The next post will be on or before Monday, March 6th

With regard to recent contentious matters on these pages, some things, meaning memories, and especially those concerning the bracingly surreal business of teaching, have this habit of staying with you and never going away. In the mid-1990s, some 20 odd years ago, I was teaching Creative Writing in an art college in the north of England. Mine was classed as a subsidiary option, and could be chosen alongside the students’ main subject of say Fine Art or Graphic Design or Media Studies. They were lively and friendly young people in the main, and a long way ahead of the rump (such an apposite word) of those Technical College students who I had instructed in General Studies a decade and a half earlier. Apropos the ‘general’ nature of the studies, those Tech kids of the late 1970s were only interested in slaveringly discussing Pornography(definitions of, and to be copiously illustrated, boss, or we’re not bloody interested!) or the Supernatural (clairvoyance, telepathy, ghosts, witchcraft) and thought that the syllabus staples of Life Skills, Current Affairs, Politics and all things regarded as Artistic were a heap of decadent rubbish, or as they put it even more cogently and succinctly, absolute shite.

At one point in the summer term I set the art students an assignment where they had to compare and contrast 2 vastly different works of fiction of their choice. I suggested say a novel by Jane Austen set beside a Henry Miller, or by Kathy Acker alongside Iris Murdoch, or by Franz Kafka fighting it out with John Buchan or H Rider Haggard. They would need to outline what these works had in common and in conflict, when it came it the universal matters of love and work and personal ideals…and then to concisely compare the authors’ writerly styles, or to put it in intelligible fashion terms, how precisely they dressed and disported themselves in these works of literary fiction. I had high hopes of this imaginative project, and expected quite a few uproarious laughs from those brave spirits who might tackle e.g. William Burroughs’s incendiary free flowing book of drug addict’s vignettes (to be read in any order, the author declared) Naked Lunch (1959) when set beside say the chaste yet steamy 1977 novel The Taming of Lady Lorinda by that incomparable doyen of romance writers, the wondrously prolific Barbara Cartland (1901-2000).

Fat chance. There were 20 students in that class, and I am not lying when I say that no less than 18 of them chose Irvin Welsh’s heroin addiction novel Trainspotting, to contrast with some other work, which latter I can assure you got a hell of a lot less enthusiastic forensic analysis than did the notorious bestseller. Weirdly, I cannot remember what even one of the 18 chose as foils to Mr Welsh (born 1957) though I suspect it was the ubiquitous school set texts of the time To Kill a Mocking Bird (1960) by Harper Lee or My Family and Other Animals (1956) by Gerald Durrell. Even weirder, I have no recall of what those 2 startlingly independent minds who were the abstemious non-Welsh fans, chose as their two contrasts. After taking a deep breath, I waded my way through those 20 essays, and digested 18 plot summaries of Trainspotting, which sadly did not fire me to drop everything and race out to buy something I hadn’t yet read myself. I have to confess it was to be another 7 years, as late as 2002, before I finally sat down to get to grips with the self-styled punk and provocative Scots author.

I am not going to relate the detailed plot of the 1993 novel, seeing that probably at least 18 out of 20 of you out there have read it, and/ or also watched the phenomenally popular 1996 film adaptation starring Ewan McGregor and 2 other fine actors, Ewen Bremner and Robert Carlyle. Suffice to say it is about the frantically comic if frequently desolate adventures of a group of impoverished Edinburgh friends, all of them heroin consumers, aside that is from near psychotic, heavy boozer Begbie (played by Carlyle) who openly loathes all junkies. The hero Renton played by McGregor hearteningly breaks free of his addiction, then moves to London to start a new life, but just as we are hoping for a happy and cathartic resolution, he is pursued by his pals and ends up back in the dust and the dirt so to speak.

I ploughed my way with  scant relish through this novel in 2002, much less impressed or entertained by the Scots English demotic, than everyone else claimed to be. I detected more than anything a kind of vaunting if carefully disguised complacence from an author, who had penned his novel as if he uniquely were telling life as it really was, at this dog end of the moribund Tory sovereignty over the UK (1979-1997) and, take note, most impressively, not in London nor Manchester, but in the doggest rough parts of Leith, Edinburgh. Only a week or so later, I tuned in as Welsh was being interviewed on Radio 4 ,and it was the first time I had ever heard him speak, and yes my hunch was confirmed, as he sounded chirpily arrogant and insinuatingly prescriptive and faux naif and cocksure and pisswise, and a lot of other things that did not endear him to me. What’s more as I hearkened to his remarkably pious and virtuous opinions, I was immediately transported (not trainspotted) back to 1988 when his fellow Scots author James Kelman was also being interviewed by the BBC, though this time on upmarket Radio 3. Kelman (born 1946), author of Greyhound for Breakfast (1987) and Dirt Road (2016) likewise specialises in depicting the bottom of the heap Edinburgh sub-culture, in the form of tramps, alkies, word salad derelicts and junkies, much of it told in dogged and in my view far from radical or original demotic. In remarkably similar tones to Welch, James Kelman reveals himself to be a safe distance from personal modesty, and has a kind of breathy, insinuating righteousness when he comes to declaring his credo and his views on literature, art, sociology, class and culture. Ironically, in Irvine Welsh’s case (and note that James Kelman won the Booker in 1994 with How Late It Was, How Late, and presumably can still command a bob or two), the Trainspotting man has made such a lucrative income from his novels and their film adaptations, that he must be a very rich man indeed.

All of which raises a few basic theoretical problems apropos what one says versus what one is and what one does. Welch’s earnest and pious maxims about those pampered bourgeois souls who see the world in the myopically wrong way, may be contrasted with how he sees himself: namely someone who spends his time artistically depicting the ferocious and unhygienised underworld. This adamant and unflinching worm’s eye view, has in effect and in his terms made him effectively unfoolable and hence prophetic, meaning that perhaps and pace my naive Tech college kids of the late 70s, he unwittingly succeeds in being both pornographic and supernatural. Moreover, it’s hardly being gratuitously cynical to ask, can one be a burning radical and a ferocious and steely prophet, while also thanks to one’s canny and unhampered artistic vision hitting a highly saleable and profitable commercial vein?  Note that both the fledgling Kelman and the novice Welsh along with other Scots writers Alan Warner, Janice Galloway etc were spotted by an Aberdonian editor Robin Robertson (born 1955) working variously at big shot publishers like Secker and Jonathan Cape in London, and before long the pair of them, thanks to assiduous mega-marketing, had defined not just Scottish regional fiction but regional fiction per se for the whole of the UK. Soon in their wake came the in-your-face Welsh version, the 2001 Sheepshagger (the author Niall Griffiths, born 1966, was actually an Englishman from Liverpool) and the subliminal and highly marketable message soon read that Scotland = Junkies, Wales = Bestiality, so how and in what equivalent in-your-visage manner, do we decide to market Ireland and England, we are possibly now obliged to ask ourselves?

And now at last to the significance of the title of this piece. Towards the end of Trainspotting, buried away and so perfunctorily described that you might almost miss it, is something I found extremely repugnant. Believe me I am not easily offended or upset by anything in literature, and certainly not when it comes to sex (indeed the very start of my own 2006 novel A Gentleman’s Relish about a young couple in the 1950s having rumbustious if blameless sex together and talking rude and ludicrous baby talk, was once mysteriously adverted to by a female Lancaster University academic as ‘pornographic’). In this very perfunctory scene in Trainspotting one of the male characters is engaged in hectic and not outstandingly tender sex with a pregnant woman. We are allowed to follow his thoughts as this happens, and his inner world far from being richly or comically evoked reads like an amoral adolescent’s and a rather nasty, vaunting, emotionally disturbed adolescent at that. The thought that is running through his callow, drug-addled mid 20s brain is that because he is having sex with a pregnant woman, hence the foetus is experiencing a kind of oral sex, the whole fantasy being expressed as something rather cute and offbeat and quirky and jokeworthy. And needless to say, the character does not use the words ‘oral sex’ but ‘blow-job’ as if to make it even more a throw away inconsequential little gag.

