CHAPTER 7 of PASSION FOR BEGINNERS

CHAPTER 7 of PASSION FOR BEGINNERS

Chapter 8 appears tomorrow May 8th. Previous chapters are on the blog posts immediately preceding this one.

7

So much for spiritual trajectories. Though as everyone might acknowledge, these days only a minority of westerners can boast of such things, and very obviously manage perfectly well without them. So they think. Meanwhile, I have long lost count of the number of educated middle class people who po-faced, smile and assure me that, if anything (I love that lordly qualifier, as if they are talking about Labour versus Tory, or mashed potatoes versus chips) they are Buddhists or sympathetic to Buddhism. I nod politely and subtly change the subject. What they mean is their heads agree with the spartan tenets of original Hinayana ‘atheistic’ Buddhism (thus they believe) but their hearts and limbs and genitalia go on doing exactly whatever they want to do, and always have done. For that matter, and I don’t whether it should make one laugh or cry, way up in the English borderlands I once knew an idealistic organic farmer of public school background, who professed to be a serious Buddhist, but kept prime sheep and cattle and had them butchered on the premises in his own abattoir. Such a startling oxymoron, a Buddhist abattoir, meaning that ahimsa or doing no harm to any creature, was just an inconvenient dispensable, whereas arm and a leg organic beef and lamb were self-evidently not?

Buddhism is a great world faith demanding all sorts of things that few of these westerners deign to practice: abstinence, self-control, chastity, charity, strict vegetarianism. It also enjoins regular meditation, and to be sure they are usually very happy squatting down on their cushioned behinds on neat little mats and doing just that, if only because it is a proven balm for their restless minds. To that extent it is rather like blameless FE night class yoga, but with a respectable theoretical basis (meaning the subtle philosophy of Samkhya-Yoga, though they never get quite that far in their cautious armchair explorations). It is a quaint fact that for some, religion is not a way of life but an optimal therapy, demanding nothing much but reading a little comforting tome or two, and with minimum changes in one’s daily routine. None of them even think of the necessary discipline of prayer, or attentively reading sacred scripture, whether Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, or anything else. It is the equivalent of wanting to be an accomplished musician but never doing any practice, or ditto a cabinet maker but never studying zealously their craft, including knowing anything at all about wood. It is all in the head, and typically the cleverest of intellectuals will fail to see that the head is something not ideally equipped to understand the spiritual. They should reflect that the classical Hindu term for ‘philosophy’ is darshana, from the verb root drsh, meaning ‘to see’, and emphatically not meaning ‘to think’.

I was pushed out to afternoon Sunday school every week as a child, and cordially loathed it. Coming after the bleary joys of the Light Programme and the Two Way Family Favourites and the heavy beef dinner, it was as it were the premature finale of a day I always experienced as purgatory, not heaven. The vicar in his mid thirties had at least three dancing chins and a permanent hilarity, a native jolliness, that was not infectious, and he also had a lacklustre cohort of shy young women aged somewhere between 19 and 23, all without boyfriends, who were his Sunday School teachers. He boasted a new car which was a sign of affluence in the community in the late 1950s, but he preferred to whistle round the village on his bicycle, ringing his bell at everyone he met, whether churchgoer or not, and loudly announcing his presence. His surname was Reilly, which was not a particularly Protestant designation, but he softened things by adding his own nickname, which for wholly unfathomable reasons was Pom Pom. He didn’t wear any pom-pom hat, but it didn’t stop him bawling Pom Pom Reilly at even the roughest group of hard teenage lads, who leered uncomprehending, and once he’d passed gave him a jeering and obscene salute. Ever since that day, my first real experience of the church, I have thought of the clerical milieu as being peopled by the largely puerile and the outwardly sexless. Those Sunday school women, with their pasty skins and their plain faces and their yellow cardigans, had no struggle to be virgins, and no doubt ached for the dignified scenario of optionally dispensing with chastity. As for Pom Pom, he roundly annoyed the village early on, for despite zestfully ringing his bicycle bell, and shouting his name as everyone’s best friend, he chose the treacherous course of sending his two boys to the town school, rather than the village juniors. It meant he had to drive them there every day, and half the village sullenly watched his departure and noted that he did not parp his car as he shot past, and even looked slightly shifty as he drove to a place where the 11-plus passes were at least five times the village quotient. There they wore a smart uniform, and Pom Pom who believed in godly discipline (he boasted that he walloped his boys severely if ever he caught them telling an ungodly lie) had quickly noticed the shabby state of some of the impoverished village kids, and hastily discarded the Christian benediction, Blessed Are the Poor.

Behold the Anglican church in candid summary, exactly as experienced by outsiders. Surpassingly dull, eternally juvenile, far too plain faced and ungainly, whether male or female, to be obliged to wrestle with the problem of abstinence. Which explains why in my late forties, as well as continuing with the village church, I started to attend an impressively remote Debatable Lands chapel where the denomination might have been termed a Free Church. It was a stark eye-opener, inasmuch as there were no dog collars, and the venue was a virtually unchanged nineteenth century country school, you might even say a hedge school, straight out of Thomas Hardy, or the querulous dissenters of George Eliot’s Felix Holt, Radical. This extraordinary place of worship looked exactly like an ancient barn, even down to being stuck out in a small and bumpy field. It had electric lights, but no cooker nor power points nor sockets for preparing food or drinks in the tiny kitchen. The ancient odour was most heartening, a fine, comforting musty smell, and we sat amazingly in what were the original 1820’s benches. Week by week a humble dozen folk listened to a rotating fund of preachers, predominantly male, dressed in tidy suits or very occasionally the younger ones wore denims. They were in turn Evangelicals, Free Church of Scotland (a country of a very different spiritual calibre, lying only fifteen miles off) and Methodists, usually of the Primitive as opposed to Wesleyan kind. For the first time ever I heard speakers who effortlessly knew the Bible backwards, quoting chunks of it without a pause. I beheld the enigma of some preacher whose day job might be a shopkeeper or a town hall clerk, expounding on a single verse of Colossians or Revelation for a full twenty minutes, without drawing breath, as riveting as any charismatic orator throughout.

These speakers in confounding manner, really meant what they said, that is, they preached what they felt, and they preached it from, according to them, the Spirit, or perhaps one might say from the inspired heart, which allowed them a torrential exegesis of a single gospel verse. In conversation, some of them were bashful and barely articulate, and it was nothing short of a miracle that they had suddenly become as fluent as the most famous preachers of yore. One iron proof of their spiritual mettle, was that they were wholly unafraid of the most daunting parts of the Bible. They could expound on Revelation and its apocalyptic fire and passion, unabashed by the hallucinatory imagery, as if they gladly welcomed those blazing eyes of fire and awesome eschatological signs. They feared nothing in Scripture, which was of course proof of their godly fear, and is not the same as profane fear, but is compounded of reverence and respect, awe and adoration. By contrast, an elderly Anglican priest on the abandoned preaching course, had told me one night in the bar with great assurance, that he never had and never would preach on the last book of the Bible.

“Why?” I asked in wonderment.

“No one knows what it means, even the brightest theologians haven’t a clue. It’s all over the place in my view. It’s impossible to expound on it, because it could mean almost anything.”

He was spouting downright heresy, though he didn’t know it, and was indeed an amiable white-haired chap whose forte was half hour sermons about green issues, conservation and ‘custodianship’ of God’s planet. Meanwhile, he often forgot to include the noun God before the planet, and he could arguably have been giving an affable after dinner talk to the Rotarians or the WI. Had I quoted him to these country chapel preachers who wore no badge of dog collars, they would drily have pointed out the obvious, namely that God has no cause to be a deliberate obscurantist. If Revelation is apparently obscure, then reflect the nature of the afterlife is hardly likely to be something akin to a realistic film documentary, given that beyond this world people no longer possess bodies, but only have the refuge of their spirits. This studied avoidance of what is deemed to be uncomfortable, is all too consistent with the temper of the times, and the conflation of eco-politics with religion, and, so to speak, Jesus becoming a fierily outspoken community worker, or alternatively a charmingly tousle-haired bow-tied Tory addicted to the ancient Common Prayer Book and none other, is all symptomatic of a transcendent thickness apropos the comprehension of matters spiritual

That was some excursus, but so too was my absence from the church, a Biblical quantity of 3 x 7 or 21 years. In 1967, a few months after my Confirmation, aged only 16, and turned communist atheist, I ceased to go to church, and did not return until the summer of 1988, when Angie and I went along after the ugly miscarriage. We were both very raw, and after rapidly getting pregnant again, she was terrified of losing what would become our daughter Janie. This was our first experience of a very countrified church, where they all had thick North Cumbrian cadences, and where there was a heaving surplus of warm-hearted ‘canny bodies’. In their sixties in the main, they might even have been our parents, and indeed by handy assimilation became their replacements, especially when they learnt of the reason for our return. ‘Body’, in both Cumbrian and Geordie parlance, means ‘woman’, and ‘canny’ is a resonant Scots and Northern adjective so nuanced and comprehensive, it can mean virtually anything that is admirable. In these countrywomen’s cases, it signified resourceful, affectionate, shrewd, and above all hard working. Each of them might a dozen times a year, bake a trifling fifty scones and fifty tea cakes for a rummage sale, to help secure the church‘s leaking roof. They would stump up for the costly butter, the best ham, the quality cheese, and also produce tasty little quiches, fancy cakes and gingerbread by the lorryload. They would chivvy a church-avoiding husband to man the car park for the country crowds that flocked there, starved of any peaceable non-bloodsport diversion of a Saturday afternoon. All Friday evening, they would scrub the village hall, then purge it thoroughly on the Saturday night. All that on top of the skivvying in the huge farmhouse, and labouring endlessly on the farm itself, and all the cold weather milking and shepherding, when the overworked son was away at distant auctions and the husband so typically was laid up with flu.

This quaint rustic piety was a matter of visible, tangible deeds, and there were none of the fervent public avowals of faith you witnessed from the Free Church adherents at the chapel. The canny bodies would have been far too mortified, just as they couldn’t stand sung services where the vicar sounded exactly like some fluting and pansified Benny Hill. Even when they suffered personal tragedies, the loss of a spouse, the divorce of a son, and maybe cruelly limited access to grandchildren, they understated their sorrow, and never sought nor wished for pity. They said very hastily, there’s nothing to do about it, you have no choice but to soldier on, and if with a full herd of pedigree Charolais, and no man left to help, sure enough they had no choice. They didn’t want bereavement counselling, they saw to the hungry cows who needed them and sought them, when the widows came their way. They understood this thing called ‘bad nerves’, but did not understand that reified totem, Stress, the household deity, a mysterious quantity that floated in the air and dropped malignly on your shoulders if you didn’t watch it. The way to avoid it and shun its power, was to labour every minute that God sent, to crawl out of bed in the winter dark, when at first you would sooner succumb to eternal oblivion. Thus and thus and day by day, and with many small agonising setbacks, you would, with passing time, the only assured balm that is absolutely free for everyone, find yourself an even keel again.

Angie and I would look at each other in our beautiful and tiny North Cumbrian cottage, painted a tender flaking pink, and whose garden was full of siskins and bullfinches, and wonder if we were suffering from creeping brain softening. This was not the dubious courtesy of our weekly worship, but of the ancillary things that came in its wake. Way out in the North Cumbrian Uplands, entertainment options were scarce, so it was as if under tranquil hypnosis we found ourselves attending humble revels like church rummage sales, whist drives, quiz nights, and even beetle drives.  Our so called brains did us no good at all on the quiz nights, as even the few theoretical questions, being so monstrously obscure and pathologically precise (how many different sub-species of South Asiatic mosquito have been identified to date?) we both failed miserably. Mostly because she was pregnant, Angie even joined a knitting group and started to click click (and chat chat) industriously for her baby. It was also a deliberate act of faith that the baby inside her was going to see its course. The canny bodies campaigned to have her in the Women’s Institute, though she baulked at that, even if by 1988 it was no longer a somnolent affair, but conducted major campaigns on matters of child poverty and world famine. Yet one night we surpassed ourselves, and chose to visit of all things… a Demonstration of Flower Arranging. Angie loved gardening and adored flowers, as did I, though in my case at an extremely perspicacious distance from any personal involvement. It had been organised by the WI, but was an open event, and the village hall was packed to the gills. Everyone was a red-faced countrified canny body, apart from ourselves, and an agreeable woman of 40 with thick glasses called Amy, who was a classical musician living in a beautiful North Cumbrian farmhouse. She had been forced to stop performing, as her chronic arthritis had got to the accelerating and horrendous downhill stage. Living alone Amy now wore a rigid neck brace, went around on crutches, yet always managed a pungent and acidulous wit. She had just embarked on her treatment of injections of gold, though she snarled comically when we asked after her, and said, exotic as it sounded, it didn’t seem to be doing her any fucking, oops (looking round the blush-red farming faces) good…

The flower arranger, Reggie Albright, was a diminutive man of early forties with a pencil moustache and a permanently hovering grin of possible amusement, though more likely low level vigilance. We were told he was a wealthy local florist, with a chain of shops in Cumbria and South Scotland, though this was the first time I‘d seen him. He was openly and theatrically gay, a patently florid florist, though in a dated 1960s way, flamboyantly queenish rather than permanently hapless, as if to say whatever I do it is a struggle, and you must forgive me and my ineptitude. This was absurdly belied by his skill as flower arranger, which left us blindly dazzled, as he was a self-taught genius. The sad thing was that, living in North Cumbrian obscurity, I doubt he even knew as much. With his unerring choice of delicate colours, his elegant dyed reeds, his wispy ethereal ferns, his deft and casual touches and tiny, fussy and brilliant adjustments, he took every WI breath away. I thought of Japanese Zen and the transcendent skills of all such abstract arrangements, of the allied notion of watchfulness and meditative concentration in the present. Yet we were amongst weather-beaten puce-faced farming matrons in their sixties, in the Debatable Lands, and what price Zen meditation in their singular, lives where the ominous present tense of perennial financial anxiety was definitely best blanked out? Their innocent crimson countenances were confusingly like so many spanked backsides, even though spiritual adepts as we are regularly assured tend to be pale rather than rubicund?

