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











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