INCEST AND SUICIDE FOR STARTERS

INCEST AND SUICIDE FOR STARTERS

Bargain Online Fiction Tuition offered by John Murray. Detailed and precise criticism of novels, stories, memoirs, especially for those ambitious to be published. Contact john@writinginkythnos. com

 John was organiser and sole mentor for the Cumbrian Fiction Surgery schemes of 2001-2005, which soon led to 2 Cumbrian writers being published by major London imprints

The bumper collection of 2nd hand books in English I brought back from Ermou in Athens, has been an eye opener in more ways than one. I have radically revised my opinion of one favourite writer Iris Murdoch (1918-1999), acknowledged new and impressive things about the perennially notorious Lawrence Durrell (1911-1990) read the invigorating and very funny US satirist Tom Wolfe (born 1931) for the first time, with the 1987 The Bonfire of The Vanities, and discovered that bad translations (e.g. US Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter’s 1927 stilted version of The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann) didn’t all stop in the 19thcentury, but carried on boldly into the next. In passing I have also noted that the essays of Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) when set beside his short stories spanning 1924-1940 as in The Crack Up and Other Pieces and Stories (anthologised by Bodley Head in 1958) with their odd kind of bogus jauntiness, are not in the same league as his arguably flawless imaginative fiction (which latter, given his many years of Jazz Age dissipation, was quite some achievement).

I have read nearly all of Murdoch’s 26 novels, and up to now the only one I didn’t like was the strained and precious The Sea, The Sea which the 1978 Booker committee with typical astigmatism awarded its illustrious prize. In Athens last week I bought 4 second hand copies of her novels, including The Sandcastle (1957) and A Severed Head (1961) which I thought with several precise qualifications were both excellent. The late The Book and The  Brotherhood (1987) with a weary roll call of saturnine Oxbridge guru dons, struck me as Iris whimsically treading water and I gave up after a couple of chapters. Weirdest of all was my reassessment of one of her best known early books, The Bell (1958). Not only was it televised in 1982 with Ian Holm starring, but I actually taught it as part of a university extension class in North Cumbria in 1988. If I taught it, I must have thought it a bloody good book 27 years ago, but rereading it in Kythnos I couldn’t think what the hell I ever saw in it.

The first few pages start brilliantly with a powerfully ironic account of a failed marriage between a harsh and withdrawn art historian called Paul, and his highly unlikely wife Dora, naive, scatty, much younger, and a former student. They decide to reconcile and meet up in a strange idealist Anglican community, Imber Court, stuck out in the sticks, and it is here the novel rapidly comes unstuck. Dora travels down there by train and overhears the conversation of a garrulous man James Tayper Pace with a young schoolboy Toby, both of whom by chance are going to this community, which also happens to be adjacent to a closed order of nuns. Pace’s clichéd moralising dialogue to the young boy is very bad (‘What an adventure for you young people, going up to Oxford! I bet you’re excited?’) and could have come out of either a downmarket and dated genre novel or the God help us radio soap opera The Archers, take your pick. Worse still Dora is taken on an extended tour of Imber Court by the housekeeper Mrs Mark, and again the latter’s fussy and characterless dialogue is wooden and contrived to a fault. As a novel device it must be there to emphasise the allusive geography of the vast mansion, and also to spell out various unlikely community rules relayed by Mrs Mark, one of which is that no one should talk about their worldly past, nor enquire about that of others. I didn’t believe either of these devices, and wondered how the same hugely gifted writer could put brilliant and dreadful dialogue inside the same book. As a rule writers are either good or bad at dialogue across the board, and they don’t alternate from page to page  as if they are two authors rather than one

The Sandcastle has a middle-aged and palpably feeble schoolteacher Mor as main protagonist, and anyone but Murdoch would have made a royal mess of setting something so dramatic and loaded with heightened symbols, in the potentially very banal milieu of a stuffy 1940s boys’ school. His wife Nan regularly mocks Mor’s pathetic vacillations, and his kids don’t talk to him. The school is awaiting the arrival of a young woman artist Rain Carter, half French and a bohemian, who has been hired to paint a portrait of the former headmaster Demoyte. Very soon Mor becomes infatuated with Rain and not much later she reciprocates, with truly life changing and frightening implications. His alienated son Donald, a pupil in the same school, ultimately terrifies Mor by attempting to scale the school tower, and almost dies in the attempt. His daughter Felicity aged 14 and away at boarding school, is simultaneously practising ritualised magic on a Dorset beach in order to try and control the deeds of her unhappy parents. This is ludicrously unfeasible if you think of her age and the historical period, but because everything in the book is similarly highly charged (the incredibly acidic but likeable retired head Demoyte; a Christian mystic of an art teacher called Bledyard given to massive silences followed by very long vatic utterances)you go along with it and cannot put the book down.

The only real jib I have against the novel  aside from Felicity and her Tarot cards, is that true to the period Mor cannot afford a car, and therefore gets about the sprawling school grounds and its annexes by bicycle. Several key scenes involve him chasing feverishly after the elusive Rain on his humble pushbike, and I kept getting images of farcical kids’ entertainer Mr Pastry, instead of an evocation of blinding cosmopolitan passion. Murdoch should simply have left out all stage direction references to transport, and we would have been none the wiser, and the comical anticlimax would have been avoided. The trouble with being a don at Oxford as Iris Murdoch was for almost 30 years, is you think the whole world goes round on bloody old bicycles, which of course they don’t.

A Severed Head, the book with the unpleasant title, likewise pits dithering human types against those who are charismatic but flawed. The middle-aged narrator Martin Lynch-Gibbon (apart from Dickens you can’t beat Murdoch for barmy not to say allegorical names)is an affluent London wine dealer happily married to Antonia, but who is having a clandestine relationship with a young bedsit dweller called Georgie. After Martin’s painful discovery that Antonia is having an affair herself, with their joint friend, a magnetic US psychotherapist called Palmer Anderson, they in turn find out about his adultery. Antonia soon leaves Martin for Palmer, and he rapidly falls to pieces, and throughout the novel the quantity of tranquillising booze that goes down his neck and nearly everybody else’s, is off the scale. Enter the enigmatic and ugly-beautiful Honor Klein, Cambridge don and sister of Palmer the guru shrink. She has a habit of uttering prophetic insights to those who don’t want to hear them, and telling everyone she meets that their partner is betraying them. At a kernel point, incensed by her bleak utterances, Martin falls upon her in a wine cellar and savagely beats her up. Afterwards, once she has fled, he realises that this was a sign of being deeply in love with her (yes, it was Neanderthal 1961 when Murdoch published it) and he sets off to seek her out, apologise, and declare his passion.

Instead, and it must have raised eyebrows 54 years ago, when he tracks Honor down in Cambridge he also finds her compromisingly in bed with brother Palmer. Incest to add to the heady brew, and we also get a failed suicide (Georgie’s) and a dizzy switchback of romantic alliances so that  initially Georgie ends up with Martin’s smooth chancer of a brother, Alexander. Meanwhile Martin is gradually reconciled with Antonia, who complains that Palmer has suddenly turned strange and moody (she is left in the dark about the incest). But eventually in dizzying musical chairs fashion, she also falls for Georgie’s new beau, her brother-in-law Alex, and deserts her husband a second time. In the interim the incestuous siblings wisely plan to fly off to the States, but Honor gives Palmer the slip, and ends up back in the violent wine dealer’s house, declaring to Martin that she, much to her surprise, has fallen in love with him.

On the one hand you don’t believe a word of any of it, and the blurb on the back compares it to a Restoration comedy or a Jacobean tragedy. On the other hand every single character, like all those in The Sandcastle, are full of authentic passion, which is potently convincing within its own fictional terms, however eccentric or gothic it might seem – and this is where it parts company with the lifeless The Bell and The Book and the Brotherhood. Most impressive of all is the cloying and patronising dialogue of both Antonia and Palmer, when they are newly revealed as having an affair, and are intent on keeping adulterous and guilty Martin still in their controlling  and manipulative sights. They are so obnoxious, you want to get inside the novel and give the pair of them both a bloody good kick up the arse, and that is always a sign of truly compelling fiction.