I have omitted something crucial. Reggie Albright happened to have a severe cold and a very sore throat, and had almost totally lost his voice. Hence though his visual demonstration was unimpeded, his ad hoc mincing commentary was given with a ludicrous squeaking echo. Had we been school kids, we would simply have guffawed insolently from start to finish, but the sea of beetroot-faced housewives just smiled at him gently, in the same way they had so easily accepted his gayness. Only one burst out laughing, and that was musician Amy with the neck brace and the crutches, who might in theory have been the best behaved person there. She had once been a music teacher in a giant comprehensive school, and would surely have bawled at chortling, tittering, disruptive youths. She only laughed the once, and it was not derision but helpless hilarity, in the same way she would have laughed at herself if she’d been conducting a class with the voice of a dyspeptic ewe or goat.

It could not go on forever, this honeymoon infatuation with umpteen North Cumbrian village halls, and the innocent activities of all four tiny churches. We stayed with the church but soon stopped turning up at the jumble sales. Never again did we attend a whist drive or a beetle drive or a floral extravaganza. It is right enough as with so many delicate matters, and in so many circumstances. You cannot transmute into a thoroughbred local, no matter how hard you try, for to parody Flann O’ Brien, you have to be an ineffably local local in the first place. We were at root, in-roaders, despite being a complex variant, professional West Cumbrians, amongst the lonely farmers of North Cumbria. Regardless of class and education, those two regions are universes apart. The irony was the canny bodies, the farming women, gladly accepted us as we were, were glad that Angie was a senior social worker, and most impressed that I was a teacher and a writer. They had no possible gripe with either, and the tortuous problem was ours, as we acknowledged we had had more than enough of treacle scones and raffles and treasure hunts… and felt painfully guilty and embarrassed as a result.

But what were we to do? What could we have done otherwise?

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CHAPTER 6 of PASSION FOR BEGINNERS

 

Chapter 7 appears tomorrow, 7th May. The earlier chapters are in the immediately preceding posts

6

As an impressively obscure, though not, as it has alarmingly transpired, any sort of cult author, I now have to reveal by way of anti-climax, that I entered once into training as an Anglican lay preacher. It was for a very remote parish in North Cumbria, a truly vast area, sometimes referred to as the historically Debatable Lands, and so sparsely populated it only had two proper villages, both tiny, and neither possessing a shop nor any other conceivable amenity. This was some sixteen years ago, and the idea wasn’t mine, but the notion of the resident priest, who thought that I would make a fine preacher. I made the obvious protest that I wasn’t a remotely good person, being far from polite, well-mannered or an accommodating kind, and in some ways an unorthodox deviant, having reached my formative years in the antagonistic mid Sixties. The priest was about my age, with a strong Midlands accent, and he laughed out loud at my rapid excuses, and asked did I think Jesus Christ was a docile and orthodox man, or that he would have wished such as me to be one, if I was to be his preacher.

“They didn’t decide to crucify him for nothing, not just for the fun of it. What’s more, it was his own people cried out for his blood, not the hated enemy. As far as I know, your work has a strong local following, and no one wants to do away with you? No one has got it in for you, have they?”

I smiled wisely and pointed out what was perfectly true, that someone had recently sent a ludicrous and embarrassing hoax letter, purporting to be from me, that was published in the local newspaper. In it, the bogus author humorously fulminated about a current controversy involving the city football team, then, apropos of nothing, fatuously declared that he considered himself to be the honorary equivalent of the Cumbrian ‘Poet Laureate’. Given that I knew less about football than my mongrel dog Bonny, and had written no poetry at all for thirty years, it was not how I would have preened and vaunted had I been given to the habit. I rang the editor, and asked him indignantly had he read the letter, and did he think anyone sane and not a megalomaniac, would have written such idiotic drivel. He took two minutes to find it, then gulped and apologised, and promised to print my retraction the next day.

“So,” I told the priest, “I have a least one resourceful enemy round here.”

He looked most impressed. “Who on earth?”

“No idea, no one specific I can think of. I’ve organised a couple of subsidised schemes that selected a few writers for expert help. Most got rejected, and no doubt it was one of those took umbrage, or they wouldn’t have mentioned a word like ‘laureate’.”

He sighed with painful emphasis, as if some of his own stressful burdens might suddenly find an attentive ear.

“Some people need to grow up in this neck of the woods. Between ourselves, you should hear the endless backbiting I get from one or two of them. I’ve got three tightly knit farming parishes, and all the farming families are related, so I get my share of backstabbing. Though not always on the sly. Some of it is flagrant, in the face, and bloody upsetting. I recently refused to remarry a divorcee whose new partner is sharing the house with the old partner, and they all live cosily, a ménage a trois, right opposite the village church. So she ran out one day in the middle of the village, grabbed hold of me screaming, and kicked up a truly hellish shindig. She spent months bad-mouthing me horribly to everyone in my three churches. Others don’t like hymns and songs with guitar music in the services, or they don’t like anything but the Authorized Version for readings. Or they don’t like me to preach for longer than fifteen minutes, or better ten minutes, or even better five…”

That should have stopped me in my tracks, but fool that I was, I signed up for whole two years’ clerical training. Immediately I had that unnerving yet familiar feeling of, what the hell was I doing, whose perverse idea was this, why on earth did I consent to act so ridiculously out of character? Did it mean like some dithering aimless schizoid, that I had no centre of gravity, and was operated by haphazard strings rather than my own will? At once it reminded me far too vividly of an abortive job I’d had, a quarter of a century earlier, in the mid Seventies in North London, in a distinguished private library. I had convinced myself as only panicking unemployed graduates aged 23 can, that I wanted to be an academic librarian, whereas five minutes with any of the species, and they would have assured me that it was a slow decomposition by excruciating boredom. The very day I began, there was a flu bug going round the numerous staff, they were short of hands, so they had me in the cloakroom employed in taking visitors’ hats and coats, for a full eight hours. What I’m saying is I was supposed to be learning to become an academic librarian, but I was actually training to be an expert cloakroom lady. To adopt Samuel Beckett’s homely Irish phrasing, I was in a muck sweat all day, as the customers came in droves rather than trickles. The second day, this being the charmingly pre-digital age, I was presented with at least a thousand filing cards, and was ordered rather as in the instructive tale of Rumpelstiltskin, to put the darlings in alphabetical order. The library had a lucrative commission from an international drugs firm to catalogue their books on medicine and pharmacology, and as added torture I was given only the Cs that day. They were nearly all Chinese authors, so there I was with Chang, Cheng, Ching, Chung, Chong, pile upon endless pile of them, and an enormous table to do the mechanical sorting. Again I was at it for eight hours, and became measurably clinically insane at least three times, with comic if uncontrollably racist ditties going through my fevered head on the lines of Ching Chang Chong, Surely This Has To Be Stupendously Wrong

The priestly training involved a weekly assignment with a young theology tutor, and as I had written no essays for a quarter of a century, this had a definite vertiginous challenge. Once a month there were residential weekends down at a secluded mansion in the Lake District. I had hoped much of these, but the first concussive blow was that the size of the group demanded accommodation had to be shared. I was billeted with a bespectacled and asthmatic West Cumbrian bank employee of about forty called Frank, who had wended meekly to bed at ten, while I was still happily in the bar, steadying my astonished nerves at what had happened so far. He shuffled and puffed and panted all night, in a restless and contagious manner, and the experience was infinitely desolate, as I realised I had another twenty odd of these youth hostel style weekends to contemplate. The one redeeming solace was the presence of some personable women here in the mansion, but sadly they were very few. None of them were Anglican, every single one a Methodist, all in their early forties, all friendly, sane and undeniably adult. By which I mean they did not have that fizzy and voluble adolescent tendency, which conspicuously marks out many fully-fledged but puerile priests, never mind novice preachers. All these women lived in the south of the county, and to be specific in the big, ugly and desolate city of Barrow in Furness, which is Cumbrian only in name, and tough and melancholic Lancastrian to the core. It has survived after a fashion, courtesy of the defence industry, meaning in part the manufacture of nuclear submarines, and that rank association has stuck.  The acerbic comedian Mike Harding has described it as ‘a mediaeval village stuck at the end of a fifty mile cul de sac’ and indeed he was being kind.

This handful of Barrovians were active in the Methodist chapels, but they were also busy with voluntary social work, community work, and for years had been helping the homeless and the drifters in the crumbling city. They didn’t think twice about such engagement, it was integral to their faith, whereas the Anglicans with their brittle and effervescent voices, thought it generous to patronise a youth club with table tennis and dominoes to beguile the Christian teenagers of the late 1990s. After five minutes’ conversation, you could see that they thought the present youth were just tolerable clones of themselves, even if thirty years younger. I sat through a lengthy and dreary induction and some specially devised liturgy and prayers, then hived off to the bar and unusually requested a malt whisky, a Cardhu. The resident barman, who was also the mansion Warden, complete with dog collar, buoyantly commanded me to have myself a double. I could tell at once he wasn’t wishing to make me a drunken priest, but get as much handy and profitable income for his mansion, in as speedy a manner as possible. Thirty aerated student preachers in a confined rural space was a golden fiscal opportunity, though unfortunately some, if not all, of these Barrovian Methodists might be Primitives or even Rechabite teetotal.

The course finished on the Sunday afternoon, and in the morning one of the graduating students had to give his first ever sermon. We trotted en masse into the chapel, where sat at the front were a couple who worked in the mansion’s kitchen, and who had a tiny and lively evidently South Indian girl sat on their laps. The couple were late thirties South Cumbrians, and the girl who was about five, was not only surpassingly beautiful, but was completely blind, no doubt from birth, given the staring blankness of her eyes. These two had adopted a child who was arguably a great challenge, and for the whole of that service I was mesmerised for one compelling reason. She was smiling seraphically and seemed utterly blissful. Her blind smile and that sightless bliss never left her for a second of the service. The blind ecstasy was such that she could not contain it, so she was constantly wriggling joyfully in her adopted mother’s arms. She happened to be half way between me and the novice preacher, who had staggered up to the pulpit to make his exhortatory debut. We could all definitely have done with a deal of passionate admonition, or some sort of sermonic fire today, we (Methodists aside) ever tepid, maundering, would-be Anglican priests. The novice had opted to preach on a single verse of St Mark’s Gospel, in a flawlessly inoffensive manner, attaining the most rarefied heights of anaemic tedium in his debut homily, as if he had striven to do precisely that. To be sure he was stumbling and blushing, as this was his first attempt, but underneath the forgivable stumbling, one could see he was roundly frightened, and always would be, of spiritual eloquence, of spiritual confidence, and of anything approaching a transforming spiritual passion.

Meanwhile the blind Indian girl wasn’t listening to a word he said, and was communing effortlessly with what lay within. Let us call this her special infant’s grace, and filled with her authentic and intrinsic passion, this little child was frightened of absolutely nothing. By the end of the service, I realised that she, the blind girl, had been the sermon, the appropriate wordless sermon, and to take my eyes off her and to hearken to the hopeless novice, would have been a monstrous absurdity. And of course, I realised I was the only theological student present who was doing this, watching with divine enchantment the child enraptured as some small incarnate angel…

I mused on this as I drove home to see Angie, who was in breast cancer remission, and my 10-year-old daughter Janie. An American theologian once wrote that the best prayers often had no words at all, but simply noiseless murmurs, pleas and soundless invocations…or occasionally a variation of groans and inchoate, barely audible beseeching, as well as fervent words of praise. Impressed by which, though it took me quite some time to act on it, I knew then as sure as the impenetrable darkness that was falling over the fells round me, I would never ever stand up to preach inside or outside of a church, nor would I ever wish to be any kind of didactic priest, nor any other supposedly hallowed conduit of grace.

CHAPTER 5 of PASSION FOR BEGINNERS

Chapter 6 appears tomorrow May 6th   The previous chapters are the blog posts immediately preceding this one

5

On a hot summer’s night behind the high wall adjacent to the vast town church, both of us half naked, I was embracing the daughter of the Anglican vicar of a very neat and spiritless village five miles away. Even though the church was sited on a substantial spread of sloping grass land, ideal for parading a nosy dog, no one ever came this way unless it was a Sunday, or if there was a midweek service. I had reconnoitred, and godless Saturday night was reliably deserted, and this huge wall an excellent shield from all eyes. As for possible carnal irreverence, Madeleine though obliged to attend church twice every Sunday, was not even a token believer, and felt no shame about that. She did not believe in the afterlife, nor did she believe in the efficacy of prayer, for she had tried it, and she said it definitely did not work. Among other things she had prayed for Danny Perry the elusive and beautiful schoolboy she had silently and feverishly doted on, to take the slightest notice of her, and of course he never had. She had never heard of, much less read Gide or Stendhal, but she might have found her template there if she had taken a quick investigative glance. Ditto she prayed that Thomas Coulthard, her sister’s cruelly rejected boyfriend, would somehow become eventually affianced to Jenny, or at the very least telephone or write out of the blue to inquire how her little sister Madeleine was. That didn’t happen either, and she soon stopped praying, but did not stop her crying in my presence at the tragedy that was big brother Thomas leaving her to her starved and desiccated existence, as a compliant vicar’s daughter cum dogsbody, and with a virtually forgotten and wholly fictional and imagined identity.

Perhaps having Wilson Swan as representative of the Church Here On Earth for breakfast, lunch and dinner, had done the job better than her reading Karl Marx or Voltaire or the Daily Worker. But then, outside of school textbooks and fashion magazines and knitting and sewing patterns, Madeleine did not read anything. Four years later, when we were living separately in Oxford, the only book I ever saw at her bedside was a Pelican paperback on the History of Witchcraft. This was not because she was a diabolist nor a paganist, as she would have been terrified of the queasy occult more than most. I asked her why she was reading about witchcraft, and she answered because it was very interesting, especially as all those women of all ages, accused of being witches, were of course as innocent as the day was long. It was all about hating and persecuting independent, often talented and usually lonely women, she concluded, and given that she had no connection with nor the remotest understanding of 1970s feminism, you could see that it reminded her of her own loneliness and claustrophobic stifling in her parental home back in West Cumberland.

