The next post will be on or before Sunday, November 5th


1989 means a lot of things to a lot of people but for me it can only mean the year my daughter and my only child Ione was born. This is such an overwhelming and eclipsing reality that she and the aggregate numeral 1-9-8-9 as one sees it subliminally in one’s head, are symbolically and absolutely interchangeable. If I need to recall the world events of 1989, I think of Ione’s cosmic entrance with much drama and a great deal of sweat and body fluids on June 18th, and if I think of those world events I immediately think of the unforgettable if delayed arrival of my daughter aged zero or possibly 2 seconds into the sweltering North Cumbrian summer and so it goes on ad infinitum.

I’ll get what else happened in 1989 out of the way as briskly as possible. I finished writing my comic extravaganza Radio Activity, a Cumbrian Tale in Five Emissions some time in May, then sent it to my posh London literary agent Curtis Brown who immediately sacked me for writing something they could not make head or tail of, not least because it has a whole Cumbrian dialect narrative as well as a standard and orthodox English narrative. It eventually appeared after 35 rejections in 1993, and 14 years later in November 2007 was showcased on Saturday Review on BBC Radio 4 after it had been proposed as a neglected masterpiece by the writer Adam Mars-Jones (born 1954). 1989 was also while we were living in a little snatch of paradise in a small and perfect and crumbling old cottage on an obscure cul de sac C road between Brampton and Hethersgill, North Cumbria. So it was that Ione’s gestation included pregnant Annie and me walking up those lanes full of honeysuckle and fuchsia and hedges full of bullfinches, siskins and serins and other tenderly beautiful small birds. Any baby nurtured on that surfeit of natural beauty as mediated imaginatively via the sensitive mother to the sensitive uterus must end up someone not unexceptional as indeed has proved the case.

I also did my first ever Arvon Foundation fiction teaching down in Totleigh Barton, Devon, one of the hideaway properties of the poet Ted Hughes (1930-1998), just before Ione was born. One of the students there was Sue Arengo who has since gone on to become a leading children’s writer with her Classic Tales. A couple of weeks after my return Annie’s waters broke on the evening of June 17th and I drove her down to the old maternity hospital in grim backstreet Carlisle. As it happened she had about 12 hours of prodromal or preliminary labour which both of us wishfully believed to the real thing if only because it was relatively mild and followed the model of the bland pre-natal class films where the woman sweats a little as if she had a mild chill, the attentive husband dabs her head piously with moist cotton wool and offers her bottled water, and the baby pops out as painlessly and effortlessly as if on a plastic spring. The gynaecologist told us that the baby was presenting the wrong way round (arseways first, true to subsequent Ione form, as understood metaphorically) which was why things were so slow. He injected Annie with the opiate pethidine, then did his stuff and the labour took off properly. No more was it a pre-natal documentary breeze but there was a great deal of agonised groaning and shouting from Annie and to make matters worse she hadn’t slept for 24 hours and the pethidine made her feel as if she was out of her body and dispossessed of herself, a terrifying experience to say the least.

At last Ione arrived from the darkness and the unfathomable beyond. To my surprise (the supposedly helpful films hadn’t shown the most obvious gynaecological fact) she was covered in uterine blood. The Northern Irish midwife who lived at Melvyn Bragg’s home town of Wigton, God help her, addressed her thus:

“Hiya Toots!”

I have been saying the same sentence ever since, as Ione can attest.

I beheld my little daughter and the most striking thing of all was that she did not look at all like a newborn baby such as I had seen in TV films and documentaries and about twice in real life in my 38 years. No, not at all. Instead she looked like a very beautiful and indescribably tiny, tiny adult. Her subtle and utterly perfect features looked like those of a handsome grown woman of indeterminate age, but in infinitely moving and miniature form.

I did what anyone else would have done in such circumstances. While Annie took hold of Ione, I beat my fists as hard as I could against the hospital walls, burst into tears and I swore my wild delight for the whole of the universe to hear.

What I read in 1989 (from my 1989 Diary)

The Temptress by Vicente Blasco Ibanez (author of Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse)

Christmas Stories by Charles Dickens

The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Enchanter by Vladimir Nabokov

The Bell by Iris Murdoch (I loved it in 1989, taught it approvingly the same year, and couldn’t stand it when I read it again in 2015)

Restless House by Emile Zola

Wine Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia (the great Sicilian writer)

Imaginary Life by David Malouf

A Lear of the Steppes by Ivan Turgenev

The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty (her story collection A Curtain of Green is the best 20th C example of its kind in my opinion)

Ancient Lights by Ford Madox Ford

Heirs to the Past by Driss Chraibi (wonderful and powerful Moroccan writer)

Jackdaw Cake by Norman Lewis (subsequently renamed with a different title. Very funny account of the bonkers spiritualist aunts of the famous travel writer)

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (the only one of her books I really like. I don’t rate her mannered and samey stories one iota)

The Wild Ass’s Skin by Balzac

Festival Night by Cesare Pavese

A Heritage and its History by Ivy Compton Burnett (I admire her enormously but find her incredibly hard work)

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin (the best known black US writer of his day)

Best Stories of Ring Lardner (Very funny. He excels at writing about naïve if insufferable idiots)

The Violin of St Jacques by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Methuselah by Isaac Bashevis Singer

The Flint Bed by Christopher Burns (fine and atmospheric novel by my Whitehaven writer friend)

A School in South Uist 1890-1913 by FG Rea (illustrated memoirs of an English headmaster dispatched to the remote Outer Hebrides, a very long time ago when S Uist, Benbecula and N Uist were all separate islands without today’s causeways. A riveting, sometimes funny and very moving book. Easily obtainable as a Scottish press reprint. Buy it for yourself for Christmas)

