The next post will be on or before Saturday 9th December


My daughter Ione started school aged 4 in 1993, and before opting to send her to the big place in Brampton, North Cumbria we looked at two little village primary schools, with the fond if forgivable illusion that remote countryside equals atmosphere and authenticity and a kind of cushioned and gratis equanimity for us the laudably discriminating parents. Far from it. The Deputy Head at one of the country schools seemed to have clinical depression though I don’t think she knew as much as she rattled off all the insuperable and endlessly multiplying problems she faced day in day out in her job. The other 2-room rustic school was run by an egregious crackpot aged 40 who saw to the juniors and was ex-army and would have made a good prison officer as he spent his time manically whanging in and out of the infants’ room supervising what his terrified female deputy was up to every five minutes. It made me dizzy to look at him but I knew several ambitious North Cumbrian parents who drove their kids some distance to his school just so they could have them capably harassed, tormented, pushed and stretched as far as was legally possible.

In June we had our first ever backpacking holiday with Ione, and we visited tiny Folegandros and tinier Sikinos in the Greek Cyclades. We had to get there and return via heaving and touristy Santorini/Thira and we all but froze once we beheld the sea of bawling domatia owners, as we got off the boat from Sikinos at Thira’s newish and amazingly ugly port. They all appeared theatrically insane as they bounced up and down with their placards, as if afflicted with St Vitus’ Dance, elbowing each other out of the way to get at the prize catch of the foreign couple with the little infant who needed to spend a night on Thira before heading back to Manchester. The exhausted bloke in his fifties who bagged us, perhaps because of the intense June heat, was extremely irritable with his guests from start to finish and every question I put to him about distance from the town and check out time and so on, was met with a surly and barking incomprehensibility. This was Greece in the good old days when to ask a Greek a question about anything was to make yourself a feeble and pitifully unmasculine seeker of superfluous, what-is-this-ever-so-redundant-English-nonsense-known-as-information/plirofories? If you were fool enough as I often was to ask 2 or more questions in a row you would invite the leering opera aria contempt of Zorba the Greek as seemingly powered by dexedrine and whisky and raki in devil may care proportions.

In the Sikinos port of Allopronia there was a handy supermarket run by a good-looking daughter of late thirties and a still handsome mother in her mid-sixties. The latter had a pet hen that went in and out of the shop and was treated as venerable royalty, whereas a stray cat would have been sent flying with a dousing of water faster than the speed of light. The husband of the daughter worked for the Cyclades electric board and was both friendly to us and irascible with his family. He had two handsome dark-haired sons, Kostas and Stamatis, aged 10 and 8, and once when irritated with Kostas for mislaying something unreplaceable he dealt him a blow across the lughole would have felled not an ox but a Pleiocene mastodon. Which reminds me that the second most impressive smack across the lug I beheld some 5 years later, was also in Greece but in the Dodecanese this time, in the then remote island of Tilos. A tough looking unshaven but diminutive restaurant owner of around 60 was berating his gangling adult son of early 20s who had forgotten to post an urgent letter for his Dad, so that the enraged pop with his swollen facial veins pulsating with Dodecanese choler, strode towards this extremely grown man, and landed a lug rattle that made all the stacked plates and boxed cutlery before us start to dance in chorus in this truly excellent taverna.

In the autumn of 1993 after an epic 3-year struggle and 35 rejections my novel Radio Activity – a Cumbrian Tale in 5 Emissions was published by Sunk Island. I was lucky enough to get a rave review in the Guardian by Jonathan Coe no less, as was another unknown novelist with another tiny publishing house. On the strength of that Penguin Books asked to see both of the novels, and they took his and swiftly rejected mine, the Cumbrian dialect narrative no doubt compromising in cravenly commercial terms the standard English narrative accompanying. Radio Activity which happens to be my favourite of all my own books, principally because it is so wilfully crazy and so deliberately uncompromising, was later a Book of the Year in the Spectator and the Independent, thanks to the late William Scammell and another staunch supporter over the years, DJ Taylor. Subsequent novels of mine got star treatment (including luxury themed suppers) when it came to local launches at Tullie House Museum, Carlisle, but this time understandably playing safe, the poet and arts officer Mick North (born 1958) had me doing a reading in the Brampton secondary school, William Howard. He arranged an ad hoc bar, and I had a respectable audience of about 30 in the school library. Predictably I read with some theatrical vigour the rudest most scatological parts about pile cream being confused with Euthymol, and Fiery Jack rheumatism medication dripping down onto an old fellside farmer’s ballocks, only to discover that I had them all in stitches, weeping with helpless mirth, and at last and just perhaps I realised I had found my true vocation at the age of 43. In fact, they all enjoyed it so much that replete with gallons of wine and beer they invited themselves back to my nearby house and made me read more and more of it until I had read almost the entire novel for their kindly gratification.

