THE NUN WITH THE BEAUTIFUL FACE

The next post will be on or before Friday 1st December

WHAT I DID AND READ IN 1992

Twice in my 67 years I have relocated from a small, confining and claustrophobic house to a spacious and infinitely expansive one. In 1959 aged 8, along with my parents and 3 older brothers, I moved from a tidy but poky 3 bedroom terrace called 1 Criffel View (Criffel being the Scottish mountain opposite on the Solway Firth) to a former sea captain’s mansion on the other side of the enormous recreation ground of  a pit village called Flimby, near Maryport, Cumbria. The mansion had 7 bedrooms no less, and my 8-year-old soul at once expanded to authentic mansion dimensions and from then on I knew what it was to be an aristocrat which has nothing to do with blood or lineage, believe me, but the ineffable certainty that you have lots and lots of space at your suddenly and addictively born to the manor command…

So it was that 34 years later, in February 1992, Annie, Ione and I relocated from a minute North Cumbrian cottage to a 4 bedroom 17th century farmhouse at the end of a half mile cul de sac, just off the A6071 Brampton to Longtown road, which also happens to be the gateway to Scotland when coming from the north east of England. Immediately we felt as if a huge weight had been taken off our shoulders, as now we had a proper dining room plus a decent sized kitchen, not to speak of a utility room for a washing machine, and a nice little lawn with flower beds out the back, and a possible vegetable garden to the right of that. As an added bonus, it lay smack on an old Roman road called Stanegate which linked nearby Walton with the strategic watchpost at Stanwix, Carlisle, and it had been a ceremonial Roman burial route also, which ought to have portended Latin speaking ghosts, of which we saw and felt nothing, I am pleased to add. We could also look up at Brampton Old Church, a tender and lovely place last used long ago as a mortuary chapel, and where the oldest gravestones said that Crooked Holme where we now were, in the early 19th C was inhabited by a family called Sibson, which of course is cognate or do I mean homonymous with Simpson. At £260 pcm, and even though it was rural North Cumbria in 1992, we were paying a remarkably bargain rent to a moneyed estate for that handsome and secluded sandstone farmhouse. When I left Crooked Holme in 2013 to come to Kythnos, four years after Annie’s death, my final rent was only £400, meaning an average annual rent increase of a magnanimous £7 sterling was being requested by its owners. To restate a gratifying but obvious paradox, if you rent a lovely big farmhouse for 21 years and the rent is a continuous bargain throughout, then whatever anyone else thinks you really have owned the bloody spot for 21 years, especially as it is one which you could never possibly have afforded to buy, and not only that but for over two decades you have not been responsible for any of the substantial structural repairs, including a new  and costly central heating system in 1996.

Being stuck 2 miles outside of Brampton had its consequences. We only had one car, which Annie used for her job as Principal Training Officer for Cumbria Social Services, and meanwhile I had to get Ione, who turned 3 in June, to a Brampton nursery for a few hours a week. The only feasible thing to do was to stick her in the pushchair, with Bill our deaf and shortsighted 15 year old dog in tow, then wheel her up the verge of the very busy A6071 trunk road. My little daughter reasonably enough would like to engage me in enjoyable colloquy about the nursery and Bill and what she’d seen on telly and video yesterday, and I was her eager interlocutor until perhaps a huge articulated lorry flew past and drowned our conversation, whereupon Ione not understanding my apparently churlish silence, would get remarkaby ratty and reprove me. Once I’d dropped her off at the excellent nursery, Bill and I would immediately walk back down the trunk road, I would write for 2 hours, then we would double back for Ione, and the whole travelling circus would hie its way back to Crooked Holme at midday, in order to watch the highlight of both our days, the legendary Sesame Street and  especially those prize child puppets Bert (dogged collector of paper clips and bottle tops) and his friend Ernie, an eight year old moon faced comedian of far greater imaginative stature than the whole of the UK Perrier Award fraternity by a factor of let’s say 10 to the 10th to the 10th.

In the spring of 1992 my novel Radio Activity- A Cumbrian Tale in Five Emissions, at last found a publisher in the form of Sunk Island down in the lovely cathedral city of Lincoln. Sunk Island was actually a fine literary journal run by Mike Blackburn (born 1954) formerly of Stand Magazine, and he had already published a work by Robert Edric, pen name of Gary Armitage (born 1956), a successful literary novelist, one of whose books Hallowed Ground (Sunk Island 1993) had been inexplicably rejected by his posh London imprint. I read Gary’s novel and it was bloody good, and it was also bloody good of Mike who worked on a shoestring (as did David Almond and I when we edited Panurge), to do my book when it had been rejected by 35 publishers, even including an, excuse me, fucking West Cumbrian literary (an egregious oxymoron, you understand) publishing house.