A House of Gentlefolk by Ivan Turgenev (also known as Home of the Gentry, A Nest of Nobles and even A Nest of Hereditary Legislators in one bad 19th C translation)

The Schoolmistress and Other Stories by Chekov

Clock Without Hands by Carson McCullers (an author admired by Graham Greene)

The Short Story by Sean O’Faolain

Wives and Daughters by Ivy Compton Burnett

The Barracks by John McGahern (fine Irish writer who was also a farmer)

Middlemarch by George Eliot (I have since reread this twice on Kythnos)

The Devil in the Hills by Cesare Pavese

Gigi and the Cat by Colette (a very great writer)

Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew by Dan Vittorio Segre

One Way or Another by Leonardo Sciascia

The Child in Time by Ian McEwan (this received gushing praise at the time but I thought it was a very bad book. His appalling fictional approach was to make the abduction of a child a kind of stylish rhetorical conceit upon which to deliberate as brainy author. Also he conflated all references to time with all other references to time, which is not profound pace the slavering critics, but a bit of truly gormless sleight of hand)

Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (see my recent post about this)



Because I have a teaching course soon, the next post will be on or before Wednesday 1st November


Here is a story to warm the heart and we all need one of those on occasion, don’t we (at least one a day in my case, during a grey and pitiless UK winter in my former pan Cumbrian existence, that is). It concerns a gentleman called Fatty Arbuckle but not the one you ‘re probably thinking of, the silent comedy US film star Roscoe Arbuckle (1887-1933) mentor of Chaplin and discoverer of Bob Hope, whose career ended in disgrace when he was accused of the rape and accidental manslaughter of an actress called Virginia Rappe at one of his parties. Even though eventually acquitted and with a written apology from the jury, his films were banned and he had to assume an alias to get any work. He died in his sleep of a no doubt stress induced heart attack aged only 46.

I write at length about someone not the subject of my story because the other Fatty Arbuckle has had a similarly sorrowful at times pitifully bleak sojourn through his young life. The other Fatty is an outsize grey and white stray cat who has been well known to me for the last 4 years in the Kythnos port here, and it was I who gave him his name in a fit of untypical inaccuracy. Parenthetically Greeks don’t give names to even their domestic cats and they certainly don’t give them to the strays unless they are exceptional and strikingly handsome to the eye, as is my old pal Asproula (it means Little Whitey and she is also known as Riri and Ririka) the beautiful white cat who used to sit every day on my lap outside the now defunct Glaros Café. I blithely give names to damn near every stray in the port and they have extremely unGreek ones like Dexter Parnaby, Tiddles McGroaty, Fanny McCorquodaile, Winnie Warbelow, Gus Golightly, and Horace Bachelor (qv the Radio Luxembourg football pools ad circa 1961 if you are touching or over 60 years old). I dubbed Fatty Arbuckle so when he wasn’t really fat at all, more just a big lad, a hulk of a feller, an approximate cross between a smallish dog and a miniature cow but with a very stark and uncompromising feline face. He looked rather like a roughly executed cartoon as drawn laboriously and effortfully by someone like me, who of course cannot draw…

Fatty was and is remarkably well hung, with impressive progenitorial rotundities, each about the size of a Cadbury’s Cream Egg. Being innocently unaware of what he looks like, and the objects of his attentions likewise oblivious of his debatable glamour, he has always been a most perfervid and pressing ladies’ man. His always flawless amorous technique is to sneak up behind the ones who catch his fancy, then leap on their backs, thus effectively pinning them down, finally roughly biting their necks despite all vocal protests, then having his forthright way with them. Ugly as his bluff  and ad hoc sexual etiquette is, it is entirely typical of his male peers, half of whom because of the competition for the port beauties have a missing eye or a pair of torn ears or rank and hideous wounds along their backs and feline thighs.

Then 3 years ago seemingly tragedy struck. One day I noticed Fatty pitifully staggering about as if drunk, but no it was worse than that, because he had evidently been hit with force by a speeding car and his nervous system was now seriously affected. His balance was completely out of cock, and he did odd little elliptical staggerings, and his head ever since has stayed at a queer leftward inclination. I was filled with pity as well as anger at the brainless desperadoes who fly through the port as if it were the Nevada desert at dawn, and I also thought it likely meant the end of Fatty and he would be dead within a week or so. From then on, he was to struggle hard to get on his usual perch of the canvas roof of the Glaros, sometimes tipping heavily backwards, despite which his nervous system seemed miraculously adaptive as after a few days he was managing to scale it and to stay there mournfully surveying the kingdom where his mistresses roamed rather more carefree than previously. In those days I was feeding the port strays with luxury cooked ham and if ever Fatty with his sadly cocked neck came down from his perch and started begging, I always gave him 3 times what I gave the others, and if they tried to steal from this quizzical looking invalid I shouted and shooed them out of the way.

So it was that Fatty slowly and gradually got over this major calamity, and he kept on bravely going on, kept on foraging for food, kept on squatting on the Glaros roof, kept on enjoying a rampant if chronically insensitive sex life none of whose offshoots, his sons and daughters that is, were seen to walk about with cocked and interrogatory necks like doughty old pops. Fatty carried on heroically like this for the next 2 years, until one day I saw him outside the Paradisos Cafe looking uncharacteristically sorry for himself, and with very good reason. He had evidently contracted some nasty ocular infection, most likely from scouring for scraps inside the rubbish skips, as his eyes were horribly inflamed and he was whining at low volume with a subdued but definite distress.