She was in a thin and pretty blue dress and I was in a tight red shirt and flared black trousers. She never objected and indeed was impatient for me to do it, as I closed upon her kissing fiercely and lifted up her dress and pushed down her tights and knickers. That meant her bare bottom was pushed most pleasantly against the warm brick wall and she loved me to hold the sides of her thighs and caress them in repetitive and tender arcs. My pants were half way down and my manhood pressed hard against her fanny and the delicate hair there. It stayed that way, standard issue adolescent pre-stressed concrete, for the forty minutes we had before racing for our separate buses, and often it was so as I climbed onto the curiously named Cumberland Lodekka double decker. The first thing I did after going upstairs, was to light a cigarette, just as three or four times during the film we’d been to, I had lit up, or more often Maddy, who did not smoke, would tenderly do the lighting for me. The lyrics of Jose Feliciano inevitably sprang to mind, though in inverse relation, as she had already lighted my fire before she had then ignited my continually changing cigarette brands: delicious Woodbines Tipped or Anchor or Perfectos, or Extra or Ariel or Churchman’s No 1, or Cadets or Sweet Afton or  Carroll’s No. 3 or Senior Service or Players or Capstan or Kensitas or Everest or Park Drive or Craven A or Peter Stuvvesant, and very rarely the menthol cigarettes Consulate, which savoured like some medicinal eucalyptus breeze blowing exasperatingly through my incredulous mouth.

No one has ever written with any authority, neither fictionally nor factually, about the ineffable miracle of Heavy Petting, and there is probably more prose available about Indian Tantric sex and the non orgasmic maithuna, than there is on the universal practice of almost but not quite approach to youthful sexual congress. And yet before the pill, and for those unwed couples who did not wish for a pregnancy, nor did they trust condoms, it was probably the resort of the silent majority. Not just the mechanics of the almost sex, but the banal practicalities, are still a dizzy thing to contemplate now in taboo-free 2016.  On the other side of the high church wall, were numerous stout citizens walking past, wholly oblivious that a young girl had her bare behind against the sunlit wall, and her boyfriend was caressing her moist fanny and pressing his naked erection against her crotch. They were in a state of truly consummate bliss, and a 1 in a 1000 chance that someone might decide to parade their alertly sniffing and woofing Sealyham or Boston Terrier their way, never entered their burning, fevered heads, and thankfully never happened. Of course there is no clairvoyant magic in imagining what goes on inside the bedrooms of a row of terraced houses, even if you do not know the inhabitants. You know that there is a fair chance that if you are looking at the marital bedrooms, non-fornicatory sex of who knows what description, is assuming its delightful or in some cases dubious, and in one or two cases doubtless odious and loveless pageantry.

But then you might argue that kind of humdrum clairvoyance extends to other predictable banalities. After about 1930 and up until maybe 1958, you knew that the family inside that terrace around 8pm would almost certainly have been gathered in the sitting room listening to the wireless, either The Light or the Home, and very rarely the classical Third Programme. From 1958, until now nearly sixty years later, you can say the same of the glittering and grinning TV including all its later digital refinements. But consider, how often perhaps, have you stood at a bus stop a decade or so back, five yards from a back alley, wholly ignorant of the fact a young couple were furiously but noiselessly copulating there, and the girl was about to be impregnated, just as you were filling in your diary or filing your nails or eating a fish and chip supper in an idle moment.  Maybe his orgasm and her impregnation came just as you were euphorically enjoying your very last succulent chip, and wishing with so much regret that it was your permanently penultimate one, as it was so exquisitely salty and vinegary and delicious. And then what of the child born of the back alley alliance that you were sunnily unaware of? Would it become a genius, an idiot, a saint or a monster, or none at all of these? Would it in time have a happy marriage, would it be a happy homosexual, would it be everyone’s favourite, would it have crippling phobias or crippling lack of restraint, and indeed any sense at all of healthy personal boundaries. Would it die at 90, 60, 30, 10 or 2 years old? If you don’t find this matter remotely interesting, then the universe will inevitably make its decision and fail to find you interesting also. You might not realise this sobering fact for a few years, but eventually it will dawn on you, and by then it might well be too late.

But bear in mind, and especially if you are a woman who has previously contemplated an urgent abortion, when you have already taken every sensible contraceptive precaution, that with Heavy Petting there is nil chance of pregnancy, because as soon as there is the slightest whiff, the merest sniff, suspicion or whifter, of reckless whole hog sexual penetration, it is no longer innocuous HP but copulation proper, which of course is a categorical horse of another hue. Which is why Maddy the vicar’s daughter, terrified of the shame for her father, and with a GP who was her Dad’s close pal, and couldn’t even spell ‘confidentiality’, much less understand its meaning, forbade the complete enterprise in our case. Condoms she argued, were worryingly fragile and risky, which indeed in 1968 they were, added to which anything other than the orthodox johnny, namely those Japanese ones with ribs and furrows and fangs, and those others from Lord knows where, with garish novelty flavours, were unobtainable in outpost West Cumberland for decades to come. The greatest paradox however, was that Heavy Petting, especially of the clandestine back alley and park bandstand, and pungent and fecund and aromatic depths of Lord Lonsdale’s forests, and remotest poetic reaches of the Cumbrian fellside kind, could be of such euphoric intensity and prolongation, that the real much-advertised and anticipated article with another woman a year later, somehow would not have the joy nor the flair nor the magic.

I lost my virginity at 19 not to Maddy, but to a beautiful gentle auburn-haired girl called Jan, who went to an expensive secretarial college, and chose Oxford in order to be close to the seat of power and money of the future, and was even prepared to believe or more likely ignore the heresy, that I with my arse-long hair was such a gateway. Jan was no virgin herself, and I was so anxious to impress, I went roaming with my mouth down below, until gasping noisily for air, I dimly heard her murmur that she wouldn’t mind something else more to the point down there, given how excited she felt. We met for one more date and had tea with God help us Gentleman’s Relish and buttered muffins in my college, served by doddery elderly scouts, and I talked so fast and playfully about books and music, that she looked at me full on, and with total conviction informed me that I was the most profound person she had ever met. Right enough, I might once have been showing off with my tongue down below in the dark, but not with my gift of the gab in the light, and I snorted and told her I was no more than an intelligent imbecile, and she also snorted generously, but obviously did not understand that extremely accurate oxymoron.

To vividly picture the ineffaceable poetry of our church wall embraces. There was I with a rigid phallus pressed against Madeleine’s groin, and I had my hands cupping the infinite riches of her sweet and naked behind. Her bra had been loosened and her breasts were naked and I sucked at her stiff nipples which made both of us groan, though not in synchrony, more in euphonious counterpoint (I could add, but won’t, an unsubtle pun about Kunst der Fuge, Bach’s masterwork of fugal counterpoint, which I then possessed as an incomparable recording by a New York woodwind ensemble). The point is that my manhood felt like an aeronautic rocket, an indestructible behemoth, and also some sort of crucial architectural monolith that held up the world that was the two of us. Not that such a grandiose support was possible, without the excitement of Madeleine’s  powerful embraces. Without that I was at ground base, incapable of upholding anything, and it needed the two of us acting as one, to be reciprocal supports of our private and safely protected universe.

With my hands cupping her bottom that was tenderly illumined by the evening sun, and my lips sucking her breasts, and my sex kissing gently her little belly, I was, more than ever I had known before, precisely where I wanted to be, and Madeleine also told me this was exactly where she wanted to be, and we had no wish for it ever to end, neither then nor in the amnesic future. If you think this is a tautology, as there is only one infinity, present and future being irrelevant, then perhaps try being a bit shrewder and a bit saner, and acknowledge there are very many different types of infinity. Also that a woman’s pristine backside is the infinitely enduring emblem of purity, fecundity, tenderness, sweetness, genius, glory and a sumptuous and nuanced foretaste of the apparently divine, though I think I am probably the first in the world to assert as much. As are a woman’s breasts, but shall we say in line with the revolutionary ethologist Desmond Morris, that with evolutionary prescience, the bifurcated female behind decided to repeat itself in most versatile fashion as the twin female breasts, when the quadruped opted to be a biped, and both male and female found it convenient to have the woman’s backside at the front as well as at the back, as it offered a flexible and alluring option of frontal as well as rear copulation. Needless to say, none of this was going through my head, much less Madeleine’s, as we lingered over what is unmusically called frottage, and I caressed her warm and liquid womanhood inside and outside. Nothing at all other than the vesperal sunshine around us, the sound of the roosting starlings in the church’s beech trees, the resonance of voices the other side of our protective wall. I imagine it was the same lasting reverie for Madeleine, though just possibly she was more alert to the catastrophe of missing her last bus and being bawled at by the righteous Reverend Wilson Swan.

Nevertheless, the reason why both of us found it our ideal if contingent existence, these embraces that lasted seemingly for a cosmic aeon or Hindu yuga, but held no threat to either in terms of catastrophic parenthood, was that for their duration they sustained us in the eternal present as nothing else could have. Perhaps if either had been religious believers, we might have found that euphoric timelessness in prayer and other devotional means, but neither of us had ever found release, much less ecstasy, in prayer. Only a year earlier I had been confirmed, as had Maddy, at two different places of worship, mine being pit village Low Church where they said ‘table’ and not the Papist word ‘altar’, and disdained candles and all Roman Catholic ritual, and hers being High Anglican in her smart little commuter village. Earlier, in my mid-teens, I had been avowedly misty-eyed with Christianity, but that was only because the confirmation group included a beautiful brown-haired girl called Melissa, and my devotion to things spiritual was conflated inextricably with my devotion to her. At sixteen Melissa had a boyfriend four years older, who had left school and had a job and was a grown man, and though she liked me very much and flirted with me extravagantly, even quite recklessly inside the confirmation group, she was not to be won over by a mere boy. Out of sheer perversity she regularly told me unsolicited details of their love life, including some mock pebble-dashed Swedish condoms he had ordered via the classifieds of Tit Bits. She also told me that being so much older, if he deemed she had been a naughty little girlfriend and impudently misbehaved, he would pin her firmly over his knee with his muscular hands, and soundly spank Melissa’s behind, though admittedly this was usually a prelude to zestfully disrobing and having the whole hog in his West Cumbrian bedsit. He was that unique animal, a young man with a good job as a fitter at the big Bessemer steelworks, and with a local Mum and Dad, but who chose to leave home and live an independent life, meaning he must have represented less than 1% of his peers. By way of anticlimax, he was called Thompson H Phizacklea, and his august middle name was his collier grandfather’s handle of Herbert.

But the eternal hard-on behind the town church wall, and the eternal caress of Madeleine’s rich breasts and succulent buttocks, and the endless stroking of her wet and dancing clitoris and all of her gentle womanhood, with the perpetual summer sunshine and timeless twilight birdsong and the murmurous voices of passers-by behind the wall, which could as well with their thick and tough Cumbrian dialect have been the voices of 1868, 1768, or even 1668, all these were ours experienced undeniably beyond time, meaning ahistorical, and therefore unverifiable. As confirmation of which, Madeleine just before she died two years ago, aged 61 in 2013 (and by the weirdest quirk, a one in 365 chance, was buried on the very same date, if not the same year, as my wife Angie) indicated that she was afflicted with a baffling amnesia. Only a few weeks before the unexpected death, also from cancer, I reminded her over the phone of our remarkable and reckless embraces, and she had to struggle long and hard to recall them. She was not on any fuddling medication at that stage, yet couldn’t even remember reading the book on witchcraft, and that was a mere thirty-one years earlier compared, with the thirty-five years since 1968. How could anyone, I asked myself, who rarely read anything of any kind, forget the reading of a book, even if a thousand years ago, on, of all things, witchcraft? How could anyone struggle to remember those delirious naked caresses in of all places the precincts of a church, the authorised province of her tedious, nagging father? The only explanation was that those same embraces had fulfilled their obvious promise of authentic transcendence…and hence Madeleine who had always been timebound in all other mundane respects, and now with her death only eight months away, was more tragically timebound than she would ever know.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 4 of PASSION FOR BEGINNERS

Chapter 5 appears tomorrow 5th May. Earlier chapters are the blog posts immediately preceding this one

CHAPTER 4 of PASSION FOR BEGINNERS

4

Three years later I felt no love at all for Madeleine, and at times I vehemently disliked her. At 19 she was still a naive, affectionate and melancholy girl, and the guilt I felt at falling out of love was considerable. But because there was no road out of this lovelessness, other than deserting her, it was as if I was up against a cruel wall, and in my egotistical logic, because she was the principal cause of the wall, or rather because she was the wall, that serially amplified my dislike. I was turning 20 when it came to a harrowing head, which of course is a very young, but when one is 20, one does not feel one is young at all, and for very good reasons. In other contexts, I could have been a young soldier shot dead or blown up in Belfast or Derry, or a black American hideously and bloodily electrocuted for a murder I did not commit. In some states of the USA, you are allowed to drive a car at 16, but not to drink alcohol until you are 21, and yet you may be subjected to capital punishment at the age of 18. These statistics speak volumes for the most confused and neurotically disturbed country in the world. That said, anyone aged 20 can feel as old as the hills, and as profoundly weary of love, work, studies, and that often overrated solace called family life, as someone can in their forties or fifties.

I started to cool towards Madeleine during the invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. I had declared myself a stern communist to the hilarity of my fellow students and teachers, and took it so seriously I would spend a whole Saturday walking round every newsagent in the town, looking for a stray copy of the Daily Worker. My parents flatly refused to have it delivered to our door, as my father, a factory worker but with a farming background, was a natural Tory, and my mother, though anxiously conformist as they come in most ways, claimed she hated being like the crowd, and the crowd in West Cumberland in those days, would as she said, have voted for a dog if it was a Labour dog. My fanatical persistence paid off, as way down a remote sidestreet was a newsagent who had one copy put aside for a man who worked on the corporation dustcart. Absolutely to clockwork, he picked it up every lunchtime, and it was now 4pm, so it was safe to let me have it. The tough and lined old woman who handed it over, didn’t at all look scathing about my choice of reading, but rather quietly admiring. Who knows, she might even have been a hardline socialist herself, it was not an impossibility. I decided as I left the shop, hungrily reading the paper as I walked, that I looked forward with real hope and enthusiasm to the day they would vote for a dog, or even a cat, round here, as long as that dog or cat was a committed Communist.