Let’s start with some obvious first principles. Any writer is allowed to think absolutely anything as they compose, but no-one is forcing them to put it on the page, and the writer in the last event is the final editor of their own work, regardless of whatever the publishers might supply in the way of supplementary help. It was fair enough for Irvine Welsh to have this unutterably tasteless pre-adolescent gag whizzing through his fevered authorial head, but as final arbiter of what is supposed to be his art, he should have ditched it either at the thought stage or at the first draft stage on the grounds that like many pre-adolescent gags it is objectively disgusting and disgraceful. And do I really need to explain why this is so? If there had been some Trainspotting gag about a man forcing oral sex on a grown child as opposed to a foetus, everyone would have been up in arms saying this is definitely not the stuff of comedy, Irvine, and Welsh’s London editor would surely have commanded him to remove it at once. But because the foetus, in some men’s minds especially, is assimilated to the equivalent of a biological nothing or an existential abstraction or just as often an unwanted impedance, it is therefore an inconsequential nullity and all things concerning it can be turned into a nihilistic chuckaway comedy. 12-year-old kids, as you all know, make heartless jokes about abortions and funny tasting sago (as well as about magnets and ‘spastics’, and about avaricious Jews and phone boxes and lethal gas), but Welsh was in his mid-30s when this was published, and he should have damn well thought better. So, for that matter should his Secker editor, Robin Robertson, and one wonders with how much professional and attentive stringence, the text was actually read from cover to cover.

In case you think this is an overblown and exaggerated argument, I invite you to look on Welsh’s author website (www.irvinewelsh.net).  There under Biography you get a racy and chirpy CV that among other things sardonically discloses how 2 women judges on the Booker panel of 1993 threatened to walk out if Trainspotting were to be shortlisted that year. Yet far more telling than that is the fizzy and adolescent tone of the author profile, which reads exactly like a rather precocious 16-year-old trying to show off to his equally callow and know-all schoolmates. This I would submit is where Welsh and his ilk are precisely to be located in artistic and also in human terms, and if we choose  to make him and his kind a fiction superstar, then it means that we are condoning his and their limitless and unashamed not to say money-raking infantilism.


The next post will be either on or before Sunday March 5th


Everywhere in Greece and especially on the highly accessible Cycladean as opposed to the far-flung Dodecanese islands, there are numerous Balkan ‘guest-workers’ who would either be unemployed in their impoverished homeland or depressingly unable to make a living wage. What that means is they are living in semi-permanent exile (some have been here for well over 20 years) often without their spouse and children, and back in Albania, Russia, Rumania or Bulgaria, either the wife (very rarely the husband) or the grandparents are inevitably doing all the time-consuming child care. We all know that Greece is not a wealthy country, though cruelly enough the supermarket prices here are either the same or more than in the UK, while the average wage is probably about 60% or less. The only bargains in Greek shops are economy brand wines (thank the Lord for that you can hear me hysterically hoot all the way from Kythnos) and a few Mediterranean vegetables like capsicums and aubergines (if you feel like whacking out for a decent-sized cauliflower, you will pay almost as much as a local Albanian makes in an hour). Nonetheless for those lucky enough to be employed in Tirana, Moscow, Brasov or Plovdiv, the wages there are so atrocious that Greece is a fabled place of plenty, and aside from a few cosmopolitan and home grown beggars in Athens, prominent on the metro especially, Greek poverty is largely invisible.  You see it most graphically at Christmas on the TV news where e.g. a Lavrio or Patras teacher who has just lost his job and with a wife working a few hours in a shop, having failed to pay their electric bill, they are celebrating Yuletide by far from romantic candlelight and their shivering children’s festive presents, even in the reduced illumination, are scant enough to be a wretched embarrassment.

All these East European foreigners speak excellent Greek, though not a single one has ever attended language classes nor sat like me gawking at a Greek grammar, nor tried online autodidact studies ditto. I tell them frankly that I am jealous of them all, as I stumble my way through my jazz improvisation sentences, getting tenses, numbers, genders, every damn thing wrong, even though everyone can work out what I mean and nobody laughs at me, or at least not to my perspiring face. By way of light relief it helps that I know a bit of Albanian and can say mir mengesi, mir dita and naten e mire (good morning, good day and good night) and can make the Shiptars laugh hysterically with my party piece clownish rhyming plaint dua grua ( it means ‘I want a woman’, qv the piquant voglio la donna of the incontinent mental case Uncle Teo who shins up a tree and tells the whole world about his dilemma in Fellini’s 1973 autobiographical masterpiece Amarcord.  And for the record, and exactly as it was, when I first arrived here in 2013, until my daughter Ione put me on a dating agency a year later, that Albanian jeremiad happened to be undeniably true).

Regular followers of these pages will know that I am notable for both lengthy preambles and gratuitous digressions, and indeed in one of my novels, I make a character announce that like bread, my meanderings and anastomosings, are the ‘staff’ as opposed to the stuff of life. However, there is a thematic thread running here, be it ever so subtle, in fact not only one thread but a mind-blowing two. A couple of months back I mentioned the true story of the likeable and placid old man from the UK city of Bath who nevertheless had a rare and catastrophic phobia when it came to tinned peas. Later in my piece of a few days ago, I started to dilate on the problem of memory, in particular my own capacity to forget some objectively unforgettable pages of Lawrence Durrell, plus the inerasable surname of Moby Dick man, Herman Melville, plus the infinitely memorable name of the capital of Slovakia, which is to be sure Bratislava. I shall now pull together those seemingly ungatherable threads and mention the incredible case of the Albanian Kythniot, Miri, a  jesting and resilient Tirana man who variously labours for local builders, helps out in one of the supermarkets of the port, and uncomplainingly turns his hand to any other menial casual work that will turn a handy penny, euro, lek.

Miri is about 45, bald, muscular, moon-faced to a remarkable degree, and with his perfect Greek, is exceptionally sociable. He is married to a handsome wife Aferdita, and has two pretty daughters in their early teens who all live in Tirana and only visit here for the summer. Miri’s lunar countenance also looks outstandingly scrubbed and impossibly clean, as if he devotes at least an hour a day to making it so. The Tirana man happened to be sat in the Glaros that day, beaming like a minor asterisk as I was penning my piece about the man and the tinned peas, so that on more or less obsessive autopilot word association, I racked my brains for the Albanian for ‘pea’. This might sound laughably eccentric, but as food is one of my principal joys in life, in whichever foreign country I find myself the restaurant menus are of the highest importance. Furthermore, as most of Albania which my daughter Ione and I visited 4 years ago, is strictly monoglot (the exception is the bregdeti coastal strip opposite Corfu, including Himare and Dhermiu, which has a substantial population of ethnic Greeks) I had no option but to mug up the numerous Shqip words for fish and vegetarian cuisine, in order to satisfy yours truly the lax piscatarian and Ione the strict vegetarian.

