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







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