I was not a Stalinist communist. The Soviet Russians who were remorseless and expert vandals, had destroyed the Prague Spring, and they also seemed to have destroyed Alena Nikoloskova, with whom at the time I was in love simultaneous with Madeleine. She was that touchingly historical phenomenon, a penfriend, and we had been in correspondence for as long as I had been with Maddy. Her photo showed a striking young girl of 17 with raven black hair and piercing dark eyes, and a stark, yet infinitely gentle beauty. Women like that emphatically did not, and had never existed in West Cumberland, nor possibly anywhere but in Czechoslovakia. I knew no Czech of course, so we corresponded in English and before long sent each other generous presents. She sent me some moulded and ornamented chocolate, which broke in the post, but I savoured every shattered morsel as if I was delicately savouring her. We all know of small children, and of course some adult psychotics, with their imaginary friends, and Alena was not my imaginary friend, much less an imaginary penfriend, but my idealised and imagined lover. More significantly, when it came to my politics, she sent me the latest picture magazines in Czech, which proudly celebrated the subversive talents of the new order. There was writer Bohumil Hrabal, then 54, and his friend, the film director Jiri Menzel, a mere 30-year-old apostle of the spirit of comedy as the essential oil that turns the unfathomable world. Over all these reigned the gentle beatific president who had set everyone free, the Slovak Alexander Dubcek, who was soon to be flown to Moscow and kangaroo incarcerated. He was later made ambassador to Turkey, in the vain hope that he would defect westwards. Finally, he worked obscurely in the forestry department in the countryside near Bratislava, just like some forgotten provincial eccentric in a Hrabal novel or a Menzel film.

Alena’s father a was senior lecturer in Marxism-Leninism, at the University of Brno. After the Soviet invasion, that was the last I heard from her, though I sent her a couple of hopeful letters. Perhaps he was dismissed from his job or imprisoned as an incorrigible trouble stirrer, for certainly his daughter was a vociferous supporter of the radical spirit. I happened to have a university interview that year, and to my delight I found a cinema in Oxford showing Closely Observed Trains by Jiri Menzel. I went along partly to celebrate the memory of Alena and the fact I had known her, but also with the hope that one day we would meet and possibly fall in love in the flesh. It’s hard to believe there is anyone doesn’t know of that epic film, which is set in a sleepy country railway station in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, a place where half the employees are obsessed with sex, and the other half are majestically cracked. The latter includes a station master who is a pigeon fanatic, and there is the enduring picture of two dozen of his darlings roosting on and covering with sticky feathers, while he with a broken voice croons a paean of doting love. A shy young man who is a mummy’s boy starts work there, and soon falls in love with the beautiful train guard who flirts with him delightfully each time a train pulls into the station. They eventually sleep together, but sadly he fails to perform as a man should. After the wounding humiliation, he checks into a cheap hotel, fills a bath, and attempts to slit his wrists. He is saved in the nick of time and afterwards given some sexual advice (sleep with an experienced older woman) by his amorous colleague at the station, he with the rimless specs, the bald head, and a fascination with the pretty station clerk who is teasing personified. This pair, speccy and the clerk, spend their time in the office looking at each other, licking their lips and musing guiltlessly on that thing called sex, and as I watched it, and I was still in love with both Madeleine as well as Alena then, I acknowledged that I thought of sex the whole time too, and indeed was very pleased that I did.

There is the historic scene where Baldy wildly chases the flirting clerk around the station office, threatening to spank her bottom for winding him up. They circle the place three or four times and eventually he upends her, but instead of chastisement he pulls down her drawers, and stamps her handsome behind with the station’s logo stamp. I mused to myself in the Oxford cinema that I would like to stamp Madeleine’s beautiful buttocks with a logo too, as proof of ownership, and if I ever met up with Alena, I would likewise wish to memorialise my insignia on her elusive Brno backside. The compelling twist, is that the timid little railwayman is persuaded to perform explosives sabotage against the Nazis, and is gunned down by a soldier in a wagon of the arms train passing through. Before long a German dump is blown to smithereens, and as the film closes, Baldy, who is loathed by the farcically pro-Nazi railway supervisor, is stood on the platform roaring with triumphant laughter.

I now move forward twenty years to that gypsy woman at Chalk Farm tube station, who appeared to have a prophetic insight about Angie and her miscarriage, even though her gift was drastically hit and miss. In 1968, I had no idea that I would find Madeleine nothing but a severe irritation in two years’ time, and I wonder if anyone could have predicted it then, whether via clairvoyance or just through prescient commonsense. If that sounds a whimsical and pointless reflection, I would argue that surely in practical terms, it would be nice if any woman anywhere in the world, could guess in advance that her future husband was to be an alcoholic, a compulsive gambler, or that starting a joint bank account he would empty it one day and disappear with a lady half her age. I recently encountered all three painful scenarios within the same year, and in at least one case it was obvious that the woman should have opened her eyes, and known what was coming. After she had divorced the alcoholic, she told me in a letter a month ago, she now has a partner who is addicted to violent bam-bam video games, spends literally the whole of the night at them, and shouts at her with chilling obscenities if she complains. You can imagine what that does for their love life, and neither is he rampant at any other time, as he sleeps most of the day and has given up looking for a job, and has put on a phenomenal amount of weight. Spend a few hours talking to Liz, and you realise she is wedded like a poker addict to dysfunctional men. They all have addictions, but so does she, and in her case unfortunately it is being hopelessly addicted to incurable addicts.

Instead of clairvoyance there is the rare but potent magic of sharp and native insight. There are some, a very few people, who have a forensic and accurate diagnostic wisdom about others, and I am not talking about psychotherapists nor ratiocinating philosophers. The latter I would say are less knowledgeable about human nature than almost everyone in the world, footballers and pork butchers included, restricted as they are to their less than transcendent intellects, meaning however they, for example, anatomise Knowledge or Experience, they are solipsistically limited by their intellects, which is to say it is a case of like torpedoing like. A mole cannot experience more than a mole can experience, and neither can Professor Septimus Hythe, the brilliant Balliol epistemologist, though of course he thinks he can. Meanwhile some people can acutely read another’s speech, gait, an unmusical hesitancy that one day in just the right circumstances will be literally fatal, can smell an inadequacy burning like a perilous fuse, and ready to blow a whole two families apart, can sense that that man over there is having an affair and she his adjacent wife hasn’t a clue, precisely because she chooses not to have an inkling, she does not trust her instincts as they were amnesically stamped out of her thirty years ago by her well-meaning and equally stunted mother. Slumped shoulders, furtive eyes, a nervous laugh, a certain way of eating a piece of bread or an apple that reveals a buried universe ripe with terrible and catastrophic secrets no one could bear to reveal, as well as a tragic looking shapeless backside which droops underneath that skirt,  because it, as well as its owner, is morbidly depressed and has known no marital caresses for the last five years, though she assumes no one can diagnose that from a distance, as none of her so called best friends have the faintest fucking clue for a start.

Falling out of love is impossible to describe with any focused precision, as indeed is anything which is about an absence, or indeed a howling void, in this case of any enduring romantic feelings. Those first two years the tenderness I felt for Madeleine was effortless and beautiful, and after leaving the cinema we always had some forty minutes before we ran for our last bus. We would even in deepest, iciest and ball-freezing winter, and with the help of my vast capacious blue coat, continue our virtually naked embraces behind a wall in the town somewhere. If Madeleine missed her bus it was no joke, as the amiable clergyman was in fact a testy and selfish old parson, and hated being stirred from his seat at 10.30 to drive the exhausting four miles for his daughter. It happened perhaps three times in all, and each time the Rev Wilson Swan ranted humourlessly at Maddy until he had her weeping, though he was careful to avert his eyes from me, and not to cast any blame at her long-haired boyfriend. He was one of those vicars who was reckoned to be good for an irreverent joke, you could even say he was one of the boys, who liked a beer just like anyone else. Once to me he described his wife uproariously as his bedtime ‘hot water bottle’, and Madgie was present at his jest and threw her eyes to heaven in quaint mock reproof. Madeleine also chuckled, but it was obviously feigned, and she shocked me once by saying not only did she not love her parents, she didn’t even like them. It wasn’t so much that I was surprised at her candour, for I was as bleakly existential as the best of them, when it came to the nuclear family and the accepted verities. It was just that Madeleine was so timid in her conventions, to hear her spontaneously talking like someone out of Camus or Sartre was just too startling.

With the Rev Swan her coldness was easy to accept, as he was the old-fashioned patriarchal bombast at its very best. He was an impressively mediocre man who enjoyed the sound of his own voice, and he loved to stretch back with one of the cigars I’d given him, then issue forth his jocund wisdom. Wilson Swan disdained any kind of socialism, much less my lunatic communism, but doubtless took into account I was only 18 years old. Born in 1908, he had been a printer before he heard the call to becoming a priest. He spoke with great anger, of being pressganged into joining a trade union, and when he’d refused was swiftly blacklisted, and bullied into leaving the trade. When I asked him what he’d got against unions in the first place, he cited petty egotists and little men who liked to wield large power and control others, something which went against his independent grain. Here then was a dull and hidebound 60-year-old provincial parson who thought of himself as an original. I nodded and stared pityingly at Madeleine and Madgie Swan sitting in dutiful awe at the foot of the oracle, and thought the union men were not the only ones who liked to exert a casual tyranny.

Swan clearly didn’t care for my long centre-parted hair, and the intended psychology degree, and the Daily Worker and the New Statesman, yet I elicited blatant anger from him only once, the kind that Madeleine felt when she had missed her bus, and thus obliged his stout arse to leave his well sprung armchair, his hot water bottle Madgie, and possibly the edited highlights of the annual and likely gripping Tory party conference on the telly. As it happened, I had just been reading Thus Spake Zarathushtra by Nietzsche, which I found both riveting and abhorrent, especially those passages where he mocked the Christian exaltation of pity and suffering, and what might these days be far too glibly termed victimhood. Anyone who has read the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Gathas and the later Avesta, will know that his notion of the prophet Zarathushtra was, to say the least, very singular and skewed. I was impressed by the fact that Nietzsche was a Professor of Philology at 25, as prodigies of whatever kind have always greatly fascinated me, with a mixture of envy and revulsion. He also went prematurely insane with syphilis, which indicated he was as vulnerable, or shall we say as rash and stupid as the rest of us, this man who believed in the pity-rejecting Ubermensch.

At any rate I was guileless enough to mention to Swan I had been reading Nietzsche, and being the stone deaf monologuist he was, he took it I was speaking approvingly.

“He was a wicked man,” he snorted with a petulant scowl. “A truly evil man.”

“Was he?”  I asked. “Well, yes, I agree he was, in certain aspects.”

“You admit it? Then why on earth are you reading him?”

“Because his book is very interesting. He has very original ideas and he has a brilliant mind. Even if what he writes is ultimately perverse.”

Swan beamed wisely around the room, especially at his wife and his daughter, as if to say he was playing with a child, and also in passing casting pearls before swine.

“My boy, I believe in keeping myself well away from what is, as you put it, perverse. Otherwise you might become ultimately tainted by the poisonous contact.”

I rallied back at him. “Mm? I completely disagree. You need to know what the enemy is thinking if you want to stop them in their tracks. Did you know that everyone’s favourite, HG Wells, believed in state organised eugenics, firmly weeding out all inferior genetic types?  I bet that wouldn’t stop you or anyone else for that matter reading any or all of his books.”

The Reverend looked at me like an indignant puffin. He obviously knew nothing of Wells’ far too utopian side.

I was in youthful full gear by now, and had no wish to ease up on the pressure. “And Henry Williamson with his sweet little countryman’s tales about animals, Salar the Salmon and Tarka the Otter, was an open supporter of Nazism. Including after the war, when he said Adolf Hitler wasn’t really so bad after all. But nobody, I’m sure you’d agree, feels guilty about reading something like Tarka the Otter?”

The puffin’s eyes grew wider, as it realised and for the first time in probably thirty years, that from my surly perspective it was not the sage whose words were infallible.

“Listen to me,” he snarled. “Nietzsche’s writings led directly to Hitler justifying the terrible things he did. The Jewish genocide, his wicked race theory, and all the rest of it.”

“Yes, of course, of course. And if the British government had read Nietzsche and read Mein Kampf they might have worked out in advance what an incredible monster the Fuhrer was. And, incredible as it seems, that he would stop at absolutely nothing. That he would do things so evil, they were utterly beyond belief. But they didn’t, as they thought he was still a human being after all. A rather excitable gentleman and an unorthodox statesman, but not a craven monster. At the end of the day, perhaps it was all just his Teutonic bravado and swagger.”

“That,” blazed the Reverend Swan, “is a complete and appalling distortion. We British tried all we could, to prevent Adolf Hitler, and all that he wanted to do.”

I couldn’t give a damn by this stage, when it came to such fatuous and tyrannical certainties. “Quite the opposite. We refused to rescue the Jews by ship and let them move to Palestine, when Hitler was prepared to let them go, as long as they got out of Germany. Plus, the RAF had photographed the railway lines into Auschwitz and they knew through information passed on by the maquis and those communists who’d been in the camps, what they were up to. They could have bombed those lines and put a stop to Auschwitz, but they didn’t. Can anything be more wicked than that? Abstaining from doing something that is a matter of life and death, is not much better than committing horrendous evil yourself, is it?  I mean you as a clergyman, Mr Swan, should know that better than…”

At this point the old parson burnt himself with the ash from his cigar and most appositely he exploded.