Just after Ione’s 3rd birthday we took our first family trip abroad and played safe with a package holiday on the Cycladean island of Andros, Greece. We sailed from Rafina, and everywhere there was graffiti insisting that the term Macedonia could only be applied to a historical province of Northern Greece, and never under any circumstances to a country which the Greeks always refer to as Ta Skopje (named after the former Yugoslav province of Macedonia’s capital). We stayed in Batsi, an amiable if highly commercial resort, where extortionate cocktail bars are the norm but where Greeks not foreigners are the principal holidaymakers, thank God. Our Brit package was mercifully invisible,  scattered all over a dozen villas well away from the sea, and the rep was an excellent no nonsense  young woman who actually encouraged us not to take up any of the package offers of e.g. A Typical Greek Night Out In A Village Taverna With Limitless Free Wine. Instead I used her good offices to get us a taxi to visit a remote Orthodox nunnery too far for a 3-year-old child to walk from Batsi. The hallowed and ancient place was opened for us by a tenderly smiling nun of about 30, who had probably had severe polio at some stage as her face was distorted and flattened in not an ugly but a very touching and for sure immediately attractive way, as that lovely young woman’s presiding spirit was very evidently wrought of pure gold and nothing else. She immediately took Ione in her arms, kissed her, then took her off for some loukoumi (Greek Delight, not Turkish Delight, you understand) and got her to bring some back for Annie and me. I often wonder what that unforgettable nun might be doing now and also what she thinks of all those gorgeous and deafening cocktail bars in Batsi, if ever she gets sent off to do some urgent shopping in the nearest town.

That autumn was notable for the repeat showing of an invigorating TV drama series, which I deplorably suspect I would find third rate if ever I watched it again (I am such an unremittingly uncharitable bastard when it comes to my mercilessly vertiginous critical standards across all the arts). It was called A Bit Of A Do and was scripted from the series of regional novels by David Nobbs, all of which were set in the same fictional Yorkshire town. As well as featuring old hands like David Jason and Nicola Pagett, it had an early TV appearance of the excellent actor David Thewlis (born 1963 in fabled Blackpool, would you believe) who later showed his genius in the harrowing and disturbing lead part of Naked (1993) by Mike Leigh. Thewlis also published a very interesting sounding novel in 2007, called The Late Hector Kipling so that how can I put it, he is obviously a man of parts, and I wish I had met him, and I hope one day that I will.

WHAT I READ IN 1992 (from my 1992 Diary)

Up Above the World by Paul Bowles (a US composer as well as novelist who spent much of his life in Tangier)

The Untilled Field by George Moore (short stories by the great Irish novelist, 1852-1933,  who wrote Esther Waters which has been both televised and broadcast on radio. These stories often have bullying and unprincipled priests threatening  to turn credulous peasants into goats!)

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton (by an odd coincidence, my discerning and lovely girlfriend Julia, who is visiting me next week here on Kythnos, has just finished reading this powerful example of London noir. She like me was really knocked for six)

The Casualty by Heinrich Boll (my favourite modern German novelist)

The Man Who Died by DH Lawrence

Black Boy by Richard Wright (autobiographical novel by the great US black writer. Contains some harrowing scenes of the hero being bullied and cruelly tormented by whites when trying to do his job as a messenger)

Scum by Isaac Bashevis Singer (who wrote in Yiddish and won the Nobel Prize in 1978)

War and Peace by Tolstoy (about my tenth attempt and I actually finished it)

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane (the best known novel of Germany’s best known classic novelist)

I Left my Grandfather’s House by Denton Welch (superbly sensitive writer whose life was cruelly shortened by a severe bicycle accident. I wrote a blog post about him in January of this year)

Eyes Shut by Federico Pozzi

The Pigeon by Patrick Susskind (author of the bestselling Perfume, but this novel is not a patch on his masterpiece, alas)

Scenes of Clerical Life by George Eliot (ignore the title as this is one of her best books)

The Fratricides by Nikos Kazantzakis (giant of Greek letters and author of Zorba the Greek)

Vatican Cellars by Andre Gide (another colossal talent and I read this first about 1971)

First Love by Samuel Beckett (I love his short prose works and especially Worstward Ho!)