HELLO AGAIN,UK

HELLO AGAIN, UK

John Murray offers Bargain Online Fiction Tuition. Founder-editor of  acclaimed Panurge fiction magazine (1984-1996, and co-edited by David Almond) he has published 10 works of fiction and taught prose writing for almost 30 years. Contact john@writinginkythnos.com

In 3 weeks time I visit the UK for the first time in 2 years, and it definitely feels momentous. I am going to see lovely Monica in London, where I haven’t been since 2008, which to my amazement is a full 7 years ago, a biblical period no less (see the mesmerising Genesis story of Joseph the Patriarch, where heartless jealousy is portrayed as nowhere else). Ione will come down to meet us from Leeds for a few days, and it will be 6 months since my daughter and I were together. In terms of mundane practical matters I am doing things fascinatingly arseways about, as I am a UK citizen living full time in Greece, who will be drawing cash from a UK ATM for the first  time in 2 years. That means I had to use telephone banking recently, and ask them not to block the London transactions, but alas the guy at the other end did not inspire much confidence. He sounded as if he was 12 (maybe he was) and had a kind of snazzy bouncy US accent, but the phone line was whistling so much he was obviously far away in Asia. I also asked him to email me a certain form to do  with a second account, and he promised he would, and guess what, he did not. I don’t fancy ringing that whistling, hissing short wave line again, and no doubt will have to go into a London branch and do it all in person (an irresistible digression here. Re radio short waves, there is an ingenious and rather rude gag in a Lawrence Durrell (1911-1990) novel, Mountolive (1958). Writer Pursewarden mocks French diplomat Pombal for a wooden mistranslation of ‘[a night broadcast on] des ondes courtes’, as ‘a nocturnal emission on the short hairs’).

Monica lives in a very nice part of North London which I do not know, and which I briefly suspected she might have invented. When I looked in my ‘London A-Z’ that I brought to Greece, I could not find her street anywhere until after a couple of incredulous hours it clicked that this was a ‘Mini A-Z’ and didn’t have the whole of London in it. What a useless and pointless little publishing swindle, eh? I thought ‘Mini A-Z’ meant a reduced typesize, not a reduced metropolis. I must devise a new tourist sensation of a ‘Mini Kythnos A-Z’ with only half of the tiny island on it…the half without any ATMs that is, after the fashion of an Asian call centre having a good joke at all those UK buggers who all have too much money, and don’t know what real hassle and real worry and real poverty are anyway, even if it were all to bite them in the face.

The last time I was in London I was with Annie, those 7 short years ago. We had gone down to see student Ione off to South Africa, where she was about to work as a volunteer for a fortnight on a Vervet monkey refuge in the Limpopo area. We had flown from Newcastle to Heathrow, and seen her off on her plane, and then taken the tube to the city centre. The tube stopped half way through a tunnel, and stayed there a bloody long time. It didn’t bother fearless Annie, but I went into painfully sweating claustrophobia mode, and wondered how feasible it was for us to get out and walk with a white hanky flapping the rest of the way. We were staying in a nice little hotel in Russell Square, handy for the British Museum and even more alluring, 2 smart looking Indian restaurants. One, a Bengali one, was excellent and the adjacent South Indian one was comme si, comme ca, or in Greek etsi ketsi. The waiter came round asking on autopilot how everything was, and for once, I decided to be honest rather than stay the insincere, and far too polite Brit. I told him dishes A, B and C were good and dishes D, E and F were average, and in fact D was downright bad. The man of about 30, unused to any sort of considered candour in this very posh eatery, simply couldn’t believe his ears, and spent the next 5 minutes assuring me that my opinion was wrong, and that D, E and F were exactly as they were meant to be, and had been cooked to precise and authentic recipes. He was far too snooty and unctuous, and as I had after all praised what was indeed good, I told him I had been eating in Indian restaurants both here and in Ireland and Portugal (the Goa connection) and India and Nepal for 38 years, and I knew what was good, and what was not. D, the vegetable jalfrezi, tasted like it was out of a tin, and I invited him to taste it himself if he thought it was so delectable. He declined the invitation and left the matter unsolved. I left him a tip, but a far smaller one than he would have had, if he had admitted that his vegetable chef was a lazy bugger who knocked up any old garbage if he was the wrong way out.

Annie joined in the truth department as well, though more gently than I,  and both of us had good reason to be honest with the world at the time. 2 months earlier she had been diagnosed with secondary cancer, large metastases in the liver and scattered tumours in the bones, from an original primary breast cancer. They had taken 10 years to manifest themselves after the 1998 mastectomy and chemotherapy, and after a decade of course, you naturally enough think that you are in the clear. Surgery or more chemo were not options, the tumours could only be controlled by anti-hormonal drugs and bone strengtheners. So far all was going  brilliantly, and she wasn’t even taking painkillers and we hoped against hope, as does everyone else in such circumstances, that she would go on forever.

I nearly lost her in London though. We had gone to the Tate Modern to see an exhibition of some fine US artists of the 40s, including the very gifted Edward Hopper (1882-1967), who had painted moody noirish pictures of things like melancholy young couples gazing dourly into space in cramped NY apartments. In passing we ended up in the Tracy Emin room, or at least the one where there was a lot of her work. Exactly as in the South Indian restaurant, I thought the American artists A, B and C were very good and Tracy Emin (born 1963) and her pals, D E and F, were authors of irredeemable rubbish. If that sounds dyed-in-the-wool redneck reaction, I ask you to go and look at any drawing by Leonardo and immediately afterwards at anything executed by Tracy, including her very choicest worth-a-ransom masterworks. Those US artists show graphic zeal and accumulated skill, and thus are fit to stand in suitable shaded homage beside Leonardo, whereas Emin and her mates show nothing but a Far Too Comfortably Nihilist Abyss and an Anodyne Yet Remarkably Lucrative Affective Absence and are only fit to stand beside each other.

Then some wholly unexpected drama happened. After about an hour, Annie and I became separated, and it was no doubt my fault for wandering so impulsively from room to room. I sought for her first amused, then increasingly and instinctively worried, in the immediate vicinity, and afterwards the whole of the ground floor. But nowhere, absolutely nowhere, was her familiar tall, very fair profile to be seen. Like an eejit, I had left my mobile back at the hotel, as I had only had one for 6 months, and in any case I only used it when apart from her and Ione, not when with them. What’s more, in those days it took me half an hour to text a single sentence, and if someone rang me I could never remember which fucking button it was I was supposed to press, and thus was always cutting them dead.

After a while I started to panic like an abandoned child…

My logical mind knew we would find each other one way or the other, even if I were to risk seeming little boy lost and had a message sent round on the tannoy system. But the cruel and unfaceable truth was that Annie had a horrible secondary cancer, and unquenchable optimist that I always was in my conscious self, somehow, and for the first time since April, my very deepest self was panicking at that.

THE HELL OF WAITING

THE HELL OF WAITING

John Murray offers Bargain Online Fiction Tuition. Detailed and precise, speedy and efficient  criticism, of your novels stories, memoirs. Contact john@writinginkythnos.com

‘a fine writer’ Jaci Stephen, The Telegraph

Bojan the Serbian handyman is very depressed in the Glaros this morning. In winter he is very short of work and consequently cash, but has been promised a day’s labouring on a building site by a Greek tradesman. He is waiting for the guy to pick him up, and has been hanging around for an hour and a half, which means it isn’t going to happen. The man’s phone is switched off and there has been no notification of a delay or of anything else. Bojan is angrily eloquent when denouncing him as a malaka, with his deplorable quality of malakiya, and I estimate in the last 5 minutes he has used both words a total of 20 times. Of course this casual mistreatment happens much more with Albanians, Serbs and Rumanians, than it does with other Greeks, but not always. About 18 months ago a huge evening reception was held for a prosperous Kythniot’s wedding, and the owners of the venue promised surprisingly handsome wages (15 euros an hour, no less) for anyone who agreed to wait on for about 12 hours, meaning from 8pm till 8am. I had a good friend Sotiria, an ethnic Greek, but an Australian here on holiday, who was given such a job, and of course she had the invaluable bonus of speaking perfect English. 2 days later she was scheduled to be paid and the husband of the couple employing her, bluntly told her and all the rest of them, he couldn’t afford the unheard of rate and was knocking it down to 10 an hour, which was still damn good money. No protestation by Sotiria whether in perfect Greek or 4-letter English, made any difference to his adamantine refusal. Later she learnt that he had sometimes hired Albanians for seasonal building work and never paid them at all.

The most perplexing and anguished wait I ever had in my life, was in the context of an early date with Annie, my future wife, in our native West Cumbria back in December 1978. We had arranged for her to drive the 12 miles to my house, from her parents’ place where she was living, once she’d finished her day at the hospital, where she was an RNMS nurse. It was so early in the relationship I didn’t even have their phone number, not even their address, and of course mobiles didn’t exist 37 years ago. Nor was there a phone in my rented house, which was more to the painful point. She was supposed to turn up at 8, and so far was ultra punctual, but it went from 8 to 8.30 and then 9 and beyond, and there was no sign of her, nor of course any word from her, and no means of communicating it in any case. I thought the worst right enough, not that she had an accident or anything as catastrophic as that, but that she had decided to promptly knock our budding relationship on the head. There was absolutely no evidence for this grim and dreadful conjecture, as we were both good and crazy about each other, and didn’t need to put it in words or even signs or gestures, much less sing it to the world at large. I toyed with going to the nearest call box and going through everyone in the directory with her surname…but it was one of the commonest of names in that little town, and I would drive a lot of folk mad with my random guessing, and spend a fortune on calls ( I recall that 5 standard phone calls in 1978 = 25p = 1 pint of draught lager, just to give you a handy reference point).

