CLEANLINESS IS NEXT TO GODLINESS

The next post will be on or before Wednesday May 10th 

CLEANLINESS IS NEXT TO GODLINESS

My shy and very gentle father Ian Murray (1915-1992) worked at the massive Bata shoe factory just outside Maryport, West Cumbria from 1948 to 1979 and in those 30 odd years cycling the 2 miles there and back (we never had a car) he clocked up about 30,000 miles or 2 and a half times the distance between Maryport and Melbourne, Australia, where one of my brothers has lived since 1966. He cycled there in all weathers and if he did morning shifts would be up at 5 in the pitch dark, and I often wonder what the hell he thought about on those thousands of miles of monotonous cycle rides (I suspect his 3 allotments and his darling hens). Because he did alternating shift work, that meant he was available as all-purpose domestic assistant to my overworked mother for all the mornings of one week, and for the afternoons of those following. My redoubtable mother Mollie Murray nee Renney (1915-1990) ran a guest house and if I was away at college as I was 1969-1973, that meant there were potentially 6 available bedrooms and anything up to 10 guests. Their beds needed changing every day and the rooms swept and the laundry done, and the only assistant was my Dad who did it willingly enough though not let it be stressed of his own unfettered volition. In a shamelessly patriarchal age my mother always wore the trousers and not in a shy or coy or devious way but blatantly and spectacularly so.

Thus, if ever I needed permission and/or money to do anything as a kid e.g. go on the bus to the annual Maryport fair, it was a waste of time asking my Dad who would simply refer me to my Mum as the fount of all authority. Her own Dad had been a chill and at times terrifying man, so it had obviously occurred to her to seek out the mildest and most bashful man in the world, in the form of the farmer’s son who thanks to his Dad’s improvidence, subsequently became a farm labourer, and last of all a factory hand. Once she found herself with 4 strapping sons (of which I am the youngest) she was one woman among 5 males and so she promptly decided she needed to exert herself even more against the fickle and treacherous and laughably childish gender. In the case of her boys, interestingly enough, she never expected any of us to do any household chores of any kind, and as we all ended up doing degrees and all save I took up posh jobs, the idea must have seemed ever more remote. Meanwhile my Dad was the one who would help her with changing the beds and shaking the mattresses and possibly, and I never understood why, moving the beds between different rooms (maybe she felt they needed a change of air as much as she did) and he was also deputised to do some cleaning though never to her satisfaction. She objected with remarkable vehemence to the fact he slyly skirted the essential matter of poking into the edges and corners when he was hoovering, which of course needs the substitution of one of those attachment things that either looks like a puppet’s head or a slanting and bladeless plastic razor.

What she would do then would be to rant at him with ever increasing fury and start a kind of ascendant opera aria about his pitiful fecklessness, which also extended to his inadequate washing up where the grease stains were still dazzlingly visible to all but him after he had been daydreaming at the sink. Fascinatingly enough, the only time I have seen anything similar to this marital haranguing is here in Kythnos where Marianna of the Glaros, a café now in crisis as I have recently described, would turn upon her husband Panos for his shortcomings when it came to ancillary support of the family business. Every day she would send him off 2 or 3 times on his motorbike to get café supplies from the supermarkets and every time he would have got it dramatically wrong according to her and brought back either something she didn’t want or that was ludicrously overpriced. Panos is a very hard man, a fanatical bodybuilder, and if anyone but Marianna had ranted at him in public he would have turned them inside out and suspended them from a lamp post. But he simply bowed his large majestic head with infinite meekness and gave in to the boss with the identical servility that I had seen in my father  in distant Cumbria 40 or 50 years ago.

Never having been expected to attempt any housework, my infantilism was expertly encouraged at Oxford where it was pampered single sex colleges in the 60s and 70s, and where in the first 2 years you were provided with a servant known as a scout who first of all woke you and then came back to clean your rooms and wash your pots. They were neither Boy nor Girl Scouts but men in their late 40s and older, and the women had to be at least 60 plus and decidedly uncomely lest the undergraduates took an erotic fancy to them and then Lord knows where the class divide would have fissured and ruptured. In the first year my scout was called Minnie, a cantankerous old Irishwoman from Co Offaly who would get drunk on occasions and bawl and sing in the quadrangle, usually ending in an incensed rant at the chap who was Domestic Bursar, a retired naval officer as it happened with a severe limp and a chronic history of nervous breakdowns, possibly occasioned by war trauma. Minnie muttering away to herself would wash my dishes and cups and hoover round, though as one of the minority of provincial grammar school lads and obviously not a toff, she took to my strong Cumbrian accent and confided all sorts to me, in particular her venomous slander about her enemy the Bursar who she always called They Had Me Feckin Real…whereas he was in fact a retired lieutenant.

Thus it was that when, aged 22, I took my first rented premises, a 3rd floor bedsit in Warnborough Road, North Oxford, owned by a florid and singsong Welshwoman with a huge mole who was called Daisy, and who always had her senile and behatted Mum in tow, I had absolutely nil experience of cleaning nor washing up nor any other kind of basic, advanced or intermediate housework. I spent a year in that bedsit and I liked it very much and regularly had guests staying overnight, including married friends from London who happily dossed on the floor, an item which I cannot remember ever cleaning. I have a flawless memory as a rule but I have no recall whatever of my sweeping the place much less hoovering it, nor in those glorious pre-Trip Advisor days, have I any hurtful memories of carping complaints from any of my friends. There was a communal and ancient hoover for the 6 rooms, but though it made plenty of noise and would seem to have been sucking rather than blowing, it failed to make any impression on the fluff and grit but rather sent it on a gleeful cross country run. There must have been a brush and pan but I cannot visualise it, not as vividly as I can the only cooking facility which was a kind of night watchman’s gas ring which could take a single pan and in which now and again I would warm up a Vesta curry in a bag and then swiftly wish I hadn’t. Bizarrely I was quite wealthy in that last year at Oxford, as I had been left a lordly inheritance of £1000, so that I tended to eat out a great deal and also to get frequent Chinese carry outs, invariably the same thing, sweet and sour pork with rice at 38 pence in 1973, a sum which these days wouldn’t even buy you a Mars Bar or a Crunchie.

Anyone who did Physics at school will recall the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, which states that all systems including Mother Nature tend towards maximum randomness or shall we say maximum diffuseness or shall we say more aptly that everything  everywhere is always breaking down and going happily to pieces rather than soldiering on uptightly to make itself cohere and to make sense. Needless to add I love the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, and I also love the single word that describes its inner aka teleological goal. The word is Entropy and all systems, God bless them, are seeking Maximum Entropy as indeed I myself am for much of the time. When I sunbathe on Martinakia beach, I find myself tending to a maximum benign diffuseness, just as when I listen to Handel’s opera Tamburlaine or to jazzman John Abercrombie finding a depth of entropic tenderness in his guitar playing which on paper should be quite impossible as the coefficients at stake are clearly of the infinite kind. Other folk go on Advanced Meditation Courses that cost a bloody fortune, but I find deep entropic relaxation in beautiful music or idling on a deserted beach or alternatively for the price of 2 euros I can consume a Fix beer outside the Paradisos café and find myself wonderfully hanging loose, waxing entropic and entirely without a care in the effing world.

