The next post will be on or before Saturday April 8th


There was a comical incident last week here in the Paradisos, indeed a repetition of something that has been going on for months, and which prompted me in the kindness of my heart to intervene and spare Maria any possible future embarrassment.  It happens to be approaching Easter, and before long the summer, which means that flocks of tourists will be coming to Kythnos, many of them foreigners, and for whom the only handy lingua franca will be English. Maria can manage a fair bit of the sovereign or maybe I mean despotic tongue, which serves her well as a waitress, as many café workers on this relatively quiet island barely know half a dozen words. She was the only one here this morning, and her worry was that someone would come in to order while she was out at the supermarket buying oranges and olive oil. My role then was to let them know as much and to ask them politely to wait patiently for her return. What Maria shouted at full volume to me, who was the only customer in the place, was a literal translation of the Greek erkhomai. She should, bless her, have translated it idiomatically, not literally, and should have yelled at me in English ‘I will be back soon’ or ‘I won’t be long’. Instead of which and she must have bawled the same phrase a dozen times since the start of February, she addressed me cheerfully with the interesting words.

“I am coming! I am coming!

 When she returned with her ladhi and portakali and there only being the two of us in the Paradisos, I told her gently that I really must have a word with her, and gingerly explained that that English phrase was generally only employed by a woman of her age to convey that she was enjoying a carnal climax and this was especially the inference when delivered at full Greek volume, given that Greeks make every sentence infinitely passionate whether it be about romantic love or boiled eggs or electrical plugs or toilet rolls. When I had finished, there was a climactic (oops) pause, and Maria who has been happily married to Kostas for 20 years, gaped and covered her mouth mock aghast, before erupting into hysterical mirth.

“Oh reely?!”

I pointed out like a concerned father (she is 42 and I am 66 so it is appropriate) that it only needed half a dozen macho and boozy yachties from anglophone Giggleswick  or Chattanooga or Pretoria or Nova Scotia, to hear her shout, she was coming, she was coming! for them to fall about with violent merriment, and even to address her with unintelligible comments such as, Congratulations kid, or, What was it like? I was only saving her from embarrassment I explained, and no, no, it wasn’t her fault at all I added, it was the fault of the ridiculous English language.

Better still, and staying with the punning Carry On Up the Khyber motif, is an ingenious gag involving  mistranslation that you get in Lawrence Durrell’s 50s novel Mountolive, part of the legendary Alexandria Quartet. The hero is a British diplomat in Alexandria and his jovial friend Pombal is connected to the French embassy. Because of a semantic ambiguity concerning the French word for ‘wave’, one day Pombal in all innocence talks not of happily listening to ‘a night-time broadcast on the (radio) short wave’…but of hearkening to ‘a nocturnal emission on the short hairs’.

Far more explosive (oops) no, more cataclysmic than that, was something unintentionally uttered by an eccentric looking foreign lady of about 45 at a genteel literary event I attended back in 1997, a full 20 years ago, I note with something of a gulp at the monstrous passage of time. Its focus was a huge birthday party being held for one of the writers present in this private hotel, and there must have been at least 100 guests. This unusual lady was called God love us, Banana, for she was Japanese (qv the US Japanese writer Banana Yoshimoto, born 1964) and she was the third wife of a much-respected English novelist in his late 60s who I shall call Bill Dashwood, also of striking appearance. Bill was ruddy faced, long haired, bearded and unkempt, and he looked the very image of the old-fashioned Bohemian such as you get in chattering 1920s Aldous Huxley novels. Banana had very long black hair, a very pale face, expressionless grey eyes, and her natural mode was a kind of default meditative silence, meaning her muted volume was almost always on. This was not because of the obvious fact that her English was not too strong, but her absolutely regular standby button whether in Tokyo or London or San Francisco (the New Directions bookshop being the legendary place where she had met her eminent hubby, Bill). Dashwood was a very likeable man with a track record of helping young writers as much as he could, but nonetheless he was a bit of a tireless monologuist and so comically vague about mundane behaviour he could at times have been stand in for vintage TV’s Mr Pastry = Richard Hearne (1908-1979). Once at some Litfest when we were both at breakfast together in a posh hotel, he took his place at one recently abandoned, and where for some reason the glass of orange juice with half a murky inch left had not yet been removed. Without a glance Dashwood assumed it must be for him, even though of only ludicrous doll’s house proportions, then knocked it back humbly and beamed his goodwill at all.

Tonight his helpmeet Banana was sat in the midst of the mega-birthday bash, not scowling nor hostile but simply as if permanently sited on another planet.  Her pallor was extreme, more severe than ever, and her jet hair covered much of her face like a handy separating partition, for she never flicked nor tossed it peremptorily aside, as others might have. Instead of tucking into the sumptuous birthday buffet which as it happened was all vegetarian, Dashwood’s wife had her own jar of hallucinatory green organic seaweed paste that she was lugubriously sucking from a tiny teaspoon brought along specially.

There she sat beside Bill who with his hoary patriarch’s seriousness was patently oblivious that she might quite possibly be unwell. Tonight, it was not just a case of maintaining the usual reclusive equipoise but rather Banana seemed like an early and very bleak Kurosawa protagonist struggling with an irreversible illness or an impossible and tragic personal dilemma. At which point, a kindly woman poet from Ireland called Dora knelt down beside her and looking gravely into her eyes, asked her if she was feeling at all OK.

“No, “croaked Banana in a surprisingly audible tone. “No I but no am not well.”

“Ah?” sighed Dora, taking her thin little hand tenderly. “I am so sorry to hear it. What’s wrong, my poor Banana, if I might ask?”

Bill’s third and most junior of wives unmusically replied, “I ah been mastarbatin for whole of day…”

Dora gasped and instantly pulled her hand away. “You wh…?”

Banana Dashwood elaborated in slow and funereal tones, “Mastarbatin all of day. Yes, yes. Now too tired and so exhaust…”

Dora who was from Ennistymon, Co Clare gulped and then as if immediately regressing to her non-poetic and no nonsense working class roots, managed:

“Shite, as a feminist I’m all for doing what makes you…but I mean feck, doing it all bloody day long is a bit feckin…”

At length even blinking, musing puffin-like Dashwood awoke to this appalling exchange. Despite his always ruddy face, he visibly flushed and admonished:

“No, no Banana! No, no! Dear me no. Not that!”

His wife took a wistful yet defiant even rude little suck at her glutinous seaweed paste.

“But yes yes and too truly! I was mastarbatin in a bed, in a toilet, all of evywhere!”

Dashwood grasped her shoulders and exactly like a father restraining a child, he clamped them tight.

“Goodness no! Dear me no, no. Don’t you see? Surely you mean ‘menstruating’, Banana? ‘Masturbating’ really is something quite different. It is in fact another kettle of fish altogether.”

She stared at him in ageless awe and timeless silence as if for the first time in her life wondering who he was and what he was and why he was. At length and with a little hesitation Banana Dashwood politely besought him:

“Tell me what is diffence, please?”


The next post will be on or before Monday April 3rd


‘I am extremely sensitive to the virtues of summer and although I was born under a stormy autumnal sign, I live to my fullest at the time of the great heats, for it is then that the earth transmits its ardour most easily to me, and I commune with it in waking and in sleeping with a power that is wedded to the radiance of matter’

The Farm Theotime by Henri Bosco

Henri Bosco from Avignon (1888-1976) was an extremely gifted and prolific Provence writer who can be compared alongside two other regional virtuosos: Jean Giono from Manosque (1895-1970) author of Blue Boy (1932) and Marcel Pagnol (1895-1974) born near Marseille, who was not only a powerful playwright and autobiographical novelist (e.g. the 1957, My Father’s Glory) but a legendary filmmaker who made the vibrant Marseille love stories Marius (1931) and Fanny (1932). Anyone who likes world cinema will very likely have seen Jean de Florette (1986) adapted from Pagnol’s 1964 novel of the same name and directed by Claude Berri. Set in the 20s, it stars Gerard Depardieu (born 1948) as a hunchbacked townie who tries to the point of exhaustion and worse to make a go of a barren Provence farm…only to be subverted by 2 appalling rogues, a wily old farmer played by Yves Montand (1921-1991) and his halfwit nephew, a carnation grower, portrayed with real genius by Daniel Auteuil (born 1950). There is a kernel scene in that film where Montand gets in a dispute with a surly old rustic neighbour and eventually yanks him brutally out of the tree branch he’s perched upon. The old man dies on impact with the ground whereupon Montand coolly grunts to the effect he had it coming. There is a very close parallel here with a crucial episode in Bosco’s masterpiece The Farm Theotime (1945) which rightly won the Prix Renaudot and which is available in English in the old Readers Union imprint (1949) and no doubt from the usual second hand book sites. The hero Pascal, a reclusive landowner and passionate amateur botanist, has his mesmerising and beautiful cousin Genevieve staying with him at his farm Theotime, close to the village of Puyloubiers. She has been warned at the outset against befriending a notorious neighbour at La Jassine , another cousin of Pascal’s called Clodius. The latter is wickedness personified, a friendless solitary who is fanatically jealous of all his neighbours and spends his time trying to smoke them out with carefully placed fires. One day Genevieve is more or less kidnapped by an unusually friendly Clodius, and when Pascal goes to retrieve her from La Jassine, he confronts him so violently that his cousin stumbles and knocks himself unconscious on the ground. For days to come Pascal is in a state of profound anxiety that he might have killed him as there are no signs of life coming from Clodius’s farmhouse, aggravated by the fact that the latter is so paranoid and reclusive that in ordinary circumstances days can pass when no one sees him anyway.

Pascal is painfully anxious about the imminent attentions of the police, the advocate, the country judge, should he have killed him, but he feels no compunction whatever about Clodius’s possible death. Pascal must be one of the strangest narrators of any novel not manifestly in the Gothic mode, as he maintains an unbelievably rigid inner discipline about which he is infinitely eloquent, and finds it hard to unbend even with the woman he loves, his cousin Genevieve. Before she arrives in worrying circumstances (she had left her husband and then married a volatile man who she’d also fled) he happily spends much of his time farming alongside his amiable tenant neighbours, the austere and simple-hearted Aliberts. But as a natural solitary he prefers his lonely botanizing, and he has a kind of attic retreat at Theotime, in which he keeps his specimens and where he often sleeps on a couch overnight. He also has another retreat of a former shooting box up at Micolombe, beyond which is the very old disused and beautiful chapel of St Jean, both of which become passionate hideaways for Genevieve once she starts to live with him.