When it got to 9.30 I decided I needed distraction for the hellish night ahead, so tried to read a novel, Toilers of the Sea, a minor work by Victor Hugo, which had the novelty of being set in the Channel Islands. But it wasn’t one of his most gripping, and even if it had been I was incapable of being gripped by any printed word. Instead I turned in desperation to the radio (I had no TV and was a better man as a result) and unusually switched on BBC Radio 4, which even then I tended to very much disdain, unless it was broadcasting a play or a salty travel documentary. Luckily there was some drama starting right now, an adaptation of the novel Fame Is The Spur (1940) by Howard Spring (you can check that I am not inventing any of this by researching the Radio Times December 1978 Radio 4 schedules, surely only a matter of pressing 3  keys on your laptop  by 2015). In any other context, that dramatised novel would have thoroughly absorbed me, even though I had never heard of Welshman and journalist Howard Spring (1889-1965) and these days I seriously doubt whether any of his novels remain in print. Remarkably, no less than 3 of his books were dramatised posthumously on prime time UK television, and most of his novels were also published in the United States. Shabby Tiger (1934) about an ambitious and glamorous woman called  Rachel Rosing,  was filmed for Granada TV in 1973; My Son, My Son (1937) was adapted by the BBC in 1977, and Fame is the Spur which I was listening to now, was not only  made into a film with Michael Redgrave, but was broadcast as a BBC TV series in 1982 with the brilliant Tim Pigott-Smith (born 1946) in an early role. It is all about a Labour leader’s rise to power, which of course ought to have been more gripping as depicted pre-1940, than a fictionalisation of the wavering trajectories of fizzy Ed Miliband or solemn Jeremy Corbyn, initially hitting the big time in their respective suzerainties (in 1978 it was fusspot Uncle Jim Callaghan was actually in power as PM, though not for much longer)

But nothing could have distracted me that night, when I was convinced that Annie had had distressing second thoughts about me. I went to bed early and spent a sleepless night, and knew more bleakness and desolation than was suitable for a bearded 28 year-old, who should after all have been capable of more intelligent lateral thinking than I was. The next morning I had the inspiration to ring the hospital, and ask one of the nurses if I could speak to her. What relief when she said Annie had been sick with flu and had been off work for the last 2 shifts. That same day she drove through and explained that she had crawled out of bed half dead, to set off and see me, but had almost collapsed with the effort. Her no nonsense Mum, also a nurse,  had ordered her back into bed and called her ‘a daft bugger’ as was her excellent blunt way (20 years later, my candid mother-in-law once said to me, apropos of nothing, and as if remarking that it looked like rain,  ‘your bum definitely is betting bigger!’). Annie had become frantic  as she been unable to ring me, and could think of no way of getting a message to me either, and could vividly imagine the fretful misery at  my end. For the future we briefly toyed with using the nearby pub as an emergency communication point, but no such emergency ever arose, because apart from anything else we were married 10 weeks later on the 3rd March 1979. Amazingly we never owned a phone until 1984, which makes you think, though I’m not sure what it is, that it makes you think.

 

KEEPING YOU IN THE PICTURE

KEEPING YOU IN THE PICTURE

John Murray offers Bargain Online Fiction Tuition. Novels, stories and memoirs, all given detailed and precise criticism. He has published 10 novels and been longlisted for the Booker Prize, and won the Dylan Thomas Award for short stories. For more details contact john@writinginkythnos.com

SEX. Months back I argued that any piece I had put on these pages, if it had sexual references in the title, though at first it seemed a highly popular attraction, did not in the long run gather more views than an austere and even deadly earnest theme. I’m having to revise my opinion, as in the last week or so there have been an inordinate number of folk scrolling back through the archives to How To Have Sex When You Are 100, Peace, Quiet and Nakedness, How to Get a Young Wife, The Dear old Arse, Naked and Shamed, Prudes and Censors etc. Nothing wrong with that of course, for as a wise and elderly lady psychotherapist once said to me at a dinner party, and her hand was even chastely on my knee at the time, sex is a healthy activity and a strong sex drive is a healthy thing. Just for the record though, an anomalous number of followers out there have been reading the ancient post of The 2 Dogs of Kassos. Nice to know there are some truly dog-daft folk out there. Me too. Perhaps you know that the Bombay Parsees/ Iranian Zoroastrians believe the dog to be sacred, and you sometimes see photos of a bespectacled priest with a dog on a lead, beaming back at the camera. This is not the only reason why I very much admire this excellent monotheistic faith. Instead of interring or cremating their dead, they put them on elevated slabs called Towers of Silence and let handy birds of prey devour them. Some folk might find this reflection tasteless even gruesome, but to me (nearest and dearest, please take note) and it’s not just because I love birds, this seems the ideal way to go, as being either buried or burnt both seem highly unsavoury options.

ANIMAL PLANET PORNOGRAPHY. I wrote about this recently vis a vis the associated National Geographic Channel and their love of the salacious and plain perverse as applied to innocent animals. Today blaring away in the Glaros the AP surpassed itself, and gave a trailer entitled Blood Animals – Bred For the Kill. It showed  big cats of both sexes in various pens awaiting their slaughter at the hands of rich gobshite foreigners, mostly factory-produced rigid-jawed macho Yanks in ugly dark glasses, all interviewed to give their delightfully fuck the tearjerkers, the cats love the chase as much as we do, points of view. The writing on the entrance to this splendid enterprise was in Dutch, so I presume it is sited in South Africa. If you care about animals, one simple and painless thing to do is stop watching both of these ludicrous and frequently disgusting channels, and tell all your friends to do likewise.

THE VERY OLD. My Aunty Margo who I’ve previously mentioned, turned 97 in a Cumbrian care home 3 days ago. I received an emailed photo of the party, and she and my 73 year-old Aussie brother were smiling together at the camera. She was beautifully dressed, her hairdo immaculate, and she looked no more than 80, even though she is stone deaf, her eyesight isn’t brilliant, and she is not as fearlessly mobile as she used to be. Up until 2 years ago she was living alone in her own upstairs flat, lugging all her loaded dustbin bags down of a Wednesday night, and was so charismatic that she received more visitors every day than say Madonna or Cliff Richard. She had so many friends she would send out at least 100 Christmas cards, regardless of the massive outlay on stamps and cheery festive greetings. She would bake 5 Christmas cakes, and everyone knows what a finicky thing they can be, exact oven temperatures included, keeping only one for herself and a bachelor nephew, who always ate with her on Christmas Day. Her visitors, relatives, church friends, vicars from 50 years ago, were usually half or a third of her age, but they came to her needing her, more than she them. What I mean is because she was a charisma she held the floor, and by and large they listened enthralled. They also came for her remarkable homemade cakes and scones, and in my case she gave me full meals, usually a very nice bit of Marks and Spencer’s white fish, and for pudding would try to force 4 Wagon Wheels or 4 Kit Kats on me, which didn’t take much forcing of course.

Margo is an extremely devout Evangelical Christian whose only reading is her Daily Bread booklets with Bible verses expounded at length. Otherwise her sole recreation apart from talking to friends is to watch the TV news, during which quite rightly she falls fast asleep, snoring open mouthed at say reciprocally open mouthed George Osborne. She used to show me her vicar’s Newsletters and his sermons were exhortatory and uncompromising to the nth. It was all about Absolute Trust in the Redeemer and about Justification Through His Blood Alone. No one, not even a so called saint,  could count on their own deeds, however good, and we have all fallen short of the Ineffable Glory of God. This is the kind of thing fluty C of E vicars might preach about, but always soften it, and give their own sunny travesties, so that it ends up watered down beyond recognition. You may recall the conservative UK novelist AN Wilson (born 1950) at one point seemingly relented of his declared High Anglican convictions on the grounds that Christ’s teaching (‘love your enemies’ for one thing; ‘judge not that ye be judged’ for another) are so impossible, he can’t possibly have meant it, and that the Sermon on the Mount injunctions were more a kind of rhetorical extreme intended to shake us all up. Tell my Aunty Margo that, Andrew Norman Wilson. Eminent as you are, and she is no red-blooded socialist believe you me, I think she would not hesitate to give you a thick ear, and it would not be of the rhetorical kind.

 

 

DOWN AND OUT IN DOWNTOWN ATHENS

DOWN AND OUT IN DOWNTOWN ATHENS

John Murray offers Bargain Online Fiction Tuition. 28 years experience of teaching prose writers at Arvon, Madingley Hall, Cambridge etc. Novels, stories and memoirs all given detailed and precise criticism. Contact john@writinginkythnos.com

Severe hardship in the Greek capital is well advertised, both on Greek TV news items and in the international media. I was reminded of being in India 40 years ago when an old and grubby blind man got on the elektriko train for Piraeus, and started walking the length of the train ranting and shouting his distress and begging for money. So intense he was in  his passion, he mostly forgot to hold his hand out for coins, but instead it was as if he was singing a paean of distress in the form of an aria of lamentation, something composed for eternity, and that was more important than getting with luck one and a half euros by the time he’d traversed the train. More successful was a young Rumanian accordionist, a man of maybe 28, and I would guess his 8 year-old and very beautiful daughter. With almond eyes and jet black hair, she carried her paper cup with a gentle smile and one or two Greeks sighed and shelled out at the poignant sight.

