written. Given they didn’t have word count functions in his day, he must have had a hell of a wild New Year’s Eve, spending the entire day totting it up. He also claimed to be a chronic victim of ‘gastric catarrh’ whatever that was supposed to be, but I reckon it was just the stress of the demented workaholic nothing more

On a more serious note, vital chronology sometimes takes a very long time to sink in. I started secondary school, a Cumbrian grammar school, aka The Brothel on the Hill, in autumn 1962 aged almost 12. But weirdly I was all of 60 years old, before it  fully hit me that in 1962, WW2 had been finished only 17 years, and to put it even more graphically, only 20 years before my secondary schooling commenced, in 1942, they had been systematically gassing to death among other categories of human beings, little Jewish and Gypsy children in Eastern Europe in massive numbers. Because my surname initial was M, I was taught German rather than French at school, by a guy nicknamed Bollicks who was probably in his mid 40s, meaning he was born around 1917 and late 20s when the war ended. Bollicks had known 6 propaganda years of Germany being the verminous foe, and here he was teaching the foe’s strident and unembarrassed language to innocent young post-war kids, as if nothing had happened. For trustworthy comparison, 20 years earlier than 2015 is 1995, which as you will acknowledge if you are 40 plus, is a mere blink of an eye. More to the point, when I was on Martinakia yesterday, thinking about today’s piece, I was going to write that as a result of its proximity to WW2, programming on TV in the mid 1950s, was saturated with war material. I then blinked and cogitated again, and decided that completely the opposite was true.

A bit of crucial background detail. We got our first 12 inch Ekco TV in 1956, and to start with we had only the BBC, with a West Cumbrian transmitter at nearby Sandale, which meant we could actually see the programmes clearly, and from start to finish, on the screen. A year later we acquired ITV, and the nearest commercial station in our case, given my village was on the Solway Firth, was Scottish ITV, broadcast from good old Glesga, which might as well have been Alma Ata or Ulan Bator, given the atrocious quality of the signal reception, and the fortune that the well nigh useless massive roof aerial cost my folks. You simply got used to the fact that your favourite ITV programmes and the sound along with it, would totally disappear in visual snow, hail and other types of interference. You also acquired an unwonted narrative creativity aged 6-10, as you got used to guessing the end of an STV programme, if it was a popular US cop show (Highway Patrol with Broderick Crawford, 1955-1959, or Martin Kane, Private Eye, 1949-1954, which was selflessly sponsored by the USA Tobacco Company. Also of passing note is that the actor who played Kane was the onomatopoeically named William Gargan). At any rate, the thing worth stressing is that from the mid to late 50s, the only original TV-made WW2 programme that was studio-based and had no film, no archive footage whatever, even of the battle fields themselves, was Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (Monty) in a BBC lecture series called The Desert War. Provided only with a whiteboard and a pointer and a few plastic tanks and someone good at drawing arrows, Monty (1887-1976) would squawk and lisp and squeak on with splendidly understated arrogance about his martial strategy.

According to certain US generals Monty (also known as The Spartan General) was all but impossible to work with, because of his astonishing lack of tact and diplomacy, his conceit and his monomania. He was scarcely short on personal courage though, as he rose through the ranks during  WW1 and having been shot by a sniper in Belgium, ended the war as a chief of staff by the age of 30. In WW2 he was in charge of the British 8th Command in the Western Desert, until the allied victory in Tunisia, and on the 4th May 1945 he personally took the German surrender at Luneburg Heath. Wondrously short on social skills and easy affections, he had two dogs he doted on, and took everywhere during WW2, though bizarrely he called them Hitler and Rommel. Lord Alanbrooke wrote of him, ‘he had an egotistical outlook which prevented him from understanding others’ feelings’. That would also include black Africans presumably, as after a visit to S Africa in 1962 he offered his public support for apartheid. Even better, he said that the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 was ‘a charter for buggery’ and that, ‘this sort of thing may be tolerated by the French, but we are British,  thank God!’ Intriguingly Monty derided US strategy in Vietnam, though only the strategy, not the morality of what they were doing as defoliators, and in say the My Lai massacre. He told Moshe Dayan the Israeli commander, to instruct the American staff in his name that, ‘they were insane’ .

The point is the only other TV reminders between 1955-1960 of the catastrophic war that had ended a mere decade to 15 years ago, were in the shape of endless B-movie war films, both British and American. If they were the latter, they usually involved the Philippines and Japan, and anachronistically the US troops had wondrously handsome faces and inordinately costly hair gel. Black soldiers were notable by their absence, and didn’t even have the standard comic walk-on parts in mainstream US films of old. If the films were British, they were either cocky gung-ho and thereby naively infantilised, or painstakingly deadly dull (e.g. the 1955 The Cockleshell Heroes starring Trevor Howard and Jose Ferrer) with neither the smell nor the taste, nor the faintest suggestion of what real war was like for real people. For that matter, you would have thought in the 1950s, the emerging one-off TV dramas on both channels, would have tackled the haunting and uncharted memories of the continental war, but despite the BBC doing things like brave and trenchant 50s plays about Caribbean immigrants and racial discrimination, WW2 somehow got lost in the commissioning back corridor.

Given that advert-funded 50s ITV didn’t have even the equivalent of Monty, and his plastic tanks and his army beret, all it had to offer to commemorate the radical and far-reaching nightmare of WW2, was the acute socio-historical commentary, nearly all of it American,  of e.g. The Invisible Man(1958-59), Superman (1952-58), Tugboat Annie (1957-58), I Love Lucy (1951-1960), Inspector Mark Saber  (1951-1960), and in terms of narcotising UK soaps, the first and most boring ever, no less than Emergency Ward 10 (1957-1967). We had to wait until 1960, 21 years after the war started, before ITV presented their truly fine documentary series All Our Yesterdays, which was apart from anything else, my Dad’s very favourite telly programme. The format was that each episode showed often harrowing, always intelligently chosen newsreel war footage, as shown in cinemas in a specific week exactly 25 years earlier. It was presented by James Cameron from 1960-1961, and then the urbane and beguiling Brian Inglis from 1961-1973. Much later, from 1987-1989, and concentrating on the period of 1939 only, it was fronted by the unlikely Canadian impresario Bernard Braden, who decades earlier was the far-sighted patron of the unknown Peter Cook aka EL Whisty (1937-1995), plus the gifted satirical singer, Jake Thackray (1938-2002).

ODDBALLS AND ODD SHOWS

ODDBALLS AND ODD SHOWS

You’ll notice that one of those ‘odd’ items above, is fused as a single word, and the other is comprised of two separate words. That is because the first one refers to  a specially constituted category…namely those folk you see wandering around the streets all over the world, who are not a full shilling, not all there, not 100%, are half-baked and so on (I happened to see 2 such oddballs kicking about the Kythnos port yesterday simultaneously, which is where the inspiration for today’s pages has come from). But the second item above, has instead an adjective ‘odd’ qualifying a noun ‘show’, here in the sense of TV show, so all I mean by that, is that some stuff you see on TV, especially Sky TV, is not just bonkers, but truly off the scale. I won’t go on too much about compound words, as in ‘oddball’, not least because I give it full treatment in my novel The Legend of Liz and Joe (2009) where Joe the aged chef hotelier, whose wife shockingly has her first extra-marital affair aged 70, happens to be very interested in, indeed fascinated by, compound words.