Cauliflower in Albanian came back to me in the Glaros as lulelaker if only because it is such a clumping and bizarre word (oh yeah, Mr Ethnocentric, and you don’t think ‘coliflaher’ is a bloody weird sound to tolerant Shiptar ears?). Onion is qepe. Carrot is easy-peasy (geddit?) karote, and aubergine is patellxhan, very close to the Bulgarian term, and intelligible at that, given that both countries came under Ottoman rule for so long. And then of course, the noble and majestic little grass-coloured item, the ’pea’ which I was now busy writing about in its guise as a source of phobic terror…bugger me I could not for the life of me remember the bloody word for pea in Shqip! Hence it was I turned in confident expectation to Miri who had left Albania when he was turned 20, and had been living in various parts of Greece for the last 25 years. Bearing in mind that he went home at Christmas and often for half of summer, and that his family visited him here for the other half, there was no chance in hell that his native tongue and the simplest homeliest words therein, might have gone a little rusty.

I said in Greek, our only effective lingua franca. “What’s the Albanian word for pea, Miri? I mean for vizelia or for arakas.”

In Greek there are unusually, and perhaps significantly, two words for the shy little green chap, just possibly arakas being the more popular. Not that that statistical nicety made a mite of difference in what was to follow.

Miri looked at me amazed, as if I’d asked for blushful details of any sordid sexual peculiarities he might possess. He gasped and blurted out, “You what?”

I repeated my innocent little query and told him I was writing something that involved the vegetable arakas/vizelia , and that just for my own satisfaction I would like to know the Shqip word for that small and singular marvel. Once I had known it well enough, but it was now four years since I had mugged up Albanian and sadly I’d forgotten it.

Miri gaped at me as if I might be certifiably cracked, though the truth of the matter was that I had brought him face to face with something extraordinary, indeed personally shameful. He sat and ruminated and sucked his jaw, and looked ever so slightly less radiantly lunar. After about 5 minutes and after my fourth importunate request for his services as a mobile  dictionary, he shrugged his shoulders and said that he just couldn’t remember.

“Eh? You what? I echoed back, incredulous.

In fact I burst out laughing at his ridiculous confession, and give him his due he smiled a little sheepishly. Though before long and disgracefully the absurdest excuses came pouring out. He hadn’t lived in his homeland for 25 years, he protested, so it was no surprise the bloody stupid word for a bloody stupid little pipsqueak of a boring little vegetable had slipped his by now thoroughly Greek mind.

I frowned majestically and accepted the epistemological challenge, confronting him with some severe Anglo-Saxon logic.

My first leering objection. He was all of 20 before he left Tirana, and if for example at 20 I myself had left the UK and had gone to Stuttgart to work, and had had to speak German for the next 25 years, there was no way in hell, nor under the sun, nor in Miri’s case the moon (he didn’t get that, needless to add) that I would have forgotten the English word for pea. If so, it was just as likely I’d have surreally mislaid the English term for sex, piss, chocolate, fart, hiccup, love or hip flask or passport. Had Miri then, I asked him witheringly, and he blushed and tittered his confusion, also forgotten the crucial Shiptar words for fuck, power drill, lager, variety show, backside (prapanice if you ever need it) and unleaded petrol?

Furthermore, I parried pitilessly. Miri went home regularly to Tirana and I knew for a fact from the times I’d seen him in the Kythnos restaurants, he was a rapacious souvlaki guzzler and just as often a brisola pork chops man. As sure as daylight back in the bosom of his Shiptar family he was bound to have a plateful of patates tiganites chips and a handsome side dish of peas to go with the chop! So what the hell did he say by way of culinary identification to baffled Aferdita at the groaning lunchtable? Take it easy with the bloody wassacallem, love, oy, oy, that’s more than enough of those inscrutable and unnameable damn green feller-me-lads! And to his bonny and giggling daughters, would he cheerfully admonish, eat up those sadly without an identity grass-coloured blighters will you, you two, or you won’t get any choc souffle for pud, you little bounders!

Alas, no amount of my jovial ridicule helped his pitiful memory, and not only could he not recall the word, he wasn’t even interested in the challenge, and soon rose to go and buy himself a bloody old Greek soccer paper (you traitor, why not an Albanian football gazette I taunted him). So while I was the mature and responsible English type who went into a deserving anguish for forgetting the surname of the Moby Dick author, here was this blasé Tirana guy who didn’t give a monkey’s shite that he couldn’t remember the native word for a childhood staple…

And yes,such irony, that as much as a week later, I dozily apprehended that with everything online these days, there might well be a free English-Albanian dictionary to be found there. As indeed there was, and more than one in fact. There, would you believe and in 2 seconds flat, I discovered that the Albanian word for pea is bizele. Damn near the identical word as the Greek vizelia, that is. The consonants ‘b’ and ‘v’ are interchangeable of course, as witness the Bengali language, for the word Bengal itself as we know it qua West Bengal and Calcutta, and East Bengal aka Bangladesh, comes from the ancient Indian kingdom of Vanga.

I bumped into Miri a few days later in the Mini Market, where he looked so radiantly moonlike, I was tempted to ask him when was going to have his next eclipse, whether it be full or partial. After a brief and bantering exchange, I opted to smugly inform him that the Albanian for pea, bizele,was almost the same as the Greek, and that that made it even more deplorable that he couldn’t recall the simple and silly little word. But then just as I was gloating so mercilessly over his sievelike brain (and he was over 20 years my junior after all) it occurred to me and with reflex mounting panic, that I had left my laptop on the wall next to the harbour in order to set about feeding my bosom and loyal friends, meaning approximately 20 clamorous and cajoling stray cats. Who knows but some deviant horrible kid I had shouted at for tormenting the same cats might pick it up and just as a joke throw it in the sea? Fuck me I blurted as I turned on my heel,  I had forgotten my bloody lifeline, the thing that connected me to home and to my art and to my love and to my life, and just now exactly like lunar, beaming, Tirana man Miri, I couldn’t give a shit what the Albanian word for pea was.


The next post will be on or before Monday 27th February


My very first post on these pages in December 2014, originally appeared about a year earlier, and in slightly different guise, simply as a letter home to friends and family, telling them about the idiosyncrasies, comedy and magic of my adoptive homeland of Kythnos. My daughter Ione had enjoyed this so much, it was she proposed and then like a whirlwind ensured that I start the blog which by now has clocked up almost 300 posts. Apart from anything else if I hadn’t started the blog, I would not a year later have embarked on Passion for Beginners, my first work of fiction to be written since Annie’s death in December 2009. Indeed, it had taken me all of 6 long years to write anything whatever since my lovely wife of 30 years had passed away. In like sweeping fashion, 4 months earlier, Ione had briskly plonked me on an Internet Dating Agency, on the eloquent grounds that as a widower of 4 and a half years, stuck on an obscure Greek island with population 1500 and just possibly 5 anglophone females, I was unlikely to meet the next love of my heart in the redoubtably masculine and incredibly rumbustious Glaros Café or even on somnolent Martinakia beach where, it being Greece, I spent much of my time the year round. She told me frankly that I was ‘a wasted resource’, which was indeed very flattering, as briefly it made me feel in the romantic context at any rate, that I was like a potentially and essentially nourishing reservoir, or an eco-safe benign energy source or even a life enhancing vitamin for whatever lucky and mystery woman chanced my way. Indeed, the blog and the romantic life that I have known since August 2014, have changed my life so dramatically and radically for the good, that I now spend much of my time wondering longingly and lipsmackingly, what excellent, revolutionary and destiny-changing plan my life coach and unsalaried counsellor Ione will have for me next.