Later when seated at a Piraeus outdoor cafe exactly opposite Gate E9 = the boat for Kythnos, I was assailed by a young Pakistani lad who could only have been 16. He had a big rather vacant grin and several front teeth missing. He seemed to have neither Greek nor English, and kept trying to press multipacks of cigarette lighters on me in exchange for 1 euro, and ignored the trifling obstacle of me telling him I didn’t smoke. At length I noticed he had other things in his carrier bag, including bumper quantities of batteries on cards. I am always running out of AAs so asked for one of those, whereupon he presented me with a monster pack of AAAs. I spelt out AH AH! not AH AH AH! which even if you only have Urdu or Pushtu must be intelligible enough. He kept on pressing AAAs until losing patience I shuffled in his carrier bag and found a single AA pack. He only wanted 1 euro and when I gave him 2 (this was for 16 top brand batteries) he was very moved and patted my head very tenderly and put his hand to his heart. I smiled but before that and when he was doggedly ignoring everything I said, I had had the strange and surreal thought that maybe his teeth had dropped out from sheer embarrassment at their owner, rather than lack of adequate dental care.

He wasn’t the only deaf one on offer in the vicinity. The cafe owner was a quaint bald man of 45 with a pointy beard and a rather raffish air, the kind who would put imaginary figures on the bill and if you questioned him demand the pair of you laugh in hearty chorus at the risible mistake. I waived the menu and asked for what I saw on the window front, namely vegetarian pita (NO MEAT, it said boldly) and chilli pepper salad. He returned suspiciously quickly and promptly slapped down a sumptuous Greek salad and in English jested, a Greek breakfast for you! Of course I hadn’t asked for a horiatiki salat, but buggerit, it would be good and wholesome for me, so why not go with the flow. The chilli pepper salad proved to be a white cheese mush, which he declared was a hot and fiery cheese, and after a fashion, a salad. I baulked at that at 12 noon, and he happily removed it saying No Pressing! as if I were a pair of trousers needing ironing. The veggie pita looked delicious, and I set to wolfing it down, until I saw within something long and fat and purple, 2 such things in fact, which on scrutiny, assuming they were vegetables, could only be the very rare and hybrid purple parsnip. The problem is of course that Greeks do not eat the parsnip, and I made up the purple variety for jovial humorous effect. I lifted one up and it turned out to be a sausage, in Greek a loukaniko. I separated it and its friend onto the plate, and being no absolutist, ate what was left, possibly a little tarnished,  but otherwise very tasty. Later I smiled and pointed out to pointy beard that his hortofago (vegetarian) pita had loukaniko in it. He made the joke I expected, that sausage isn’t really meat, in the same way my incredulous Dad when I turned veggie in 1982 seriously wondered why I rejected chicken which in his opinion wasn’t meat either. There was a further pun the proprietor cheerfully made, in that the word for vegetable is lakhanika, virtually a homophone of loukaniko,  meaning that like it or not, in Greece at least a sausage is actually a vegetable.

I was expecting a massive and brazen overcharge at the end of all this, but the opposite happened. He didn’t charge for the loukaniko veggie pita, and only for the Greek salad and retsina, a meagre 7 and a half euros. I had misjudged the poor guy after all, and he really hadn’t been out to milk me, just generously fill me up with 2 impeccable and very nourishing Greek sausages.

2 days previous I had been in Monastiraki, the tourist hub and still the favourite meeting place for many worn out and thoroughly pissed off Athenians. Despite the recession, these very central eating places were chockablock with mostly Greek folk treating themselves, and hang the consequence. There was a falafel carry out place which served the finest example I have ever tasted of that pan Middle Eastern snack, and the queue was endless. With all that trade going on, there were more far more folk begging here, including skinny young immigrant men, very often with young children to help elicit compassion. One of these father and son duos persisted in begging from a young Greek woman sat next to me on a public bench. She firmly refused to give him anything, because, as she later confided to me in English, she believed it was part of an organised set up, more than likely tied up with the forced prostitution racket. I had no idea if that was feasible, but when she refused for the 4th time, he snarled at her in Arabic some words which she explained meant ‘you are a dirty prostitute’. She actually worked as a volunteer in an immigration hostel and had picked up some useful colloquial Arabic as a result.

Less than 2 kilometres away from the centre, the cafes and restaurants and most of the shops were either empty or boarded up. Handsome areas that had once been bustling and prosperous were now like melancholy ghost villages. I looked inside a shabby Post Office that the authorities apparently were wishing to rationalise, meaning close it…and saw that were was just one assistant serving about 50 people. Nearby one business defiantly surviving was a 2nd hand clothes store where the woman spoke good English, and who regularly drove to Italy to replenish her excellent stock. She was selling very fine Italian leather jackets for 7 euros, where a few years ago she could have got 5 times that. Recently she had had a bumper quantity of good denims that had gone for 5 euros each, and they had disappeared within days.

I bought one of the leather jackets, the first I have ever had in my life, and walked around  feeling, how can I put it, the business. Back in the Glaros here on Kythnos they all breathed their open admiration and one of them even called me John Travolta.

IN YOUR FACE ATHENS

IN YOUR FACE ATHENS

John Murray offers Bargain Online Fiction Tuition. Detailed and precise criticism of novels, stories, memoirs etc. and a quick turnaround of all work submitted. For more details just contact john@writinginkythnos.com

‘One of my favourite writers’ DJ Taylor, The Guardian

Last weekend I discovered some amazingly atmospheric sidestreets at the confluence of Thiseio and Ermou, both close to crazy Monastiraki, which is central and tourist Athens par excellence. There you see occasional ramshackle workshops with old men in crumpled berets battering away at copper metalwork, and it could almost be the clattering Turkish quarter of Sarajevo. You also come across certain ultra modern enterprises, fearlessly catering for Greek and international youth, inevitably with their names in English. Three all next to each other are Ghost Bar, Death Disco (great eh? What happens? Do you die existentially to this tyrannical and idiotic eurozonic world, once  inside the pitch dark, pulsing disco?) and best of all Honest Tattoo. I love that last one, and I really think it can’t be bettered.

I’d now like to fantasise the mindboggling antithesis, and suggest the slogan advertising of Dishonest Tattoo or rather Coyly Unrevealing Tattoo. All inscribed in English (as foreign tattooists always do) in lovely gothic lettering on the blacked out window.

-We know of quite a few skin artists far less skilled than we believe ourselves to be

-No unseemly infections, much less tragic mortalities so far, is one thing we can proudly boast

-It is at our risk as well as at your risk. We call this Enlightened Mutualism and it has worthy historical syndicalist and anarchist precedents.  Please remember that, our valued client…

Otherwise there is a tendency to in your face Hellenic impudence or Greek bravado, or whatever else comes in the wake of being mocked year in year out as Europe’s lame duck. Most fetching was a bristly rug for wiping your feet on, outside a massive hardware shop on Ermou. In among its fellows saying in English Welcome To This House was a sole cynical doormat stoutly declaring: Oh no! Not YOU again. I was seriously tempted to buy 50 of them as Christmas boxes for my friends back in the UK, as I don’t care who you are, you are bound to number in among your excellent mates and dearest relatives a few forlorn pests and woeful bores as occasional visitors to your sitting duck of a door (yes, I know I have used ‘duck’ metaphorically twice in this a paragraph, and I don’t care and I stick to them. They are both first class metaphors. NB, while we’re at it,  I have also used ‘metaphor’ derivatives twice in 2 lines, which is truly deplorable ).

Still that was nothing compared to what I saw an hour later whilst walking from Thiseio Train Station past all the impressive open air  craft stalls up to my hotel. I need to explain that in my long weekend break  in the capital, I had resolved to make up for a 2 year famine when it came to eating in Indian restaurants. There are no foreign eateries on Kythnos needless to add, unless you count the Cretan place in the port as foreign, which some Kythniots would definitely do. I dined in 2 different curry houses in 4 days, and had 3 fine meals and 1 dreadful one. The latter was supposedly prawn masala and the tomato and yoghurt sauce tasted exactly like Heinz Tomato Soup and was inedible. The vegetable dishes were all good, but the weirdest thing was the way the 2 adjacent restaurants duplicated the same very limited options. Aloo gobi, palak paneer, dal and dal makhani (little red beans in yogurt and tomato) and that was it. Given that Greece famously produces plentiful excellent aubergines (melitsanes/brinjal )and okra (bamyes/bindi) why were they missing from the menu? I should have asked one of the two Indian (in fact probably Bangledeshi) chefs, but he might have answered me after the fashion described below. Both of the Ermou restaurants had very beautiful young Greek women waiting on, and the only Asians were the chefs, one in the next door Take Away, and 2 in this one. All 3 men worked like dogs yet looked phlegmatic, indifferent and bored. They didn’t smile at the customers through the glass behind which they were slogging away, but carried on as imperturbable as ancient oriental sages.