What intrigues Joe most, is that we human beings, always without thinking, understand the semantic relation between the 2 halves of the compound, and that the only ones who don’t do so, might conceivably be autistic or schizophrenic. Or for that matter just possibly someone stocious drunk, who if you mention the word ‘oddball’ to him, thinks you are referring to a posh but crazy party you have just exited in disgust. Hence if we use the English language, we always know that ‘milkman’, where A = milk, B = man, means a B who brings us the A. We never think of it as a man made out of milk (q.v. gingerbread man) i.e. a B made out of A, or any other variation. Compound words were first subtly anatomised by the great 4th century BC Indian grammarian Panini (not to be confused with the outsize Italian sandwich) who according to the linguist and radical US academic, Noam Chomsky (born 1928, now 86) was the first ever generative grammarian, with his 3,959 rules of Sanskrit morphology and syntax. Including those related to compound words like bahu-vrihi, meaning  ‘[a man who has] much rice’.  The compound is easily definable as [an external subject] who has A of B, namely a hell of a lot of rice.

If all this strikes you as boring and jejune and of little consequence, I would argue that you should perhaps be a bit humbler, and respectfully admire the exquisite wiring in your brain that allows you to understand literally thousands of non-literal turns of phrase. Also reflect that if you were unfortunate enough to have say a bad car crash, and suffer severe brain damage, you might also enter the hideous neurologically scrambled world, brilliantly described by the English born US physician Oliver Sacks(1933-2015) in his famous book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (1985).

The first oddball I briefly mentioned a few months back. He is an articulate, highly intelligent Athenian divorcee in his mid 50s, with family ties here in Kythnos. Dressed in a rather anglified cord jacket he is also a very advanced alcoholic who cannot stop putting it away, and knocks back the tsipuro grape brandy as if it were lemonade, no, as if it were nothing but flavourless water. Amazingly, he drives from village to village and bar to bar, around the island, while massively kettled. I notice that he always proceeds supremely slowly which is a very good thing. If he crashed, he might only knock a single stone out of a wall and make a nearby goat jump, and that would be it. I hadn’t seen him around the island for months, and had assumed correctly that he was in Athens, but when he returned in July, I was truly shocked by his awful pallor. He looked absolutely dreadful, as if someone, anyone, should immediately legally take him over, and make him go into Athens rehab, whether he liked it or not. Equally baffling, for I have not even a glimmering of an explanation for this, is that he is treated with every respect by all the islanders, and no one comments nor even seems to notice his perpetually drunk condition. In England he would be a laughing stock, but not here.

Part of his recent decline, as well as his looking damn near bottle green on a bad day, is he seems obsessively anxious about his grasp of social etiquette, which as you can imagine if you are always very drunk, can be a variable quantity. Mid July I bumped into him with an English friend in Hora, for the first time in weeks, and he stumbled across, shook hands politely with both of us, saying genially in English to my friend, ‘ladies first’. That was all that happened, apart from, how are you, an exchange of names, etc. Since then I have encountered him on 3 more occasions, and every time he makes a point of anxiously asking me if he was polite or rude when he met me with  my friend in Hora, and sincerely apologises, should the appalling latter be the case. 3 times I have emphatically reassured him that he was infinitely polite and thoroughly gentlemanly, and yet I can tell he will never in his deteriorating alcoholic daze be appeased.

For light relief, there is 60 year-old whiskery and white-haired Stami from Loutra, who has what are termed modest learning difficulties. By that, I mean he is a bit slow and a bit simple, and very harmless and very affable. He is very fond of me, and if we cross paths 3 times in Loutra within half an hour, he will throw his arms up in joy at each encounter, and ask me how I am every time, as if this is the first. The only work he has ever had is basic labouring on construction sites, but recently, amazingly, they gave him the noble task of guiding the island’s 2 buses around a tight corner in Loutra, and also making sure cars and vans did not block the only convenient turning space. They gave Stami an enormous arm band, with ‘Kythnos Island Council’ inscribed on it,  and he donned it with infinite pride. He also regularly indulged a redundant and spurious clairvoyance, approaching innocent drivers, both Kythniot and tourists, who had absolutely no intention of parking in the obstructive site, sternly forewarning them not to do so, and then went into his very long and irritating set speech about the intractable problems the 2 drivers had in such a scenario. The bus drivers themselves guffawed and chaffed him, and otherwise ignored his navigational instructions, though none of them addressed him with the obvious truth, that he was only getting in the way of things, rather than helping them in any conceivable sense.

But don’t mock Stamatis, as in his way he is a minor media star. He happens to be a keen fisherman and also occasionally a successful one. One day at far flung Potamia, where he had walked all the way from Loutra, he managed to catch a gigantic and edible vlakos fish, about the size of his upper torso. By the biggest fluke, an Athens photographer happened to be holidaying nearby, and captured the whole thing on camera. The Athenian then sold the photo to the Greek Tourism office in the capital, who in turn gave it gratis to a coffee table book publisher, putting out an undemanding but massive picture book tome about the Cyclades. What that means is that 24/7, and from whatever country you originate, you can see Stamatis grinning with his three remaining front teeth, in full colour in the Athens airport book shop. Beat that, all you pampered cosmopolitan travellers, whether you have learning difficulties or not.

Finally and apropos a very Odd Show, I have to mention the TV programme blasting in the Glaros cafe the other day, on the often startling Animal Channel, a US syndicate, which airs on digital TV all over the globe. The programme was called All The Presidents’ Pets and was a whirligig biographical tour of principally all the dogs belonging to Teddy Roosevelt, Ike Eisenhower, Lyndon B Johnson, and  half a dozen others. So there was vintage b/w film of Teddy and his gun dogs, all of them leaping up lovingly at the Father of the Nation, plus umpteen scotties, sealyhams, spaniels, alsatians wagging their tails like buggery, and beaming their tender affection at their proud owners, the touchingly humble and clearly animal-loving US premiers (though at the risk of being a literalist, please note the  well known fact, that Adolf Hitler also loved his dogs).

3 things to reflect on here. Firstly, the utter spontaneous sweetness of all the animals, contrasted with the set in stone saccharine grimaces of the presidents, when making their speeches or outlining their economic policies for the year ahead. Secondly, the surreal and deadly earnestness of those still living private secretaries, reminiscing as if disclosing vital state secrets, about the quirky habits of the little dogs, and the touching sentimental softness of the presidents, no matter whether that particular day the latter were struggling over the possible pressing of the nuclear button, or shucks, let’s sleep on it, maybe not. Thirdly, one of the presidents happened to have a private zoo, and that zoo happened to contain a young lion, and part of a new keeper’s duties was to be inducted on how to step inside the pen with nil protection, and feed and stroke and pet the president’s darling wild cat. It was a black guy about 30  being inducted on the vintage film, and amazingly he wasn’t shitting himself at the preposterous so called job description.

I was, as I watched him cooing to the basking smiling lion. Had Leo had a bad day or a bit of a misunderstood tooth twinge, that would have been the end of the young keeper. But madder than all that, is the sheer inane arbitrariness of the programme’s content and format. Clearly it isn’t the animals who are important here, it is the fact they are the presidents’ beasts and no one else’s. I don’t know what the ratings are, but I suspect, going by their hectic reception in the Glaros, they are absolutely enormous all over the world.

CRAZY APOCRYPHAL STORIES

CRAZY APOCRYPHAL STORIES

There is a basic distinction between ‘tall’ tales, which are obviously well on the edge of mature credibility, and what are frequently referred to as ‘apocryphal’ tales, which are more than likely to be untrue, yet have the satisfying ring of truth about them, and do after all make a damn good story. I cite one of them as epigraph to my 1993 novel Radio Activity-A Cumbrian Tale in 5 Emissions, which is among other things ‘a tall tale within a tall tale within a tall tale’. Ford Madox Ford in a fine set of memoirs called Ancient Lights (1911) cites ‘an excellent and touching anecdote’ which he knew to be untrue,  namely a Pre-Raphaelite bohemian who was so absent-minded, that he would when reading his friend’s valuable books at the friend’s breakfast table, mark his place with a slice of bacon. A poet pal of mine, the late great William Scammell (1939-2000), who was also that incredibly rare thing, a truthful and honest fiction critic, when I told him about this, said there was something similar and equally apocryphal recounted about the reading habits of Messrs Wordsworth and Coleridge, where the latter would use his Cumbrian host’s breadknife smeared with butter as a handy bookmark. It never happened, but it makes a good belly laugh, doesn’t it? As parenthesis, the rock musician Van Morrison in one of his 1980s albums, gives his contribution to Lake Poets scholarship by conflating everything with opium-loving de Quincy, and in one line has ‘they was smoking up in Kendal ’. Kendal? I doubt whether Wordsworth had ever been there more than once, much less smoked there… and for that matter whether Belfast born Van Morrison (born 1945, and now Sir Van) would know his way round the former county town of Westmorland either.