So what has this, you might reasonably wonder, got to do with housework and especially the crucial business of cleaning? The answer is that a System known as a House/ Flat/ Bedsit is as subject to the Law of Entropy as you or I or Donald Trump (especially him and his ever-tweeting and needlesharp brain) or anything else. You might not like the fact, but your kitchen and dining room definitely have souls of a kind (call it an ITD, an inner teleological drift if you are an atheist) and their souls love to tend in the direction of randomness, clutteredness, dustiness. It is not I hasten to add that I am urging you stop of all cleaning and sweeping in submission to a greater force than yourself, namely Nature, namely also The Law of Entropy, but that you strive to get the thing in a human and above all an adult perspective. In my time, I have met people who not just keep their house immaculate, but turn into fiends and fanatics and bit players in a decidedly humourless farce, if we are to keep up the alliteration. One couple I knew were so proud of their new and costly carpet that when visitors came round they were given special slippers so as not to besmirch the virgin idol. You can imagine how relaxing their dinner parties were when if you also leant your head against their gorgeous new sofa, one or both of them would shriek at you to withdraw it in case you transferred notional grease upon it (I promise you that I have always regularly washed my hair, and have never ever, not even when drunk, worn hair gel). Likewise one of the funniest things in that fine and entertaining radio drama Under Milkwood  (1954) by boozing Celtic poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) is the lunatic of a houseproud widow, Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, who actually resents the treacherous sunshine stealing into her guest house, and thus both showing up any possible nefarious dust and also, as she perceives it, producing the same thing ex nihilo in the form of those floating motes we have all observed in our idle moments. More to the point like something out of Beckett or the French Absurdists, the zealous widow refuses to take any guests into her empty guest house as they would make the place so noxiously dirty.

So then, there are 3 crucial reference points when it comes to domestic cleanliness. There is the Immaculate House (and while we’re at it, the only other time we choose to talk about things being immaculate is in the case of The Immaculate Virgin Mary…and hence the Cleanliness is Godliness adage). At the disgraceful opposite end is the squalid or dirty or filthy Slum of a House which speaks for itself in the sense of being dusty, mucky and appallingly cluttered. Midway is what can conveniently be called the Cosy House and which is usually clean and tidy, albeit possibly cluttered, but most definitely looks as if happily lived in. This last one is obviously the ideal, for even the anally retentive, fanatically houseproud types will regularly congratulate their hosts if they maintain somewhere that is tidy but also homely and which allows them for the first time in their steaming puff to feel completely relaxed. They will even occasionally let slip that they would like to be a little less rigid themselves and that tonight is sheer therapy where they can say fuck you to the obligatory slippers and then let their carefree heads rub into this cosy old sofa and pollute it as much as they effing well like…

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THE COMIC GENIUS, KAREN DUNBAR

The next post will appear on or before Monday 1st May

THE COMIC GENIUS, KAREN DUNBAR

Have you ever seen your granny making water/ Down by the auld mill stream?/ She pisses for an hour and a quarter/ And you canna see her arse for the steam…

Thus gleefully croons Auld Betty the Slapper, aka Karen Dunbar (born April Fool’s Day, 1971) in the First Series of that monumental Scottish BBC comedy Chewin The Fat (1999-2002), which also hosted 2 other huge and anarchically inventive talents in the shape of Ford Kiernan (born 1962) and Greg Hemphill (born 1969). Betty is an octogenarian working class Glaswegian living in a residential home who is being interviewed by TV man Hemphill about her heartening memories of that touching wartime camaraderie, of everyone joyously and patriotically pulling together during WW2. Betty in her youth was pulling joyously alright, but not in the cosy anecdotal sense. With her husband away fighting, Betty’s memories are simply a string of unedited carnal encounters she had with the likes of rich American GI’s or dog rough rag and bone men, or the butcher’s lad (wat a size, yer cuid have hung a duffel coat on it!). She also when times were hard had gone in the back of Cochrane’s grocer’s (well named) and drapped ’em in exchange for… cheese. To make things worse, when being interviewed, she always has her legs wide apart and all her old lady’s underwear on shameless display. At one point, direly exasperated Hemphill asks her if she has any memories other than these unbroadcastable sexual ones, to which she sweetly replies:

‘Oh aye…I mean ah well…no…’

For all its current metropolitan sophistication Glasgow is a hard town with a hard history, and with even now a relatively low life expectancy consistent with poor diets, high smoking rates and chronic lack of exercise. This partly explains why Scots TV comedy is always visibly and angrily on the edge and rawly unsentimental about the worm’s eye view of life as best exemplified in that eloquent and mordantly cynical layabout Rab C Nesbitt (66 TV episodes between 1988-2014) aka Langholm born Gregor Fisher (born 1953). It is impossible to imagine an English comic equivalent of Nesbitt, the nearest perhaps being the historical shock value of Steptoe and Son when it first appeared in the early 1960s, for it showed the tin bath and outside bog poverty of a father and son rag and bone business, and for the first time ever treated us to what was their real and unedited language (git, bleeder, ponce, khasi etc). Karen Dunbar herself has had a severe education in the realities of life, for she is a gay woman who has suffered what she calls horrendous homophobia in her time. Raised in Ayr, in 1991 she discovered her cat killed and dumped in a plastic bag in her garden with a note saying ‘fucking Lesbian!’. She moved to Glasgow in 1992 and although most of her comedy work has been in the city she has also acted to great acclaim in serious drama such as the all-female Henry IV in the Donmar Warehouse, London and, unenviably buried up to her waist, as Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s 1961 drama Happy Days . The four BBC Scotland series of Chewin the Fat were eventually broadcast nationally, and are relatively easily available on DVD, but her award-winning follow up The Karen Dunbar Show which also saw four series between 2003 and 2006 and was only ever seen in Scotland, is only to be viewed on DVD as the edited highlights of Series 1. Apparently it is down to music copyright complications but it seems to me a serious crime that someone as hugely gifted as Dunbar is nowhere near as accessible as infinitely lesser fry, meaning most of the Perrier Award stand-ups who of whatever gender have as much capacity to evoke belly-splitting comedy as they have of understanding Mediaeval Mandarin Chinese.

Part of Dunbar’s charisma is her infinitely mobile and elastic face, a frequent sign of a truly great comic though not an infallible one (Peter Kay, born 1973, does not pull faces but Phoenix Nights set in a crazy Lancashire working folks club, is nonetheless the work of a fanatically inventive genius). Dunbar is an outstandingly handsome woman who regularly portrays not just the plain but the monstrously plug ugly female (qv the world’s top rank tennis player, the Russian Pugga Uglovich, who has an appalling squint and a hairstyle and complexion that would frighten a blind man and/ or a drunk). She is also a fine mimic with an excellent range of accents suited to the linguistic density and subtlety of her sketches. Thus, Miss Gourlay the prudish spinster science teacher, a Teuchter from the Highlands or just possibly an Aberdonian, has a wonderfully hiccupping peristaltic voice as she chastises the cheeky kids for asking her saucy questions about reproduction or teasing her about the fact she fancies the young guest speaker policeman. It is all bloody funny though the reality of all the poor Miss Gourlays of this world, this example being one of Dunbar’s own teachers, is of course a melancholy one. Ditto the desperately lonely and dowdy shopkeeper from Chewin The Fat, who does her best simply to find some basic human contact, much less any romance, with all these come and go customers she envies with their girlfriends, boyfriends, children or pet dogs. She tells them candidly she is stuck there on her own day in and day out, and regularly suggests they come on back to her place for an individual fruit trifle, a cup of tea and a chinwag, whereupon they gulp in panic and flee. One truly virtuoso sketch has her chatting to a bemused young woman buying sanitary towels who to her amazement discovers that the shopkeeper with nothing better to do, has been keeping chronological tabs on her menstrual cycle. And no not just hers, and she gasps when this frighteningly desperate and relentless crackpot pulls out a huge graph she has constructed of 4 of her customers and their respective menstrual cycles.

So we have all these nuanced comic portrayals of emotionally and sexually-starved females, but we also have the antitheses of women without any sexual inhibition whatever, in Auld Betty’s case of one who is old and past it and with only her memories to feed on. Otherwise in the Dunbar Show  there is Assita, supposedly a Colombian, who sings songs about her wonderfully gorgeous and world class backside, sinuously waggling it and stroking her tight leather trousers to confirm its perfection.

Arse arse, my beautiful arse

Such a beautiful arse I’ve got!

I bet you wish you had a lovely arse like mine

Look at my arse, look at my arse!

