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





  1. Another nice one. The theatrical version of Skellig is still going strong. I recently reviewed it in a lovely production in Coventry by one of our best am-dram companies 


    N Sent from iCloud


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