I looked at him and my throat contracted and my eyes glistened and I felt great anger as well as pity. What right had this poor little bugger to be afflicted not only with a partial paralysis but with cruelly burning eyes that were killing him in an even more demoralising way? Where was the justice in such pointless and undeserved suffering and especially in the case of an animal, not a human, for at least the biblical patriarch Job afflicted with a plague of boils and everything else, at least he had the comfort of his unswerving faith, which never once wavered whatever crippling misery his God chose to strike him with.

I thought at one stage of taking the invalid home, but soon gave up on that as Fatty unlike many other strays had no sense of compliant docility or of understanding human affection. Plenty of the strays in the port will let me pat and talk to them, and some will even jump on my knee, but Fatty quite wisely always keeps his distance, as many a Greek, both young and old, having no time for strays in general have nil patience at all for one who might arguably be described as ugly as sin. All I could do was talk tenderly to him and shower him with cooked ham which thankfully despite all his grotesque afflictions he managed to gulp down.

A year passed and one day I realised I hadn’t seen Fatty for at least 3 months. After his eyes had become his latest and hardest trial, I had seen him once or twice wandering with his gammy little neck down by the rubbish skips on the harbour, but it was September 2017 now, and I hadn’t seen him since at least the start of June. I concluded that he must be dead, the old lad, the old plug ugly Casanova, and there was a raw lump in my throat, because if a cat is not seen for a few weeks much less months it is invariably the only explanation. But then by way of powerful distraction a few days later my daughter Ione arrived for a fortnight’s holiday, and we visited nearby Martinakia beach almost every afternoon. On one of those visits I told her about the passing of Fatty Arbuckle who she also had known since the days of his youth and his once unimpaired mobility. She was as sad as I was, especially when I filled her in on his appalling conjunctivitis and we spent a few consoling minutes telling each other the best of our Fatty anecdotes from the good old times.

The day after that we were back on the deserted beach, sunbathing and lazily chatting, when suddenly there was a hideous feline shriek to our left on the path back up to the village. Ione is as daft about cats as I am and so we raced towards the uproar and saw it was very young female was squawking and running away from the graceless importunities of a crudely predatorial male. The victim raced over the edge of the Martinakia path which drops down to big sharp rocks and is quite steep and hazardous in parts. The assailant tom for very good reason refused to follow his  reckless beloved over and into the gaping abyss, if only because his stilted and peculiar movements were noticeably thwarted and especially in the region of his neck and his head.

“It’s Fatty Arbuckle,” gasped Ione and the two of us immediately threw up our arms in a paroxysm of joy. “It’s Fatty Arbuckle with his knackered jiggly neck and his poor scabby red eyes, and yet here he is and he’s still chasing the women, just like the old days.” Fatty, standing 2 yards away, had his neck cocked at both of us, obviously hopeful of the luscious historical ham  as Ione turned to me with a look of wonderment and added.  “He’s not back from the dead, then, is he? Because he’s never been away from his women in the first place…”


The next post will be on or before Sunday October 15th. The posts for the next few months are likely to be a bit shorter than usual, as I have embarked on a new novel provisionally called ‘Uncle Wilfred’s Book Of Love’


One night in October 2009 my blood was boiling not just with anger but with an all round and uncomfortable loathing. My wife Annie and I were staying in Cockermouth, Cumbria in an upmarket B and B which was part of a lush and smart public house, all full of velvet seats and muted lights and with a kind of old fashioned and moderately oppressive provincial sophistication. We were in the small market town famous for its association with William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and hence perennially strewn in every spare inch of ground with waggling daffodils, as I was doing a book launch, meaning giving a reading from The Legend of Liz and Joe (Flambard 2009) in one of the town centre cafes. We were scheduled to meet one of Annie’s friends Mandy for a drink in the bar so were sat there sipping red wine and chatting about the reading, neither of us remotely aware that Annie would be no more in this world as of 6 weeks time. She had had secondary breast cancer for 18 months now, but aside from occasional tumour flare ups looked outwardly fine and was as sharp as ever.

Suddenly and while Annie was at the Ladies I became aware of the conversation going on to my left and immediately in front of me. I took note of about 8 men sat together in the otherwise empty bar, ranging from late 30s to mid 60s, meaning the latter were old enough to be the fathers of their younger companions. But it was not a family group and I worked out from the conversation they were up here from Lancashire on some work-related weekend, and had been booked by their prosperous firm into this posh little Cumbrian B and B. They were decidedly conventional men, and you might have seen their like in any smart pub in anywhere in the UK, dressed like factory tradesmen or factory engineers on holiday, and wearing their best clothes, which was to say there were a lot of  leather and zip jackets that lacked any sensitive tailored style, denims that in one or two cases were a bit more refined, perhaps even expensive, but a give-away surplus of trainers, and about half of them when they removed their jackets wore sweaters in garish colours or with lumpy diamond patterning that looked as if chosen by their great grandmothers.

Right enough they were no Brad Pitts, nor Di Caprios nor Damons nor Dillons, but they had had a good bit to drink as evident from all their empty bottles, were there in a protective group or perhaps more rightly an unwitting pack, and were consequently uninhibited and now it became apparent were brave and bold enough to be bullish and lewdly expansive at the same time. The object of their timely and communal wit was a good looking fair-haired bar waitress of about 25 called Donna, which is to say she could have been the daughter of the older men or a younger sister of the rest. As she walked past them one of the older men gave a wink to the rest and shouted:

“This town, Donna. It has a bit of a queer name eh? Cock-er-mouth. Don’t like the sound of that. Do you, love?”