 Two, no three things, are fascinating about this zestful and strangely innocent exhibitionism. The first one is that on screen it says Assita is the Portuguese word for ‘2 small pigs in a bag’ aka the Colombian’s matchless and magnetic behind (though NB to the scriptwriters, they don’t speak Portuguese in Colombia). The second thing is that Dunbar as gay and as Assita here, would seem to be erotically exciting the men of this world, but for all we know she is intentionally teasing gay women as well. The third thing is that typically showbiz women who strut their posterior stuff, with the possible exception of Madonna who also wrote a riotous song about her glamorous backside and her penchant for spanking (Hanky Panky) tend on the whole to do it discreetly rather than in your face (so to speak) and yet very obviously if deviously they are straining for the same voyeurish effect as the comedian Dunbar. There are similar taboo-breaking motifs in the same show, as when, in bed with her timid boyfriend, Dunbar makes serial attempts at a 5-star orgasm. On the fourth she succeeds but with her hair awry and her nose visibly bleeding which more or less conveys that the climax is a full blooded one. Near the knuckle is likewise a meaningless index when we consider the famously outrageous skit on Chewin The Fat of 2 little boys approaching Dunbar in her ice cream van with a bizarre request. The little one whispers something into the other’s ear who then translates for Dunbar:

‘He wants to have a swatch(look) at your fanny(pussy).’

Instead of being disgusted and bawling them out, Dunbar subverts all expectations by having her character lift her skirt and letting the boys see all. Hours later it has turned to dusk and the 2 kids are still there, their mouths open with shock and their ice creams still melting. Another repetitive sketch that both reverses the stereotypes and demonstrates another kind of sexual harassment (the other had small boys as the unusual culprits) has Dunbar as an office manager with a difference called Gretta. Neatly clad in black and with long black hair, Gretta also sports a luxuriant black moustache with which she torments her unfortunate underlings played by Chewin the Fat regulars Paul Riley and Mark Cox. She rubs her voluptuous tash tauntingly against Riley’s mortified head and has him anxiously begging to get on with his work, an instructive and original inversion of the typically groping male boss tormenting the women under his charge.

Parenthetically, one of Dunbar’s extraordinary talents (and the same is true of Ford Kiernan and Greg Hempsey) is the sheer richness of elaborated comic detail in the dialogue. Lesser comics would go half way with their embellishments, but Dunbar in a masterly Auld Betty sketch evokes the vivid and hyperbolic detail of a comic novelist. Betty is being visited in her care home by an American called Titus (Ford Kiernan) who has been doing genealogical research, and claims to be her grandson. Betty had last seen his Mum, her daughter, in the 1960s before she emigrated to the States, and she has to tell Titus she is not at all sure who his Grandad might be. Her husband once back from the War was no use to anyone, lying on his back debauched and gabbling about French ‘whooers’. He was also sexually incapable and no more use to her than a wet and empty Smarties tube. Thus, she had teamed up with (among numerous others) rag and bone man Tinker McClusker who had customarily put himself around to ‘itchy wives’ and lonely widows. He was nothing to look at, son, what with only the one eye, most of his teeth missing because of the pyorrhoea, and on a dark night you might easily mistake him for his horse. Frankly as a comic novelist I gaze in envy at Dunbar for her impressive facility with all this grotesque and truly literary detail.

It is also interesting that as a gay woman so much of Dunbar’s comedy features straight women in outwardly calm if impassioned scenarios which often feature extreme emotional disappointment. In the Dunbar Show, there is the decent young woman dressed in her blameless suit waiting in some forlorn small Scots town to meet her latest presumably internet date, each of which is always very late and turns out to be horrendously worse than the last. One complains that it took ages to bury his recently deceased wife; another that he always visits an old woman on Tuesday and had terrible trouble getting an erection; another that he had just been drowning puppies, and the last one was delayed because it took him ages to put his nappy on. Meanwhile anyone who has ever tried internet dating might dourly confirm that this remarkable medley of grotesque  and incredible eccentrics is not quite so caricatural as you might assume.

Otherwise Dunbar like many great comics has an admirable penchant for the bawdy, the Rabelaisian, and the exaggeratedly violent, often with a lethal outcome. The last is exemplified by a welcome send up of the appalling Anne Robinson (born 1944) the basilisk real life quiz mistress who has made her name through being pointlessly unpleasant to her TV contestants. Dunbar demonstrates the East European equivalent where she is a merciless quiz mistress in Slovikistan, and where you know you’re somewhere where they speak Russian, as all words end in -vich (‘answerovich’ and ‘questionovich’). The questions are a piece of cake (where is the Eiffel Tower?) but the beaver-hatted or headscarved peasants are all alas pig ignorant (I would say Tokyo?). Instead of being frosted to immobility by Robinson, those giving wrong answers are swiftly executed by a smirking Dunbar variously using a pistol, a blow dart, an open trap door and a razor sharp sword. As for the Rabelaisian, she along with another female comic of enormous gifts, Morwenna Banks (born 1961, and see her eponymous Channel 5 show) has broken another farcical taboo by making shameless jokes out of women noisily farting. In the Dunbar Show, two office workers are in the toilets washing their hands when a third woman they do not care for enters a cubicle. They pretend to go out, but sneak back to enjoy the arrival’s astonishing contrapuntal explosions whereupon they double up with laughter and the victim rants at them from within. Ditto where Dunbar sat in her GP’s surgery and waiting to see him, starts fiddling and fooling about with his stethoscope, finally sticking it down the back of her pants, flexing her guts and loudly voiding afflatus. As for her priceless bawdiness, in Chewin the Fat Dunbar plays the proud Mum of a sulky 15-year-old son who is stood there while she is pegging out the washing. When a woman neighbour comes out and compliments her on all that laundry and her handsome son, Dunbar cannot help but boast that her lad certainly needs her as washing lady these days, as he has just reached the age where he has started to masturbate. Cue the mortification of the speechless boy and a sudden gaggle of surrounding neighboursall  cooing approvingly:

‘Oh, that’s lovely. Masturbating eh? Oh, my that’s lovely!’

Postscript

Dunbar’s website tells us that she has been hailed as Scotland’s finest female comic. I would go further than that, and say she is the whole of Great Britain’s finest female comic, and for at least the last 100 years.

WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU HAD £30 MILLION?

The next post will be on or before Saturday 29th April

WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU HAD £30 MILLION?

Years ago I was reading a book by a psychotherapist, where he said that he sometimes asked his clients to jot down what they would like to be written on their epitaphs/obituaries by those who knew them, once they had snuffed it and departed to another realm that is. Hopefully he meant such comments to be penned by their sympathetic friends rather than their unrestrained enemies (‘tight bastard, no sense of humour, ugly as sin, never liked him’) but obviously it is a good way for the therapist to assess what kind of integral self-worth a person might or might not have, and how they imagine other people see them…and possibly how much sunny wishful thinking is at stake (‘she’s the most profound person I’ve ever met, a true and touching polymath, incredibly resourceful in bed, almost as much as me in fact, and a dazzling DIY woman to boot’). Always game as they say, I took 5 minutes and tried this exercise myself and after discarding what my putative enemies might slanderously write about me, I realised that my good friends back in West Cumbria (I last lived there 1983-1987) and North Cumbria (1987-2013) far from saluting my hard-won literary achievements, would probably go on exclusively about the sumptuous meals I had regularly regaled them with. I taught myself to cook some 40 years ago and became ever more ambitious as an ethnic vegetarian chef, so whenever Annie and I had friends round I would always push the boat out, and take all day to prepare a banquet. I doubted my epitaph would have anything on it about any hilariously funny comic novels, for my dear pals would probably have forgotten all of their plots and even their titles (Jazz And Such and Such, Wassacallit’s Favourite Wotsit). On the other hand, there might well be passionate and salivating comments on the Armenian stuffed courgettes, Bahrein pearl divers’ pilau and Egyptian cauliflower in tahina that their taste buds still could savour from somewhere around 1986 in Cleator Moor down west, or Iranian apple dolmas, Azeri ginger and sesame pilau, and Greek whole leeks stewed in coriander seeds and red wine that they had guzzled down in a rapture in North Cumbria back in 1995.

