The next post will be on or before Sunday 8th October


My Russian friend Vasily came to see me in some consternation the other day, and he also came bearing his laptop. He is a waiter at the restaurant at the far end of the Kythnos port; vividly blue eyed, muscular, 45, long-divorced  from his Moscow wife, and though you couldn’t accuse him of being conventionally handsome he has a teasing and engagingly boyish grin.  Vasily’s problem like half the world’s is that he wants a nice little girlfriend, and he is pig sick of getting nowhere with the few single and supposedly available Greek women on Kythnos. The Albanian women are all married and with kids, of course, and though there are 2 good looking Russian girls on the island, they both have Athenian boyfriends. Hence it was that with a struggle he had located a dating website devoted to expatriate Russians called Cosmoslav, and soon discovered that there were worthwhile numbers of single Moscow, Vladivostok, Verkhoyansk and other Russophone (from Uzbekistan and the other -stans) women living in e.g. Athens, Thessaloniki, Patras, as well as far flung Thrace and Rodopi on the Bulgarian border.

Vasily had only been on the site a few weeks, and had been doing quite nicely with chatting online, sending countless passionate ‘winks’ to anyone as he put it not an absolute gargoyle, a bit of chortling and hilarious Skyping, and so far a single solid invitation to meet for coffee next time he was in Rodopi (in fucking Rodopi, why not Katmanfuckingdu!). What galled him more than anything though was that roughly 10% of the women on Cosmoslav chose to write their profiles and always copious checklists of wishes and prohibitions vis-a-vis acceptable men, in English, not in Russian. Vassily’s heavily accented English was an existential reality right enough, and it obviously helped in the restaurant with all those foreign yachties, but it was unarguably basic and tended towards things strictly alimentary. Hence he knew the English words: sugar, tomato, scrambled, whisked, beaten, stuffed and braised, but didn’t know the words for ear, lips, mouth and neck, which might have come in acceptably handy in an amatory context. The reason why this woman here whom he fancied like nobody’s business, and whose user name was Murmanskgal, was writing in English, was plain enough according to angry Vasily. She was flagrantly fishing for a rich Russian expat or maybe a Russky educated in the USA so now a posh professor teaching in Greece who liked an anglophone Slav beauty to be draped across his arm when he was poncing round Kolonaki or the swisher bits of Saloniki.

Worse still the cruellest of ironies was that it tended to be those 10% of English speaking Russian women who most passionately stirred Vasily’s heart and libido, more than the nice and sensible but frequently wondrously plain and sometimes aggressively squinting lassies who only spoke Russian and Greek. He pointed to his laptop and right enough Murmanskgal really was a beauty. Fine blond hair, delicate bone structure, arched inquisitive eyebrows, a tender little pout of a smile. Vassily then indicated her English profile message and said he had googled 2 of these sodding English words that started her list of necessary essentials in a man, and a) one did not exist, and b)the other one seemed to mean tossing a bloody ball, hence made no bloody sense whatever.

Murmanskgal had written:


Vasily snorted, “I don’t understand that first fucking sentence at all. Why can’t she write in Russian the beautiful little torment?”

I said, “I’m not surprised you’re baffled. So am I. There is no such word as ‘enternal’. Unless she means ‘internal’ and that still makes no sense.”

“But look, Englishman, I understand all the rest. Especially ‘sensuous’ and I like that word. She means she likes to have a bloody good f…”

“Yes,” I concurred.

“And I also worked out she likes to go travelling and having it off with the guys she fancies, that word ‘desired’ eh? But ‘backround’ what the fuck is that? I know the word ‘backside’ cos I’ve heard it on loads of Yankee and British films. ‘No bad backside’? Does she mean she doesn’t want a guy with an ugly arse?”

I sniffed. “No no. Not that at all. She actually means ‘background’!” Then I struggled for some measurable time with my haphazard and always elusive Greek. “Background means personal history, your life story. She doesn’t want a criminal or a junkie or a… “

He looked very virtuous as he swore. “Balls to that! The worst I’ve ever done is fiddle the change at the taverna once in a while. With those pissed Scandinavian yachties, no one else, man, and they would only drop it in the bog if I didn’t. But what the hell does she mean she wishes for ‘enternal lob’. I’ve googled and googled them and it’s driving me mad.”

Suddenly I was seized with the intimation of a monstrous laughing fit, as in a flash the Murmansk woman’s message hit home. I have never done a cryptic crossword in my life but I am sure it needs that degree of lateral imaginativeness and the ability to discern obscure semantic association…or equally it could just be that in Russian and Greek and Bengali and several other languages including that found sometimes in the works of Charles Dickens, the letters b and v are effectively interchangeable.

I said, “She means eternal love. She wants what we all want, Vasily! She wants to be loved by someone for ever and ever. ‘Lob’ is her version of love, you see. So the positive thing is you can relax and be confident that her English isn’t much fancier or fluent than yours is.”

He grimaced his indignation. “Bloody little show off. I’d love to give her…”

“What? A smacked backround?”

“No no! She is so bloody tantalising and so beautiful, dammit. Just a night, no, just an hour, no ten minutes, no…”

But I was still consumed with a mad and shoulder-shaking hilarity and he looked to me for explanation.

“It’s the word ‘lob’,” I said. “Like you said, as a verb it can mean throwing something like a ball. But as a noun and when spoken in many rude and coarse male circles especially…”

His ears pricked up very hopefully. “Yes?”

“It can mean an mm…it can mean an erection…”

“You’re kidding!”

“Not at all. When I was a schoolkid you heard teenage boys all the time boasting about having ‘a lazy lob’ for the whole of the day. Meaning they had a dick on permanent…”

“Fuck,” sighed Vasily. “On permanent standby?”

“Exactly. So what gorgeous Murmanskgal is actually saying, is that she wishes for a man with an eternal erection, Vasily.”

“Eh?” he gasped. “You what!”

“A permanent hard on. As with some of those Indian yoga experts, the Tantric adepts especially, the ones who have sex for hours, days, sometimes longer. And by dint of all that Hatha Yoga they never ever come.”

Vasily looked me square in the eye, shrugged his shoulders and abruptly closed his beautiful new laptop. Then without the slightest effort he said to me in flawless English:

“Fuck that for a game of cards.”

Later I learnt he had heard it on a British film and it had stuck in his mind as these things do.





The next post will be on or before Sunday 8th October


By the end of 1985 my wife Annie had done 2 years of gruelling field social work in Whitehaven, West Cumbria, UK, best known as the nearest sizeable town to British Nuclear Fuels Ltd at Sellafield, then famous for its occasionally leaking plutonium 238, and she definitely needed a break (she moved sideways into social work training as it happened). Her job introduced me to some terminology I’d never heard of such as ‘the grassing season’ meaning those hot summer days when people on deprived Whitehaven council estates would sit outside and become visible to each other for extended periods. This might well stimulate them to snoop on someone who had just possibly shopped them to Social Services or to Social Security the previous year, and the social work office was continually receiving such virtuously hostile and of course anonymous phone calls. Given that Margaret Thatcher had with gleeful vengeance destroyed the British coalmining industry the year before, this absence of basic working class solidarity was yet more evidence of the divide and rule motif writ large.

One day it was all too much for Annie. She was talking in a house on Greenbank estate to a spectacularly feckless unmarried young couple both 18 years old and with a new baby. Neither parent had any manifest parenting skills (meaning they didn’t hold the baby nor talk to it nor sing to it nor play with it) the TV bizarrely was blaring with Open University advanced physics, and both of them were chainsmoking and drinking Fine Fare Coca Cola and repeating the same point, viz that Joe’s horrible Mam could have offered support with the baby and thus given them a break to go out of an evening, but she wouldn’t, and she gave the support to Joe’s sister and her child instead. Annie was dizzy with the sheer futility of it all and was about to cut short the interview, when she turned to behold their brand-new terrier dog called Woof (which they did hold, talk to and play with) doing a moist and extensive shit inside her open handbag. She yelped her horror, at which Woof yelped back, then looked in frozen wonder at the indifferent couple who saw it as par for the course no doubt. Annie tore off with minimal explanation and drove home as fast as she could. She did what anyone else would have done and got into bed at 2pm and put the blanket over her head and lay there waiting for a gradual recovery.