All this as preamble to a fuller excursus on the notorious and arguably mad Greek Dictionary cited in my very first post. The compact and bulky one in question has a cheerful green cover, is edited by Angelos Tsakanakis and presumably his wife Joanna Niemczuk-Tsakanikis (how that slides so incredibly deftly off the tongue) and was originally published in 1996 in Athens. As I said just over 2 years ago, the English-Greek, Greek-English dictionary is notable for displaying some extremely arcane English words, indeed some so impossibly recondite that I seriously doubt they exist (perhaps any virtuoso Scrabble addicts out there might be able to write in and confirm or disprove my scepticism). The balance in this little dictionary is to say the least baroquely eccentric. Bafflingly it does not have the words for absolute English essentials like ‘something’ and ‘somehow’, but as well as the remarkably rare or I would hazard sometimes fictional terms, it also has cheery if dated and/or sexist diction like ‘wench’ and ‘whacky’ (do they mean ‘wacky’, or is it a long-forgotten term for ‘an anti-social proclivity to whack wenches’?). Behold, possibly aghast, some extremely forthright and potentially incendiary Anglo-Saxon for the private parts such as, forgive me, ‘cunt’ (mouni in Greek, but you risk your life as a foreigner should you hurl it, like some of the British do, as an insult at anyone). Ironically if predictably, they do not have the phallic male analogue ‘cock’, nor the relatively blameless demotic word for ‘masturbate’ in the much-loved and pithy form of ‘wank’. Given that the Greek term for ‘wanker’, malaka, is used as a reflex and default comma in the mouths of damn near every Greek aged between 10 and a 100 this has to be some glaring omission (oops, I nearly wrote ’emission’).

Lipon as the Greeks say, meaning okey-doke. Here, you Scrabble fiends, and this is only a mere scratch sample from the A’s and B’s in this 1996 2-way Greek Dictionary, are some English terms that will give you so many points should you employ them, you are likely to be barred  from the highest reaches of the competitive game for the next 2000 years.

 adscititious, albacore, alevin

algidity, alidade,

aline, ambry, ana

backwardation, baleen, bandog

banian, barm, barratry

barrulet, bartizan, bascule

basinet (not ‘bassinet’) battue, bawbee

 Of that bewitching list, the only one I have a clue about is ‘barm’ as a possible variation on ‘barmrack’ which is a type of ancient and frothy alcoholic beverage, is it not? It’s also an unarguable fact that the wife and literary executrix of the wonderful Provencal novelist Jean Giono (1895-1970) was called ‘Aline’, though alas that doesn’t take us far, either. ‘Backwardation’ sounds like a cooked-up neologism if ever there was, and if it’s permissible, then so should my own delightful invented term ‘backsideation’ be sanctioned. If you want to know what it means, it signifies treating someone like a backside (just possibly a trifle disrespectfully) or turning someone into a backside by magical means. I’m sure that this must have been done by someone somewhere, if only in bawdy ancient literature of the likes of the Decameron  of Boccaccio (1313-1375) or of Francois Rabelais (1494-1553) with his Gargantua and Pantagruel.


The next post will be on or before Monday 27th February. You can always write to me about anything at john@writinginkythnos.com


There is a remarkable and unforgettable set piece at the start of the 1958 Mountolive by Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) the novel being part of the famously sultry and luxuriant Alexandrian Quartet which took dour and puritanical late 50s, early 60s UK by storm. In those days over in Blighty we had the waspish if ultimately ever more blimpish wit of Kingsley Amis (1922-1995) or that other Angry Young Man, John Wain(1925-1994) author of Hurry on Down (1953) with their knockabout comic settings in the stuffy provinces or deracinated London bedsits. Alternatively if you wanted to sample gritty things up north, there was the glaringly soft-centred antithesis of Stan Barstow (1928-2011) and his 1960 novel A Kind of Loving, with its sentimental (if prone to vomiting when drunk) hero Vic in grim industrial Wakefield. The expat Durrell instead presented us with a steamily exotic Egyptian milieu, and a heady mixture of high and low society adultery, in tandem with learned discussion of the esoteric Kabbala alongside minute psychological examination of the tormented femme fatale, Justine. Across the four novels (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea) her tragic if alluring character is forensically analysed via the decorous if pessimistic deliberations of Nessim, her husband; Balthazar the homosexual doctor and Kabbalist; Justine’s narrator  the young Irish teacher Darley who is anxiously having an affair with her, and Arnaut, an Albanian who has written a fictionalised account of their anguished time together called Moeurs.

In that highly potent set piece mentioned above, the young British diplomat of the title, Mountolive is out with his friend Nessim, a wealthy Egyptian banker and Oxford graduate on a late-night fishing expedition, along with Nessim’s strange and rather frightening brother Narouz, a moody and unpredictable farm overseer who has a hare lip and a vivid scar on his face.  They are on a lake on the vast family estate in the pitch dark, along with numerous servants, and are shining lights to lure the fish to the surface. The fish rise up in droves into the surrounding nets, but so also do the roosting birds nearby, awoken by all the commotion. Hundreds of huge herons and cormorants and the like flock down upon the fishermen and their tempting catch, and great care is needed or like Narouz whose face had once been opened up by a vicious beak, or one of his unfortunate servants who had lost an eye, Mountolive might well regret this exhilarating late-night adventure.

Afterwards they return to where the two brothers had tethered their horses, and waiting there on horseback is Leila their beautiful and bookish mother who is in her early forties. She has a horse ready for the Englishman, and the two of them follow well behind her two sons, and soon are covertly holding hands, so that we realise with some surprise, given the age difference, the period, and the fact we are in rural Egypt,  that the two of them are having an affair. In fact, as Leila explains rather impatiently at one point, Mountolive need not be afraid of discovery, it was her husband who actually encouraged her to start the liaison. Two decades older than Leila, Nessim’s father is victim of some awful degenerative disease and is wheelchair bound, and understandably frightened that she might leave him, he decides that the young British diplomat might be a safe bet to keep her content in their remote and unvisited estate.

Later Mountolive commits an awful blunder when at the dinner table he dozily refers to his hosts as ‘Muslims’. They are indeed he remembers 2 seconds too late, Coptic Christians, and while Leila and her sons smile politely at his slip, the invalid father turns angry and starts a powerful lecture on the tragic decline of the Copts once Egypt came under British rule. Before that period, the religious minority were greatly respected, had no differences whatever with the tolerant Muslims, and they held some of the highest and most trusted offices of state; judges, chancellors and the like. Once the British arrived, they slyly chose to set the two faiths against each other, and before long Copts were excluded from all important positions, and if they wished to prosper could only, like his son Nessim, become wealthy bankers and little else.

I tell you all this at such length, not because I am writing about Lawrence Durrell, but instead about that fickle and troublesome, yet highly useful, not to say invaluable thing, known as Memory. You would agree I think that the material above, the nocturnal expedition on the lake, the clamorous hungry birds, the secret hand holding with handsome Leila, the angry old invalid, is all infinitely memorable or as I wrote deliberately in the first line is ‘unforgettable’. At which point then I have to hang my head in embarrassment and start by saying that I read Mountolive for the first time in the autumn of 1969, when the Quartet was the very first work of fiction I sampled as an Oxford student. I then read it a second time in early 2016, a mere 47 years later, after picking it up as an extremely worn and tattered American copy from a 2nd hand bookshop in Athens. Reasonably enough I couldn’t remember a thing about it after almost half a century. But then perusing it a 3rd time by which I mean within the last day or two, and only one year after my 2nd reading, the embarrassment stems from the fact that as I re-read it I recalled nothing whatever of the details I have given you above; the fish netting, the hungry birds, the servant losing his eye, the adultery, the angry old invalid, I didn’t recall a damn thing from only 12 months ago!