The two of them had once been childhood friends and would have been natural sweethearts, if Pascal hadn’t been so boorish and dismissive with this cousin who had loved him from her earliest years. Once when the young girl became too openly affectionate at a family gathering, he had slapped her hard across the face, to the amazement of all. His kindly cousin Barthelemy had tried to make a joke of it, but Pascal had turned on him so viciously that he had burst into tears. Pascal now as a young man has the strongest feelings for this relative who is sharing his lonely house, but he can’t help being harsh to her at the most tender and vulnerable of times, and worse still he has a fearful sense of his own natural savagery or brutality which she awakens in him. Pascal justifies this on the grounds that he has a similar temperament to crazy Clodius, for the pair of them share the same genetic inheritance. Like that other Frenchman obsessed with heredity and personality, Emile Zola (1840-1902), Pascal thinks that when it comes to a person’s deepest nature everything is determined by one’s random legacy of forebears. On one side, on cousin Genevieve’s, he has her tenderness and gentleness, on the other he is capable of being a monster. The fascinating thing is that this savagery he feels encumbered with, as an otherwise mature adult, never once in the story manifests itself tangibly to Genevieve, nor to anyone else that he cares about. To that extent, it is a kind of imaginative, entirely inner nastiness that he is wrestling with, and which stops him manifesting the deep love he feels for his beautiful cousin.

Meanwhile and thankfully Clodius is not dead, and indeed his unneighbourly tricks and harassment get ever more ingenious and perverse. First of all he discovers an ancient law that allows him to take his animals though old abandoned footpaths and he duly leads 3 half-starved sheep every day through Theotime. That is all, and apart from the bizarre spectacle he does no actual damage, just makes everyone extremely anxious. But then a few days later a dozen wild boar go tearing through Pascal’s corn and destroy it all. This communal rampage is unusual behaviour for these animals, and Genevieve presciently recalls some hoary ancestor of theirs who was supposedly capable of charming wolves. Everyone thinks that Clodius is responsible for the boars, and after they come down en masse a second time, Genevieve who happens to spot them turns them round and leads them back to La Jassine, just as if a timeless figure out of Homer or a fairy tale. But the next day she is very feverish, and when Pascal gets Bourigat the local doctor in to see her, the old man’s dour, unfoolable scepticism is striking to say the least.

‘Do you really want me to see her?’ he asked incredulously ‘It is quite useless in my opinion. The sick are what they are, and one cannot change them. It is better to care for them as you think fit.’

Once Genevieve has recovered she feels that the man she loves so deeply still resents her, so departs to stay with cousin Barthelemy some distance off by train. Pascal is utterly bereft and on a roasting summer’s night he sleeps out in a hammock where he awakes to see a ghostly figure hovering above him, who he assumes to be a travelling pedlar. The next day Clodius is found dead of a gunshot wound, and two policemen alongside a detective and an irritable old magistrate arrive to interrogate Pascal. The magistrate scoffs at the pedlar story but everyone is confounded when Clodius’s will is read out and his sole heir is his hated cousin Pascal! Meanwhile the ‘pedlar’ intruder, wounded by Clodius has established himself in Theotime, for Pascal, as if the whole thing is a haunted dream has sheltered him in a long disused and suffocatingly hot barn. But everyone including Rambout the detective, the Aliberts and Genevieve when she returns to visit Pascal, hear suspicious noises around the farm and it is only when his capture is inevitable that the killer flees and Pascal later learns he had vanished abroad. Genevieve at the same time departs fatefully for Marseilles where for a time she stays with a religious order, and as a gentle and moving coda Pascal eventually finds love with the Alibert daughter, the handsome and hard-working Francoise.

Both Bosco and Giono have a phenomenal capacity to describe the natural world with tender and vivid precision, and they make our vaunted English versions (e.g. DH Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Mary Webb, John Cowper Powys) look like fumbling amateurs in comparison. Bosco writes about the world of farming and harvesting with a loving and immaculate and microscopic detail and like Giono he sees the rustic life as infused with a powerful spirituality.

‘Theotime stood there serenely among the trees, and its tranquillity amazed me. Rising up out of the shadows, it appeared to me like some moral image, a wise and holy edifice of domestic friendship’

In Bosco’s case, underneath that serenity is a kind of worrying and ceaseless spiritual battle between Good and Evil, whereas Giono’s larger than life rustics (e.g. the extraordinary wanderer Bobi in the 1936 Que ma Joie Demeure ) are depicted with the dimensions of the ancient Greek epics, of which Giono was a lifelong student. They are both declared Provence pantheists then, but Bosco has a unique and very unusual vision of the country life, inasmuch as he sees dead ancestors as well as beloved inanimate objects like the timeless soil, old farmhouses, ancestral furniture, antique kitchen implements and the like, as having a spiritual presence too. These ever-present ancestors and their artefacts are neither ghosts nor not ghosts, neither metaphor, nor not metaphor, and combined with Bosco’s/Pascal’s duality of Tenderness and  Savagery = Good and Evil, it can be an unsettling and disturbing vision at times. Just contrast what follows with the previous quote about the serenity of Theotime.

‘The least notebook, the most modest tool, melts naturally into this little world, lovingly based upon laws of meditation and reverie which cause it to gravitate noiselessly around my thoughts. I do not see them: I live them…These mysterious relationships suit my savagery – a quality which alienates my fellow men – for they establish bonds of affection between the objects and myself. I live in a magic society, where I no longer see the material form but only the suggested image, and I am so intimately attached to this friendly world that once I am in it, I never encounter the least obstacle to disturb the trend of my dreams’


If you come across The Farm Theotime in a second-hand bookshop, don’t be put off by the appearance of the Readers Union postwar ‘authorized economy standards’. Also ignore the illustrations which make it look like a children’s book and are so bad it looks as if I did the drawings.


The next post will be on or before Friday, 31st March


As I write this there has been no internet here in the Kythnos port for about 20 hours, and it surely does strange things to you. Aside from knowing I can’t check my emails, nor look at my blog to see who is reading it, and from where (I clocked up firsts with the Ivory Coast and Serbia recently), nor read the BBC news website to check on the cruel carnage at Westminster, London, nor consult Accuweather re next week’s Kythnos forecast, bizarrely it makes me crave for the net connection even if I wasn’t going to use it, a kind of notional or redundant addiction you might call it. Ironically, when I’m over in the UK or spending a few days in Athens, I never take my laptop with me, nor do I have a phone that has internet, and yet it bothers me not one iota to be minus all of the above. From Athens, I usually keep in touch with friends and loved ones via texts, whereas gawking back in some amazement to 30 years ago, I suppose if I’d been living in Greece but heading home for a spell, I’d have written a letter advising them in Blighty I was soon to be on my way, and would meet them at Carlisle railway station forecourt, third bollard on the right, at 3pm sharp next Friday 21st. Though on second thoughts, I might optionally have refined that by buying a phone card and making a  superior verbal contact, but that being the case I have to do my chronological sums here in order to be accurate. I who am usually fanatically flawless when it comes to pinpointing what month of what year  I did x, y, z, now need to roll back those wonderful Greek island and connoisseur Alentejo, Portugal sequences, and recall when phone cards became common in places like Andros, Folegandros, Beja, Elvas and Evora. I know that in 1982 when Annie and I travelled across Europe to Turkey by bus and hitching, we had no notion of such a thing, so that, inconceivable as it is these days, I didn’t ring my folks up for a whole month, and until we’d got back to London. But in 1986 when Annie’s Dad was in a Cumbrian hospital with worrying circulation problems (for us and his wife that is, he didn’t give a damn himself, and informed us cheerfully that he was taking rat poison to thin his blood) we did I remember use a card to ring Annie’s anxious Mum all the way from Crete.

Even worse than an aborted internet is the nightmare known as a power cut, though of course the two brutally overlap if you have no phone possessing wifi. When the power goes, you cannot play your precious and lifesaving CDs (yes, yes, I know, they are pitifully retro, but bugger that and stored back home in Cumbria I also have copious LPs, and here in Kythnos both umpteen cassettes and a portable player kindly purchased by daughter Ione who is one of the few who does not mock at my obsolete technology). I have music playing all the time when I’m in my house, and particularly like to hearken to sonorous ECM electric jazz at 7.00 am when drinking coffee and talking with cogence to my attentive cats. Some of my approximately 500 CDs  I rediscover after forgetting about them for months or even years. I then tend to play nothing else for the whole week, a recent example being a boxed set of the wondrous UK jazz rock band Soft Machine, and especially the albums Third (1970) and Fourth (1971). Both of these are works of unremitting genius, for they are phenomenally tightly structured and tightly harmonised which leads to the aesthetic inverse of a paradoxical liberation, added to which as a bonus gift and inter alia, they are full to brimming over with dare I say it (yes, bugger it, I believe I dare), pulsating sex and sinusoidal joy.

Minus electricity you cannot have your music and you cannot cook a gourmand feast nor make a pungent coffee, 3 forms of complementary and accretory 3rd degree torture for which there is no applicable Hague convention. Worse still is the extremely curious state of mind or more accurately a numbly frozen form of being that a power cut can inflict upon you, a sort of uneasy intimation of existential alienation as happens to the hero in the novel Nausea (1938) by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), someone who knew more about Being (L’Etre et le Neant, published 1943), and Phenomenology than most of us Anglo-Saxon triflers do. I can clearly recall some 30 years ago when Annie and I were living in Cleator Moor, Cumbria, a power cut that lasted the best part of the day. She was out at work, lucky old her, so only caught the hideous tail end of it. I was busy with mailing out copies of Panurge fiction magazine (1984-1996) of which I was founder-editor and which believe it or not I sent out by the pre-IT means of handwritten filing cards and handwritten addresses on the envelopes. I was doggedly transcribing from about 700 cards, and was half way through the foreign subscribers,  when the treacherous power went. Luckily it was daylight albeit grey and wintry, or I might have been mad enough to try and do the same by odorous candlelight with Annie after a hard day of being a social work trainer, as my selfless junior scribe. At any rate, possibly the combination of a pitiless Herculean labour combined with everything having come to a stop which is what in practical and unpoetic terms a power cut amounts to, led me to feel strangely bereft, unhinged, not right, not happy, not even human so it felt (I present this enigma for what it is worth to you probing, inquisitive and discerning readers out there, I just thought that I would take a liberty and run it past you…)

Guess what else happens in somewhere like rural Cumbria UK, when you have a power cut, and especially when it is winter and you are sick of eating ice cold cheese and pickles and salad, no matter how much exquisite red wine you slosh down to cope with it? If you have any enterprise and indeed any money, you go out to a pub unaffected by the blip and you treat yourself and dine there royally. That is exactly what we did in the fabled Christmas of 2000 when much of NE Cumbria was blanked out for days on end, but alas it turned out to be a cruel let down, of which more later. Around that period I happened to have some worrying conversations with an idealistic couple who lived on a remote Debatable Lands farm, and from which they ran residential courses. They said with stern yet twinkling conviction that it was wonderful to be sat there by fire light and candlelight playing non-electrical games with your kids and feeling such a sense of good old fashioned familial closeness and that elusive thing known as rustic simplicity. Tell that to Milady Ione then aged 11 who had played happily with her gizmo toys and games on Christmas Day when there was power, but after scowling her way through half of powerless Boxing Day she decided to cut her losses and told us that she wanted to go and stay with the Blisses for a couple of days. This was indeed a very bright and praiseworthy strategy on her part. They not only lived 5 miles off in an area unaffected by the power cut, they had 5 lively young daughters aged 2 to 15, one of them Mary being Ione’s close schoolpal. There was only one theoretical objection though, and it wasn’t anything on the lines of, how dare you desert your oh so dear Mum and Dad on Boxing Day, just because there is only cold food, no music and no telly? No, assuredly it was none of that…it was because the Blisses were Jehovah’s Witnesses and of course they are famous for the fact they do not celebrate Christmas.