“How dare you! A mere stripling, I mean a mere child, like yourself? I’m telling you, I will not have this man’s name and his disgusting ideas, mentioned in my parsonage, in this house! As far as I’m concerned he was the last word in incarnate evil, and worse still encouraged unspeakable evils in other perverted souls. He scorned religion and especially Christianity in the most violent and disgraceful terms. And yet you, a mere boy like you, are prepared to take up his cause against me, a clergyman, three times your age! I want to hear no more from you, d’you hear me?”

Madeleine had turned very pale, as if at some obscene private memory, and Madgie was deeply embarrassed for the blushing boyfriend. Neither of course would have dared to reprove their own in-house patriarch, who was a curiously expurgated version of one of the Minor Prophets of the Old Testament. Though and most bizarrely, compared with what Madeleine had to endure in the way of domestic censorship, my particular silencing was mild. There happened to be an extremely bland and innocuous TV soap opera at the time called The Newcomers, about a number of mostly middle class Londoners who had moved out to a purpose-built overspill suburb. It was the last word in spiritless banality, and yet Wilson Swan had forbidden his young daughter to watch it. Madeleine could not understand why, and the patriarch was unwilling to explain any further. Maybe he being half-deaf as well as inveterate monologuist, had misheard e.g. ‘big test’ as ‘big breast’, or ‘nice roadside’ as ‘nice backside’. Who knows?

Thirty years on, in the kernel year of 2000, Madeleine told me in his final days as a widower living alone, Wilson Swan started to lose his memory, and needed constant watching. He had suffered a bad heart attack a week before he passed away, but somehow managed to get to the phone and dial 999. When the ambulance men came, noting his age and the loosely hanging line of his mouth, they took it as read that he had dentures, and started yanking away in case he choked on them.

That did the trick, as Wilson came angrily to consciousness and roared at them:

“They’re not false. They’re not false, you bloody young fools!”

Truth and falsehood, therefore something to get your teeth into. That was what he must have struggled with, and quite possibly in vain, in his last few moments after his seven final days.

CHAPTER 3 of PASSION FOR BEGINNERS

CHAPTER 3 of PASSION FOR BEGiNNERS

Chapter 4 appears tomorrow Wednesday, 4th May. The previous chapters are the blog posts immediately preceding this one.

3

Meeting with Madeleine Swan was like leaving a graveyard, and rediscovering a long forgotten road to becoming alive again, and even into turning into something like a self-respecting human being, rather than an unwilling ghost. That must seem like arch hyperbole in the context of a 17 year-old courting a 16 year-old, in a remote provincial grammar school, but a whole year of slogging for exams, and the years before of grafting to stay at the top, had left their raw toll. I had ended up the lauded number one by the age of 12, and thereafter felt obliged to repeat the same trick ever after. But of course it wasn’t and could never be effortless, and bear in mind a 12 year-old is only a little kid and a puny squirt, not anything like a nascent man in miniature. There was no fear of failure in the sense of punishment or deprivation at home, but there would have been disappointment if I hadn’t shone with the lustre of supreme and predictable victory. Though not everyone was as lucky as I was. I had a school mate Bovis, who was the only well spoken, meaning posh boy in the class, and whose Home counties parents were both teachers at another local Grammar school. He told me matter of fact when he was all of 14, that if he did badly at school he was beaten at home, by first his mother and then his father, and occasionally in syncopated, musical alternation. Bovis had a nervous blink and a way of holding his head to the left, in a quizzical and polite and very shy way, and all this seemed emblematic of his boyish vulnerability, and the ugly and in 1964 quite legal misbehaviour of his ambitious parents.

Madeleine and I made a date to meet at the bus station, and then on to the Royal cinema which was immediately across the road. The Royal was the only one of the three town picture houses which had no double seats at the back, specifically set aside for courting couples. I hadn’t even thought of these quaint practicalities in the summer of 1967, as I wasn’t yet the prolific cinema goer I was soon to be with Maddy. Going to the pictures was our favourite means of courtship, and the only other thing we did was occasionally visit each other’s houses, where we were assigned a private parlour and a roaring coal fire, even in her Dad the pious clergyman’s vast house, which was a windblown and ancient manse. Half way through our passionate embraces, our mothers would knock discreetly at the door, before parading in with a laden tray of sandwiches and cakes and coffee. My mother amusedly took note of our perspiring faces, and being no prude was quietly impressed, whereas the vicar’s wife Madgie Swan was such a lilting, singsong innocent, she didn’t even notice our belisha beacon fizzogs, or if she did, thought we had been sat too close to the fire, and it was lucky, she reproved us joyfully, and with the innocence of a soprano 10 year-old, that we hadn’t been scorched with sparks from the logs.

The absence of double seats didn’t bother me, as I was quietly sure things would proceed in a new and revolutionary way. No one has ever written adequately and insightfully about the verb ‘to hope’, when used in the highly potent and transitive sense, as something that can produce in an agentive way the unexpected, even the miraculous, though certainly the noun is cited as a timeless Christian Virtue along with the similar Faith, and the less similar but related Charity. As soon as the lights went out, as I had done in the past, I put my arms round my new girlfriend. With other girls nothing had gone very far after that, other than a bit of sweet enough hand squeezing, and maybe half a dozen pleasant but chaste kisses for the ninety minutes of the film, a fair bit of whose narrative remarkably we actually watched and took in, and even remembered the principal highlights a year later. Hoping for much more, I expected something on those lines with this shy young clergyman’s daughter. But after my tentative arm manoeuvre, Madeleine moved rapidly towards me and kissed me furiously, as if at least five years of animation and desire were stored inside those lips, and for the first time in my life I had a woman’s tongue moving down my throat, and knew at once and at long last, what things really meant in this baffling and truly preposterous world. I was in the future to be regularly lured and misled by so many patently false gods, and took several blind turnings in the name of ambition and self-aggrandisement, and even wilful self-destructive perversity over the next few years…but deep down I would never forget the naked and truly magical power of Madeleine’s tongue and Maddy’s lips and after that the exploration of her body, and knew within minutes that a woman’s gentle mouth and tender breasts and round thighs and twitching belly and sweetly curving behind, are worth at the very least five college degrees, ten  PhDs, twenty tenured professorships, and fifty be they ever so glowing reviews by a double-barrelled critic in the fiction pages of the Times Literary Supplement.

 The technical term for intense sexual activity that never actually turns into copulation proper, from the twentieth century onwards, has been regularly and very curiously referred to as ‘heavy petting’. And no doubt clandestine copulation in an ill-lit cinema might just be possible, if for example the girlfriend with her underwear lowered underneath a non-skimpy skirt, was sitting on her boyfriend’s knee (it would be impossible and instantly actionable if she was lowering jeans or trousers, unless she had an enormously long coat covering them) the boyfriend likewise being appropriately if very discreetly exposed. In any event unless the cinema were half empty, the elevated and rocking girlfriend would be blocking someone’s view from behind, and also as the coitus became ever more passionate, it would be hard to disguise this as some tender little nervous habit of the girl sat chastely perched on her boy’s knee. Madeleine and I never actually attempted such a baroque and reckless feat, though we took heavy petting to its very extensible limits, and in any case and overwhelmingly as a vicar’s daughter and being only sixteen years old, she was terrified of getting pregnant.

Heavy petting might conceivably be conflated with Hindu Tantric sex, where the unorthodox non-Brahminical adept, usually male, has so trained his autonomic functions through years of practice of Hatha Yoga, especially focused meditation and pranayama breath control, that he can achieve a state of maithuna, or one of the five taboo M’s, the Tantric panchamakara. Maithuna is the ability to copulate endlessly, but without ever achieving orgasm, and it is one method of preserving vast quantities of chakra/plexus energy. Thus it can serve as a pivotal means of advanced kundalini yoga, where the kundalini female serpent coiled at the base of the pelvic chakra/ sacrococcygeal plexus, by dint of endless maithuna, is gradually raised aloft to the dizzy heights of that chakra in the skull, which corresponds to our pineal gland. There the female principle of the sacral kundalini, unites with the altitudinous male entity, and hence a final, albeit spiritual and mystical climax, to achieve that which is neither male nor female, but beyond all dualities. For the record, the other four taboo Ms of the pancha makara of the Tantrics, who deliberately practise the opposite of Brahminical orthodoxy, thus achieving transcendence by a heretical alternative route, and by a considerable hazardous short cut, are respectively matsya, mamsa, madana and mudra. These are the ritually impure and profane consumption of fish, of meat, of alcohol, and the art of secret/esoteric finger gestures.

Our wild embraces, whether in the two cinemas with the double seats, or the Royal picture house with only single seats, or in either of our mothers’ best parlours, where in one memorable case we lost all caution and completely disrobed, certainly did produce crimson-faced finales in both, and in my case left its ineffable liquid and scented evidence. Later I heard my commonsense mother, after hearing of a foolish boy of twenty getting a woman some years older in the family way, talking frankly to my older brother about a sensible courting lad keeping a convenient hanky in his top pocket. I was baffled until I understood she meant it was there for catching the effusion of fireworks at the end, when the canny Cumbrian couple practised the primitive coitus interruptus or withdrawal method. Her own courting had been done in the late 1930s, when condoms in remote and impoverished West Cumberland were extremely hard to come by. Maddy and I held and caressed each other down below, in all three cinemas, and our winter coats draped ingeniously across our laps, were excellent and unimpugnable screens. I managed to loosen Madeleine’s bra and stoke my hunger on her succulent and ample breasts, and I also became an expert at ingeniously lowering her cumbersome tights to caress and stroke the sweetness of her naked bottom against the seat back, and her moistening fanny conveniently at the front. Sometimes, after half an hour of which, I would fantasise her artless mother Madgie, or her garrulous, monologuing and sixty- year-old father, the Rev Wilson Swan, being somehow privy, two flies on the wall that is, to observing what Madeleine and I were up to. I saw them both vividly as halibut-eyed with stricken awe, and in the vicar’s case inordinately incensed that all these unclean deeds, like all wicked things, were being done in deceitful darkness.

There was also the truly bizarre fact that in almost three years, we must have attended the three town picture houses at least a hundred times, and instead of seeing the hundred films, had only fleetingly glimpsed a colossal if grotesquely edited quantity of kernel 1960’s cinema. In effect our ecstatic and covert embraces were a parallel and homage paying-narrative to what was on the magical and beautiful screen. When in The Thomas Crown Affair, criminal mastermind Steve McQueen played the unforgettable and teasing chess game, with Faye Dunaway the immaculately attired insurance investigator, she who was after his seemingly impregnable hide, the pair of them ending in a tender fairground whirl of erotic entanglement, Madeleine and I likewise paid our humble compliments in our own little carousel whirl, in that comforting and protective darkness that nothing but we ourselves could penetrate. Likewise, we both associated the revolutionary entertainment of the so-called spaghetti westerns, A Fistful of Dollars, A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, with the radical and wordless sensuality we embarked on in our sympathetic imitation, where we both dispensed with speech, and took refuge in a silent and voluptuous tenderness. You will recall that Clint Eastwood was the first cowboy in cinematic history, who was either stonily mute or curtly monosyllabic, and whose constantly chewed cigar, was as crucial a virtuoso actor in those films as the star himself. Behold the virtue of the silent hero, of majestic taciturnity, of the anti-hero who has no words, much less any nostrums, much less any platitudes, to argue the case with the fools who wish to see his vainglorious fall. In response to their babbling mockery, he chews his stogie and says…absolutely nothing, simply stares at them and their puerile antics. It is such an eye-opener, such an enchanting introduction to the poetics of understatement, and to truly visual suggestion. Meanwhile by way of cosmopolitan irony, those bare and austere cowboy landscapes, were filmed in Spanish deserts, not in Nevada nor Montana, and were directed by an Italian, not a Yank. There was also a charismatic villain, the ugly foil to Eastwood, whose credit in the films was a bland pseudonym, but was indeed a consummate artist called Gianmaria Volonte who would later pause so harrowingly at Eboli along with Christ, and who was also the herald of the Chronicle of a Death that was to be solemnly Foretold.

My hand inside Madeleine down below entered a vernal woodland heavy with humid fertile earth. It was a ripe jungle of rich undergrowth, but also a remote rustic garden with delicately sonorous English birds: goldfinches, bullfinches, greenfinches, bramblings, wood warblers, serins, and above all those little tender yellow siskins all whispering wistfully as if held on some memory of a time so very like perfection, it was their task to commemorate that and nothing else. Her sex, her precious and beautiful cunt, was like an endless and radiant mansion, and like an ill-lit but dignified forester’s hut, like a shy and holy temple, a little humble chapel, a sumptuous yet modest palace, an old and weathered stone cottage full of shadows and seclusion. It was also a peat-laden Hebridean croft, and inside it the numerals enunciated by those long gone were Gaelic: aon, a dha, tri, ceithir, coig, sia, seachd, ochd, naoi, deug. My hand walked inside of it like a naive but proud owner, the chosen tenant, the favoured guest.

Madeleine had a truly puzzling nature which was both very open and simple, and yet profoundly inexplicable. She had massive and quaint attachments to symbolic loves, things you might call the imaginary loves of a child, as the two heroes that mattered most to her knew virtually nothing of her silent devotion. More understandable was her mute adoration of a certain boy called Danny Perry who has transferred across to the Grammar from the Tech school, along with his polar opposite, the always jesting Marty Snow. He had jet black hair and striking looks, a naive and rather dozy mien, and something anomalous and alluring, and very hard to grasp. As a result, he always had an easy choice of handsome girlfriends. Since she was fourteen, Madeleine had had her silent passion for him, as they came from the same village, and had been childhood playmates, but she had never once showed it in any kind of hint or tiny action. And though it was obvious to anyone but her that Danny had no knowledge of her veneration, and was in fact, as all could see on two minutes’ inspection, a quite dull and insensitive boy, she often became melancholy with the grief of being ignored, which is of course worse than being shunned. It wasn’t the fact that she couldn’t have him, so much as he didn’t even notice her trivial existence, that gave her such profound sadness. If he had shown any trace of interest, she would likely have blushed to the roots of her very fair hair, run away from her idle fantasy, and laughed it off with a few mumbled words.