Donna flinched, then stiffened, as his companions collapsed into rehearsed uproarious sniggers and at once ad libbed their own punning variations which though they came thick and fast were not outstandingly acute. Meanwhile I could hardly believe my ears at the implication of what this leery sexagenarian male in his diamond patterned sweater had uttered. A thin and slight and obviously sensitive young woman called Donna, who he’d never met before tonight, was being required to respond to his queasy double entendre about fellatio, or to put it in Anglo Saxon (and as he would surely have spoken had he been in the back of  a taxi or in a pub urinal with his mates)… cocksucking . Just like that and without any prior notice or mysterious masonic signal, this diamond patterned impresario or stand in for the anarchist racist sexist comic Bernard Manning (1930-2007) had decided it was perfectly OK to talk a to a young and decent woman he did not know from Adam about… about what? About the sucking of manly cocks of course.

So much for daffodils and Wordsworth. Go for a short and restorative B and B stay to Cockermouth (which the local dissident youths refer to  doughtily as Nobingob and where the annual pop festival dubs itself without any sense of irony as Cock Rock), go there clutching your copy of The Prelude or The Effusion  on the Death of James Hogg or The Highland Girl (a very flow’r of beauty is thy earthly dow’r) and instead of a sumptuous cream tea  with linen and cubed demerara sugar, or a posy of Wum’s daffies lying in your lap, you will get Les the chargehand here from Oswaldtwistle or Bacup or Ramsbottom (good scope for uproarious gags there is there not, and especially if you see the first  bit as a verb and not a noun?) talking grade A vacuous  obscenity to a harmless young woman called Donna who happens to be less than half his age.

I shuffled in my seat and felt the heat of pure anger, even rage, rising up my neck, and I was obliged to hurriedly consider all the options. The soundest and safest would be for me to complain to the saccharine and charmless manager out there at reception, but I knew for a fact if these men were taking up half the rooms and were guzzling huge T bone steaks every night, that he would sooner that £5 an hour Donna blushed and had a queasy stomach all the time till they departed, than they the spendthrift boyos-who-will-be-boyos be discommoded. What I really wanted to do was shoot up right away with my blazing face and regale them with all that burning venom and deride and humiliate and piss all over them and their diamond sweaters and their obsolete and infantile club humour. I would ask them in my gravest, most frightening  oratorical voice, that just supposing they’d had daughters or sisters Donna’s age, and if so, were to observe a pack of boozing hectoring slobs, some in their mature 60s, talking unrestrained filth, not let it be stressed in front of her, but at her, how would they feel about it? Murder by slow torture and defenestration would be the least of it eh?

Or on the simplest human level, did they not feel any possible inkling of shame that regardless of their ready dirtiness and her young years, that there was only one of Donna but there were 8 of them?

I even contemplated stomping round immediately to Cockermouth police station, which was only a few yards away. I was confident that the act of talking obscene smut in public to a hired employee going about their lawful business, constituted some sort of criminal harassment or aggravated lewdness or ABH or GBH or worse.  I would leer and snap at these cowboys that that was my intention, and would fabricate a whopping lie and tell them that I worked for Radio Cumbria and would be doing an hour-long feature about their disgusting and of course wholly unCumbrian behaviour next week, no in fact, tomorrow evening…

Three things happened then. Annie returned from the Ladies and her friend Mandy all springy curly hair and an enormous crazy grin shot through the bar door and flung herself upon my wife as if just possibly she sensed there might be only a few weeks of Annie left. At the same time a group of tough and stony Cockermouth women in their late sixties with voices like opera baritones who had just left the bingo, cascaded in, and at once I saw the puerile terror and guilt upon the erstwhile fearless Lancastrians. They picked up their jackets and coats and fucked off as fast as they could go, and though I was greatly pleased I was also left hanging in the air in terms of public excoriation and cathartic j’accuse! and for 8 years now I have thought about it all in every detail, and really wished I had gone to the police and frightened those Bacup or Ramsbottom buggers out of their denuded wits.


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


1988 was an infinitely significant year for us inasmuch as Annie and I, two born and bred West Cumbrians, with all the modest but cumulative horrors that that implies, moved into the tender heartland of beautiful rural NE Cumbria, often referred to as the Debatable Lands. West Cumbria can best be summarised as all grimly decaying industry (Workington’s massive Bessemer steel  complex is long gone and hence the melancholy decline of the town’s docks, one of whose very few shipping customers a few years back was Iran), its replacement by the polluting monoliths of the Sellafield nuclear facility and Allbright and Wilson detergents, and an obvious historical deprivation in the form of 2  far longer 20th C economic recessions than anywhere else in the UK. Some 50 miles off, the beautiful Debatable Lands are thus named as they are so close to the once disputed Anglo Scottish Border and serene and tranquil as they are these days, in the 16th C were the playground of Border reivers or murderous cattle thieves (cattle being the most convenient exchangeable wealth of the time). The place was so anarchic and the border demarcations so unstable the Debatable Lands were obliged to have their own system of ad hoc law, exacted by the English and Scottish Wardens of the Marches, who met and parleyed and traded bargains and exacted reparations.

None of this bloodshed and arson (the reivers generally liked to set their enemies’ farmsteads on fire) was remotely to be sensed in the remarkably pure and vivid air when we moved to an exquisite and tiny cottage on the B road between the market town of Brampton and the handsome little village of Hethersgill, gateway to wild and lonely Roadhead and even further flung Penton and the perennially enigmatic phenomenon of the Scottish Border. We were to stay in this tenderly poetic area for 21 years in Annie’s case (she died in 2009) and for a quarter of a century in mine, whereafter I relocated to Kythnos, Greece and as you know all the rest is history. We moved from ugly Carlisle into the flaking blue painted idyll of the little cottage in June, and Annie being 33 we decided after 10 years marriage it was time to grow up at last and start what is called a family. A year later on the 18th of June,1989, my daughter Ione was the incomparable result, but before she was conceived, Annie had a miscarriage and was greatly affected by the shock, the sadness, the memory of the bleeding, and the wounded sense of loss. Once Ione had been conceived Annie was reasonably enough terrified of a second miscarriage, but come around Christmas when she was 3 months pregnant, she began to relax, and showed her old uproarious comic sense, her unflagging powers of mental concentration and connoisseurial artistic acuity, by buying me the best collection of jazz LPs as Christmas presents that any man has ever had from any woman ever. They included the latest Gary Burton, the master vibesman, John Surman the Somerset sax player and composer, the finest innovations of US guitar ace John Schofield and finally a wondrous Chick Corea album Tapstep with Brazilian Flora Purim on the first track singing ‘I Want To Do The Samba’ which would surely raise anyone from a 100 year chronic catatonic state and have them dancing their legs off believe me.