But Ione knew more than we did, namely that there is no law against taking your posh gizmo toys to a Jehovah’s Witness family on Boxing Day, as she wouldn’t after all be carting an enbaubled Christmas tree or secreting a Yuletide log or a posy of holly or of soppy old mistletoe. So off she went and had a great non-festive season and after we had dropped her off, we drove down to the pub in the little market town and looked forward to gorging something hot and tasty. I ordered vegetable curry and chapatis, and Annie plumped for haddock and chips or blatant comfort food as she put it. She needed, she said, naïve and simple culinary comfort, when we unfortunates couldn’t watch our Christmas videos or listen to the CDs we’d given each other, in her case a bunch of Joni Mitchells and  a couple of haunting albums by Old Blind Dog, the remarkable Aberdonian folk band.

I set noisily upon my aromatic Indian feast which despite a notable excess of cinnamon wasn’t all that revolting, and Annie took one rapturous bite of her gorgeous looking and oh so golden haddock. Whereupon her beautiful face froze and that verb was bizarrely accurate in her case, and this time it was nothing akin to my power-cut induced existential petrifaction as described above.

“Ice…” she gasped with profound disgust. “There’s bloody ice inside the fish!”

Aha. Oh yeah? Happy Christmas everyone. They hadn’t defrosted it thoroughly, or more likely hadn’t kept the dear old microwave on long enough. Two months later the uneasy looking couple who ran that pub decamped, wisely omitting to leave any forwarding address, and you could clairvoyantly foresee as much when you tasted the overwhelming cinnamon, and when your teeth got stuck on the ice..


The next post will be either on or before Wednesday, 29th March


Almost exactly a year ago, there was a highly unseasonal sight in the Paradisos café, in the form of a couple of tourists, and clearly foreign ones at that. Most visitors to Kythnos are Greeks who, economic crisis notwithstanding, flood here during two weeks in the middle of August, and earlier for the festive Easter weekend. But no Greek in their right mind ever holidays here in March, and even those on business from Athens, part time teachers and driving instructors and the like, are few and far between. Nor were these two your paradigm laid-back youthful travellers, as they were both at a guess in their late 70s. He had long white hair, a raggy beard and moustache, thick and prominent glasses, and looked the image of an academic, probably retired. She was slim, quietly spoken and relaxed and possibly a little melancholy. For 3 consecutive mornings, they tucked with relish into a bacon and egg breakfast and from my distant table where I was working I decided he was posh English and she being so responsive to his jokes and sallies was no doubt his happy wife of 50 years. The Paradisos is quiet at the best of times, and inevitably we struck up a conservation once they heard the waitress Maria addressing me with a few bantering words of English. The bearded prof revealed himself to be a Scot from Edinburgh called Jack, and she was a Canadian from Montreal named Kelly. They were indeed man and wife, but after a previous marriage and divorce in both cases. Her first husband had also been Canadian but Jack’s earlier wife Trudi had been Dutch, and they both now had 3 grown up kids and multiple grandkids scattered all over the world.

Jack’s story was remarkable and sounded as if an extract from a novel, most apposite given that he had just had one published by a print on demand firm in Glasgow. Apropos which and before commencing his tale, he explained rather bizarrely that when it came to marketing and flogging his privately printed books, although he did bookshop signings he never did public readings, in part because of his extreme dyslexia. His novel you see was based on his redemptive life story, and he told it in the Paradisos with an attractive fluency as he was a compelling and humorous raconteur.  I was fascinated by this stranger, not to say riveted, until it came to a certain point near the end where I found I liked him rather less because of his sudden and unexpectedly hard and fast opinions. Kelly was effectively mute throughout his narration and I learnt little about her other than she had once, a long time ago, been a Montreal accountant. Jack, it turned out had been born in 1939 to wealthy landowning parents and had been sent to austere Rannoch public school up in the Highlands. That perhaps explains why by the early 1960s and with his parents divorced, he had become something of a random and unemployed drifter dwelling in a squalid Edinburgh bedsit. He had ended up with 2 unlikely bosom companions, one a man of 25 who called himself Tarzan and claimed he had been with the French Foreign Legion between the ages of 19 and 23. Tarzan was subject to bouts of near mania and rage where he ranted, albeit harmlessly because he only did it to the fresh air, and not to people nor animals. He was harmless and yet of course it was disturbing as perhaps just perhaps one of these day the peopleless void that he addressed would not be enough. The other pal was Loco which was not a reassuring name either, but he was less extreme and more of an odd job man and small scale drug dealer living in a slum in Leith. Of course, in 1961 when Jack was 22, only a few outre art students and Edinburgh jazz musicians, in imitation of the beatniks and Beat poets, experimented with dope meaning hashish, and it was a great deal more of a curiosity than it would be by the end of the decade.

The three all being virtually penniless conceived the idea of travelling through Europe, and soon set off with minimal budgets hitchhiking, and in Loco’s case doing some moderately profitable busking in cities like Brussels, Louvain and Cologne and whose proceeds he shared with the other two in the ratio of 6:2:2. Eventually they reached Stuttgart where they discovered a café run by Turks and where with like spotting like as it does the manager Nazim who was about 30, took them into a comfortable back room full of cushions and posters and handsome  carved chairs and offered them some dope. They sat there smoking joints and drinking beer and Nazim confided he had a steady stream of travellers from Morocco and the like, bringing him stuff to be dealt out here in Stuttgart and beyond. If these 3 friends were to make a trip out there and return with a load, then they would be well paid for it and Loco would no longer need to busk his limited repertoire of lachrymose Scottish folk songs in pouring rain to scurrying passers-by.

They set off hitching to Spain and made it to Algeciras where they had the bright idea of drawing straws so that only one of them would need to attempt the hazardous drug run. Three together would be conspicuous and if anything went wrong only one would get it in the neck. Hence it was, that Tarzan set off on his own, and being a reputed Foreign Legion graduate, as casually as if he were setting off to buy eggs at an Edinburgh grocer’s (recall that even in big cities, supermarkets barely existed in 1961). He took the boat to Ceuta and then using grudgingly loaned funds from Loco a bus to Morocco, whence he managed to hitch his way into the Rif mountains. A month later ferociously tanned and looking even madder, he returned unannounced to Algeciras with a great deal of block hashish strapped to his torso, underneath his impressively chromatic Moroccan clothes. To that extent, he preceded though was not the role model for the hero of the film Midnight Express (1978), where a young American is sent to a nightmarish jail in Istanbul for an appalling 30 years, simply for trying to do exactly what Tarzan was bent on.

Now all they had to do was get back to Stuttgart from Algeciras. They hitched as a cumbersome trio, Tarzan with his extremely precious load, but for some reason they kept getting lifts that went a generous distance, yet took them by a circuitous and at times lunatic route. They went from Algeciras to Madrid and then to the Lisbon, and then Caminha in the far Portuguese north, then back into Spanish Galicia and after a few hiccups and even a fight involving Loco and a woman in Bilbao, they arrived in southern France in the Basque-speaking Pyrenees. All of them exhausted and disorientated by now, they drew straws yet again and it was Jack was elected to take the dope the last lap into Germany. They were staying in a sweltering single room with 3 beds, and they decided to lay out all of Tarzan’s massive haul in preparation for Jack to rise at the crack of dawn to do the final make or break run.

When the Rannoch man woke up with thumping heart at what he might be facing, he noted at once that the dope had disappeared, as indeed had musical Loco and psycho Tarzan. After a petrifying minute or so, he concluded that the two of them had conspired to split the money 2 ways rather than 3, and to leave him here without a penny or a franc or a farthing. At first he was very angry, as well as direly wounded and confused, but eventually Jack felt the onset of a huge and rather euphoric, quite incredible relief. Far more important, he had felt the inklings of something he could not put a name to but which now 55 years later he would have described as his being affected by the Hand of God.

He was in his late thirties before he went through what he called the long night of repentance to become a convert, and then a few months later an Evangelical preacher in Edinburgh. Before that he had married Trudi and moved to Amsterdam where he ran an enormous 100 table café in a former warehouse, and which featured live jazz and became a legend in its day, second only to the Melkfabrik and other smoky and foggy alternative venues where youth could go and sprawl on floor cushions and use the stuff that Tarzan and Loco had cheated him of a decade earlier. Sadly Trudi had had a lengthy if well disguised affair with one of the jazz men, a tenor sax player called Ad from Rotterdam, and left Jack taking the three children. Crippled by that betrayal, and by the fact his rival had such an odd monosyllabic name, like a hiccup or a cough, Jack moved back to Edinburgh. There he met Kelly on holiday visiting her ancient Scottish roots, noted her skills as both an accomplished cook and an accountant which gave him thought as to their future career together, and after a few years they were married. They opened a discreet and extremely tasteful café in Morningside where emphatically there were no euphorics on display and which did very well, especially at Festival time. After about a year of that Jack had his dramatic late night conversion, and he took up a parallel and unpaid career as a preacher in a Hebron chapel in the bracing seaside annexe resort of Musselburgh.

