The next post will be on or before Sunday November 12th


1990 was the year when we were up in the clouds in a literal and vertiginous sense. We moved from handsome Hethersgill village, North East Cumbria to the second highest point in Penton, meaning The Pike, a lovely 17th C farmhouse stuck up a small but sizeable mountain and with very arduous access as a result. Penton is a strange place only a few hundred yards from the Scottish border, and one of the focal points of the Debatable Lands, that lawless and murderous area where English and Scottish reiver cattle thieves held sway in the 16th century. What is surpassingly odd, in fact surreal about Penton, is that it is not a proper village at all but has no less than five separate parts all situated 2 miles distant from the next part, yet all called Penton. One of its units is the comically named Catlowdy which has a few tidy cottages, and it is also where the Post Office used to be. Then there is Penton itself (call that Little Penton or meta-Penton to distinguish it from generic uber-Penton) which includes the former railway station on the defunct Waverley line from Carlisle to Edinburgh, once famous for its flourishing cattle auction adjacent. Bearing right towards Canonbie and Newcastleton is Penton Linns which is only a few yards from Scotland and here the River Esk offers scenic and tender sylvan walks on the English side. In the opposite direction is the beautiful church and the state of the art village hall which are termed Nicholforest and which gets an admiring mention in Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet as he refers to ‘the Nickle Forest’. Finally, on the road to Kershopefoot, a lovely and remote hamlet literally 2 yards from Scotland, there is Bushfield, a row of former forestry houses, and here in 1990 lived a gentleman called King Shed. I dubbed him thus as this hulking and mostly speechless bloke had no less than 10 sheds of all sizes in his not all that big garden, and I kept waiting and hoping he would try the lunatic impossible and construct another half dozen while I was there.

Penton was where Ione had her first birthday celebrated on the Scots side at Newcastleton aka Copshaw Holm, always abbreviated to The Holm or in North Cumbrian dialect The Howm. Beautiful, fair haired and spirited Isobel, the daughter at the hospitable and bustling Copshaw Kitchen, provided a little fancy cake with a single candle, and Ione struggled to blow it out until my father in law Joe stood behind his adored first grandchild and did it for her. Penton was also where we got snowed in twice in December 1990, and had to be dug out by a farmer, meaning the lengthy dirt road leading up to the farmhouse had to be cleared by a bulldozer. The first time we were incarcerated, the power went and the phone ditto, so with our one-year-old daughter we were snowed in and completely incommunicado, in those pre-digital days possessing no mobile phone, plus we had no telly, no CD music and only my transistor radio to listen to BBC Radio 3. Annie, who couldn’t get into work in Carlisle was delighted of course, for, partly as a consequence of doing so much taxing group work training, she always enjoyed the Davy Crockett and/or Robinson Crusoe experience.

Penton as I have written earlier was where the retired cut glass accented couple who lived in a beautifully restored barn down below were cordially referred to by us as Mr and Mrs Posh. It was Mrs Posh who told me that Mr Posh had taken note of my sallow skin and thinness, and the fact I was a writer living in extreme rustic remoteness, then earnestly informed his wife he thought I must be Salman Rushdie in hiding from the fatwa. Also whilst living at the Pike I was principal Ione- minder and I managed the art of filling up the day at home with a small child by doing massive amounts of walking on the B road down below. Ione was in a pushchair and our lovely black and tan mongrel Bill then 14 was on his lead beside us. Every morning we walked 6 miles to the railway station and back, and then 6 miles in the afternoon on the road to Kershopefoot. Ione regularly diverted herself by throwing her dummy/pacifier onto the road, then whining theatrically until I retrieved it. Sometimes she waited 5 minutes to tell me as much, so we did a hell of a lot of pointless reverse travel. Sometimes her dummy landed in a patch of cow shit and I was much tempted not to cleanse it by way of stopping her of her deviant habit. Later still she got roundly bored in the pushchair and fought her way out of the safety straps, then stood at the front like a victorious Viking prow motif. I tried keeping her in situ and preserving our precious routine by shackling her with multiple bungee straps. It worked for about half an hour and then as if doing what she had attempted when being born (see previous post), she fought and fought and wriggled and wriggled and cast off her manacles and stood once more at the helm and grinned her self-approval at Bill, and then, and with not a whit of embarrassment, at me.