My publisher Aidan Ellis had put my, at times, aeronautic and explosive coming of age novel Kin out in 1986 and it had garnered some good reviews in the Guardian and Telegraph and some virtuoso sneers in The Observer and Independent. Then a year later AE published my story collection Pleasure which resulted in a beautiful and rapturous review in the Telegraph and by wondrous chance a year later the same reviewer, the novelist Elisabeth Berridge, was one of the judges for the Dylan Thomas Award for Short Stories. Thus it was that an obscure regional writer published by a tiny Oxfordshire press confounded the literary world by receiving a coveted prize, a reception in Soho, and a £1000, when up against the major names of the day (the previous winner had been the far more celebrated Rose Tremain). I have as you may know fictionalised this award ceremony in my online novel Passion for Beginners which can be read on these pages in the May 2016 archive. I believe I have also mentioned somewhere else the excellent and true story of the legendary Hethersgill farmer’s wife, Hazel Beatty(she has the same birthday as me no less) who when the Dylan Thomas Award success was printed in the Cumberland News got her wires crossed and went round telling everyone that the West Cumbrian lad down the road had just gone and won the Nobel Prize…

It was in fact the brilliant and extremely courageous Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) who won the Nobel in 1988, but given that in 1990 another neighbour in the Debatable Lands seriously believed that with me and Annie and baby Ione living in an elevated 17th C farmhouse at the top of a lofty hill, that I the writer must therefore be Salman Rushdie (born 1947) in hiding from the fatwa…given all that, it was not so extraordinary really.

Finally I need to add that after a year of very painful writer’s block, I embarked in that beautiful North Cumbrian cottage on Radio Activity, A Cumbrian Tale in Five Emissions which was finally published 5 years later after 35 rejections, including one by a fucking bloody (excuse me) Cumbrian publisher. I started the book in October 1988 when Ione had been inside Annie’s womb for a month, and I wrote the novel during much of her gestation. The two things went chronologically hand in hand so to speak. And touchingly Radio Activity is my very favourite of all my 10 books just as now aged 28 Ione will always be my very favourite of all my creations.

BOOKS (from my 1988 diary)

The Black Soul by Liam O Flaherty (who was raised on the Galway Aran Islands where this novel is set)

The Fall of Kelvin Walker by Alisdair Gray (doyen of innovative Glasgow writers)

The Captains and the Kings by Jennifer Johnston

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

One Man, One Wife by TM Aluko (both this and the Lessing above were published by Heinemann African writers in the old orange covers)

Martin Chuzzlewit by Dickens (the 1994 TV version with Tom Wilkinson outstanding as the hypocrite Pecksniff was a real joy to watch)

1982 Janine by Alisdair Gray

The Way Into the Labyrinth by Alain Danielou

The Game by AS Byatt (with which I struggled. Her sister is the novelist Margaret Drabble with whose books I also struggle)

Torquemada by Benito Perez Galdos (specially purchased for me by Carlisle library)

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

Getting Through by John McGahern (the late great Irish novelist and farmer who I met once at one of his readings in Grasmere)

When The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Illywhacker by Peter Carey (the narrator is 117 years old)

Midcentury by John Dos Passos (I did not enjoy this at all. Henry Miller once said that he had no time for this author)

My Father and Myself by JR Ackerley (who also wrote Hindoo Holiday and was inordinately in love with his dog)

The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

The Distracted Preacher and other Tales by Thomas Hardy

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

A Woman of the Pharisees by Francois Mauriac

The Maharajah by TH White (author of The Once and Future King and inspiration for Walt Disney and his Sword in the Stone)

Some Do Not by Ford Madox Ford

Farewell Victoria by TH White

A Voice Through the Clouds by Denton Welch (about his being tragically crippled by a car when riding on his bike)

Maiden Voyage by Denton Welch

The Tree of Man by Patrick White

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

About the Body by Christopher Burns (fine stories by my writer friend from Whitehaven)

The Pyramids by William Golding

The Prussian Officer by DH Lawrence

The Pasha’s Concubine by Ivo Andric (great and searing stories by the Bosnian writer and Nobel winner 1961)

Barnaby Rudge by Dickens

Slow Train to Milan by Lisa St Aubin de Teran (one of my favourite contemporary writers)

Death Comes to the Archbishop by Willa Cather

The Captain’s Daughter by Pushkin

The Moon and the Bonfire by Cesare Pavese (who committed suicide aged 41 in 1950)

Stravaganza by Paul Smith (author of The Countrywoman and this is about his time as a travelling actor)

Under the Sign of the Hourglass by Bruno Schulz

The Same Old Story by Ivan Goncharov (famous for Oblomov, his classic novel about the man of malaise)

A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov



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


A hell of a lot happened to Annie and myself in 1987, which you will note is precisely 30 years ago. At the end of it we migrated from West Cumbria to North Cumbria, which might sound nothing remarkable but the difference between the 2 areas is more or less cosmic. Ignoring the 6 months we spent in glittering but essentially morose and lacklustre Carlisle the county capital, beautiful rural NE Cumbria was the opposite of the decayed industrial west with its obligatory economic dependence on British Nuclear Fuels, Sellafield, and Allbright and Wilson (Allbright and Beautiful) detergents near Whitehaven. The half year we spent in Carlisle (it started in December 1987) was a kind of slow motion purgatory and was again a result of wishful thinking run large. We talked ourselves into hoping that its Denton Holme area just down from the railway station would be a kind of city village comparable to something like Cowley Road in Oxford or Camden Town in London. Fat chance. It was all grim warehouses, faceless gable ends, atmosphere free cafes, dull shops, and a tangible and very possibly historically despondent ennui (Carlisle has an extremely bloody history as the Anglo-Scottish Border capital to boot) …and we could not believe the intolerable sense of anti-climax.