All this was fascinating enough, even though he wasn’t the first evangelical preacher to have become so via an earlier life of aimlessness, crime and major crisis, and with a possible addiction to alcohol or drugs or gambling. Nonetheless with his professorial mane and whiskers, his literary bent and occasional swearing, I couldn’t seriously believe that Jack could be anything on the lines of a rampant fundamentalist. But alas and indeed he was, and I was for a moment truly confounded. I sat there comically stupefied as he loudly opined that women should never be priests because Pauline Scripture was against it, and moreover that the Epistles asserted that a priest can only be so if married to a woman of the church, meaning that bachelors, presumably even chaste and teetotal ones, were also forbidden in Jack’s comprehensive and exclusive schemata. Ditto and predictably enough that opting to be an active Gay was a sin, and that Darwinian Evolution which was at odds with Genesis was a risible lie. That being the case, those Neolithic cornpone states in the US where Darwinism was forbidden in the high schools, were all doing fine in Jack’s books…

I snorted incredulous and told him that once on a train I had met 2 young women Methodists who had not only become skilful preachers but had put their money where their mouths were. They had gone out into the field and done punishing grass roots community work with addicts and mental health cases in some of the roughest most criminal Manchester suburbs imaginable, Moss Side and the like. Were they and their remarkable courage and integrity, to be written off by Jack and his austere interpretations and exegeses? I also told him I had once hearkened to an English fundamentalist in his late 50s who had showed me a most charming scale drawing he had done of Noah’s Ark which he’d constructed by consulting the relevant verses in Genesis, then doing complex and lengthy computations with his calculator. He had got it to such a finely calibrated art that in his sweet little sketch he had put the two giraffes just over there in the middle of the vessel, where their necks wouldn’t be stooped, and well away from the two lions of course in case the latter got hungry. He was a nice and friendly and kindly sort of man, I added, but he was also barking mad when it came to reasoning and dispassionate intelligence. And likewise here we had professorial Jack pooh-poohing Evolution because of some supposedly spurious intermediate layers in geological strata, thus proving that far from being billions of years old they were only a few thousand, and hence consistent with comprehensible Old Testament chronology.

I paused and leant back slowly in order to gather my wits and powers of emphasis. At length, I raised my voice and advised Jack that only a tiny handful of the world’s scientists were so called Creationists and were regarded as more or less maverick nutcases by the rest of the science community. At that the bright eyed preacher leant back in his chair and gave me a warm yet guarded smile and said with musical certainty…

“You…you are so naive…

Meanwhile and vis a vis Jack discarding women as priests, and putting to one side their eligibility to preach or proselytise, what did his late 70s wife Kelly have to any about any or all of this? As you’ve guessed she was absolutely mute from start to finish, and sat there blinking cautiously while her Scripturally appointed and safely masculine husband gave forth from his stanchless well of eloquence.

But I do still wonder now that it is exactly a year later, what was really going on inside her head…


The next post will be on or before Wednesday 29th March


The affectingly handsome Chris Cooper (born 1951) who hails from Kansas, is an extremely talented and versatile actor, who in a prolific career has oddly played only a few leading roles. He made his name as July Johnson in the phenomenally popular though definitely watchable western TV mini-series Lonesome Dove (1989) and you might have seen him as real life detective Alwyn Dewey (investigator of the infamous 1959 murders of the Kansas Clutter family) in the Truman Capote biographical movie, Capote (2005). Alternatively, should your tastes be rather more homely and visceral, you can see him in Amazing Spiderman 2 (2014) where he portrays a supervillain. Cooper also takes a solemn and chilling role in Breach (2007) as an FBI agent turned traitor, who ends his days terrifyingly alone in a high security jail. He regularly works with the director John Sayles (born 1950) and was in his 1987 Matewan about a famous coal strike in Virginia in 1920, as well as City of Hope (1991) which focuses on a spoiled young man turning against his rich and bankrolling father. He also takes the lead in Sayles’s Silver City (2004) a comic satire on someone rather like George W Bush, and later appears in his Amigo (2010) about the notorious Filipino-American War, something rarely covered in US cinema, and which is set in 1900.

It was Sayles who also directed the 1996 Texas murder mystery Lone Star and who again felicitously pairs Cooper and Kris Kristofferson as he had in Silver City. I first saw it on the satellite movie channel TCM and enjoyed it so much I have watched it another 5 times, and expect to watch it maybe once (or just possibly twice) a year for the rest of my life. I know only one other person who has seen it, the gifted UK novelist Christopher Burns, a man who surely knows more about the cinema and all it means than anyone else in the universe, and he too is a professed admirer. So it is, that I am recommending that you get yourself the DVD or whatever medium suits you, and sit back and permit yourself to be subtly enthralled.

In Lone Star, and in keeping with his scrutinising and kindly face, Cooper portrays an undeniably good man, Sam Deeds, emphatically neither traitor nor supervillain, recently installed as small town sheriff in Frontera on the Mexican border, and where he stands in the shoes of his legendary sheriff father Buddy, aka Matthew McConaughey (born 1969). His Dad was in fact a fearful legend at home, judge, jury and executioner as Sam drily jests at the official unveiling of a statue to the late, great sheriff. The townsfolk have made a lovable folk hero out of Buddy, not a saint but shucks you knew where you stood with him, whereas Sam soon discovers that his Dad only appeared so as contrasting foil to his colleague Charlie Wade, a fearsome and horrifying monster of a sheriff played brilliantly by Kris Kristofferson (born 1936). The film switches deftly back between the present of the early 90s, and forty years earlier to the prehistoric 50s, when corrupt and murderous policemen like Wade could operate unrestrained. Especially that is, in harassing and extorting from the Mexican wetbacks, covertly trying to enter the land of plenty, and the local Blacks or at least those ones running bars and gambling dens like Otis Payne (Big O,. played by Ron Canada) and from whom Wade can vauntingly demand his start of the month rake off. In one set piece Wade gloatingly bullies the young Otis into pouring him his beer and then shifts the glass and accuses him of spilling it. Next, he punches him brutally in the guts, leering that we don’t have Houston ways down here, boy, and he has to watch his uppity face and show respect. However, his next assault on Otis is to be his last, when with deputy Hollis in tow, he is about to shoot Otis in the back for resisting arrest (= for operating a lucrative card game he hadn’t cut Wade in on) but the door flies open just then and it is Buddy Deeds who shoots Charlie Wade in his back.

The details of Wade’s killing are revealed near the end of the film, but don’t worry I haven’t spoiled it for you, as Sam had early guessed who the culprit and his collaborators were, once he was informed of a grisly find at a disused army shooting range. Two off duty soldiers trawling with metal detectors find a human skeleton, a Lone Star sheriff’s badge, and a distinctive Masonic ring, all of which point to Wade and soon this is proved by forensic examination. Maddeningly, deputy Hollis and bar owner Otis refuse to help Sam in his enquiries but plead a laughable ignorance. In fact, they had helped Buddy to bury Wade 40 years ago, and also taken $10,000 dollars from Frontera community funds. The version that they gave out was that Wade had disappeared into nowhere and decamped with the money, but instead they had given it to set up local Hispanic businesswoman Mercedes Cruz (Miriam Colon) with a restaurant which she still operates and in the harshest possible matriarch style. Four decades ago, Cruz’s husband Eladio had been gunned down by Wade for trafficking wetbacks without including him in the deal, and later as a perfectly dovetailing irony, Buddy had been having an affair with Eladio’s widow that everyone in the town had known about and winked at. Impressively the depiction of the two-facedness and harshness of small town life, is not just confined to powerful whites like Buddy and Wade, for rigid and unforgiving Mercedes regularly rings the border police when she sees wetbacks arrive and likewise snaps nastily at her restaurant staff to speak English and not Spanish. What’s more, both she and Hollis are pressing for an enlarged courtroom and a new jail in honour of Buddy, even when Sam assures them that the current one is more than adequate, and dourly adds that one of their councillor colleagues would also be the appointed contractor. Similarly, relaxed and pragmatic Otis is counterpointed by his insufferably uptight son Colonel Delamore Payne (Joe Morton) who by fateful chance is the new and black commander at the Frontera army base. Del will have no truck with his Dad who was a serial womaniser, and so there is a perfect and compelling historical parallel between Sam and Buddy and Delamore and Otis.

Most fateful of all is Sam’s renewed love affair with his teenage sweetheart, the widow Pilar (Elizabeth Pena), daughter of Mercedes and a local schoolteacher. Their young romance had been violently discouraged by both parents and there is a moving scene where Buddy in the 1950s storms around a drive-in cinema with a hideous flashlight, and unearths Sam and Pilar embracing in the back seat. He roughly bawls his son out of the car and Pilar runs off direly humiliated. A decade later frustrated Sam marries and soon divorces Bunny, a hyperactive sports freak with mental health problems, played wonderfully gabbling and inane, by the excellent Coen Bros regular, Frances McDormand (born 1957). But as he confesses to Pilar when they salvage their intense romance, though it is 40 years after the cruelty of that drive-in embarrassment, he has always kept her close to his heart. There is to be sure one stunning sting in the tail that might have thwarted their renewed tender love affair, but thankfully for this subtly heart-warming and tightly structured moral fable, it does not.