Apropos illuminating imaginative exercises, these days I am doing some one to one teaching of English to local Kythniots, as well as continuing to teach fiction to anglophone writers who come here specially for that purpose. The Greeks learning English, whatever their level, need practice in conversation, and so as not to make it too tedious and vapid a chore, I sometimes set them amiable conversational tasks such as:

-Describe your perfect day. You have a day off work, you have 1000 euros pocket money, and you can be anywhere in the world, on your own, and free of family. How would you spend your day ideally?

 -You are given 30 million euros tomorrow to do with exactly as you please. How would you set about spending it?

 Kostas the bearded and cheerful 30-year old waiter who hails from Athens and wants to improve his English to help him with the tourists in summer, is what would be called a very steady lad back in England. Even though he has no current girlfriend, women obviously like his company as he is always to be seen smiling sagely and sipping coffee with the best looking of the bank workers, nurses, port policewomen and so on. Once in a blue moon he goes out on a boozing razzle with the lads, but most of his free evenings he restricts himself to a sober maximum of two beers in his favourite upmarket bar at the top of the bay. I asked him as part of our conversation practice how many beers he would drink if it was his birthday or Name Day or his stag night and he was out with the boys on the bottle. I expected him to say a dozen or even 20 at the very least, but this thoughtful and circumspect waiter hesitated for only a moment before saying:

‘Three…’

A fifty per cent increase in his bacchanalian exertions, so reasonable enough perhaps? I tell you this only because when asked to confide what he would do with his 30 million, he first of all looked wise and also rather furtive and declared that he would stash most of it in the bank immediateley. Bizarrely he wouldn’t give up his waiter’s job in Kythnos even though as you can imagine with inclusive bed and board it does not provide him with any luxuries, and even many of the staples as sold in extortionate Greek island supermarkets. Like all decent young men, he would give a ton of his fortune to his Mum and Dad, and also buy himself a luxury 2nd home pad in Vouliagmeni, a smart Athenian seaside annexe past Glyfada (where the old airport used to be) and also where Barack Obama was to seen in cavalcade driving through the cordoned off streets at the end of last year). Vouliagmeni is home to some of the wealthiest Greeks, and they have sumptuous 6 bedroom villas with exquisite garden sculptures and an enormous pool and all the rest. Kostas revealed that he only wanted 2 bedrooms, and saw no point in frittering his dosh away on a swimming pool when the bloody sea was only 10 yards away. He would buy 2 huge Harley Davidson motorbikes though (to keep each other company and ward off vehicular loneliness?) and I wondered if he would rev them up vengefully to disturb the hitherto well barricaded ship owner magnates living next door.  The modesty of only 2 bedrooms confounded me though and I could only assume one would be for him and his hoped for girlfriend and the other for his visiting Mum and Dad, for it ever there was a doting family lad it was filial and ever modest Kostas.

I now have to admit that the Describe Your Perfect Day exercise was not my own idea but filched from the wonderful and extremely venerable London Magazine (1732-to the present), not the current pallid version, but the matchless one under the editorship of the poet Alan Ross (1922-2001). Under Ross the LM used to be the only place in the world that would take a piece about obscure foreign writers (in my case I wrote about Egyptian Albert Cossery and Vaudoise Swiss, CF Ramuz). It was also where Ross very occasionally did an unpretentious literary interview with short and succinctly to the point questions, which believe you me are glaringly thin on the ground these days, given that much of the time they turn into smirking hagiographies with the simpering interviewer basking in the reflected glory of the genius holding forth. One of his questions to poet, railways fan, and grand old man of letters John Betjeman (1906-1984) was then, how would he spend his ideal day. Betjeman started off by saying he would like a whole afternoon in a 2nd hand bookshop, and this is where I step neatly into the frame with my own idea of my favourite day.

Instead of dallying in say palmy Dagenham or salubrious Auchtermuchty, I would choose to stay in Thiseio, the loveliest part of Athens, in that very central small hotel with superb views of the Parthenon and Acropolis. There all the welcoming  and unfussy staff are nice and young, late teens to early 30s, no grouching and scowling old buggers which I can assure you makes all the difference, even making the air around you as you sit there in the lounge, visibly lighter. They offer a tantalising cooked breakfast with e.g. quality non-aqueous non-snotty scrambled egg, and with first class coffee and fresh fruit, and they even have a hypnotising machine that guzzles up oranges and turns them into fresh juice. Thence, well stuffed to the gills, I would depart and walk past all the umpteen craft stalls with competitively priced and beautiful jewellery, as well as stamp and coin stalls and their sombre owners, and with half a dozen motley street dogs, mostly huge ones, hanging around as respected adjutants and mascots, and who look as if, should you ask them the price of things, they would definitely growl you the answer.

After purchasing Ione and Jan the most splendid silver ear rings, I would move on down to Ermou, and on a variation of John Betjeman spend an entire morning trailing the many 2nd hand bookshops for their considerable and fascinatingly haphazard English stock. Peckish by then I would drop into the spacious Indian restaurant where I would have my regular of a massive vegetable thali tray and a couple of glasses of Thealos Tis Yi, the finest red wine in the universe and yes indubitably and astoundingly it is Greek. Staggering forth with bursting embonpoint,  I would spend the entire afternoon in Monastiraki, much of it in that colossal and remarkable used CD, cassette and vinyl emporium, strong on jazz, blues, rock and world music,  and with boxes of new and  bargain classical CDs (6 for 5 euros. Now that’s what I call a bargain, not least because there is bugger all else you can buy in Greece for 83 cents). Further down there is an excellent art shop sells vintage posters of old Greek ads for Coca Cola, Greek coffee, retsina, ouzo etc. Many of them are highly suggestive and saucy, albeit innocent 1920s style, and like all who relish the risque seaside postcards of Donald McGill (1875-1962), that suits me down to the ground. By then it would be about 6pm, meaning an early dinner would be in order and only one perfect place would do me on my perfect day. Back to the same Indian restaurant then, with the same gigantic and flavoursome thali and the same Thealos Tis Yi and I forgot to mention the really beautiful young Greek waitress lassies who add a singular and alluring non-culinary savour to the whole experience.

Deep down you see for all I regularly abominate and mock my native county, I am alas an unconscionable echt West Cumbrian through and through. The most accurate definition, being that they like doing the same pleasurable thing over and over again, and without the slightest variation.

UP YOURS

The next post will be on or before Sunday, 30th April

UP YOURS

Up your bum! Cock off! (16 year old Lynda Mansell on ‘Wish You Were Here’)

If ever you get down in the dumps for whatever reason (thwarted love, no money, thwarted success, not enough sun, not enough sex) I would recommend you get hold of the superb 1987 UK film comedy Wish You Were Here, which is that ideal combination of wild farce, comic pathos and at times yearningly nostalgic sadness. It was directed by David Leland (born 1947) and the lead roles, young Lynda and middle aged lush Eric, are taken by the beautiful fair haired Emily Lloyd who was an undoubted comic genius of a 16-year-old actress then, and that veteran master of sinister roles Tom Bell (1933-2006). Bell’s acting as the creepy and limping film projectionist Eric slimily fixated on teenager Lynda, is his finest ever, the second finest being his role as the whining father Walter Morel in DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers as adapted for BBC TV in 1981…albeit he is best known as the sexist detective pitted against his boss Helen Mirren in that vastly overrated serial killer blockbuster TV series Prime Suspect.