My first novel Samarkand was published on June 1st 1985 and amazingly it got a review in the Times Literary Supplement on the very day of publication. It was a very bad review by Christopher Hawtree who worked on London Magazine and who’d loved the comic stories I had published in LM, but was unprepared for a solemn and largely plotless and poetic novel about 1950s Cumbria. He said it reminded him of the endless lists in old Freeman’s Catalogues from the 50s, and needless to say I was considerably crushed. My publisher Aidan Ellis was so incensed he rang the TLS and told them he wouldn’t let them have his Marguerite Yourcenar novels for review, because of this cruel demo job from Hawtree who he called by another and rudely punning name …but of course he soon relented re the jewel in his crown of Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987) author of the 1951 Memoirs of Hadrian

I was incredibly heartened and excited when the novel was taken by BBC Radio 3 for concert interval readings, otherwise Samarkand got a single glowing review in the British Book News, another relentless excoriation in The Observer, and that was it. By this stage I had embarked on Kin my second novel and there was so to speak no going back. In any case we had the distraction of our summer holiday in Portugal, paid for in large part by the fee I got for a story Master of Ceremonies that was printed in Stand Magazine. We started off in the city we loved and where Annie had had her first romantic taste of abroad, Faro, the  pulsing yet also beautifully somnolent capital of the Algarve. In nearby Tavira one night we overheard an obese and ill-shaved Englishman of about 30 making the interesting complaint that the disco he’d attended the previous night hadn’t been much fun as it had been ‘too full of Portuguese’. From there we bussed it to the handsome capital of the Lower Alentejo , Beja, a city I’ve visited several times since. Beja’s landmark is its sturdy looming castle whose keep is called the Torre de Menagem. I still have a photo from 1994 of grinning Ione aged 4 perched victoriously on one of the huge cannons outside the keep. Ione and I revisited Beja a year after Annie died in 2010 and we also took a bus to Elvas, a spruce and dignified Alentejo town famous for its succulent olives, which Annie and I had visited 25 years earlier. In 1985 our spotless hotel room had had no handbasin but instead a large ceramic jug decorated with roses and filled with water, and we felt that we had stepped back in Alentejo time in the most graceful and natural manner possible. The dusty and humble bus station then was right in the middle of Elvas, while in 2010 a new state of the art mausoleum had been constructed a half hour walk below. The garrison fort was still visible across the flat scrubland, and I also preserve a photo of Annie sat on one of the town walls with the fort in the distance. She was 30 years old in 1985 and was very beautiful with her fine blonde hair, subtly sculpted cheekbones, and a look of endlessly gentle kindness. Not evident in that photo however was her addiction to the belly laugh and the wildly comic, and on those matters in our 30 years marriage we had endless common ground. Over the years we went into fits over the TV comedy of John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers, Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights, Gregor Fisher’s Rab C Nesbitt, Dylan Moran’s Black Books, the Glaswegian trio Karen Dunbar, Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill in Chewin The Fat, Morwenna Banks in the Scottish series Absolutely…and of course her favourite novel At Swim Two Birds by Flann O’ Brien and her very favourite film the ecstastic and hilarious and gloriously rude and appalling Amarcord (1973) by Federico Fellini.

BOOKS (from my 1985 diary)

Lantern Lecture by Adam Mars-Jones (his debut work and a book of massive promise)

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

When Things of The Spirit Come First by Simone de Beauvoir

A Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann

Foma Gordayev by Maxim Gorky (no one reads Gorky’s novels these days and they should perhaps be ashamed of themselves)

The Artamonov Affair by Maxim Gorky

The Acceptance World by Anthony Powell

Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron

Don Quixote by Cervantes

Firebird 4 (prose anthology)

The Confession of Nat Turner by William Styron

No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym

The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym

Smoke by Djuna Barnes

Villette by Charlotte Bronte

Man’s Estate by Andrew Malraux

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Resurrection (for the second time) by William Gerhardie

The Wapshot Scandal by John Cheever

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

My Apprenticeship by Colette

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (I am re-reading it at this very minute)

The House of Ramires by Eca de Queiroz (I saw the great man’s birthplace in Povoa de Varzim  near Porto, in the 1985 trip described above)

Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir

The History of Mr Polly by HG Wells (a real hoot and it is nearly as good as Wells’s Kipps)

Some People Places And Things That Will Not Appear In My Next Novel by John Cheever

The Golf Widower by John Cheever

Gleanings from Buddha Fields by Lafcadio Hearn

Party Going by Henry Green

My Host the World by George Santayana

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

Flight to Arras by Antoine de Saint Exupery

Wind, Sun and Stars by Antoine de Saint Exupery

The Harpole Report by JL Carr

Voices in the Evening by Natalia Ginzburg

The Sin of Father Amaro by Eca de Queiroz

Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

Pornografia by Witold Gombrowicz

Stories by Liam O’ Flaherty (his many fine novels e.g. Famine, Skerritt and Mr Gilhooley are on the whole disgracefully neglected in the UK )

The Informer by Liam O’ Flaherty

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Shame by Salman Rushdie (I prefer Shame on balance to his Booker winner)

When the Tree Sings by Stratis Haviaras (another essential author and a Greek who mostly writes in English)

Set This House on Fire by William Styron



The next post will be on or before Sunday 1st October


The Big Lebowski (1998) is probably one of Joel and Ethan Coens’ best known movies, even though it did badly at the box office on release and received very mixed reviews. It has since achieved a considerable cult status, meaning everyone under the age of 75 has watched and admired it on Netflix, DVD or on telly, though just possibly for the wrong reasons. To look to an enlightening parallel, on this side of the Atlantic the British movie Withnail and I (1987) has such enduring and rightly earned charisma partly because it brilliantly showcases 2 spectacularly feckless out of work actor layabouts, and fag and booze desperadoes, played by Paul McGann and Richard E Grant (interestingly Grant is teetotal in real life). I suspect for similar reasons many of Lebowksi’s fans are enchanted by that handsome hunk Jeff Bridges (born 1949) playing the layabout’s layabout, Dude Lebowski, a bone idle and affable Los Angeles dope smoker, long haired and bearded, who is permanently clad in the same top-heavy cardigan. Dude’s only sign of human activity (aside from occasionally glugging milk out of a bottle) is regularly playing bowls with his irascible pal Walter, a Vietnam veteran, played with truly astonishing virtuosity by John Goodman (born 1952), Coen Bros regular, and erstwhile husband in the US TV comedy Roseanne (1988-1997).

There are 2 actors of genius in this superb and very funny movie, and in my view Bridges is not one of them. They are Goodman and another Coen regular John Turturro (born 1957) who mind-blowingly plays a strutting peacock of a Hispanic bowling fanatic called, wait for it, Jesus. He is artless arrogance personified and clad in a lurid purple tracksuit, he lifts up his bowl and licks it with the end of his tongue as if it were a certain part of a certain woman (not quite that, we later learn from Walter). He also berates his opponents, the three bowling buddies Dude, Walter and Donny (Steve Buscemi) with the delightful admonition, ‘We are going to fuck you up the ass!’ Later in the movie Turturro and his pal are holding their bowls in 2 suspended purple match vests, and, buffing them to a shine so to speak, and needless to add it looks like nothing so much as demented masturbation.  The disturbing foil to all this is that Walter discloses their opponent is actually a convicted paedophile, and under certain Californian laws has been obliged to knock on every door in his neighbourhood informing people of his crime. The film actually retro cuts to show him doing just this and looking far from swaggering.

Joel Coen has said that the movie was inspired by a Raymond Chandler novel, meaning a necessarily tight narrative and an impossibly complicated plot, which he adds is ‘ultimately unimportant’, most obviously in this case because the film is intended as a wild comedy and not a poker-faced thriller. It is set in LA in 1991, when Dude (real name Jeff Lebowski) is mistaken for one Jeffrey Lebowksi, an elderly, reclusive and paralysed millionaire played with wonderfully vehement bitterness by David Huddleston (1930-2016). Dude is assaulted, meaning his head shoved repeatedly down the toilet, by two heavies employed by porn magnate and loan shark Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) who idiotically, given his shabby house and his scruffy cardigan, take him for the old millionaire. The rich Lebowski has a much younger wife Bunny who has been running up large debts to Treehorn , and they have come to ensure the debts are paid. Once Dude explains the confusion, they stalk off without apology but one of them cannot resist pissing all over the Dude’s favourite rug.

‘No man,’ Dude vainly beseeches him. ‘Don’t pee on my rug, man.’

