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



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