Once or twice when we left the cinema on Saturday nights, she would go very quiet as she brooded on this addiction, and before long would bury her head on my shoulder and grievously weep. She was mourning for Danny who barely remembered she flourished a mere ten-minute walk from his house. Remarkably, I myself wasn’t even remotely jealous, as it was like having a child weeping at the fact her imaginary friend was precisely that. It was almost touching or amusing, had it not been that a year earlier she had taken an overdose and been rushed to hospital, and part of her explanation, which made no sense whatever to the Rev Wilson or to gabbly, babbly Madge Swan, was that she yearned in vain for Danny Perry, the more palpable reason being that her aged parents did not know she existed either, in any sympathetic and authentic sense. She had an older sister Jenny who Wilson Swan had made his blatant favourite, which was why guilty Madge petted Madeleine from time to time by way of compensation, but Madeleine didn’t want petted nor consoled, she wanted people to really see her and really understand her, and that meant Danny Perry more than anyone.

The other was the rejected boyfriend of sister Jenny, Thomas Coulthard, a twenty-year-old rugby fanatic who had left university and joined the army as a trainee officer, partly in a sullen fury at being cast off by Jenny Swan. Thomas had been easily and tenderly fraternal to the kid sister, memorably on one key occasion, just before the suicide attempt, and of course Madeleine had made a minor devotional cult out of this single action. Everyone is tender and playful with their girlfriend’s kid sister, unless the kid is a monster, but for her his two or three kindly attentions meant the whole world, and whenever she thought of the night she saw Thomas crestfallen as Jenny summarily and coolly gave him the boot, it was as if she was describing Coulthard’s execution. When she wept about him, as she often did on our walks away from the cinema, it was just like her endless wake for Danny Perry, but in this case as well as Thomas being absent from her life, and thus after a devious logic ignoring her, she could bring herself to an apogee of sobbing by describing his wretched upset the night her wicked sister had told him he must go.

But in the cinema, when the pair of us were enjoying a complete and ripe devotion to each other’s bodies, Madeleine ceased to have any past, and became a woman out of time and place, and any conceivable recorded history. I put my hand inside her tights and caressed her divine behind, and stroked just above the junction with her sex. Her tender young girl’s bottom was like a hillside, bathing in the light and sunlight of something permanent and eternal. I moved along that hillside enthroned and enchanted, and walked euphorically on and on, and its wooded summit was thankfully never attainable. There was no limit to the depth and purity of her body, it was there for me forever, and without conditions or precautions. I wondered in the cinema why I had ever thought anything else in the world was possibly the equal of this insatiable joy. It surpassed everything and especially success at the bilious grammar school, and even the best of fine literature and music although those two things would eventually be supplements and handmaidens to this graceful entrance to the only heaven I would ever know.

And meanwhile we would catch glimpses, only glimpses, of the brilliant and disturbing, ingeniously plotted segregation drama, In The Heat of the Night. Rod Steiger, in every sense, was a man of versatile and original genius. Nevertheless, decades later he was feted on television, where he was infinitely monotonous about his nightmarish brush with severe depression, wooden and obstinate and remorselessly repetitive with his catch call, it is an illness, it is an illness, it is an illness. Madeleine said that the black detective Sidney Poitier was the most beautiful man she had ever seen in her life, and this in the context of West Cumberland in 1967 possessing not a single black man within its frontiers. The quaint and unexpected music of the film where Trintignant and Aimee ran about a beach and did nothing else, A Man and A Woman, and its unrepentant choreography of ‘zhabadabadap’, was purely and pleasingly hypnotic, and spelt a new and cyclical and never ending tenderness, even if the film was as quietly mad as some architectural folly.  We watched maybe a tenth of it, and that was more than adequate, as both the music and the film permeated our skins and hearts, and removed our youthful identities such as they were, and we became that film and nothing else, and we became those two lovers and no one else.

And it was not an illness. No, it was not an illness.

 

CHAPTER 2 of PASSION FOR BEGINNERS

CHAPTER 2 of PASSION FOR BEGINNERS

Chapter 3 appears tomorrow, May 3rd.  Chapter 1 was yesterday’s post.

2

At the celebratory meal my wife Angie, at times looking poignantly preoccupied, was sat between myself and Terence Page, the future failed assassin. It’s a sad fact that you never know what people are going through unless you ask them, and an even sadder fact that the British almost more than any other race, are completely hopeless at asking people what might be wrong (including asking an obviously highly disturbed Page at certain crucial times) and exactly, and unedited, what they might be enduring. In Angie’s case she was pregnant and was frightened of having a miscarriage. It was the second time in 1988 aged 33 (hence an ‘elderly’ prima gravida) she had conceived, having miscarried in August, then getting pregnant again the month after. So she was about six weeks gone, and was in fact carrying Janie who would be born the following June after a thirty-six-hour labour, of which twenty-four were prodromal, and where Janie, true to form, presented herself wrong ways about, and made the delivery worryingly arduous. Angie was on pethidine by the end, and as she hadn’t slept for twenty-four hours, began to hallucinate that she was terrifyingly out of her body. It was a far cry from the prenatal group films where the dulcet mother sweats and smiles as she turns just a little bit crimson thanks to parturition, and her dulcet husband mops her brow, and gives her bottled water like the sterling hero he is, and that is as bad as it gets.  When Janie was finally born, looking not like a baby, but like a very small and very beautiful little girl, I burst into tears and battered my fists against the walls, feeling both overjoyed and wholly crazy. But now of course eight months before all that, every time Angie went to the toilet she was terrified of finding blood down there as she had in the heat of summer.

After the miscarriage she had to go into hospital for an overnight stay, to be cleansed with a dilation and curettage. It was the old hospital in the ugliest backstreets of the town, and although August, it was a grey and cold and melancholy afternoon. We entered the gynaecological award and on the dozen dismal beds were eleven worn and listless old women, all in there for hysterectomies and the like. Angie did what I would have done in her boat, and burst at once into tears. She had just lost her baby, and behold she had won an obligatory holiday in this incredible morgue of a place. But things improve as they always do, even in an apparent graveyard. Before long one of the old women kindly chatted to her and then they all started in, and it became more human and altogether less dark inside the ancient ward. The elderly gynaecologist was a fuzzy-haired Welshman called Wally Powell who looked like Professor Branestawm, with his hair sticking up in perpetual rhetorical bafflement. He came over and gently explained the loss of the barely formed foetus and said the little op was nothing, and then to get back out there, and, looking at me, get stuck in again. There was no reason to suppose Angie would have any more miscarriages, as there was no family history of such.

I looked at the gentle if scatty old specialist, and when he’d turned his back, smiled at the excellent and appalling story that everyone knew about him. A few years back he was visiting this same ward where an old lady was recovering from a hysterectomy, and was complaining about her unhappy condition. She was both suffering a lot of pain and very hard of hearing. Swansea man Wally Powell, by way of reassurance bawled at her innocently:

“My dear, you’ve a very big cut down there, that’s why.”

As soon as he’d left the ward, the deaf old lady croaked in stricken horror: “The dirty bloody bugger!”

The afternoon I visited Angie I took her the latest album by Joni Mitchell, her very favourite singer. The weeks passed and long after she had left the hospital, I noticed she never played it. I was about to put it on myself, when she urged me embarrassedly, please do not. It reminded her far too vividly of losing the previous baby, and renewed her anxiety that she would maybe lose another. Thereafter, and even when Angie was working away, I would never play that album, and in the same way years later, when one of our favourite mongrel dogs died young of a very rare stomach tumour, I could never play the jazz CD that I’d bought the same day that he was euthanised.

Directly opposite me was my ex-publisher Charlie Bull, a man of early forties with a scrubbed moonlike face and a hasty, rather girlish public school voice, and a definite way with hyperbole and vehement emphasis. It was a ticklish situation he and I were in, in theory, but Bull was well beyond any tickling, and I couldn’t imagine him being embarrassed by anything, not even if he had been found glued to a hush-hush boardroom keyhole, or cheating at a tense game of cards. He had taken me on four years ago with a book that had been rejected incalculable times, and was generous enough to do two more in the next two years. He feted me and hailed me recklessly as the next James Joyce, and told me that that first novel’s beauty had made him burst into tears, not once but over and over again. His list was hotchpotch eccentric, and the last word in unblushing pragmatism. The bulk of it was light mid 80s naughty-naughty with titles like The Sexploits of Marnie, but he also did a never ending cowboy series called Let Those Wagons Roll! I was amazed that people still read cowboy novels in the 1980s, but approved the fact that the money he made from them and the sexploits, funded his highbrow translations, and a handful of young writers who happened to take his fancy. The notional embarrassment lay in the fact that he had rejected my last book in a very summary and even brutal manner, knowing full well it would be the parting of ways after four close and friendly years together. He also knew, though he had doubtless forgotten, that before he published me, I had spent an entire decade in a wholly arid desert, writing away without any success, and without a single story published or even a book review to my name.

But then only six months after he had given me the boot, behold, I’d been awarded this very grand prize, and the two short stories that had won the competition, had been part of my last Bull Press book.  Of course he had to be invited to the do, and when he did be brought armfuls of the unsold hardback, which alas no mass market paperback outfit had queued in the rain to wrest from him, despite all the fine reviews. Bull intended to sell his hardbacks here in Soho discounted at only a tenner, rather than munificently give them away, but he was fool enough to put them all down at a prominent empty table, then walk away to get himself a drink, and lengthily chinwag with the considerable number of folk he knew.  By the time he got back to his unlicensed bookstall, they had all disappeared, and were in various handbags and shoulder bags, and he took his molten anger out on one sad little man who, when he tried to help himself like everyone else, shouted:

“May I ask you, do you intend to pay for that book I’m selling. Or just to steal it, is that your intention?”

Bull had surprisingly begun life as an ambitious visual artist, and been lastingly embittered by the hurtful rejection and humiliation entailed. He spoke with unwonted feeling of walking into some smart London gallery in 1970, aged 25, with a portfolio of a whole year’s work, where the yawning owner would flick through all fifty drawings in ten bored seconds saying, no, no, no, no, no….no, I’m sorry, Mr Ball, but definitely no and definitely not. I’m more than certain this painful historical defeat must explain why not just myself, but at least two other writers he bravely launched, were first by him lauded, greatly spoiled (amply hosted and warmly feted with fine wines and best monkfish in his splendid Bucks mansion) and then cast off with brazen glee, once he had tired of the game. It was the identical quaintly sadistic charade was acted out upon me, then towards the subsequent celebrity literary name (once he’d been sacked by Charlie Bull, that is) that was Glaswegian TS Murdoch, and upon a barely heard of Jack du Maurier, who he lifted from remarkable obscurity, and boldly put two of his difficult and chronically unsalable works between covers. Years later we compared notes, and it transpired he had cheerily assured all three of us that we were all the new James Joyce, given us all gifts and unexpected cheques and invitations with our wives to his luxurious pad, and then cruelly put the brakes on and crudely told us all he had had enough of us and our deplorable failure to keep up the Joycean standard.

A few years after turning me down, he vengefully succeeded in pulping all unsold copies of the three books he’d taken. It happened that I had changed address a few times, and Bull claimed he couldn’t track me down, or he would have posted them by courier, to do whatever I wanted with the groaning mountain of stock. I told him incensed one phone call to the regional arts folk, or my friend the eminent critic London X, or a hundred other common sense options, would have got him my latest address. And then I asked Bull hoarsely, why go and pulp them, why not remainder the fucking things for Christ’s sake? You told me I was a James Joyce, and you have gone and pulped your version of James Joyce, not once, but three times. Why did you have to pulp the fucking things, Charlie?

He snorted and in his posh and hasty and quaintly feminine voice said, “Because, Milo, it’s so completely bloody undignified. Once a book of mine is remaindered for thirty pence, it is a joke not a book. It is simply not one of my titles any more, and I, not to speak of the public, instantly reject it. I would much sooner the book didn’t exist, it’s as straightforward as that.”

Having toasted all three of us avatars of Joyce, Bull then pointed admonishingly, advising us to be appropriately humble, towards his revered star author, Marguerite de Bois, the grand old woman of French letters. He and he alone, maverick Charlie Bull possessed all her UK translation rights and had fought like hell to get them. She was a notoriously cerebral and difficult writer who Bull stoutly claimed had said the last word on all things that mattered in life, and also those which resounded mysteriously outside of life. When pressed to elaborate, he talked strangely vaporous, always half-finished sentences, so I assumed he dipped in her works when full of strong wine, and sunnily relished the odd sentence or two, thereby assuming he had savoured her essence by a kind of botanical capillary absorption. By contrast, as well as his connoisseurial savouring of the exquisite, Bull was also well capable of detecting the opposite, and when en route to Scotland, he had driven through Cumbria, on his way to us he took a diversion round the towns and villages of the industrial west coast, and was duly appalled. Over tea in our little terraced house in a town that is predominantly Irish Cumbrian, Cleator Moor, he shuddered as he named those monumental ports of call:

Maryport, Workington, Flimby, Grasslot. God almighty, Milo. It was like driving through Dante’s depths of hell. If I’d been brought up in those infernal hovels, I’d have ended up a fucking writer called Sonny Milo as opposed to Sunny Milo too.”

Tonight, once he had got over the loss of the filched books, Charlie began to mix happily with the animated crowd. It divided into numerous literary types and their friends, and numerous unassuming provincial folk, the latter amateur enthusiasts of the prose and poetry of the late and legendary Cornish writer, Jack Treseder. It was Treseder after which tonight’s prestigious award was named. They had formed a Penzance-based appreciation society, and rather like Robbie Burns devotees, treated him monotheistically as the only worthy tutelary deity since the beginning of time. The prize was awarded in alternate years to contesting poets and short story writers, and only a few years back the presentation had been televised live by the BBC. No such hallowed spotlight tonight, for it was also the night of the revered Booker, and they weren’t going to film two literary events, not even if one was to be shown in staggered time. Despite the clash, I saw there slumming it the pleasant and handsome woman poet who a few years on, and it could scarcely have been foretold now, would be the country’s Laureate and lauded celebrity. The other poet I noted was the blind one with the snow white head of hair, and the hyphenated surname. He was in a large group holding forth with a comic anecdote, and was laughing his head off with a simple and unrestrained joy. I observed him closely for a good ten minutes and it struck me he must be one of the happiest people I had ever seen in my life, his smile lines well marked, and you could say a baseline of zestful joy evident in everything he said. He wore an old brown jacket, with a worn green sweater underneath, and a crimson tie at a rakishly wild angle. His sweater was copiously covered in ancient food stains, most of them off white, and it took me some seconds to comprehend that if you were blind you must spend a fair bit of time missing your mouth. I was about to join his circle and see what they were all roaring about, when a stout, elderly and insistent woman who announced she was one of the Treseder Appreciation Society, grabbed and moved me a whole yard backwards for abrupt interrogation.