He later confers with Walter and Donny at the bowling alley about the soiled rug, and is inspired to go and seek a sizeable compensation from his namesake. But while they are talking Walter spots another player with long white hair who is to set challenge them in a forthcoming league match, and observes that his foot has gone a minute distance, less than an inch, over the line. Goodman as the angry Vietnam Vet with his hacksaw haircut, heavy and threatening build, and steely rectangular specs, now magically evokes in Walter someone sitting over a volcano of poisonous traumatic memories and subterranean rage. As Long White Hair protests, and even treacherous Dude says it doesn’t matter, the fuming veteran pulls out a gun and informs the opponent that if doesn’t abide by the league rules he will be ‘entering a world of pain’ a heraldic phrase to be repeated throughout the movie. And it is worth emphasising here that what is mesmerising about Goodman’s acting isn’t just the verbal delivery from this damaged volcano of a man, but his little facial quirks and twitches and occasional look of forlorn sadness. It is surely what takes acting into the superleague (qv Brad Pitt and on occasion Leonardo di Caprio) and leaves me for one wondering how the hell anyone born a human being and not an uncannily robotic mimetic genius, can do it.

The plot is deliberately labyrinthine, but here goes. Dude visits the millionaire namesake (with his factotum played very capably by a clucking and besuited Philip Seymour Hoffman) to get some compensation for his pissed upon rug, but is rebuffed. As he leaves he slily steals a more expensive rug and then bumps into voluptuous Bunny the millionaire’s seductive young wife by a swimming pool. While he leers over her hungrily, without preamble she sighs:

“I will suck your cock for $1000.”

Penniless Dude sadly departs at this bargain offer, but not long after Bunny’s old husband contacts Dude to say she has suddenly been kidnapped and he wants Dude, for a fee, to deliver the million dollar ransom in a briefcase and to identify whoever the culprits are. Dude consents to this but mad Walter rudely elbows in on the drop and fearlessly substitutes, much to Dude’s indignation, a briefcase full of his own dirty underwear. However just before Dude and Walt embark on the ransom run, yet more thugs break into Dude’s bungalow and beat him up and steal back the stolen rug. It transpires that they were hired by the millionaire’s daughter Maude who is played with great brio and a perfectly posh UK accent by Julianne Moore (born 1960) and she wishes to have some urgent discussion with the Dude. Her first appearance in the film is a startling one, as they meet in a deserted warehouse where she works as an avant-garde collage artist, and Dude watches her soaring down to spray paint the paper below him from her high velocity flying trapeze. Her own version of a factotum is played by David Thewlis (born 1963) the first rate UK actor (see the astonishing and overwhelming Naked by Mike Leigh) and here he has a shaved head and a truly mad giggle for added eccentric effect.

Maude requests Dude to get the ransom money back (with a commission of 10%) on the grounds that Bunny is secretly one of Treehorn’s porn stars, and that her Dad has been milking the family fortune to support her luxurious tastes. Meanwhile a severed green toe, supposedly Bunny’s, arrives at the millionaire’s mansion, and simultaneously a gang of German Nihilists invade Dude’s to find him in the bath. They tell him they are Bunny’s kidnappers, that they want the ransom, and to drive home the point they have a ferret (called ‘marmot’ in the US) which they release into the bath. This must be one of the most famous and queasily hilarious scenes in recent film history, Jeff Bridges protecting his manhood against a dripping ferret, and it brings to mind an outrageous Frank Zappa album, which doubtless Bridges himself played in the 70s, entitled Weasels Ripped my Flesh.

It is not really spoiling your anticipation to say that there are multiple and serial lies ingeniously informing the byzantine plotline. The German Nihilists with their stage accents are in fact friends of Bunny and the whole thing was staged to get money out of her husband. The millionaire was just as devious, so that the ransom bag with supposedly a million dollars was empty, for the old Lebowski was very glad to be rid of his ravenous wife who he really hoped had been kidnapped.  In the meantime, Dude’s old jalopy with the supposed ransom has been stolen from outside his house. Once it is recovered, Dude finds of all things a schoolboy’s homework in the back of the car, whereupon he and Walt hurriedly trace the boy to his home and confront him with his theft. The lad says nothing throughout the dual interrogation, much to Walt’s fury, so that eventually the veteran explodes once more to this mere stripling:

“You are about to enter a world of pain!”

It  so happens that there is a luxurious sports car outside the house, which Dude and Walter assume is there courtesy of the missing million bucks. Walt races out and taking a lever from his car proceeds to smash it to pieces. The schoolboy is remarkably unmoved by all this but one of his neighbours races out and bawls that that is his brand new car that he bought today, and in revenge he starts to smash Dude’s old jalopy to pieces. Thereafter Dude’s adventures become ever more feverish and include a miniature hallucinatory film within the film, after he is fool enough to accept Treehorn’s invitation to meet at his club. He swallows a proffered liqueur of White Russian and before long is unconscious and having a compelling dream involving leggy, desirable Maude and a game of ten pin bowling. He then wakes up in a beach suburb police station where Treehorn had dropped him, and is told to keep out of town and given a good beating to send him on his way. He desperately flags down a taxi and the black driver soon kicks him out for complaining about his choice of music, The Eagles. At the same time, he sees Bunny driving by in a luxury sports car and notes that she has all of her toes, contrary to the blackmail message.

Dude returns to find that his house has been trashed, but he also discovers Maude there, and she swiftly seduces him and decides to stay the night. She tells him she wants to conceive a baby, at which he is truly horrified but she assures him he will have nothing to do with it once it arrives. Later Dude takes Walter to confront Lebowski over the empty briefcase, and there is a blackly comic scene where Walter accuses the old man of faking his paralysis, before bear-hugging him and commanding him to walk, whereupon Lebowski collapses and flails wretchedly and hopelessly on the floor.

The finale comes when the Nihilists turn up outside the bowling alley and set Dude’s car on fire. For once Walter’s traumatised rage finds a practical outlet, and he rolls up his arms, grabs the ringleader and proceeds to bite off his ear, which he spits victoriously into the sky. At this Donny = Steve Buscemi is so appalled that he takes a heart attack and dies. The end of the film sees the Dude and Walter scattering his ashes, which predictably blow back all over them, then they resolve to go and play a game of bowls, which of course is always the answer to everything.

The film I believe would be an unblemished comic masterpiece were it not that Jeff Bridges is so seriously miscast. Which is to say that Bridges doesn’t exactly do a bad job of Dude, but neither does he do a good much less an outstanding job. He plays the part of an overgrown and amoral yet likeable slob, but without depth or resonance or any hint of stereoscopic nuance. Brad Pitt would have known how to really play Dude as Pitt can act as anything and anyone he likes, while Bridges though excellent in certain roles, really struggles with comedy and especially the burlesque and uproarious varieties.

Finally, and rather incredibly the film has a cowboy narrator (Sam Elliott), a wise and inordinately handsome old guy with a Stetson and a huge and ornate moustache who appears very little (thank God) in order to dovetail the action and to announce the film’s message at various points. I didn’t believe a word of him nor his salt-free and sentimental cowpoke wisdom and his final tender benediction on the Dude and Walter as bowling players. That said, I fully expect to watch The Big Lebowski at least two or three times a year for the rest of my life.


The next post will appear on or before Sunday October 1st


Never underestimate the charismatic power of language, and especially that which you have borrowed from another person, who might just treacherously have made it up themselves in the first place. As a variation on which, there is reported the frequent and mysterious utterance of a woman who works in an office in the north of England, but who was not born in Great Britain nor was her first language English. She regularly uses a very archaic West Cumbrian dialect word and asks her colleague to ‘skop’ her for example a pencil sharpener. The word skop means ‘to throw’ and is a mimetic one of old Nordic origin and refers to the elliptical leg motion of a pawing horse. The foreign lady doesn’t know any of that of course, she just thinks it is a very nice and apt word and she uses it often. The key to the mystery as you might have guessed is that her colleague is my daughter Ione who works in an office in Leeds, and it was Ione who first thoughtlessly asked her to ‘skop her’ a box of paperclips, and thus started the bizarre linguistic transfer rolling. However things aren’t quite as simple as that, as Ione was raised in rural NE Cumbria where no one ever uses the word ‘skop’ and the villain of the piece is in fact her Dad me who grew up near Maryport on the Solway Firth, West Cumbria. I have employed that verb for most of my life (I’ve always been prone to throwing things, including tantrums and towels in) and not only did I pass the word on to Ione, I still use it here on a daily basis in Kythnos in 2017, at least when like many a writer I am poetically monologuing to myself, or alternatively discoursing to my attentive cats or alternatively talking to Ione when she visits me and I ask her to skop me the low sodium/elevated potassium salt from the far end of my capacious dining table.