The next post will be on or before Monday, 27th March


Back in 1993 and for the first time ever, I visited the handsome city of Cheltenham, in order to attend its prestigious Literature Festival. I was doing a gig as they say, for I was one of the two judges for the Stand Magazine International Short Story Competition, the other being the celebrated author of The Woman in Black (1983), the very versatile Susan Hill (born 1942). The competition was high profile and with substantial cash awards (First Prize that year went to the talented Australian, Geraldeen Fitzgerald) and as well as ruminating in staggered sequence about the wonderfully arcane secrets of judging, Susan and I had to dish out the cheques. However rather than Stand choosing our accommodation we were invited to find our own, and of course it being nearly a quarter of a century ago there was no internet, or if there was no one I knew had it. In those touchingly innocent Neanderthal days, it was impossible to find a distant B and B or a hotel (I lived in far-flung North Cumbria) without recourse to the telephone and/or the postal service. Thus it was, that Stand posted the judges a list of suitable places in the city centre, and I chose one at random and rang and booked my overnight stay. It was a frail and kindly and elderly female voice at the other end, and she promptly offered me a vacancy and waived any cheque deposit, my word she said sensibly, would be enough. Moreover, and please take note, it being 1993 and not 2003 or 2017, I did not ask Mrs Vera Auburn as she was called, any or all of the following urgent consumer conscious queries re my forthcoming accommodation:

Was it en suite? Did it have satellite TV and optional video input? Did it have a good view of the exquisitely posh Cheltenham terraces nearby? Did she have any accurate and recent colour photos of the room that she could post me? Were there healthy eating options (e.g. yoghurt both bovine and ovine, milled oats, luxury Sainsbury’s muesli, piquantly fresh fruit juices, pungently fresh fruit) among the breakfast fare? Oh, and here by the way Mrs A, and just for the record, is a list of my 27 different food allergies and while we’re at it and with metaphorical conviction, I would prefer a sumptuous feather bed to any other……

A quarter of a century ago, it simply never occurred to me to ask her anything about her room, as not only was I staying for one night only, but more importantly she had such a kind and friendly old lady’s voice I couldn’t imagine her inviting me to stay in a rank and unhygienic tip where the mattress was brick hard or where possible odious student neighbours would drive me mad with all night hifi (as opposed to wifi) music. In fact, had I at gunpoint been ordered to ask her a single question or put in a lone request, it would have been strictly apropos the make or break breakfast, and would have been, can you at all costs make sure the fried egg isn’t runny or as my late wife Annie always put it much more vividly and accurately, isn’t snotty.

When I arrived I turned out to be the only guest, which pleased me no end as there would be no nocturnal noise, not least because Vera herself did not look the druggy rave nor wild eyed partying type, nor would I have to make affable somnambulant chat at the breakfast table (what part of the world are you from? A writer? Fascinating! Tell me, how you do get your inspiration? Excuse me? Looking through keyholes you say? Aha…). Vera Auburn was about 80, thin and pensive, a little melancholy, a little slow in her movements, and her B and B, though clean and tidy was unpretentious and resolutely frill-free. My room had no TV thank God, and though it boasted a wash basin, it was not en suite, though remarkably it occurs to me now that in 1993 I wouldn’t have known what en suite meant anyway. Whatever the case, after leaving the Festival and then having an enormous Indian meal with Geraldeen, I staggered home and turned in about a midnight and slept the sleep of the almost sated. The next morning at breakfast, and because I was the sole guest, Vera sat down beside me and effortlessly chatted. She asked me about my family, my wife and 4-year-old daughter and then as if needing to confide something to someone who was not only a married man but also a safely neutral quantity, and who crucially she would never see again after today…she confessed not too zestfully that she was in a relationship herself. He was called Mr Norris and he was a few years older at 85. They were both widowed and Mr Norris was open about his need for female company and to match his words he spoiled her considerably with flowers, expensive chocolates, meals out, and offers of taking her abroad on package holidays to Malta, or even cruises to the Canary Islands if Vera wanted. Offers she stressed, because she would not go that far, and to put it in a nutshell this Arnold Norris chap simply wanted too much from her and was too pressing and too importunate. She added that she was quite fond of old Arnold, but that was as far as it went (NB, that ‘quite’ modifier is a lethal one, eh? Bad enough to say you are fond of someone in lieu of loving them, but ‘quite fond’, is tantamount to saying I don’t like him, or let’s face it, in fact I hate the old bugger…). She sighed and said with emphatic eloquence that she valued her independence, but felt that Norris wanted to move in with her or worse for her to move in with him, and so, pleasant as it was to have a man enamoured of her, it was also wearing, and these mixed feelings she was left with were a nuisance more than a joy. I smiled at Mrs Auburn and wryly thought to myself, it never ends at any age obviously, nonagenarians and centenarians included. By a miracle, my wife Annie and I are relaxed and balanced and equal, but otherwise life is about one of you wanting more than the other, and the other craving less, and the needy one can never be an equal and democratic and 6-foot high quantity, no matter how many chocolates or Thomsons tours they fling at you in their desperation.

For an instructive contrast, we need to fast forward 14 years to 2007 when I was Royal Literary Fellow at Lancaster University, and was staying overnight every Monday in the city. This time no need for leaflets from the city tourist office via the university, I just googled ‘Lancaster accommodation’ and discovered a B and B handy for the train station, with taken as given TV and en suite and wifi, and at £40 a night was definitely at the cheaper end. I rang up and talked to a laughing, friendly woman called Jenny and was so encouraged as to book 6 consecutive Mondays, given how most other places were wanting at least twice as much. As the weeks went by I was very happy staying at the home of Jenny Bright who was mid-40s, married with a small son, and was blond haired, attractive, sturdy, cheery, and extremely hard working. Her vegetarian breakfast was peerless, the filter coffee fab, the rooms all fine. Which made it all the more puzzling the morning she approached me looking a little pensive and asked me could I possibly help her. Noting my bleary 7.30am bafflement, she explained that given how much I liked staying there, she wanted me to go on the Trip Advisor website and give her guest house a positive review, as it would be both a colossal personal favour, and also stop her having this horrible churning feeling day and night, not to speak of her being stricken with the runs in her always sensitive stomach.

Mr IT Man of the Year 1974, who was still frightened of Word and all it represented, and had only just stopped using Works 1987-1993, asked:

“What’s Trip Advisor?”

In all my fabled naivety and going by the perky name, I imagined TA might tell you things like, ah yes, the Algarve is altogether quite nice, especially pullulating Albufeira and the Valley of the Wolves; Malta too is extremely OK cos they all speak English and if you don’t mind the stony beaches; and not forgetting that the wine is very cheap if unrefined in Crete, and the bibulous natives are ever so friendly etc. Instead it turned out to be a mega consumer site where people wrote a short hopefully honest report on their stay in a hotel or guest house, or alternatively the quality of food at a restaurant or the excellence of a bar or nightclub. Up until recently all the comments and ratings on Jenny’s place had been very positive, but she had just seen a horrifying shocker newly-posted and as well as feeling upset and personally attacked, she was terrified it would put people off, as so many folk out there believed Trip Advisor to be completely infallible. If I wrote a good report it would push down that malicious little bitch’s horrible demolition job. Oh yes, she knew who it was OK, despite her anonymous pen name, self-styled ‘Truthteller’, some truth and kiss my backside! It was a former employee who Jenny had had to sack as she was bone idle and unreliable when it came to cleaning and making the beds, and who also smelt powerfully of sickly sweet sherry at times. Carrie as she was called had invented her overnight stay here and had gone on at amazing length about a tiny scratch mark on a shower cubicle, about mattresses that were worn and snagged provided you had a powerful microscope, and about a duvet that had on forensic examination a 2mm tear in it. With only that to go on, Carrie had managed to make the guest house sound like a shameless competitor for a Lancastrian slum or a squat, and although she was allowed to write and publish any slander she liked, Jenny was not permitted to answer back. Only someone else, someone like yourself JM the eminent RLF university man, could counter the imminent damage to her business by writing something positive.

That same day in my campus office I wrote a glowing report on Jenny’s B and B, so glowing I was moved to tears at the power of my conviction and my obvious capacity to be a principle-free propaganda merchant who would smirkingly offer his skill to the very highest bidder. Jenny was delighted at what I wrote, and then guess what, some 7 years later I did a reprise of the whole thing when a hotelier on the Greek mainland asked me to counterattack one or two mean spirited types whose cavils as far as Manos were concerned were beyond any mature understanding. They had been complaining on the site about tatty and comical 70s décor, sloth and indifference on the part of the staff, showers not working at best volume or temperature, and other obsessive compulsive nonsense, which I assured him could only be that of 2 or 3 anally retentive English couples who had been peevishly slagging off the excellent Hotel Rex. I duly gave my favourite mainland hotel an ecstatic 5-star review and reflected as I did that what the moaners failed to appreciate was the priceless originality of Manos himself who sat there whistling amiably at his desk and then for no good reason would close his eyes and burst into passionate yearning Greek song about women and love and lust and despair. Then there was his handsome divorced daughter Katerina in her late forties who chainsmoked and sported a cheeky t-shirt which said ‘Too Sexy for My Ex’. At times, she was replaced as receptionist by lovely blond haired, blue eyed Maria who I always called Agia/Saint Maria to make her giggle. Though most original was 30-year-old Kostas the tall and eloquent night porter and day time handyman whose English was excellent and who was always bog eyed from his diurnal duties, and hence showed signs of irritability with Manos as of course he had such a thwarted social life. Kostas had singular and startling ideas all pivoted around his violent disdain for his fellow Greeks, for he said far worse things about them than Merkel and Berlusconi ever had. Consistent with that he thought Brexit was a wonderful thing for my nation, and earnestly hoped that Grexit might happen one day….though of course it never would unless it were a compulsory expulsion by the EU rather than a lucid Hellenic declaration of departure.

The point is that the enduring joy of staying with people like Mrs Auburn in 1993 or at the Hotel Rex in 2017 is the presence of these likeable and arresting people, who despite their fronting a place where supposedly the décor and the bedding and the plumbing are not a 1000%, will remain imprinted in the memory for ever where the spotless and suave and impeccably hygienic and antiseptic variation will turn into a kind of anaemic blur far quicker than you can imagine. In the meantime, UK TV documentaries reveal that a predictable type of extorting Mafiosi behaviour has recently shown its ugly head, inspired by the corruption possibilities of hotels and restaurants eager for valuable consumer ratings. In one that I watched, a nice bloke of 50 with a wispy beard and a gourmet country restaurant in Gloucs , UK, explained how a bunch of well dressed couples in their early 30s had come to his place last month, ordered and consumed a ton of pricey food and the best of wines and then told him that if he did not give them it for free, they would savage him on Trip Advisor by this time tomorrow. He had stared at them in disbelief, then angrily offered to ring the police if they didn’t pay up, even ingeniously lying that he had their car registration numbers written down. They had snarled and paid him waving their fists, blaspheming obscenely and then departed shouting and roaring into the winter night, The next day the vicious demo job duly appeared and since then his custom had fallen drastically and he told the camera with a lump in his throat that he wished he had let them have the fabulous feast of venison, halibut, turbot and prime steak and sauvignon and chateau neuf for free, as it was laughably nothing compared to what he’d lost in the last few weeks and would lose in the weeks to come.