Apropos yesterday’s discussion of Adults Only rudeness, Dmitri the scooter hire man from Loutra who had asked me what ‘cock off’ meant, in a British film set in the 1950s, also asked me what the word ‘booger’ meant, in the abusive phrase ‘booger off’. I explained that it was a now dated and pejorative word for a gay/male homosexual, and the verb ‘to bugger’ indicated what in Greece in a heterosexual context is genially termed ‘Storming the Castle’. I then to his amusement, retailed what I regard as a controversial explanation of the etymology of the same word. In the French royal courts of long ago, the ‘troubadours’ who were male poet/minstrels, spent their time courting the queen as symbolic chaste and platonic lovers, and were accepted as such by an otherwise jealous and infinitely possessive king. Cynics in the court assumed the troubadours were only thus, because they were gay, and as a large number of them came from what is now Bulgaria, and the archaic French for a Bulgarian was ‘bougre’, Bob’s your uncle and Fanny’s your aunt, so to speak.

That story came as fact rather than fanciful, in a 1954 book by G Rattray Taylor called Sex in History, which for the record, I purchased strictly in the spirit of scientific enquiry in Valkenburg, Holland in 1967, when, aged 16, I was on a Five Countries Tour with the now sadly defunct travel firm of Southbound. It was a very bold title to publish in 1954, when almost everything was taboo in the UK and it also had a story about a certain mediaeval Irish king, Cuchullain (often known and probably quite accurately  as Cuchullain The Impure), which I know to be definitely untrue and for one very good reason.

Thus the queen of Ulster and all the ladies of the court, to the number of 610, came to meet Cuchullain naked above the waist, and raising their skirts so as to expose their private parts, by which they showed how greatly they honoured him.

I can hear some of you protesting that they have been doing that in West Cumbrian Working Men’s Clubs since 1927, but no, that is as unreliable as the Irish story. The Irish story is especially unscholarly and absurd, as Rattray Taylor omits to tell us that Cuchullain was a mythological figure, not a real king! Apart from anything else, who was there conscientiously counting the quantity of pudenda-flashing courtly ladies, and thereby establishing precisely that they were 610? That alone, that loony number, would tell you that this is as fabular as the Greek myths or the latest manifesto of UKIP or of the Tories, or  of the much more beguiling and far more credible Hindu Puranas.

Rattray Taylor(1911-1981) made his name with his prophetic 1968 treatise The Biological Time Bomb, which forecast such things as organ transplants, the controlling of moods by psychiatric medication, and artificial insemination. This was around the time that everyone’s favourite telly viewing was Tomorrow’s World with Raymond Baxter (whose son by a fluke was at University College, Oxford the same time as me) and I wonder if these days, anyone apart from say Richard Branson, and the entire staff of BBC Radio 4 give a damn about our precise technological future? Apropos which my favourite title of Rattray Taylor’s many works was his 1978 How To Avoid the Future. Also and very aptly, given his prescience if not clairvoyance, he was a member of The Society for Psychical Research, from 1976-1981.

The real experts  when it comes to far-fetched  stories are those geniuses who deliberately make them up, in order to make powerful amounts of money out of them, most obviously in the UK downmarket tabloids and scandal sheets. About 15 years ago I watched a TV documentary about the UK Daily Sport, where to my  amazement the editor was a posh young woman in a costly suit, who was busy telling a wizened and weary bloke in a leather jacket, viz. a journalist, to go away and make something up. Was it about the guy from Dover who had had an unflagging erection for 5 years, or was it the young lady from Esher with an anomalous one and a half backsides, i.e. 3 anatomical buttocks, or was it the very old vicar in a hamlet in predictably randy old Dorset, who had banged all of his middle-aged and married female choir?  It didn’t matter what it was or who it was, as long as it sold the papers…

These days if you google ‘Daily Sport’, it tells you that the website is not available. You do however get a fascinating first line taster of what you could read, if you could get at the elusive entity.

Your Daily Sport has been reading with interest the phenomenon sweeping China, of strippers at funerals

I ask you, do you really believe rubbish like that?

FOR BROAD-MINDED ADULTS

FOR BROAD-MINDED ADULTS

Everyone likes a bit of harmless rudeness, as witness Christmas pantomimes with male TV stars in massive bloomers, the salacious seaside postcards of artist Donald McGill (1875-1962) that George Orwell tellingly wrote about, and the fact that most people laughed like hell at the truly disgusting toilet humour of two of the unsavoury little West Cumbrian urchins, George Singer and Squinty Bar Radish, in my 2001 novel John Dory. Several times recently, I have been asked by Greek friends on Kythnos to translate something they have heard in English that is transparently naughty-naughty, and in another case I had to intervene to correct an Athens friend who was blithely using an innocent English word in a wrong and dimly suggestive context.

Only a week ago, there was Dimitri, the guy who runs the scooter hire in Loutra.  About 50, stocky, smiling and infinitely relaxed, he is always seeking to improve his English, as his job of course depends on dealing with foreign tourists, and the lingua franca, whether they be from Tokyo, Stockholm or Moscow, always being anglika. Dimitri has been so serious about learning it, he has acquired a few British and American DVD films with Greek subtitles, one of which, Wish You Were Here (1987, UK directed by David Leland), he, like I myself, found enormously enjoyable. Set in the 50s, in a small Sussex seaside town, it stars Emily Lloyd as a rebellious,  foul-mouthed 16 year-old Lynda, who first of all sleeps with a young bus conductor, but then with her Dad’s middle-aged friend played by the sinister and excellent Tom Bell (1933-2006). She gets pregnant and seeks an abortion, but eventually decides to be a young unmarried mother. The film is based incidentally on the early years of Cynthia Payne (now 82), the famous ‘madam’ who hosted a jovial upmarket flagellation brothel in London, and which later biographical period was also turned into a very popular movie Personal Services (1987). Julie Walters played the part of Cynthia Payne, and you might wish to know that the latter stood in a Kensington 1988 by-election for the party known as ‘Payne and Pleasure’.

At any rate, two of  young Lynda’s favourite 1950s insults to all and sundry were ‘up your bum’ and ‘cock off’. Dmitri had never heard the word ‘bum’ before he saw the film, but he had correctly guessed that it meant kollo, and so the insult was crystal clear. But…

“What means ‘cock off’?”

It sounded as if he was innocently asking the meaning of the word ‘cuckoo’, but fortunately I vividly recalled that pungent, if highly unusual insult myself from the 1987 film.

“About the same as ‘fuck off’. Nobody says it nowadays, Dimitri. They only said it 60 years ago in the place the film is set. Worthing or Bognor Regis, somewhere like that.”

Dmitri scratched his bald head, seemingly incredulous that anywhere in the world, even in eccentric England, could possibly be called Bognor Regis. To a Greek, it must sound like ‘Bucknell Riches’, the first word by coincidence being the same as the venerable and alliterative  surname of Britain’s best known TV DIY genius Barry Bucknell (1912-2003).

Daxi. Mm. So to cock must be same as to fuck?”

It was a fair deduction, but radically off beam.

I pointed to the culprit, as situated on myself. “No no. It’s your doodah, the thing that does the good old act, boss.”