Ione was visiting me at the start of this month and that was when she told me about the foreign lady saying skop. She currently shares a house with 4 people all born in the late 1980s, and some of the very dubious in some cases invented words that she got from me, and which I first heard in respectively 1957 and 1977, are circulating in that Leeds house, some 60 and 40 years later. Thus of her 4 housemates, the single male aged 30 in Ione’s house, will regularly refer in 2017 to his arse, and to everyone else’s, by employing the very peculiar term ‘jid’. The semantic route is that I first heard it from my 6-year-old playmate Toots (not his real name) in our West Cumbrian pit village in 1957. He would say charming things like ‘I hez an itchy bliddy jid’ and would proceed to rectify (oops, nearly) the problem by appropriate vigorous scratching and pummelling underneath his shorts. Since then I have never heard anyone else in the world use the term jid, other than in imitation of me who in turn started to imitate Toots back in 1957. Toots got most of his charismatic words and especially the less polite ones from his older brother Reg who chainsmoked at the age of 12 and had remarkably puffy eyes and the rawest gruffest voice I have ever heard. It was from Toots I also got the words which I still use at the age of 66, ‘tassy’ and ‘chitter’, both superlatives meaning ‘great’. They were both Reg words and I would hazard that tassy sounds as if possibly colloquial French though perhaps only used by colonial outpost soldiers in Northern Gabon in one particular garrison in the winter of 1947. How Reg became privy to that Gabon Gallic mess table argot remains to be elucidated by the most rigorous of philologists and professors of linguistics and I wish them a most salubrious bon voyage.

On that analogy, the backside word ‘jid’ sounds decidedly Arabic and for colonial connections we might look to the former Aden protectorate (ha ha) now Yemen. Reg in his lengthy all of 6 mile travels between Workington and Maryport might just have met a squaddie who had served in Aden and been stationed in a hill village where the weirdest of dialect words had circulated including ‘jid’. As for ‘chitter’ it sounds to me definitely of Indian origin, possibly a dialect of Hindi and we can look to Reg perhaps one day hearkening in amazement to a retired old geezer from the Indian army of the Raj. I still regularly lapse into Tootsese or Regese when in the company of an educated British friend or student visiting me here on Kythnos, and exclaim as we bask on an exquisite and deserted beach, This is bloody tassy! or This is absolutely chitter! Not once have any of them asked me for qualification, as they know what I mean without a translation, meaning that Tootsese and Regese are effectively universal languages like say Volapuk or Esperanto.

Finally there is the case of secondary neologisms of a truly surreal kind and which fascinatingly connect Cumbria and Kythnos, aka obscure regional England and obscure Cycladean Greece. The phenomenon originates innocently even puerilely enough, somewhere around the summer of 2000 when Ione aged 11 and me aged 49, started making inane diminutives out of many a word, as if we were gung ho WW2 RAF pilots or 1920s partying hedonists minus the Charleston. Like them we would chop the given word and then add ‘ers’, so that the quiet market town where we lived Brampton became ‘Brammers’ and the nearby Lanercost with its ancient hallowed priory became absurdly ‘Lanners’ and both the country or anyone with the word Holland as a surname, ludicrously became ‘Hollers’. And yes re the latter, one or two classically Cumbrian surnames of a dolorous and comical cast, actually did the trick themselves, so we didn’t need to add, only subtract. Hence it was that one of Ione’s 12 year old acquaintances called William Mumberson, became the extremely onomatopoeic Willy Mumbers as Mumbers ne  Mumberson was indeed always a doleful little bloke.

Fast forward now to the summer of 2016 when Ione and I were lying on the beach nearest to the port here. It is called Martinakia and a whole 3 amnesic years had elapsed without either of us giving it its due Roaring Twenties abbreviation. Until one inspired day that is.

“Martinakkers,” said Ione very suddenly and in a revelatory tone, and it was as if she had created a whole world or possibly a whole universe as she spoke.

Just as inspired I said swiftly:

“He was a nice guy, but he was always bad with money. Divorced 3 times as he drove all his women mad. He lived down Millom way near Barrow in Furness and that didn’t help.”

She looked at me questioningly and a split second ensued.

“Marty Knackers! “I said. “So called because of his grubby and dishevelled appearance. As if he either worked for a knacker’s yard or was fit for entering it himself. That’s what all his wives said, anyway.”

And all the rest is history.

For non-UK readers. The word “knacker’s” can refer to either a slaughter house for old horses, or, minus the apostrophe, to the male testicles. From the former comes the verb-derived adjective ‘knackered’ often used in the politest of companies to mean ‘tired’ or ‘exhausted’


The next post will be on or before Sunday 1st October


Below are some sharp and poignant as well as some comically entertaining samples culled from book reviews that appeared in the August 2017 issue of my very favourite literary magazine, the Literary Review (founded 1979). Below these excerpts I give a quick resume of why it is I rate this remarkable UK literary journal quite as much as I do


‘Acting as the arbiter of West Indian culture, the BBC [in the 50s] promoted what the Dominican journalist Edward Scobie called ‘singing Nigger Minstrels, all dressed up in “massah’s clothes” and making massah laugh.’ The Black and White Minstrel Show was attracting audiences of 20 million by 1964, as Wills notes, and she might have added that it was the Queen’s favourite programme.’

And later. ‘This feeling became especially acute after the 1958 riots in Notting Hill and elsewhere in which white youths aimed to ‘get rid of these niggers’. Often the victims were blamed for the violence and [Fascist] Oswald Mosley vilified them during the election campaign the following year. A witness recorded some of his phrases: “blacks round our necks – black sweat shops – black brothels…one law for the blacks and another for the whites – forcing the blacks on us.’ He urged the deportation of many immigrants, including ‘the Maltese and Cypriots, the vice mongers. They aren’t European.’

Piers Brendon reviews Lovers and Strangers by Clair Wills



‘There were the great castrati, including Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci, who kept himself in London’s limelight…with a steady stream of rumours, scandals and sexual intrigues. Defying belief Tenducci eloped and fathered a child (by dint of a third testicle, he told an enraptured Casanova, that had miraculously escaped the fate of the other two)’

Darrin McMahon reviews The Invention of Celebrity 1750-1850 by Antoine Lilti



‘The Reverend John Williams “in the hope that European customs will very soon be introduced in the leeward stations” brought tea, sugar, tobacco and punctuality to the Society Islands. In 1841 however he at last exhausted his flock’s patience. They put an end to their trials and his mission by eating him.’

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto reviews The Hungry Empire by Lizzie Collingham.



‘After a morning’s writing [in Samoa], Stevenson would entertain himself with music particularly the flageolet which he played so badly “people fled from the sound”’

Peter Moore reviews Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa by Joseph Farrell



‘It was not easy to be the wife of Thomas Carlyle…who while probably never consummating their marriage announced at its inception “I must not and I cannot live in a house of which I am not head.”’

Catherine Peters reviews Jane Welsh Carlyle and Her Victorian World by Kathy Chamberlain



‘When I enquired how many husbands she [‘Scarlet Woman’ Lesley Blanch who died aged 102] had had, she threw her hands in the air and cried “ You mustn’t ask. I’m bad with figures.”’

Valerie Grove reviews Far to Go and Many to Love by Lesley Blanch


Up until 2001 I had two favourite literary magazines, the venerable London Magazine when it was edited with a seamlessly learned and impressive flair by the poet and travel writer Alan Ross (1922-2001) and the Literary Review which was founded by an Edinburgh academic Anne Smith in 1979. Subsequently LR was edited for 14 years by that teasing  and astringent iconoclast Auberon Waugh (1939-2001), and is currently being tended to by a tolerant and far sighted albeit fastidious Czech Canadian called Nancy Sladek. LM appeared monthly under Ross and was determinedly comprehensive in its contents with new fiction, poems, reviews, memoirs, literary essays, articles about forgotten writers, photographs, art, the lot. Years back the also monthly LR published short stories and indeed printed the first one (‘Not Whisky in the Jar’) I myself ever placed in a magazine in the December 1982 issue. For years though it has restricted itself to book reviews and little else, though with the admirable inclusion of a column about the persecution of international writers and journalists, edited by Lucy Popescu and entitled Silenced Voices.