“Are you the Man of Mystery that won the Award?

I smiled.

“I’ve never heard of you, and I’m reckoned by everyone in the Society to be very well read. Are you any good?”

“I…”

“Never mind that. How old are you?”

“I’m 38.”

“Good God! You look a hell of a lot older. Late forties at least I’d have said. You must be a real genius to succeed in looking like an old man, before you are turned forty. The one thing that impresses me though is that beautiful hand-knit sweater you’re wearing. It matches perfectly those nice green cords. Yes, it definitely looks as if you have a woman looking after you. But perhaps you’re a homosexual, are you?”

I pointed to my wife who was chuckling at something Marty had said, and she nodded most approvingly.

“Good,” she said shrewdly and judicially. “You’ve fallen on your feet there, my old lad. Make no mistake.”

I concurred without a murmur, and at length she snorted and moved away. But suddenly her merciless candour and uncalled for prophetic tone, reminded me of what had happened when Angie and I had stepped out of a tube at Chalk Farm this morning. An elderly gypsy woman was selling single roses at an inflated price, and at first I dithered and then to get rid of her gave her the small fortune she asked. She smiled her gratitude then added some unsolicited and gratis clairvoyance for our benefit.

“What you called? Sonny and Angie? Angie short for angel, definitely. You two are from the country, eh? Yes, you are definitely two country folk! But you my little darling, you look like you’re sitting and squirming on something not very nice. Did you lose a child, my poor little darling, you lost your little baby, maybe?”

I’m not making this up, it is exactly what she said after ten seconds of seeing us, and with my wife after a month showing nil outward signs of pregnancy. Of course Angie burst into tears, and told the Romany she’d just had a horrible miscarriage, and was terrified of losing the one she was carrying. The white haired handsome lady smiled and sighed and put her arms about her, and told the pair of us that all would be well, and we would have three healthy children, two girls and a boy, in the next five years. That didn’t happen of course, we only ever had Janie, but at least she was right about all being well for Angie and her child. The gypsy gave us some extra roses, kissed Angie firmly and urged me to look after her, and the all too obvious necessity of continuous tender loving care.

Fortune telling is rarely precise, usually all-purpose inclusive and laughable. However, I have talked to a few people who have been given startlingly accurate details, and a string of real names and exact relationships by someone with an obvious clairvoyant gift, and who couldn’t possibly have learnt of those complex family connections and those highly specific anecdotes. The Romany lady might just have discerned, as anyone else might, that the young fair-haired woman who bought her roses was carrying a nagging inner burden on her face. A predictive short list would include the usual money worries, possible marital infidelity by either of us, something to do with our kids, or maybe our lack of them. He could see she was early thirties (the older you were, certainly in 1988, the riskier the conception and the birth) and that we appeared close and happy together, and I was possibly looking protective towards Angie, and thus the gypsy woman’s inspired guess, but which of course went haywire as to the extent of our family.

Taking a sanguine bird’s eye view of things is not always instructive, as we can fall into the traps of spurious conflation, phony reductive logic, glib or unwitting solipsisms and the like. But almost thirty years after this dramatic day of the metropolitan award, with the benefit of hindsight, I can observe several unhappy destinies unfolding, in a way that would have benefited incalculably from some highly precise soothsaying. I wonder if that fortune teller, assuming she’d been more manifestly skilled at her trade, if also she’d been present at the Jack Treseder Awards instead of at Chalk Farm tube station touting her extortionate roses, and if she had also happened to cast her eyes on the restless and too effervescent Terence Page, might swiftly have walked over and addressed him on the following lines:

‘Leave all those desperate bedsits in lonely bits of London, treat yourself to a new start in life, and give up your pointless labours as a writer, as you weren’t meant to succeed, it is written so clearly in your worrying fate. All that will happen if you persist, is that you will poison your mind with all the disappointment. Anybody can see that your nerves are very bad, and you might well become anything, even a danger, even a serious danger to others, as well as to yourself.’

With Page and his stunned neighbours left to chew on that, she would rapidly move on to Marty Snow who was drinking like a fish, and about to grope the young waitress’s behind in an hour’s time. She would tell him sharply that his fourteen-year-old stepdaughter Pavla was already using heavy drugs, which tragically her unseeing mother Basha didn’t suspect, but that Basha in her panic would make a wholly wrong decision in trying to hide herself and Marty and the vulnerable girl in a different address at the other end of London. You can lock up an endangered fourteen-year-old, the woman added drily, but you certainly can’t lock up a sixteen-year-old who wants to go out and see whatever friends she chooses, as apart from anything else, it is forbidden under British law. And you are very obviously a weak man, Marty Snow (yes I know your name, I can see it clearly in the light grey air that’s rippling just above your head) if you agree to this stupid going to ground like a fugitive, not just once but twice. You are such a weak person, that is why you are drinking so much, and are soon to lose all control fondling a young woman’s bottom, and will embarrass your friends in the Italian restaurant just half a mile away from here.

She would not of course stop to address the blind poet, who had tonight announced he had just turned seventy, about future perils to avoid. You cannot admonish someone who has a harrowing visual handicap, but is nevertheless patently happy and in a state of enduring grace.

You see, they cannot say, these blind folk, look at that melting sunset, take a look at this beautifully marbled old book, what a sight she is over there with that bulging monstrous arse the size of a soup cauldron, you look even more remarkable, today, darling, your features are so delicate and so poetic, but this TV comedy is so funny, the ludicrous grimace on that man’s face especially …

Neither can you comically jay-walk, like I do, always on auto-pilot, even in the busiest London streets, nor can you run in a straight line for a departing bus, nor in the bedroom darkness see your alarm clock, nor your wife’s handsome face, nor the querulous mug of an invading burglar, nor any damn thing but your own monotonous variation on perpetual darkness.

Yet the blind poet was a salutary lesson in living, and was a very happy man, and clairvoyants, and all other qualified advisors and certificated counsellors, had absolutely nothing to tell him…in fact might well have benefited from his own comic and nuanced Comic Wisdom of the Eternal Shadows.

 

 

CHAPTER 1 of PASSION FOR BEGINNERS

PASSION FOR BEGINNERS

a novel by

JOHN MURRAY

Boudalas Books, Kythnos, 84006 Cyclades, GREECE

COPYRIGHT JOHN MURRAY 2016

 

Dedicated to the memory of Annie, and to my support and very good friend, my daughter Ione. Also to every single stray animal in Greece, as well as Cousin Rex, one of my cats. Cousin Rex knows his onions, as alas few of us do

Pat Flynn, aged 20, unemployed Cumbrian of Irish extraction from Cleator Moor, near Whitehaven. On the newspapers available in the government-funded Information and Action Centre of the Community Development Project (CDP) in 1976: ‘I like The Sun cos it’s got lots of really great stuff in it. I can’t stand The Guardian cos it’s got absolutely nowt in it.’

A certain 20th century theologian: ‘He said, I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. He didn’t say I am one of the Ways, one of the Truths, one of the Lifes.

Henry Miller (1892-1980): ‘I must have trained myself from an early age  not to want anything too badly.’

Joe Starkey, rock band singer from Frizington, Cumbria born 1947, and man of much polished refinement. In 1977 he said to the partner of his friend, who was standing oblivious a few yards away: ‘I want to take you up the top of Dent Fell, lass, so as we can buck each other. Is that alright with you? Should we maybe take a few sandwiches?’

 

PASSION FOR BEGINNERS, THE STORY. Sonny Milo is a forgotten author, and at one point in his checkered history, a failed priest. Aged 65 in 2016 he decides to tell the stories of three of the most important women in his life, with the pressing need to comprehend the nature of their characters and his own. Two of them are dead, his teenage sweetheart Madeleine Swan, and his wife Angie of 30 years. Remarkably they were both buried on the same day of the year, the 10th of December, a 1 in 365 chance. The third is Minnie O’Brien, the pharmacist, someone he has not seen for almost 40 years. He has no idea where she is or how her life has gone.

 Madeleine was a very passionate girl but also a troubled one. Obsessed with two young men, even whilst courting Sonny in her teens, one of them a schoolboy and one a grown man, they barely knew of her existence, yet she turned them into idols. It is a seemingly harmless fantasy and yet it makes her attempt suicide as a schoolgirl. A decade later she is divorced after a catastrophic marriage to the son of a Portuguese aristocrat, who was prone to violent rages. Minnie O’Brien is even more passionate but also addicted to arguably childish things. She keeps a teddy bear in the bedroom and enjoys endless embarrassing baby talk. She proudly owns a handwritten letter from Vladimir Nabokov, but one night reveals a remarkable thing about her relationship with her jazz pianist father Max. Sonny is incensed by the revelation and inevitably their relationship is ended. A year later he meets Angie and swiftly steals her from another man. They are married after a few weeks and as Angie becomes a consultant trainer, Sonny pursuits a career as a writer. A decade on, just as he embarks on training as a lay preacher, Angie is diagnosed with cancer, and she dies a decade later in 2009.

 It is the interweaving of all four fates and that of Sonny’s best friend Marty Snow that orchestrates the novel, together with the constant motif of all of them at times acting paradoxically out of character. Marty has not contacted Sonny for nearly 30 years and yet he is still Sonny’s best friend. Madeleine is in thrall to men who do not even know she exists, even though in other respects her behaviour is altogether conventional. Sonny is a Believer yet attends no place of worship and no one would guess of his beliefs at first glance. All this begs the question is there such an abiding reality of the thing we know as Character? Sonny is a failed Christian priest, and yet he believes that there is Character as well as Soul and the notion of Eternity and other urgent spiritual concepts.

 So what do you think?

 

JOHN MURRAY. Born in Cumbria in 1950, he read Oriental Studies at Oxford, and later researched the Ayurveda written in Sanskrit, at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine. This is his tenth published work of fiction. The other nine are all easily available via Amazon and Abebooks. He founded and edited Panurge magazine (1984-1996) along with David Almond, and was longlisted for the Booker with Jazz Etc in 2003. He won the Dylan Thomas Award for short stories  in 1988. He loves jazz and is a keen cook. He has lived in Kythnos, Greece for almost 3 years

One of my favourite writers’   DJ TAYLOR, THE GUARDIAN

‘One of the best comic writers we’ve got’ JONATHAN COE, THE OBSERVER

 

Chapter 2 of PASSION FOR BEGINNERS appears tomorrow 2nd May

 

1

First things first. I was born in the autumn of 1950, in a decidedly melancholy coastal pit village in remote West Cumberland, in the far north west of England. The little terraced house where I spent my first seven years, was immediately opposite Wigtown and the Mull of Galloway, Scotland, and the hazy mountain known as Criffel. I rejoice in the decidedly unusual name of Sonny Milo, which is both melodious and borderline absurd, though now at 65, at long last, I no longer passionately crave to be called something else.

Far more important things come next…

It all began to make some interesting sense in Soho, London, almost thirty years ago, when my best friend Marty Snow acted so embarrassingly out of character. We were sitting next to each other in an Italian trattoria, after an illustrious event where I had been given a large cheque and a literary award, my first and very probably my last. He was on his own and hadn’t brought his second wife Basha, a vivacious and engaging Polish woman of forty, who I had last seen two years ago. Six months after this Soho event, she would ring me in hysterical tears and say Marty had a terrible booze problem and was driving her mad, and could I his best friend intervene in some helpful way. She complained that he stopped off after work every weekday evening and drank a few pints and then a few more, and then a few more, and rolled home at nine completely drunk, his dinner ruined, and though not abusive, seemed to talk a lot of disturbingly unintelligible rubbish. She sobbed and said that he refused to accept that he had a problem, and right enough when I gingerly spoke of it over the phone to him in late 1988, he guffawed and said it was her overstretched and typically East European imagination. All her Lodz (pronounced ‘Wodj’) cousins and uncles who lived a few streets away in West Hampstead, drank ten times as much as he did, and yet she never complained about them.