Then of course I had to go through the rigmarole of apropos the grammatical noun in question, explaining to him that there was no such conventional verb in English as ‘to cock’, meaning ‘to copulate’. It was an invented, purpose-made, humorous,  tongue-in-cheek verb, plus, as I told him firmly again, they only used it in fucking old Bognor Regis, over 6 decades ago.

A month before that, I was sat with another friend, Mano, a plump and philosophical and arguably oversexed man about my age, who runs a very nice restaurant in the Hora. I had just observed that in conversation with two of his very best pals, he had used the word ‘malaka’ about 20 times in 5 minutes. I pointed this out to Mano, and he wrinkled his nose in perplexity, as for the first time ever it occurred to him, that maybe malaka was not an international portmanteau word, but only had any accurately nuanced meaning in the Greek language.

He said in English, “Bloody hell. Eh, how about that, malaka! Fuck me, malaka malaka malaka! So malaka,  what is the English word for malaka, Ianni, you good old malaka?”

He often gave me the honorary Greek version of my name, and of course as I have often stressed, ‘malaka’ can be a term of fraternal affection as well as abuse. More to the point, I myself had naively imagined that the standard colloquial English word for ‘masturbate’, was as much a linguistic universal, as Mano had believed his ‘malaka’ to be.

Wanker. The word in question is ‘wanker’, Kyrio Manolis.”

The restaurant owner held his sides, and guffawed at the subtle jest. To a Greek it must have sounded like I had said something as boring and innocuous as ‘one car’. He sighed and continued by way of patient elucidation:

“No, Ianni, I mean a malaka is one who…” and he imitated a demented monkey tossing off with phenomenal gusto, not to say with severely crossed eyes.

“Yes yes. Exactly. The English word, I promise, is ‘wanker’.”

“Malaka! Veveia? How you say it, Ianni?”

Wan- kah.”

Alitheia? You say one cow?”

“No no, Mano. Wan-kah.”

Wonky?”

“Sometimes  can be, but no, no. Try harder, Mano. Wan-kah.”

Wung kee?”

“You mean the Chinese take-away in Monastiraki? No no, Mano. Try harder still. Wan-kah.”

He is still trying 5 weeks later, and occasionally when I see him in his restaurant, he remembers the mad word, and begins his polyglot roll call. His very latest versions are ‘one cat’ and ‘Winker’, as in Winker Watson of my childhood Dandy comic, who was subsequently made famous in the 1992 novel Butcher Boy by Monaghan author, Patrick McCabe (born 1955).

Finally there is my Athens pal, Kostas, an animated and inquisitive businessman aged 60, who spends a lot of time here in  his parents’ smallholding in far-flung Potamia. Kostas travels all over the world in his job and his English is excellent, and to be honest the only solecism I have heard him use is with regard to the business of posteriority, i.e. that relating to the  business of something being behind something else.

“My mother has some perfectly plump olives around the backside,” he told me proudly as he took me into the garden on a blazing June evening.

I started just a little. His delightful mother was inside making us spanakorizi and I had noticed no garland of bulging olives dangling round her innocent hindquarters.

“Would you like to see a typical backside of a typical Greek smallholder?” he said. “Come with me and I’ll show you the olives.”

I explained to him that you say ‘the back of’ a house, not ‘the backside of’ a house, and that it was like saying the kollo/cul of an inanimate house. Presumably little kids who often draw faces on houses and cars, even though most of them never use the word ‘anthropomorphise’, might in their innocence believe a house or a car, has an anatomical backside too… although, in the last analysis, I seriously doubt that they do.

However I have since reflected that Brits do very occasionally say ‘the backside of the house’ when they mean ‘the back of the house’. I suppose the crux of the thing is, where you think on a human being the back finishes, and the backside starts. And let’s face it, and especially if the person is very fat or very thin, this can on occasion, be a matter of profound controversy.

WHAT HAPPENED TO MARIA?

WHAT  HAPPENED TO MARIA?

I was oh so bloody busy yesterday, when I would normally have been writing this post. To let you into a state secret, when I first started these searing blog pages in December of last year, I used to blithely  wing it, and write the piece the same day I posted it, meaning I needed to get up at around  5am every morning in order to stick it on the site by 9. It was remarkably invigorating but very reckless, as it didn’t allow for the fact I might fall ill, or catastrophically trip on my ill lit and railing-free staircase for example. At any rate because of time strictures, this particular bulletin will be short and sharp, though, sharp only as you might expect, in the sense of probing and tantalisingly controversial. I have 2 relatively startling things to put to you, and I am even wondering, and I am sure only I could think of this, if they are somehow subtly connected.

Let’s start with the colossal number of East Europeans, all of them in their early 20s, who were all over the port yesterday. They must have been together  on the same chartered yacht, but they were of frustratingly indeterminate provenance. I listened hard and they weren’t Russian or Polish or Bulgarian or Albanian or Rumanian or Czech or Hungarian. They definitely weren’t Indo-European speakers, so might have been Estonian or Latvian or Lithuanian, or even Finnish at a pinch. I should have asked them, but despite being nearly 3 times their age, I was too inhibited, and at one stage quite stupefied by their antics. One thing worthy of note, is that nearly all the boys were bespectacled, studious and dull looking, whereas the girls were handsome, young, forthright, confident and not at all dull. That aside, they did what no other yachties do when they come to Kythnos, they took a very long walk up the back road parallel with that to Dryopida, the ancient island capital. I can’t imagine that it was recommended to them, as absolutely nobody but me walks that way, everyone else drives, even if they live only 100 yards from the port centre and the shops. So they must have stumbled across it by happy accident, and I caught up with them on my return walk. I had been by the same back road to the lovely little chapel of Agia Marina, where I usually sit quite alone and in meditative silence, say a few prayers for the dead and the living, and then put some coins in the box, then depart. The back road is better known as the River Road (revmadromos) and though it is bone dry at the moment, in winter it can get flooded and also can subside, so that a bulldozer is needed to make it driveable again, and for the 50 or so folk who live up that way to get to and fro.

Let’s say that these young Latvians, these ebullient kids from let’s imagine Riga, were in a sprawling group of a dozen, and they were causing a great commotion (see yesterday’s fasaria) as they were making a racket near the private country home of a prosperous Hora shop owner, who owns two huge guard dogs. They might be bloody great Rumanian sheep dogs, but he has given them splendid Greek names, Mikhailis and Maddalena. I don’t know if they are married or engaged or just good friends, this bellicose M and M pair, but the two of them bark like buggery every time anybody e.g. me, walks by completely noiselessly, never mind 12 riotous young Baltic Republicans. The Latvian kids were a few hundred yards away, and I was greatly puzzled by what I saw, in the shape of a boy of 20 in the middle of the group, who had a huge stick, and was battering to bits a football on the ground below. He was one of the few non-studious, non-specky boys, and yet still I wondered why the hell he was doing this strange thing, though less puzzled that he was shouting victoriously to all his companions, especially the girls, to watch his joyous vandalism. Then, real astonishment, even shock, as the football suddenly exploded into smithereens, and the core that remained proved even from my distance to be bright red, not unlike the colour of blood.

In an instant Riga boyo cheered and stooped down, and picked a large wedge of it, and stuffed it in his young Latvian gob. It wasn’t of course a football, but was a karpoussi, a water melon with its familiar red interior. He had likely bought it in the port, then realised he had no knife, so had decided to macerate it with a handy stick. The really strange thing was the complete fluid continuity between the melon exploding, and that segment ending up in his greedy mouth. It was just one unbroken movement, and as at the start I didn’t know the true identity of what it was, and only did once he began to eat it, it was also a profound trompe l’ oeil mystery.