Since Ross died the London Magazine has become much less catholic in its approach and editorially a great deal more conformist and pallid. However the Literary Review continues to print reviews that are authoritative, intelligent, often funny and nearly always imbued with the endearing if elusive flavour of the enthusiastic autodidact. This is a pleasing illusion as it happens as indeed many of its reviewers are specialist academics who, hearteningly in the liberating playground of LR, do not write with that prolix and humourless turgidity so characteristic of the greatly over-lauded London Review of Books. The LR is welcoming in part because it has an attractive typeface and layout (unlike the dreary funereal typography of the LRB) as well as tongue in cheek cartoons such as Illustrations to Unwritten Books (last month’s issue has ‘Treasure Ireland’ showing a mad leprechaun with an upraised shovel stood next to the end of a rainbow).

As a fiction writer, I am grateful for the fact that each LR issue reviews a generous number of novels and story collections and with a regular inclusion of international fiction (recall that only 1% of books bought by Brits are works in translation). Last month’s issue for example discussed 14 new novels whereas the LRB is lucky to review even one per issue. More impressive than that is that LR will often have pioneering reviews of fiction (and any other subject for that matter) brought out by tiny shoestring independent presses, a heretical approach if ever there was. So it was that when I reviewed for LR between 1997 and 2007, they would let me follow my wayward inclination which was to stick doggedly to cosmopolitan fiction exclusively and/or a new UK story writer (e.g. Jack Debney) coming out with a minuscule independent press. This unique LR integrity reflects the reality that it runs on a bit of a shoestring itself, consistent with the fact it pays its contributors, be they Nobel Winner or a 25 year old literary hopeful in a freezing bedsit, a standard modest rate that would buy you perhaps a handsome meal for 2 on a Greek island like the one I live on, which is called Kythnos.




The next post will be on or before Sunday September 24th


Once we’d left unlovely Barrow in Furness, the apocalyptic year of 1984 was for both Annie and me momentous and extremely action packed. Annie aged 28 took up her tough new post as a field social worker, we then bought our first little house; then, after 25 rejections I had my first novel accepted by a publisher, and I also became founder editor of a bold new fiction magazine Panurge, which went on to make a considerable reputation for itself throughout the 80s and 90s. Of the 4 things, the least enjoyable was emphatically the house purchase, as being an incorrigibly anarchic individual who while outwardly 66 is perennially about 19 or possibly 12 on the inside, I found the novel rigmarole of solicitors, estate agents and above all the delay of moving in, a weight on my soul to say the least. Once we got into the 2 bedroomed terrace in Cleator Moor, West Cumbria, only 5 minutes walk from quiet country fields and by coincidence the farm where my Dad Ian Murray was born in 1915, I demonstrated my DIY maintenance virtuosity (always on a par with Homer Simpson, one of my lasting heroes) by wrongly wiring a table lamp and thus bizarrely causing a great deal of short circuited heat to rise up from the concrete step when you entered the kitchen from the sitting room. Annie was rightly enough very concerned, but I witlessly suggested that it was probably mice nesting underneath as I knew nothing whatever about short circuits. At this bluff hypothesis Annie went into a fit of hysterical merriment and told the story of me and the electrical mice for years to come. In fact the problem was the obsolete wiring in the new house, which was so ancient that there was no trip mechanism in the fuse box (look at that, I wrote all that by myself, and it almost has a ring of authority).

Panurge was funded by the late great Northern Arts, then based in a posh part of Newcastle upon Tyne called Jesmond. They gave me £1000 which paid for the first print run and not much more, so I was perforce obliged to solicit subscriptions in advance in order to pay for e.g. in those pre digital days, stamps and filing cards and rubber bands. Nothing daunted I sent out thousands of promotional leaflets to every library region in the UK and put inserts in London Magazine and Stand and offered folk a bargain sub if they took it up by a certain date. Very soon I had 300 subscribers for a magazine that did not as yet exist and the scope for corruption at this point would have been a great temptation for a lesser man than myself no doubt. It was a fiction magazine that operated on the principle that, going by my own experience, there were a finite number of highly talented writers out there who could not get published anywhere, either because their stories were too long or too short or too good and/or too much a case of their work being something new under the sun, meaning far beyond the meagre and stultified comprehension of the fatigued and floundering yes men and yes women who frequently and glassily occupy sundry publishing houses and literary magazines. Also Panurge (named after the appalling rascal servant of Rabelais’s Gargantua) would be a proper paperback book, perfect bound, so that if you put it in a bookshelf it would still exist, because what I was going to publish was not meant as friable ephemera but to endure. To be sure I was immediately inundated with stories, most of them nowhere near publication standard, but about 1 in every 100 was a jewel and better than that the author was someone you had never heard of (one being Monaghan man Patrick McCabe who went on to hit the big time with 1992 Butcher Boy) and I knew for a certainty that only someone like me would have put their uncompromising and original story between covers.

My autobiographical first novel Samarkand (1985) had been going the rounds without an agent for 4 long years. The 25th publisher I approached was a one man outfit called Aidan Ellis who lived in rural Oxfordshire and who specialised in highbrow foreign writers (Margaret Yourcenar and Henri Troyat) which he wisely subsidised with money making Westerns (the ‘Wagons Roll’ series) and books with titles like The Sexploits of Lucinda. But he had also published the first novel of a new writer the previous year, the critic Paul Binding, which is why in a worn Jiffy bag I bunged Aidan Ellis Samarkand, though without much of a hope in hell as I anticipated it.

My cover letter can’t have had any phone number as a few weeks later I got a little postcard with a line drawing of a New York hotel on it and on the other side in squat printed letters it read GREAT NOVEL. WOULD YOU LIKE ME TO PUBLISH IT? Then followed his name and an Oxon phone number…

I’ll edit what follows rather than labour the shock value. Since 1974 I had been writing hard and dedicatedly like something out of a George Gissing novel (e.g. the 1891 New Grub Street) for a full decade that is, once I had abandoned an academic sinecure with a History of Medicine library in London. Of course, 10 years isn’t too long a sentence if you’re an old bugger of 66 like I am, but at 23 it is 40% of your existence to date, and at 33 it is a whole third of your life. Take it from me it is a cruel and heartless apprenticeship, however good it makes as an after dinner anecdote, and as I have said before if I had my time again I would not go through it a second time, but would opt to become the world’s 27th greatest jazz guitarist instead.

Then for a full and hideous 2 minutes, I thought it might just be a practical joke by one of my wilder friends! I almost exploded or do I mean imploded at the bilious fantasy. But no dammit, nonsense, man, none of them knew anything about a one man publisher called Aidan Ellis and more to the point there was one sure means of confirmation which was to ring this rural Oxon number.

Aidan my new godfather was 40 years old in 1984, a mere lad himself. He answered the phone immediately and was very posh and very classy, just as I am not very posh and indeed am oddly deracinated when it comes to recognised hierarchical strata. I kept on asking him did he mean it, was it a joke, did he really mean to publish it? I promise you I must have asked him that at least a dozen times.

He laughed. “Of course I’ll bloody publish it. It’s such a beautiful little book. It made me burst into tears at least twice…”

BOOKS (from my 1984 diary)

I was so busy with Panurge magazine that I read a great deal less than in 1983 as you can see below

 The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold by Evelyn Waugh

Hard Times by Dickens

Of Mortal Love by William Gerhardie

The Bread of Those Early Years by Heinrich Boll

The Bad Sister by Emma Tennant

Tales by Tolstoy

Resurrection by William Gerhardie

A Saucerful of Larks by Brian Friel (Irish playwright)

Four Continents by Osbert Sitwell

The Ballad and the Source by Rosamond Lehmann

The Gypsy’s Baby by Rosamond Lehmann

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa

Constance by Lawrence Durrell

Vanity Fair by Thackeray

Futility by William Gerhardie

Waiting for the Barbarians by JM Coetzee

Gimpel by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Maestro don Gesualdo by Giovanni Verga (foreword by DH Lawrence)

Diana of the Crossways by George Meredith (published by feminist press Virago. And it was bloody hard going)

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West

Ending Up by Kingsley Amis

The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe

Keepers of the House by Lisa St Aubin de Teran (one of my favourite contemporary writers)

Stand One (an anthology of stories from the Stand Magazine Competition)


The next post will be on or before Sunday 24th September


1983, when I turned 33 and Annie turned 28, was a strange and unsettling year. Annie finished her social work degree in Oxford in the summer, and we made the mistake of trying to repeat history by returning to our native Cumbria. Our logic was that we had had great times with our old West Cumbrian friends during her vacations, and we doubtless felt that living there full time would be tantamount to a permanent and euphoric holiday. That was cloud cuckoo logic of course, and it was compounded by the fact Annie couldn’t find a job in the West but only in South Cumbria and in the former shipbuilding town of Barrow in Furness at that.  More wishful thinking ensued as we decided that because it was Cumbria it would be ipso facto fine, and in any case, we could always drive up to the west for weekends. That was idiot reasoning on two scores. Barrow, a sprawling and barren place that had once been prosperous thanks to the production of nuclear submarines, was spectacularly inaccessible in those days, and to quote the folk singer and broadcaster Mike Harding was ‘a mediaeval village at the end of a 50 mile cul de sac’. Secondly though nominally Cumbrian after 1970 (thanks to the Redcliffe-Maud report on the redrawing of county boundaries, the author by a weird coincidence being Master of my Oxford college) it was Lancastrian to the core and on that count alone half the time Annie and I thought we were living on the unpopulated rings of Saturn rather than Cumbria. Harding talked of it being a mediaeval village but I would say that in spirit at any rate it was closer to early 60s Soviet Russia under Khrushcev and Brezhnev. Right enough there mightn’t have been bread queues, but it was all dreary and painfully listless back to back red terraces, going in those days for a song, as no one chose to relocate there unless compelled, or like us, because naively deluded.