The next post will be on or before Tuesday 21st March


One index of becoming a mature adult is that you are supposed to cut out the risible adolescent nonsense and get yourself on the property ladder, meaning take out a mortgage on a house or a flat, as opposed to frittering away unrecoverable money on an extortionate rent. It doubtless indicates an instinctive and defiant Peter Pan mentality in the likes of Annie and me, that we only ever owned one house in our 30 years marriage, and otherwise rented variously a round dozen of terraced houses, country cottages, flats, bedsits, and finally two massive farmhouses in our wavering loop trajectory from North Yorks to N Cumbria via Oxford and elsewhere, between 1979 and 1992. That puzzling anomaly, the house we actually owned, was a 2-bedroom terrace in the small and uniquely Irish West Cumbrian town of Cleator Moor, some 4 miles from the spacious port of Whitehaven. We bought it for £12,800 in 1984 and sold it for the very maximum of £17K at the tail end of 1987.What happened then was fascinating as a demonstration of how we confronted chill reality by dreamlike doing the opposite of what anyone else would have done. In late 1987, house prices suddenly went crazy in the UK, and this was well outside the metropolis and desirable addresses like Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh, so that even in the remotest and most deprived UK provinces there ceased to be that thing called a bargain or a song. 30 years ago, once we’d paid off the terrace mortgage, Annie and I realised we had a delightful £1000 pounds dangling there in our twitching mitts. What we should have done, of course, was to put it down as a deposit on another modest house, instead of which we went to Morocco for a fortnight, had ourselves a bloody good time, and that was that.

Just before travelling to the fabled land of the souks in the cities of Tangier and Chefchaouen and Meknes and Marrakesh, we relocated to the Cumbrian county seat, an apt posterior analogy (the arsehole and sagging backside of beyond) if we are assessing how the drab and unappetising city of Carlisle appeared to us at that time. Our move was supposed to be a stepping stone for heading down to London, but instead we discovered the exquisite and idyllic hinterland of rural NE Cumbria and the Debatable Lands, with Annie living there until she died of cancer at the end of 2009, and me staying on till 2013, when I transported myself big time, lock, stock and barrel, rump and stump, to the Cycladean island of Kythnos, Greece.  Part of our logic for pissing away the £1000 was that it would go nowhere in purchasing anything in London, and we also fooled ourselves that the area where we rented in Carlisle, Denton Holme, would offer us amiable and sophisticated urban village life, on the vibrant analogy of Cowley or Iffley Road, Oxford, where we had lived 5 years earlier. Fat chance. Denton Holme was a melancholy little suburb just down from an enormous and ugly railway viaduct, and the grim and bulky terrace we rented for £230 a month was smack opposite the unforgiving gable end of a hat factory. We got out of that sarcophagus of a place, as soon as we could, and for about a year rented a poignantly beautiful cottage sited in the remotest countryside about 15 miles from the Scottish border. It was on a trafficless C road, painted a lovely fading turquoise, had honeysuckle and fuschias in the nearby hedgerows, and on our bird feeders we had bullfinches, siskins and, forgive me, any amount of dangling and beguiling tits. Inspired by such powerful surroundings I began writing my favourite of my own books Radio Activity (1993) which took 3 torturous years to find a publisher. Meanwhile Annie became pregnant there in September 1988, and our daughter Ione spent her first few months in that cottage, and there could be no finer and sweeter way of entering this world, or at least once mother and child had left in some haste the old city maternity hospital, where incredibly the Carlisle mothers were allowed to smoke in the corridors and did so with gusto whilst dandling their little babies.

In the spring of 1989 there was a second explosion in house prices, so much so that our crafty and at times boozy and unintelligible farmer landlord decided to sell the beautiful cottage, as the rent we were paying him was a bargain £140 pcm. True original that he was, he put it on the market but did not choose to inform us as much, though gullible optimists that we were and with Annie about to give birth, we knew something was afoot when he came round to paint the cottage a bilious shit brown and obliterated every trace of the Hebridean pastel blue had charmed our hearts so much. 50-year-old Barny as he was called (you can work out his nickname which includes the substitution of a single letter. Also it is an allophone of an adjective that means salubrious or tonic ) he did not knock on the door to say, oh by the way I’m generously painting your sweet little house for you and your lovely little baby, nor did he meet our eyes as we gazed in horror through the window. Years later I found out that after we had left he began drinking a lethal 17 pints of beer every day in his favourite pub, whereafter  I no longer bore him any grudge as I realised that Barny like us (absolutely literally in his case) had pissed away the fruits of his house sale.

We had moved out of paradise of course, rather than find ourselves and our baby homeless. After a brief interlude in a cottage 2 miles off that was prone to noisy mice and had faecal looking pipe tobacco stains on the ceiling, we found our first bargain farmhouse which was truly back of beyond, or as my Dad would have innocently put it and with not a hint of literal bawdiness, at the back end of buggery….

It was stuck up a sizeable fell, within waving distance of the Scottish border and with superb views of the little pap of Tinnis Hill, as well as the disused Waverley railway Line which once connected Carlisle to Edinburgh via the once prosperous mill towns of Galashiels, Selkirk and Hawick. The farmhouse was 17th century, had 4 bedrooms, and was a working stead run by a young couple who rented from the same North Cumbrian estate. It was at such an elevation, the winding dirt road that led to it ended in an inclined concrete ramp or a car would have struggled and failed to make the final haul. The milk and papers were left in a box down at the gate below that faced the little tarmacked road, and it was the same man delivered both on a run so huge round most of the Debatable Lands, that I couldn’t get my hands on the Guardian till 3 in the afternoon. Not that such reading was an easy matter, I must add, as Ione aged 1, who I was looking after all day while Annie was at work in Carlisle, liked to come and gleefully karate chop the newspaper so that I could do what she regarded as the proper and pukka business of undivided parental care.

And here a very shameful admission. We took this house even though it was part of a pheasant shooting estate, and even though as 2 confirmed vegetarians we would sooner have worked double shifts down a freezing Verkhoyansk salt mine than shoot pheasants ourselves. The fragile and specious logic of our compromise, was firstly that we were paying only £140 a month, the same as the perfect honeysuckle scented cottage where Ione had been born …and secondly that our particular property, Gorse Farm, was very rarely encroached on by the shooters, and indeed for the year that we were there we only saw them once, and they tramped well beyond our house so that we heard no hideous blasting .The estate was vast, with about a dozen cheap cottages, some of which housed its workers, and others that were occupied by those so addicted to their lonely countryside, they didn’t mind a 20 mile commute into Carlisle. Those hardy little cottages were much more in the thick of the pheasant carnage, which no doubt explains their even then preposterous £100 rents. They were straddled next to each other along the narrow B-road we could see below, and they ran all the way to the village church. Quaint and comical feudalism was still alive and kicking in the Debatable Lands then, as the estate owner who was largely absent in London and rejoiced in the name of Wilfred Dexter-Kurz, had his own private pew in the ancient church. Significantly, during WW2, Wilfred’s father who had been half Austrian and had bought the estate in the late 1920s, had been commanded by the War Office to plough his fields in a certain camouflaging manner to confuse enemy aircraft who might be heading towards the army depot a dozen miles away. The uppish Dad had bluntly refused to do so until swiftly subjected to a government order, and so there had been lingering and scandalous accusations of foreign unEnglish treachery, which oddly still clung to his more or less blameless son 60 years later.

Opposite the cheap cottages was a larger estate house where lived a woman in her 70s called Millie whose story was educative, and at times harrowing. 25 years ago, her husband, a gamekeeper, had run off with another woman and relocated to Carlisle, whilst still commuting to his job and of course cowardly ignoring his deserted wife. Millie was allowed to stay on in the tied house alone, but had been so stricken that she had had a nervous breakdown and had been hospitalised as a result. Three appropriate parentheses follow. One is that there was a rash of crack ups in that area best exemplified by Danny the travelling fishmonger from the Scots side, who had so many affairs with so many married women on his cis and trans the Border fish run, that he ended up in a catastrophic panic attack regarding what day, where and with whom (and what her bloody name might be, even more to the point) apropos his pausing to enjoy his umpteenth amorous dalliance of the month. He too had been hospitalised in Carlisle, and indeed his stay had overlapped with Millie’s and she had wagged her monogamous finger at him admonitorily and especially when he had made a reflex and outrageous pass at her in the deserted mental ward telly room. Divagation the second was that once out of the hospital she had acquired a pet pheasant called Bertie who wisely hung around her back garden and nowhere else, and whom Wilf Dexter-Kurz had solemnly promised not to touch, much less execute when he came round blasting with his clients. The final and instructive coda is that a few years after we left the estate, her roving husband Joe the Lothario gamekeeper had come back to her after his quarter century sabbatical, and settled back in with barely a grunt or a murmur, much less any discursive explanation of why he had been absent from her side since 1965. Like his wife, Joe was originally from Hawick and It was rumoured that he croaked, I’m baick Mallie and wat’s fer ma tea, less, and she got up without a wasted word herself and made him his favourite of shepherd’s pie laced with a gallon of Daddie’s sauce, and that was that….


The next post will be on or before Monday, 20th March


Alan J Pakula (1928-1998) was a celebrated US director best known for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) adapted from the Harper Lee novel and starring Gregory Peck; as well as for the harrowing Holocaust film Sophie’s Choice (1982) after the eponymous novel of William Styron, which featured Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline. But he also made what he called his ‘Paranoia Trilogy’ which began with the 1971 film noir Klute, followed by Parallax View with Warren Beatty (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976) a thriller about Nixon-style covert surveillance methods, with superstars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. Klute was a commercial and critical success at the time, but is much less known than it deserves to be nearly half a century later. It is available on DVD and elsewhere, and I would urge anyone to treat themselves and enjoy a feast of sustained and disquieting tension, remarkable film music and outstanding acting. A very young-looking 34-year-old Jane Fonda (born 1937) justly won an Academy Award for her part, alongside the equally charismatic Donald Sutherland, who was born in 1935. Only a couple of years later, co- starring with Julie Christie, Sutherland would excel himself as the ecclesiastical art restorer whose little daughter had tragically drowned near the family home, in Nicholas Roeg’s timeless and terrifying masterpiece Don’t Look Now (1973).