Now for a parallel and well nigh symmetrical phenomenon. Two cafes down from the Glaros, there is a very handsome young waitress of about 33, called Maria. The adjective is important, as we are talking about objectivity and subjectivity now, so please put your epistemological thinking caps on. I would say everyone else in the world apart from me, women as well as men and of all ages, my friends and visitors from the UK and other countries included, all rush to say that Maria is quite exceptionally beautiful, with her slim and delicate figure, her exquisite dress sense, and her subtly applied make-up (she was once a hairdresser in the poshest part of Athens, Kolonaki.) The odd thing is, that though I agree she’s extraordinarily handsome from the theoretical outside, she, how can I put this most genteelly and most kindly and least compromisingly, she does not remotely attract me personally, and especially if I were a notional half my age (I’m 65 tomorrow as it happens) and were in a theoretical position to make some sort of decorous amatory approach. I can see she is very beautiful through other people’s eyes, and I can even see what they see at second hand, and yet Maria’s particular beauty does not impinge on, much less electrify me. So when all my Brit and Aussie friends stare at her, and say God she is so beautiful, that young waitress woman, Maria, isn’t she, I say yes, yes, in theory, yes but, in terms of me personally being enchanted by her, I’m afraid, I am not…

They usually grunt, then say that I need my eyes tested, but I have stuck to my steely Cumbrian aesthetic guns, until all of 2 days ago. And then, guess what? Maria went away to Athens for a few days, and came back with a brand new haircut, by which I mean a very estimable, very posh, exceedingly good, exceedingly expensive Kolonaki haircut. I am hopeless at what you might call a beautician’s specialist vocabulary, but the main thing is, her new hairdo is all lifted up and ranged  radically to the left. Political affiliations to the side, Maria also now looks to me, as she did last week to the whole world, absolutely mind-blowing. I admit I have no idea, not even a hunch, of  why lifting and ranging her hair to the left of her handsome scope, has turned her into something so beautiful you would wish to get on your knees, and make her a minor household deity. But it has done that, most definitely, no doubt whatever of that.

One worrying thing to conclude. I no longer trust my sense of eternal perceptual verities. I know a nice new haircut on either sex, can radically improve folk, and especially those who haven’t many cosmetic assets to start with. A very obese woman, or a pork pie of a plug ugly guy, can blossom no end with a smart hairdo, or an expensive pair of jeans, or a snugly fitting designer t shirt. But this young woman Maria, who everyone in the world would say with open mouth was an absolute stunner, I, like Doubting Thomas (and he was an Indian, don’t you know?) I had always failed to be moved. Yet now that Maria has had her hair lifted and shifted well to the left, she looks like three radiant goddesses rolled into one, and I can only gaze at her with,  I swear, a chaste and adoring reverence.

And one more vital question. Given that I am mostly bald, but have delightful flying buttresses of hair either side, if I had my own locks lifted up, and then ranged left, would I suddenly start to stun the whole of the world and not just myself? I will start by asking Monica, the next time that she rings me from London. She knows a hell of a lot about a hell of a lot of things, and she really is the ideal and very open-minded expert.

As I keep saying to her, do you mind if I just run this past you, Monica?

INFERNAL RACKET

INFERNAL RACKET

I have previously mentioned my impoverished neighbour, Bojan the Serbian handyman. He and I have always got on very well, he with his excellent Greek, his two or three words of Italian (mangiare, buona sera, va fan culo) (not necessarily to be carried out in that order, I’m fairly certain) and my stumbling conversational ellinika, where these days to be brutally honest  I recklessly improvise i.e. make everything up as I go along, meaning the verb tenses and the verb endings and plurals, and even the dear old definite article. You are supposed to say The Bojan and The John, and partly out of laziness, I am ashamed to say, I rarely do. At any rate about a year ago, he and I were at cross purposes, as I thought he was making a joke about whatever I was doing of an evening on a regular basis, up above his head in my flat. In all candour, and this was in the days before I had any cats, anything I did up there was totally blameless, nothing more radical than playing my CDs at discreet volume, cooking, putting my shopping away, and that was about it. It was partly because Bojan kept using the word fasaria which I inanely misunderstood as meaning something like a bit of string. In fact the word for that is spango, and fasaria means ‘racket’ or ‘commotion’ or ‘din’. It took an inordinately long time for me to understand that what he was complaining about was the noise my dining chairs made as they scraped over the floor, and Bojan went to great pains, as if talking to an especially stupid English child, to indicate that I should lift them to move them from A to B, and not drag them horrendously over the flooring.  At first I went into autopilot denial that I did any scraping at all, and then an hour or so later, when we had gone our separate ways, I recalled that I regularly dragged just one of them across to block the back balcony door, which was forever being blown open by the sodding Cycladean aera winds. It was in keeping with my all round immaturity as a non Bojan-style handyman, that I hadn’t even learnt how to lock the door, and thought that because it was so phenomenally stiff, it was therefore impossible. That Christmas my daughter Ione was staying, and she showed me how to turn it very easily, in 5 seconds flat.

The point was that my innocent chair-scraping sounded like 40 nightmarish cows bellowing and roaring to Bojan down below, and no doubt there was some quirky amplification at work in the rickety old 1960s housing that we shared. I had genuinely no idea until Bojan told me, that even an individual as sensitive as I am about noise, was capable of disturbing someone else with mine. I have learnt over the decades to be hypersensitive for very good reason, and I have often wished that the rest of the world, or at any rate those who have these things called nearby neighbours, were made the same way. In the early 1980s, when Annie was doing her social work qualification, at what is now Oxford Brookes University, we lived in a single room for a year in relatively slummish East Oxford, an area at times home to the deviant, the criminal, the drug addicted, the mentally confused, and worse. We would have much preferred posh and peaceable North Oxford, of course, but unfortunately we were thwarted by our lovely dog Bill. This was 7 years before we had our daughter Ione, and Bill aged 6 in 1982, a black and tan mongrel that even dog-haters admitted they loved, was very obviously our surrogate child. We took him everywhere, including, once in 1979, a very smart though very empty Indian restaurant in Bradford, where we concealed him inadequately under the table, and the kindly waiter ignored the frenetic black tail that was thumping against his leg. We both ate meat in those days, and in doting sequence fed him tasty gobbets of lamb and chicken throughout the clandestine operation.

No one in North Oxford in the early 80s would take a tenant with a dog, or at least none of the dozens we tried. Our East Oxford landlord by contrast, a Mr Simms,  who looked exactly like an owl, would take anyone and anything, as long as the rent was forthcoming, which meant unemployed claimants, the majority of them male and single, and early 30s, were his declared speciality. But they also included over the time we were there, a reckless heroin dealer, public school educated,  who genially used our baking tray for roasting cannabis when we were away somewhere, and a very sad young man called Dennis who heard voices in his head and sometimes masturbated at his open door. But the point about young unemployed males, who spend all their time at home, is they tend to get comprehensively bored. We happened to be sited adjacent to one, who I will call Billy Baxter, who was a local Oxford man, and had an ex-wife and a child of 3 who he rarely saw, and who partied late and rose late, just to stay endearingly symmetrical. Although he had been on meagre welfare benefits for years, he managed to drink a lot of beer and smoke a lot of dope, and sadly for us in his waking hours, he fancied himself as a rock musician. Somehow or other, he had acquired an electric guitar, which he would bash away at sporadically between the hours of 1pm and 2am. Unfortunately, he only knew one tune, and even more distressingly, he only knew the first 2 chords of that tune. It was the current mega hit, Sultans of Swing by, in our claustrophobic residential situation, the aptly named Dire Straits.