Thanks to Annie’s job we got subsidised housing on supposedly Barrow’s nicest council estate. This was much more like 70s Albania when its only friend in the world was China, and Ormsgill estate had huge feral dogs wandering the streets at will before walking into the Coop and jauntily cocking their legs against the meat counter. We relocated as fast as we could down to a cottage on a beautiful Furness estuary with the biggest stretch of perfect golden sand you have ever seen. It was a sanctuary for natterjack toads but was no sanctuary for us alas, as our cottage was in an isolated row of 6, none of whose occupants got on with each other. Our landlord was a 45-year-old PE teacher of explosive temperament who bellowed rather than spoke, and he lived perforce in the roughest part of Manchester as no Cumbrian school would employ him. Years ago he had lost his temper and clouted a kid or two or maybe the whole class or maybe the whole school, so that he had to commute and stay with his Barrovian Mum at weekends in order to go fishing close to his estuary cottage. He offered to drop the rent substantially if we let him have a room in his house at weekends, but we demurred, and not particularly politely. Remarkably he had a gentle and sensible and beautiful girlfriend who had to put up with his practice of strutting around in super-tight swimming trunks that revealed absolutely everything that he had got, which was of startling equine dimensions. He also loved to go a short way out into the sea with his fishing boat and then remove his trunks, at just such a distance that though you guessed he was naked you could never actually prove it and would have needed binoculars to do so, whereupon Matty Sykes as he was called, would have bellowed across the estuary that you were a bloody pervert and Peeping Tom.

The one good thing that came out of Barrow was that its library had a book sale one boiling summer’s day, where they sold off much of their massive reserve stock. It was by this means I discovered 2 very different writers, Marie-Claire Blais (born 1939) the remarkable French Canadian writer who made her debut aged 19, and who writes with poignant often harrowing authority about troubled children in Tete Blanche (1960) and A Season in the Life of Emmanuel (1965). The other was her polar opposite William Gerhardie (1895-1977) the English Chekov as he was once known with his novels Futility (1922) and The Polyglots (1925). He writes with a tender and numinous comic sense which he claimed was the ultimate in both literary and spiritual aesthetics, something with which I would concur, even though alas I cannot write that way myself. Gerhardie has fallen severely out of fashion these days partly because some of his novels e.g. Resurrection (1934) deal with arguably whimsical subjects such as out of the body experiences treated in a rather flippant if intendedly authoritative way.

BOOKS (from my 1983 diary)

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

Enemies by Isaac Bashevis Singer

The Zemganno Brothers by Edmond de Goncourt

Fox in the Attic by Richard Hughes

The Woman from Sarajevo by Ivo Andric

Virginibus Puerisque by RL Stevenson

Travels on a Donkey by RL Stevenson

Essays of Elia by Chares Lamb

The Misanthrope and The Mock Doctor by Moliere

Baal Shem by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Glory by Vladimir Nabokov

The Revenge for Love by Wyndham Lewis

The American by Henry James

Men God Forgot by Albert Cossery (Francophone Egyptian writer, born 1913, beloved of Henry Miller)

Volpone by Ben Jonson

Two Tales by SY Agnon (Israeli writer)

Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh

Literary Taste by Arnold Bennett

The Alchemist by Ben Jonson

Letters to Anais Nin by Henry Miller

Good Morning Midnight by Jean Rhys

The Ordeal of Richard Feverel by George Meredith (VS Pritchett once said Meredith readers have to work for their pleasure, and he was bloody well right)

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

School for Scandal by Sheridan

The Rivals by Sheridan

Daphnis and Chloe by George Moore

The Scarlet Flower by Vselovod Garshin (19th C Russian author of short stories who died aged 33)

Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett

The Lazy Ones by Albert Cossery

Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais

A Woman Named Solitude by Andre Schwartz-Bart

The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni

JM Synge and his World by Robin Skelton

New Stories 8 (in which my story ‘The Senor and the Celtic Cross’ appeared, published in the summer of 1983)

The New MachiavelIi by HG Wells

A Sentimental Education by Flaubert

The Lusiads by Luis Camoens

The Green Fool by Patrick Kavanagh

The Bass Saxophone by Josef Skvorecky

Youth by Joseph Conrad

Leaves on Grey by Desmond Hogan

Swann’s Way by Proust

Hear Us O Lord by Malcolm Lowry

Alone Through the Forbidden Land – Journeys in Disguise Through Soviet Central Asia by Gustav Krist (1939)

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

The Pit by Alexander Kuprin (1870- 1938, a very powerful Russian author)

To the End of the World by Blaise Cendrars

Monsieur by Lawrence Durrell

Religio Medici by Thomas Browne

A Season in the Life of Emmanuel by Marie-Claire Blais

Caleb Williams by William Godwin

Mouchette by Georges Bernanos (made into a very fine French film)

Selected Essays by Joyce Cary

Tradition and Dream by Walter Allen

Ferdydurke by Witold Gombrowicz (where the words ‘backside’ and diminutive ‘backsidikins’ used as a jovial vocative, appear about 1000 times)

Mortal Coils by DH Lawrence

Virgin Soil by Turgenev

Esther Waters by George Moore (televised by the BBC in 1964 and 1977, the latter series starring Alison Steadman)

My Wife’s The Least Of It by William Gerhardie

Loved Ones by Evelyn Waugh

Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Pretty Creatures by William Gerhardie

Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad

The Polyglots by William Gerhardie

The Unclassed by George Gissing

Proud Beggars by Albert Cossery

Pending Heaven by William Gerhardie

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene












The next post will be on or before Sunday 24th September


A couple of years ago in these pages I described at some length a truly bizarre encounter that I had with a wrinkled old German on the little beach nearest to the Kythnos port, which is called Martinakia. In brief, it was late season and there were only about 6 people there, when a far from hale couple in their late 70s, speaking countrified or possibly small town Deutsch, arrived on the scene. As the beach was near empty they could have comfortably sat in at least 200 different places, but interestingly they opted to plonk themselves down a yard from me and no one else, thus in that undoubtedly original and pleasingly succinct technical phrase, ‘invading my personal space’. I looked at them with a muted concern, and noted that he could only have been a mild old German vicar and nothing else, and ditto she could only have been a clergyman’s purringly amiable and infinitely passive old wife. They had that look of innocence combined with stifled vacuity, of outward kindliness combined with inward resistance to all that ruffled them, of a self-sustaining biochemical system in the form of a festering inner tediousness that somehow anaesthetised them from about 90% of the experiences that anyone with a spark of life, such as me and you, might have happily embraced. In a nutshell to be sat next to them was an immediately depressing experience, responding to which I got up and walked quickly into the sea.

I forgot to say that before I did so the old man who was both skinny and bony yet had loose facial jowls, and who also boasted mottled and slack skin and random wisps of greasy hair, had looked at me with a certain innocent expectancy, as if somehow wanting something from me, and be assured I had no idea what that might be. He had the ghost of a melancholy old smile as he gawped, and seemed about to speak something of some moment. But before he could utter or more likely croak a single word, I was off into the protective mother ocean, the infinitely expansive and unfathomable briny. I strode out about 5 yards over the stones towards the sand, and then turning round observed with no small alarm that Ruprecht the  Baptist vicar from let’s say Monchen Gladbach (he could hardly have been a stern Lutheran from Koln) was stood a yard away from me once more  and was looking at me with the same lingering and hovering  and owlish anticipation.