In Klute, Bree Daniels, played by Fonda, is a well-paid NY call girl whose luck changes badly when she is arrested by the police and suffers a jail spell, because of apparent involvement in the disappearance of a Pennsylvania businessman Charles Grunemann. In the latter’s office, there is found an extremely obscene letter addressed to her, but she has no memory of the man whose photo the police show her, though she does recall a sinister and frightening client trying to beat her up in earnest 2 years earlier. Once out of jail, she has lost her luxury apartment and has to move into a grim and ill-lit flat appropriately above a funeral parlour. Inevitably she displays a rancorous bitterness at her declining fortunes, and regularly visits a therapist to help make sense of her unsatisfactory life. The ugly darkness and desolate grubbiness of her tenement staircase, emphasise that we are in moody film noir thriller territory, as Fonda comes and goes between home and clients, anxious that she is being followed by some intruder or other, as on top of all else she is regularly receiving anonymous phone calls. To add to the relentless creepiness, there is Michael Small’s highly original electronic musical score (rather like a sophisticated US version of the old BBC radiophonic workshop) which makes for ever mounting and at times agonising apprehension.

Enter Donald Sutherland as John Klute, a neatly attired if unglamorous private eye hired by Grunemann’s colleague Peter Cable, played with oily and unnerving brilliance by Charles Cioffi (born 1935). Klute tries the direct approach with the stony and belligerent call girl, and she pretends to let him into her flat, but sneaks out by a back door. The cryptic and imperturbable Klute takes up a basement flat below and starts to tap her phone, before getting her to repeat what she told the police: that she does not recall anyone looking like the vanished Grunemann. Fonda’s remarkably assured dialogue is hectoring and astringent and the perfect foil to phlegmatic Klute who regularly responds to her rants with either wide-eyed silence or monosyllables. Nonetheless, he does prevail upon her to take him to see her former pimp Frank, played with laconic sliminess by the gifted Roy Scheider (1932-2008). The pimp reveals that Bree was given the violent client on the recommendation of another jealous call girl of his Jane McKenna, who subsequently committed suicide. There was a third pro Arlyn Page who also saw the same psycho, but as she has since become a junkie it takes considerable determination on Bree and Klute’s part to track her down. Arlyn likewise confirms that the photo of Grunemann is not the same as the vicious weirdo, but Arlyn also is soon to die mysteriously by drowning.

One night, after another threatening phone call, Bree knocks on Klute’s basement door in great panic and asks to stay in his room. He comforts her and eventually they lie down on separate beds, but in the small hours Bree initiates some passionate lovemaking, where for once she is not looking at her watch during the carnal act. However, with predictable perversity, in the morning she loudly mocks him for giving in to her expert seductiveness, and victoriously skips out of the door.

But Bree does not want to remain a call girl for ever, and the film is punctuated with her vain and sad attempts to make it as an actress and a fashion model. Fonda who is a superb actor has the tough task of playing a hopeless would-be example as she melodramatically recites with a terrible accent a sonorous Irish monologue that sounds as if from a play of JM Synge (1871-1909), author of Playboy of the Western World (1907) though I may be wrong. Likewise, she attends fashion auditions where monstrously arrogant men in their comical 70s suits and hairdos treat her with total patronage. All this she unloads on her elderly lady therapist, and with a virtuoso excellence Fonda effortlessly conveys why boastful Bree Daniels is so successful as a call girl. It is because, unlike her failed theatrical auditions, she plays a brilliant part and satisfies the johns (no relation, I promise you) who pay her a relative fortune for her services. She is in total control throughout as a prostitute, feels nothing during the sex, yet though this emotional independence may be liberating, it is also painfully thwarting, and in truth she wants out and to start afresh. Subsequently she informs the therapist that Klute confounds her because she does actually enjoy making love with him, and because he is perplexingly kind and tender whether she looks immaculate or he finds her hungover, ragged and foul-tempered.

These set pieces of Bree failing as an actor and, then vulnerable in the therapist’s chair (for her, another kind of failure) dovetail with a short but moving epiphany of tenderness between the unlikely pair. The call girl and the private investigator go shopping for fruit and vegetables on a late-night market, so that in lieu of the creepy electronic music we have plangent and coolly romantic jazz. Klute is in a casual shirt instead of his usual dapper funereal suit, and we see Bree unwinding and taking his arm affectionately as the carefree pair buy tomatoes and fruit from bantering Hispanic salesmen. You might miss the clever touch though, over in only 2 seconds, when Bree stares uncomprehending at a little boy sat happily on his Dad’s shoulders, and furrows her brow in real perplexity. It is obvious she does not understand simple matters of love and family and wordless security, but as I say if you blinked too long you would miss this poignant and excellent little cameo.

An awful shock awaits them after their epiphany. When they get back to her flat it has been hideously ransacked, and worst of all she finds semen in her underwear, enough to disgust even a seasoned call girl. Afterwards, still traumatised, instead of staying with caring Klute, with classic contrariness she decides to decamp with Frank her former pimp. For once Klute loses his effortless cool and knocks smirking Frank unconscious, but by this time in any event the plot is close to resolution. Short on cash, Bree makes an appointment with an elderly client who regularly pays her to disrobe whilst she tells him a fantasy story about her being seduced by another and fictional elderly man. Her wealthy customer owns a clothes factory but he is not there when the call girl arrives. I don’t want to spoil the climactic ending for you, so suffice to say that in the bowels of the deserted tenement sweatshop she encounters someone and something both nasty and very terrifying, despite which the powerful and ambiguous conclusion is not, you’ll be pleased to hear, an unhappy one.


The next post will be on or before Monday 20th March


My girlfriend Jan was recently concerned to hear I had started buying wine from the supermarket in the island port at, wait for it, 2 euros (£1.80) for a litre and a half. Don’t blame me I told her with no small righteous sincerity, blame the fact that my standard staple of Erythros Krassi red wine at 3 euros for the same volume (which tastes I promise you, exactly like the best South African Carmenere retailed at probably about 15 euros in the UK per 1500ml) is and God knows why, no longer available anywhere in the port. The new stuff which is white, is fearlessly provocative not only in its price, but with its shelf marketing strategy, inasmuch as it brazenly has none whatever. Remarkable as it sounds, this plain plastic bottle has no labelling at all on it, no contents, no provenance, no brand, no name, it is as mysterious and anonymous as the world at the Birth of Creation. Even I who needless to say, have always loved a bargain (Buy 1 Get 1 Free? To be sure, but hell’s bells, why stop there? Why not Buy 1, Get 10 free!) I too, not just Jan, was dubious at the price, and the fact that this wine is a horse of another colour, being a Horse Without a Name. It had no remotely attractive competitors among the bottom shelf bargains, yet I confidently expected it to taste like urine if I were lucky, and some kind of astringent dentifrice if I were not. None of which of course is to touch on the delicate and so unHellenic matter of legality, Consumer Law (hah! poh poh! guffaw the Greeks) and all the rest of it. Wine without any label is on the lines of feck ye rocket fuel poteen made in the far back end of Co Mayo or Co Sligo, or even worse like that wood spirit alcohol distilled by penniless rural Indians who go blind and sometimes die as a result of their toxic concoctions.

I realise I’ve been late in stating the obvious, which is that the cut price pop tastes not just good but bloody delicious. The fact it has no label nor named source, in the hypothetical case of slow death and possible litigation, I have to admit disturbs me but little, if at all. But now sit back, relax and ponder the wondrously spartan economics and the chronological and historical context. The euro in 2017 is currently about UK 90p, meaning that this bargain wine is selling at less than a UK pound per standard 750ml. Without a struggle, I can nostalgically recall that when Annie and I first got married in 1979 and were living in decidedly clannish  and guarded  rural North Yorks, it was still possible to buy a 75cl bottle of very horrible red, white or rose called Concord (read Discord or Conglomeration of Caca) for precisely 99p. Fascinatingly it was the only wine then and now which could be purchased in special odd little mini-bottles, with flanged metal caps, and young teenage gals going out to a dance would tank up on a few of them to give them Dutch courage in the hope no doubt of reaching ‘concord’ with some nice N Yorks youth (bloody long shot there, lass, better stop in and watch back to back episodes of Corrie or Emmerdale). Reflect then, that 1979 was almost 40 years ago, and yet the paint-stripper Concord cost more than my gourmet plastic white does now…

Unfortunately, the best bargains are usually to be had in the most invidious circumstances, meaning when you travel abroad and find that everything is very cheap, it means the population there are impoverished and unhappy and that unemployment is likely to be the norm. Way back in 1973, when I was travelling in Nepal, then deemed the poorest country in the world, my budget hotel room (bare walls, squat toilet, gecko on the ceiling, no aircon, not a trace of wifi) in the capital Katmandu cost 4 Nepali rupees a night = 15 pence, even then a fairy tale bargain. Meanwhile, a modest B and B in the UK in the early 1970s might set you back all of £3, or 20 times as much. Later in Nepal, courtesy of a fearless, read impressively crazy Sikh driver, ascending the hairpin roads to Pokhara in the foot hills of the Himayalas, as the bus halted in a mountain village, a small boy standing outside held up a plastic bucket of guavas, the most delicious fruit in the world. I gave him 1 rupee thinking he’d offer me a modest bag , but instead through the window he passed the entire massive bucketful and I was able to feed the whole of the packed bus for the rest of the afternoon.

The very poorest country in Europe is beautiful and hospitable Albania, where my daughter Ione and I took a month-long trip in 2013. In the south is a patently deprived but friendly little town called Delvina, 20 kilometres from Saranda, the entry port for boats from Corfu. Albania is the world headquarters of a type of Sufi Islam called Bektashi, and Delvina is of great interest as nearby it has a beautiful very ancient mosque called Rusan that was built on the foundations of a Byzantine church. Also nearby is the lovingly restored Germahala Islamic Complex, which include a ruined madrassa and what look like Bektashi buildings similar to those at Rusan. Our peaceable middle aged taxi driver who looked even more a dyed in the wool West Cumbrian than most Albanian males do, meaning exactly like one of my Workington uncles when they also were 50, offered his exclusive services for 4 hours for a fee of £4. He told me staunchly as we had coffee near to the Germahala, that customers were few and far between, and I gave him a 50% tip and still felt I was robbing him. Later he took us back to Delvina’s only hotel, which a bit like my plastic white wine had no identification as such, no name plate, no anything to lure in any hopeful guests. Ione and I were the only customers of a place run by a kindly old lady who had had to be fetched by a friendly policeman to open up. We had an enormous room each, both of them with 4 beds, obviously intended for extended families with little resources. The cost was 3 euros or £2.70 per room, about what you would pay in the UK in 1975, or in nearby Greece in 1980. The only Illyrian bargain which effortlessly improves on that being the train ride from the capital Tirana, to the elegant and venerable town of Elbasan, which took 4 hours and cost 1 euro. That said, I know plenty of sniffy types who missing the chance to get to know the doughty Shiptars at large, would refuse to get on an Albanian train, given the pop-art/ shot-blast steel/ dun spatterdash state of the toilets which refuse to flush, and the entrancing slowness of the ancient locomotives. Tirana and Elbasan are 70 kilometres apart, meaning you are averaging about 10 miles an hour, and it would be feasible to jump on and off and do a bit of competitive jogging just to show your mettle.