Annie had to write regular essays for her CQSW, and luckily she wrote most of them in the college library. When at home, she did not exactly find Billy Baxter congenial background music, if she was writing about Child Protection laws, but somehow she was able to block him out. In my case, attempting to write a novel and some lengthy and ambitious short stories, I found it well nigh impossible. I need to explain that Baxter did not live in the same house, but in the one immediately adjacent, also owned by Mr Simms (he possessed about 10 huge East Oxford houses in all, and his overdraft would have given anyone else chronic nightmares) and with a shared gable end. It is an indication of the volume of his electric guitar, that we could hear those 2 glorious chords perfectly where we sat and toiled, and, to give Baxter his due, those 2 chords were well nigh perfectly executed, albeit they constituted a repetitive meditational mantra, rather than music, and the mantra was not a pleasant one. And talking of execution, and I have fictionalised the scene in a wholly different context in my 2001 novel John Dory, Billy had the other delightful habit of sunning himself in hot weather on the 2nd floor window ledge, that was immediately adjacent to ours. When he rose at 1 or 2pm, he would, in roasting June or July, roll up his creaking window with its eroded squeaking frames, and with some effort, rig his 2 hi-fi speakers at either end of the ledge. He would then charmingly site himself like a sprawling Pekinese between the speakers, on a thin blanket, and enjoy the music at very generous volume, and the balmy Oxford heat in simultaneous rapture.

You can imagine how this helped me to concentrate on the short stories I was writing, as I tried to think of appropriate and precisely nuanced adjectives, and Billy Baxter had his nostalgic 70s legends going at full throttle from his window ledge: Van Morrison, Joan Armatrading, JJ Cale, Jefferson Airplane… if you are over 60, I am sure you can complete the roll call with ease. And just in case you are thinking chronic lack of self-assertion is what is to blame here, you should know that several times I sternly told Baxter that both my wife and I were working and writing next door, and if he could turn down both his guitar and his hi-fi , it would make life easier for both of us. I stressed that it was my wife’s career as a social worker was at stake, and bluffed that my writing was an income-making enterprise too. Billy Baxter grinned most genially, and said, of course, of course, old lad, old mate, old boy, old guv, but that evening after the 10th joint or the 15th lager, he forgot his resolution just as he forgot everything else, when it came to common sense and small issues like parenthood and income and career, and the future and the past. And, by way of anecdotal fullness, just as we were leaving that place, and Annie had got her CSQW qualification, I learnt from his immediate bedsit neighbour that one night Baxter had got so rotten on the combination of rocket fuel Artois lager and strong dope, that he actually emptied his bowels through night while fast asleep, and apparently with a horrified 18 year-old girlfriend to witness the event.

He also came close to involuntary defecation one day in June 1982, though he never knew as much. Sprawled out there on his window ledge in blazing sunshine, and stripped down to his shorts, he was not only playing JJ Cale at full blast, he was from time to time greeting passing girls down below. He picked them carefully of course, he did not call down to obvious swotty, specky university types, but to local Oxford lassies in their late teens and early 20s, meaning a decade younger than himself. His banter was of the broad and general and genial kind, to the extent that nothing he said had any edge or wit or surprise, it was you might say bog standard recycled flirtatious cliché. But brainboxes and those who believe in subtlety, or even just those harmless single guys who are quite reasonably very much bursting for a nice little girlfriend, could have learnt something from Billy Baxter’s guileless patter. Its very ground level simplicity, meant that nearly all the lassies hailed, would stop and would banter back, with just the right reciprocal naivety. Many people respond well to artlessness and simplicity, as they know that they, and indeed anyone can achieve it also, and I only understood that myself by the time I was 40 years old, and luckily had been married to Annie for over a decade.

This was all very well for Baxter’s love life, of course, and I believe one of those thus apostrophised from his window ledge, ended up a girlfriend of sorts. But it was stopping me from writing a very long story, that to my amazement eventually was taken by the London Review of Books, when against the odds, and Baxter having gone hitchhiking up in Wales one long weekend, I managed to complete it. The point is I had reached a crucial point in the story, and there was Baxter loudly babbling away to some idling young lass down below, and from his speakers,  JJ Cale was deafeningly singing about drugs in his remarkably throaty and inconceivably resonant voice. Of course I hated Billy Baxter at that moment, with total passion and with total hatred. I hated him and indeed I decided that I hated everyone else like him, who spent their life industriously fucking about to absolutely nil productive purpose. I don’t mean that I wanted him to have a menial office or a factory job, as work for work’s sake is not my credo, and never will be. But if for example, he had taken his musical interest seriously, and committed himself to learning the guitar properly, I would as they say have given him the time of day, as perhaps once he could play the whole of Sultans of Swing plus 3 more tunes entire, maybe I would have ceased to notice it as obligatory background music.

Outside on the seedy staircase, there was of all things a long clothes pole. It had been put there by Mandy the tenant next door, as this area was so wonderfully dog rough, someone had actually stolen her last one, and bizarrely, and even insultingly, had left all her very fashionable clothes untouched. It had to go out when she had washing to dry, of course, but when not in use, she put it outside, half way between her place and ours. Today inside our room alone, and with Annie toiling away in the college library, I thought hard about that pole, in fact I more or less meditated on it, you might say. Most folk who meditate, don’t do so by focusing on clothes poles, needless to add, but it occurred to me that as a tool or implement it was long enough, if I opened our window to reach out, to send Billy Baxter flying the 15 feet down below, just as he was half way through his latest splendid flirting gambit. The image was so tantalising, so seductive, so magnetic, and the worst that would happen was he might break an arm or two, or maybe a leg or two, depending on where the stupid nay imbecilic bugger fell.

Of course I never even got near opening the window, and thereby making the din, the infernal racket, even worse. I could never injure anyone, not even a ridiculous clown, not even an antisocial waster like Billy Baxter, who got in the way of my gentle wife and myself, as we tried to work away at the things we really cared about. But hatred, even temporary and situational hatred, is a terrible thing, and sometimes people who are full of hate, and who are also drunk, or otherwise out of control, commit something that is irretrievable and even tragic. Which is exactly why people like idiotic Baxter should learn not to provoke otherwise innocent mortals in the first place.

TWO OUTRAGEOUS AUTHORS

TWO OUTRAGEOUS AUTHORS

I recently mentioned the 1989 Nobel Prize Winner, the Spanish novelist Camilo Jose Cela (1916-2002), author of the excellent The Family of Pascal Duarte (1942) and the in my view awful Mazurka For Two Dead Men (1983). I omitted to say that his reputation for controversial not to say outlandish behaviour, was remarkable in his lifetime, and that he sometimes made UK hellraisers like yesterday’s Oliver Reed and Kenneth Tynan, seem rather like harmless little British lambs.  Cela was of mixed Galician, Italian and English heritage, and aged 20 at the start of the Spanish Civil War was of the so called Generation of 1936. He had conservative leanings and enlisted on dictator Franco’s side, and despite his novel The Hive (1951) being banned and of necessity published abroad, was made a member of the Royal Cortes in 1957. In 1996 he was also ennobled by King Juan Carlos as the Ist Marquis of Iria Flavia. His Pascal Duarte is reminiscent of Albert Camus’s The Stranger, as it has an amoral existentialist hero like Meursault who feels no guilt about his crimes, including murder. His subsequent novel The Hive had to be published in Argentina, as the erotic content was deemed subversive by Franco’s Spanish Catholic Church. Employing a kind of swingeing grotesque realism, it has over 300 characters, and pays homage to Cervantes, and another Spanish genius regarded as second only  to him, the great 19th C novelist Benito Perez Galdos (1843-1920). Those two, as well as the rather standardised modernist roll call of James Joyce, JP Sartre and John Dos Passos. Because this book was banned, his name could not even be printed in the Spanish media, despite which he still remained loyal to the Caudillo, and even spied on dissidents for his secret police.