I was tempted to shout for help at this point, and my worried eyes briefly focused on fluffy haired old Hedwig, Ruprecht’s faithful helpmeet, who was sat there on the beach looking serenely happy at her dear old husband’s new, nay, why beat about the bush, only chum to date. But then it occurred to me that not even a senile and importunate parson who had never yet heard the cogent and for once meaningful psychological phrase ‘personal boundaries’, would have the gall to follow me a second time, so that I moved rapidly and laterally about 100 yards until I was at the far end of the bay towards the port. I was as you can imagine wearied by my exertions, for I did not learn to swim until I was 49, and my tutor at the time was my 10-year-old daughter Ione who instructed me to the extent that I was and am still able to do a whole breadth. I turned round very warily, and then lo and behold, and hell and damnation (seeing that we are talking about the principal task of the clergy after all) there he was my doppelganger from his standard yard away, gawking and leering at me with every ounce of his unsettling neediness and his unplumbable inanition.

Then the incredible happened, something so astonishing, that reading the post 2 years ago, a close woman friend of mine from London, texted me to say that I must have made the whole thing up. Far from it, I responded briskly, I have better things to do than idly recast Jekyll and Hyde or more accurately James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner with an old idiot called Ruprecht as principal haunting presence.

What happened was that the old German stared at me with a brief but baleful significance, and then with lips pursed tight, from his slack old mottled throat, he emitted a cheery little clarion call, a sort of trumpet rallentando such as you get in old Hollywood historicals, announcing, Arise, For Here Be His Majesty The King…!

Ruprecht and his throat went: ‘TA TA TA TA TA TEEEEE! TA TA TA TA TA TEEEEE!’

Once he’d made the hooting clarion, he immediately gave me a look of sly self-admiration, as if he had achieved something that would only make sense to himself and me, old Hedwig for example, bless her, wouldn’t have had a clue, and that was how it was meant to be, man to man eh, nicht wahr? But 5 seconds later, single breadth swimmer or not, I was out of the ocean and not stopping to grin at Hedwig nor return her gurgling greeting, I dressed faster than is humanly possible, and was soon in a café in the port and ready to throw an ashtray or even a chair at trumpet-blasting Ruprecht should he sleuth his maniac’s way towards me.

And now on to two other inexplicable old Germans, this time in their early 70s and once more on Martinakia beach, and we are talking about 2 days ago, not 2 years ago. Nor were they wizened clergyman plus beaming spouse, but they looked as if they were dour retired teachers or no nonsense social workers perhaps. He with his short and well-groomed hair had obviously been handsome as a young man, and his wife likewise had sustained her poise and good looks, though she’d also unlike her husband put on the pounds. The beach today as in Ruprecht’s day, only had a sprinkling of people, but neither of these new arrivals conducted themselves like florid wind instrument blowing buffoons, rather they acted in a way reminiscent of an absurdist Samuel Beckett drama, that is in a manner that made no feasible sense, and left me puzzling long after.

What they did is easily described. Standing upright, they sheltered from the hot sun underneath a tamarisk tree, with a bulging small rucksack plus 2 towels suspended from its branches. They were both in swimming costumes, and they both went into the sea briefly, but at different times. They used the tree-dangling towels for drying themselves, but in the whole 2 hours that they were there and with arms akimbo, they always remained standing upright, never sat down nor laid themselves down by the tree, the plump woman stood facing the sea and her handsome husband facing his wife and with his back to the ocean. They did not squat down even once, nor lie down even once, as everyone else does on a Cycladean beach, but stood there bolt upright as if waiting for a hallucinatory Greek bus or for Godot.

What to make of it? Could one or both of them be afflicted with something like boils or piles on the backside, which made it simply too uncomfortable for them to sit down on the ground on a towel? Or maybe it was something more complex than plukes or haemorrhoids, like say itchy skin psoriasis (though I am winging it here and don’t have a clue if you can have psoriasis on the backside) (OK, well take your finger out, and google it, man) (OK, OK, I will, I promise, methavrio, the day after tomorrow). It also seems far-fetched to assume that they would both have embarrassing cloacal conditions manifest simultaneously, much more likely only one of them would be thus afflicted, and if so that the other was standing there to lend support and solidarity, to ‘stand by them’ in the literal sense that is (with acknowledgments to the greatest of early 60s soul singers, Ben E King). But even that degree of meticulous qualification didn’t solve the mystery, because had the backside of either or both retired German teachers been the problem, then the pair of them could have easily laid on their backs on outspread towels on the beach, could they not? And because they were not doing so, then a further and realistic possibility was either one or both of them had chronic backache, and when I think of it people with really bad backs do sometimes stand rather that sit when they are studying or attending a lecture or whatever. So that is perhaps the far from satisfactory and dubious solution to the Standing Stones enigma, that both had severe backache or that only one was so afflicted, and that the ever loving and supportive partner decided to keep them company and so stood underneath the tamarisk tree too.

As epigraph and while thinking about florid eccentricity generally, I must quote my London woman friend mentioned above, who was reminiscing recently about her online dating experience from around 2014. At one stage she was having an incoherent email conversation with a peculiar gentleman who she said looked exactly like a penguin. One of his earlier emails to her had enigmatically declared:

I shoe horses. I also talk to the dead.




The next post will be on or before Sunday September 17th


In 1982 Annie completed her first year as a social work student at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University). As someone who had left school at 16 in 1971 with only a few O levels, and had been in work ever since, she positively relished the luxury of unlimited studying, slogging away in stuffy college libraries, and laborious essay writing. This made an interesting contrast to her 31 year-old husband who had gone straight to university from a Grammar School 6th form and who had never appreciated writing an essay nor swotting for an exam in his life. Right enough I enjoyed exploring Sanskrit literature and all aspects of Indian culture, classical and modern, at Oxford, but I always hated written assignments and I abominated the tyranny of examinations. This of course all has to do with the business of being compelled to do something or to face failure if one doesn’t. Hence it is, and to point out the obvious, that I only love writing this blog, that has now knocked up some 350 posts, because I choose to do it, not because I have to do it.

That summer during Annie’s college vacation we made an epic trip across Europe to get to Greece and Turkey, hitchhiking and taking buses through Belgium, Germany, Austria, then Yugoslavia (as it was then) to reach Northern Greece, whence we visited Kesan, a severely impoverished but movingly hospitable garrison town in Turkey; then Istanbul, Izmir and the Turkish Aegean resort of Cesme. We travelled through innocent little Bosnian towns like Bihac and Jajce, which 10 years later would be caught up in a genocidal inferno. We also passed through Kosovo, which despite its Albanian majority, was then part of Serbia and where the average wage was 40% of the rest of Yugoslavia. Memorably a dirt-poor town, called in Serbian, Urosevac, seemed like somewhere in the most deprived parts of India, like Bihar perhaps. The main street had no paving and was pure mud and it made the heart sink as well as the horses and carts that were passing or rather struggling through it.

Some of the lifts we hitched were pure comedy as well as pure terror. In my story collection Pleasure (1987, reissued 1996) I fictionalised our encounter near Lugano with a truly crazy old man, a German Swiss, who told us that he built classical organs (in my story he built classical harps). He literally spat several times with disgust at his dashboard as I spoke so little German, and because Annie spoke none at all. I didn’t alter the fact that he lived in what sounded like a Gothic castle way up a lofty mountain, with his 3 elderly and garrulous spinster sisters who he confessed drove him, a lifelong bachelor, mad. The day after that we were picked up by an uproarious Italian couple in their late 30s who were heading for Domodossola. The husband who looked faintly like Beppo Marx, was at the wheel, and he was also half drunk and sucking away at the nipple of a plastic bottle of liqueur that was shaped like a woman’s breast. Ignoring the road completely, he laughed crazily as he turned round to us on the autostrada, trying ever so hospitably to force the bright yellow breast upon us.

Before embarking on the epic journey, I was in a state of high excitement as I had just had my first ever short story accepted, and by the poshest literary magazine of the day at that, the London Review of Books. The LRB was edited by former English prof, Karl Miller, a sober and austere and very funny Scot, who had me down to his office to talk about the story, The Senor and the Celtic Cross. It was so long that he had to put it across 2 issues in early 1983 and the 2nd instalment started…’The story so far…’.