The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazan (1851-1921, great but neglected Spanish woman novelist)

Peregrine Pickle by Tobias Smollett (a picaresque comic treat written by a navy surgeon as well as novelist, and be prepared that some of it is very raw, especially where servant Tom Pipes starts cudgelling on the skull anyone who offends his eponymous master. I much prefer Smollett to Henry Fielding and the only novel of his I don’t like is Ferdinand Count Fathom)

The Boys by Henry de Montherlant (a brilliant if rather haughty and uncompromising writer)

Amateur Passions by Lorna Tracy (fine stories in Virago by an American writer born 1934 who once co-edited Stand Magazine with her former husband, the poet John Silkin. I commissioned from her for Panurge 4, 1986, the best essay about the short story that anyone has ever written and ever will. Prepare to be dazzled if you can get your hands on it)

Saga of A Seagull by Yashar Kemal (one of the great Turk’s most touching novels)

The Sea Crossed Fisherman by Yashar Kemal

Strumpet City by James Plunkett (a riveting masterpiece published in 1969, about poverty and politics in Dublin in the early 20th C. He also wrote some very fine stories available in Poolbeg Press)

Collected Stories by James Plunkett (see above)

Savage Paris by Emile Zola (one of my very favourite writers who pleasingly never fails to shock and offend, not even in 2017)

The Old Curiosity Shop by Dickens (with the wonderful villain Quilp who when he eats crabs eats the shells as well)

The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk (given a surprising demolition job review recently in the Literary Review for his latest novel. I loved and have taught My Name is Red. He won the Nobel Prize in 2006)

The Lost Girl by DH Lawrence (little known but possibly my favourite of his books)

Amongst the Women by John McGahern (a very gifted Irish writer who also doubled as a farmer. I met him at a reading once in Grasmere, Cumbria. He died in 2006)

Iron Earth, Copper Sky by Yashar Kemal

Report to Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis

The Girls by Henry de Montherlant

Dictionary of the Khazars  by Milorad Pavic (stunningly ingenious fabular novel which I assume is out of print now)

Kangaroo by DH Lawrence (a very unpleasant and ridiculous novel where DH’s latent version of hierarchical fascism makes me glad that he never exercised any power outside of being a writer)

A Meeting by the River by Christopher Isherwood

Pierre and Jean by Guy de Maupassant (in 1966 some of his stories were televised as prime time entertainment on ITV, in a fine series called The Liars. Can you imagine ITV and even worse the unbelievably debased Channel 4 of 2017 doing anything like that now?)

I The Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos ( 1917-2005, trenchant Paraguayan novelist who  necessarily did most of his writing in exile. He came late to the South American Magical Realist scene)

Taking Chances by M J Farrell (aka Molly Keane, another of my favourite writers)

Blind Argus by Gesualdo Bufalino (Sicilian novelist, 1920-1996, encouraged along the way by fellow Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia)

L’Assommoir by Emile Zola (I once showed to some 16-year-old Cumbrian technical apprentice students the famous film adaptation of this classic, in which at one point a jealous woman in a 19th C Parisian laundry drags down the knickers of her sexual rival and mercilessly thrashes her behind with a laundry paddle. They all hooted and cheered their unalloyed delight until the Technical College roof was seen to shake. The same bunch really enjoyed reading Flaubert’s Three Tales)

Earth by Emile Zola (I read this in bed after performing at Lincoln’s 1992 Litfest, organised by Mike Blackburn, see above. It is still a shocking novel by any standards)

England by Nikos Kazantzakis

Goddess of the Stones by Norman Lewis

Colonel Jack by Daniel Defoe (everyone knows Moll Flanders but not all have heard of this)

Blood and Wine by Ignazio Silone (another of my favourite authors, who writes like no one else about peasant poverty and those who exploit it)

Maurice by EM Forster (who was brave enough to defend Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the famous obscenity court case)

Plough and Stars and Shadow of a Gunman by Sean O’ Casey (author of the very poignant and funny drama Juno and the Paycock)

Owning Up by George Melly (riotous jazzman and possibly the last of the instinctive anarchists)

Desperate Spring by Fettouma Touati (harrowing novel published by the excellent Women’s Press)

Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig (amazingly there are some UK Germanist critics who think Zweig is a second-rate writer. They must be crazy in my opinion)

Fort Comme la Mort by Guy de Maupassant (in English despite the title)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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