In his latter years, Cela was notorious for his splenetic outbursts. He said the Spanish Cervantes literary prize was ‘covered in shit’ but nonetheless accepted it himself in 1995. At the centenary commemorations for the legendary poet and dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936), assassinated by the Nationalist forces, he said he was uncomfortable about all these gay groups and added, ‘I have nothing against gays. I just do not take it up the ass.’ He took something else rather unusual up the arse, however, and as an old man boasted about it to presenter Mercedes Mila live on Spanish TV. He claimed he was a master of the Hatha Yoga technique of imbibing large amounts of water up his anus, and offered to demonstrate his singular virtuosity for the viewers at home.

The German playwright Frank Wedekind (1864-1918) was also notorious for his shock value, and even went to jail for it. Born of a Swiss mother, his German father impressively owned a Swiss castle which Wedekind  grew up in. As a young man he had a frantic sex life and visited prostitutes, and like Maupassant and Nietzsche, to name only 2, contacted syphilis….which doubtless gave him much of his extremely raw artistic material. He moved from being  a businessman to working in a  circus, and then became an actor and singer, and the acclaimed star of The Eleven Executioners (1901)which was forerunner of the satirical German cabaret we all know so well via Bertolt Brecht and Bobby Darin’s Mack the Knife. At the age of 34 he was jailed for 9 months for the publication of some satirical poems, and 7 years later, in 1906, he married  the Austrian actress Tilly Neues who happened to be 22 years his junior. He was obsessively jealous however, forever monitoring her for possible infidelity, to such an extent that she attempted suicide.

I once knew a young drama student in London back in 1972, who was avidly reading Wedekind’s Spring Awakening (1891) and expressed herself shocked by it 80 years after its first performance.  It caused an uproar at its debut, as it was all about sexual predilections among young German students, some of them at puberty (hence the vivid title). It is principally a satirical critique of bourgeois attitudes to sex, and its contents include implied group masturbation, actual masturbation, homoeroticism, and sado-masochism between a teenage boy and girl. All that, plus, in innocent 1891, references to rape, suicide and abortion. Probably better known  are the 2 Lulu plays, Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904) the latter turned into the silent film masterpiece by GW Pabst in 1929. They are about the alluring young dancer Lulu, who is favoured by rich men and ascends the social scale, but eventually falls into destitution. There are frank references to lesbianism and violence, and even an encounter with Jack The Ripper, played by Wedekind himself at the first production. Meanwhile the 1910 drama Franziska has potentially more enduring shock value, didactic as well as immediate. In this play, a young girl sells her soul to the devil, to see what it is like to be a man, meaning of course the gender that somehow has all the advantages.

Strong stuff. But guess what? In 2006 Spring Awakening was turned into a highly successful Broadway musical.  Wedekind wouldn’t have been pleased, but radical US prof Herbert Marcuse(1898-1979) who was also German-born and emigrated to the States in 1933, knew all about ‘repressive tolerance’ and he would have understood immediately.

SCANDALOUS PEOPLE

SCANDALOUS PEOPLE

I was about to start by saying there can’t be many in the UK, who don’t know that Kenneth Tynan was the first person to use the f-word live on British TV. On the other hand it happened so long ago, half a century no less, maybe there are. For those under 60, it was on the 13th January 1965 that the controversial theatre critic Tynan came out with it on a  late night satirical show called BBC3, and very soon there was uproar in parliament, from the governing Labour MPs as well as from the Tories. Kenneth Tynan (1927-1980) had a notable stammer, and Private Eye couldn’t resist saying it was definitely the first ever 3-syllable 4 letter word on telly. Amazingly the tireless campaigner for obligatory censorship of TV and radio, Mary Whitehouse of the National Viewers and Listeners’ Association wrote to Her Majesty The Queen saying 37 year-old Tynan should have his ‘bottom spanked’ for his heinous offence (one wonders whether she would have preferred condign chastisement to be inflicted by herself or by her monarch, the culprit clothed or naked, and on prime time telly or not). By a choice irony, Tynan had already gone fearlessly public about his lifelong taste for S and M, and good old stone-deaf in every sense Mrs Whitehouse, was presumably the only one who didn’t know.

Tynan had always been a bad boy. At school during the 1940s in a debate, he dilated (best word?) on the pleasures of masturbation, and also called for the repealing of laws against homosexuality and abortion. As a brilliant theatre critic, his motto was ‘Write heresy, pure heresy.’ He was the first to champion John Osborne’s incendiary play Look Back in Anger in 1956, and he also devised the at the time outrageous erotic review Oh! Calcutta! in 1969. As a fascinating aside, those who know me well, are aware that for long one of my favourite eateries was an Indian restaurant in Wigton, Cumbria, which subsequently relocated and renamed itself in Carlisle. Its Wigton incarnation paid a curious tribute to Kenneth Tynan, but was spelt not as ‘Oh! Calcutta!’ but O’Calcutta, the long lost Irish branch of the Calcutta clan, that is.

Talking of the Irish, there is a learned dispute over whether Tynan really was the first to say ‘fuck’ on UK telly, and that in fact it was the flamboyant playwright, novelist, legendary boozer and Republican activist, Brendan Behan (1923-1964). He was interviewed piss drunk on BBC’s Panorama in 1956, but was slurring his words so much he got away with it. Ditto the anonymous Northern Irishman in 1959 who was asked on Ulster TV about his job of painting the railings along the River Lagan. He said with humble candour it was ‘fucking boring’, but obscure regional telly in the 1950s being what it was, presumably nobody but his incensed and blushing mother even noticed.

The other outstanding bad lad of the 60s and 70s, was the upper crust macho UK film actor Oliver Reed (1938-1999). It was never clear whether he cussed the f-word on telly, but he did everything else, including addressing the feminist writer Kate Millett (born 1934) on a Channel 4 show After Dark, with the very juvenile and impolite words, ‘give us a kiss, big tits.’ He was drunk supposedly, and his drunkenness was both legendary and self-advertised, as he claimed that just before he married his second wife, he drank 106 pints of beer in 2 days. Steve McQueen(1930-1980) he of the original and truly magnificent The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), recalled an extended  drinking binge where Reed vomited all over him. In 1975 on the US Johnny Carson Show the Poseidon Adventure actress Shelley Winters (1920-2006) angrily poured a glass of whisky over the abusive boozer for his derogatory chauvinist remarks. His friend, the horror actor Christopher Lee, said his drunken antics were ‘awful to see’ and especially in the company of that other hell-raiser Keith Moon (1946-1978), the drummer for The Who. They met via Tommy (1975) the film by another very bad boy, British director Ken Russell (1927-2011) and as well as featuring Reed, there were superstars Tina Turner, Elton John, Eric Clapton and Jack Nicholson, in a movie that made box office records. Russell also casted Reed in his 1971 The Devils, adapted from The Devils of Loudun (1952)by Aldous Huxley.  This film, brilliantly authentic in the horrific torture scenes, also has footage of nuns masturbating and blaspheming, so that on US TV Russell was attacked by the British film critic Alexander Walker for making something ‘monstrously indecent’. Russell responded by cracking Walker across the head with a rolled copy of the Evening Standard, the paper for which the critic worked. Incredibly, even now, the uncut version of the film remains censored. Even more memorably, Oliver Reed also starred in Russell’s Women in Love, his 1969 adaptation of the DH Lawrence novel.  In one of the best known scenes in film history, Reed wrestles naked with Alan Bates by a log fire, and it is, how touching to reflect,  the first time male genitals ever appeared naked on a British film. Yet for all its macho and ironically parodic homoerotic undertones, it is forever a beautiful bit of cinema.