I wasn’t imagining things tonight though. There were about ten of us at two joined up tables, including my erstwhile publisher Charlie Bull, my wife Angie, Marty, and a rather odd and overweight man called Terence Page, quirky and upper crust and seemingly old for his years. He reminded me faintly of the burly actor Richard Griffiths, or of David Copperfield’s Mr Dick, but I barely knew him, and the connection was that he had tried several times to get into a magazine I had founded and edited up in the far north. I had rejected him as kindly as I could, and he had never forgotten those gentle and encouraging handwritten slips. Somehow he had found out I had won this high profile award, and had rung to ask could he come along to the presentation. I said of course, of course, and there he was irrepressible, effervescent and very schoolboyish, and absolutely unplaceable, by which I mean direly unfathomable. Maybe I shouldn’t spoil the shock value I have up my sleeve at this point, but I will tell you something quite outlandish now. The next I heard of him was a decade later, when I noticed he was writing book reviews for a very fine literary journal, which I happened to know paid a flat £50, whether you were a Nobel winner or someone like Page. Another decade passed and then I was truly astounded to see he was in all the national papers and not in any flattering context by any means. He had been accused of attempted murder, this clumsy eccentric Mr Dick, and it was like hearing that Benny Hill or in a literary context Evelyn Waugh was being tried for the same thing. It all boiled down to an inheritance he felt he was being robbed of by an exasperatingly wealthy interloper, so he had tried very clumsily via highly improbable third parties to have the greedy bastard bumped off. His 75-year-old aunt Jacqueline who lived in a plush and majestic corner of Hertfordshire, thanks to prescient investments by her late husband Charles, a Harvey Street surgeon and a dab hand at probabilities and statistics, as well as everything else, was generously happy to dispense any excess of her bounty to whoever might look the neediest. As he was her only assiduous visitor and she assured him he was the double in every way of Charlie, careless about shirts and ties and picky and indifferent to most of his food, save the pud, Page was unusually confident he would inherit the bulk of her money, not speak of the six-bedroom house near Tring with its topiaried hedges and massive gardens and magnificent miniature lake. Appallingly, out of the nightmarish woodwork a year earlier, had crawled a long lost cousin by marriage, one Naunton Sedgwick, a prosperous Cambridge barrister to boot, having wormed his way to stake his claim or rather show genuine familial concern and conspicuous indifference to any personal gain. Sixty year-old Naunton encouraged Jacqui to play plangent bits of Faure and Chopin on the fine old grand when no one had done so for years, least of all unmusical Page, and the barrister also took her out to see the latest films and plays in both Cambridge and in town. Page in numb horror had seen that although this Cantab Rumpole, fob watch and all, looked much less like Charles than he, in gullible old Jacqui’s eyes he probably seemed his doppelganger incarnate. The last person recklessly approached with his B movie assassination plan, in a brash and nasty little Stevenage pub, was the only one who hadn’t sent him packing. That was because he was an undercover policeman who launched a flying tackle and brought him down winded and half mad with terror inside the pub’s garden. Possibly because he had tried to bump off a barrister rather than a milkman or a factory hand, Page got put away for several years, this comical by which I mean altogether tragic literary chap, who was sat there a yard away and chatting innocently and boyishly to Angie for half the night.

Attempted murder from a comic Dickens creation was out of character right enough, and it transpired from the court reports that Page had had periodic delusional psychotic bouts, and had once attempted suicide. This makes a significant link with Marty, who though sane as they come, had once fathered a child by a psychotic Nigerian woman called Zara. Suddenly tonight at the sprawling table, I noticed not only that Marty Snow was getting more and more drunk on the wine, but unlike the friend I knew, he was talking unlovely suggestive smut to one of the friendly perhaps thirty year-old waitresses who happened to be an Englishwoman and not Italian. He was making coarse comments about her trim breasts and buttocks, and even stroking her indignant behind. Luckily she knew he was pissed, and just brushed away his hand, and also brushed away his gargled comments with admirably understated sarcasm.

I was stunned and said by way of rapid apology, “He’s just very drunk. I’m so sorry. He’s an old friend and he’s not normally like this, I promise you.”

She smiled at me and at Angie, who was suddenly aware of what was happening, even though her amiable neighbour Terence Page was still perorating myopically at her side. The patient waitress said:

“Yes, I know he’s drunk,” and she left it economically at that.

Page’s psychiatric history combined with decades of living alone in grim London bedsits and his drab years of toiling at hackwork like a modern George Gissing, as almost all of his heartfelt creative work was rejected…all of that made some structural sense of his apparently amateurish and thankfully botched murder plan. Likewise, Marty’s alcoholism and losing control as a sexual assaulter in the shape of a bottom fondler, needs some careful explication. Marty Snow’s sentimental history had been unusual, and he had not had any proper girlfriend as a Sixth Form schoolboy, whereas I was involved with a quiet but very passionate little vicar’s daughter called Madeleine Swan. Marty had married young at 23 to a fair-haired and resourceful art student Sarah, who happened to be a relative of a relative of mine, so it was true to say he only met her in 1971 because of me. They had been living together in London for two years after that, and the augurs were very good when they left the bride’s Cumbrian church in September 1974, as they seemed very happy, and indeed stayed so for about seven years. Without notice, one day in 1981 Sarah went off with their close friend Willy, a restless entrepreneur who wore very large and tinted round green spectacles. Marty and Sarah had no children, but a year later she and Willy had a lovely little daughter Martha, and Sarah and Marty have never met again, as far as I know. After she eloped, Marty’s love life became decidedly feverish, and as noted he managed to get an African woman Zara with severe mental health problems pregnant. A son was born in 1983 called Daniel, and Zara moved in with her elderly parents, who did all the child care, as she being periodically insane needed a great deal of looking after herself. Marty faithfully kept in touch with his son, and found it easier when Zara moved out, and went back to Nigeria where amazingly she stopped being crazy, and left Daniel with her aged folks. Daniel will be about 32 by now, it occurs to me, and his doting grandparents must surely be long dead, and Marty himself might well be a granddad by 2016.

The point is, that although he is, was, and always will be, by best friend, I haven’t seen Marty since that night where he was drunkenly groping the waitress’s backside. I subsequently learned that in those intervening twenty-seven years, he and Basha had changed their London address twice, changed their phone number twice, and kept their whereabouts a secret from virtually the whole world. After about a decade of hearing nothing from him, I almost tracked down his widowed Dad who had remarried and left Marty’s home town, but the trail ran out at that point, as though I knew which town he had moved to, his surname Snow and sole initial D, were not be found at all in the Cumbria and North Lancs phone directory. Another five years passed, and then I happened to be on busy Tangier Street in Whitehaven, where I knew via a friend of a friend, that his new wife worked, and I walked briskly into the shoeshop, and smilingly approached her, and asked if she knew of Marty’s whereabouts. She was a grey-haired, friendly and homely looking woman with ornate glasses, and she was determined to be helpful. She gave me her home number where Marty’s Dad, Dave, long retired, would probably be glued beatifically to Sky Sport. Half an hour later I had Marty’s new London number, and two minutes after that, I was talking to the man himself. Bear in mind I’d heard nothing from him, and had no idea whether he was alive or dead for fifteen years, and that as a master of cracked anticlimax Marty could never be bettered.

As if we had last spoken three days ago, Mr Call Me Incommunicado coughed and sighed and I imagine smirked:

“You know, I wondered when you might get round to giving me a bell…”

I laughed hard enough, as no one could make me guffaw as much in the appropriate circumstances. He was both a perfect mimic and an expert at inane and laboured phrasing, as practised by ancient West Cumbrians of three generations ago and more.

“You bastard,” I snorted, with a sudden backlog of indignation. “Why have you been out of touch for fifteen fucking years?”

Instead of answering, he turned mysterious hush hush, and told me to give him my phone number and he’d ring me from his mobile outside the house. He mumbled obscurely that Basha got very paranoid about home phone calls, and without elaboration put his receiver down. For two minutes I panicked it would be another fifteen years before I heard from him, but give him his due he called me back and immediately explained the mystery of his being incommunicado for a decade and a half.

It turned out that Basha’s daughter Pavla, who I had met only once in 1986, when she was just a pretty and harmless kid of 12, by the age of 15 had started mixing with a rough and worrying crowd in a Notting Hill pub, including many older boys. They were all serious drug users and by the age of 16, Pavla was a heroin addict, and Basha was out of her head with panic. Pavla was first using dope and speed and occasional H in late 1988, which corresponded with the last time he and I had spoken, as they had immediately switched address and had gone ex-directory with their phone. Marty was wholly unaware that I now had a 14-year-old daughter Janie, that Angie had had breast cancer five years ago, that both my parents had died, that I had published two more books, and much more besides. I asked him dubiously was this lying doggo and invisibility strategy of theirs working, meaning was Pavla now 28, off the H, and he sighed and changed the subject. He told me he had taken an early retirement package from the Tech college where he taught, and been given a huge pay-off after the twenty-five years he’d slaved there. With that small fortune he had bought a property next to theirs in Notting Hill, and soon rented it out at a lucrative rate, and was now a man of hedonistic leisure. Apart from his family life with Basha and come and go Pavla, he did absolutely nothing apart from going to a swimming pool, working out in a gym, drinking in the pub early afternoon, and true to form still smoking twenty cigarettes a day.

And that was it. We ended the conversation with a firm promise to keep in touch, but he never did, and when I rang him a few months later the line was dead, meaning that Basha really was frighteningly paranoid if she was scared of her husband’s oldest friend making contact.  That explains how in twenty-eight years with the exception of that ten minutes talk in 2003, my best friend and I have had nil contact whatever. I shall pause at this significant point to elaborate three related things. The definition of a ‘best’ friend; the unusual physical appearance of Marty Snow, and finally, Marty’s one and only schoolboy assignation in the town cinema, where Madeleine and I were sat in seats nearby, and could observe the bizarre frozen-in-time spectacle of him and poor little 15 year-old Katie Gate, who was so much infatuated she had begged him for a date with no less than three scented notes left in his untidy prefect’s locker.

My very best friend then is one who has made no effort to contact me in twenty-eight years, from 1988 when we were both 38, until 2016 when we are both OAPs of 65. Remember that it was myself with a wily effort of Conan Doyle detection who contacted Marty in 2003, and I am bleakly confident that he himself will make no further effort to get back in touch, until one of us dies and makes the quest redundant. For all the poignancy of that dead end scenario, he is still my best friend, even though I am irritated by his unfeeling evasion, and his classic and predictable compliance to the will of a strong woman, in this case Basha. What that signifies, and I don’t think it applies solely to me, is that a best friend, can very often be as much an idealised and enduring vision of the mind, as a visceral and substantive reality. I know in simple empirical terms, that if he turned up at my door tomorrow, the two of us would fall into that instant and effortless intimacy which proves we are two of the very closest. We are both instinctively candid and confessional with each other, and nothing either said would shock us even if we both declared we were about to change sex or turn Rechabite Primitive Methodist and give up drinking.

Marty’s appearance was highly unusual. He had very tight and plentiful curls in a kind of broad fan shape above his skull. He also had a sizeable nose and the choreography of his face was most typical when he had a cigarette on the go, which he always held at an oblique and rather whimsical angle, and tapped off the ash in a single, sharp and conscientious movement. Add to that, that he very often poked his tongue, at another symmetrically oblique angle, into a cavity in one of his teeth, and then had a look of hapless yet profound gormlessness, which I would often blithely mimic. He was a bit like a good-looking version of two fine cinema comics, Harpo Marx and Gene Wilder, and like the former was a surpassingly gentle soul. I never saw him angry in all my life, though he was capable of showing irritation and disdain when appropriate. He must have been the only person in the world arrested by the police for stealing a horrible white plate which was worth about 5p at the time in 1970. Of course he didn’t steal it, he’d been having a plate of sandwiches in a snooty pub, and because well lit with beer, he amnesically walked out clutching the plate that must have looked to any passer-by as if it were a precious and magical totem. The stupid waitress bafflingly rang the police at the ‘theft’, and they picked him up on the long walk home and took him home to his Dad, Dave. Dave Snow was capable of anger alright, and he told the two young cops they were utterly pathetic and completely unprofessional, arresting a 20- year-old idiot for walking off with a worthless plate, and they should bloody well get out there and catch the real hooks in leather jackets with taggy hair who were blithely vandalising the town bus and train station as if it were their chosen occupation, right at this bloody minute. The pair of them slunk off wordlessly, and didn’t even bother to take the stolen plate.

Marty arrived at the Grammar School in 1967, having transferred from an all boys Technical School, a category which was midday between a Secondary Modern and a Grammar, and which no longer exists. We became instant virtually clairvoyant and telepathic friends, and at the time I had just started going out with Madeleine, and by way of tender courtship we were going to the town cinema every Saturday night. It was about a year later that Marty had his one and only date while still a schoolboy, with the very pretty, blonde-haired Katie Gate. She was only 15 to his 17, but persisted in sending him calligraphic amorous notes that she lodged ingeniously in his school locker. To me he pooh-poohed the whole idea of going out with a kid so young, and when I said she was very good looking, he pooh-poohed that as well, disputing both her beauty and the necessity of any really desirable girlfriend being endowed with such Barbie doll looks. He insisted he wanted one with brains and gumption, and I said that’s all very well but a) she doesn’t look like a Barbie, not even one iota, and b) you are not exactly bent double under the weight of prescient Einsteinian genius and massive searing gumption yourself, as far as I can see. At any rate despite his abhorrence, it was only a few days later when Madeleine and I were in the Alhambra, one of the three town cinemas which had the added bonus of double seats as well as singles, that who should I spot sitting stoutly and deliberately in two adjacent singles, but unwilling and immovable Marty Snow with his handsome and gently clinging little admirer Katie Gate. They were on a romantic date, but it was nothing recognisable as such in anyone else’s terms. He had his arms a mile away from hers, and a cigarette in his hand from start to finish of the original and excellent The Thomas Crown Affair, with the charismatic Steve McQueen, not the incredibly pallid and embarrassingly pointless remake with Pierce Brosnan.

I looked across several times, and at length both he and she nodded and smiled at me and Maddy, or rather Marty smirked at me, and raised his eyes to the ceiling, but never in any context did he smile at Madeleine, who he thought was surpassingly dull and conventional, and simply not of my calibre. He evidently felt much the same about Katie, as he never spoke a single word to her all night, unless just possibly to say yes and no, which were indeed far more likely to be his clearing his throat from time to time. Apart from anything else, there was the wholly beautiful and highly apposite erotic scene where McQueen and Faye Dunaway, having finished a teasing chess game, are caught up in a camera whirl, which turns effortlessly under Norman Jewison’s radical direction into a bout of steaming and exquisite lovemaking. It had me and Madeleine going in sympathetic mode like the clappers, meaning ingenious and delectable and of course clandestine heavy petting, in our favourite double seat. Yet Marty incredibly was sat next to that gorgeous young girl as if he were adjacent to someone’s decaying and malodorous great-great aunt. I tried very hard to comprehend the logic of inviting a nice young woman to a film, and sitting frozen and unbending and drowning her in fag smoke, and parching her adoring looks with cryptic monosyllables. She was a really beautiful girl, and he was not exactly a West Cumbrian Adonis, and he should be grateful what came his way, the daft and bloody obstinate bastard. I whispered as much to Madeleine Swan, who sighed and said: That’s just Marty, and though it was an all-purpose summary, it was accurate enough in its unassuming and economic way.