At first I began to feel a certain fearful consternation, the onset of dementia perhaps, brain softening because of enjoying cut price Greek red wine (and copious modicums or do I mean modica of wondrously cheap Greek white wine, if I’m being ruthlessly honest) rather too wholeheartedly. However, in my experience, damn near everyone over the age of 40 soon starts to fret about their memory, in the same way that every woman I know aged between 20 and 80, whether they be emaciated, skinny, average, ample or obese, worries that they are embarrassingly overweight. Real dementia is of course no joke, and is not about forgetting novel plots, or whether it was that hunk Matt Damon or that hunk Matt Dillon you saw in the film last year, but about e.g. forgetting your own name, your spouse’s name, where you live, and thinking that whatever you were doing or misdoing in 1964 or 1984 is happening now and for real in 2017.

By contrast, I have been having memory lapses of an often innocuous, even farcical, albeit maddening kind since my mid-forties. 2 weeks ago, for example, I couldn’t for the life of me remember the surname of the American who wrote the whaling saga Moby Dick (1851). I could remember that his first handle was Herman and after that in true irreverent style my so-called brain heard ‘Munster’, ‘and the Hermits’, ‘Hesse’ and ‘Wouk’(author of the 1951 The Caine Mutiny who amazingly is still alive at 101!), but it was a full and exasperating hour until the right surname of the literary giant Melville (1819-1891) came smiling up at me. Of a similar randomness was the way 20 odd years ago, I would sometimes embark on the extremely fascinating anecdote that my favourite of all my own novels Radio Activity (1993) was printed in the capital of Slovakia for reasons of economy. I would add that I was greatly intrigued and baffled by this, and had witlessly asked the publisher how the hell they would post all those thousands of copies to the UK, and that surely that it would cost a bloody fortune? Of course Mike Blackburn of Sunk Island guffawed loudly to hear this, and said that no, every week a huge transit van left the Slovakian capital full of books printed in German, French and English and ultimately ended up in London where another courier would be delivering Radio Activity to Mike’s Lincoln door. And yes indeed, a colourful anecdote when you think of the disparate provenances of remote industrial West Cumbria, predominantly Catholic and peasant Slovakia, and capital of the fens and proud of its majestic cathedral, Lincoln.

The only problem with my gripping anecdote was I could never for the life of me remember the Slovakian capital’s name, and it all sounded a bit fey and ineffectual to resort to the feeble circumlocution of ‘the c of S’ (imagine sheepishly blurting ‘that oh so well-known capital of Britain’ or ‘the illustrious and legendary and much loved capital of France’ because your brain had suddenly decided to go to sleep). Worse still I had always greatly prided myself on knowing the names of more foreign capitals than is sane or healthy, and reliably in any crowded room was the only one who knew that Honduras’s is Tegucigalpa, that Togoland’s is Lome, that Gabon’s is Libreville and that Niger’s is Niamey. This was in part because around 1959 when I was 8, I was busy saving a wonderful free series called Flags of the World from the eponymous bubble gum packets, and chewed and snorted and blew my way through so much bubble gum I eventually amassed the full set, complete with such a pretty little album. They were small but magical cards of about 2 and a half by 3 inches, with a coloured drawing of e.g. a typical Albanian or Nigerian or Mongolian child on the front, alongside an inset flag, and on the reverse were revealed enthralling facts about the language spoken, the population, the capital, and the main crops and industries, if any. That all took about a quarter of the space, and above it, were some mesmerising phonetic phrases in Albanian, Farsi, Swahili, Mongolian etc.  Blame Flags of the World then, I am subtly trying to hint at you, for the fact that about a decade later I was reading something as practical and infinitely fit for the job market as Sanskrit and Avestan and Old Persian at Oxford.

Flags of the World. Their like will surely never be seen again, for they don’t make children’s bubble gum like that these days, do they? They were right enough the only good thing about 1959, and yet like one’s fragile memory, whether fertile or faulty, they are and were definitely something worth cherishing


The capital of Slovakia, where my novel was printed, is of course Bratislava. Because of continued and infuriating inability over about a decade to remember its name, eventually I wrote it on a bit of paper and posted it above my North Cumbrian desk. I have never since had any problems (with remembering Bratislava I mean. I have had problems enough with plenty of other things….)

2nd Postscript.

I realise all of a sudden why I had failed to recall all of those unforgettable scenes in Mountolive. By way of illustration, at the same time that I purchased it in Athens, I also bought 2 second hand Iris Murdoch novels, The Sandcastle (1957) and A Severed Head (1961). As with Mountolive I have read both of those books twice in the last 12 months, and in both cases soon recalled nearly all of the contents at the beginning of the second reading. Indeed, I could if you asked me now give a fair summary of the plot in both cases. And that is my considered point. Those Murdoch novels for all of their mannered eccentricity and improbable and borderline gothic storylines, are strongly plotted, and those plots, barmy as they are, effortlessly stick in the mind. Durrell’s novels by contrast are very thin on plot and very strong on highly intellectual and philosophical secondary sources, by which I mean when the narrator or author Durrell qua narrator, is regularly quoting someone like genius novelist Pursewarden, or sage Balthazar or husband Nessim on the fatal and problematic nature of Justine, whose tragedy was that she was raped while young by a mysterious assailant whose identity she refuses to reveal. In the same way, Leila ultimately discourages Mountolive when it comes to their affair, and writes him mile-long letters deliberating about the complex and unplumbable nuances of their relationship, and about her own unreachable nature and therefore the inadvisability of their continued carnal liaison, and perhaps just perhaps that they would be better off as good friends…

The architecture of Durrell’s kind of fiction is subtle and original and ingenious, but unlike a Gothic plot it is alas infinitely forgettable. You remember the heady flavour, but you do not remember the headless substance. Which just possibly explains why the 1969 film adaptation of Justine directed by George Cukor and Joseph Strick, was quite so dreadful. Without a strongly plotted source or any imaginative replacement, and even with the talents of Anouk Aimee (born 1932) as Justine, Dirk Bogarde (1921-1999) as Pursewarden, and Philippe Noiret (1930-2006) as Pombal  it just wavered and wandered, and was stupefyingly dull .So much so, that I believe that I actually walked out of the Moulin Rouge cinema in Oxford before it ended.


This post appears a bit early and the next one will be Monday 20th February


They don’t do things by halves on small Greek islands and especially out of season. One of the best liked and most attractive citizens of the port here in Kythnos, has suddenly demonstrated some startling behaviour, and it can’t just be a function of the anomalous and prolonged lousy weather which has stricken most of Europe and even caused a scattering of snow in the usually temperate Cyclades. Those endless grey skies and the freezing cold and frequent pissing rain, might conceivably have changed a person’s fluctuant brain chemistry, especially as the forecast says it will be this way for about another month, but somehow I doubt that that is what is at the root of things.