As coda, you will notice all these hell-raisers, whether actors or critics or directors are all, what’s the word… men. My own theory is that flamboyant media women, are on the whole more grown up, less pettish egotists, than look-at-me clever blokes, and if they do decide to be hell-raisers they do it with some wit and elan, and even some understated and impressive artistic modesty. My favourite outrageous woman in the media is the American Ruby Wax (born 1953 and raised in Evanston, Illinois). I watched her in Ruby Wax Meets (1994-1998) sparring brilliantly and very rudely if affectionately, with an unflappable old trooper like the actor John Goodman, beguiling regular in the excellent Coen Bros movies, and she also managed to tease in at least 4 ironic dimensions, that appalling old gangster Imelda Marcos(aged 86), she of the 1,000 pairs of luxury shoes, and co-criminal wife of the notorious Filippino dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. Wax’s interview with British Royal Sarah Fergie attracted 14 million viewers, and she also battled with the not undelightful Pamela Anderson. According to Wax, interviewing Madonna in a hotel suite in 1994, where she ended up antagonising the singer by putting Madonna’s knickers on her head,  was one of the most miserable experiences in her career (‘as for her pants, they were like a piece of dental floss with some cotton and some frills’). Wax is the daughter of an Austrian Jewish sausage(!) manufacturer,  who fled the Nazis in 1939, and after her Berkeley psychology degree, she moved to study at the Scottish Royal Academy of Music and Drama. She is also a serious actress who worked in directing partnership with Alan Rickman, and played in Shakespeare alongside Juliet Stevenson. Like another comic genius John Cleese, she is much concerned with mental illness issues, and in 2015 is Visiting Professor of Mental Health Nursing at the University of Surrey. Controversial, not just in her interviews, in 2004 she scripted  a BBC cartoon series called Popetown that poked fun at the Roman Catholic church. She also portrayed the Pope as a spoiled child. As a result of protests, the BBC never broadcast it.

PASSION AND ITS TOTAL ABSENCE

PASSION AND ITS TOTAL ABSENCE

When was the last time on UK TV, you saw, at 8 in the morning, a drama where a young woman was being slowly choked to death by her enraged Dad, and, a little boy outside, hearing the hellish fracas, taking a nervous fit cum heart attack and apparently dying too?  It’s Greek telly I’m talking about, of course, and it’s difficult to know whether to blame the Greeks or the Turks for this anomaly, and you will soon see why, in the following paragraph. They have in the UK, certainly with the former analogue and independently-monitored channels, these things called media ‘watersheds’, meaning explicit sex and strong violence are supposedly taboo, when children, especially young children, might be watching TV. Apropos which, at the moment, I do not understand even the notional bedtimes, much less the watersheds, of local Kythnos kids, especially the uproarious little boys of around 9 and 10 years old. They are whizzing around the port on their bikes minus any lights, at 10pm, 11pm and midnight, and with supposedly school early next day. Below my flat, I sometimes hear them in shrill debate with their Mum and Dad at 1am, and I am baffled, I simply do not understand what is going on. Greek schools, like most of those on the continent, start at 8am and finish at 2pm, as opposed to UK 9am start and finish at 4 o’clock teatime. As far as I know, these kids don’t fall asleep in school next day, nor do they have a restorative siesta when they get home. Maybe they drink a lot of coffee, maybe they are constitutionally hyperactive (at least 1 of them is, I suddenly reflect with a gulp, when I stop and think about it. I didn’t even believe in this thing hyperactivity, until I saw this one perennially feverish and rapidly jabbering little boy who makes The Beano’s Billy Whizz look like Rip Van Winkle).

They really love to do things arseways about in Greece, so like so many Zen adepts or media Machiavellis, they suddenly shifted their favourite soap Black Rose, which happens to be Turkish, and with Greek subtitles, to a breakfast slot, from an early evening schedule. As with the mystery of the little Kythnos boys who need no sleep, there is the enigma of why the Greek TV station moves its runaway favourite soap, from prime time to 8am, when hardly anyone but the unemployed and the old and the alkies, who will watch anything, are watching. The only thing I can think is, they have suddenly relented of their recent tolerance towards their historical antagonists the Turks, and decided to punish them by showing their highly addictive soap when no one will ever watch it.

I have discussed Black Rose before, but this morning’s episode was a blinder. This paradigm soap opera family are unlike most 2015 Turks, as they live in a gloriously spacious mansion somewhere in the leafier suburbs of Istanbul. Everyone in the sprawling clan is beautifully dressed, the numerous young women in designer dresses, and they are manicured and made up and statuesque beyond belief. The young guys also look handsome to a fault, and are likewise clad in luxurious denims and gorgeous, snug fitting shirts. Today however, one of the rebellious daughters indulged a massive fit of anger, and decided to upend the splendid feast they were all tucking into in the garden, which looked with its exquisite design, like something out of a museum print of an Ottoman sultan’s palace. She tipped up the massive dining table, everything went flying, and then she scuttered off inside the mansion. Her incandescent Dad inevitably pursued her, then set about choking her slowly and mercilessly, ranting throughout his slow and seemingly expert strangulation. Interestingly this angry Dad is the only one in the whole show who isn’t good looking, apart from an always humming, singing and half gaga old lady, who is obviously scripted for comic relief. Today the mad old gal was absent, which explains why there were so many folk busy dying, one of suffocation at the hands of her remorseless Dad, and one, a child, of nervous shock, at the nightmarish uproar in his highly unstable, even if sumptuously dressed Istanbul nuclear family.

The far from handsome Dad looks exactly like some worn out 55 year-old West Cumbrian bus conductor, complete with grey and gritty and morose countenance, and a moustache that sulks its way through life. I suppose he has to be like that, to get close to strangling the deviant table tipper, but the worrying thing is he only seems to stop strangling her, because he realises the little boy outside is going to die of nervous terror at what he is doing. Had the little boy not collapsed, would he have happily finished his punitive work? Still, soaps are soaps, and choice conjunctions are the least of it. As for a sartorial slant, the moustachioed strangler does not dress like a tramp, though neither does he dress glamorously like all the other males on the show, but more like a classically attired  off-duty Workington bus conductor. Maybe you simply never get well-dressed stranglers in Istanbul, but they seem de rigueur in most Western movies, and usually those smirking chaps in very smart suits, cackle demonically and make remarkably fluting, peroratory monologues, just as they are about to embark upon their grim handiwork.

All of which leads neatly to what was on Greek TV yesterday afternoon, and which in its anodyne and hellish vacuity, made Black Rose, in artistic terms, seem like King Lear at the very least. It was also violent, but harmlessly, by which I mean unconvincingly so. A 4 year-old with bedwetting problems, would likely have guffawed at most of it, as even the set pieces failed to encourage any viewer of any age to suspend their weary disbelief. It was a recent US movie set in ancient Rome, with a strikingly handsome young man, an incorrigible rebel against the empire, straight out of  something like CSI, Miami, but dressed in his ancient tribal leotards. I recognised none of the actors, so I presume it was likely a TV movie, shot on a budget in trailer park Florida, where the film extras could be got for a song. A beautiful and imperious Roman siren whose real name was probably Cindy B Buschenbach tauntingly asked the rebel to strip off in the lower regions, and then made a risque comment about his outsize you know what. He then made some sassy CSI, Miami-style comment back, whereupon she ordered him to be given 40 lashes. Both he and the actor whipping him, visibly yawned throughout the set piece ordeal, and the blood on his back looked like I had painted it on. I was about to say, who in the world watches this unbelievable garbage apart from 10 year-olds with learning difficulties and then thought no, I know who watches this kind of stuff and enjoys every minute of it.

My mates in the Glaros Cafe love to watch things like this Romans Made in Tampa Trailer Land adventure yarn. They sit with taut attention, glued with  joyous tension to the screen, exactly like I was aged 6, in the Miners’ Welfare matinee shows in pit village West Cumbria, back in 1957. But that was different, that was The Three Stooges we were watching, not a bloke called Bud or Chuck, pretending  with not a lot of effort or enthusiasm to be a well endowed and fearless Roman rebel. And I was only 6 as I say, not 56 or 66, as two of the rapt and mesmerised buggers are who watch all their films in the Glaros.