My last day in Athens, the younger of the 2 chefs from the place where I had the vile prawn masala, was walking cheerfully up towards central Thiseio. He was a lad of about 28 with kind of unquashable confidence, which of course isn’t very easy if you are a conspicuous Asian in recession-hit Athens with its menacing Xrisi Avgi Golden Dawn thugs. He was actually beaming in the pleasant sunshine, just possibly because he was away from his exhausting 7 days a week job. He was wearing a smart designer t-shirt of a fetching shade of light green, and on it in huge letters it said Fuck You. No one but myself batted an eyelid at the terse injunction, and though very many Greeks know very little English at all, not a single soul would be ignorant of those 2 words. I reflected that say around as late as 1990 you might have been arrested in the UK wearing  an inflammatory garment such as that. Most Bangladeshis have excellent English, and I would imagine if he’d worn a similar shirt in central Dhaka or Chittagong in 2015, he might well have been mobbed and debagged.

I had a wonderful time in all the dozens of motley junk shops(huge valve radios, wind up gramophones with horns, antique manual typewriters) and 2nd hand bookshops along Ermou. I concentrated on bagging novels in English as having finished 2 doorstop Stendhal translations, I was currently starved of something to get my teeth into. In 2 days I clocked up Scott Fitzgerald, Tom Wolfe, Thomas Mann, Lawrence Durrell, 4 Iris Murdochs, blessed be her treasured name, and a handsome 3 volume set of Leslie Stephens’ essays on writers, Hours in  a Library (1874-1879) for only 25 euros. Stephens (1832-1904) if you don’t know it, as well as being a leading literary man and dad of Virginia Woolf, was an accomplished mountain climber, one of those Renaissance Men, don’t you know ( I can give you an interesting example of someone who is not an RM: me or diko mou in Greek). I would have very much liked to have acquired a fine large format Don Quixote English translation with terrific illustrations by Gustave Dore (1832-1883) but it was way over what it would have cost in the UK, a function I would think of simple ignorance rather than cupidity. The lady in the woolly hat and gloves said to my enquiry:

“That? That, sir, is 2000 euros…”

Oh? Oh really? When it might have gone for £60 or £70 in the UK?

Her husband leapt in helpfully. “ No, no. 200 euros, sir! She means 200 euros.”

His wife giggled and slapped her hefty thigh, and though hers was a comical mistake, I was reminded of the one and only time I was ripped off in supposedly lawless Albania, in May 2013. It was Day 1 in Saranda, a lacklustre town where you arrive from Corfu (Corfuz, a very strange word, in Albanian).  My watch strap was falling to pieces, so Ione and I sought out an amiable back street jeweller who grinned and niftily placed a new one on, and then said:

“1600 lek.”

I hurriedly worked out that was about £10, and true enough it was a very beautiful leather strap, but it seemed bloody exorbitant in poverty stricken Albania. I gave him it with a smile and oddly he held his breath and said nothing whatever, as did the canny old man, another customer I had been chatting to in my self-taught Albanian. I pocketed the change, walked out with Ione and then suddenly struck by an attack of lightning, shook my head in dire exasperation, and said to her:

“Shit. I am such an eejit! They devalued by a factor of 10 recently, but they still quote everything in the old rates! That’s the first thing they tell you in the effing guidebook. So 1000 lek = 100 lek, and 1600 means 160 lek  meaning £1, not bloody £10!”

Ione frowned and suggested I go back in and demand my massive amount of change, but I said, no, no let it ride, let me take it on the chin like a Cumbrian version of Skanderbeg (1405-1468), aka George Kastriotis, the legendary Albanian independence leader. It was a very good, very helpful exercise on Day 1, and would stop me ballsing it up again in the excellent month ahead.

 

PRUDES AND CENSORS

PRUDES AND CENSORS

I will be away on the Greek mainland for a few days and there will be no new blog post until Wednesday 25th November. You can always contact me about anything including my Bargain Online Fiction Tuition, at john@writinginkythnos.com

Sometimes when your kids are small, most disconcertingly they turn out to have a small number of best friends whose parents are either very dull or passing obnoxious, and Ione bless her, aged 3-11 from 1992-2001, seemed to specialise in bringing me face to face with this latter excellent type. If you live in the country as we did, you had to drive daughter plus pal back to your house from the nursery or school,  and then with your own child accompanying, drop the friend off at her place a couple of hours later. Of course Ione couldn’t resist running into her mate’s house, and extending the splendid fun as long as she could wangle, meaning you had lots of extra time to talk to the 3 or 4 somnifacient Mums, or even worse the Mike Leigh scripted Dads, someone you wouldn’t have even glanced at outside this ad hoc context. Some of these parents who tended to be about a decade younger than me, had seemingly got degrees, or even MAs and PhDs, in How To Be A Truly Incredible Virtuoso Bore. Top of the list was a woman I shall call Margo, who aged 37 had a small daughter she babified and clung to and cosseted, in a way that was off the scale. She made Portnoy’s obsessive American Jewish mother, the creation of celebrated Philip Roth (born 1933) in Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), look the epitome of phlegmatic calm, and as if an expert on radical child care a la Dr Benjamin Spock (1903-1998) when  it came to wise parenthood.

Margo had chronic health issues which were clearly psychosomatic, all of them connected to the bowels and digestion. Just as she was a 5 star pain in the arse, so she suffered from continuous pain up her own ample and very obstinate backside. She took steroids as a result and whereas before her illnesses, she had looked passable if no dazzler, now she had a very puffy and pouty face which matched you might say her perennially puffy and pouty personality. Annie couldn’t stand her, so it was daft arse me who did the carting around of the kids to both houses. Luckily Margo was so hygiene-obsessed, Ione and I nearly always ended up going to her house, way out in the sticks. Both she and her husband Ken were from North Yorkshire, which alas does not produce the finest specimens from that vast northern county (give me West Yorks: Leeds, Bradford, Hunslet, etc any day, not least because of all those great Pakistani folk, and their wonderful eateries. You can shove your bloody old Yorkshire Pudding up your you know what).

The You Know What, was the issue as it happened. Puffy Margo was telling me about her numerous garish intestinal complaints in the kitchen, while Ione and her daughter Kerry were playing nearby. True to form Ione had just made a couple of comic references to the gloriously amusing world of the human behind, as is the wont of giggly 3 year-old gals. However what annoyed Margo was that the reference word she used was ‘bum’, and she proceeded to objurgate her feelings on the following very memorable lines.

“We don’t use that word in this house! We really don’t like that word at all. We don’t say ‘bum’, we say  ‘bottom’!”

Cue a running gag ever since 1992, of Ione, Annie and me sometimes setting it to music, and saying to each other or singing:

“Don’t say bum, say bottom!”

‘Bum’ of course is a word of distinguished antiquity, and there is even a minor character, a pimp called Pompey Bum in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. I had never known anyone but obsessive Margo object to it as being rude or offensive, though extreme prudery has its own singular rules needless to add. For example Samuel Beckett’s mother, Maria (born 1871) even though she was a nurse for crying out loud, found the use of the blameless term ‘bottom’, all too much in the  maternal context, and only referred to it by decorous morse code as the B-T-M (also could e.g. mean ‘bantam’?). Much later, and possibly as a sardonic nod to his Mum and her semantic delicacy, Beckett in one of his novels referred to the dear old arsehole accurately if obscurely by the Latin ‘podex’.

There is prudishness, which is a weak and inadequate way to face a world, where there are far bigger issues than buttocks terminology, such as genocide, racism, desperate poverty etc, and there is also the matter of sensitivity, which is where things can be debatable and even raw and upsetting. My wife Annie (1955-2009) could not take the c-word at any price, whether it was used as a simple noun, or even worse as a term of abuse. Pointing out that the less frequent use of ‘prick’ as a hostile term as applied to a man, possibly evens things up a bit, did not convince her. Oddly enough, things as banal as spelling can often subtly change matters. The antiquated  c-word was a q-word, and was ‘queynt’ (sometimes used in older translations of yoni in the classic Indian erotics texts). I can write that q-word without any uncomfortable feelings whatever, whereas I cannot write or speak the c-word without feeling very awkward. I know some young women in 2015 who use it freely and guiltlessly, and wouldn’t bat an eyelid if I did likewise in their presence… but I never would. And for the same reason, I am not happy saying ‘twat’ as a casual reference to the innocent pudendum muliebris, though I have no worries whatever about using it as a cheery and scathing  3rd person reference to someone I do not like. Ironically and to roundly complicate matters, it is in the UK, debatably synonymous with ‘twit’ and ‘twot’ (the latter used often by someone I know from deepest Suffolk) which are innocent expressions for someone who is a bit of an eejit. That said, I gather in some parts of Old Blighty the word ‘twit’ is used exclusively for the female pudenda, so all I can say is watch what the hell you come out with, depending on where you choose to utter it.