Lynda is the outrageous and uncontrollable teenage daughter of her widowed Dad, a gents’ hairdresser called Hubert, perfectly portrayed as part decent man while also a ferociously respectable if always boozing Freemason by Geoffrey Hutchings (1939-2010). It is set in a post war English East coast resort, when couples necked all evening in the cinema, the movies were often Betty Grable and Margaret Lockwood weepies, and fish and chips and flagrant sexism were the satisfactory norms. Hubert returns from the Navy just after the War to be met by his wife and 2 daughters, the younger one Margaret played at different ages by 2 of director’ Leland’s children, and 11-year-old Lynda who is encountered comically incognito in an enormous gas mask, and when urged to unmask and kiss her old Dad asks him shrewdly if he has brought any presents. A few days later Hubert is silkily boasting to his married chums, the husband being an overweight bus office manager, about once doing a perm hairstyle for wartime singer idol Gracie Fields (1898-1979) and he has an autograph and a lock of her illustrious hair to prove it. Bored senseless by this rigmarole, Lynda in her best party dress turns to goody good and treacherous baby sister Margaret (later she becomes a devout Girl Guide and later still wishes to join the army) and utters the film’s hilarious and arguably lewd and oft repeated watchword, Up Your Bum. The sister snitches on her and she is sternly sent up to her room by Hubert who is especially sensitive to bad language. When her Mum comes up to comfort her the sniffing 11-year-old snaps that she wishes he had stayed in the bloody Navy with his Gracie bloody Fields. This poignant brooding with the light off in the upstairs bedroom is an oft repeated motif as Lynda grows up and discovers the world of sex, both the healthy and extremely unhealthy kinds, and the conflict between her and Hubert exponentially soars.

Lynda’s amorous experience starts with her as cheeky trainee female hairdresser who fancies one of the young male stylists and is galled by his fancying the wimpish girl she is currently doing a promotional freebie on. She puts the squeaky voiced rival under a roasting dryer and leaves her there an interminable time until her hair is fried to a crisp and she is promptly sacked. Later cycling jauntily along the seafront she invites a gawky young lad to take her to the cinema and lifts her skirt to reveal a great deal as she teasingly chats with him. Once in the pictures she is stricken with one of her periodic fits of wailing sadness as she watches the melodramatic weepie, and the gawky lad misinterprets this as dislike of his cinema cuddles.  At this stage Hubert finds his daughter so untameable he takes her to see a psychiatrist in a dismal mental hospital peopled by the jabberingly senile and demented. There she is twitted by a mad-looking shrink with a spring mattress hairdo, played wonderfully by the poet and political activist Heathcote Williams (born 1939). The shrink tries to get her to say as many swearwords as possible by working through the alphabet and then conveying to him her feelings of possible guilt, pleasure and so on. The subsequent lightning fast  parade through the rude alphabet is a masterpiece of comic cinema, especially when Lynda pretends she knows not a single word starting with either ‘c’ or ‘f’, and when the exhausted shrink eggs her on to say them, she addresses him with:

“You dirty bugger!”

Disgusted by her juvenile cinema boyfriend, Lynda’s next job working in the bus depot introduces her to handsome conductor Dave, played by talented Jesse Birdsall (born 1963) later to be seen in the not unexecrable UK soaps Eldorado and Hollyoaks. He takes her ballroom dancing and then to his grandmum’s house, happily deserted as the old lady is away a few days in chaste Tunbridge Wells. Before she loses her virginity, Dave struts about the bedroom aping a posh Noel Coward flaneur, smoking du Maurier from an upraised cigarette holder and sporting a condom put on in advance in the bathroom. Prior to this Lynda in her ignorance asks if he is supposed to swallow them like a pill to make them effective. Throughout their first sex she giggles hilariously, though neither of them are chuckling when his nosy uncle turns up early next morning with his fox terries and Lynda has to hide under the bed. The dog sniffs her out, and also seizes on a discarded condom which it takes down onto the street and begins to devour with chomping relish. Immediately afterwards their promising liaison is abruptly curtailed when Hubert apprised of their overnight dalliance confronts Dave in the bus depot and the young man feebly complies. Lynda by now working in a chip van, gets her revenge by coming to the depot and rubbing a vast quantity of greasy fish and chips across his head.

She is perforce on the chip van having been booted out of the bus depot, after standing one day on a table and gleefully raising her skirt to parade her underwear to a roomful of hilarious drivers and conductors. Her next liaison takes her into dangerous and unsavoury territory when her Dad’s pal Eric the projectionist who has been creepily sleuthing her in the cinema and outside Dave’s grandma’s place finds her alone in Hubert’s house. He snorts and twits her as a cheeky and embarrassing bugger whose Dad wants to get rid of her as soon as he can, meanwhile like the worst of 2 faced villains embracing her pantingly and lewdly. Tom Bell’s acting here with his ugly sexual excitement and the way he parrots her every sentence is a masterclass in the portrayal of a disgusting if pathetic middle aged predator. At that point, Hubert arrives home to interrupt things, and as she sees Eric to the door she taunts him as a stinky finger and also admonishes him with the unusual injunction Cock Off, sister insult to Up Your Bum. Soon after she likewise orders Hubert to cock off when he tries to get her to babysit the sister while he goes to the Masons, and then instructs the gawky sister ditto. However, she is affected, possibly flattered by Eric’s advances and wishing to know far more about the exciting world of sex, decides to encourage him. She arranges a meeting inside the woodshed at the bottom of the garden and while waiting for Eric, clad in her nightie and bored, she commences a mad opera entitled ‘Up Your Bum’. Dancing all round the garden she deafeningly hallooes, Up Your BUM. Up YOUR bum. UP your BUUUUUUUM! A testy neighbour understandably pokes her head out of the upstairs window and asks what the hell is going on whereupon Lynda claims she is only looking for her cat, then bends to reveal her beaming bare behind.

Eric’s naked backside is also on public display on their first attempt at making love in a woodshed. A sedulous young policeman with a flashlight interrupts them and politely apologises, for the gate had been open and he thought they might be intruders. Afterwards Eric who always sports hideous white aertex underpants, refuses to use a condom, fatuously boasting he is an expert and will ensure she doesn’t get pregnant. He adds that he is an unrivalled bare back rider, as counterpoint to which a day later in the British Legion he and the fat depot manager are doing a drunken performance of the Mule Rider song, good old Eric bashing himself on the head zestfully with a tin tray. Lauded with plaudits from Hubert and friends, he goes round kissing every single female there, including juvenile Lynda, who of course he has just had sex with in a shed. The parable is clear enough. Apropos this family embarrassment called Lynda, her Dad is all sniffy respectability but classically blind to what is going on under his nose with a best pal who anyone, even in the pig ignorant 1940s would have detected as an amoral crook. Predictably enough Lynda gets pregnant, considers and finally turns away from an abortion, then decamps with her suitcase to Eric’s pigsty of a bachelor bedsit above the creaky seafront cinema. She is wretched and weeping in her infinite loneliness and his notion of comforting her is to ferretingly take her clothes off and have his way regardless.

A fine and wonderfully comic scene follows, when Lynda takes a job as a waitress in the poshest teashop in town, replete with Palm Court pianist and genteel old ladies whispering coyly as they nibble their finger biscuits. By now she has abandoned Eric so that he follows her to the teashop where she rebuffs him loudly and fills him with terror. Later her father twitching like a frog with dismayed self-righteousness comes there to confront her over her shameful pregnancy. She begs him to shut up or she’ll lose her job, the last thing she needs at this stage, but Hubert cannot be stopped and he embarks on a litany of her all crimes and the awful humiliations he has had to endure because of her. He stands up to make a public castigation, indeed to publicly disown her, whereupon Lynda urges him to cock off and leaps on a table to do a reprise of the bus depot performance. This time she informs the sweet old ladies that she is pregnant as she has had a man’s willy inside of her, and guess what, she liked having it inside her, and it was great. How about them, the old ladies, did they like having willies inside them? Meanwhile the impeccable head waiter with a bone structure oddly like a chisel faced Nazi, goes round grovelling to all the customers and mortified Hubert shoots up to announce that by way of apology, there are teas for all at his expense.

The finale of this hilarious yet harrowing film is affectingly positive and heartening. After Lynda has decamped to another seaside town her aunty comes to counsel her and give her the money for an abortion. She takes the money but with a resolute face runs away from the abortionist’s posh villa a second time. The scene cuts to see her arriving at the old bus depot beautifully dressed and radiantly handsome to a fault. She alights from the bus and puts her lovely baby in the pram and pushes it victoriously past the gawky cinema date, past open mouthed Eric, the obese bus depot man and everyone else, cheerfully proclaiming:

‘Yes, it’s mine!’