Chrisoula is the handsome and even-tempered 50-year-old waitress in the Glaros café, which is effectively my office of the last 2 years, as it is there I have written nearly all of my blog and all of my online novel, Passion for Beginners. Once finished with her school in the Mani, of her own admission Chrisoula has never read a single book. Not only that, she never browses magazines nor newspapers, and I haven’t even seen her perusing the ingredients list on the side of a plastic bottle of mayonnaise or tomato ketchup in an idle hour. Her only reading matter as far as I can see is the checklist they keep behind the counter for jotting down e.g. how many ouzos Kostas has bebbed today, and how many coffees with milk no sugar O Kyrio John has consumed. Hence Chrisoula’s notion of arresting prose is of the order of Manolis 3, John 3, Balandis 6 (it was his Name Day and that meant half a dozen tsipuro grape bandies and plenty of hilarious shouting and tuneless singing as he downed them) and in passing looks not unlike the TV soccer results albeit puzzlingly fused into groups of between 5 and 20. Add to that, that away from work, Chrisoula’s sole relaxation and indeed sole activity is to sit on her bed watching endless hilarious black and white 50s and 60s Greek comedy movies (she has a collection of 500 such peerless DVDs in her minute bedsit) whilst consuming her favourite dark chocolate. She is literally never to be seen on the streets of the port here, when she is away from work, and like a hermit or a hibernant stays inside and alone guffawing at what I can assure you makes our own frenetic Carry On comedies seem of the order of Shakespeare or Aristophanes.

Imagine therefore my surprise when recently Chrisoula showed me a worn looking paperback novel, which she told me excitedly she was enjoying very much. Its title in Greek, I Peina, means ‘Hunger’ or ‘Famine’ and I was confused for a while as the cover photograph was the famous one of the beautiful but exhausted and desolate mother with her two sad children taken in the US dustbowl states in the 1930s Depression. I thought for a second it must be an American novel, but no I soon realised that it was the best-known work, Hunger (1890) of the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) who was awarded the Nobel prize in 1920. I was touched, indeed moved by Chrisoula’s naïve excitement at her first ever literary find, and I couldn’t resist asking her a few gentle questions. It soon became clear she had no idea that Hamsun was Norwegian (understandably perhaps, as the translation contains no biographical note of any kind, and bizarrely has umpteen harrowing Dustbowl photos scattered unacknowledged throughout).  Nor did she know that Christiania where the novel is set, is the old name for Oslo. Hunger (Sult in Norwegian) is a stark and relentless and beautiful work about a lonely and mysterious artist figure so impoverished he spends most of his days in an often freezing public park. And because he is so hungry he is half way between a depleted consciousness and a kind of hallucinatory dream state which in some ways prefigures the raw existential novels of Sartre’s Nausea (1938) or Beckett’s trilogy that begins with Molloy (1951).I had come across the novel myself in a tiny and obscure imprint in a Nottingham bookshop back in 1972, had devoured it with some amazement, then been unable to find any more of his works, nor pre-internet days had it been possible to find out much if anything about Hamsun. In 1972 I like Chrisoula now in 2017 had no idea that he had an extremely ugly notoriety, and that for long he has been a deep embarrassment to the Norwegians (some of them publicly burnt his books after WW2) inasmuch as he was a fervent supporter of Adolf Hitler with whom he had requested a personal meeting, and that he had sent his Nobel Prize medal as a present to Josef Goebbels. After an initial psychiatric hospitalisation, he was eventually put on trial for treason in 1947 and it was only because he was 87 years old at the time that Knut Hamsun was spared a lengthy jail sentence.

A few days later Chrisoula was bursting to tell me that she had enjoyed the novel so much she had read it not once, but twice. It was her first ever encounter with a book of any kind, and she had devoured it in a double dose! At first it struck me as wholly inexplicable that someone so straightforward, so rooted in the world before her as she was, and what’s more with an extreme addiction to corny 50s comedy, would devour with relish a kind of early existential treatise that perhaps had influenced the likes of Einstein’s lifelong friend and party communist, the Frenchman Henri Barbusse (1875-1926) with his glacial novel of voyeuristic isolation and alienation Hell (1908) or the German poet Rilke (1873-1935) with his only novel, the bleak and unrelenting hymn to loneliness The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910). Then after an hour or two of musing over the mystery of Chrisoula and her Hunger/Famine it suddenly struck me as very obvious why she was so at home with the anxious and arctically solitary hero of Hamsun’s masterpiece. The fact is that despite the dated  and frantic knockabout Greek comedies, the yards of addictive black and bitter chocolate, and the humorous kindly face she shows here in the café every day to one and all, Chrisoula has regular periods of depression and melancholy where her plans to visit Athens regularly fall through, and, overcome with inertia, she retreats with a wan smile into her small apartment even more, the last of the Kythnos Orthodox anchorites you might say. She calls it a problem of the brain(mialoproblima) with a dismissive chuckle, but let us say in therapeutic terms that like very often seeks like, and just as lonely and struggling students in their early 20s often lap up every book on alienation and private misery they can find (Hermann Hesse’s 1927 Steppenwolf and Dostoievsky’s 1864 Notes from the Underground as well as the Barbusse and the Rilke) so a more or less uneducated middle aged Greek woman who had only ever had one romantic relationship which blew up in her face to so speak, had found solace in the remorseless loneliness and sorrow of a fiction dreamt up by one who in the future would be a confused and tormented and elderly Scandinavian fascist.


This post post appears a bit early and the next one will be on Sunday 19th February


I have been missing out on important things to a lamentable extent lately . Only recently have I learnt about the ominous pan-European vegetable crisis and the fact that strict rationing has started in UK supermarkets. The augustly named ‘British Leafy Salads Association’ whose boss is called Dieter Lloyd (a bit fishy eh, as opposed to leguminous, with that Teutonic and unBritish handle?) has been making itself heard, and now Tesco has put an embargo on more than 3 iceberg lettuces and 3 heads of broccoli being purchased by any one individual.  Morrison’s have countered with a pitiless maximum of 2 icebergs per punter, and LIDL meanwhile have declared that the price of an iceberg has gone up from 42p to £1.19, an increase of almost 300%.

All this is classic arseways about logic, of course. No individual in their right mind (restaurant owners and family fruiterers usually drive at the crack of dawn to city markets and wholesalers) would think about buying 3 supermarket icebergs which taste exactly like wet lawnmower grass crossed with sawdust and celery, unless they had been put into panic mode by the supermarkets. It is the same when a bread crisis is threatened and everyone is trying to buy 100 loaves, most of which will be turfed out mouldy once the crisis stops, and as if in fact to counter the wisdom of Scripture by asserting that man really does live by bread alone. More worryingly for me, 2 weeks ago when I was in the UK and staying in Suffolk and Leeds, I had a hell of a job finding aubergines anywhere, though I had no idea why. I wanted to make a sumptuous Indian spread for my daughter Ione and for lovely Jan, and it was like looking for gold in Leeds’ massive and enjoyable indoor market, trying to find decent sized brinjals. In the end, at a Middle Eastern stall, I had to take baby aubergines which you can only handily stuff Gujerati-style by making 3 or 4 cuts along their length and then rubbing a fancy masala including coconut, mango powder, hing (asafoetida to you, and an eerie botanical name if ever there was) and turmeric…whereafter, you stew them in a frying pan for an eternity in vegetable oil and yoghurt. Ditto on the Saturday, when the three of us met some of Ione’s oldest pals in Harehills, a lively cosmopolitan part of Leeds full of Kurdish grocers and Ethiopian eateries, and the Kurds could likewise only provide baby aubergines, though as far as I know they are not part of Kurdish cuisine. Once back in Suffolk, Jan and I failed to score any eggplants at all in the massive Bungay Coop and in the end, it was in a small family grocers in nearby Beccles where Jan successfully purchased 2 beautiful whoppers at a cost of £5.50, meaning dearer than salmon steaks or trout fillets and proof that crisis yes indeed there was, though again I had no reason why (by the way, if you think that Beccles and Bungay, both small Suffolk towns, cannot be real places, and must be where Enid Blyton’s Noddy comes from, you are wrong in the first instance and right in the second).