Some of my daughter’s generation (she is 26) laugh cynically at the term ‘making love’ for sex, whereas I think it a tender and altogether likeable, even lovable phrase. What after all is wrong with a term that includes the word  ‘love’, as long as it is gently understated, rather than used as all purpose syrup? By contrast I would never talk about ‘fucking’ a woman, not even to a beery and leery bloke, much less to another woman, far less to the woman herself. In any remotely tender context, it seems a relatively brutal word, though I have nil problem in using it in a general anecdotal sense, as opposed to referring to any specific living, breathing and sentient and sensitive woman. By the same logic, I never talk about a woman’s ‘tits’, as at best, and even if a woman is saying it,  it is vaudeville comic, and at its worst it is one of those baffling cases where women seem to be casually dismissive about the undeniable glories of their bodies. To square the circle and do a bit of semantic balancing, I don’t mind most of those words for the penis which are jovially based on male Christian names. ‘Dick’ is fine enough I suppose, and though I don’t object to ‘willy’,  I think it an exceeding stupid term. No one outside of DH Lawrence talks about the ‘John Thomas’, but I think it is rather amusing, and while we’re at it, my farmer father’s polite and old fashioned term for the female genitals, was a woman’s ‘Mary Ann’. Nothing to complain of there, surely. But a perceptive reader noticed the other day that I seemingly bowdlerised the most common word for the penis, ‘cock’ as  c–k, and she seriously wondered why. I do not care for the word true enough, but it was the aggressive  context of it as a term of vicious abuse between males, in the phrase ‘kiss my c–k’ which caused me to use those most helpful little dashes.

And to get back to where we started. In a very modified sense I am on the same side as barmy Margo, the woman who in 1992 castigated infant Ione for using the outrageously offensive word ‘bum’. In the female backside context and certainly in any erotic context, I would put the scant 3 letter designation alongside the use of ‘tits’. Women have bodies that are to be celebrated and even with due qualification revered, and they also have breasts that are beautiful and bottoms that are beautiful. The ‘tits’ and ‘bum’ lexicon don’t begin do that significant and hopefully tender job as far as I’m concerned.

Though you might well think, and in a sense I wouldn’t blame you,  that I am talking through my bloody old podex/arse.

 

MAD DOGS

MAD DOGS

‘John Murray is one of the best comic writers we’ve got’ Jonathan Coe, The Observer.

John offers Bargain Online Fiction Tuition with detailed and precise criticism. For more details contact john@writinginkythnos.com

Yesterday I spoke of a mongrel dog greatly embarrassing me and Annie, its doting owners, and today I will mention someone else’s dog, a pedigree retriever, that left us both stupefied, even brainless by its behaviour. It belonged to an ex-policeman so you think it would have known better, but on the other hand its name was Duke, and you never know where you are with the aristocracy nowadays, now that they no longer have lese majeste and obligatory tithes and so on at their ready disposal.

Though it wasn’t exactly nowadays, it was 1979, the year before Annie was working in East Anglia at the hostel for young folk with learning difficulties. She had started another residential social work job in Suffolk, as a kind of fill-in stopgap, though obviously she did not tell them that at the interview. It involved working in what would once have been called an Approved School, meaning an institution for those boys aged between about 16  and 20, who had been in trouble with the law, and whose life stories were often harrowing. Some of them had suffered physical abuse from stepfathers, others sexual abuse from natural fathers, some had mothers who were prostitutes, and one or two appallingly were born of an incestuous union, usually father and daughter, which surely must be one of the hardest things to accept at whatever age you try to look it in the face. Parallel with yesterday’s  Head of Home, Jilly the ex hotelier, whose only aptness for her exacting post was the fact she  knew about mass catering and bulk accommodation, the Head of Home here had been a London civil servant specialising in waste disposal, which again had most impressed the interviewers. Amazingly his name was Murdstone, the same as that of David Copperfield’s future stepdad, the one who flogged him with a cane for fluffing his sums, and then when David quite reasonably bit him, had him sent to Creakle’s Academy where he had to wear a board telling the world that he bit. Joe Murdstone did not beat any of his charges, thank God, though he kept a sound distance from both them and most of his employees, and transacted almost everything by written memos (this was pre mobile phones, needless to add).

Annie was right to treat this as a fill in job. A majority of the care staff were male and though mostly amiable, were drawn from the forces, from the police, and from ordinary state schools which they left most likely because of chronic ineptitude, rather than wishing to work with disadvantaged boys. One I talked to a couple of times was called Terry Blincoe, mid 40s, full of his own musical Tyne and Wear wisdom, and a former woodwork teacher in a comprehensive. His regular advice to some kid whose stepdad might have raped him throughout infancy, was, ‘put it all behind you lad!’ and this cheerily saccharine care worker never once reflected that his use of words paralleled the act of rape (having something put behind you). He should have been called Terribly Blinkered, and in fact he was by me and Annie behind his back. Add to that it soon became apparent much of Annie’s new duties were flagrant domestic skivvying and a function of the fact she was female. She spent a lot of time sorting bed linen and the boys’ laundered clothes, and luckily she liked the lads very much, or she would have left Dryfield as it was called, the same day that she started.

One evening we were invited for a drink in the home of a couple where the husband, a rather sedate and sleepy ex-policeman called Wally, was also employed at Dryfield, and who of course had never sorted any laundry in his life. He and his trimly dressed, heavily made up, ash blonde wife Mandy, who was a secretary in the nearby town, were in their early 30s, while I was 29 and Annie only 24. Neither couple had children, though both of us had dogs who fulfilled the role as best they could. Theirs was Duke the young black retriever, who seemed a nice enough lad when we turned up around 8 for wine and coffee and nibbles. Duke fussed wildly over us, and Bill our brindled mongrel  fussed generously over our animal-daft hosts (they also had 2 beautiful cats and a chirpy canary called Sid) and that broke the ice, though I clairvoyantly sensed that it might prove uphill work when it turned to kaffeeklatsch conversation, and scraping for things we had in common. I myself was that painful anomaly, a committed  writer who had never actually published anything, not even a single story in a magazine. It would be 5 years before my first book was taken, and 3 years before I had a story in a classy literary journal. In the meantime I was JM the typist, not JM the writer, in some faithless folks’ eyes, though of course not in Annie’s, who had far more faith than I had for much of the time, and supported us financially for many years to prove it.

Wally and Mandy were oblivious to these niceties, and as neither of them read books more than once a year, and always on Christmas Day, they made no distinction between one who had something to prove they were a writer, and someone like me who only had his East German Erika typewriter, covered in the sanguinary effusions of his literary struggle, not to speak of myriad flecks of Liquid Tippex eraser. Wally and Mandy, like 2 diligent machine guns, asked me the roll call questions: did I carry a note book (never)? did I work a regular routine? (yes, 6 hours a day, 5 days a week) did I draw from life? (yes nearly always. Cue, ooh we’d better look out then, or we’ll find ourselves in one of your books!).

Instead 36 years later and for the very first time, they have ended up on my blog, though the star of this bizarre anecdote is Duke the dog, and not its owners. In fairness to them, it wasn’t really like Mike Leigh’s classic TV drama, Abigail’s Party (1977), an assemblage of excruciating nuclear couples, who if you’d been there at their party, you would wished to both die and scream. They were decent souls at bottom, but overwhelmingly dull. When I tried to get Wally to say anything enlightening about being a policeman in the 70s, he talked in earnest generalities which is how I believe he must have talked to the public, his bosses, his police colleagues, and even to Mandy ever since they had met. Asking her about her job was no more instructive, and she looked faintly puzzled that anyone should show any interest in such a topic, as her old Wally for one had never done so. They both finished each other’s sentences far too often, but it was not a case of discord, they were obviously well  suited and very fond of each other.

Then it really did turn into Abigail’s Party with a vengeance, but one crossed with a kind of porn  show, though not the kind involving human beings. There was no warning other than like any  2 young male dogs, neither of whom had been spayed, they were both obsessed with sex. Nor did they care too much which gender, or even which animal species, or even whether the animate or the inanimate, was involved in its prosecution. Bill for example would sometimes try to ride the legs of both me and Annie, much to our tolerant, ah there he goes again, hilarity. We had both had dogs all our lives, and knew that they knew no sober boundaries. Bill would also sometimes ride a discarded sweater of mine, which was both touching and illuminating, as it was almost like it was his night time comfort toy. Today though, he had no interest whatever in any shenanigans with Duke, possibly because like me, Bill was  a visceral socialist and Duke and his owners were  obvious Tories. More to the point though, was that Duke was 3 times his size, and a bit of a heavy duty erotic assailant. He was doing his best to mount Bill, and though shooshed and tsked at by Wally and Mandy, paid no attention, and kept on trying to ram away as if for a 1st prize or a medal.