Leaving Cleator Moor near Whitehaven involved such laborious matters as selling our terraced house, the only one we had ever owned, which amazingly we did in about 10 minutes of it appearing in the property pages of the Whitehaven News. We asked for the maximum price of £17,000, and the couple gave us it without a murmur, for the top end of Birks Road was exactly where they had always wanted to be. We paid off what we owed on the mortgage and were left with about £1000.I am proud to tell you that at 32 and 37 we were young enough in heart to say to hell with the property ladder, and to book a fortnight’s holiday in Morocco instead. Before that though I had the business of transferring Panurge fiction magazine (1984-1996) to a capable new editor and it was to David Almond (born 1951) that I turned in the spring of that year. I knew him as a gifted short story writer who had no editing experience, but I was sure his creative talent would take care of that, which right enough it did. So it was that I edited the first 6 fiction anthologies, he did the next 12, and then I took it back and did the last half dozen. Two years later in 1998 David made it big on both sides of the Atlantic with his debut novel the remarkable and completely flawless Skellig, which was marketed as a children’s book, though any adult not a clod would thrill to it as a major work of uncategorizable but very tender and poignant literary art. Remarkably I can still vividly recall that when I had David over to Cleator Moor from his native Felling on Tyne, Newcastle to talk about the changeover, I made him South Indian chakunda chawal (beetroot rice flavoured with coconut and dry dhal) and various other spicy and succulent vegetarian dishes.

That year we went on a camping holiday to Ireland, and though it was June we struck an anomalous and glorious heatwave. We went from Stranraer to Larne in Northern Ireland, drove through Belfast observing trundling tanks and racing British soldiers as we went, and made detours through the small and wholly sleepy and innocuous towns of Omagh (the county town of Co Tyrone) and the capital of Fermanagh, Enniskillen. That same year in amiable little Enniskillen on the 8th of November there was the Remembrance Day bombing by the Provisional IRA, which was supposedly intended for British soldiers but killed 11 locals and wounded 63 more. Then the same loveless savagery 11 years later on August 15 1998, when a car bomb planted by the Real IRA in Omagh killed 29 and injured some 300 citizens. As a specialist in small North English towns (Cockermouth, Cleator Moor, Malton, Brampton) where I have spent about 30 years in all, I try to imagine the same inferno being enacted there in Cumbria and N Yorkshire, for whatever purported ideology, and find it more or less impossible.

By contrast towards the end of our trip we arrived at the beautifully tranquil Dingle Peninsula in Kerry, Eire. Dingle itself is a confident and prosperous little town with some stylish bookshops full to the brim with translations of the Blasket Island literature, meaning the writings in Irish about the island way of life of Tomas O’Crohan, Peig Sayers and Maurice O’Suillabhain who together with everyone else abandoned their Blasket homes and moved to the mainland in November 1953. Despite Flann O’ Brien’s merciless Gaelic satire of their simple and lyrical prose in his The Poor Mouth (An Beal Bochd, 1941) they are beautiful and moving accounts of a poverty stricken, incredibly hard, but inevitably richly human existence, all of them laced with a fine and gentle comedy. And though much of our time there in Dingle and the Blaskets I fictionalised in my 2004 novel Murphy’s Favourite Channels, I did not describe our stay in the village of Ballyferriter which is close to Dunquin where the summer tourist ferry for the Blaskets departs.

We found an excellent camping place in Ballyferriter which was in fact the spacious lawn of a smart bungalow on the edge of the village. It cost 5 punts a night in 1987 which wasn’t cheap, but it had spotless showers, a perfectly flat turf, added to which it was a glorious heatwave, so we lay outside the tent bebbing bargain wine while the proprietor and his family ate their dinner outside too, drinking patently expensive French red and talking to each other in the vesperal heat in Kerry Irish. It was the strange combination of that sonorous and delicate language one associates with poverty and oppression, and that posh and pricey cosmopolitan wine that we found quite so affecting (as you probably know under British rule speaking Gaelic inside an Irish school was for long proscribed and incurred a beating, as vide the Jams O’ Donnell scene in The Poor Mouth).

Just down the road in the pub which doubled as a village shop, things were very different. Annie and I sat in a quiet corner with our draught Guinnesses and accidentally found ourselves opposite a very strange man indeed. Aged about 40 and straight out of An Beal Bochd, he had a huge and bulbous nose, a pork pie hat, looked more tanned and Mediterranean than Irish, and had an extremely vacant if oddly expressive sort of gaze. It wasn’t so much he was trying to ponder the significance of his life as he knew it, but that he found such exhausting pondering altogether imponderable, and yet he couldn’t stop his eternal hopeless staring into an apparent abyss. As ontological counterpoint to this and to keep himself in touch with simple and comforting realities, he spent a full half hour poking his stubby finger up his whopper of a nose, extracting the results and staring at his knobbly massive hand to pass judgement on his expert excavations.