Incredibly, around 80% of all of Europe’s off-season vegetables come from Southern Spain, especially Murcia. The winter there like everywhere else in Europe has been dreadful, and just as there has been snow in the Cyclades including Kythnos, so Spain has had its vegetable fields drenched and destroyed. Hence my exhausting quest for eggplants all over the UK, though it still doesn’t explain why the best ones were not to be found in bustling ethnic Leeds but in quaint little Beccles which is about as ethnic and cosmopolitan as deepest West Cumbria, my, in every sense, monochromatic home area.

Another and altogether bizarre culinary enigma was evident in Norwich, the extremely handsome and atmospheric capital of East Anglian Norfolk, which has an extensive outdoor market in the city centre, though sadly dozens of the numerous stalls were closed up, presumably defunct. Half way through our wandering around the winding streets, which included inspecting excellent antique fairs and 2nd hand CD shops selling imported jazz, God bless them, I suddenly awoke from a weird reverie and said to Jan that I had seen a startling ten or more signs, both in the restaurants and on random lampposts and notice boards all over the city, promoting exclusively vegan meals and vegan nutrition in the city. Vegan breakfasts, vegan lunches, vegan specials, vegan guesthouses, vegan weekends, vegan diet lectures, you couldn’t get away from the seeming monopoly, just as in former days you couldn’t avoid garish UK pub ads for T bone steaks, or even earlier than that, and the gorge rises at the thought of it, chicken in a bloody basket, ugh, where the basket always tasted better than the chicken. I asked Jan what it was all in aid of, was there some massive Norwich vegan festival starting up, and she said no, no, and explained, reasonably enough, that veganism was now suddenly all the rage and presumably it was like this in every fashionable city in the UK.

But that was the mystery. Only last April walking past the numerous restaurants and cafes  of several attractive areas of North London, there was no sign at all of any vegan promotional campaign, and in mid-January when Ione, Jan and I were wandering round fashionable Leeds with its Harvey Nicks, glamorous dockland development and state of the art designer chip shops where you can pay for fish and chips at £10 a head with American Express, again there were no hints of any vegan efflorescence. The point is that veganism as opposed to vegetarianism, takes an admirably pure and ethical dietary stance, where you not only eschew meat and fish but all dairy products, plus eggs, and if you are really serious, only wear shoes made of plastic and not of animal hide leather. I admire vegans very much, but sadly I cannot do without my milk and cream and butter and eggs, and I have only once tasted vegan yoghurt and was rooted in painful existential consternation at the experience. It had an overwhelming flavour of stale vanilla and just possibly very diluted Camp coffee. That said I have a Scottish friend, a Greenock woman whose brother runs a vegan restaurant in Glasgow, and she tells me it is of such gourmet repute that you have to book for weeks ahead. I have also heard of meat eaters who regularly go vegan for a week or so, in an attempt to cleanse and tone themselves up so to speak in the struggle for fitness and longevity.

And of course, wherever there are controversial ethics, there are always to be found media celebrities, and one of these is the redoubtable and admirable film actor Woody Harrelson (born 1961). Woody is a celebrity vegan, raw foodist and political activist, and you may remember him as a barman in the TV series Cheers between 1985-1993, or as the shrewd and dry bounty hunter with the stetson in No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers 2007 masterpiece. Though best of all was when he was to be seen as one of the serial killer-hunting sleuths in the first TV series of True Detective (2014) alongside his colleague, another virtuoso actor Matthew McConaughey (born 1969). The meditative and philosophical if understated dialogue between these two, as they drove together on their quest to get the lunatic killer was so good, you simply wanted to cheer as you watched it, glued as you were to the screen.

Woody’s activist profile is so high that he has appeared on US stamps as one of 20 famous veggies (let’s hope that celebrity vegetarian Adolf Hitler wasn’t one of the others). He has also been named by PETA = People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, as ‘one of the sexiest vegetarians of 2012’ (five years ago, I myself, against massive competition,  won the highly-esteemed NE Cumbrian version of this trophy you might wish to know) alongside film star Jessica Chastain (born 1977) of Kathryn Bigelow’s acclaimed thriller Zero Dark Thirty (2012) fame.



(This post appears a little early. I am teaching fiction here on Kythnos next week, and there will be no new post until Saturday February 18th)

Nostalgia can be a deceptive and embarrassing thing, and some of those favourite movies you revisit 40 or more years on, can seem trite and unbearable, and make you feel ashamed of what you once loved and therefore arguably once were. I’m relieved to say this is not so for me in one important instance , with the 2 black and white masterpieces of US director Peter Bogdanovich (born 1939), the first of which The Last Picture Show won every award going when it appeared in 1971, almost half a century ago. This was a hypnotically understated and beautifully poignant coming of age drama set in the early 1950s in the fictional North Texas town of Abilene, and was based on an autobiographical novel by Larry McMurtry. McMurtry (born 1936) is a hugely successful author most of  whose novels have been filmed, and those movies include Hud (1963) with Paul Newman as the wild rancher’s son, and Terms of Endearment (1983) with Debra Winger as the terminally cancerous mother, victim of husband Jeff Daniels’ adultery and with Shirley MacLaine as her uptight and volatile parent. McMurtry also wrote Lonesome Dove in 1985, an engrossing rancher saga which was turned into a mega TV blockbuster series.

2 years after The Last Picture Show, in 1973, Bogdanovich, still filming in black and white, produced a tender, rich and unsentimental 1930s Depression era story, about a good looking con man variously selling expensive dedicatory Bibles to credulous recent widows, and stealing bootleg liquor from a Texas sheriff’s brother, then brazenly selling it back to him! The film was Paper Moon, the con man subtly portrayed as irritable, infinitely callow, yet strugglingly sincere by Ryan O’ Neal (born 1941), of erstwhile 1960s TV Peyton Place fame. The swindler’s 10-year-old daughter and partner in crime, was played with astonishing shrewdness and precocious wisdom by Ryan’s own daughter Tatum O’ Neal (born 1963) and for my money at any rate is the best performance by any child actor ever.

Coming of age movies have quite rightly a bad press, especially the numerous febrile US ones that followed on from Bogdanovich’s tour de force. Films like American Pie (1999) with all its numerous spin-offs, are all drive-in scrabbling rear seat sex, two-dimensional masturbatory hilarity, and a surfeit of what nowadays is laughably called material that is ‘gross’. Instead Picture Show explores the convincing and uncomfortable adolescent anguish of the handsome high school senior Duane played by Jeff Bridges (born 1949) infatuated with Jaycee, the beautiful blond schoolmate who is a first class shallow and manipulative young femme fatale. Jaycee is perfectly portrayed by Cybill Shepherd (born 1950) in this her film debut. Alas Duane fails to perform in their first tryst in a motel with all their schoolmates parked outside waiting to get an unedited report on how it went. Duane is ordered to lie to them, in favour of an ecstatic and unforgettable loss of Jaycee’s virginity, and earlier she had secretly attended a nude swimming party, invited there by a gauche and gormless youth played by Randy Quaid, born 1950 (onomatopoeic first name, eh). Desperate to become a real woman, Jaycee had tried to ingratiate herself with Bobby Sheen, the moneyed son of the mansion with the splendid pool, but Sheen coolly and unpleasantly informs her that he will only have sex with her once she has lost her virginity.