Postscript

-Director David Leland also wrote the script for Personal Services (1986) directed by Monty Python man Terry Jones and starring Julie Walters as real life Cynthia Payne, the notorious and unrepentant UK brothel owner who catered for elderly men who were into S and M.  Wish You Were Here was likewise loosely based on Payne’s teenage years, the prequel so to speak.

-Emily Lloyd who at the age of 16 brilliantly portrayed Lynda, was sexually abused by a family friend at the age of 5. Sadly, since 1992, she has been troubled with serious mental health problems, and has been diagnosed as borderline schizophrenic as well as having Tourette’s Syndrome and Attention Deficit Disorder.

HOW TO GO DOWNHILL

The next post will be on or before Friday, April 28th

HOW TO GO DOWNHILL

‘Because neither Kit nor Port had ever lived a life of any kind of regularity, they had both made the fatal error of coming hazily to regard time as non-existent’

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (1949)

The 1990 movie The Sheltering Sky directed by the celebrated Bernardo Bertolucci (born 1940) and based on the eponymous novel by Paul Bowles (1910-1999) is a powerfully moving account of a young American couple’s fearless and foolhardy odyssey into the depths of the North African Sahara Desert. As well as being a sharp morality tale about the dissolution of 2 pampered westerners trying fecklessly to survive in a hostile albeit stunningly beautiful environment, it also has the BAFTA award winning photography of Vittorio Storaro, alongside  Ryuichi Sakamoto’s cosmopolitan soundtrack, which is laden with enchanting at times ecstatic Maghrebi music and its piercingly ululating choruses. The haunting desert photography variously filmed in Morocco, Algeria and Niger, in combination with the affecting and often eerie music will at times have you close to tears, as will the nuanced and flawless acting of top league veterans like John Malkovich, Debra Winger (born 1955), Jill Bennett and Timothy Spall.

Port Moresby (John Malkovich, born 1953) and his wife Kit (Debra Winger) are respectively a composer and a playwright, just as Paul Bowles (who studied under Aaron Copeland), and his wife Jane  (1917-1973, and also the author of 2 fine novels) were musician and dramatist. The Moresbys arrive in Tangier, in French ruled Morocco in 1947, as did Bowles himself who stayed there until his death over 50 years later. The Moresbys are a troubled couple inasmuch as though they permit each other all freedoms, Port is nagged by jealousy and ultimately prophetic nightmares, while Kit finds his needy attachment at times too hard to endure. To aggravate matters they have in tow with them an affable and very wealthy friend called George Tunner who is clearly smitten by Kit. Tunner, who sees himself as a tourist, expects to stay a few weeks while Port who declares himself to be ‘a traveller’, boasts to the baffled passport officer that he will be here for a few years at least. Comically these hardy travellers arrive with a colossal amount of baggage, not just rich man Tunner but the Moresbys have brought the kitchen sink, all of which is cheerfully carted for them by some small Tangier boys. Whilst waiting to find their hotel they fatefully bump into a truly hideous English mother and her late 30s son, aka the Lyles, whose depiction perhaps gives some notion of what Paul Bowles thought of the Brits abroad.  Mrs Lyle, played impossibly obnoxious and shrill by Jill Bennett (1931-1990) is a ranting travel writer with a face all garish make up, who hates the locals and is always threatening to slap the face of her hopeless and cringing son Eric. Sadly Jill Bennett died around the time that the film was released, and you might perhaps also have heard of her as being the 4th wife of the ever splenetic playwright John Osborne (1929-1994), author of the 1956 Look Back in Anger. The versatile Timothy Spall (born 1957) is on stunning form as the whinging and cadging Eric whose harridan Mum refuses him pocket money, so that he is obliged to cringingly hustle the Moresbys for cig money and the like. Later he is so craven that he steals Port’s passport as a valuable saleable commodity, and overall the Lyles play a signal part in the poignant unfolding of this desert odyssey, as crucially they possess a car which the Americans do not.

Once in the hotel Port makes amorous advances to Kit who rebuffs him and also stonily refuses to go for a walk around town. So he sets off alone and soon is in the rough end of Tangier where he encounters a pimp who is eager to lead him down a steep metal ladder into a Berber encampment. The gabbling pimp introduces him to a miraculously gorgeous prostitute whose breasts are both mesmerising and absolutely perfectly spherical as if they had been fashioned out of a special mould. She is played by the Tunisian Amina Annati (born 1962) an actor and singer ironically best known for being joint 2nd in the Eurovision Song Contest of 1991. They make wondrous love together, but the Berber woman expertly sneaks his wallet half way through their embraces. Port however is crafty enough to sneak it back, but fool enough to wave it victoriously at her as he departs. Incensed the lady starts her screaming ululations, and the men of the camp chase after the American who races up the metal ladder, obviously doomed to a severe beating at the very least. The scene swiftly changes to the hotel where Kit has mussed up Port’s bedsheet to hide from Tunner the fact that her husband has stayed out all night. She orders him into Port’s bedroom while she gets dressed, at which point Port returns more or less unscathed and finds his rival in his compromising location. This prompts him to insist that Tunner should travel the next leg to Boussif, Algeria by train, while they go with the Lyles who are heading there in their car. Kit is terrified of train travel yet perversely chooses to go with Tunner, and en route drinks a huge amount of champagne which the rich man has thought to bring along for the journey. Inevitably they end up in bed together at the Boussif hotel where Kit awakes mortified and quite oblivious of how she got there.

Tunner scutters comically naked to his own quarters before her husband arrives, but Port is clairvoyant enough to connive with cadging Eric to take his rival the next leg down to Messad. In the meantime, fumbling Eric miraculously succeeds in stealing Port’s passport, ignorant of which he and Kit take the bus down to windblown, primitive El Ga’a. En route, terrifyingly he comes down with typhoid, meaning that the wretched and only hotel they have set their hopes on refuses to take them in. In desperation Kit gets her delirious husband to a French Foreign Legion outpost where a makeshift French paramedic and a tough old Algerian nurse help Port through his last screaming agonies. Harrowingly, he seems to recover at one point and lying on his mattress in the desolate room begins to tell Kit in an elegiac and pitying tone that she as ever is walking away from him. Kit screams her anguished denial at this, for she shrewdly guesses what he is talking of, his own mortal departure from Algeria, from life and from her his wife. Winger is brilliant and heart-wrenching to watch as she implores him through his protracted decline, made all the worse by well-meaning tribesmen playing their shrill Maghrebi clarinets as a kind of shamanistic serenade to the sick American. And talking of shamanism, when Port first starts with fever, the scene switches to a tribal woman commencing an ecstatic and convulsive dance of possession to the febrile accompaniment of horns and drums. Ultimately, she goes into what looks like a full-blown epileptic fit with legs kicking and neck shuddering and surely this couldn’t possibly have been done for the camera, but must have been filmed as wide spreading research for this remarkably authentic movie set in the Maghreb.

With Port dead Kit is roundly traumatised, so that instead of staying there to bury him she wanders off into the Sahara. At possibly the most moving point in the film she then encounters a long caravan of Tuareg tribesmen who are heading back to Niger with their beautifully loping camels and merchandise. The Tuaregs have their heads fully swathed  to protect them from the sand so that only their eyes are visible. Nevertheless Belquassim the leader (played by Eric Vu-An) is obviously strikingly handsome and also has a permanently playful smile, as does an impish little boy who runs alongside wearing Kit’s clownish white (and of course colonial) pith helmet. Belquassim seats her behind him  on the camel and when they get back to his palatial terracotta home in the desert, he attempts to disguise her as a boy so as to avert the jealousy of his numerous wives. Alarmingly, albeit Kit seems past caring, he locks her in her remote quarters and turns up regularly to make love to her, something which the dazed American passionately responds, to especially as he is supremely tender when it comes to caressing her and whispering often comic and playful endearments. Aside from the ludicrous Lyles there is very little comedy in this film, but there is a perfect laugh out loud moment where the impish boy stares through a hole at the amorous pair, then turns to the anxious wives and does a crazy orgasmic grimace with his tongue pointing sideways like a lunatic to convey the supreme act.