At last Bill could take no more of the frantic harassment, and leapt onto a vacant armchair to escape this truly ravenous beast. There was absolutely nil preamble to what occurred next, and it happened in a second that was so split, it was exactly like seamless choreography. Seeing Bill’s modest little canine genitals without any defences, old Duke ran forward and without any forethought nor the scantest moral deliberation about doing such a thing in public, and in front of a  policeman to boot, he took them in his mouth and set about treating them like a chewy treat from a pet shop!

Annie and I looked on awestruck. Bill  growled and leapt off the sofa as fast as he could, thus leaving Duke, the surprise fellatio expert, open-mouthed and most disconcerted. Annie hesitated 2 seconds, then shot up and grabbed her assaulted child before seating him firmly, wedged tight between her knees. Duke apparently still believed in seigneurial  lese majeste, and was prepared to have his way in these chastity belt circumstances, but Wally at last sprang up, yanked Duke out of the way, and gripped him by the neck as he awkwardly retrieved  his chair.

Annie and I exhaled our relief, then guffawed and expressed astonishment at that which neither of us had even read about in books, much less witnessed in the genteel outskirts of Sudbury, Suffolk . We were of course expecting this dyed-in-the-wool couple, who always finished each other’s sentences, and only read books at Yuletide, and never at Easter nor when ill… we were expecting them to be dumbstruck and embarrassed, but most oddly the pair of them simply smiled and laughed it off as if animals will be animals, and that was the end of the matter.

36 years later I still don’t understand them, so you might say that Wally and Mandy have stood the test of imaginative time.

EMBARRASSING ANIMALS

EMBARRASSING ANIMALS

‘John Murray has a mind like a laser beam, and is able to focus on dross and on cutting it out.’  From Tony Walker, Fiction Student.

 John offers Bargain Online Fiction Tuition. Detailed and precise criticism from someone who won the Dylan Thomas Award for short stories, and was Booker-longlisted with Jazz Etc. For more information contact john@writinginkythnos.com

I wrote about laughing fits yesterday but omitted two first class examples of the restrained variety. This is where you are bursting at the seams with hilarity, on some innocent social occasion, but dare not let it loose, or will cause great offence in the particular and often highly inappropriate context. Unless that is you are a genius at making incredible and far-fetched excuses, and you might just get away with saying you have a special type of Tourette’s Syndrome that manifests itself as causeless volcanic mirth. But there again it’s likely to be Catch 22, as many would prefer you to be an antisocial appallingly rude splutterer and chortler, than someone with a worrying type of explosive so called neuropsychiatric disorder.

The first example is more or less harmless and would offend no one, whereas the second is garish, nay Rabelaisian in a modified zoological sense, and well nigh incredible, and as they used to say 50 years ago when the 1960’s usually controversial BBC Wednesday Play was about to come on, ‘the following programme might not be suitable for those of a nervous disposition’. For ‘nervous’ replace ‘shockable’, the only mitigation being it was the behaviour of an innocent animal, in fact a dog belonging to a policeman.

The first story is set in the East of England, somewhere between Cambridge and Norwich, over 30 years ago when Annie had just started a new job as a care assistant, in a brand new purpose built residential hostel for young folk with learning difficulties. For the uninitiated, there is a basic distinction in social work between those who work in the residential context, meaning care institutions: Old Peoples’ Homes, Children’s Homes etc and those called Field Social Workers, who often go out on very rough housing estates, and regularly face objective dangers, or at any rate high level stress as part of their daily diet, given that they have to deal with such raw issues as child abuse, domestic violence and the like. In the old days you needed considerable training to be a field worker, but the residential social workers were treated more leniently, or perhaps being more truthful very wrongly. They weren’t required to go through degree level training, unlike their field counterparts, and could get by with a few weekend courses and maybe a few night classes offering much more basic qualifications. Worse than that, was the fact that often a Head of Home with serious responsibilities, might have been appointed simply because they had worked in one of the all purpose and sometimes highly questionable ‘caring’, ‘custodial’ or ‘organisational’ fields, that had  nothing to do with social work proper. Thus the head of an Old Folks’ Home in say 1980 might have been a former policeman, or any army officer, or an erstwhile school head, and in the case of Annie’s new job, the Head’s sole qualification was that she had once run a busy hotel in Broadstairs, Kent.

Her name was Jilly Beam and she was about 55, silver-haired, highly strung, and was divorced from her hotelier husband Arnold, and spoke shudderingly of his awful and destructive drink problem. On enquiry, it turned out she had known Arnold was an alcoholic, when she married him late in life at 45, so you wondered why she thought he would change his habits in the milieu of a posh Kent hotel with a well stocked bar, where you could drink your fill any time of day and night. To borrow from writer Edna O’ Brien again, with her splendid Irish litotes, a lot of these ex-hoteliers and ex-army folk weren’t exactly ‘killt with brains’. I can also never forget an amiable Old Folks’ Home manager, a short, plump and dapper former police constable I  met in 1979, aged 36, called Brian, who told me he couldn’t be bothered with reading a bloke like William Shakespeare because ‘he used far too many words’ and he couldn’t see any bloody old point in that, why not get to the crux, the nub of things, indeed like you had to if you were obliged to write a police statement?

At any rate, Jilly, after about a month invited Annie and me for tea in her smart and brand new quarters round the back of the hostel. It was already apparent according to Annie, that Jilly had shown what she liked doing, and what she disliked doing, in the place of which she was manager. The more docile  and you might say childlike or simple of the young folk with learning problems, she would happily laugh and play with and even sing to, as in nursery school, but otherwise her main interest was in checking and organising the hostel’s bed linen, crockery and cutlery i.e. fulfilling her role as a whizz at the logistics of full board accommodation and mass catering. In effect she was decoratively useless at her job, and the one who did the important spadework was the blunt but caring Deputy Head Tex from Glasgow. He it was who when the police brought back one of the residents, Kenny, a worried gangling chainsmoking lad of 30, with obvious sexual frustration problems, who had been found wandering about the town centre dressed in a young woman’s clothes and daubed with heavy lipstick, Tex it was who took him gently from the kindly policeman who had been worried for his safety, and five minutes later urged him candidly:

“Don’t you know how to use your fecking todger, man, on yer ain, and get some feckin relief?”

I tried to imagine Jilly saying something more decorously edited, though on the same lines, but Annie told me the divorced hotelier never subsequently referred to the incident, and looked quite blank and even irritated, when Tex had,  as was the statutory protocol, reported it to her in detail. She was Head of Home, but she simply did not want to know.

Tea for me and Annie was a piece of piss in comparison. She had invited Bill our 3 year-old mongrel too, because she liked handsome little brindled dogs, as well as peaceful childlike residents. Bill was politeness itself, as he spotted the handsome cream cakes, for like his 25- and 29 year-old owners, who had yet to start a family called Ione, he had a sweet tooth, and Bill was also unabashedly partial to succulent tuna and best quality ham sandwiches, that were lavishly on offer. Jilly had generously bought Bill a tin of luxury dog meat, which he with similar generosity devoured in 10 seconds flat, and without it even touching the roof of his mouth. At that, Jilly started talking about Barbara Woodhouse (1910-1988), the personable if bluff TV dog trainer, who was very big at the time, and who Jilly watched, even though she had no dog, though as she mournfully added, she  might at some stage, once she had got over the trauma of Arnold’s drinking and her divorce.

Just as I was dozily failing to see the causative connection there, because it struck me a nice little dog might be a handy source of companionship and comfort for nervous Jilly, and get her over her post-marital trauma, she added wistfully, turning to Annie:

“You are so lucky to have a man like this one here, who can do so many things around the house for you! There are all these jobs I shall need done, with shelves and cupboards, and what not, and of course I haven’t a clue.”

Annie smiled, and put it very charitably when she replied, but what she should have told Jilly was that my manual skills and handyman  prowess made fumbling, hopeless Homer Simpson look like the famed BBC DIY guru of the 50s and 60s, good old knock a house up, or optionally knock the bugger down, in half an hour, the alliterative and ever smiling Barry Bucknell.  While Jilly entertained herself by trying a few simple obedience exercises on Bill, in vain alas, as she was training him with dog biscuits specially bought in, and Bill wanted only luscious cream cakes or top class salmon sandwiches in exchange for fawning obedience…I took a look round to see what Jilly had in the way of books. As she hadn’t had any shelves put up, they were all in storage, she said wistfully, so all she had was an exquisite, tooled and bound red leather set of Shakespeare in a separate freestanding  case. They were truly beautiful and surely very valuable, and as I took a closer  and quite a tender look, I noticed there were 2 copies of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s least performed and gorily bloody tragedy.

I said, “Did you know you’ve 2 copies of Titus Andronicus, Jilly?”

She misheard and I think possibly thought I was saying she had 2 of something unpleasant as a possible personal affliction. When I repeated it, she smiled her relief at such a bagatelle and said:

“I had  absolutely no idea! How very odd.”