BOOKS (from my 1982 diary)

Confessions of Zeno by Italo Svevo

Ann Veronica by HG Wells

Castle Corner by Joyce Cary

The Hard Life by Flann O’Brien

The Nun by Denis Diderot

Maldoror by Comte de Lautreamont

Aaron’s Rod by DH Lawrence

The Princess by DH Lawrence

Ulysses by James Joyce

Diary of a Madman by Gogol

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence

The Girl Beneath the Lion by Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues

The Holy Sinner by Thomas Mann

The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald

The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal

My University by Gorky

The Language of Madness by David Cooper

Skin for Skin by Llewellyn Powys

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

The Joy of It by Littleton Powys (baby brother of JC, TF and Llewellyn Powys)

Memoirs of an Egotist by Stendhal

The Verdict of Bridlegoose by Llewellyn Powys (he and JC were big fans of Rabelais)

A Sportsman’s Sketches by Turgenev

My Life in Paris by Alphonse Daudet

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

The Stories of Saki

Diary of a Nobody by Weedon Grossmith

Gigi and the Cat by Colette

American Dream by Norman Mailer

The Dominici Affair by Jean Giono

Hemlock and After by Angus Wilson

The Idiot by Dostoievsky

Recollections of the Powys Brothers by Louis Marlow

Mustang, A Lost Tibetan Kingdom by Michel Peissel

In Favour of the Sensitive Man by Anais Nin

King Lear

Measure for Measure


Twelfth Night


Sicilian Carousel by Lawrence Durrell

Jean Giono by Norma Goodrich

Timon of Athens

A Winter’s Tale



King John

Goncourt Journals

’93 by Victor Hugo

As You Like It

The Old Testament

A Hero of Our Time by Lermontov

Russian Short Stories

Two Gentlemen of Verona

Antony and Cleopatra

Querelle of Brest by Jean Genet

Lords of the Golden Horn by Noel Barber

Karma Cola by Gita Mehta

Clayhanger by Arnold Bennett

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Wise Blood by Flannery O’ Connor

A Man about Paris by Arsene Houssaye

Plain Pleasures by Jane Bowles

A Room with a View by EM Forster

My Contemporary by Vladimir Korolenko

The Albanians by Anton Logoreci

Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

The Bridge over the Drina by Ivo Andric (Nobel Winner 1961)

Devil’s Yard by Ivo Andric

Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner

Theophile Gautier by Joanna Richardson

My Fantoms by Theophile Gautier

Satan in Goray by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Garnet Bracelet by Alexander Kuprin

Where Angels Fear to Tread by EM Forster

In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William Gass

In Between the Sheets by Ian McEwan

Oblomov by Goncharov

The Aran Isles by JM Synge

Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess

Mademoiselle de Maupin by Theophile Gautier

The Brook Kerith by George Moore

Little Sicilian Novels by Giovanni Verga

Journey to the Orient by Gerard de Nerval

A Conversation in Sicily by Elio Vittorini

Autobiography by Alexander Herzen

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene



The next post will be on or before Sunday September 17th


In February 1981, while we were living in Banbury, Annie made her first trip abroad when we went to Faro from Newcastle, leaving Bill our charismatic black and tan mongrel with my folks up in Cumbria. Both the Algarve airport and the Geordie one were touchingly small and primitive in those days, the latter boasting a minuscule snack bar offering far from majestic ‘filled baps’. We arrived in Faro city on a lovely warm evening and the taxi flew underneath orange trees with dancing smiling oranges and outsize stray dogs skipping along in the burning dust. I had never been to Portugal before, and it was only 6 years free of Fascism, so that things were often old- fashioned to say the least. In the Tras os Montes way up north, en route to Braganca, many of the villages situated by a river, couldn’t afford to build bridges to the other side, so that people pulled themselves across in glorified bucket and pulley arrangements. In 1996 their rusted remnants were still visible beside the smart new bridges. Likewise in Olhao, a handsome little pup that was waltzing along a cafe counter, suddenly pissed copiously all over it, and no one batted an eyelid, nor did anyone wipe it up. Beautiful rooms in the handsome cathedral town of Silves were only £2 a night, almost 3rd World prices.

Annie had been taking a day release qualification in residential social work called the CSS. Her job in Banbury now decided to curtail that and sponsor her to do a superior 2-year training at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University) called the CQSW, of degree standard equivalent. So it was that in September we relocated to the hallowed city where I had been a university student a decade earlier. Because we had a dog, no one in lordly North Oxford would rent us a room, so perforce we ended up in the roughest parts of East Oxford where our curly haired bespectacled puffin-like landlord would take anyone as long as the rent was met. The first place we moved into we soon discovered happened to be shared with one of the principal heroin dealers in the city (masquerading as a Shetland sweater salesman and the oil rich Shetlands also happened to be where he got his stuff). We got out of there sharpish and moved to the Iffley Road, where eventually we secured a one-bedroom basement flat at £130 a month, a small fortune at the time. In the meantime, I had managed to acquire a bumptious white haired literary agent in his early 70s who operated in Oxfordshire rather than London and was on familiar terms with blockbuster author Robert Ludlum (Bob as he called him). He had also been a 1950s publisher, in part responsible for purchasing the UK rights of Nabokov’s Lolita and he boasted to me regularly about that. I admired Vladimir Nabokov right enough but loathed Lolita on the grounds that a prurient fascination with paedophilia whether it be brilliantly written or not was still corrupt and deplorable. Predictably enough the old man was unable to sell the novel of mine he had taken on, and he excelled himself in his perfidy by agreeing heartily with all the critical comments on the editors’ rejection slips that he forwarded to me (once a publisher always a publisher).

Then on November 6th 1981, in the aftermath of Bonfire Night, an unbelievable and terrible thing happened when my ginger haired nephew Paul, a trainee joiner aged just 16, was killed in a scooter accident up in West Cumbria. I had been only 14 when he was born in 1965, so he was far more a baby brother to me than a nephew. If he were alive today Paul would be 52 years old and most likely a parent or even a grandparent. I did my best to fictionalise some of the shock and grief of this in my 1986 book Kin which was published the year after Samarkand. It is a painful and enduring irony that the novel I was reading the day before he died was prophetically called Darkness Visible by the Nobel winner William Golding.

The finest television of 1981 was the BBC dramatisation in 7 parts of DH Lawrence’s autobiographical novel Sons and Lovers. Welshman Karl Johnson (aka Derek Jarman’s Wittgenstein) was hesitant and troubled Paul Morel/DHL to perfection, and the late Tom Bell played his father Walter with a daringly whining and musically ranting insistence. My mother (1915-1990) grew up among West Cumbrian colliers and she told me that she hated Bell’s portrayal which she saw as an outrageous travesty of a proud working tradition.

BOOKS (from my 1981 diary)

Short Stories of Italo Svevo

Voyage to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine

Cousin Pons by Balzac

Cousin Bette by Balzac

Rudin by Turgenev

The Devils by Dostoievsky

Mister Johnson by Joyce Cary

To Be a Pilgrim by Joyce Cary

Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy

A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy

Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

Planus by Blaise Cendrars

Italo Svevo (critical study) by PN Firbank

Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable (a trilogy) by Samuel Beckett

Roderick Random by Tobias Smollett

A Burnt Out Case by Graham Greene

The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene

Free Fall by William Golding

A Critical Study of Lawrence Durrell

My Apprenticeship by Maxim Gorky

More Pricks than Kicks (again) by Samuel Beckett

Joy of Man’s Desiring by Jean Giono

Song of the World by Jean Giono

Sexus (again) by Henry Miller

The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoievsky

Scarlet and Black by Stendhal

A Laodicean by Thomas Hardy

Old Goriot by Balzac

The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud

An Experiment in Autobiography by HG Wells

Blazing Embers by Andre Pierre Mandiargues (author of Girl on a Motorcycle)

My Childhood by Maxim Gorky

Herself Surprised by Joyce Cary

The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary

Fathers and Sons by Turgenev

A Passage to India by EM Forster

Ennemonde by Jean Giono

Darkness Visible by William Golding

The Lion’s Share by Arnold Bennett

God’s Eyes A-Twinkle by TF Powys

Mr Tasker’s Gods by TF Powys

Rosie Plum by TF Powys

Unclay by TF Powys

Light by Henri Barbusse

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Boll

Except the Lord by Joyce Cary

The Autobiography of Kenneth Rexroth

Samuel Beckett by Deirdre Bair

The Exiles by Samuel Beckett

Mercier and Camier by Samuel Beckett

Murphy by Samuel Beckett

Charley is My Darling by Joyce Cary

Tragedy of a Genius by Balzac

Prisoner of Grace by Joyce Cary

Aissa Saved by Joyce Cary

Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Watt by Samuel Beckett