That does it, so that apprised of what is really going on, and with Belquassim out of the way, his wives let Kit out of her prison to the accompaniment of furious and condemnatory ululations. All of which stops dead when Kit slowly removes her swathed headgear and reveals herself as a beautiful if forlorn wastern woman. She then staggers off into a nightmarish meat market in the nearby village, replete with myriad filthy flies, where some of the Niger men at first harass and then angrily attack her. Ultimately someone rescues the wretched woman and she is taken to a Catholic Mission where scrubbed and combed she looks exactly like a long stay mental patient. A ghoulishly made up lady from the American Embassy then turns up to drive her all the way to Tangier where Tunner, aware of Port’s death, is waiting to meet and look after her. They arrive by taxi opposite the very same French bar where the story starts, but Kit mysteriously gives the woman the slip and wanders amnesically inside where jolly Parisian tunes of the day are playing. Both the start and the end of the film are dovetailed by the wise soliloquies of a shy old birdlike besuited man sat in the corner of the bar, who is called The Narrator but is in fact the novelist Paul Bowles, then in his late 70s. Facing this infinitely troubled soul who has lost her beloved husband and has also lost her wits, and who of course is an imaginative refraction of Jane Bowles who died an early and unpleasant death, he says to her:

But because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well.’

One final and disgusted remark is that A Sheltering Sky when it came out nearly 30 years ago was a box office flop. I for one am not at all surprised. With consummate art, both literary and photogenic, it treats of death and dissolution and marital disharmony, and is a long way away from good old La La Land (2016) and the like. But it is a cinematic masterpiece which I have watched entranced 5 times, and I expect to watch it another 5 times in the next 5 years.

THE GLAROS CRISIS

The next post will be on or before Tuesday April 25th 

THE GLAROS CRISIS

Regular followers of these pages will have noted that there has been no reference recently to my very favourite café, office workplace, and effective devtera spiti or second home, the Glaros, which should you wonder means ‘seagull’ in Greek. Sad to say this vibrant, tumultuous and unique kafeneion where I penned my 10th and most recent novel, and most of my 300 plus blog posts, is in a state of crisis, which is actually a laughable understatement given that many folk use that word to describe the electric being off for an hour, or their favourite TV show usually hosted by Stephen Fry ceasing for all of 4 weeks for the summer break. At the end of February, just as I had been living on Kythnos for exactly 3 and a half years, it all exploded when Marianna aged 52, one of the 2 sisters who run the place had a row with her partner and vamoosed to Athens to stay with a relative. It must have been one hell of a row, as she stayed there for first a week, and then 2 and then 3, and before long we learnt she had found herself another café job, so this was apparently serious and irreversible stuff. And yet there was always a reasonable if fond amount of hope to cling to, for those who missed the virtuoso café banter, the wild jokes, the crazy card games with best friends hurling insults at each other amidst accusations of covert cheating, growing ever more deafening and furious, until murder or at any rate justifiable manslaughter seemed a working option, whereupon at the vertiginous brink they both relented and started kissing each other’s hairy fizzogs and forgot their lethal ruckus within seconds. The vestige of hope lay in the fact that Marianna and 50-year-old Chrisoula who hail from the north of Greece, meaning they are perennially to be regarded as outsiders, had been running the place for 20 years, and never once had it been managed single handed. It just didn’t make sense that the Glaros, the nerve centre and pulsing heartbeat smack in the middle of the island port, this last of the old fashioned kafeneia on Kythnos, and more to the point, the cheapest place for wine and coffee and everything else on the island and possibly in the whole of Greece, that the revered Glaros should conceivably function without capable and tireless albeit often exhausted Marianna. Added to which Holy Easter was on the horizon and with droves of cheerful Athenian tourists assured, surely if her truest spirit were guiding her properly, she would return to her first and choicest home never mind my own Kythno-Cumbrian second home.

Meanwhile Chrisoula had had to keep the place going alone for 7 weeks and without a day off, and the severity of the strain had become increasingly evident. First of all, she began opening 2 hours later than usual, at 9.30am, meaning all the fishermen and Albanian builders’ labourers rapidly went elsewhere for early coffees, and I perforce had to relocate to the Paradisos to start my day’s work at a quarter to 8. Out of loyalty and friendship I took to going back to the depleted Glaros for a lunchtime beer but now affectionate and humorous Chrisoula was suddenly woodenly edgy and at times downright bizarre. She who had never given a toss about the stray cats that hang around her tables opposite the harbour, had become fanatically obsessed. When Marianna had been here, it was the older sister had desultorily chased them off, seen them come back 5 minutes later, then shrugged her thin shoulders and gone on bantering and teasing with the customers. Greeks on the whole, children included, don’t like stray cats, but they live with them and if one of them gets on their nerves they shoo it away and stamp their feet. Conversely anyone who has eaten outside an island restaurant knows that hungry street cats are de rigeur and the waiters smile and let the foreigners feed them delicate tidbits of costly melanouri fish, and know it’s good for custom and they will be paying an arm and a leg for the sea bream regardless of whose throat, feline or otherwise, it goes down. What’s more if you are looking for a nice present for the folks back home in Basildon or Oslo or Stuttgart, on your last day you are likely to buy a gorgeous calendar of island cats where the photogenic darlings look at their most fetching sat frolicking inside a gaily painted plant pot or yawning luxuriously on top of a battered old olive oil tin.

All that went out of Chrisoula’s frantic head as she began day after day to run out indecorously bawling gamo to! (literally fuck it! but in anglophone terms more like bugger it!) in order to fling water at them from a flower vase, or worse still toss a large pole affair that rattled and clanked on the ground by the tables, or even worse sizeable stones she must have garnered in her fretting indignation from the beach, not little pebbles by any means. Unfortunately this also brought me, the present writer, unhappily into the picture, as being a celebrated and notorious feeder of the strays, she, hysterical Chrisoula, seemed to be imagining I had led them there deliberately Pied Piper style. And just to restate and underline the shifting realities, hitherto with Marianna in confident charge, Chrisoula had never been bothered by the strays but now was behaving as a sporadically violent lunatic. And thus it was in deference to her new and strain induced paranoia, I stopped feeding any cats anywhere near the Glaros, though even that, it soon became apparent, did not satisfy her exponentially soaring irritation. As stark illustration, a couple of weeks ago, there was myself and no one else sat outside the café sipping a beer, with 3 small handsome cats lying snoozing and harming no one, not even thinking about begging, the rest of the flock having wandered off to hustle elsewhere. I was feeling more or less relaxed and after a hard morning’s work even moderately eesikhia-style euphoric, when suddenly Chrisoula’s hideous witches’ pole came whizzing next to the cats and then far worse those stone missiles the size of an alarm clock went hurtling alongside!

In a state of icy shock, I could stand it no longer, so got up and shouted:

“What the hell are you doing? Throwing big stones like that is bloody dangerous, Chrisoula! It’s bloody mad and it’s bloody dangerous.”

There was a prolonged and anxious silence, and like a little child she played deaf before scuttering off towards the Glaros door. Incensed at being so ludicrously ignored I repeated the admonition for good effect, but she kept on walking as if she hadn’t heard. I scowled and muttered and finished off my beer then walked off to Martinakia beach, all too ironically being closely followed by a small and good looking ginger cat with an outlandishly grubby nose who I call Jakie. Jakie is very attached to me and behaves exactly like a dog, as he regularly follows me to Martinakia where he lies on my naked stomach like an outsize paperweight as I sunbathe. He was sat plonked there today as I lingered and brooded on the imminent closure of my adoptive second home, because rumours were growing fast about a massive backlog of extortionate Glaros rent, perhaps one more very urgent reason for Marianna to flee her home of 20 years.