Bogdanovich was one of the wave of New Hollywood Directors, alongside e.g. Coppola, Scorsese and de Palma, who made their names in the 1970s. Born in New York his mother was Austrian Jewish and his father a Serbian Orthodox Christian. In his youth, he watched up to 400 movies a year (as amazingly so did I, your present blogperson, I can’t help but cheerfully boast, in my early 50s, around 2002, if we are talking about TV videos and world cinema recorded from Artsworld and Film4). Bogdanovich claimed that he was influenced by the films and artistic credo of Francois Truffaut (1932-1984) and that is certainly detectable in his terse and cryptic dialogue, but even more so I would say in Picture Show he is reminiscent of early Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) of Seven Samurai and Rashomon fame. Kurosawa’s melancholy 1952 black and white masterpiece Ikiru (‘To Live’) about a terminally ill Japanese bureaucrat struggling to make sense of his final days, gains much of its power from focusing on the troubled face of the main character played by Takashi Shimura, and ditto with Sonny, the gentle and pensive best friend of Duane who is played by Timothy Bottoms (born 1951) and who is the pivotal hero of the film. Over and over again the movie is punctuated by Duane and Sonny’s 50s jalopy swinging into Abilene on a dismal claustrophobic day of howling wind and whirling dust. Always there is the young boy Billy with his learning difficulties sweeping the sandstormed town with his old-fashioned broom and alternating this with sweeping the town’s only 2 assets, the pool hall and the diner run by dry, unfoolable Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson, 1918-1996) and Genevieve (Eileen Brennan, 1932-2013) respectively, both confidants and unsentimental parent figures to Duane and Sonny. It is that repetitive howling windblown milieu with its always sweeping simpleton Billy, that is so reminiscent of the pathos of the subtle oriental cinema of Kurosawa or the Bengali Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) where the audiences’ eyes have to work as hard as their ears when it comes to vivid and simple yet infinitely potent artistic effects.

Billy is played by Sam Bottoms (1955-2008) who sadly died early of brain cancer, and who was the younger brother of Timothy Bottoms. Another repetitive and unforgettable motif is the precise positioning of Billy’s baseball cap which he wears peak forward, and which Sonny and Duane always turn peak backwards then pat him tenderly on the shoulder. Their protective brotherliness only goes so far however. One day a group of hilarious school friends led by Duane and Sonny introduce Billy to the adult world, by buying him a session in a car with a raucous and foul-tempered prostitute. Billy ejaculates prematurely much to the disgust of the pro, and she rattles him across the ear and flings him out of the car for making such a mess. One of the most moving scenes in the film is innocent Billy sprawled there in the dust, with a humiliating bare backside and tangled underpants, as he struggles to stand upright and regain any mite of dignity. When Sam the Lion discovers what has happened to his vulnerable young employee, he reads the riot act to Sonny and Duane. and bans them from his pool hall, though later being a sage and forgiving man he relents and they return. Ironically he even goes so far as to give Duane and Sonny money to go on a woman chasing expedition to Mexico, no doubt because he feels they need the animal relief more than young Billy does.

Much of the power of the film comes from Timothy Bottoms’ extraordinarily sensitive and expressive face, the Shimura-style anguish he shows at Sam’s honest and quietly stated anger, his own pathetic culpability, and later the wordless tenderness that is there when he initiates an affair with 40-year-old Ruth (Cloris Leachman, born 1926) neglected wife of the school’s football coach. Leachman who is now 90, rightly won an Academy Award for her role, as she too communicates much more by her pained and hopeless face, than by her sparse dialogue, when it comes to chronic lack of self-esteem, and her touching teenage excitement when she anticipates Sonny’s next romantic visit.

In the meantime, Jaycee gives up on Duane and he angrily responds by taking a job on a Texas oil rig, meaning that he sees a great deal less of Sonny as well as the woman he is besotted with. In the interim Jaycee manages to seduce and sleep with her mother’s clandestine partner who kicks her bleakly out of his lorry once they have had their ad hoc sex on top of a deserted pool table. She also inveigles Sonny into a relationship on the pragmatic grounds that he is probably the best of the available bunch in wretched Abilene. Theatrically she declares her undying love and even persuades him to go over the state border to get married. Unfortunately, they are intercepted by a policeman dispatched by her parents, the dour and phlegmatic mother being played by Ellen Burstyn (born 1932) of The Exorcist (1973) fame. Equally harrowing is the fact that their lodestone Sam the Lion has died of a stroke while Duane and Sonny were in Mexico, and that Sam has left the pool hall to Sonny in his will. Duane now angrily confronts Sonny with his betrayal, sleeping with his woman Jaycee, even if she had temporarily rejected him, it was not the act of a real best buddy. Sonny’s speechless tussle with these complicated ethics is portrayed perfectly in his lips and eyes and worried cheek muscles, but finally he turns rebellious and even taunts Duane’s inability to perform in the motel bed with Jaycee. An ugly fight ensues, which results in Sonny being hospitalised, where it belatedly occurs to him that embroiled with Jaycee he has of course had nothing to do with his middle-aged mistress Ruth for months.

Several poignant themes conjoin seamlessly as the film comes to its end. Early in the film Sam The Lion had taken Sonny to a remote pool where he liked to fish, and had revealed that once long ago he had had a secret love affair, and had even gone crazy skinny dipping there with his beloved. Later, after the debacle of the failed elopement, Jaycee’s mother confides that she was Sam’s secret lover and it was a love beyond any she has known. Duane still smarting from Jaycee’s rejection decides to enlist in the army and to fight in Korea. Meanwhile and tragically Billy is not vigilant enough when sweeping the main square and is hit by a truck and killed. The truck driver and the sheriff and sundry cold-hearted cronies show not a whit of pity, but like some sort of righteous choir of crows they blame gormless Billy for not watching his back. Then follows the first of two incendiary explosions as Sonny screams at them for their incredible hard-heartedness and lifts Billy’s body in his arms to remove him from the windblown square. Without his vulnerable young friend, with Duane maybe about to be killed in Korea, and with Jaycee coolly looking elsewhere, he does what we all expect, and returns to Ruth’s house for some sympathy. At first stunned after so many months of separation, eventually she finds her voice and bawls her stifled rage at his pathetic selfishness, and even blames him for a parallel neglect in the case of Billy. For had he patiently looked out for him like a true older friend, the young boy would not have been killed by a careless and stony old truck driver.

Update with matters of related interest. Especially concerning Cybill Shepherd

32 year-old Bogdanovich fell in love with 21 year-old Cybill Shepherd (Jaycee), a former model, during the filming of The Last Picture Show. Ultimately it led to his divorce from his wife Polly Platt, his long-time artistic collaborator, and the one who had encouraged him to cast Shepherd in the first place. Forthright Cybill claimed that during the filming she was also intimate with Jeff Bridges, Larry McMurtry and the location manager Frank Marshall.

Some other historical paramours are cited in her 2000 autobiography Cybill Disobedience – How I Survived Beauty Pageants, Elvis, Sex, Bruce Willis, Lies, Marriage, Motherhood, Hollywood and The Irrepressible Urge to Say What I Think. She claims that she dated Elvis in the early 1970s but found his drug dependence too hard to cope with and that ultimately she chose Bogdanovich over him.

Now 66, she is also a vocal activist for both gay rights and abortion rights, i.e. she won’t be flirting with celebrities like  Donald Trump soon.