WHAT I READ IN 1993 (from my 1993 Diary)

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence (the best thing is surely the moving erotic tenderness between Connie and Mellors. Crippled Clifford’s elitist dialogue with his friends is more or less repellent)

Nana by Emile Zola

The Disinherited by Benito Perez Galdos (Spain’s greatest and very prolific classic novelist)

Tales of Unrest by Joseph Conrad

Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz (superb, courageous and persecuted Egyptian writer who won  the Nobel Prize in 1988)

Tis A Pity Youth Does Not Last by Maurice O’ Sullivan (I heartily second the title and this is a fine specimen of the Blasket Islands literature, best exemplified by Tomas O’ Crothan’s The Islandman)

Their Heads Are Green by Paul Bowles

The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe (made into a film by Neil Jordan)

Government by B Traven (1882-1969. Powerful and legendarily mysterious author, probably German, much of whose fiction is set in Mexico)

They Burn the Thistles by Yashar Kemal (Turkish prose master 1923-2015 who appallingly never won the Nobel Prize. Because of military opposition Peter Ustinov directed with great difficulty Memed My Hawk in 1984, and had to transfer the shooting to Yugoslavia. His actors were mostly non-Turks like himself, Herbert Lom, TP McKenna and Michael Elphick)

Search Sweet Country by B Kojo Laing (1946-2017. Ghanian writer who mixes Ghanian pidgin and vernacular with standard English in his novels)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

Death Ship by B Traven

Stories by Susan Hill (I met her the same year when we were co-judges of the Stand Short Story Competition)

The Devil’s Pool/ Francois The Waif by George Sand (1804-1876. Pen name of Amantine Dupin who was lover of both Chopin and Alfred de Musset)

Welsh Short Stories (Faber anthology 1937)

A Moment of Time by Richard Hughes (author of A High Wind in Jamaica)

Cousin Bazilio by Eca De Queiroz (the great and seditious novelist was once Portuguese Consul in Newcastle upon Tyne)

Selected Stories by VS Pritchett

The West Pier by Patrick Hamilton (grand old man of London noir)

Sleepwalker in a Fog by Tatyana Tolstaya

Bosnian Story by Ivo Andric (wonderful epic novel by Nobel winner 1961. I read this as distraction from the intense and insufferable midday heat of June in Folegandros, Greece)

Blindfolded by Siri Hustvedt (I enjoyed this very much and far more than anything by her husband Paul Auster)

Stories by Boris Pasternak (I once met his grandson, a film maker called Joe Pasternak)

Joanna by Lisa St Aubin de Teran (probably my favourite UK writer of my own generation. This is, I realise belatedly, because she writes like a foreigner, not like a Brit)

Two Days At Aragon by MJ Farrell (= Mollie Keane)

Maps by Nuruddin Farah (prizewinning Somali novelist born 1945)

Entanglements by Theodor Fontane (1819-1898, very prolific German author best known for his novel Effi Briest)

The Dead Women by Jorge Ibarguengoitia (excellent Mexican satirist, 1928-1983)

Houses of the West by Christopher Burns (fine Cumbrian novelist and my friend of many years)

Chatterton Square by EH Young (subtle Bristol novelist, thank God rescued by Virago Classics)

Miss Mole by EH Young

Common Chord by Frank O’ Connor (the renowned Irish story writer, also a pioneer librarian)

The Debacle by Emile Zola

The Unknown Sea by Francois Mauriac (enormously gifted and seemingly now neglected French novelist)

The Misses Mallett by EH Young

I Knock On the Door by Sean O’ Casey

Zorba The Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis (his best known work, but sadly most of his books are barely known outside of Greece)

The Golovlevs by Shchedrin (1826-1889, also known as Saltykov-Shchedrin. The greatest of early Russian satirists, some of  whose work was banned and he was also exiled to Vyatka by Tsar Nicholas 1st in 1848)

Nocturne by Lisa St Aubin de Teran

Suzanne and the Pasquiers by Georges Duhamel (1884-1966. The start of my lifelong infatuation with Duhamel who was also a doctor. He is barely read these days but his Pasquier family sagas are remarkably zestful and enjoyable. One of my copies came from the library of Sir Francis Chichester)

Full House by MJ Farrell

Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich Kleist (1777-1811. Author of The Marquis of O. Poet, playwright and story writer who died in a suicide pact with his terminally ill lover Henriette Vogel)

Within the Tides by Joseph Conrad

Open at Night/ Closed by Night by Paul Morand (1888-1976. Only after reading these novellas did I learn he was both anti-semitic and a collaborator with the Nazis)

Bell’Antonio by Vitaliano Brancati (1907-1954. A Sicilian novelist who also wrote a humorous satire about the Mussolini years)

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