Soon Chrisoula wasn’t opening the cafe until 11, abruptly closing it at 10 when normally she would have stayed open till midnight. Then yesterday on what we call Maundy Thursday and the Greeks call Megali Pempti , always the colourful start of the bustling holiday season, the usually heaving Glaros was without a single customer, both inside and outside. The Ammos adjacent had got all of its impatient not to say irritated customers, and the defeat was stark and shocking to behold. I knew for a fact that deaf Chrisoula didn’t want me, once her close friend, to be at her tragic cafe any more, even if I were to be the only customer. For I, she believed in her madness, was the uncontrollable force that peopled her world with begging and yawling and hair dropping cats, when only 2 short months ago, cats tame or wild, small or large, had never entered her handsome head, not even in her dreams. I did some quick and sombre calculations and decided that in my 3 and a half years here,  and going there every day  of the year, I must have spent at least 10,000 euros in the Glaros, more than a year’s wages for the likes of Chrisoula. But now that meant nothing at all. did it? I simply frightened her as if she was a child with an inexpungible nightmare, and there was nothing to be done for she would have closed the Glaros and departed within a month or two.

SHOCKING WORDS

The next post will be on or before Saturday April 22nd

SHOCKING WORDS

When I was living in North Cumbria, between 1987 and 2013, the principal local paper was the Cumberland News which served the Brampton, Longtown and Carlisle areas, and was read as far as the small West Cumbrian townships of Wigton (birthplace of the novelist and TV celebrity Melvyn Bragg, born 1939) and Aspatria (genteelly pronounced ‘Spee-ya-tree’ in the local dialect). I am not usually a fan of regional newspapers unless it be for their unwitting comedy value, though now and again the unintended inanity or even borderline but wholly innocent obscenity makes you wonder what the so-called editors were doing when the thing went to press (you’re right, they were having their liquid lunches and in addition these days like everyone else they are playing all day with their phones). As a mildish example of something truly outlandish making it into print, note first that there was a long-established vogue in the advertising pages of the News, for friends (and also, I would wager, covert enemies) of someone celebrating their birthday, to wish them some kind of humorous greeting complete with mugshot of the birthday boy or birthday gal. Often their comical childhood nickname was alluded to and very frequently there was a charming black and white photo of the 21 or 50 or 60-year-old celebrant when they were only a beaming mite of an infant. The caption would read something like, ‘Who’s this funny little feller, do you think? Yes, it’s you, Uncle Jim, better known as Tucker Lad to your mates, and Happy 60th Birthday, and make sure you get good and legless with Stotty and Ponce in The Wheatsheaf tonight! Love from all the family and not forgetting Elvis the Dog and Marty the chinchilla.’

All that is passable enough of course, but imagine my astonishment one morning about a decade ago, whilst scanning those magnetic pages, to behold smack in the centre of the double fold, the following salutation:

Hi there, Pissy Wissy!

Eh?What was that? I had obviously misread and surely it was Pussy Wussy? No no, it was Pissy Wissy alright. This quaint uriniferous gent with the rhyming handle turned out to be 21 today, and his photo showed him to be a placid, presentable enough dark haired lad, who looked like a junior bank employee… and the forthright greeting was from his avowed best mates Slick and Wazzer and Horsey. I paused and blinked and wondered, did Mr P Wissy Esq relish their bluff comradely affection to such an extent he saw his appalling nickname as a harmless part of the nascent Cumbrian buddy culture… and rather more worrying than that, and assuming that he did actually work in a bank, would his friendly customers, very old ladies for example with substantial savings, whisper to him now admiringly, I never knew that you were a Pissy Wissy, Geoffrey? In our days they were always known as Piss-a-Beds…

In the dim old pre-internet days, at least they had an excuse for their cultural naivety, and once in the early 1980s there was a riveting if startling example in one of the sister papers of the Cumberland News, called The Workington Times and Star. In 2005 I happened to be working as Dialect Writer in Residence in Workington, which incidentally was the hallowed town where I pursued my secondary education, at the Brothel on the Hill (I know I tell this gag a lot, but it was a statistical fact that circa 1970 the biggest number of pregnant single students at nearby Didsbury Teachers’ Training College, Manchester, all hailed from that legendary alma mater where I did my O and A levels). My splendid post as dialect expert was alas rather Kafka-style pointless as West Cumbrian Workington itself is singularly weak on dialect on account of being heavily Yorkshirised by historical inroaders. In the 19th century the massive Workington steel industry, home of the Bessemer converter, invited a necessary extra workforce and was flooded by men from South Dronfield, Yorkshire and they were known as the Dronnies. That dominant and much more intelligible Dronnie twang, effectively squeezed out the dialect to the villages north along the Solway Coast, which meant I could only find dialect speakers by deserting the place where I was supposed to be unearthing them. Add to that that my line managers were cheery non Cumbrians who supposedly adored the dialect but didn’t understand a single word of it (apart from ‘yis’ and ‘naw’ and ‘nowt’ and ‘mebbe’) and were thus unable to benefit from the fruits of my unique research, and which amounts to yet another 2 or 3 for the price of 1, because in my work scenario you had the absurdity of Beckett and Pirandello chucked in for good measure alongside that of Franz Kafka.

It was while I was researching comic dialect stories throughout the decades, that I came upon a truly preposterous thing. The local library possessed microfiche copies of the Times and Star going back a very long way, and thus I was able to enjoy some of the virtuoso and very funny Cummerlan Tyals of Rita Derwent (a pen name whose surname was that of the local river) which every week described the farcical adventures of a wonderfully naïve farming couple from the back of beyond, and was entitled Jobby and Mary’s Crack. Apropos which everyone knows that ‘crack’ is a pan Northern, Scots and Irish term that means gossipy conversation, but it can also have an obvious bawdy signification in standard English, and this was the clue to what I was to unearth in one of the tales from the year 1980. Tellingly the front page of that issue disclosed that 2 young women social workers were protesting against the Men Only Bar in one of Workington town centre’s boozers, and while not being manhandled or abused had tried in vain to purchase pints for themselves from the adamant bar staff. As a sign of an overall Neanderthal civic spirit, it now revealed its regional literary counterpart in the centre pages’ Cummerlan Tyal replete with a humorous line drawing. Here we were informed in dialect that Jobby had been having severe problems eating his dinner on account of the cut price dentures he possessed being singularly ineffective at masticating the tougher types of meat, meaning neck of lamb and string beef especially. Jobby’s crude if ingenious notion was to go out into the farmyard and get the old revolving grindstone whirling and then to skilfully file his plastic gnashers to a lethal edge. All very entertaining, to be sure, and in Rita’s untranslatable and excellent dialect at times painfully funny. Yet bizarrely and it was only when I was half way through the story, that my eyes took in the most striking story title which no doubt innocent Rita (then I believe in her early 60s) had never for a moment deliberated upon, as the relevant allophone she had probably never even heard of in all her sheltered fellside hinterland life.

The story was called:

Jobby Juss Cun’t Manish His Cummerlan Styeuh!

That’s right, ‘Jobby Just Couldn’t Manage his Cumberland Stew!’, the latter being an aqueous confection of cheap and squelchy lamb, sliced black pudding, coarsely cut potatoes and carrots, together with a penetrating and unique culinary aroma reminiscent of long unlaundered male underwear

One of those dialect words as you can see succeeds in not being actionable by the addition of a decorous if rather random apostrophe. For as I said, it had obviously never entered artless old Rita’s head that she had put a compositional foot amiss. But what about the good old sub editor and the good old editor and even the typesetter and the tea boy back in 1980 on the Workington Times and Star of nearly 40 years ago? What the hell were they up to that they likewise didn’t even notice the glaring bawdiness themselves, for assuredly it was done with no deliberate sabotage style intent?

Easy. They were sat half tight, a hundred yards down the road in the Men Only Bar, over and over again cheerily blurting out what joy it was to get away from the tyranny of women, so that they could swear  as much as they liked and wassaword, what’s the expression, let it all hang bloody out. Hic hic.