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


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