I say he spent half an hour but I think he would have conducted another twenty years of cogitative quarry work, had not an embarrassed young villager who obviously knew him well, barked in fierce exasperation.

“For fuck sake Eamonn, will you stop doing that crazy bloody poking up your snout? You’ll drive everyone out of the fucking pub if you don’t.”

Eamonn turned to survey him blankly and it took him measurable seconds to work out what he was being requested to do. He genuinely had nil notion that he might have offended anyone with his reckless bogey hunt, and he looked rather like a child who has had his favourite but objectionably noisy toy taken away.

BOOKS (from my 1987 diary)

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (then not well known, now a bit of a cult novel)

Midnight Mass by Paul Bowles (husband of the excellent and sadly neglected writer Jane Bowles)

The Polyglots by William Gerhardie

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Vicente Blas Ibanez (made into a film starring Rudolph Valentino)

Family Sayings by Natalia Ginzburg

Green House by Mario Vargas Llosa (also a Peruvian politician)

Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig

Fiesta by Ernest Hemingway

Black Snow by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Darling and Other Stories by Chekov

Days of Greatness by Walter Kempowski

Howard’s End by EM Forster (qv the superb film with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson)

The Dresden Gate by Michael Schmidt (editor of PN Review and director of the wonderful Carcanet publishing house)

The Spider’s Web by Paul Bowles

The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers (an author much admired by Graham Greene)

In the Shadow of the Wind by Anne Hebert

Long Ago by Ivan Bunin (Nobel Winner 1933)

To The North by Elizabeth Bowen

Crab Apple Jelly by Frank O Connor

Nothing by Henry Green

House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The Colonist by Michael Schmidt

Night and Day by Virginia Woolf

Great Expectations by Dickens (I shall never forget the excellent 1959 BBC TV version with Dinsdale Landen as Pip and Colin Jeavons as Herbert Pocket)

Granta Travel Anthology

The Hoggarty Diamond by Thackeray

The Heroic Age by Stratis Haviaras (essential reading re the Greek Civil War and the US’s first use of napalm upon fleeing Greeks)

Islandman by Tomas O Crohan (see above)

A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Day of the Fox by Norman Lewis (one of the world’s finest travel writers)

The Moro Affair by Leonardo Sciascia (harrowing account of a kidnapped politician murdered as the Italian government refused to pay his ransom. Sciascia is an important Sicilian writer)

The Cornet Player Who Betrayed Ireland by Frank O Connor

Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (I always struggle with Henry James)

Praxis by Fay Weldon (I enjoyed it on a first read and then taught it to Extra Mural Newcastle University students and soon realised I didn’t rate it very much at all)

Blood and Sand by Vicente Blas Ibanez (the real and nauseous truth about the disgusting evil of bullfighting. Did you know for example that among sundry other cruelties they cut the picador horses’ vocal chords so you can’t hear their screams?)

In Custody by Anita Desai

The Philosopher’s Pupil by Iris Murdoch

You Can’t Get Lost In Cape Town by Zoe Wicomb (Virago book. Zoe and I both taught at West Cumbria Tech College in 1977)

The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter

A Journey to the Seven Streams by Benedict Kiely (very good stories. Kiely wrote the best ever historical survey of Irish fiction in 1950. Long out of print alas)

The Interpreters by Wole Soyinka

La Douleur by Marguerite Duras (in English despite the title)

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

Staring at the Sun by Julian Barnes

Pages from Cold Point by Paul Bowles (author of The Sheltering Sky brilliantly filmed by Bertolucci in 1990)

August in July by Carlo Gebler (son of Edna O Brien)

The Countrywoman by Paul Smith (sad and beautiful autobiographical Irish novel broadcast later as Radio 4 Book at Bedtime)

Women in Love by DH Lawrence

Everyman Anthology of French Short Stories

Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin (powerful and disturbing stories concerning Deep South lynchings and the like)

War and Peace by Tolstoy

Murphy by Samuel Beckett (rejected 32 times before being accepted by Herbert Read at Routledge)

Cry the Peacock by Anita Desai

Annie by Paul Smith (both this and The Countrywoman were reissued by Picador after Smith was a largely forgotten writer)

If This Is A Man by Primo Levi

If On A Winter’s Night by Italo Calvino (not the two ‘if’s in successive titles)

Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol





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


1986 was the year that parts of my native Cumbria were affected by international nuclear radiation, not just by the long established indigenous variety that was sited at BNFL, Sellafield near Whitehaven. On April 26 there was a catastrophic meltdown at Chernobyl power station in the then Soviet Ukraine, and the radiation billowed all over Europe and got as far as the fells of South Cumbria, principally around the  Broughton in Furness area, and within spitting distance of Sellafield. Enhanced by a heavy fellside dew at the time, there accrued anomalous amounts of East European radiation in the area, and for months the Broughton farmers were unable to sell their lambs because of contamination worries. 2 years later I satirised some of this in my extravaganza Radio Activity – A Cumbrian Tale in Five Emissions (1993, reissued 2004) though some of the more outrageous scenes in that novel were I promise you based on real events.  At the start of the book a lady called Jessie Twentyman relates how she was walking the Furness fells up by Ulpha on the morning of April 27, 1986. The next morning to her amazement she feels horribly bilious and starts to vomit something that looks like orange paint. Her doctor after some consultation with his medical books and a few tests declares it to be radiation sickness. Grotesque as it sounds, that was not my invention at all, but it happened to a friend of my wife’s best friend who lived in nearby Santon Bridge.