She had obviously never opened a single page of any of these beautiful volumes,  or she couldn’t possibly have failed to notice something so glaring, and especially of the bard’s most notorious play.  It was perhaps not entirely unlike her cheerful blanking out the fact that her unhappy resident Kenny was a frustrated and extremely embarrassing cross-dresser, who had never been shown by anyone, with or without learning problems, how to masturbate.

Then it happened. The laughing fit that is. The laughing fit that by a massive wholly epic effort, Annie and I swallowed and struggled to contain. She and I happened to be sat in adjacent chairs opposite Jilly, and mongrel Bill was by the Head of Home’s generous knees, and was staring back at what you might call his Mum and Dad (Ione was nearly a decade away, so he was our surrogate child no doubt of that).

Suddenly Bill gave a huge yawn, just possibly as he had gorged himself so amply, and when he reassembled his face, it so happened that his mouth got stuck on the inside of his teeth, and he looked profoundly like a buck-teethed imbecile.  It would have been flattering to say he had learning difficulties, looking like that, though  maybe if he had, highly strung Jilly might have been able to play with him and even sing to him and thus improve the quality of his (as they used to say but no longer do) mentally handicapped life.

At the sight of bucktoothed Bill, I could feel Annie’s stomach quaking with mirth and mad hilarity. I could almost hear it doing so. I could feel my own comic eruption welling up like a geyser, and it needed such ferocious, damn near impossible discipline to control it. The pair of us were on pins and it was almost orgasmic the joy of our comedy, and a comedy that of course was presently thoroughly taboo.

Meanwhile Jilly was still chatting on about Barbara Woodhouse, the genius dog trainer. Bill by the greatest fortune had retrieved his gob to its normal geometry, and now he only looked a default faintly dozy, and not at all a social work case. As I looked at Jilly, I thought surely someone, some rigid authoritarian parent, had trained her far too hard as an infant, maybe half a century ago. All these things have an explanation. A year later Jilly had left her job here, and Glaswegian Tex was made the Head, and everything came on at the young people’s hostel, by leaps and bounds. Jilly would be 90 years old, if she is still alive and kicking. If she is, I hope she is very happy, and has maybe retired to an exceptionally nice hotel by the seaside than some deadly bloody Old Folks Home.

 

The second and rather more outrageous story linked to this one, will now appear tomorrow 

 

 

LAUGH TILL YOU CRY

LAUGH TILL YOU CRY

John Murray offers Bargain Online Fiction Tuition. Founder-editor of the acclaimed Panurge fiction magazine (1984-1996) co-edited with David Almond (Tyneside author of bestselling ‘Skellig’), he ran his own highly-regarded UK fiction consultancy from 2002-2013. Contact john@writinginkythnos.com

Laughing fits can be both exhilarating and terrifying. The no holds barred US writer Henry Miller (1891-1980) once described one so intense he became seriously anxious if he didn’t stop, he would die. Everyone knows that laughter is good for you, the best medicine and so on, and most of us at some time have weathered some bleak or even desperate period by watching our favourite funny film (the 1973 autobiographical Amarcord by Fellini in my case), most prized funny book (any of Flann O’Brien’s uniquely mordant fictions) or fabulous TV comedy show. The last one for me is a toss up between Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights, the riotous and revolutionary Lancashire working class clubland saga (2001-2002)and the dazzling showcase for Dylan Moran’s appalling and vile tempered 2nd hand bookseller, Black Books (2000-2004), plus the 1985 Channel 4 version of EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia. Benson (1867-1940) wrote a string of hilarious M and L novels between 1920-1939, peopled with posh  and ludicrous but lovable 1920s nits, and the C4 compendium version is quite simply so excellent it defies all belief, or to put it another way, like Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf and Jose Saramago, it is arguably too good for this undiscriminating world. If you’re wondering, I avoid the Greek philosophic scenario of the donkey dying of starvation through not knowing which bale of hay to choose, by watching all 3 complete series over and over again… nearly always with  a glass of nice red wine to hand.

Annie and I were regular  churchgoers back in North Cumbria, and once we got a laughing fit in one of the more august of the places of congregation. It is a kind of sacrilege to start slapping your thigh and heehawing in a place of divine worship (qv that moving Wapshot novel by tormented bisexual John Cheever (1912-1982) where a dozy man in a US church horrendously has his alarm clock go off), so instead we muffled it with great difficulty until it subsided, but I can assure you it was nothing to do with irreverence. The place was High Anglican which is not my preferred taste, and the vicar sang rather than spoke the liturgy. He sang it the way Benny Hill or Frankie Howerd would have sung it, in an unwitting vaudeville parody, fluting, effeminate, infinitely posh, and altogether daft. The holy words he was singing were of the profoundest spiritual significance, but his presentation turned them into a Saturday night telly sketch from about 1970. To put it another way, he got in the way of the words, instead of being a truly fitting conduit. This is a very serious not a finicky aesthetic issue, if you consider that most Brits in 2015 wouldn’t touch an Anglican church or any other with a bargepole. How do you get the kids with shaved heads and full body tattoos and full of very reasonable anger, I mean rage, to come inside a church where the double of upper class twits played by actors like Derek Nimmo (1930-1999), as in the clerical BBC comedy All Gas and Gaiters (1966), is warbling ludicrously away as if there is no tomorrow (and there is no tomorrow for those kids, that’s the obvious point)?

The year 1970 brings me to another laughing explosion where nil restraint was necessary. Imagine a lofty turret room 45 years ago, overlooking a quad in a hallowed ancient Oxford college, in which are gathered a quartet of 20 year-old youths all with very long hair. They are all rather surprisingly lying on their backs on floor cushions, as if perhaps they are in a harem, though to be sure there are no sultry odalisques there beside them, and they are listening to a record, and the air is thick with odorous fumes that contain tobacco but conceivably just more than tobacco. They are all euphoric and all having worked hard at their studies during the day, are guiltlessly relaxing by some harmless diversion in the form of earnest music appreciation, and in this case of an unusual kind. I was one of those youths and whereas the other 3 had had their customary LP choices of contemporary rock (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Barclay James Harvest, Chicago, Frank Zappa ) I was a jazz freak and had put on something quite anomalous by any standard. The band was led  by Sonny Stitt aka The Lone Wolf (1924-1982) who was an excellent if no great boundary pushing bebop virtuoso on the sax. On this album Deuces Wild (1966) he had of all things included a jazz bagpipes player, though not a bekilted Ecky Munro from Pittenweem, Alba, but a black musician called Rufus Harley. The music was passionate and hypnotic and the bagpipes like an astringent lament, and hearteningly my rock-loving friends very much enjoyed it. However once it came to a halt, one of the group, let’s call him Dan, who had a definite fondness for buffoonish wordplay, started to improvise on the rather comical surname Stitt, in the form of appropriately comic Christian names.

Selwyn Stitt

Sanquhar Stitt

Samuel (Waar Wee Sammy)  Stitt

Sacheverell Stitt

Somerset Stitt

Septimus Stitt

Steerforth Stitt

And that was only the s’s.

When he got to the t’s, he started with Taunton Stitt and then amazingly Tinderbox Stitt and Tamberlaine Stitt and Tenebris Stitt, until befuddled though he might have been by all that aromatic smoke, he moved  ingeniously onto the ‘th’ variation. We had all been chuckling at the vivid images, with incredibly full blooded, powerfully realised characters, aroused by all these barmy names, and possibly because the density of the fug had affected our chromatic imaginative faculties. Dan the wordplay wizard started with Theodore Stitt and Theophilus Stitt and the excellent Throgmorton Stitt, which were indeed most amusing and infinitely cracked, and we all began to roar our laughter, if in a controlled fashion. Dan then went totally silent for a while, as if he had given up the exhausting game, before suddenly shooting bolt upright with that impulsively electric and creative force we have all known at least once in our lives.

He blurted almost anxiously, as if frightened of his own worrying verbal powers:

“THREADNEEDLE STITT!”

I for one hallucinated the truly astonishing Threadneedle Stitt right away, aged about 45,  a restless, irritable Home Counties bachelor eternally obsessed with money, and with a droopy wilting moustache, and he was pacing round that aromatic room, oblivious of the 4 idiots all lying on their backs, smoking Lebanese hashish as if they were first to do such an amazingly courageous and nobly self-narcotising act. He was like something very excitable and eccentric out of Dickens (qv Mr Pancks in Little Dorrit) crossed with PG Wodehouse, instantly identifiable by the crazy name of a harmless lunatic at large. Then four youths with bare feet and identical bush jackets and beards, and taggy long hair and enormous LP collections in all cases, one of whom would be dead of lymphatic cancer aged only 45 in 1996, all went into a fever of merriment and they all went on and on clutching their guts until they indeed came close to Henry Miller’s fear of a truly bizarre death through laughter.

We all like to say, I died laughing, yet I often wonder if anyone ever has.