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)



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