I pointed out that enormous bargains are usually inversely proportionate to the prosperity of the host country. But there is a remarkable and frankly alarming exception now to be found in the new style package holidays in prosperous EU places like the Costa Brava or the more garish of the Algarve resorts. They are known as Free Bar Holidays and they are precisely, and in both senses, economically that. You land at your bustling resort hotel where all your meals are in the price, and now ingeniously you can also drink as much alcohol as you like, all week or all of your 2, 3 or 4 weeks. In the old days, you might get spoiled with free wine given that budget pop in Spain and Portugal usually goes for a song. But with your Free Bar in 2017 you can drink your gluttonous fill of the best imported beers, or brimming G and T, or pungent Captain Morgan Rum or aromatic Glenfiddich or Wild Turkey bourbon, or even luxurious psychedelic cocktails with umbrellas and glace cherries and Bonfire Night sparklers blazing away in your hilarious and occasionally incredulous mug. You can drink any or all of them all day every day until you are either sick, or you gasp and then alas expire, or decide that you would sooner stay in Mrs Miggs’ Guest House in Folkestone or Cromer or Morecambe, because although it pisses down every day in July at least you can remember what day it is and what your wife’s middle name is (Chastity? Temperance? Karen? Michelle?) and your own name and your address back home, and with a bit of luck even its postcode.


The next post will be on or before Tuesday 14th March


I always think people’s relationship to inanimate objects, and especially those related to their favourite habits, some of them obvious and hazardous addictions, is a fascinating and inadequately explored subject. Early in these pages I wrote about my mother (1915-1990) once hoping to eke out the family finances by taking in lodgers in our new and incredibly improved circumstances. As I explained then, she called them ‘guests’ and ranted at me if I used the vulgar l-word, nor was she keen on ‘boarders’ as both lodging house and boarding house, reasonably enough, suggested uproarious sailors, bawling drunks, steamy fornication and raucous brothels to her always hard and fast mind. In 1959 we had moved from our small West Cumbrian terrace to a capacious 7-bedroom sea captain’s mansion, on sale in the same ugly pit village for £1000, and from 1960 until the late 1970s dozens of the most colourful, delightful, obnoxious, sound as a pound, mad as a hatter, daft as a brush souls flapped their way through 5 of those 7 bedrooms. The other 2 were occupied by my parents and me, but they were far from stable fixtures and I changed bedroom at least 4 times a year, and indeed relished and subscribed to a change being as good as a rest, when it came to one’s cosy little bedchamber. In particular, I loved the attic bedrooms with their curious latched cubby-holes for storing junk, and better still their rickety hinged skylights, whence I would poke  my curious neb in order to survey the enormous recreation ground with the kids playing frantic soccer, and the railway line with its green diesels plying between Whitehaven and Carlisle, and, on summer nights, the radiant, sometimes mournful yet always magnetic Solway Firth below.

Each lodger, oops, tended to have their associated totemic objects which lodged (oops) in my memory and were the first items I visualised, were I to think of them in their absence. The friendly, bustling and elderly pan salesmen from Lancashire who stayed in the early 1960s all wore unstylish flat caps in loud and unaesthetic checks, and let’s say I glimpsed the simulacrum of their caps as they disgorged from their Transit van and poured hilariously into our backyard after a hard day’s peddling on the dog roughest estates of Workington and Maryport. As for Tommy the crinkle-haired pharmaceutical rep from Newcastle, happily married and with two small boys, he always had a burning fag on the go as his talisman, as well as his bad lad’s impudent grin, so that even my principled mother closed her eyes to his industrial scale womanising in the village. His Don Juan status might have been because his job gave him access to expensive imported condoms, the American Fourex that he generously gave to me as a free sample and which remarkably only covered the top 2 and a half inches of Oor Lad as Tommy amiably referred to his ever-foraging Geiger counter. In Tommy’s case, it was the fag and the grin were the kernel objects, not the Fourex, nor his crinkly hair, nor his vivid and attractive blue eyes. He was still lodging with my Mum in the early 70s and when he heard I was studying Sanskrit at Oxford, he affably referred to it as ‘Sanshit’, a jest which no doubt the hallowed sages of ancient India would have tolerantly smiled at rather than reproved.

By contrast little Mr Wisbech’s objects were empty Johnny Walker bottles, for he was both a well-paid manager and an alcoholic. Opening his wardrobe one day to dust inside, my mother came across a remarkable cache of clanking bottles, and was deeply shocked and she told us she felt strangely ice cold at the sight. In his early 60s, Wally Wisbech was short, skinny, breathy and polite, but his face was oddly mottled and blotched, a give-away sign my abstemious mother hadn’t spotted when he first moved in. Most of the guests opted for dinner, bed and breakfast, but Wally often skipped his meals with the excuse he’d eaten copiously at work. Instead he darted up to his bedroom retreat as soon as he got home, and presumably gargled himself senseless until he fell asleep in the small hours. But another manager from the same firm, a Londoner called Dennis Pike was also staying, and Pike confirmed that Wally did not even nibble a ham sandwich nor a packet of Rishy crisps at work, and piously indicated how though he himself enjoyed 6 pints of Guinness every night in the village pub, he Dennis would sooner walk through fire than touch the lethal hard stuff like old Wally. In the end and with again a strange and glacial feeling down her back my mother took a deep breath and asked Mr Wisbech to leave.

The dipsomaniac was replaced by an emaciated accountant in his late 30s called Alfred Hope. His hair was much gelled and he had a thin moustache and a halting and begrudging voice which croaked like a plaintive sheep rather than a phlegmatic accountant. He was so morose and so all-purpose accusatory in his mien, that his surname Hope seemed like a deliberate jest on the part of his parents, even though apropos progenitors he looked as if he had been born in an empty cabbage field without any need at all for conception. Hope tucked into his dinners alright, but then spent every evening in his room, where he did not indulge himself in alcohol, but instead he lounged and lazed and smoked. Alfred Hope was a hell of a smoker, and made use of at least 3 ashtrays and his incontinent puffing might perhaps have explained the knobbly meagreness of his frame. But the oddest thing about this bachelor accountant was the bizarre logistics of his cigarette consumption. Anyone else, even in the cigarette daft 1960s, smoked a pack at a time, and finished one before beginning another, but not Alf Hope. One day when he was at work my mother took me in to marvel at the sight, for there, arrayed on the chest of drawers, were 8 packs of Embassy Regal, all of them opened, and all of them partially and erratically consumed. I counted and saw that one had 19 fags left, one had 15, two had 10 apiece, three had 6, and the emptiest had 2, a pair of shy and grinning twins in their roomy little bedsit if we are to maintain the accommodation and hospitality motif.

My mother asked me, stumped (geddit): “What do you make of that? Why does he tackle his fag packets 8 at a time instead of 1 at a time? I’m a smoker myself, but dammit, I would never carry on like that like a flaming bee flitting from flower to flower.”

It was a strange sight alright, and I ruminated for a good 10 seconds. I was 13 years old in mid-1964, precociously interested in the psychological eccentricities of human behaviour, and so I said to her in all seriousness:

“Alfred Hope obviously has a slate missing. I think he genuinely believes they have minds of their own, the cigarettes inside the packets. In his odd fantasy, he thinks that they are worrying themselves sick that they will be the one to go down his neck next. So, he not only teases them and keeps them on tenterhooks whether one of his fags will be smoked before another and within the same pack: he even has them anxious about whether it will be their pack or the other 7! It’s called being manipulative and/or being power-crazy, and it’s consistent with his incredibly miserable face, don’t you think? It’s clearly the one and only kick he gets out life.”

My mother looked at me witheringly, as if I were 10 times crazier than the byzantine dysfunction I had just elaborated. She commented to the effect that Alfred Hope was like a spoiled child who had too many chocolate Selection Boxes at Christmas, so they picked up a Crunchie and took a lacklustre bite out it, then bored to tears, discarded it and went for a Flake, then a Fudge, then a Picnic, and so on an so forth.

I was impressed by her reasoning and I nodded a qualified agreement. Then I mused further.

“Do you think that’s why Alfie hasn’t got a girlfriend and isn’t married? He’s nearly 40, isn’t he? Maybe like with his fag packets he once took a lazy bite out of one girl and thought that was enough. Then a nibble at another woman and got bored with her, and he threw her away. Then a chunk out of a lass who he decided was too fat or too thin. Not that he’s anything to write home about, mind you, and…”

My mother puckered her face and told me I watched too many Wednesday Plays on TV, and that admittedly compelling drama about the psychiatrist (and he was another so and so, with his always burning fags!) played by Herbert Lom, The Human Jungle. The reason why no woman would ever bother with a man like skinny, sulky, cranky Alfred Hope the accountant was simple. No sane woman would want a man who darted about nibbling like a butterfly or more accurately like a moth at nearly 200 fags at a time, spread randomly over 8 flaming packets! It was as crazy as catching flies or talking to yourself, wasn’t it. No, Alfie Hope  with his weird bachelor habits, would be living on his tod in a guest house for the rest of his accountant’s days.

“You’re not going to throw him out, then?”

“No,” said my mother, after brisk judicial reflection. “He just a harmless nut and, no no, they’re as common as muck.”


1.The title of this post is taken from the writings of Donegal author, Peadar O’Donnell (1893-1987)..The full quote is ‘The great thing about the world is that it is full of people. Human nature is great stuff.’

If you haven’t read the excellent O’ Donnell try Adrigoole (1929) which you should be able to get via Amazon or abebooks. He was a Republican who did time in jail, and the novel is partly about the exploitation of Irish workers living in Ulster (of which Donegal is a geographical part) who migrated to Scotland to work as farm labourers.

2.Re guesthouses, if you want to read a really funny, touching and massively accomplished novel all about an odd family with even odder lodgers, get hold of Room for a Single Lady (1997) by the Irish writer, the late, great Clare Boylan (1948-2006). Clare (who I met once in Cumbria in 2000) died sadly young of ovarian cancer and anyone who hasn’t read her is in for a treat. Try also the hilarious and poignant Holy Pictures (1983).