Annie was commuting an hour and a half to Carlisle every day, to a demanding new job as training officer for Cumbria Social Services. I was slogging away single-handedly editing Panurge fiction magazine and also writing my second novel Kin. We were ready for an atmospheric  and truly relaxing holiday and in June opted to visit Coll and Tiree in the Inner Hebrides. Coll as you may know is tenderly fictionalised for children as Struay in the excellent Katie Morag stories of Mairi Hedderwick (born 1939) who has spent much of her life there. We decided to camp to save money, and in pre-internet days I enterprisingly rang the Glasgow met office and asked would it weatherwise be better to go to Coll the second or the third week of June. The extremely courteous gentleman was adamant that the second week would be best, and we took his advice, drove up to Oban, and took the Calmac ferry the next day. Coll then as now was so small it did not have a police station (the nearest was at Tiree) meaning the sole pub in the port of Arinagour followed absolutely nil licensing restrictions (elsewhere in Scotland they were still closing at 10pm and during the afternoon from 2 till 5). Rather as in Kythnos, the Isle of Coll’s heavy boozers who spent all day in the bar would get into their cars and brainlessly waggle their vehicles the modest distances to their houses. Meanwhile it tickled Annie and me inordinately that on the map what were called Coll ‘townships’ always turned out to be a single croft. There was a small amount of Gaelic spoken, not as much as on Tiree, and of course on Mull nearer the mainland it has vanished entirely. There were also myriad tender beaches reminiscent of Cycladean Greece but with clover scented machair grass instead of the ubiquitous Kythnos scrub. Depressingly there were a handful of middle aged immigrant outsiders from Glasgow and Lancashire, retired tradesmen in the main, with serious and very strident alcohol problems (they literally never left the pub unless it were to sleep).  With their startlingly unpredictable and invariably foul mouths they were painfully intrusive in the tiny population which was all of 195 in 2011 (though that was pleasingly 30 more than in 2001). Listening to their repetitive and drunken babble, it hit me between the eyes that the fantasy idyll of locating to a really tiny island (say Muck in the Hebrides or Arki in the Dodecanese or Ag Efstrati in the North Aegean) could easily prove to be a claustrophobic nightmare.

But our meteorology man had got it wrong, at least for our first 3 days. On arrival we camped on a raised mound by the church in Arinagour, and through night it brilliantly monsooned so that Annie and I woke up floating in our doss bags like two outsize matchsticks.  We moved into the guest house of a lovely old widowed lady called Morag for 2 nights, and she introduced us to her Wee Free kirk friend Miss McKay who was 85, bewhiskered, pitifully shy of the two English, spoke only Gaelic in Morag’s house and was ferociously pious. She would not hang washing out on Sunday nor would she make herself a cooked breakfast on the Sabbath. She also gossiped to Morag about the new locum Church of Scotland vicar who went into the pub to treat his wife to a birthday meal, and thus soiled his cloth. That same locum was an amateur scholar of Hebrew, and in an Arinagour café he was much fascinated to chat to me about my Sanskrit and Old Persian studies at Oxford. He expressed a serious interest in learning Old Persian himself (the extant rock inscriptions of Darius, Xerxes and Artaxerxes in effect) so that when I got home to Cleator Moor, West Cumbria, I posted him my Old Persian primer as a timely gift. The Arinagour manse where they were billeted (they’d migrated here from Glasgow for the summer months) was still lit by old gas mantles and when we visited them for coffee it was as if I myself was stepping back some unfathomable 30 years.

BOOKS (from my 1986 diary)

Doom by William Gerhardie

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

Childhood, Boyhood, Youth by Tolstoy

An Irish Journey by Heinrich Boll

Dede Korkut (the great Turkish Ottoman epic in translation, Penguin Classics)

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Good Morning Midnight by Jean Rhys

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov (very funny)

The Trial by Franz Kafka

Lamb by Bernard McLaverty

A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

The Country Wife by William Wycherley

The Spendthrift by Benito Perez Galdos

A Curtain of Green by Eudora Welty (one of the finest story collections ever written)

Good Behaviour by Molly Keane (aka MJ Farrell, 1904-1996, all  of whose books are in Virago and all of them wonderful apart from her very first novel The Knight of Cheerful Countenance, published when she was 21)

Manon Lescaut by Abbe Prevost

The Grim Smile of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett

Tete Blanche by Marie-Claire Blais

The Slave by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Bosnian Story by Ivo Andric

Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty

The Poor Plutocrats by Maurus Jokai (19th C  Hungarian author)

Little Dorrit by Dickens

Desert Love by Henry de Montherlant (author of The Bachelors)

Fragments from my Diary by Maxim Gorky

The Counterfeiters by Andre Gide

St Lawrence Blues by Marie-Claire Blais

Fortunata and Jacinta by Benito Perez Galdos (Penguin Classics)

Snakewrist by Christopher Burns (the impressive debut of my writer  friend from Whitehaven)

Europe of the Dictators by Elizabeth Wiskemann

A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiongo

Moons of Jupiter by Alice Munro

The Housebreaker of Shady Hill by John Cheever

The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene

May We Borrow Your Husband? by Graham Greene

Frank O’Connor’s Autobiography Volume 2

Sappho by Alphonse Daudet

Dombey and Son by Dickens

The Way of all Flesh by Samuel Butler

The Maias by Eca de Queiroz

The Death of Ahasuerus by Per Lagerqvist  (Nobel Winner 1951)

The Medlar Tree by Giovanni Verga

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever

Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi (made into my favourite film of all time starring Gian Maria Volonte, Shown on RAI TV in 1978)

The Relics by Eca de Queiroz

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

Tarry Flynn by Patrick Kavanagh (very funny)

Home Before Dark by Susan Cheever (the story of her Dad John and his horrendous problems with booze and his sexual orientation)

Hawsksmoor by Peter Ackroyd