It was time to buy a second car, of course. But how many struggling writers do you know who can afford the luxury of 2 cars?

WHAT I READ IN 1990 (from my 1990 diary)

Golden Earth by Norman Lewis (he and Dervla Murphy are my favourite travel writers)

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

Twilight in Italy by DH Lawrence (at his best e.g. Sons and Lovers, Lawrence is unmatchable and at his worst, e.g. Kangaroo, unspeakable)

My Friends by Emmanuel Bove

Smoke by Ivan Turgenev (first read in 1976)

The Ponder Heart by Eudora Welty

Childhood, Youth and Exile by Alexander Herzen

Retreat from Love by Colette

Of Mortal Love by William Gerhardie (a rereading)

Song of the Word by Jean Giono (the great lyrical pantheist from Manosque, Provence)

The Cossacks by Tolstoy

Down There On A Visit by Christopher Isherwood

Carn by Patrick McCabe (his first novel which was published by my own former publisher Aidan Ellis. Aidan Ellis then rejected Butcher Boy which eventually made Pat an international name and was filmed by Neil Jordan)

First Loves by Ivan Klima

Vathek by William Beckford

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (the only Austen I have ever enjoyed. I cannot bear Pride and Prejudice as they all seem such absolute eejits. I’m prepared to admit that the fault is all mine)

Shadowings by Lafcadio Hearn (the famous American Japanologist)

Malcolm by James Purdy (now in 2017 I can recall the fact I read this in the bath in The Pike 27 years ago. Why do I remember that?)

The Rescue by Joseph Conrad

Black Dwarf by Sir Walter Scott (the title refers to a real character called Davy who lived in the St Mary’s Loch area)

The Dubliners by James Joyce

Redgauntlet  by Sir Walter Scott (I usually find Scott hard going but this is very engrossing and has some fine comic characterisation. However Scott’s attempt at Solway Cumbrian dialect is woefully inaccurate)

Night Falls On Ardnamurchan by Alasdair Maclean (a very enjoyable account of life in remote Sanna on the mainland peninsula opposite Mull. We holidayed there the same year, and our landlady told us that the author was not well thought of by the locals)

Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

Condition of Ice by Christopher Burns (acclaimed and powerful novel by my Cumbrian writer friend)

A Tale of Santa Croce by Vasco Pratolini (Born 1913 he died in 1991. A friend of the anti-Fascist author Elio Vittorini, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize 3 times. Pratolini fought with Italian partisans against the Nazi occupation)

Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg (a truly frightening masterpiece)

Portrait of the Artist by James Joyce

A Handful of Blackberries by Ignazio Silone (a brilliant and neglected Italian writer who wrote movingly about the exploitation and poverty of the peasants he knew)

The Birds Have Gone Away by Yashar Kemal (best known for Memed My Hawk, the great Turkish writer, 1923-2015, was an ethnic Kurd. He should have been given the Nobel Prize ten times over but never won it. Jailed at times for his Human Rights activism, his later novels were filmed by a German director to great effect)

Reprinted Pieces by Charles Dickens

Fall of the Imam by Nawal el Saadawi (a fine Egyptian writer and also a doctor who was jailed for her activism)

The Card by Arnold Bennett (Bennett was rarely funny but this novel is a real hoot and there is an entertaining film adaptation starring Alec Guinness)

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark (Spark had a huge talent as a novelist. The great thing for her fans is she wrote a lot of books)

Last Post by Ford Madox Ford (the supremely gifted novelist, editor and generous collaborator with the temperamental Joseph Conrad)

Emergency Exit by Ignazio Silone

Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos (he also wrote Mouchette about a waif of a neglected country girl which was made into a fine film)

The Bachelors by Muriel Spark

Final Edition by EF Benson (a study of his literary family including brother AC Benson who once insisted on having all his teeth removed without anaesthetic. EF wrote the wonderful Mapp and Lucia books)

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens




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